1. Hannibal (NBC) showrunner Bryan Fuller, Season 2
What It’s About: FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) forms a working partnership with brilliant psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in order to catch serial killers, without realizing that Lecter is a cannibal serial killer himself.
Why It’s Good: A year ago I would’ve never suspected that an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s baroque cannibal novels would be my favourite TV show on-air, but here we are. Hannibal shouldn’t be as good as it is, seeing as it’s a primetime network TV show about a serial killer, when there are plenty enough of those on the air already. But none of those other serial killer shows grapple with evil and gore in quite the same way Hannibal does. It elevates the gore to something belonging in the Museum of Modern Art, and wrestles with the satanic nature of evil and its corrupting influence in ways that would make Saint Augustine proud. It’s thematically daring and provocative, and that’s not even mentioning the more conventional ways it thrills, or how its two leads, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, are giving the most interesting dual-performances on TV. Hannibal is exceptional television. It’s not easy entertainment, but it still manages to be the most fascinating, thrilling, expertly-made show on the air, in addition to accomplishing its weightier ambitions.
2. True Detective (HBO) showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, Season 1
What It’s About: In 2012, two former detectives (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) are drawn back to a case they reportedly solved from 1995 involving ritual killings and backwater cults in the Louisiana bayou.
Why It’s Good: This was the first show I watched in 2014 and it has stayed with me all throughout the year, whether I’m quoting it with my friends, gushing over the much-vaunted long take from “Who Goes There” with other filmmakers, or just reflecting on its haunting themes and imagery. True Detective is conventional in content, but it’s completely unconventional in its form and execution. It’s ostensibly another serial killer detective show, but there’s so much more going on here than just a murder investigation with a cosmic horror bent. It’s more a philosophical exploration of men and their sin, and how a person is meant to approach a world that is rotten to its core. It’s incredibly skeptical of all its characters, questioning their morals at every turn, challenging both moralist and nihilist assumptions. In fact, few shows connect the public evil of its villains with the private evils of its protagonists the way True Detective does. True Detective has been criticized as just another celebration of masculinity and nihilism, but that’s a shallow reading of this deep material. True Detective is dark, yes, and certainly masculine, but it investigates masculine assumptions with the same unforgiving detail that it gives to its crime plotline. This is ambitious storytelling, with a haunting quality that doesn’t leave you.
3. Gravity Falls (Disney) showrunner Alex Hirsch, Season 2.0
What It’s About: Twins Mabel (Kristen Schaal) and Dipper (Jason Ritter) Pines are sent to spend the summer with their Great Uncle Stan (Alex Hirsch) in Gravity Falls, Oregon, where supernatural phenomena are commonplace and ancient secrets lurk beneath the towns quirky exterior.
Why It’s Good: Gravity Falls is operating in the same manner that The Simpsons did back in the mid-1990s, where every emotional beat surprised you with its complexity and every joke wowed you with its cleverness. That’s high praise, but Gravity Falls has already earned such affection. Every frame is packed with obscure references and gags, rewarding those viewers who pour over frames with obsessive attention. Its wonderful cast of characters grow with every additional episode, becoming ever more real even as they become funnier. There have been nine episodes so far in its second season, and every single one of them sings. Gravity Falls is a perfect introduction to popular art for a child. It’s smart, funny, moral but nonjudgmental, and utterly imaginative. It’ll imbue a child with an appreciation of fine storytelling that’ll last them all their days.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO) showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Season 4
What It’s About: The story of the fantasy realm of Westeros, where the great houses plot against each other in order to claim the Iron Throne that holds the Seven Kingdoms together.
Why It’s Good: With each subsequent season, Game of Thrones becomes ever more assured in its direction, its writing, its characterization, and its action. Everything gelled so well in its fourth season, which lacked the gut-punch shock of the Red Wedding, and instead made left-field horror the name of the game in episodes like “The Lion and the Rose” and “The Mountain and the Viper.” Those who just want a straight TV adaptation of the books are as imaginatively dead as the White Walkers. As Game of Thrones chooses to chart its own course, diverging further from George R. R. Martin’s source material, it grows stronger as a series. Here are fascinating characters that you care about in an imaginative, hard world that you wish you could explore, despite its harshness. Martin’s books sometimes make you question whether their author is working from a master plan, but Game of Thrones never makes you question where its heading. We may not know where the show is going, but we do know that it’ll be dark, and exhilarating.
5. Mad Men (AMC) showrunner Matthew Weiner, Season 7.0
What It’s About: Ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) struggles to reinvent himself and hold his destructive personality together as he lives through the ever-changing cultural climate of the 1960s.
Why It’s Good: Redemption has finally come for Don Draper. After six seasons of increasingly loathsome behaviour, this first half of Mad Men’s seventh and final season has found a contrite Don Draper finally learning to grow. What a relief. Mad Men has always excelled as compelling melodrama, and it has extra thematic weight by showing us the 60s culture that made our modern world, but it could also be frustrating, rehashing similar ideas over and over in an attempt to show us how stubborn and flawed Don Draper is. With Don’s slow maturation, as evidenced in the excellent final two episodes of the season, I can start enjoying the show again, instead of just respecting it.
6. The Leftovers (HBO) showrunner Damon Lindelof, Season 1
What It’s About: The inhabitants of a small New York town wrestle with loss three years after a Rapture-like event made two percent of the world’s population disappear, changing ordinary life forever.
Why It’s Good: The Leftovers is Damon Lindelof doubling down on everything people hated about Lost: its dense mythology, its broken characters, its refusal to clarify and condescend to its audience, its absolute refusal to give definitive answers to its mysteries. I love it, and I love that it confounds others. The Leftovers is about grappling with life’s big mysteries, with the inexplicable things that happen in daily life and the cosmos’s stubborn refusal to clarify life’s meaning. Some people don’t want to think about that stuff in their daily lives, and so they don’t want to watch a TV show that forces them to contemplate such existential dread at every turn. But I find this stuff fascinating. In many ways The Leftovers is the most interesting religious show on air. It’s never preaching to its audience, but it is searching for answers and wrestling with the doubt and quest for meaning that all religion is about. That it does so with such grace makes it a show to cherish, even if it never reassures us.
7. Louie (FX) showrunner Louis C.K., Season 4
What It’s About: The fanciful, melancholy observations of the middle-aged, overweight Louis C.K., highlighting his imagined life in New York as a single dad and depressive comedian.
Why It’s Good: Louie grows bolder every season, and every season it says more about the stupidities of the modern world and life as a fat, forty-something white man. This fourth season was more experimental than ever before, with the six-part “Elevator” storyline and the movie-within-a-TV-show “In the Woods.” Parts of Louie will always strike me as self-indulgent on Louis C.K.’s part. For example, he seemed to be purposely baiting critics with the “Pamela” plotline, but he is a comedian after-all, and Louie remains TV’s finest comedy. It’s self-critical, audacious, always poking and prodding sensitive parts of our culture and saying something pretty true about our shallow lives, even if it says so in often vulgar ways.
8. Fargo (FX) showrunner Noah Hawley, Season 1
What It’s About: A nihilistic drifter (Billy Bob Thornton) arrives in a small town in Minnesota and inspires an emasculated insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) to throw off his domestic shackles, causing a series of crimes that threaten the cozy environs of the decent people who live there.
Why It’s Good: I didn’t think an adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo had any chance of being good, but I gave it a shot out of curiosity. I ended up liking the show about as much as I like the movie. Here is a thoughtful, funny, wonderfully structured black comedy. The show exists in that storytelling realm where every line is heightened, every character a bit of an archetype, or stereotype. Every scene and every character has a purpose, working towards a deliberate end with ruthless efficiency. For serialized storytelling, such confidence and ambition in the execution is thrilling. Add in excellent performances from Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Allison Tolman, and you’ve got yourself something special here, that doesn’t rest on the laurels of its source material, but earns its own distinction.
9. House of Cards (Netflix) showrunner Beau Willimon, Season 2
What It’s About: Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) plots with his manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright), to get back at the President for a perceived jilt and take personal control of the American political system.
Why It’s Good: Season two of House of Cards embraced the pulpy, icy camp of its first season and went for broke. House of Cards is a little like a cartoon, where villains monologue to the audience and ludicrous plans go just-so-perfectly. It never takes place in the realm of reality, but it does manage to say something about those who seek power and how our society operates on the whims of amoral people with a sadistic bone to pick. (The fact that the show is such a hit with people who hold power in our society is perhaps just as alarming as the show.) It helps that the production is impeccable, acing the icy aesthetic set up by David Fincher in its pilot. House of Cards is a hoot, and it’s even more refreshing for never pretending that its protagonist is anything other than a villain. Enough with antiheroes! House of Cards follows the out-and-out villain and takes us along for the ridiculously entertaining ride.
10. New Girl (Fox) showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, Season 4.0
What It’s About: Adorkable school teacher Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) lives in a loft with her four eccentric male friends (Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, and Damon Wayans Jr.), whose antics fill her life with dysfunctional, but good-spirited adventures.
Why it’s Good: New Girl’s fourth season is as good as its ever been, and probably better. The group dynamic has finally reached pantheon status, with each character adding something unique and lovable, while also working as fuel for hilarious situations. This is TV comedy’s strongest ensemble. There are a lot of silly conventions in sitcoms, but the chiefest pleasure of a sitcom will always be how its characters being to feel like your friends, people you know and care about and want to spend 30 minutes with a week while dealing with their problems and hoping for them to arrive at a happy ending. New Girl understands this better than any other show on the air. It’s the only sitcom with six main characters I like, and believe to be genuinely good people to boot. That is a nifty trick, but after four seasons, and the exceptionally good run New Girl’s been on for the past ten episodes, the show has pulled it off.
Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) showrunners Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Season 1
What It’s About: Unpopular teenager Morty (Justin Roiland) gets more than he bargained for when his alcoholic mad-scientist grandfather Rick (Justin Roiland) moves in with his family and turns Morty into his sidekick, taking him on insane adventures across space and time.
Why It’s Good: I didn’t expect to like this more than I like Dan Harmon’s Community, but as I’ve cooled on Community over the years, I guess I’ve become more willing to be surprised. Rick and Morty surprised me. I’m not usually a fan of Adult Swim’s content and I still don’t like the show’s animation style, but its jokes are gold, and many of its plotlines surprised me in ways animated shows often don’t. There is an improvisational invention in Rick and Morty that I’ve never seen on an animated show before, best displayed in “Rixty Minutes,” where Rick, the alcoholic genius inventor, fashions together a TV cable box that displays channels from alternate realities. The resulting 22 minutes are fascinatingly insane, and achingly funny.
Silicon Valley (HBO) showrunner Mike Judge, Season 1
What It’s About: An awkward tech programmer (Thomas Middleditch) working in Silicon Valley accidentally discovers a complex compression algorithm and creates a startup with his geeky friends to turn it into a viable technologies business.
Why it’s Good: I like Office Space, but I was ambivalent about Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill. Luckily Silicon Valley is more of the former than the latter two, a sitcom version of The Social Network, if you will, or an Office Space set at Google. The cast here is dynamite: Thomas Middleditch as the central character whose nerves and awkwardness lend the show an earnest charm; Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr as sparring programmers, the show’s consistent comedic duo; T. J. Miller as the self-proclaimed tech guru whose idiocy only makes him more confident; the late Christopher Evan Welch as an eccentric billionaire funding their startup. Silicon Valley is a comedy plugged into our stupid, techno-driven times, and it’s worth watching even if only for the elaborately geeky dick-joke that commands the season finale.
The Walking Dead (AMC) showrunner Scott M. Gimple, Season 5.0
What It’s About: A group of ordinary people struggle to survive during a zombie apocalypse, vying against the undead and other malevolent humans.
Why It’s Good: I’ve stuck with The Walking Dead over the years, through its peaks and its valleys, which have been many. The first season remained a great surprise, the second season was an undeniable slog, the third season was wildly sporadic in terms of quality (containing both the show’s best and worst episodes), and the fourth season started to show signs of real promise, even if it lacked fuel for its plot engine. Luckily, the first half of the fifth season has been stellar, with nary a misstep, which is very rare for this show. The propulsive action opening in Terminus was a new benchmark for the show’s action filmmaking, which has always been solid. The supporting cast grows ever more deep, with newer characters getting emotional goodbyes (see ya later, Bob), and previously awful characters growing into admirable heroes (hello, Tara). The Walking Dead has gone from an often exhilarating genre show to must-watch television. Let’s hope it stays that way.