The 10 Best TV Dramas of 2014

Golden Globes Preview Limited series

Blame “True Detective,” in part, which helped kick off 2014 in rousing fashion, but the blurred line between “limited series” and just plain old series has complicated the definition of a “drama.” But for the purposes of a year-end list, the two can coexist, encompassing any program presented on an episodic basis, even if the story offered closure.

By that measure, both “True Detective” and “Fargo” — the latter categorized as a miniseries for Emmy balloting — as well as Starz’s “The Missing” can join an array of dramas that, frankly, could easily fill a “top 20” list. But who on Earth has time to click through that?

Obviously, reducing the current age of drama to an arbitrary tally is going to overlook several heavy hitters, and the roster underwent considerable tinkering right down till the end. Series like “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” – -which all would have qualified in the past –- didn’t, not because they weren’t terrific, but because the latest seasons fell short of their own high standards. Others, like Showtime’s much-improved “Homeland,” Netflix’s “Happy Valley” or FX’s consistently fun “The Strain,” accomplished what they set out to do, but a top 10 has to stop somewhere.

There’s always some risk, moreover, with including new programs prematurely, at the expense of veteran series that deserve credit for combining quality with longevity. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for new blood, too.

So to borrow George Carlin’s joke about how the AM radio dial inexplicably ends at 540, let’s leave to the imagination all the splendid shows occupying the Nos. 11-20 slots, realizing that a list of favorite series –- like one of favorite songs –- is a snapshot of a moment, not a rigid document carved in stone. (Series presented in alphabetical order.)

The Affair: Twisty, sexy, raw and beautifully acted, this new Showtime drama deftly mixed a whodunit with a how-they-saw-it, adding a “Rashomon”-like element to the relationship between characters played by Ruth Wilson and Dominic West (pictured above).

Boardwalk Empire: Endings are important, and HBO’s mob drama took the ambitious step of building its entire final season around a flashback arc leading up to its grim, poignant and, once it was all over, seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Fargo: As it turns out, “Fargo” really was a state of mind, and the producers of this FX project — built around a chance encounter between a harried insurance salesman and a hit man, played by Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, respectively — managed to replicate its quirkiness and tone in a way that nevertheless felt fresh and original.

Game of Thrones: Still graced with a grandeur and scope like nothing else on television, the fourth season continued to produce shocks — including a reminder not to attend weddings in Westeros — interspersed with a dizzying assortment of characters and terrific performances.

The Good Wife: The only major network program to crack the top 10, CBS’ drama took what could have been a stunt — the death of a major character, triggered by an actor’s desire to move on — and turned it into a moment that powered through the fifth season and into the sixth.

Jane the Virgin: CW’s telenovela-inspired soap hasn’t been on the air very long, but the series deserves acclaim not just for its pilot but maintaining that balance and quality — not easy to do, especially in this genre — through its initial flurry of episodes, all while introducing a largely unknown cast and breakout star in Gina Rodriguez.

Masters of Sex: Showtime’s period drama has built a classy soap around the fascinating coupling of sex researchers Masters and Johnson, beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Season two continued to slowly peel back layers of Masters’ character, while exploring their unorthodox romance — and its collateral damage.

The Missing: Abducted, missing or dead children are among drama’s more manipulative staples, but this Starz series — featuring an achingly tortured performance by James Nesbitt (pictured above, right) as the grieving, anger-filled dad pining for his son — erected an utterly absorbing mystery around what happened, while jumping between the moment the disappearance took place, and its consequences eight years later.

Rectify: The second season of SundanceTV’s signature hour again showcased a one-for-the-ages part by Aden Young as a man who spent nearly two decades on death row before securing his release, and the repercussions of having him released back into society. Slow to the point of hypnotic, the tone almost obscures how meticulously series creator Ray McKinnon advanced the story.

True Detective: Murders crossed a 17-year span in this HBO series, which took TV’s most familiar genre, the cop show, and breathed new life into it. For all the talk about landing movie talent Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson at an opportune time, movie stars are hardly slumming when presented this kind of material.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 38

Leave a Reply

38 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Daniel Jackson says:

    I prefer Fargo THAT True Detective that even if it remains excellent … I have less accrocer to it.

    episodes where I least liked this slowness … Moué good series but no more for me (Fargo However TOP).

  2. Crystal says:

    *Rectify*
    The best!

  3. The Fall
    True detective
    Fargo
    The Knick
    Rectify
    Justified
    Peaky Blinders
    Game of Thrones
    Missing
    Maters of sex

    The best for the year (Homeland) for an honourable mention!

  4. adam says:

    True detective is super plagerized I can’t respect anyone who puts it in there top ten list, dialogue is word for word taken from Alan Moore graphic novels and Thomas ligotti books

  5. Jeff says:

    Loved both The Detectives and The Affair, television on another level by both HBD and Showtime. Addictive acting by Dominic, The Wire, Matt, Dallas Buyers Club, and new to the American scene stunning Ruth Wilson, in The Affair and now on Broadway, as well, in Constellations, along side Jake Gyllenhaal.

  6. Suzanne says:

    Really?? I think the Walking Dead was as strong as it’s ever been last season. “The Grove” anyone? Give Melissa McBride an Emmy already!

  7. I want to know who’s writing these lists? Sons of Anarchy, Banshee, Longmire, The Newsroom. All 10x better then every single show on your list.

  8. David says:

    the Americans

  9. Linda Jacobs Kalodner says:

    I have to say that The Americans is overlooked every year. Maybe the advertising is bad, maybe the time slot. It’s beyond brilliant.

  10. ron says:

    Hard to leave Hannibal and The Americans off any top ten list. If you haven’t watched them, you really should give them a try.

  11. Daryle says:

    Agree with all those that mentioned Vikings – it certainly would have made my top 10 list.
    I’m a big fan of Masters of Sex and the Newsroom, too. But True Detective and Game of Thrones beat EVERYTHING else easily in my book.

  12. Jacques Strappe says:

    Why not do a 10 worst, too? Kind of hard for most network dramas to measure up in edginess or at least nudity and potty words to cable so I would have liked to see a separate cable and network best lists. Game of Thrones is big budget subscriber funded, too so it is especially hard to compare to anything on free network television.

  13. flyingpuck says:

    How does Homeland not end up on this list? Easily the best show on TV today!

  14. Mike says:

    Pretty great list. I watch and like all of those shows, but I think The Knick and The Flash deserved to be mentioned as well.

  15. Till says:

    I think it’s too premature to include Jane the Virgin in this list after what, 8 episodes? And at The Americans’ expense? Shut The Americans out of any 10 best TV shows of the year list is undeserved.

  16. crookedmindframe says:

    Great list but it’s a shame to see the brilliant second season of Hannibal missing. It also had the best finale of the year in my opinion.

  17. Michael W says:

    “Boardwalk Empire” went out with the promised bang, an I’ll sorely miss it. LOVED the Coen-Brothers-blessed TV adaptation of “Fargo too and am praying Alison Tolman gets the Golden Globe for it. “The Affair” was a stunning turn for both Ruth Wilson (last seen as the psychotic parent-killing Alice on :Luther”) and the always-wonderful Dominic West (in case you missed him as Richard Burton alongside Helena Bonham-Carter’s Elizabeth Taylor, run out and buy “Burton and Taylor”… you’re in for a treat!). Surprised “Gracepoint” didn’t get an honorable mention, though it’s so much like the British original “Broadchurch right down to its main star that I wonder why they even bothered doing it at all. I know it’s mot done yet, but “HowTo Get Away With Murder” is destined to be on this list next time! And where’s “Scandal”???? WTF?!

  18. Frank Hyman says:

    How is it even possible to make such a list and yet omit even an honorary mention of House of Cards???

    Also, I am missing Shameless from this (and many other) lists.

    Either way, Fargo is my favorite from the year.

  19. Angeleno says:

    True Detective
    Sons of Anarchy
    The Leftovers
    Outlander
    Game of Thrones
    The Walking Dead
    Vikings
    The Missing
    Justified
    The Americans

    Honerable Mentions – Newsroom, Orphan Black, Black Sails, Arrow, Supernatural, Boardwalk Empire

    Would love to have watched The Knick, but I don’t have Cinemax.

    Tried to make this list not just my favorites, but the series I thought did great work both in acting and in the quality of the production. (I disagree that The Walking Dead fell short this season.) In fact, there are series that I really enjoy, but that I don’t think belong on the list this year (The Strain, Gotham, Elementary, Under the Dome). Also, there are certainly series that I hear good things about, but for one reason or another just don’t watch (Mad Men, Fargo, Hannibal, The Affair).

  20. Lilla says:

    Not seeing it, I’m not saying these shows aren’t excellent but HELLO HOW IS SONS OF ANARCHY NOT ON THIS LIST very very sad shame on you award shows for not giving credit where credit is due

  21. I loved True Detective With MATTHEW&WOODY A Masterpiece of film making because old style Film was used in all 8 episodes 1 Director for all episodes (who won an Emmy for it) ! My Daughter bought me the dvd set with commentary of course it’s Fabulous 😍

  22. Mihai says:

    For me, True Detective is one of the most beautiful TV shows of all time. if they could just kept Matthew and Woody for at least one more season, that would have been a dream.

  23. Mari Singh says:

    Downton Abbey, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder

  24. Evelyn S. says:

    ELEMENTARY!!!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? ….AND STALKER?

  25. Jackie says:

    You continue to put the boob in boob tube Bryan. I don’t believe you have watched Mad Men outside the premiere in four seasons. Can’t wait to see your befuddled, meandering “review” this season.

  26. José Marujo says:

    Outlander?

  27. FaR says:

    Fucking Homeland??

  28. Scarlett says:

    The Fall
    The Knick
    Sons of Anarchy
    Vikings
    Tho I’m glad you included Jane the Virgin

  29. Jason says:

    Uh this list is just typical of boring America. My top 7.

    Sons of anarchy
    Breaking bad
    Hell on Wheels
    Vikings
    The Americans
    Justified
    Law and order SVU

    Those shows above are zzzzzZz.

  30. tlsnyder42 says:

    No NCIS, SCORPION, BLACK LIST, PERSONAL INTEREST, GOTHAM, JUSTIFIED???

  31. jmtnbear says:

    Gracepoint on Fox was an excellent series drama and well acted with twist and suspense,plus a last minute scene that said maybe-not the end??

  32. Orphan Black is better than all of these.

  33. Goodbyenoway says:

    Oh, c’mon. Happy Valley was far better than Good Wife or Rectify. Jane the Virgin is a drama? You could’ve fooled me. Boardwalk Empire sputtered to its overdue end where it couldn’t even leave us with how the main character really died. Season 1 of Masters of Sex was terrific, Season 2 a mess.
    And where’s Honourable Woman? Easily the best drama of the year.

More TV News from Variety

Loading