1. The Honorable Woman (SundanceTV)
Old vendettas die hard in The Honorable Woman, a twisty geopolitical potboiler that examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of one family. It's hard to categorize this drama, which is equal parts domestic drama, espionage thriller, and political think piece, but it transcends each of those genres to become something wholly original.
Baroness Nessa Stein (a stellar Maggie Gyllenhaal) is attempting to fix unrest in the Middle East by using her philanthropic organization to bring fiber-optic cables into the West Bank, after ascending to control of the company when her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) mysteriously stepped down from the role. But when the young son of Ephra's housekeeper (Lubna Azabal) is kidnapped, long-buried secrets are unearthed as Nessa fights to prevent herself from being "compromised." The nature of life, however, is that we are each compromised in a variety of ways, and Nessa's secrets prove to be deadly for those around her.
Gyllenhaal is at the top of her game here, turning out a performance that is hypnotic to watch; her Nessa is at turns sly, haunted, and calculating. She's joined by one of the best casts this year, which includes Stephen Rea as a grizzled MI6 operative beset by rivalries, Eve Best, Janet McTeer, Katherine Parkinson, Tobias Menzies, Igal Naor, and Lindsay Duncan.
From its stunning opening credits sequence to its shocking conclusion, The Honorable Woman is a glittering drama that manages to be diamond-hard as well: It forces the viewer to see the damage done on both sides of the conflict and on the lives of those caught the crossfire and its aftermath. Is the path to a clear conscience paved with vengeance or with forgiveness? And, when backed into a corner, does such a thing as "honor" ever truly exist? Or is it a facade that we drape around ourselves, comfortable in our safe houses? As The Honorable Woman seeks to answer these questions, it also delivers a chilling and first-rate thriller that will have you enrapt. Not to be missed. —Jace Lacob
2. How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)
How to Get Away With Murder isn't a perfect show: The framing device didn't quite click for me over the course of its autumn run, and Viola Davis' Annalise Keating seems like a wildly inconsistent character, ricocheting from jagged sobs to cold-blooded ruthlessness. But let's be clear: This show, created by Peter Nowalk and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, is one that is wholly driven by powerful ideas, and it has been thrilling to see those concepts play out in a murder mystery/legal drama format.
Whether it was Annalise stripping off her wig and makeup before uttering those now-infamous nine words ("Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?") or the representation issues kicked up by the show, How to Get Away With Murder has left its audience with much to discuss and analyze, even if the murder plot itself has been fairly formulaic. It's a MacGuffin, however, because the real drama to be found is in the way the show depicts Davis' Annalise as a sexual being (a rarity on primetime dramas for middle-aged dark-skinned women) or the way that Connor (Jack Falahee) engages in random hook-ups as a cover-up for what's really going on. (He also just, well, loves sex.) That cerebral, status-quo-challenging element of the show is so provocatively unpredictable that it warrants inclusion here. Murder might be most foul, as in the best it is, according to Shakespeare, but Murder itself is tantalizingly delicious. —J.L.
3. The Comeback (HBO)
I know, I know — it seems somewhat disingenuous to put The Comeback on a list of new television shows, but hear me out: This version of The Comeback arrived after nine years of radio silence from Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) and is doing something very different than its predecessor, so I'm counting it as less of a second season and more of its own entity.
The 2014 edition of The Comeback offers a deeply incisive satire of the state of the entertainment industry today, just as the earlier version looked at the rise of reality television in the early aughts, centering on a sad, fading thespian as she attempts to claw her way back to fame. Nearly 10 years later, Valerie is once again attempting to mount a comeback, and the show is even more hilarious and cringe-inducing as it depicts Val landing a role — as a version of herself — on a fictional HBO dramedy entitled Seeing Red, which reunites her with her nemesis, Paulie G. (Lance Barber), the show's creator.
Kudrow's richly nuanced performance as Valerie is what makes this show work at every level, pushing Valerie into tighter and tighter confines until she, in epic fashion, flips out on set in one memorable sequence. And this time around, the show takes Valerie to some very dark places, as she seemingly sacrifices everything — her marriage, her sanity, her dignity — in order to remain relevant and famous. That it coincides, once more, with an unflattering behind-the-scenes portrait of the actor (courtesy of a camera crew) creates a kaleidoscopic effect that magnifies Valerie's own navel-gazing. And a late-in-the-game twist (which I won't spoil here) transforms the stakes for both Valerie and the viewer. What the show achieves is nothing less than a brutal examination of the price of fame, celebrity culture, vanity, and the circuitous path to success. Savagely funny, The Comeback is one of the very best offerings of 2014, and, trust me, you do need to see that. —J.L.
4. Transparent (Amazon Prime)
What is there to say about Transparent has hasn't already been said? Jill Soloway's gorgeous, brilliant, emotionally powerful series — which centers around the deeply dysfunctional Pfefferman clan in Los Angeles — feels like the most exquisite independent film realized for the television experience. It's heartfelt, brave, hysterical, and painfully raw at times, shifting between the present day, where patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor, erasing every shred of George Bluth) is in the process of transitioning from male to female, and a specific timeframe in 1994, where each of the Pfeffermans underwent some seminal moment, echoes of which are being felt to this day.
To say that the cast — which also includes Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Judith Light — is fantastic is an understatement of the highest order. The actors embody their characters with brutal honesty and unflinching realism, keeping Ali, Josh, Sarah, and Shelly, respectively, teetering on a knife's edge of unlikability — another centimeter and the viewer might lose sympathy for them entirely. The writing and direction are gorgeous throughout, and there is a beautiful use of space, time, and identity at play here. As the Pfeffermans struggle together and separately, there's a sense of something missing within them, a need to fill a void that is clawing at them from their very core. And, like any great indie film, there's a heartbreaking realization when you've come to the conclusion. I could have easily watched another 20 episodes of Transparent and still wanted more. What Soloway and the cast achieve is nothing less than magnificent, and, if any one show warrants being singled out as the best of 2014, it is this one. —J.L.
5. Happy Valley (Netflix)
Sally Wainwright's gripping drama, set in the Yorkshire valleys of Britain, conflates the dueling genres of family drama and police thriller in intriguing and mind-bending ways. Nominally about the search for a missing rich girl — seized in a kidnap-and-ransom plot gone horribly awry — Happy Valley takes a grim look at life in Northern England, the pipeline of drugs filtering into the cities and valleys, and the sacrifices that are made in the line of the duty and for hearth and home.
Addictive, gasp-inducing, and genuinely distressing at times, Happy Valley is a master class in acting, courtesy of the truly great Sarah Lancashire as copper and grandmother Catherine Cawood. Gruff and grimly determined, Catherine is put through the wringer physically and psychologically over the course of this six-episode season — and it is astonishing to see just how different Lancashire is here from the pert character she plays on Last Tango in Halifax (also from Wainwright and director Euros Lyn). She plays Catherine as the last sentry on the wall, a resolute solider in a never-ending war. No matter how many times she is knocked down, Catherine gets back up, bloodied and beaten; Lancashire plays her world-weariness as flinty armor and in the process, embodies a character from which it is impossible to look away. Happy Valley remains one of the year's very best, a gripping and taut drama that veers from the heart of darkness to one of the most beautiful, idyllic scenes of relief ever glimpsed. —J.L.
6. Jane the Virgin (The CW)
It's rare to fall head over heels in love with a show right out of the gate, but Jane the Virgin is so perfect from the get-go that it's hard not to gush over this wildly inventive series, based on a Venezuelan telenovela and adapted for U.S. television by Jennie Urman. Maybe it's the fact that series lead Gina Rodriguez is absolutely magnetic as the title character — instantly sympathetic, intelligent, and headstrong — or the fact that Rodriguez is surrounded by equally talented actors such as Andrea Navedo, Justin Baldoni, Yael Grobglas, Ivonne Coll, and Jaime Camil. Or maybe it's due to the show's smart, sharp writing and its brilliant direction, which uses chyrons, animation, and text messages to build a world of whimsy and possibility around Jane. (That shot of the falling flowers as Jane and Baldoni's Rafael kiss is indelibly seared on my memory.) Or maybe it's the wink-wink omniscient narration by Anthony Mendez or the way that Jane plays around with, subverts, or upholds the telenovela form? All of these elements add up to the joyful pleasure of watching Jane the Virgin, an experience that is unlike any other on television right now. And what makes that experience just so charmed is that it's hard to shake the feeling that the best is yet to come. —J.L.
7. True Detective (HBO)
"Time is a flat circle." The Yellow King. That six-pack of beer. That insane tracking shot. True Detective — written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga — cast off so much pop culture ephemera in its wake, mesmerizing viewers and forcing clue-hunting obsessives to pore over every aspect of the show, parsing every scene for additional meaning.
As philosophy-spouting detective "Rust" Cohle and womanizing veteran Marty Hart, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson engaged in a sort of bromantic folie à deux that previously was the domain of intense, grim movies. Here, however, their lives fall apart, thanks, in part, to their relentless pursuit of a ruthless serial killer operating in the Deep South. (Their dynamic provides the spine of the series, and the two performances are so powerfully wrought, so brazen and brave, that it has almost transformed the actors themselves.)
As the action flits back and forth from the present day to the past, from the interrogation room where Cohle and Hart find themselves to gangland shootouts, True Detective examines the nature of evil with its own commanding relentlessness. And, yes, it's worth mentioning Fukunaga's masterful six-minute-long shot, a jaw-dropping achievement in direction that amped up the tension into something breathless and palpable. At its finest moments, True Detective scared you enough to lock the doors... and to guard your dreams. —J.L.
8. Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
John Logan's Penny Dreadful could have been every bit as cheap and disposable as its namesake, but instead, the Victorian horror drama — which gleefully mashes up characters from Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and others — is an existential thriller that is far more cerebral than it appears from the outside, posing philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, transgression and absolution, power and responsibility.
Eva Green delivers a spellbinding performance as Vanessa Ives, a psychic possessed by evil which she does not understand — several of her scenes left my jaw on the ground altogether. And Penny Dreadful builds to a bloody crescendo that examines the hidden pasts of several characters while offering thrilling clues about where this unpredictable and alluring series might go next. There's a frisson inherent in watching Penny Dreadful that harkens back, again, to those page-turners of the Victorians, and there is vicarious thrill to be had in watching these characters struggle to overcome their inner darkness. —J.L.
9. Fargo (FX)
There was a lot that could have gone wrong with Noah Hawley's Fargo, which appeared, at initial glance, to be a reboot of the cult classic Coen brothers film. But, in actuality, it was a continuation of sorts with a connection between the movie and the series. (Hint: It has to do with that ice scraper and a bag of cash buried in the snow, if you go back and look.)
The television version of Fargo explored masculinity, crime, vengeance, and payback with an acute eye. What is not to love about Allison Tolman's perfect performance as put-upon sheriff's deputy Molly Solverson (who, with a name like that, was destined to solve the case), or Billy Bob Thornton's blood-curdling performance as hit man Lorne Malvo (whose amorality made him appear to have crawled up from hell itself), or Martin Freeman's turn as weaselly, shiftless wife-killer Lester Nygaard (who finally snaps after a lifetime of her shrewish nagging)? And then there's Colin Hanks as unlikely romantic lead Gus Grimly, whose dynamic with Tolman's Molly provided a nice emotional spine to the 10-episode limited series, which crackled with wit and dark humor and some of the most beautiful cinematography this year. This show is aces, don't ya know? —J.L.
10. The Leftovers (HBO)
As soon as screeners for The Leftovers hit critics' desks, the series from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the author of the book upon which The Leftovers is based, was branded "desolate, despairing" and "all bleakness all the time." It was so grim, in fact, that a pilot screening put Jace Lacob and our other colleague Kate Aurthur in a daylong state of depression.
There is no arguing that The Leftovers is bleak: It centers on the inhabitants of a suburban town three years after an unexplained event — the Sudden Departure —eliminated 2% of the population. But the show's construction made clear that Lindelof had learned from his mistakes — cough Lost cough — and instead of spending episode after episode trying to explain this bizarre happenstance, The Leftovers centered on the grieving process, delving into it more deeply and thoroughly than I've ever witnessed on screen. Rather than leaving audiences cringing while watching characters endure physical pain and offering the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief after the torture's over, the show challenged its viewers to withstand emotional pain along with the inhabitants of Mapleton. With The Leftovers, there is no relief, there is no sighing, but much to the contrary of what its critics who never made it through Season 1 would say, there is purpose and there is hope.
And though many were caught up looking at Kevin's (Justin Theroux) sweatpants throughout Season 1, what was most impressive were the performances from Carrie Coon as Nora, who lost her husband and two children, and Margaret Qualley as Kevin's daughter Jill, whose mom's reaction to the mass disappearance left her daughter feeling more tortured than if she had actually left this earth with the other 2%. Yes, The Leftovers is difficult to watch, but like any challenge, the show is worth it. —Jaimie Etkin
11. The Affair (Showtime)
The first season of The Affair hasn't quite lived up to the simmering, shimmering potential of its pilot episode, but this he-said-she-said drama — about the male and female perspectives of its central couple, enmeshed in an extramarital affair — casts off enough of a spark that I'm still watching, thanks in part to the performances by Ruth Wilson, Joshua Jackson, and Maura Tierney. (I'm less convinced that Dominic West is the right actor for this role.)
I love the differences in the stories spun by Alison (Wilson) and Noah (West) — small details and large significances alike — and how we're reliant on memory and positioning while they recount their narratives. The murder mystery element of the show is sort of perpetually on the back burner, which is fine. It's really Wilson's Alison that propels the intrigue for me. Her performance as sad, trapped Alison — reeling from the death of her young son and stuck in a dead-end existence in the middle of nowhere — is the best thing about The Affair, which has the cerebral quality necessary for an examination of how men and women tick, but which still needs the inherent heat of a Hamptons summer. —J.L.
12. Black-ish (ABC)
You might want to say that Kenya Barris' family comedy is the television equivalent of a warm hug, but it's not: There's a subtle sharpness that exists just behind the sweetness that makes this new sitcom a cut above the rest. Black-ish is a modern family sitcom in the fullest sense, one that deals with race, representation, and class issues in a complicated and complex way, not flinching from handling explosive or controversial topics. (The spanking episode remains a standout for that very reason.) The result is a comedy that feels pitch-perfect and presents a portrait of the American family that more accurately reflects the times in which we live. —J.L.
13. Looking (HBO)
In glancing at the bare facts, it's easy to pin Looking as the male counterpart to Girls or Sex and the City: The show centers on the lives of a group of gay twentysomething and thirtysomething men living in San Francisco. But in its debut season, Looking proved to be much more than that. In a single 30-minute episode, you could laugh at the foul-mouthed honesty of token female friend Doris (Lauren Weedman) and tear up a bit seeing Dom (the heart-meltingly handsome Murray Bartlett) struggle to find himself professionally and personally with Lynn (Scott Bakula).
The performances in Looking are soul-crushingly honest, and, as a result (and, mind you, as a lesbian), I found these characters to be far more relatable than Hannah Horvath, Carrie Bradshaw, or any of the women in their company. Looking also depicts gay men's sex lives in a way that is raw but not porny, proving the show is the master of balancing acts. (If you thought How to Get Away With Murder was risqué, you have no freaking idea.) When the credits started rolling at the end of an episode, I was truly disappointed — not because each installment wasn't fantastic, but because I didn't want it to end. There is nothing like Looking on television, but I hope one day, there is plenty more of it. (PS: #TeamRichie) —J.E.
14. Death Comes to Pemberley (PBS)
Based on the novel by the late mystery author P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Jane Austen's beloved Pride and Prejudice and finds the now-married Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys) solving a brutal murder that has ensnared their social circle. There are intrigues, familiar characters, and plot twists galore as this Regency thriller mashes up Austen with Agatha Christie, blending the familiar tropes from each author. Martin is particularly fantastic as Elizabeth here, as is Matthew Goode as Wickham — both characters have an opportunity to evaluate their relationships with Darcy. The result is a psychologically charged and sumptuous murder mystery that pays loving homage to two of Britain's greatest authors. It's also just great fun. —J.L.
15. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
Lisa Cholodenko's slow-burn drama, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, is a portrait of despair and mental illness, unfolding over decades. Centering on the title character, played with remarkable grit by Frances McDormand, Olive demonstrates how the oft-snarling title character deals with depression and other emotions that put her in conflict with those around her. Lives are lost and changed, relationships fracture and wither and die, and Olive contemplates killing herself — as many others do as well — in the future.
This is high-wire storytelling, particularly given the structuring, with its time jumps and significant changes, but Cholodenko keeps the story from getting bogged down, aided by Olive Kitteridge's remarkable cast (which includes Richard Jenkins, Bill Murray, Zoe Kazan, and many, many others). The subject matter — suicide and depression — may be particularly grim for some, but there are moments of profound beauty (and dark humor) that keep the miniseries from becoming a bleak chasm. The world may be baffling, but it's all that we have. —J.L.
16. The Knick (Cinemax)
Last year, Steven Soderbergh retired from movies. This year, he returned to the welcoming embrace of television, and while cinema may miss him, the results were awesome. The Knick has brought all of Soderbergh's trademark fleet-footed filmmaking talents to TV, to Cinemax, and, more interestingly, to a period drama.
The series is set in 1900 in New York, but feels thoroughly contemporary, with natural lighting and handheld cameras following the characters through the halls of the Knickerbocker Hospital, where they struggle to save lives and advance medical science one bloody operation at a time. The agile look and the synthy score by Cliff Martinez pull The Knick out of the musty past — it's messy and jagged and alive.
While big movie star Clive Owen is charismatically disastrous and magnificently mustached as a brilliant doctor and drug addict, the less familiar cast members in the ensemble more than hold their own — Andre Holland, Eve Hewson, and Cara Seymour have been standouts in the first season, with a second season on its way.
The Knick manages to feel like part of the tradition of fast-moving medical dramas, but also bracingly different, particularly in how unsentimental it is about the amount of death the hospital's staff sees, presides over, and sometimes causes. The show's opening scene, in which two surgeons lose a pregnant woman on the operating table, is shocking not just in its gore but in its impassiveness, underlining how hard-fought every advance in medicine actually was, and how many lives were lost in the process. —Alison Willmore
17. Silicon Valley (HBO)
The lives of Silicon Valley coders might not seem like the prime subject for a pay cable comedy, but the uproarious and scathing Silicon Valley, from creator Mike Judge, transforms their existence into something that is painfully funny to watch (though it is, oddly, devoid of women). Featuring one of the raunchiest dick jokes ever (it pays off the entire season's worth of plots even as it goes somewhere no other TV dick jokes have gone before) and one of the very best performances from the late, great Christopher Evan Welch as persnickety venture capitalist Peter Gregory, Silicon Valley retains a satirical, intellectual air about it, even as it offers some serious stomach-clenching guffaws. —J.L.