My first 10-best list for Yahoo TV might benefit from some personal critical context, since I may be new to you in this neighborhood. As a TV critic, I see every new show and keep up with a slew of stuff in all day-parts (yes, I sometimes watch morning TV, I've been known to peek at The View, and I'm a cable-news junkie and a late-night talk-show hawk). To people who say, "Wow, you get paid to watch TV! What a great job!" I say: "You bet, and you don't know the half of it." Yes, it's a pleasure to draw a paycheck while watching any of the shows I love, such as the ones below. But now, do this: Think of all the TV shows you absolutely detest. I have to watch all those too. And find something useful to say about them, to help inform and guide you. What qualifies me for this Yahoo responsibility? I've been reviewing TV for about three decades now, which at the very least means I have a substantial knowledge of TV history to draw upon. And after all that TV-watching, I'm still enthused about the medium — the new and the old. And I still relish the challenge of figuring out why a show enthralls me, or how I should convince you another show is junk. As a consumer guide and inventor of theories, I'm here to help at a time when there is more good TV than at any time in the history of the medium. Now, on to the list.
10. The Knick (Cinemax)
I confess it took me a little while to see The Knick for what it was, and to disassociate it from other recent, suspenseful period pieces such as the early-20th-century atmospherics of Boardwalk Empire and Tom Fontana's short-lived 19th-century Copper. What started out like ER-by-gaslight soon expanded outward to grapple with matters of medical theory, race relations, gender roles, and how the hell director Steven Soderbergh got his camera into all those tight spaces and lit those gloomy rooms so beautifully.
9. Veep (HBO)
Selina Meyer's bid for the Presidential nomination unleashed a torrent of neurotically aggressive, ferociously ruthless behavior from the Veep and her entire staff. This series has always been much more than a satire of politics — or rather, it's not about White House politics, but about inter-office politics and sexual politics. Julia Louis-Dreyfus deserves every Emmy nomination she receives, because so much depends on the way she keeps Selina sympathetic and funny even as every plot turn is designed to make her appalling and sad.
8. Fargo (FX)
The Coen brothers create such worlds unto themselves that the notion of adapting one of their films as a TV series seemed risky to the point of foolishness. Yet this FX production pulled it off, with some amiably shaggy-dog murder-mystery plotting, and outstanding performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine, and the marvelous Allison Tolman.
Related: The TV MVPs of 2014
7. The Leftovers (HBO)
For a while there, I was wondering whether this Damon Lindelof adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel — about the mysterious "Sudden Departure" and the lives it tore apart — was going to be a grueling endurance test. Instead, as the first season progressed, The Leftovers blossomed into a prickly flower of humanity. Yes, Justin Theroux's stubbled moroseness was occasionally grating, but he loosened up nicely in the back half of the season. And there were extraordinary performances, particularly by Carrie Coon and Ann Dowd, which left me moved and confident that Lindelof and Perrotta knew what they wanted to achieve, and know where they're headed in this dystopic world.
6. The Americans (FX)
I spent the first season of The Americans saying to myself, "How can they make this concept last for more than a season? How can they possibly sustain the idea of friendly neighborhood Russian spies, living in American suburbia, passing unnoticed?" Well, Season 2 put my questions to rest decisively, primarily by raising the emotional stakes for Matthew Rhys's Philip and Keri Russell's Elizabeth, placing them in dangers that didn't merely threaten their cover but also the safety of their children. And to the show's ongoing credit, now I can't imagine how creator Joe Weisberg is going to sustain a Season 3.
5. True Detective (HBO)
This eight-episode series was bold filmmaking from creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga: The police procedural as a philosophical investigation into the roots of evil. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were transfixing as cop partners who had each other's back when they weren't in each other's face. Sure, it rambled here and there — mysteries are supposed to throw you off the scent periodically — but who cares, when the dialogue was uniquely ornate, convoluted, conversational, funny, and blunt as Pizzolatto's?
4. Silicon Valley (HBO)
Mike Judge's triumphant return to funny, Valley pulled off something tricky indeed: It made hilarious the kind of inside-nerd-info that could so easily have consigned this show an in-joke turn-off, in the process opening a window onto a culture with so many possibilities for new-to-TV storylines. Judge and his collaborators did it by giving us characters we could both laugh at and root for. This sitcom is what The Big Bang Theory would be like if it had bigger brains and more Red Bull behind it. And how sad it is that Christopher Evan Welch, brilliantly unreadable as eccentric billionaire Peter Gregory, died in Dec. 2013.
3. Broad City (Comedy Central)
What a blast of energy and wit Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer brought to a first season that was the rare rookie series that got better and better with every episode. I'd say the gals were finding their voices, but they were already such pros at getting their personas across via their Internet sketches that such praise would be selling them short. This duo plays off each other with such terrific timing, such clearly delineated comic personas, that you can trace their style all the way back in TV-time to the superb (and similarly low-budget) Abbott and Costello Show series of the 1950s.
2. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
This beautiful yet raucous adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's episodic novel boasts the year's most subtly sustained performance — Frances McDormand never settles for mere crankiness, and never allows her tough exterior to moisten and crack into teary shards of self-regard. Add Richard Jenkins, who's extraordinary in his ability to infuse guileless niceness with high-spiritedness. Indeed, the production's only flaw is that its coastal Maine is all too obviously coastal Massachusetts.
1. The Good Wife (CBS)
The only network show on my list, and you can bet I was a bit startled by that: Oh, how the once-mighty have fallen in quality and adventurousness. Yet The Good Wife perches at the very top here, in part because it offers the best challenges to hour-long-drama storytelling, taking twists and turns with wit and aplomb. I thought I'd weary of the Cary-persecuted-by-the-D.A. storyline; instead, it's deepened that character so much, Matt Czuchry is no longer playing what was primarily a pretty-boy smuggie.
More Year-End Coverage: