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Matthew Gilbert’s picks for TV’s best shows in 2014

From left: Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, and Jeffrey Tambor in the Amazon Studios original series “Transparent.”
From left: Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, and Jeffrey Tambor in the Amazon Studios original series “Transparent.”Beth Dubber/Amazon Studios/Amazon Studios

Top 10 lists. It's my favorite thing to do – picking out the shows and movies that made my job as TV critic so deeply rewarding across the year. It's a great pleasure to forget about the insults (cough "Manhattan Love Story" cough) and celebrate achievements such as "The Americans," "Transparent," and "The Good Wife," which represent the heights of TV storytelling.

And Top 10 lists are my least favorite thing to do — having to leave out so many excellent accomplishments because the world is having a random love affair with the number 10. This year, 2014, was particularly crammed with winners, and those winners came from all corners of the TV world – Netflix, Amazon, the cable channels, and the networks. I hated to leave many of them out (which is why I've included some honorable mentions at the end of the list).


Here's my attempt to rate the year in TV. Let me know what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I missed.

1. "Transparent" (Amazon Prime)

This series, which marks Amazon's entry into the high-quality TV race, breaks new ground. It revolves around a 70-year-old man — played by Jeffrey Tambor in the richest turn of his career — coming out to his friends and family as transgender. As Mort becomes Maura, the show builds on the trans visibility work done by Laverne Cox in "Orange Is the New Black."

But that is not why I've made it my No. 1 show of 2014. "Transparent" is just so effectively and beautifully done, a drama with the kind of lived-in feel and naturalistic atmosphere that has distinguished some of TV's finest ensemble shows. It's a kind of bizarro "Modern Family," a darker and more layered look at the intertwined lives of a family living in and around L.A. Created by Jill Soloway of "Six Feet Under," the series and its ace cast (including Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass) give us the Pfeffermans in all their confusion, affectation, neediness, narcissism, and love. They all seem to be in the middle of coming out in some way, of figuring out who they truly are. Self-definition, "Transparent" reminds us, knows no age.


2. "The Good Wife" (CBS)

AP Photo/CBS, David Giesbrecht/Associated Press

It's amazing. Because it's a network series — the only network series on my list — "The Good Wife" writers have to come up with 22 episodes per year. And yet each of those hours is remarkably intelligent and ambitious, even the ones that don't quite work. That's extraordinary in this age of eight- and 10-episode cable seasons.

This past year, the show proved that it is indeed possible for a series in its fifth and sixth seasons to remain vital, despite the disappointing records of most aging shows. The ongoing plotlines have remained compelling, with the departure of Josh Charles as Will, the realignment of the competing firms, and Alicia's decision to run for office. The cases of the week — one of the most consistently cutting-edge elements of the show — continue to go to some twisted and interesting places. And show creators Michelle and Robert King have stocked the drama with enough recurring characters to keep us busy for a few more years.

3. "Olive Kitteridge" (HBO)

Jojo Whilden

When I heard that the exquisite novel in stories by Elizabeth Strout was going to become a miniseries, I cringed. How could anyone — even the talented spearhead of the project, Frances McDormand — do justice to such an extraordinary and subtle book that, in some sections, gives its heroine no more than a cameo?


But HBO's "Olive Kitteridge," directed by Lisa Cholodenko and adapted by Jane Anderson, is a special case. The four-hour drama stays extremely true to the anti-romanticism of the book, as it gives us a woman who is brusque, scornful, and as jagged as the Maine coast where she has spent her life. But it also carefully reshapes the narrative for the screen, making it work chronologically within a provocative framing device. McDormand is revelatory as Olive, Richard Jenkins is, as usual, perfect as her husband, and Zoe Kazan once again proves she's a giant talent as Denise the decidedly un-Olive-like pharmacy assistant.

4. "The Americans" (FX)

Patrick Harbron/FX

The first entertaining season of "The Americans" led into an even more suspenseful and emotionally anchored second season. Created by Joe Weisberg, the drama follows embedded spies in 1980s America, but then it also tracks a struggling marriage troubled by trust issues and the presence of a third party — the motherland.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are indelible as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, embracing both the action scenes and the complicated marital dance with energy and precision. And they're surrounded by a wonderfully unpredictable cast of characters, including Alison Wright as FBI secretary Martha Hanson and Noah Emmerich as the conflicted FBI agent who happens to live next door.


5. "Veep" (HBO)

AP Photo/HBO, Paul Schiraldi

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a brilliant comic, and she's endlessly funny on this satire. But show creator Armando Iannucci doesn't rely entirely on her skills for his inventive goof on American politics. He surrounds his star with an ever-improving ensemble led by Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, and Timothy Simons, who had a breakout season as the language-twisting Jonah Ryan. And Iannucci comes up with storylines that reflect not only the cynicism and political obsessiveness of those who run the country, but also the fickleness of the American public.

"Veep" is over the top in many ways, but it's also one of TV's best looks into the workings of our government. Rather than the big dramas that make fellow D.C. series "Scandal," "Homeland," and "House of Cards" so titillating and suspenseful, it takes on the daily pettiness and media showboating that define many of our leaders.

6. "Fargo" (FX)

AP Photo/FX, Chris Large

TV is feverishly mining old movies for presold concepts, with some 25 series adaptations — including "Ghost," "American Gigolo," and "Big" — currently in development. Noah Hawley's extraordinary take on the Coen Brothers movie "Fargo" makes the prospect of all those movie-based series less disturbing.

The first season of this anthology series was a triumph, both warmer than the Coens' classic and more expansive. The story opened up naturally into a large ensemble piece, and you couldn't necessarily predict what would happen even if you'd seen the movie. The cast was top of the line, particularly Martin Freeman, who took on William H. Macy's indelible turn as the cowardly fool of the piece and made it his own.


7. "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" (HBO)

AP Photo/HBO, Eric Liebowitz

With "The Colbert Report" on its way out the door, John Oliver's take on the world seems even more valuable. But Oliver goes much deeper into the specific topics he addresses than Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart do. Humor is part of Oliver's arsenal, of course, but facts and in-depth reporting are, too. He challenges our short attention spans with long pieces on everything from net neutrality and state lotteries to, in honor of Halloween, the horrors of sugar.

And on HBO, unhindered by language standards, his rants, with their long exclamatory sentences, work beautifully. Fortunately, HBO has been putting many of Oliver's rants on YouTube so that non-subscribers can sample his brilliance.

8. "Broad City" (Comedy Central)

Walter Thompson

The comedy has some TV historical significance, as New York twentysomethings Abbi and Ilana — played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer – move the female-duo trope into more fringe territory. Let's just say Lucy and Ethel, and Mary and Rhoda, and Laverne and Shirley never drummed on buckets in Central Park to get tickets to a Li'l Wayne concert.

Abbi and Ilana are demented and codependent and crude and endlessly endearing. With their sex, drugs, and poop humor, they serve up a direct challenge to the female stereotypes of bro shows such as "Workaholics."

9. "Shameless" (Showtime)


A number of returning series could have filled this space nicely. "Vikings," "Game of Thrones," "Nurse Jackie," "Mad Men," and "Louie" were all strong, smart, and memorable this year. They were weekly treats, all of them. But I am a "Shameless" diehard, and the fourth season was one of the show's best so far, with a particularly layered performance by Emmy Rossum.

The tone was more dramatic than usual, which only makes the submission of the show in the Emmy comedy categories this year even more absurd. Rossum's Fiona, usually so self-righteous, came face to face with her own failings and wound up in jail, looking more like her irresponsible father than she — and we — ever thought possible. Her tense face-off with her brother Lip was fascinating and disturbing. And watching delinquent Mickey Milkovich come to terms with being gay was truly moving, largely thanks to Noel Fisher's stubbornly unsentimentalized performance.

10. "The Knick" (Cinemax)

Mary Cybulski

Steven Soderbergh's look at the state of hospitals in 1900 New York was something of a revelation. With unblinking camerawork and haunting set design, the director showed us just how primitive surgery was in the not-too-distant past. Like so many other period pieces on TV, particularly "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire," he also invited us to compare racial relations in America's past to those of today — both in terms of progress and the lack of it.

Clive Owen was just right as the drug-addicted surgeon at the center of the drama, showing us how Dr. John Thackery's many failures in the operating theater both depress and motivate him. And Andre Holland gave us a black man stuck between worlds long before terms such as "blackish" were invented. The writing was uneven, with unearned plot turns, but still the show was riveting.


"Mad Men" (AMC)

A half season with many of the fine literary moments we've come to expect and love.

"You're the Worst" (FX)

The most unromantic romantic comedy on TV.

"Vikings" (History)

A cinematic, violent look at a far-off time and place. The religious themes and laconic characters are endlessly compelling.

"Nurse Jackie" (Showtime)

This uncompromising portrait of an addict gave us a fierce penultimate season. Edie Falco is still a force to be reckoned with, portraying one of the most devious and selfish and yet sympathetic characters ever written for TV.

"Orange Is the New Black" (Netflix)

The presence of Lorraine Toussaint as the maternal yet self-serving Vee held the season together nicely.

"Game of Thrones" (HBO)

Another richly imagined chapter in the epic story.

HBO Documentaries (HBO)

Despite some weak entries, this Monday night series regularly delivers powerful nonfiction, from portraits of James Brown and Susan Sontag to a searing look at domestic violence.

"The Mindy Project" (Fox)

The writing — notably the "I slipped" episode — and the ensemble chemistry continue to charm.

"Inside Amy Schumer" (Comedy Central)

Her sketches are shrewd takes on modern life and gender politics. They're also consistently hysterical.

"The Affair" (Showtime)

The two-perspective gimmick doesn't always work, and some of the plot turns strain credibility. But still the show is fascinating and addictive.

"Boardwalk Empire" (HBO)

The best uneven series on TV went out with its most focused and moving season.

"Louie" (FX)

Some episodes fail, others fly high. But they are always painfully honest. This season, the episodes set in Louie's apartment building were especially melancholy and touching.

"Homeland" (Showtime)

It's not the brilliant psychological drama that season one promised us, but it can still keep you on the edge of your seat.

More coverage:

Matthew Gilbert's midseason report card

With indelible character, Stephen Colbert made us think twice

'Dear Sugar' ushers in a new era of podcasts at WBUR

'Fargo,' 'True Detective' lead Golden Globes' TV nods

'South Park' wraps up 18th season with holiday cheer, hashtags

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.