By Tristan Lejeune
1. Orphan Black
TV used to be more fun.
No one wants to go back to the days of David Hasselhoff talking to his car, or sitcoms that always end with someone trapped in the pantry, but in the post-Breaking Bad, pre-post-Mad Men landscape, television (including much on this list) has grown rather dour and dire. Not just death, but doom and moral nihilism seem to lurk in every shadow.
Enter Orphan Black, which feels more like a kick in the pants than a punch in the gut. Heroes get small but meaningful victories. Villains get delicious comeuppance. We get a dizzy, whirligig conspiracy thriller that — while brilliantly written and directed — practically dances on the brain’s pleasure center.
It’s an open secret that, playing a pack of genetically modified clones, Tatiana Maslany is giving the best lead performance you can see anywhere, but what really made Orphan Black’s sophomore season better than its first is how completely it tapped into her sing-to-the-rafters vigor. No show in 2014 had more drive, or such joyful pit-stops along the way.
Alison’s musical meltdown. Rachel’s sex scene. Helena’s boozy bar brawl. Sarah’s grizzly bathroom confrontation. These aren’t just perfect arc climaxes, they’re rewards, and the biggest one had to be that dance party. Such a treat!
I couldn’t agree more with the tagline — Orphan Black is one of a kind.
2. Adventure Time
Picture a too-cool-for-school teenaged Beowulf roaming settings that range from Candy Land to “The Garden of Earthly Delights” — fighting monsters, braving dungeons, saving parties — and you’ve got exactly one brushstroke of this breathlessly original animated children’s epic.
There are more strong, 3-D female characters on television than ever before, and it’s worth a giggle that one of the strongest and most fascinating is a 2-D one named Bubblegum. She’s head princess in a world full of them, and her would-be knight and defender is the last human, 16-year-old Finn the Human to be exact, whose best friend and roommate is a shape-shifting dog called Jake, lover of fart jokes and Zen wisdom.
“What if the whole world was just some goof’s dream?” Jake wondered aloud in an episode last week. “Man, that would be stupid.”
As vividly imagined as anything from George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling, the Land of Ooo is stuffed with wild things and dangerous journeys, but also yearning, love, loss, redemption and madness. There’s a crazy, old Ice King up in the mountains, and a long line to see the devil down in the Nightosphere.
Anime usually leaves me rather cold, but this Japanese-influenced magic quest-o-rama is hot stuff.
If the trailer for Disney’s “Pan” doesn’t convince you that the origin story fad has gone too far, nothing will, but no one tell that to the team spinning new, nightmare-fuel yarns out of names and personalities Thomas Harris first put on the page more than 30 years ago. Can we say it’s about Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s salad days? No. No, we cannot.
The most delectable production values around are stalked by characters with minds like steel traps and hearts like battering rams — all of them murderers, or studiers thereof, or both. Mads Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne are unforgettable as duplicitous men with dirty, dirty hands. In the finale alone, there was enough blood to drown a vampire.
How scary is it? If you’ve ever been truly frightened by American Horror Story, it’s too scary for you.
This one is as rich, beautiful, strange (and, yes, at times as melodramatic) as a night at the opera. If all indulgences were this satisfying, we would do nothing but indulge.
4. Parks & Recreation
NBC’s Thursday night comedies have included one of the finest shows of each year at least since Cheers in the early ’80s. Since then, there have been Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, The Office, 30 Rock and Community, among many others.
This is the best of the bunch.
Queen B-for-bureaucrat Amy Poehler leads a hive of the most-gifted, hardest-working comic players on the tube, from superstar-in-waiting Chris Pratt to self-made institution Nick Offerman. As just one example of this ensemble’s range, Retta’s Donna Meagle can serve as either the pepper in the pot, or the voice of reason, and she can flip at the blink of an eye.
Pawnee, Ind., is not one of those idyllic fictional towns like Grover’s Corners or Lake Wobegon — too wacky. But oh how it’ll be missed when this knee-slapping sitcom wraps up next year.
Worth noting: Despite all the whinging about how, quality-wise, Netflix, Amazon and the premium channels are eating the collective lunch of the big four, NBC is the first network to repeat here.
5. Broad City
Speaking of Ms. Poehler, in addition to preparing Pawnee for its final season, she served as executive producer of Broad City’s first one. So, golf clap to that.
Comedy Central was on fire this year. Review, Inside Amy Schumer, Krull Show, @midnight — all new or nearly so, and all gold, but none were better than this duo delight from Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as two of the nuttiest pothead wage slaves in New York. That one matryoshka pre-credit sequence in which scenario after scenario is revealed to be merely a sexy dream is alone worth the price of admission.
What’s great is the comedy here comes from and is necessitated by such fully realized women. Even a search to find one’s private source of weed can be a quest for independence.
These ladies don’t just like men, they like dick. They don’t just party, they get schwasted. They don’t just want new jobs, they rail against their capitalist overlords. And I’m not just happy they’ve been renewed, I’m thrilled.
6. True Detective
Man, the Internet took its sweet time deciding how good this Louisiana noir was, didn’t it? First, apparently, it was great. Then it was meh, and then total amazeballs, and then by the end the general consensus was somewhere around “sure, quite good.”
Actually, it was always great, with a framing device that knew just when to find an exit and pacing that simmered or boiled at all the right times. I’m not going to gush about the movie stars, cuz they’ve been gushed about plenty, but it’s unsurprising that others are eager to follow in their footsteps.
If there’s a common thread between these 10 shows and most of the others on the air, it’s that the decisions on these have real consequences, and very little gets tossed off. Nowhere is that more true than True Detective, which only haunts the people who’ve seen it.
The roller-coaster online reviews were a symptom of constantly defied expectations. The year’s most talked-about show was definitely worth talking about.
7. Rick & Morty
Guest stars such as Alfred Molina and David Cross can help draw attention to this Adult Swim treasure about a hard-drinking super-scientist and his hapless grandson sidekick, but its scripts will keep viewers coming back.
Color outside the lines? Well sure, but let’s use mutant, nuclear-powered crayons. If you miss Futurama (and you should), this just might get you through the night.
In one episode, our titular “heroes” mess the world up so bad, they cut their losses and escape to a parallel universe where that “Rick and Morty” are killed just before making the same mistakes they made. Then they bury their bodies and just “slide in” to their lives. The End. Oh yeah.
Rick is such a genius, he sometimes seems aware of his existence as a show: “It’s just Rick and Morty! Rick and Morty and their adventures, Morty. Rick and Morty forever and forever, 100 years, Rick and Morty. Some things. Me, and Rick and Morty.”
Fuck it. You either enjoy this one, or you don’t.
9. Game of Thrones
What made seasons 2 and 3 of GoT so spectacular was that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss knew with authority not just what they were doing, but what was coming and all the ways things would ripple out. Less so season 4. I’m sure Benioff and Weiss know “how it will end,” but you could sense them playing things closer to the chest this year, and not in a good way.
Still, the enterprise as unmissable as ever. Peter Jackson may have turned us all into fantasy fans, but HBO wants to make the conversion permanent with quicksilver storytelling across panoramic vistas.
Weddings, trials, fights to the death — GoT always feels like an invitation too juicy to turn down. I’m definitely going to miss the scene-stealing performances of Charles Dance and Rory McCann, two of TV’s chewiest bad guys, but the deepest bench in the game could make for some intriguing second-half substitutions.
10. The Americans
From Walter White to Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian sociopath is having his heyday, but no other quite embraces his soulless carnage with the ice-water grin of Matthew Rhys’s Phillip Jennings, Soviet spy. He piles up bodies nearly as quickly as Reagan-era wigs, but always keeps you guessing if some part of himself will survive the meat-grinder that John Le Carré taught us is espionage.
And as his darker and larger half, Keri Russell allows exhaustion to weather her eyes like rocks near a beach — but those rocks could still take down a ship. The plotting of The Americans is sometimes careless, the writing sloppy. But these two could worm their way out of a guillotine.
FX’s Fargo was a witty parable, but the network finds more compelling drama in the murky morals of Cold War intelligence. The best show currently set in D.C. returns next month. Can it be 2015 yet?