Much is made of lists and nominations this time of year. Pop culture is ranked, pigeonholed, trotted out for gravitas or symbolically pooped on to polarizing effect. But as we consider the past 12 months’ remarkable slate of television, we shall eschew such easy categorization. There are no proclamations that any of the below are the best of this or third-most-qualitative among their competitors. We've chosen series with some compelling cachet, whether it was groundbreaking reality, comfort-food family sitcoms, horribly depressing drama or debuts that made up for lack of polish with pure audacity. The only requirement is that they not already be universally doted on (much love to you nonetheless, Mad Men, True Detective, The Affair, et. al.). So here is out alphabetically collated compendium of 2014’s Most Must-Watch TV (and yes, there happen to be a tidy 10).
Black-ish (ABC): After producing BET’s smash-hit The Game and long-running UPN/CW comedy Girlfriends , Kenya Barris snagged Girlfriends lead Tracee Ellis Ross and the ubiquitous Anthony Anderson and hatched the daringly christened Black-ish. The title is loaded with meanings, whether referencing Compton kid-turned-suburban ad guru Dre’s (Anderson) struggles to maintain his identity, or his wife Rainbow’s (Ross) childhood with biracial hippie parents. Black-ish doesn’t rock the boat of sitcom formula, but it manages to tackle uncomfortable material (see: Rainbow recoiling in horror as Dre and his mother demonstrate prejudice toward Mexicans with the defense that black people can’t be prejudiced) while finding humor in how universally foreign it can feel to be domestic. Ross, who has comic timing for days and a singularly expressive face, is gold. Anderson is likewise great. But all due praise to veteran Conan writer/performer Deon Cole as Dre’s goofball coworker Charlie— a breakout character in a groundbreaking show.
Broad City (Comedy Central): The buzz on this sketch duo’s inaugural romp for Comedy Central is no longer subterranean, but its true impact on pop culture will go boom when season two premieres in January. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s web series translated with few hiccups to half-hour cable, creating instant millennial icons. Some Broad City plots are, per the show’s title, too far-fetched, and at times Glazer’s onscreen persona can wear thin. But well-contained, combustible episodes like the inspired “Hurricane Wanda” – in which Abbi hosts an impromptu storm-shelter party at her apartment while trying to woo her neighbor and conceal that she took a massive No. 2 and clogged the toilet – flash a clever, impish grin a mile wide and cast the same effect on their audience.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (Bravo): This late-’14 arrival is just a few episodes in, but heed this opportunity to catch up. Girlfriends' Guide might be what would happen if the Sex and the City franchise were honest about life at middle age (or its characters could tolerate Los Angeles for more than a jaunt). House’s Lisa Edelstein and Prison Break’s Paul Adelstein make great friends/foils as husband and wife Abby and Jake (he’s a failed director, she a successful author) who fool themselves into thinking separation can be as graceful as falling in love. Fortunately, Janeane Garofalo’s on hand (and awesomely against type) as alpha-female Lyla, who guides Abby through the murky waters of waning love while juggling her own S&M-addict ex (Michael Weaver, a.k.a. Randy the Asshole from Joe Schmo Show). Like SATC, GG2D can be too corny-cool at times. But it’s written from what feels like real experience and reflection, depicting scenarios uncommon to fast-talking cable, such as Abby and Jake’s touching, devout Shabbat dinner with their kids. Girlfriends' Guide is what Bravo’s Real Housewives might resemble if they resembled anything like real life.
The Goldbergs (ABC): Halfway through its second season, The Goldbergs has evolved beyond a very well-licensed paean to the 1980s (though, holy crap, do they have some kind of budget for such things). In fact, it has skillfully found a way for all the Star Wars props and Styx music to blend in like wallpaper while Wendi McLendon-Covery (as smothering matriarch Beverly), Jeff Garlin (irritable dad Murray), Sean Giambrone (as creator Adam Goldberg’s fictional stand-in), Troy Gentile (loveable putz big-brother Barry) and Hayley Orrantia (smart but mischievous sister Erica) take turns stealing scenes as a not-quite-typical American family. The Goldbergs is clearly genuine, funny and feel-good in the best sense. And if nothing else, it allows us the glory of McLendon-Covey’s masterful work with pixelated profanity.
Hell on Wheels (AMC): For four strong seasons, Hell on Wheels has unfairly suffered as a critical afterthought. It's the saga of former Confederate Army man Cullen Bohannan (an underappreciated Anson Mount), who helps engineer the First Transcontinental Railroad while dodging his dodgy past. Bohannan’s right-hand man Elam (Common) dances with a deadly bear, only to be sent into psychosis by a nearby Native American tribe; Cullen contends with the arrival of an ex-military buddy who’s run afoul of criminal Mexicans; an actual governor, dispatched by President Grant, attempts to reign in the lawless hellhole that is Cheyenne, Wyoming; a vicious Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) takes up with the mercenary Brigham Young; and preacher lady Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) comes to a crossroads of faith and justice. Good times. Also, there’s this hideous amputation sequence and, as ever, the show's vision of post-Civil War mid-America is as striking and vast as the sets of its Cheyenne are claustrophobically cluttered and tense.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO): Daily Show alumnus John Oliver can get a bit hysterical. It’s part of his charm. Or just plain irksome. But his new HBO half-hour (which borrows the basic tone of his television alma mater and liberally sprinkles in more profanity than The Wolf of Wall Street) rises above the host's harsh delivery thanks to in-depth investigative exposés that scoff at corporate hubris and media oversight. Oliver does take the occasional breath to succinctly illustrate typical journalistic bone-headedness or, say, skewer archaic cultural traditions. His fits of rage may be shrill, but Last Week’s efforts to keep the public truly informed are glorious.
Married at First Sight (FYI): After rebranding from its previous incarnation as Bio, the FYI network staked claim to a new kind of reality TV with the fascinating Married at First Sight. What sounds like a horrific premise – singles auditioning for a reality series discover its producers seek to blindly marry couples, then document their first several weeks of co-habitation – becomes a truly intimate and provocative social experiment. But Married doesn’t merely titillate (as it happens, one of the three couples doesn’t even consummate). It allows its three pairs to experience modern love from the inside out, raising philosophical questions about marriage that are mediated by a team of therapists and experts. An upcoming second season begs the question of whether they can find folks as genuine as the first six now that the show's conceit is laid bare, but that's just more reason to watch.
The Missing (Starz): Along with 2014’s The Affair and Gracepoint, this Starz series rests on the ever-popular theme of a child’s death and/or disappearance. And indeed, the mystery that anchors The Missing is who took a Tony and Emily Hughes's five-year-old son, Oliver, when car trouble waylaid them in a small French village. But unlike similar series (The Killing comes to mind) that can be rather wanton with such material so long as it’s the catalyst for a good conspiratorial goose chase, Oliver is The Missing’s heart and soul. Amid flashes back to 2006 (when Oliver disappeared) and forward to the present (where Tony reconvenes with a retired detective to re-open the case), the Hugheses never cede their sense of invasion and loss to the media spectacle that soon swallows their world. There are monsters (whether in the form of pedophiles or sneering journalists), split personalities, secrets and oaths of vengeance in this town, but all you really care about—and what keeps you hooked—is that Tony and Emily get their boy back.
Rectify (Sundance): Rivaling The Missing for moodiest drama of the year is the near-perfect Rectify, which follows released death-row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) as he assimilates into normal life after two decades behind bars. In season two, the lives of nearly everyone around him (especially poor stepbrother Teddy) weaken while he tries to remain strong, and old adversaries (i.e. a cowardly prosecutor-turned-Senator) aim to reinstate his sentence. Rectify deals with life, death, debts, loyalty and grief on a much bigger scale than its tiny environs suggest. And everything comes to a head in a thrilling finale that hinges on its lead players coming clean about messy truths, whether that’s in their best interests or not. That final hour-plus may not have levitated on the viral buzz of Mad Men’s dancing dead man or Sons of Anarchy’s final ride, but in its own characteristic way, Rectify’s closing minutes of 2014 (season three is queued up for ’15) made a massive noise.
Survivor’s Remorse (Starz): Expect the second season of this comedy from creator/writer Mike O’Malley (Yes, Dear, Glee) to arrive with high expectations. It would be hard to top how good Survivor’s Remorse sped out of the gate in its brief inaugural run. Like Black-ish , Remorse depicts a wealthy African-American family, duly addressing and defying stereotypes. Thanks to Cam Calloway’s (Jessie Usher) pro-basketball stardom, his mom, sister, uncle and cousin/manager ride down to Atlanta to start a new luxurious life. Sure, there’s casual sex to be had and blunts to be rolled. But Cam’s sister is also an empowered black lesbian (Madtv’s Eria Ash, in one of ’14’s breakout roles). His mother (Martin and Everybody Hates Chris vet Tichina Arnold doing her best work to date) brags unapologetically on red carpets about whupping her kids with Hot Wheels tracks, and only recants for a price. Cam and cousin Reggie (RonReaco Lee, also excellent) nearly come to blows over unresolved issues from their youth; and their Uncle Julius (Mike Epps) dispenses wisdom from toilet seats but is a genuine mentor for them both. This family has been through shit and refuses to be pulled apart by anyone else’s expectations, and Remorse similarly bucks preconceptions with a sharp punchline or plot twist when things feel too safe. Cast and crew deserve kudos, and ideally, 25 minutes of your time on Saturday nights.