TV continued to unmoor from its origins and transform into something else this year. No longer tethered to a specific appliance, a particular kind of storytelling, or even commercial concerns, “television” now feels like an increasingly obsolete word.
But that’s a discussion for another time, for we’ve come to celebrate TV, not mourn it. Among the bajillions of hours of programming that’s constantly available, here are the 10 shows, miniseries, and films that really stood out:
10. 30 for 30: The Price of Gold (ESPN)
2014’s best crime story is 20 years old and still shrouded in a mantle of mystery. The high stakes of the Nancy Kerrigan assault case make for naturally compelling material, but The Price of Gold is must-see TV for its gimlet-eyed exploration of the gender and class dynamics that transformed Kerrigan and Tonya Harding into diametric symbols of femininity, as well as its frank analysis of how the media and the marketplace anoint female sports superstars before the athletes ever set foot on a rink or a field. Unsurprisingly, the rightfully aggrieved and still defensive Harding is an ideal documentary subject — raw, wounded, suspicious, and desperate for her story to finally be heard.
9. Bob’s Burgers (Fox)
Just another animated blue-collar family sitcom from the outside, this rightful heir to The Simpsons boasts the most unpredictable jokes — and the most brilliant voice cast — on television. It’s not just that you never know what’ll be the next punchline — you won’t even know what type of comedy it’ll represent. And yet Bob’s Burgers somehow maintains an astoundingly consistent tone that’s warm and mischievous and goofy, all while reveling in the kind of childhood that feels more naturalistic than on any other show currently on the air. (Why would any boy want to touch a boob when he can touch saaaand?)
8. Veep (HBO)
Farces don’t come any more ridiculous than American politics — nor funnier than Veep. The third season, which found Selina Meyer (national treasure Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on the campaign trail in the run-up to the New Hampshire primaries, raised itself head and shoulders above the previous two years by finally getting specific about politics. Though Selina’s two-steps-forward, two-stumbles-back journey toward the presidency was delightfully choreographed, the season’s high point was the abortion-themed second episode, in which Selina instinctively backs off from a public pro-choice stance: “I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that! Men hate that!”
7. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
Director Lisa Cholodenko’s follow-up to The Kids Are All Right is an ambitious and moving miniseries that traces the decay of a rural Maine town over a quarter of a century through the eyes of one of its older (and crankier) residents, the indomitable Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand). Tragedy creeps in as Olive transitions beyond middle age, and her failure to keep up with social graces leaves her increasingly isolated. And yet what sticks most is the bittersweet and rivetingly imperfect marriage between Olive and her husband (Richard Jenkins) — and where she finds the will to continue living after his death.
6. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
With the exception of Stephen Colbert, who received a huge promotion to the late-night big leagues in the spring, no satirist had a better year than Amy Schumer. Her loosely formatted sketch show had previously been at its brutally funniest parodying female self-loathing (and thus proved itself a fascinating counterpart to FX’s Louie). But the lacerating aim the second season has taken to sources of sexism, most notably in the viral sketch paralleling rape in the military and video-game misogyny, finds Schumer and her writing team taking their rightful place at the vanguard of comedy and political commentary.
5. Mad Men (AMC)
Most shows begin with change, but Mad Men has marooned its characters in it. The first half of the seventh season focused on the private helter-skelters all that change has wrought: divorce, long-term unemployment, insanity, cults, desperate loneliness. While Bert Cooper’s (Robert Morse) musical farewell is our lasting image for Mad Men this year, we’re more than happy to join Don (Jon Hamm), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) as they finally embrace their new, modern family — each other — under the neo-Edward Hopper glow of Burger Chef.
4. Last Week Tonight (HBO)
After a laudable stint as The Daily Show‘s temporary host last summer, John Oliver vastly improved upon his old workplace by adding the one thing that’d been missing from making fun of the news: depth. After beginning his show with an episode devoted to the Indian presidential election, Oliver quickly became this generation’s Walter Cronkite by accessibly discussing issues like net neutrality, civil forfeiture, and Argentinian debt restructuring at length — that is, if Cronkite had also been silly enough to invite Right Said Fred to sing a version of “I’m Too Sexy” specifically written to taunt Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Unlike most newsmen, Oliver has also used his viral platform to mobilize protests and petitions. While he hasn’t led sweeping change yet, I wouldn’t put anything beyond his capabilities.
3. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
I can’t think of another show where 90 percent of the characters are my “favorite.” With one of the biggest casts anywhere on television, Orange Is the New Black finds humanity in virtually every corner of Litchfield Penitentiary — the one exception being how prison officials treat their inmates. In its second season, the dramedy continued its mission of telling gripping stories about female characters of all ages, races, and sexual and gender orientations while launching one of the most powerful attacks against the incarceration system with a story line about an elderly Alzheimer’s-stricken inmate released to die on the streets.
2. Game of Thrones (HBO)
OK, so there was nothing so awesome as a gladiatorial duel between a woman and a bear this year, and that infamous “eventually consensual” rape scene did much to diminish trust in showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. And yet Game of Thrones remains the most gaspingly suspenseful series on the air, its constant violence not yet exaggerated into caricature but skillfully channeled into thrilling, devastating, did-I-really-just-see-that moments like the sudden deaths of boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). The Stark daughters’ turn in darkness and Tyrion’s Oedipal revenge in the season finale exemplify the show’s trademark restlessness — and ruthlessness.
1. Transparent (Amazon)
No other show this year better illustrated how family will mess you up — and how it’ll help you through the issues it gave you in the first place — than Transparent. Sexy, transgressive, heartbreaking, and always surprising, the Amazon series feels like the next step in TV in its daring specificities — sexual, ethnic, or otherwise. The adult children’s very distinct modes of selfishness are mesmerizing in their self-destruction, and the series displayed an early willingness to experiment with its form in a hallucinatory episode. Representational issues aside, Jeffrey Tambor once again proves he’s one of the finest actors working today with his cautiously joyful portrayal of a woman who’s finally found her place in the world.
Honorable mentions: True Detective (HBO), Broad City (Comedy Central), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Getting On (HBO), Looking (HBO), and Jane the Virgin (CW)