Without a doubt, 2014 has been a great year for TV drama with established big-hitters going toe-to-toe with fledgling series. In light of this, here’s a rundown of my top 10, favourite British and American shows that have hit our screens this year, along with some others that didn’t quite hit the spot.
10. House of Cards (Netflix)
This Kevin Spacey led, political drama may have been a little more patchy than it’s first outing as Frank Underwood’s arch-villainy sank to cartoonesque proportions during his ascension to the very top, but there were plenty of twists and turns to keep me watching. It was also good to see Robin Wright given the material to flesh out his wife, Claire, as she struggles to stay loyal to her husband after his numerous ‘indiscretions’.
9. True Detective (HBO)
With stunning visuals, truly profound writing and pitch perfect performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, this examination of ‘Rust’ Cohle’s determination to crack a serial killer case spanning nearly two decades would have featured much higher up my list were it not for that half-baked ending.
8. The Leftovers (HBO)
Odd is the best word to describe this drama from Damon Lindelhof and Tom Perrotta, which examines the lives of various people in a fictional town after two percent of the World’s population suddenly disappear in a ‘Rapture-like’ event. It’s odd in a good way though, and after a slow burn start, fine performances from the likes of Ann Dowd as the leader of the ‘Guilty Remnant’ cult stood out and persistently drew me in.
7. The Americans (FX)
Spy dramas have always been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but there’s never been anything to feel guilty about with this taut series following the fraught and often dangerous lives of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) as they continue to secretly work for the KGB, and at the same time try to maintain some semblance of normality for their children. Higher and even more personal stakes kept me on the edge of my seat throughout Season 2.
6. Mad Men (AMC)
In any other year this show would have been much higher up my list. Even as things stand it’s probably my favourite series of all time, but I can’t overlook the insipid start to the first half of Season 7 and the baffling amount of screentime devoted to Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) crumbling marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré). Thankfully the last two episodes packed a real emotional punch and we got to see the possibility of redemption for the main character as his life began to really spiral out of control. As always, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson was a pleasure to watch too.
5. In The Flesh (BBC Three)
On paper a drama about a gay, slightly emo zombie called Kieren (Luke Newberry) set in Lancashire shouldn’t work, but this series from new writer, Dominic Mitchell, does in spades. Often darkly comical and heart-breaking simultaneously, what really makes it sing is Emily Bevan’s performance as the ‘morgeous’ Amy Dyer, Kieren’s best friend and fellow PDS (Partially Decease Syndrome) sufferer. The successful exploration of the wider Universe these characters exist in in this second outing really makes me hope the BBC will decide to renew for a third series.
4. The Affair (Showtime)
As you’d expect from the title, this new drama broaches the start and aftermath of an extramarital affair that we soon learn has somehow resulted in a murder. Hinged on excellent performances from Ruth Wilson and Dominic West as a waitress and a struggling novelist, who engage in a holiday romance that leads to much, much more, this show proves that great acting and solid writing can go a long way.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO)
With brilliant production values, strong storylines that haven’t been afraid to deviate from George R. R. Martin’s books and a stupendous cast, there was little chance of Game of Thrones not making my top 3. How could it not place so high when we finally got to see King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) meet a painful and much deserved death? About to embark on it’s fifth season in the new year, with all the chess pieces moving into place, things are about to get really exciting!
2. Utopia (Channel Four)
It almost beggars belief that this bold, apocalyptic drama about a government sponsored programme to control the Earth’s population hasn’t been renewed, but in typical cult tradition it proved to be like Marmite for the British audience. At turns beautiful to look at, squirm-inducing and hysterically funny, I’m rooting for one of the online channels to pick this up, and at the very least, make the two-part finale that the creator, Dennis Kelly, had pitched to Channel Four to tie this little gem up.
1. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Whilst I’m the first to admit there were major pacing issues in the second season of Michelle Ashford’s drama about the trials and tribulations of real life sex researchers, Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson (I’ve written about it here), Masters of Sex was my favourite show this year by a country mile. None of the exceptional, ensemble cast put a foot wrong, but this was especially the year for Lizzy Caplan and Caitlin Fitzgerald to really shine as Virginia and Libby Johnson as their strengthening and waning relationships with Bill, respectively, began to fundamentally change their perspective on what it is to be a woman in late 1950’s/ early 1960’s America. Well-crafted, well-acted and set in a fascinating period of US history, I can’t recommend it enough.
The ones that didn’t quite make it…
Out of the blue, Homeland (Showtime) went back to its roots and pulled a really solid season out of the bag, further underlining the fact the writers should have stuck to their guns and gotten rid of Brody (Damian Lewis) a lot earlier and without resorting to the romantic melodrama that we were subjected to for the last two years. It was a good year for gangster dramas on either side of the Pond as well, with Boardwalk Empire (HBO) finishing it’s five year run strongly and Cillian Murphy’s Peaky Blinders (BBC Two) proving to be a whole barrel of camp, violent fun throughout its second series with a memorable guest stint from Tom Hardy. (Read my reviews here.) Speaking of violence, Hannibal (NBC) continued to keep my eyes uneasily glued to the screen as the titular character (Mads Mikkelsen) once more played mind games with his former friend and criminal profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy.)
God knows I tried with The Newsroom (HBO)! For three long seasons I suffered through a self-satisfied, dated and, at times, misogynistic show, grabbing the scraps of light where I could find them with both hands. All it succeeded in confirming to me was that, whilst Aaron Sorkin is clearly a highly literate man with an unfaltering love of the written and spoken word, all he has to offer as a writer is one, perhaps two, wholly distinct characters.
Meanwhile, Series 2 of The Fall (BBC Two) left a bitter taste in my mouth for one reason and one reason alone: the dubious relationship between serial killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), and his former, teen babysitter, Katie (Aisling Franciosi). I’m not averse to drama taking risks. The show starring Gillian Anderson is, after all, centred around the chase to stop a psychopath, but this plot point felt like an unnecessary step too far.
Finally, it’s with a heavy heart that I’m having to place Doctor Who (BBC One) amongst 2014’s televisual let-downs. (Read our reviews here.) I don’t lay the blame at all Peter Capaldi’s door. It’s clear he’s having a blast playing the Twelfth Doctor and it shows on-screen. I don’t even have a problem with Clara as many do, as I think Jenna Coleman shines as The Doctor’s opinionated companion. The real issue stems from the unevenness of the writing across this series, and the rushed nature and apparent pointlessness of the Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) arc. I’m a very long way from abandoning the show, however, and I’m optimistic that once we learn a little more about who Twelve is, there’ll be a lot more to look forward to writing-wise.
So what shows did you love in 2014? Which ones made you switch off?