NEW YORK—From the extraordinary Maggie Gyllenhaal-starring miniseries “The Honorable Woman” on SundanceTV to Syfy’s goofy “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” TV delivered in 2014—streaming, on cable and over the air.
Showtime’s “Homeland” roared back from last year’s muddle with a season of white-knuckle suspense. CBS’ “The Good Wife” killed off a main character to give the show its latest burst of life. FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” ended its seven-season run with explosive closure. HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” wrapped its saga with a fascinating season that juggled three phases in the life of Atlantic City potentate Nucky Thompson.
AMC’s “Mad Men” teed up satisfyingly for its final round in 2015. Showtime’s “The Affair” gave fair warning against cheating on your spouse, while making such a misdeed seem irresistible.
And ABC’s “Scandal” was wackier than ever.
Consider them winning programs, one and all. But here are 10 that get a special nod:
• “black-ish” (ABC). The diversity of life is celebrated within the seeming confines of an upscale African-American family whose patriarch is determined to uphold a sense of cultural identity for his four kids. Starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as his far-less-fretful wife, it’s a smart comedy that addresses race, culture and class with a colorblind brand of relatability—plus plenty of laughs.
• “Fargo” (FX). This deliciously deranged series channeled the 1996 crime classic while setting off in fresh new tracks across the Minnesota tundra. Its brand-new crop of oddball characters was led by Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo, a sotto-voce psycho on a byzantine trail of deadly mischief. Black comedy never shone so bright.
• “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” (Bravo). Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is more true-to-life than truth. Exhibit A: This fine new comedy-drama, the first scripted series on a network identified with reality fare such as the “Real Housewives” franchise and “Millionaire Matchmaker.” Lisa Edelstein is a how-to author dispensing radiant advice for a successful family life while her own marriage is coming apart. You might call it an adult variation of “Sex and the City,” full of mature emotions and challenges (divorce isn’t for sissies), but also spiced with grown-up fun.
• “Gotham” (Fox). The comic book crowd can embrace it as an “origin” series about the lad who would grow up to become Batman. Fans of noir thrillers can savour the sleek storytelling and brooding stylishness. “Gotham” has everything: larger-than-life characters completely at home in the free-floating world of this crime-ridden city. A terrific cast (led by Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue) that plays the twisted narrative completely straight. And gorgeous production values. Were it on premium cable, this broadcast-network series would be worth the price.
• “Jane the Virgin” (CW). Jane Villanueva, a young Miami woman whose eyes are trained on professional success and whose knees have stayed virtuously clamped together, finds her plans upended after she’s mistakenly impregnated with a specimen meant for someone else. After that, the show is as unpredictable as Jane’s life, and as big-hearted as she is. Based on a Venezuelan telenovela, it stars the effervescent Gina Rodriguez in a multicultural world that feels genuine yet buoyed with wonder.
• “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO). A balm for the imminent pain of losing Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” this weekly half-hour swiftly proved itself with its in-depth looks-plus-laughs at serious subjects that “serious” TV news routinely overlooks. Employing a style that’s been called “investigative comedy,” Oliver has applied his British brand of wry bemusement to gender-pay inequality, anti-gay laws in Uganda, exaggerated claims for Miss America scholarships and net neutrality. In these seminars-cum-sermonettes, he’s hilarious and illuminating.
• “Nixon’s the One” (Online: http://harryshearer.com). At first glance, it might seem like a cheap shot tossed off as a bunch of comic sketches. But, no: Harry Shearer has dramatized the real-life President Richard Nixon with an eye toward authenticity, not parody. Shearer mimics the man known to detractors as Tricky Dick in bizarre but actual interludes lifted word-for-word from the White House recordings Nixon secretly made—the very tapes whose revelations wrecked his presidency. In the series’ six half-hours, Shearer has reanimated scenes from Nixon’s Oval Office archive with tender, loving care while exposing them with full comic effect.
• “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (NBC). What mattered when Jimmy Fallon took over from Jay Leno (and “The Tonight Show” returned to Manhattan after four decades) was this: Fallon just kept doing what he’d done so successfully as host of NBC’s “Late Night”—just bigger and better on this grander stage. He remained funny, gracious, bubbly and much-assured. Instantly “The Tonight Show” became, in effect, “The Jimmy Fallon Show.”
• “Transparent” (Amazon Instant Video). Any family, no matter how seemingly stable, is just one revelation away from upheaval. The Pfeffermans are no different, especially when its patriarch, Mort, shocks his ex-wife and grown children by coming out as a would-be matriarch re-christened as Maura. With Jeffrey Tambor starring as a man on the search for womanhood, this transgender comedy is funny, poignant, perceptive and relatable as it explores the complexity of family dynamics as well as the far reaches of sexual identity.
• “True Detective” (HBO). A ghoulish 1995 murder is investigated and solved by a pair of Louisiana State Police detectives. Or was it? Pressed by investigators in 2012, the by-then-former partners are forced to relive the case, as well as their stormy relationship, amid growing doubt that the right man was charged years before. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson both were masterful in their bifurcated portrayals, while the tale was as consuming and dark as pitch.