What a crazy good year for TV – well, sometimes. For every Orange is the New Black you have a Dads, and so on and so forth. Here, Ben and I pick our favorites and what we consider to be the most important TV this year, new or old – if it’s old, we’re discussing the current season, obviously. Onwards!
EDITOR’S NOTE: All of our lists are in no particular order.
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Game of Thrones, from its exotic sets to great performances (I’m looking at you, Peter Dinklage), is no stranger to critical acclaim, but their third season should receive the loudest applause yet. I’ll admit now that I do read the books (something that will come into play when I recap the fourth season in the spring), so I was prepared for all the crazy epicness this season, like Daenarys dropping the mic in Astapor, or the now-legendary Red Wedding, but simply knowing what was coming didn’t lessen the impact one bit. By pacing the season perfectly in terms of the book, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss drew both book readers and newbies alike in by making these often evil characters wonderfully human, from Tyrion trying his best to be at least an acceptable husband to Sansa to Jaime saving his friend Brienne from certain death, and by expanding on the book and pruning where possible with composite characters and combined storylines (with George R.R. Martin on board as a producer and writer, book purists can feel safe about the decisions being made). Oh, and I promise, no spoilers, but buckle up for season 4 – just to put it in perspective, the Red Wedding is only HALFWAY THROUGH the third book. We’ve got another doozy coming up this spring.
Standout Episode: “The Rains of Castamere”
Arrested Development, Season Four (Netflix)
After years of begging, pleading, memes and crossover Tumblrs, it finally happened. Netflix, in all its wisdom, handed us one of the most divisive seasons of a comedy ever and waited for the crowds to roar, and roar they did – although not all of it was very positive. I personally thought that the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development was not just spectacular, but the most inventive piece of television I’ve watched in years – a season for the modern viewer. Or, as we prefer to be called, the binge-watchers. Even after creator Mitch Hurwitz warned that you should probably take food and water breaks at some point during the fifteen-episode miniseries, most fans, myself included, cruised through as many as we possibly could without stopping, and I can tell you with complete certainty that those who gave up after a few episodes have completely missed the point. The episodes aren’t so much episodes as different puzzle pieces that end up putting together one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen – the season is a perfect unit, and it can only be complete when you see how the characters’ stories constantly interweave in the most inconvenient ways possible. With new and old guest stars (Isla Fisher, Ben Stiller, Henry Winkler, Liza Minelli, Kristen Wiig, I could go on) filling out the already wonderful Bluth family, this season comes to a ridiculous close, and gives us a cliffhanger to boot, giving us hope that we could enjoy another lazy Sunday with a pizza and brand new Arrested. And admittedly, I teared up when I heard that theme music again.
Standout Episode: “Colony Collapse”
American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
Well, this might seem like an obvious pick for me. I do write an obsessive recap of it every single week. But I’m certainly not alone. Coven, this iteration of the horror anthology American Horror Story, is the most successful yet – eminently GIF-able, surprisingly feminist, and twisted as all hell. Focusing on a coven of witches from all walks of life and centered in New Orleans, a town with a rich history of supernatural fun, Coven manages to be shocking and subversive every week, but still refuses to rest on shock value (see: Zoe’s murderbang skills, Queenie gettin’ it with a minotaur, a zombie three-way, or Kathy Bates’ head in a box). The show, run by maniacs Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, has depth to it too – they continue to write amazing parts for older women, and besides being the most fabulous creature on earth, Jessica Lange’s epic Fiona Goode manages to ground the show as well as elevate it. When she’s not flicking cigarettes onto witch pyres, Fiona is dying of an unnamed cancer, and Lange brings unexpected gravity to the show with impassioned monologues about her failures as a mother, her life of sin, and her own mortality. The show has also brought levity to the story of a real-life serial killer, Madame LaLaurie, by bringing her into the present day and making her a sad, confused, unintentionally hilarious old racist trying to change her ways who ends up as just a head propped up on a table, forced to watch Roots (don’t worry, she totally gets into it). The season isn’t over yet, just on break until January, and I literally cannot wait to see what new crazy it brings next.
Standout Episode: “Burn, Witch, Burn!”
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
In its first season, Masters of Sex has already done what many shows take a year or more to do – it’s found its groove. Easily dismissed before its premiere as a “Mad Men knockoff about sex,” simply because the two happen to be set in the same era, Masters defied expectations by not leaning on the cigarettes and costumes (which are fabulous), but by truly making a place for itself in television with great writing and broken boundaries. The show follows the real-life story of Masters and Johnson, pioneers of the study of sexuality – Dr. William Masters, a celebrated OB-GYN fascinated by the science of sex, joined forces with Virginia Johnson, a single mother who began as his secretary but soon began running his sex studies with him in secrecy. We do have a case of a real-life spoiler alert, since Masters and Johnson do end up married (and we’ve already seen their relationship begin with their “participation” in their own study), but not only is the show arriving at that point gradually and carefully, knowing this doesn’t lessen any of the relationships that the two are currently involved in – respectively, Masters’ wife Libby (played with graceful skill by the absolutely lovely Caitlin FitzGerald), or Virginia’s on-again, off-again lover Ethan (the dynamic Nicholas D’Agostino). The show brings in big names like Beau Bridges, as the closeted deacon, and Allison Janney, as his tortured wife (whose arc was nothing short of spectacular), but the brilliance lies in its two leads. Michael Sheen, as the cold and conflicted Masters, who is withdrawn about almost everything, is wonderful, but Lizzy Caplan as Virginia, a smart, willful single mother, wears the heart of the show on her sleeve. Plus, I guess it’s nice to see slightly less gratuitous sex scenes – it’s for science, you guys!
Standout Episode: “Brave New World”
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX)
Those who were concerned that Always Sunny would lose its edge, or just get less funny with age, can rest easy. The ninth (and possibly penultimate?) season of this screwed up, off-the-rails, semi-sitcom was just as deranged and riotous as the others, and experimented with new mediums this year while still firmly keeping things weird. The characters still haven’t changed one bit, and they’re still as mean, drunk and awful as ever, but I hope things always stay the same in Sunny‘s Philadelphia (which, disclaimer: it’s not a reality show. Philly is not filled with people like that, and their disgusting bar is a soundstage that’s not even here). The writers, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney (otherwise known as Charlie, Dennis and Mac), took some strange risks this season, which totally paid off, especially in “The Gang Saves the Day,” a trippy, hilarious episode about the gang being stuck in the middle of a hold-up at a convenience store, wherein none of them try to stop the holdup because they’re all too busy fantasizing about what would happen if they did (which is the absolute perfect way for this episode to happen). While the other character’s fantasies are funny but typical, Charlie’s has zero dialogue and is a fully-drawn cartoon, where he saves the day and marries the Waitress, spawning janitor and waitress babies. It’s just bizarre enough to totally work, especially considering Charlie’s illteracy. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the aforementioned showrunners of Game of Thrones, admitted long-time fans of the series, contributed an incredible “Flowers for Algernon”-themed episode centering around Charlie. This show relies on creative stasis, and it’s settled in beautifully.
Standout Episode: “Flowers for Charlie”
Breaking Bad (AMC)
What is there left to say about Breaking Bad? As the final season progressed, the fandom started to spread, creating a force to be reckoned with in cable television. This final season was an absolute perfect way to close off the epic story of Walter White, who truly plunges to the depths of pure evil at the climax of the season. The final episode “Felina” was definitely a divisive one, but it brought things to a close in the way they needed to. People are bound to still be catching up on this show since quite a lot of people are talking about it, but for good reason. Breaking Bad brought a kind of storytelling to television that hasn’t been seen before. It’s epic, it’s cinematic, it’s funny when it needs to be, it’s destined to be remembered as one of the greatest shows of all time.
Standout Episode: “Ozymandias.” To say anything about this episode would give too much away. But it’s brutal. Absolutely, devastatingly brutal.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
My vote for Best New Comedy of the Year, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has the potential to become the next big ensemble comedy in the same ballpark as The Office and Parks and Recreation. It helps that it has a hilarious ensemble cast who keep you laughing every single episode. Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, Stephanie Beatriz, and Chelsea Peretti are bring their comedic chops to the forefront to give this detective-comedy its’ own unique voice. Maybe not a completely revolutionary show, but if a show makes me consistently bust my gut, then I have no complaints.
Standout Episode: “Thanksgiving.” This is the episode that shows the ensemble at their best. Comedic gold.
Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
Move over, The Simpsons and Family Guy. We’ve got a new hilarious animated family in town. Now in their fourth season, Bob’s Burgers continues to bring it’s super weird, heartfelt, hilarious weirdness to FOX. That’s what makes the show so watchable; it’s so damn weird. The three Belcher children each have their own fascinating personalities that run rampant, Linda Belcher is a mother verging on insane, and Bob Belcher can barely get a grip on anything, and constantly delves into fits of rage. The adventures and relationships that run through the show all work because of the richness of the characters, and the voice actors behind them. They’re an odd bunch, but they love each other, in the strangest of ways. There’s no show as “out there” as Bob’s Burgers, and that’s why we love it.
Standout Episode: “Topsy.” Absolutely hilarious, absolutely insane, and the song “Electric Love” will get stuck in your head, I know it.
MasterChef Junior (FOX)
I’ve never been a big reality-television person, but damn it, I LOVED MasterChef Junior. And here’s why; kids are fucking honest. Much of the viewing experience of reality TV is whether or not an event is staged or not. But kids (even kids aged 8-12) will tell it like it is, and that’s what makes this show so fun to watch. We’re actually watching these kids learn and grow as chefs, and their interactions with Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot are purely genuine. You truly feel for these kids when they’re eliminated, but they’re also gaining valuable experience from working with these three adult chefs. It’s a competition you can actually care about, and one you can tell the kids care about too. I’m elated that they’re bringing it back for a second season, it’s the best reality contest out there right now.
Standout Episode: “Episode 3,” in which the kids try to make the perfect whipped cream that would stick to their bowls, and not fall and make a mess on the heads of the judges. You can guess what happens, and it’s hilarious.
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
It’s the best new show of the year. It’s one of the best shows in recent memory. My love for OITNB (much easier to type) knows no bounds. This is a show that knows how to pull you in and not let you go. It’s hilarious. It’s emotional. It’s damn scary at times. And the cast! My goodness, so many standout performances, I can’t even handle it. This is a show that, along with House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Derek (yes, I said it), proved that Netflix original programming is a force to be reckoned with. But OITNB stands above them all because of its honest storytelling, it’s beautiful and rich characters, and for its emotional truth throughout the run. There’s not much to say about the show without just showing you the whole first season right now. The era of Binge-Watching is upon us. And it begins with Piper Chapman and the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary.
Standout Episode: “Bora Bora Bora.” This is where the shit starts to go down. But I love the whole season, so just watch it all, it shouldn’t take you too long.