Few shows know exactly what they are from the start. And even fewer can maintain that vision beyond its pilot. From Shondaland graduate Peter Nowalk and fronted by the immaculate Viola Davis, Murder is a balls-out, melodramatic soap that is keenly aware of the benefits of delivering answers and suspense (did you see that midseason finale ending?!) at breakneck speed. It's intense, preposterous and has helped make #TGIT the 21st century Must-See TV.
Everyone wants to be meta these days, but few seem to be able to maintain a winking playfulness with a true reverence for what they're doing. Drag Race always masters that balance, but what really elevated Season 6 to a new level was the sheer amount of shade, darling! Bianca del Rio was reading from her Rolodex of Hate left and right, whether the library was open or not. And for those who prefer their queens bitchy but a little rough around the edges, Adore Delano provided the perfect Sharon Needles to Bianca's Chad Michaels. Watching these fierce queens and their drag sisters take on some of Drag Race's most iconic challenges, including the genius "Oh No She Betta Don't" and one of the best Snatch Games we've seen, Season 6 had almost more charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent than we could handle.
It's uncommon for the most popular show on TV to also be a critics' favorite, and after a rough patch, The Walking Dead seemed headed for that territory. But in 2014 the AMC drama became more than an exercise in how to kill zombies. The show broadened (and, more importantly, diversified) its cast with stronger actors, and executive producer Scott M. Gimple became more willing to follow background characters on their own side adventures and turn them into vital players. But the most notable change was the show's pacing and momentum. Perhaps realizing that sitting around on a farm is boring, the show began blowing through plot, as evidenced by killing off Season 5's supposed "big bad" by Episode 3. And between the headshots and zombie barbecues, viewers still get to watch our hero Rick wrestle with the monster within him. With quality like this, the show deserves its huge audience.
Though it didn't receive as much attention as, say, House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black, the underrated Bojack Horseman is yet another fantastic entry in Netflix's lineup of original series. Employing the rapid-fire, top-notch brand of humor on shows like Arrested Development and Archer, Bojack follows the title character (voiced by Will Arnett), a washed-up '90s sitcom star who's struggling to both stay relevant and pen his memoir. Oh, and he's a horse. The premise may seem a bit off-putting, but just trust us on this one. We, too, never thought an animated equine could make us laugh and cry (occasionally at the same time), and we're thrilled to have been proven wrong.
Few shows needed a creative reboot more than Homeland, and after (mostly) moving on from Brody's death, the show's fourth season has been all the stronger for it. (The season's biggest stumbles have involved Brody's baby and Carrie's drug-fueled hallucination of her former lover.) Claire Danes remains a dazzling mix of dogged determination and frustrating irrationality, and even as she takes the character to impossible-to-root-for territory, it's hard to take your eyes off her. Plus: Moving the action to Islamabad instantly raised the stakes and has provided a backdrop for some of the show's most tense episodes to date. With the Brody love story (hopefully) dead and buried, the show has been able to focus on the toll the war on terror takes on those fighting it. That's what the show was always meant to do, and this year, Homeland's been great at it.
Best known for the loud, brash and utterly stupid Beavis and Butt-head, Mike Judge pulled a 180 with this intelligent yet understated tech satire. Pulling from his previous life as a programmer, Judge and skilled comedians like Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr and Zach Woods have created a hilarious world of lovable, relatable oddballs even when half of their computer-savvy vocabulary is incomprehensible to the average TV viewer. But those unfamiliar should not be scared off by the HTML-heavy dialogue -- there's still plenty of time for penis and fart jokes to go around.
We'll admit it: The title and the premise made us pause at first, but this charming series is perhaps the biggest surprise of the season. Not only is Gina Rodriguez a stand-out, but the supporting cast equally holds their own, keeping us invested in Jane's love triangle, which often has us rooting for both guys. Her new, awkward yet endearing relationship with her birth father Rogelio and her sweet, insanely close and emotionally charged dynamics with her single mom Xo and insanely religious grandma are also wonderfully sketched. Yes, at times the on-screen graphics, voiceovers and music can be cheesy, but with so many shows about sex and scandal and the supernatural, it's refreshing to find one with a heck of a lot of heart.
Amber's surprise pregnancy. Zeek's health issues. Joel and Julia's continued estrangement. It's been a rough season so far for one of TV's most beloved families, but like always, the Bravermans are best under pressure. Although a few of show's stars have been a little MIA this season (will the real Adam Braverman please stand up?), it's given way for younger cast members like Max Burkholder and Miles Heizer to shine. Even Ray Romano, the most recent addition to the cast, has won over the hearts of #TeamMark fans everywhere. There are truly few ensembles as big and as talented as Parenthood, which makes the show's imminent farewell all the more tear-inducing.
Impeccably directed by Steven Soderbergh, this hauntingly beautiful 1900s medical drama about the creation of "modern medicine" looks unlike anything else on TV. Anchored by Clive Owen's twitchy, charismatic performance as cocaine-addicted Chief of Surgery John Thackery, the show explores race, gender and class in between its bloody horror shows in the surgical theater. Soderbergh's chilly style is well-suited to a show that is as much about death as anything else, but thanks to Thackery's desire to move medicine forward, the show does have a beating heart. (And no, we're not just talking about Cliff Martinez's propulsive electronic score.)
Game of Thrones had a huge task in its fourth season: topping that infamous Red Wedding massacre in Season 3. Although the HBO fantasy series didn't quite reach those bloody heights (thank the gods!), it nevertheless had its share of heart-pounding moments, ranging from the schadenfreude-filled death of teen tyrant Joffrey to the Tyrion's impassioned courtroom speech. But it was the brash, brilliant Red Viper (Pedro Pascal), who stole every scene, and it's a testament to the series' ability to build character that a newcomer we only just met (and then said farewell to) this season will be so sorely missed.
Has any show been consistently good as long as Mad Men has? In the first half of its final season, AMC's flagship drama remained impeccably written and acted as the show charted Don's climb back to the top, only to wallop viewers with the question of why is "the top" worth fighting for? Although it featured a number of memorable moments (Megan and Don's awful threesome, Bert Coopers postmortem song-and-dance, and, of course, Ginsberg's severed nipple), the half-season's greatest achievement was watching Peggy fully come into her own and pitch the hell out of Burger Chef. Don passed the torch, but not without finally patching things up with his former protégé as they shared a touching slow dance. It's a moment that only works because of the seven years that came before -- and it's a marvelous achievement.
The acclaimed CBS drama underwent a major creative renaissance last year. But although stellar episodes like "Hitting the Fan" and "The Decision Tree" set the bar high, the second half of Season 5 delivered an emotional blow like no other when Will Gardner (the dearly missed Josh Charles) was killed in a shocking courtroom bloodbath. The subsequent performances from the show's leading ladies, Julianna Margulies, Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi, were layered, nuanced, and simply heartbreaking. But the boys have hit plenty of homeruns too: the sudden twist to put Cary behind bars has given way to some of Matt Czuchry's best work yet and Alicia's decision to run for state's attorney has brought Eli back into fine form, while also introducing yet another new side to Alicia: the diplomatic and manipulative politician. We approve!
Let's be honest: OITNB's second season was not as great as it's first. But that's like saying Kobe Bryant isn't as great as Michael Jordan. By taking the focus away from Piper, undoubtedly one of the series' least likable characters, the show put its strongest foot forward: the other inmates. The backstories on Poussey, Taystee, Crazy Eyes and Morello, while sometimes absurd, enriched the world of Orange and sometimes even made us like Piper a little bit more. That's the power of association.
Louie's much-anticipated fourth season was divisive, to put it lightly. It started with him punching a woman with a face, moved on to a questionable monologue about fat girls and ended with him attempting to rape his friend Pamela, with whom he then ended up. While all these issues were picked apart, it's impossible not to admire the fact that Louis C.K. turned a 30-minute comedy into a platform to explore serious and intensely complicated issues. This season was uncomfortable, unsatisfying and sometimes offensive, but that was the point. And even if you don't agree with how Louie approached these discussions, at least he got people talking.
A drama about adults and adultery, Showtime's provocative new drama turns its gimmicky premise -- the titular affair is recounted from the unique perspectives of the man and woman embroiled in it -- into an exploration of the reliability of memory and self-perception. Anchored by tremendous performances from Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as the forbidden lovers (Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson are no slouches as their respective spouses either) and spiced up with a slow-burn crime mystery, the show cleverly comments on how we create the voids in our lives -- and what we do to fill them.
It would've been easy for Veep to rest on its laurels and serve out the remainder of its term with Selina cursing out her ho-hum No. 2 gig. But like any power-hungry politico, the comedy went all in with Selina running for president. Led by the unimpeachable Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the superb narrative move (and that finale twist to get her into office) unlocked new neuroses among Selina's camp and provided uncharted terrain for Armando Iannucci & Co. savagely mock politics and us. Yes, us, because no show is a more shrewd indictment of our culture without being obvious and while being completely hilarious than Veep. Also, just watch this.
Even fans of the 1996 Fargo Coen brothers film were wary of the idea of a spin-off series. How could it possibly do justice to that special brand of quirky darkness? Those fears were quickly laid to rest by writer Noah Hawley and a cast game enough to deliver note-perfect black humor with that "Aw jeez!" flair. Billy Bob Thornton's villainous turn was both frightening and funny, which, oddly enough can also be said for Martin Freeman, whose mouse of a character had a bad habit of losing wives to bloody fates. At turns brutal, audacious and silly, Fargo was a cold, wintry treat that warmed our TV-watching souls.
Anchored by powerhouse performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, this cerebral, moody masterpiece reinforced the idea that smart, satisfying storytelling doesn't require bombshells and reveals galore. Creator Nic Pizzolato's dark vision was brought to life by the masterful direction of Cary Fukunaga, and the partnership created a serial killer story that couldn't have cared less about its serial killer. Argue if you will about whether the show promised more flat circles than it could deliver, but its exploration of human behavior and the age-old notion of good versus evil is what has stayed with us long since Marty and Rust stared at the stars.
If Orange Is the New Black challenged our preconceptions about how gender and sexuality are represented on TV shows, then Transparent absolutely shattered them. It's possible that Jeffrey Tambor may have found, at age 70, his career-defining role in Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman who's slowly learning to embrace her identity, but the show is also anchored by achingly honest performances from the entire cast, including Gaby Hoffmann, Judith Light and Amy Landecker. While not every viewer may be able to relate to specific story lines, the show as a whole exposes universal (and sometimes unflattering) truths about what drives families apart and brings them back together. And, as in many actual families, you end up loving and rooting for the characters even while you're simultaneously loathing them.
There is no show that sits with you quite like Hannibal. Lush and terrifying, Bryan Fuller's intoxicating rendering of Thomas Harris' classic franchise is a cinematic feast for the senses, from the oddly beautiful murder tableaux to Hannibal's mouth-watering dinner spreads to the moody score. But more stunningly, the show is a brilliant psychological tango between Hugh Dancy's Will and Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal -- made even better by Season 2's cat-and-mouse role reversal -- that's rewriting the serial killer genre as we speak. It's a show that's not just rare on network TV, but all of TV.