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The Best TV of 2014 So Far

From purple weddings to female perps, Rob Sheffield lists the highlights of an already abundant year of great TV

Time might be a flat circle, but 2014 is undeniably halfway over. Which means it's time to catch up with the year's TV highlights so far. The first half of 2014 has already produced more top-notch TV than any human being will have time to process in this particular calendar year.

Peter Travers on the Best and Worst Films of 2014 So Far

So here's a breakdown of my favorites. (Spoilers? Guaranteed!) This year the great stuff is all over the map: Groundbreaking dramas, dumb-ass comedies, dragon queens, yellow kings, celery kings, D.C. politicians, prison inmates, clone wars, tech geeks, slobs and stoners and spies. Like Bert Cooper says, the stars belong to everyone. By Rob Sheffield

Jaimie Trueblood

20

‘Silicon Valley’ (HBO)

The eternal California dream: A group of bros head West to make it big in the software biz, with Hooli as a cleverly detailed caricature of the Google campus in Mountain View. Silicon Valley makes you root for these geeks, along with their charisma-free basket case of a guru, Peter Gregory — played by the late Christopher Evans Welch, who died during filming. The ever-hilarious Martin Starr flashes the same contemptuous glare he had as the "hard sci-fi" guy on Party Down. When one housemate tries to organize everybody's work habits, directing them to think of their "tasks" as "stories," Starr barks, "I've got a story: Why don't you choke on my balls?"

BBC

19

‘The Musketeers’ (BBC America)

2014 has been full of bold, original dramas that aim to reinvent TV as we know it. This is not one of them. This is a bunch of French guys in stockings chasing each other with swords. It's the kind of over-the-top wig-and-costume romp you'd think BBC America could crank out in their sleep, juicing a story so foolproof it once made Chris O'Donnell seem watchable for a couple of hours. The Musketeers swash buckles and rip bodices all over the Paris of 1630, with a black Porthos and Doctor Who's Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor himself!) as the evil Cardinal Richilieu. Plus loads of Game of Thrones-style cynical wit. (One swordsman quips mid-duel: "Why fight fair when you might lose?") They're easily the kickiest Musketeers since the 1970s Richard Lester films where Raquel Welch got slapped around by Faye Dunaway.

Colleen Hayes/NBC

18

‘Parks and Recreation’ (NBC)

There are so many bold maneuvers packed into that final episode. But for my money, the real shocker of the entire season is Leslie finally discovering Ron Swanson's sax-playing, sonic-love-making alter ego Duke Silver. Why didn't he tell her about his music earlier? "Playing music is something I like to keep private. Along with my family, my conversations and my whereabouts at all times."

Comedy Central

17

‘Inside Amy Schumer’ (Comedy Central)

When people talk about "going there," what they mean by "there" is where Amy Schumer spends most of her freewheeling sketch show. I mean, her joke about "cyberbullying my niece" isn't even one of the 10 most shocking moments in the second episode alone. The instant-classic Call of Duty skit has Schumer playing a combat video game, where her experience as a female soldier takes a dark, dark turn. Comedy Central has certainly been on a roll lately, but Schumer's in a zone of her own, and let's hope she doesn't stop now. 

Matthias Clamer/FX

16

‘Fargo’ (FX)

Fargo gets off to a slow start — it takes a few episodes to find its feet and get out from under the shadow of the classic 1996 Coen Brothers film. But it's a welcome surprise as it develops into a thriller in its own right, with Billy Bob Thornton as the soft-spoken psycho running loose in the North Dakota snow. The big question: Are they going to work in a José Feliciano cameo? Because you know — José Feliciano, you got no complaints.

Jojo Whilden/HBO

15

‘Girls’ (HBO)

The third season had its ups and downs — most of the downs came toward the end. Hannah getting into the Iowa Writers' Workshop is precisely as believable as A.J. Soprano deciding to join the Army as a helicopter pilot. But "Beach House" and "Flo" are two of the comedy's most memorable episodes — Hannah doesn't spend much screen time with her dying Grandma Flo, but it's enough to make you think that Girls could only improve by regularly throwing some angry old ladies into the mix.

Patrick Eccelsine/FOX

14

‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ (Fox)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has to be the coolest TV scientist ever — on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, he's the Big Daddy Kane of astrophysics, flexing his bass rumble of a voice to explain black holes and atomic orbitals and time travel. He takes off in his Ship of the Imagination to explore the outer limits of human knowledge, from the Crab Nebula to the Virgo Supercluster. The new Cosmos totally lives up to the legacy of the much-beloved 1980 original, starring old-school groovy philosopher king Carl Sagan. And that's mostly because Tyson drops science like Galileo dropped the orange.

Eric McCandless/ABC Family

13

‘Pretty Little Liars’ (ABC Family)

Remember when the Liars girls thought they had A. all figured out? But then A. broke into Spencer's house and left a message, scrawled in lipstick on the mirror? "IT WON'T BE THAT EASY, BITCHES!" That's exactly how I feel watching Pretty Little Liars, because each batshit revelation in this convoluted psycho-mystery leaves me more baffled than ever about what the hell is going on here. But that's the point of PLL's uniquely surreal (and emotionally honest) pulp depiction of girldom and high school and adolescence in general. Spoiler time: The long-awaited "Season of Answers" held a doozy of a surprise. Alison, the dead friend at the heart of the mystery, is actually not really dead at all, leading to perhaps the finest line of dramatic dialogue uttered anywhere on TV this year: "God, I can't believe your mom buried you alive!" As for figuring out whatever the hell will happen in the just-started Season Five — it won't be that easy, bitches.

Patrick Harbron/Netflix

12

‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)

Like that other big Netflix binge-watching drama, House of Cards came back with a hell of a second season — all the acclaim for the first season cranked up the overall level of cockiness and daring. And as Senator-turned-Vice President Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey is nothing if not the embodiment of cockiness and daring. In fact, the whole lost decade the actor spent trying to play likeable guys now seems like it was all a bad dream. The D.C. political treachery took a leap forward, as Underwood's Second Lady, Robin Wright Penn, kept right up with him in terms of Machiavellian mind manipulation. Plus a cast of basic-cable all-stars: Look over here, it's Dr. Rapey from Mad Men as a slimy D.C. media flack. Or over there: A computer hacker played by Jackyl Onassis, the goth rock star from Party Down. But Spacey's the one you can't take your eyes off.

Scott Green/IFC

11

‘Portlandia’ (IFC)

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen keep expanding their satire of the boho life — like the Firesign Theatre skewering hippie culture in the Sixties, the Portlandia jesters specialize in making fun of their only conceivable audience. Their fourth season was full of brilliant surprises, especially the return of Steve Buscemi, this time as a celery salesman desperate to make his vegetable as cool as kale. But he can't do it without Armisen's mysterious Bacon Guy, the kingpin who decides which vegetables get to be hip. As an FBI agent explains, "Corn used to be America's vegetable. And then along comes Bacon and makes every vegetable from zucchini to celery sexier than corn."

Vivian Zink/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

10

‘Community’ (NBC)

This is the fifth time I've watched a Community season finale, but the first where I thought the show had a prayer of getting renewed for another season. (Like Abed explained, "If not, it'll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that's canon!") So naturally, this was where NBC pulled the plug. It's tough to see a beloved show end, but blaming the network would be like blaming owls for how much you suck at analogies. This was the right time to finish the story — Dan Harmon came back to give his Greendale crew a proper Viking burial, making up for the fiasco of last season's Harmon-less "gas leak year." It didn't hit the heights of the first three seasons, but as Annie would say, it put the cherry on top of this total lack of sundae. And the bang-up two-part finale was a reminder of why low-rated (but great) sitcoms are just like lame (but essential) friendships. That's canon!

KC Bailey/FX

9

‘Louie’ (FX)

After stretching out last season — opening up emotionally as well as formally, looking for adventure in locales like Miami or China or that rooftop with Parker Posey — Louis C.K. closes ranks and goes dark with radical moves like his six-part mini-film with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin. Practically every scene dares you to turn it off in favor of something easier to take. It's the show's artiest, harshest, most experimental, most hostile, most unaccomodating, most stubborn, most claustrophobic, most egocentric, least comical and most divisive run to date. In short, it's Louie's most extreme season — which is what makes it extremely Louis C.K.-like.

BBC

8

‘Orphan Black’ (BBC America)

Like Pretty Little Liars in so many ways (even if there isn't much demographic overlap), this science-fiction sleeper is a hallucinatory fable about identity meltdown — all the dangers and risks of becoming a girl, becoming a woman, becoming human in a society that's like one big clone club. The second season saw the clone sisters (Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Helena) on the run from the evil Dyad Institute, with all these different clones played marvelously by Tatiana Maslany. Orphan Black never pauses to catch its breath, and each episode throws in way too much plot for anyone to follow. But as Jordan Gavaris' scene-stealing assless-chaps-wearing Felix likes to say, you can't hide in minimalist furniture. And there's nothing minimal about this show.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

7

‘Veep’ (HBO)

"Mississippi is chock full of assholes, I don't trust the Chinese and I gotta tell you something: I'm not gonna be able to pass a single piece of legislation that's really gonna make any fuck of a difference in your life." With a platform like this, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Vice President Selina Meyer is clearly the leadership America needs — at least on the amazing third season of Armando Iannucci's political satire, which just keeps getting faster and louder and nastier as it gets more preposterous. Spoiler ahead: The finale's big twist, defying all narrative logic and all viewer expectation, saw Selina bumble her way to the Presidency. And while this hopefully gives her some power to implement her domestic agenda ("God, I would love to fuck a firefighter") she still manages to finish third in the New Hampshire primary. As she snarls, "Even the Nazis came in second." And Timothy Simons' Jonah continues to be Jonah, even when he's working on his "hashtag hurricane" of a blog.

Craig Blankenhorn/FX

6

‘The Americans’ (FX)

This FX show got even stronger and sadder in its second season, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as married deep-cover Russian spies living in Chocolate City's vanilla suburbs in the early Eighties. The period detail is part of the pathos: Rhys is truly the quintessential American dad of 1982, with his sideburns, turtlenecks and morose Don McLean eyes. The geopolitical dread gets even scarier if you happen to watch while reading Eric Schlosser's disturbing new arms-race history, Command and Control. And the whole cast remains top-to-bottom great, especially Annet Mahendru and Noah Emmerich as mismatched agents who find that falling in love and working deep cover are often the exact same thing.

Netflix

5

‘Orange Is the New Black’ (Netflix)

You might gobble this in one binge-watching marathon, but as Maureen Dowd learned about pot candy bars, some things are best consumed one mind-blowing bite at a time. It didn't seem possible that Orange Is The New Black could duplicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the first season, but Season Two somehow managed to surpass it, bringing in new characters and new stories. Lorraine Touissant's Vee went up against Kate Mulgrew's Red, while characters we already thought we knew (like Samira Wiley's Poussey) took on new roles. And as it turns out, Yael Stone's Morello has an even sadder story than anybody guessed.

HBO

4

‘True Detective’ (HBO)

"Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at." Unfortunately for Rust Cohle, he's good at being Rust Cohle, which means all he can do is obsess over darkness and death until it eats him up. True Detective is a virtuoso two-man show: the never-sweatier Woody Harrelson and the never-gaunter Matthew McConaughey, who both outdo anything they've ever attempted before. It's full of brilliant little Southern Gothic details that flicker by in a second — like the way the jukebox plays a Creedence song, but the typed label on the jukebox spells it "Clarence Clearwater Revival." As McConaughey's Rust is fond of saying, "Time is a flat circle," which maybe explains how Harrelson's girlfriend from Banshee manages to invent nude-selfie sexting on a flip phone circa 2002.

Linda Kallerus

3

‘Broad City’ (Comedy Central)

My new life coaches Abbi and Ilana are two people I've been waiting to meet on TV for years now. Abbi: "What's an Arc de Triomphe?" Ilana: "It's when two dudes go down on us, butt to butt, and then you and I do Oprah hands." These BFFs are so into each other they don't care if the rest of the world sees them as "violently high" loser nitwits, which is what makes Broad City (based on their series of web shorts) the sublimest comedy around. Oh, that final scene — Abbi and Ilana in the hospital bed, eating some leftover chocolate cake and talking about their bucket list, which ranges from "visit a pug farm" to "be able to squirt." At first I was horrified by the blasé way they listen while poor Mr. Rosenberg in the next bed dies, but the more I watch that scene, the more moving it seems. If I ever have to die in a hospital, that's how I want to go — with two stoner chicks in the next bed, sharing cake and talking about squirting. 

Michael Yarish/AMC

2

‘Mad Men’ (AMC)

This space oddity of a Mad Men mini-season got a little lost at times, with too many Kubrick homages. But it all came together at the end,in a perfect episode where everything clicked — including the Kubrick homages. True, the seven-episode format doesn't suit a slow-burning drama like Mad Men. But two of these episodes rank with the best ever: Don Draper's road trip with Sally and the just-plain-magnificent finale. Spoilers ahead: Peggy Olson finally takes charge. Bert Cooper goes shuffling in his socks to join Miss Blankenship at the Montana cattle ranch in the sky, where he is no doubt devising otherworldly tortures for Dr. Lyle Evans. Roger Sterling wakes up and starts acting like a boss, after sleepwalking through most of the last two seasons. Freddy Rumsen gets his Yoda on. Pete Campbell yells things. Sally shares a patty melt and some secrets with her dad. Megan keeps trying to justify her absurdly prolonged existence on this show with some short skirts. And Don, that sensitive piece of horse flesh, finally gets back to work, with some musical coaching from Ghost Bert. Bravo.

Helen Sloan/HBO

1

‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)

If TV shows are the new bands, and seasons are new albums, Game of Thrones' epic fourth season was on some Led Zeppelin IV shit. Each GoT go-round has been like the corresponding Zep record: the powerhouse debut, the crowd-pleasing follow-up, the daring new directions of the third. And now this one, where every song/episode is a legend unto itself. Each week's twists and turns made you wonder how the next chapter could possibly match what came before. Previously useless characters rose to the occasion. (Even Sansa de-Skylered!) Arya Stark took over as the secret hero, the way Sally Draper is the secret hero of Mad Men, while the Lannister family's battle-of-evermore conflict exploded. Beloved characters met horrible deaths, often at the hands of other beloved characters. And in that massive "When The Levee Breaks" of a finale, Tyrion and Arya reached their own got-to-move moments. Going down, going down down. Here's to next year. 

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