While the new fall line-up wasn’t too impressive (there are only two freshman series on this list, neither of which premiered in the fall) and former powerhouses have stumbled (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire), this is still an amazing time for TV. The most outstanding programs don’t just have excellent writing and actors, they’re reinventing genres and challenging viewers with daring storytelling. TV is gutsier now (sometimes literally gutsier with blood and innards all over the place) and its fantastic.
When compiling this list, I chose the shows that sparked visceral reactions. These are the comedies, dramas, and (often overlooked) animated gems that made me laugh out loud, cringe, cry like an idiot, or yell “oh snap” at every wild turn.
12. Gravity Falls
This funny Disney Channel cartoon is like a light, kid version of The X-Files. 12-year-old twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) live with their eccentric “Grunkel” Stan–the proprietor of a very bizarre museum–and in every episode face some supernatural phenomenon or creature (gnomes masquerading as a human boy, sentient wax statues, and other oddball monsters abound). Like Adventure Time and Regular Show, Gravity Falls–which premiered in 2012–is one of those surprisingly clever children’s shows that never panders to its audience and can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age.
But it’s also warm, filled with the sorts of positive messages that are important for the youngin’s–in the episode “Dipper vs. Manliness,” Dipper ends up rejecting problematic male stereotypes, arrives at his own self-determined notion of masculinity, and then grows a single, adorable chest hair. What’s more, there are hilarious background detail gags, the playfully eerie title music is one of the best instrumental themes on TV today, and there’s a cool interactive element–there are cryptograms in the end credits. Seriously, this show is just too much fun.
Phenom writer Lena Dunham’s candid comedy about New York City “Millennials” is critical of all the entitlement and pretension of the 20-somethings that it revolves around but that critique is presented in a subtle and loving way. The things that make Dunham’s aspiring writer Hannah off-putting (egocentrism, globalizing tiny dilemmas) are also the things that make her much easier to identify with and more complex than, say, Carrie Bradshaw, as well as one of the most interesting characters (irrespective of gender or age) on TV.
In its debut season, the titular girls tackled problems as diverse as HPV, mooching off of parents, career woes, and errant “dick pic” text messages–all of it presented with great wit and bold realism.
10. Parks and Recreation
Disillusioned by cynical sitcoms? Tired of the curmudgeons? Then “treat yo self” and give this goofy but emotionally sincere comedy a chance. The plucky idealism of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was a relief this year–a much needed counterweight to a lot of the mean humor that we see so often these days. The most captivating part of this reliably hilarious show continues to be the development of the relationships between Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott) and, on the opposite end of the maturity spectrum, April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt)–the young, reckless married couple who have a loving and strange bond that becomes more amusing with each season. Really, the cutest, most endearing couples on TV are on this show and that became abundantly clear this year.
The BBC’s mystery series puts a sleek 21st century spin on the classic Holmes tales while maintaining the integrity and intrigue of the source material. The show also undoubtedly had a hand in turning its two leads into bankable film stars (both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are in The Hobbit and Cumberbatch will be in next year’s Star Trek into Darkness).
Series two was as droll and sharp as the show’s debut, presenting us with a disarmed Holmes engaging in a game of cat and mouse with “the woman,” Irene Adler. We’ve seen a couple of different Sherlock’s in recent years, both on the big and small screens, but Cumberbatch’s sly, charming, kind of dickish incarnation is dependably riveting and surely the definitive Sherlock of this generation.