My top TV shows of 2014

Golden age indeed. These days, TV is up there with film in terms of quality of story, well written and believable characters and – in some cases – almost cinematic production values. And this year was a mightily good year when it came to a night on the sofa with the latest ‘must watch’ show.

From crime and fantasy dramas and zombies everywhere, to Victorian witches and oversexed vampires, here are the shows that rocked my world and floated my boat this year.

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Penny Dreadful: season 1
With a cast including Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Harry Treadaway and Josh Hartnett, this show surpassed expectations with a host of intriguing characters and powerhouse performances, particularly from Green. Every time she went into possessed demonic mode the show went up a few notches.

Fargo: season 1
Martin Freeman as a timid insurance salesman from Minnesota up against Billy Bob Thornton’s enigmatic mobster hitman. As an idea for a TV show this was perhaps an odd gamble, yet one that paid off. No doubt down to the superb writing and outstanding performances. Freeman again proving to people just how good he really is.

The Leftovers: season 1
There’s so much beauty in grief and suffering, yet it’s rarely shown in such a captivating manner. Here it was brought to life by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta – with a fine lead performance from Justin Theroux – in a story that charted the lives of a group of people, following the disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population.

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Game of Thrones: season 4
As the Starks, Lannisters and all other families grow further apart, each on quests of their own, the story and world of Westeros and beyond expands. This makes it tougher and tougher for the show’s writers and creators, still they deliver, with possibly the most visually stunning and emotionally engaging season so far.

Walking Dead: season 5
As it stands, we’ve only had the first half before the show hit its mid season break. It’s been good though, watching Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes slowly but surely lose his humanity, as he’s faced first with cannibals then just the general dregs of mankind that seem to now inhabit the earth and plague him at every turn.

The Strain: season 1
File this under ‘guilty pleasure’ TV. From the creepy and fantastical minds of Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro, this show (which started life as a novel, then a graphic novel) has vampires portrayed as parasites, causing chaos in New York as a small band of average heroes try to stop them, with varying degrees of success.

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Homeland: season 4
With Brody (Damien Lewis) out of the picture Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) took centre stage this season as Chief of Station in an increasingly volatile Pakistan, on the hunt for terrorists. With drones, torture, kidnap and diplomatic backstabbing, this latest outing proved to be a marked return to form.

Forever: season 1
More guilty pleasure TV, this time in the form of a sort of mashup of Highlander meets CSI with Ioan Gruffudd’s immortal medical examiner solving murder cases in New York. Given the morbid subject, it’s an upbeat and easy watch. Thanks in part to the breezy chemistry between Gruffudd and his detective partner, played by Alana de la Garza.

True Blood: season 7
The final hurrah for this show was something of an anticlimax – or a least more of a sombre tone than its predecessors. However you have to give it credit for the seasons that went before, yet it just didn’t have the same verve and bite (ha!) after the show’s creator, Alan Ball, left after the fifth season.

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True Detective: season 1
McConaughey at the height of his powers turned his attention to TV for this deeply intense, brooding miniseries. One where he played the maverick detective to Woody Harrelson’s more straight arrow (albeit, with problems of his own) cop, both tracking down a serial killer over a period of many years.

24: Live Another Day
Despite a concern knawing away at you that this show probably should have ended some time ago, it’s risen from the ashes… so we’ll have to live with it. For the latest season it halved the number of episodes for a leaner, tighter story, with Jack Bauer legging it around London looking for people to beat up.

The Leftovers: season one review

The brainchild of novelist Tom Perrotta and brought to the small screen with the help of Damon Lindelof (the chap that drove most of us mad with frustration for years with Lost), The Leftovers was an unexpectedly beautiful and tragically poignant portrayal of the way society – and the world at large – copes with loss on a massive yet distinctly personal scale.

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The show begins with an event in which a significant portion (2%) of the world’s population vanishes in an instant, never to be seen again. The show isn’t too concerned with explaining where these people have gone, but more so with how the people left behind deal with life moving forward. Hence… The Leftovers.

To give the story an anchor (and focus) it’s largely told from the point of view of the Garvey family, particularly the Chief of Police Kevin (Justin Theroux), an amazingly complex (and thoroughly conflicted) individual.

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The rest of the cast includes Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and father (Scott Glenn), the former Chief of Police; Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a mother who lost her entire family during the event; her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a local priest who cannot reconcile his beliefs with what has happened; Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), a lady recently converted to local cult the Guilty Remnant, led by the resolute Patti Nevin (Ann Dowd).

At first, like a lot of people, I felt confused then indignant when I realised we’d not be shown what happened to those that vanished. You have to imagine that this was a conscious decision by the show’s creators, forcing viewers to experience similar emotions that those coping with – and trying to understand – the nature of loss might arguably go through.

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As avid (or resentful) fans of Lost are quick to point out, if you know Lindelof’s work you’ll know he likes to leave telling clues throughout his shows. Make no mistake though, clues is about all this shares with Lost. This is, through and through, a character study of a group of troubled individuals trying to live out their lives. But there is a constant stream of what could be clues, or at least suggestive imagery throughout.

A standout performance worth mentioning is Theroux’s Kevin Garvey, a self-confessed ‘bad guy’, despite (or because of?) his position of power as police chief. With a wife who’s joined the Guilty Remnant and wants a divorce through to a daughter with whom he cannot connect, a son on the run from the law and a father who’s been locked up on insanity charges, Kevin barely holds it together throughout the season, slightly unravelling with each episode.

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You could say his family represents a microcosm of the town at large and their problems, beliefs and conflict. Nora is another brilliant character. Utterly consumed with grief at the loss of her family she goes to some very dark places during the season, with Carrie Coon putting in a raw and unflinching performance.

Perrotta and Lindelof probably pose more questions than answers with this show. Where did the people go who vanished? Did they deserve to go? Are the ones that stayed the lucky or unlucky ones? Initially I found this story a difficult one to connect with, it’s sombre, loaded with grief and the characters are hard to like or understand. Yet, if you stick with it, you’ll find it gradually unfurls into something naunced, introspective, beautiful and very, very human.