A pall hung over the TV bazaar this year. There were passings both major (James Garner, Joan Rivers, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and minor (Pugsley from The Addams Family, Reuben from The Partridge Family, the Professor from Gilligan's Island). The medium's Dowager Countess, Barbara Walters, stepped down from The View. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was yanked for getting a little too real. And our usual escape outlets - sports and comedy - were denied us. ESPN went OCD, fixating on LeBron James for half the year and Ray Rice for the remainder. There simply were no good new sitcoms (with the qualified exception of Black-ish).
All that only makes TV's 2014 highlights that much more precious. Let's go to the videotape.
THE 10 BEST
True Detective (HBO) Yes, Matthew McConaughey gave a spellbinding performance as an angel-dusted cop. And as his partner, Woody Harrelson more than held up his end of the bargain. But it was the freaky tension of this eight-episode triumph - a pitched descent into the heart of darkness in a Louisiana choked with atmosphere - that made the first season of this anthology series the year's most electrifying experience for viewers.
The Ultimate Fighter (FS1) In its 20th go 'round the Octagon, the mixed martial arts tourney was for the first time made up of all women. There was drama in the communal house, thanks to colorful personalities like Rose "Thug" Namajunas, tears in the training room, memorable battles, and at the end, a deserving UFC champion (Carla Esparza, the Tiny Tornado) was crowned. Women are warriors!
The Missing (Starz) This searing eight-part British import focused on a couple whose 5-year-old disappears while they are vacationing in France. James Nesbitt was riveting as the frantic father still pursuing the case doggedly years later. A compelling mystery with superb supporting performances by Frances O'Connor and Tchéky Karyo.
Homeland (Showtime) When The Good Wife lost Josh Charles, a key member of the ensemble, the show went on. When Homeland lost its star, Damian Lewis, the series somehow got better. That was due in part to the change of venue - from the Beltway to Kabul (a posting Carrie took so she could dump the care of her baby daughter on her sister!) and on to Islamabad - and in part on the development of Rupert Friend's Quinn as the dashing, deeply conflicted male lead.
The Honorable Woman (Sundance) Hugo Blick did a brilliant job writing and directing this political thriller. But it was Maggie Gyllenhaal's incandescent (and Golden Globe-nominated) performance as Nessa Stein - a woman with noble ideals and shocking secrets - that made this eight-part British drama unforgettable. Stephen Rea was also pretty smashing as an MI6 spymaster.
The Newsroom (HBO) From the start, this was a show the critics loved to hate. But Jeff Daniels gave a towering performance as an arrogant cable news anchor at a career crossroads. Thanks to Aaron Sorkin's sonorous writing, The Newsroom was always operating in a verbal gear higher than any TV show since Gilmore Girls. Its third, final, and best season was smart, funny, provocative, and sentimental - terrific TV.
Kingdom (DirecTV) Who would have thought a gritty drama about a severely dysfunctional family set in an MMA training gym in Venice, Calif., would turn out to be so mesmerizing? Kingdom was the TV year's greatest, most-overlooked surprise, thanks to a cast (Frank Grillo, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Lauria, Joanna Going, Kiele Sánchez, and boy-group singer Nick Jonas) fighting well above its weight class.
The Soup (E!) This clip-filled satire has always gone after TV's lowest-hanging fruit. Originally, it was titled Talk Soup, since it was feasting primarily on the glut of silly chat shows in the '90s. But it has changed its diet to today's ubiquitous reality shows. Has The Soup gotten funnier this year as it adopted a live format? Or has TV just gotten much stupider? Survey says. . . .
Chrisley Knows Best (USA) It's reminiscent of The Office: Todd Chrisley and his henpecked Georgia brood could be a sitcom cast pretending they're in a reality show. Dad never seems to go to work, so the display-model family can engage in nonstop high jinks and mixups straight out of Growing Pains. It's also crazy entertaining, missing only a wacky neighbor lady and a laugh track.
The People's Couch (Bravo) The premise (naturally, copied from a British show): You watch people who are watching TV. That's it. A diverse cross-section of folks gathers in small groups in living rooms (and in one case, a bed) to react to, question, disparage, and laugh at a different batch of programs each week. Now in its second season, The People's Couch is consistently lively, ingeniously executed, and inconceivably entertaining.
Honorable Mention Silicon Valley (HBO); Parenthood (NBC); Chasing Life (ABC Family); Suits (USA); The Eric Andre Show (Adult Swim); Modern Family (ABC); The Divide (WE TV); The Good Wife (CBS); Drunk History (Comedy Central); The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC).
THE 5 WORST
Utopia (Fox) This misbegotten "social experiment" assembled a grotesque cross-section of humanity, trying their darnedest to impede and provoke each other. I get quite enough of that at work, thank you very much.
Eaten Alive (Discovery) There isn't a snake in this world big enough to swallow some clown in a diving suit from the '50s. Wonder whether the poor anaconda they recruited to try can file suit against the channel?
The Assets (ABC) This period drama about CIA agents' hunting for a mole in the agency was pulled after two episodes. Maybe because it was such a dull and inert carbon copy of FX's The Americans.
The Leftovers (HBO) A talented cast and crew were wasted in this grim, airless, and thoroughly depressing series based on a vague premise (a random 2 percent of humanity had vanished three years prior) that never made sense.
Candidly Nicole (VH1) Perhaps it's wrong to call this vacuous vanity project the embodiment of all that is wrong with reality TV. But it sure is tempting. Nicole Richie, the little lady with the hair color not found in nature, mugged for the cameras in situations at once pampered and contrived.