Radio Times Top 40 TV Shows of 2014: 40 to 31

The countdown starts here... find out which of the year's best programmes made our critics' list

40 Mad Men Sky Atlantic
Following the example of Breaking Bad, Mad Men is splitting its final series into two. But Mad Men is not Breaking Bad: it’s built around mood rather than cliffhangers, and just as the first seven episodes built up some steam they were over. Nevertheless, the writing remained the most expertly crafted on television and Jon Hamm’s performance is so consistently brilliant, you stop noticing. As the 1970s approached and the sideburns got longer, Don Draper drooped lower than ever. Will the final episodes next year see him redeemed or, to paraphrase another 1960s icon, has it all been small steps before a giant leap? JH


39 The Good Wife More4
The legal saga is hugely popular in the US and deserves better ratings than it gets over here on More4: it’s glossy, addictive and five seasons in, it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s getting better and better. With Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick – the spouse of a corrupt politician who returns to work after a very public sex-scandal – The Good Wife’s clever, gripping stories have become heart-wrenchingly sad on occasion. Plus it’s full of powerful, no-nonsense women, in and out of the courtroom. EWA

38 Educating the East End C4
Why mess with a winning formula? The award-winning series turned its attention to the Frederick Bremer School in London’s Walthamstow, where new headteacher Jenny Smith – happy to dress up as a cuddly animal when necessary – walked the corridors monitoring her live-wire students and miracle-working staff. And while there was no particular “Musharaf moment” this season, there were still powerful stories, as the scarily eloquent teenagers struggled with family pressures, getting through their GCSEs, and burgeoning relationships with the opposite sex, while new teachers and old experienced challenges and successes. Tears, political machinations and the transformative power of music all played a part. GC

37 Murdered by My Boyfriend BBC3
Nobody who saw this stark drama, based on a real-life case, will forget it. We knew from the start that gentle, beautiful Ashley (Georgina Campbell) would die at the hands of her obsessive new love Reece (a phenomenally brave performance by Royce Pierreson). We didn’t want to believe it, and we shared the abject desperation of Ashley’s friends as they saw what was happening but couldn’t change it. A clear-eyed gut-wrencher that was deservedly repeated several times, it did much to raise awareness about the unique horror of domestic violence. Will anyone take a chance and make such incredibly worthwhile one-offs for young adults once BBC3 is shunted onto iPlayer? JS

36 In the Flesh BBC3
It seems ludicrous to think that In the Flesh has gone the way of all flesh, after just two short but smart series. Avoiding the moaning slasheramas of zombie convention, Dominic Mitchell’s intelligent drama – following sufferers of a condition called Partially Deceased Syndrome – never forgot its humanity. Mitchell infused the bleak premise with heart, humour and a covert attack on bigotry. A largely unknown cast was headed by Luke Newberry as our undead hero Kieren, who became a pallid poster boy for BBC3. The channel’s migration to an online ID leaves the future uncertain for the winner of our TV Champion readers’ poll. It totally deserves to liveMB

35 Utopia C4
Series two of C4’s most arresting thriller ever was feverishly hyped by the channel, and it didn’t disappoint. Those hoping to be led in gently with a recap of events were shown no mercy by an unusual opening episode, set 30 years in the past and containing none of the actors from the first series. Vividly stylised in hues of yellow and green, sometimes hard to follow and frequently hard to stomach, Utopia felt like a much-needed punch in the face to all that is hackneyed and complacent in contemporary TV drama. GR

34 Would I Lie to You? BBC1
On the face of it, the formula for WILTY? is childishly simple. Celebs and comedians reveal daft things about themselves that may or may not be true. As formats go, it’s a feather duster, an airy nothing. Yet there’s no panel game on TV that so reliably creases you up. The battle of wits between David Mitchell and Lee Mack – or rather between their adopted roles of unworldly toff and philistine oik – always chucks up comedy sparks, but something in the vibe of the show keeps it likeable, feel-good and family-friendly. There’s a reason it has won the British Comedy Award for best panel show three times: it’s the best panel show on TV, end of. DBu

33 Silicon Valley Sky Atlantic
A show based around a “game-changing” file-compression algorithm? It’s not the most enticing premise, but HBO’s satire about computer programmers racing to catch the internet start-up gravy train turned out to be one of the best new comedies in ages. In typical HBO style, Silicon Valley felt more like a chopped-up feature film than a sitcom along the lines of, say, The Big Bang Theory. Did those of a digital persuasion get more from its humour? Probably. But therein lay the show’s strength — we were laughing more with the geeks than at them. GR

32 Children of Syria BBC2
Syria’s civil war is many things: a humanitarian crisis, and a brutal war of ideology, of ethnicity. It is also, as the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet wrote in Radio Times, “a war on childhood”. Doucet’s film followed six young children caught in the crossfire over six months. Normally flinty, Doucet used all her experience to gently tell these victims’ stories. “I’m digging the graves,” one young boy with a shovel told the camera. This is the future of a country. It’s sickening, but Doucet deserves every plaudit for bringing it so sensitively to light. JG

31 Inside No. 9 BBC2
This was the rarest of comic beasts: half a dozen standalone episodes with jokes that weren’t laid out on a plate, but instead jumped out from corners or tripped you up during awkward pauses. It was written by League of Gentlemen alumni Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, and performed by them in various guises alongside the likes of Timothy West, Helen McCrory and Gemma Arterton. It was dark, of course, but otherwise deliciously unpredictable: the first was about an uncomfortable engagement party; the second was a silent comedy with slapstick from Charlie Chaplin’s great-granddaughter, Oona. CW

Voted for and written by critics from Radio Times magazine and Alison Graham (AG), David Butcher (DBu), Jane Rackham (JR), Tim Glanfield, Paul Jones, Jack Seale (JS), Mark Braxton (MB), Gill Crawford (GC), James Gill (JG), Claire Webb (CW), Ben Dowell (BD), David Crawford (DC), Susanna Lazarus, Ellie Walker-Arnott (EWA), David Brown (DBr), Jonathan Holmes (JH), Hannah Shaddock (HS), Ellie Austin (EA), Huw Fullerton (HW), Gary Rose (GR), Kasia Delgado and Paul Whitelaw. Compiled by Jack Seale.


The Countdown

40 – 31

30 – 21

20 – 11

10 – 1

How much of this year’s television can you remember? Take our Big TV Quiz 2014 and find out!