I won’t pretend I saw everything on TV this year. Hell, I don’t even think I saw half of everything worth seeing. As has been the case in the last year or two, life has been a bit too busy, and my time for watching movies and TV is nowhere near as ample as it used to be.
But even a casual TV watcher ought to realize just how rich with viewing opportunities the 2014 calendar year has been. Several great shows returned (in some cases, years later) with equally strong seasons, and there were even a few new series that immediately proved themselves to be essential viewing. This year also saw something of a renaissance for the anthology mini-series, with at least three such shows getting the brunt of cultural attention this year (and not one of them is American Horror Story).
I also noticed just how different my list looks this year without a Breaking Bad to top it. If you buy in to the critics’ theory that we’ve come to the end of the anti-hero/difficult man era of television, as I kind of do, many (but not all) of this year’s highest-profile shows would certainly help your argument. In fact, of my top ten shows, only two or three would reasonably fit under that “difficult man” umbrella. (And of those three, one eventually gets a female protagonist and the other sets up its “difficult man” for redemption.)
So what did make my list? A lot of shows about women, it seems. Some of those women are “difficult women,” I suppose, while others are not. I’m actually surprised how many female-centric shows made it to my shortlist. It certainly wasn’t intentional, but perhaps it speaks to the kind of television I find most interesting right now.
Yet I like to think the gender (and gender expression) of the characters in my favorite shows is beside the point. In 2014, I loved shows that favored empathy over grimness, that favored the gentle over the dour. Many of my favorite shows surprised me – both with regard to storytelling and to formal playfulness. And if a show got dirty, there was purpose driving the raunch.
Alright, that’s enough preamble. Let’s review my year in movies…
The (Many) Notable TV Shows I Did Not See
American Dad! (Fox, FXX) – My perennial pick for best show you never realized was actually good, this is the only thing attached to Seth McFarlane’s name that’s really worth a damn (unsurprisingly, it’s the show over which he has the least creative control). For the role it fills – crude, disposable, hackneyed sitcom animation – it fills it pretty well. And as punishment, it’s been banished to a Network’s third-tier cable subsidiary.
The Americans (FX) – I finally caught up with this one over the summer, and I feel my week-long binge of two full seasons prevented me from relishing the show’s nuances and slow-burn (not unlike when I binged on Mad Men‘s first five seasons). The performances and the plotting deserve more attention than it’s been getting from the non-critic community.
Archer VICE (FX) – A ribald moment hither and thither, though this is probably Archer‘s weakest season yet. And that’s in spite of Adam Reed’s admirably risky departure from formula. Pam’s cocaine addiction made for some memorable comedic fodder (and, in Pam’s case, literal fodder). Yet there’s little more about this season worth even remembering. This is the first time Archer has ever been relegated to “background noise” status on my TV.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox) – A year or so ago, Bob’s Burgers was TV’s best sitcom, animated or otherwise. Now, it’s simply TV’s most reliable one, animated or otherwise. And that’s great too. Relying on the actors’ pitch-perfect chemistry (they record together, I believe) and rooting the humor out of mutual love instead of disdain (like The Simpsons and Modern Family did in their early years, and like Family Guy and Archer did never), few other shows on this list boast a gentler spirit.
The Daily Show & The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) – While TV’s most reliable hour of satire has had sharper years (Daily Show especially), they still channeled righteous anger into meaningful discourse better than most of their late-night brethren. Colbert’s final week proved beyond argument just how badly he’ll be missed.
Game of Thrones (HBO) – My Number 11 of 2014, I think. It may have cracked the Top 10 if this season weren’t so wildly uneven. But even Game of Thrones at is worst is an essential pop-culture touchstone. (As rough as that “incest rape” episode’s execution was, regardless of intent, at least a sophisticated conversation came out of the critiques). It also gave me one of my favorite moments of television this year, the absolutely horrifying “Mountain vs. Viper” brawl. Nothing’s made me scream that loud in a very long time.
Hannibal (NBC) – I’m not quite as high on this underdog series as everybody else; the violence is so beautifully rendered that it seems to distract everybody from realizing that every character kind of talks the same, disparate though their motivations may be. Still, this is the best thing to happen to the Lecter-verse since Silence of the Lambs, and season 2 ended on such a dramatic high that I’ll probably never stop watching.
Louie (FX) – I haven’t watched all of it quite yet, but Louie will always be worth mentioning so long as the series continues to expand the meaning of the word “Comedy.” Sarah Baker’s “So Did the Fat Lady” appearance deserved all the praise it received.
Parks & Recreation (NBC) – P&R‘s writing was slightly off this year, though that may simply be symptomatic of a long-running show that’s gotten (perhaps too) comfortable with its own wavelength. The season 6 finale gave a much-welcome shake-up for Pawnee, and gives me hope that the show will end on a 30 Rock-level high.
South Park (Comedy Central) – Another animated sitcom that messed with formula this year, engaging with (mild) continuity for the first time ever. Like that other venerable animation institution, The Simpsons, this show’s seen its peak. But it deserves credit for trying something a little different. Lorde will never sound the same.
Too Many Cooks (Funny or Die) – What starts as a cute parody of the opening credits to every crappy Miller/Boyette sitcom you ever saw slowly unravels into some brilliantly twisted, quasi-Lynchian nightmare. It’s not technically TV, I admit, but it was arguably the best TV criticism this year.
True Detective (HBO) – I finally watched this at the best possible time: months after the show had wrapped, after the universal acclaim made way for the backlash, and after the backlash made way for backlash-backlash. So I was able to moderate my expectations. Overly grim and inconsistent in vision, True Detective is hardly the best TV show of the year (it’s not even the year’s best police-based miniseries). But I have tremendous respect for it; it’s a veritable achievement in TV auteurism and capital-A Acting. Also, am I the only one who preferred Harrelson’s performance to McConaughey’s?
Veep (HBO) – It’s either TV’s most cynical show, or its most cutting critique of cynicism. I’m not sure which, and that’s why Veep is such a dark masterpiece of frustration. America is a country, we like to say, that is build on values and ideas. But the government ostensibly defending those same values is portrayed here as unforgivably petty and inept. There’s probably more reality here than there ever was in The West Wing.
Serial (Mail… Khimp?) – It’s not a TV show. But this is where I assure you I’ve done my due diligence as a well-meaning white dude, and I listened to this podcast as well.
Justin’s 10 Favorite TV Shows of 2014
Unsurprisingly, while Lena Dunham’s hardly left the cultural conversation, the flagship of her brand has arguably entered stiller cultural waters. If Girls chatter has subsided, though, it’s for the better. Dunham has finally established who Hannah Horvath and her friends are as people, and she is ready to push them out of their millennial nest into new, unwieldy territory. They are slowly entering the real world, and old perceptions and privileges are getting challenged (or affirmed) in the process. What I love about Dunham is her ability to find empathy in her characters while never losing sight of their (sometimes monstrous) human flaws. So while I frequently identify with Hannah Horvath, I’m never made to forget how much that identification should disturb me. Girls is an ugly show; one that’s purposefully difficult to like. But it’s a provocative reminder that, sometimes, likability is overrated.
Best Episode/Moment: While “Beach House” probably best encapsulates this season’s thematic through-line, I am particularly keen on “Flo.” Featuring a beautiful guest stint from June Squibb as the eponymous dying aunt, the episode gracefully blends characters from Hannah’s past life and her present life, and hints at a vision for her future.
9) Review (Comedy Central)
How can anybody who engages regularly in critical writing resist a show about one of their very own? The hook for Andrew Daley’s parody of criticism is so clever and easy-to-sell – “I review life itself!” – that I’m almost surprised it’s not been done before (that I know of). Very quickly, though, Review proves to be far more subversive and hilariously bleak than the premise could ever suggest. Forrest MacNeill reviews numerous wacky life experiences like robbing a store or going to space or doing drugs, per his duty as a critic, and slowly learns that he can’t so easily compartmentalize such experiences outside of life’s soul-crushing reliance on causality. In some ways, Review is a slight on (I admit) the inherently silly act of “reviewing” things in such a disconnected way. In other ways, it reminds us just how such experiences, wise and foolish alike, can have serious repercussions. Review is a brilliant comedy about perspective – about missing the Forrest for the trees.
Best Episode/Moment: Beyond doubt, the third episode “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes” is the lynch-pin of the series. It begins as innocuously as the previous episodes, before the show forces MacNeill down an untrodden and irreversible path. This is where Review starts to show its true value.
In terms of formatting, there is nothing particularly original about Inside Amy Schumer. A reductive viewer could watch the show, whose basic formula blends sketch comedy, stand-up routines and interviews, and write it off as The Chappelle Show for white girls. Just as that format helped Chappelle present his own bent yet insightful view of the world, though, it helps Schumer present hers. I’ve heard some people call the show proto-feminist, and others call it post-feminist. I don’t know if Schumer’s show fits in either camp, but it’s safe to say she has true clarity of vision. Schumer uses crude, low-brow comedy to beat down society’s most hateful, sexist tropes (see the “I’m so Bad!” sketch), while at the same time acknowledging how her own insecurities feed those same stereotypes (“Milady App”). Schumer has a lot worth saying, so long as you don’t mind that they’re hidden under a layer of poop and genital-based humor.
Best Episode/Moment:Aaron Sorkin’s brand of high-stakes righteous speechifying doesn’t pack the punch it once did. The reasons for that are encapsulated beautifully in “The Foodroom” sketch, which plows relentlessly through Sorkin’s bag of narrative ticks, obsessions, biases and (often gendered) condescensions. The sketch’s closing title card, “bestowed upon you by Aaron Sorkin,” is a glorious mic-drop of snark.
By now, most of us are familiar with the kind of HuffPo and Salon clickbait whose headlines frequently begin with variations of “Jon Stewart Destroys…” or “Stephen Colbert Annihilates…” or (less frequently, I hope) “Bill Maher Schools…,” and follow with some punchy 3-minute embedded video reaffirming what you already know is true (i.e., Bill O’Reilly is kind of a dick). Those videos are fun to watch and easy to disseminate. But if John Oliver has done anything this year, it’s showing the world what it really means to “destroy” or “annihilate” or “school” somebody on an issue. In only a few short months, Oliver has already surpassed his late-night predecessors in finding a way to spend more time discussing more complicated issues, extolling both a clear perspective on it while truly leaving the viewer better-informed. The viewer may very well be flabbergasted, outraged, in stitches, but those are less important than being informed.
Best Episode/Moment: While Oliver has done a fantastic job informing his viewers about the importance of Net Neutrality and the disingenuous charity of the Miss America Pageant, I will never forget how incapacitated with laughter I had become when I saw the Supreme Court recorded arguments reenacted by dogs. Justice Scalia has never looked more adorable. (Side-Note: major props to HBO for making Oliver’s segments so accessible.)
As I noted, a lot of the shows that made my top ten this year were ones that surprised me. Netflix’s stab at crude animation for grown-ups was possibly the most surprising, not least because the first few episodes ain’t exactly top ten-worthy. (Unfortunately, those are the episodes the critics got to review.) But Bojack Horseman rewards viewers who allow the show to stretch its legs, once the sophomoric humor cedes ground for some surprising explorations of middle-aged regret, depression, alcoholism and showbiz malaise (all hinted at by the show’s beautifully depressing opening credits sequence). For all its bleakness, though, the BoJack is the year’s best source of incidental, throwaway zoological sight-gags (i.e., an anthropomorphic hen being so startled, she lays an egg). These may be talking animals, but they’re still animals dammit!
Best Episode/Moment: In ”The Telescope”, BoJack (Will Arnett) visits the dying co-creator of his old sitcom (Stanley Tucci) to make amends. Arnett and Tucci forge a balance of old-pal chemistry and old-foe antagonism that’s both hilarious and deeply uncomfortable. Chris Rock once said at the Oscars that voice acting was the easiest thing in the world. I guess that’s a viable mentality when you’re making Madagascar, but yet another surprise to BoJack is how much weight the voice actors give their roles.
Speaking of Netflix horses… Piper the Trojan Horse got us in to Litchfield last year, and this year Jenji Kohan wisely relegated her to supporting character status. Don’t get me wrong: Piper was a compelling lead in the first season (more than she got credit for), but Orange is the New Black did itself a favor by shifting its weight into the supporting cast. More characters get their due arcs, with my favorite being Suzanne’s. (Uzo Aduba’s performance is so beautiful, so heartbreaking, I’ve stopped using her cruel nickname “Crazy Eyes.”) Adding a tampon to the breakfast sandwich that is this show is Lorraine Toussaint, whose Vee gives the series a most-welcome dramatic shake-up. And while Vee’s this season’s unequivocal bad-guy, Kohan and her writers continue to respect not just the women (and men) inhabiting this prison, but their life’s journeys as well. Orange is the New Black continues to be one of TV’s warmest shows. Thank goodness it’s on Netflix, because it’s also its most binge-able.
Best Episode/Moment: Six months after downing my Big Gulp of Orange drink, the story that’s most stuck with me is that of the terminally ill Rosa. Her bittersweet interactions with a younger cancer patient in ”Appropriately Sized Pots” mixed poignantly with her back-story as the most unlucky bank robber of all time. The episode’s also strategic; adding weight to the season’s wonderfully madcap final scene.
I think ultimately share Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak’s dissatisfaction with last Sunday’s incongruously sunny Comeback comeback finale. But just as Breaking Bad’s finale left some viewers disappointed for similar reasons, it hardly undermines the overall journey. And by the standards of cult TV series getting a most-welcome revival, it’s astonishing just how well Michael Patrick King and (especially) Lisa Kudrow retain the show’s acerbic tone ten years later. Valerie Cherish remains an infuriating, insecure, indelible embodiment of ambition and showbiz survivalism, and this year we see the toxicity of her ambition sink her life and career to new, complicated lows. It’s painful to watch, and impossible to look away. King and Kudrow are better-known for their work on more popular 90’s sitcoms. But The Comeback is the most essential work either has ever done.
Best Episode/Moment: Paulie G’s new show Seeing Red proved itself a stellar device for lending texture both to Valerie’s desperation, but also to the hateful antagonism between her and her former Room and Bored arch-nemesis. But ”Valerie is Brought to Her Knees” cuts even deeper, delivering a positively agonizing indictment on the reductive role of the female body in the kind of so-called “quality” television HBO’s known for. Clandestinely, The Comeback has officially made it impossible to take another Game of Thrones tittie-shot seriously ever again.
I am so severe a latecomer to the Mad Men craze that, by the time I finally got around to (binge-)watching it, most had already dismissed it as being tired and overly repetitious (as if that wasn’t exactly the point, but I digress). Mad Men, apparently, is no longer essential television. But don’t tell that to Matthew Weiner, whose most recent septet of episodes reached highs that match anything the show did back when it was winning Emmys. We now find Don in the upswing of his redemption arc – a remarkable conveyance by the show’s writers, considering how much he still manages to lose. Conversely, we have everybody’s favorite go-getter Peggy reaching the lowest, loneliest point in her life, despite advancing further than anybody could have expected of her seven years ago. This may be a half-season, but this is a complete and well-arced story with countless unforgettable moments. Speaking of…
Best Episode/Moment: God, what should I choose? Sally’s “I love you” whollop to Don? Peggy’s atrocious pettiness toward Shirley and her Valentine’s flowers? Roger’s rescue mission to the hippy commune? Dinnertime at Burger Chef? The most useful GIF of all time? Ginsberg’s emancipated nipple? Bert Cooper’s stunning – stunning! – send-off? I think I’ll have to go with Don and Peggy dancing as they close my favorite episode, ”The Strategy”. Because, as the kids like to say, it punched me in the feels the hardest.
I think we all have a “my show.” You know, a TV series that makes so intimate and deeply personal a connection, that it all but feels made specially for your TV viewer sensibilities. “This is my show,” you might say of it. Breaking Bad was my show, as I’m sure it was for many of you. When it ended last year, I fretted, because I didn’t know if I’d have a “my show” on TV for a good long while.
Then along came Fargo, an FX miniseries spun off of one my favorite films, set in the state I’ve lived in my entire life. Most of us expected little more the series than to be, at best, a noble if throwaway simulacrum of the Coen Brothers classic. While I don’t love Noah Hawley’s take on Fargo quite as much as the Coens’, it is hardly a simulacrum. Working both within and outside the universe of its source material, the show works as a kind of tonal ode to the Coens’ aesthetic and thematic signatures. But the televisual format opens up these characters to something more singular. The actors (Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton and especially Allison Tollman) explore their characters’ individual moralities more deeply, and help them become more than superficial copies of their movie counterparts. Best of all, Hawley employs the desolate Minnesota snowscapes – the ones I grew up in – to give this world a deeper sense of desolation, of specificity and even of home-spun legend.
Fargo feels like a modernized Tall Tale. It turns my home into a kind of mythological fantasia. For that, it has become my show.
Best Episode/Moment: The midseason stunner ”Buridan’s Ass” is a thrilling shake-up of circumstances for all the characters involved, killing off several and leaving the fates of several others unknown. I know some complained about the bad snow effects in the climactic blizzard shootout, but it made for a very specific kind of intensity that (sorry about this) not even True Detective’s virtuoso long-take could top.
Transparent is the most special surprise of in 2014 TV, though it surprises in a way that all these other shows do not. While many of their surprises come in the form of jarring revelations (narrative, thematic or otherwise), or through crude and violent grotesqueries, Jill Soloway’s surprises are ones of unexpected modesty and restraint. Each time I anticipated the series to give me a twist or horrible tragedy of TV-level proportions, it instead takes its characters to truer, sadder and far more human places.
That is the true surprise of Transparent, given the veritable fanfare it’s received both as a vehicle for the typically showy Jeffrey Tambor and, frankly, as a watershed moment for onscreen representation of trans* folks. It seems like it should be momentous, but it is stalwartly gentle, and committed to the melancholies of real life. It is the kindest, most resolutely human show I have watched in ages.
Ostensibly, Transparent’s first season is about Maura opting for happiness in her golden years, finally deciding to come out as a woman to her three children. How those children respond – imperfectly, to understate it – speaks at once to many different things. It speaks to the monumental difficulty of Maura’s wish to be out and proud. It speaks to these kids’ own struggle to re-understand the person they always called “Dad.” But it also speaks to those same kids’ crippling personality flaws and pre-occupation with their own lives.
Indeed, Maura’s specific experience as a trans* woman is the narrative crux of Transparent, and Tambor has never given a performance with this level of empathy and gentility. Ultimately, though, the show is about a family of individuals working things out as they go along. The Pfeffermans are difficult people – possibly even bad people at times – but what drives them and unites them are good intentions and mutual love. This is a show that is hopeful about a great many things: hopeful about understanding one another, hopeful about finding and maintaining your family, hopeful about learning your way out of the messes you (and your children) create, and hopeful that unconditional love will push most of us to that point where we all can feel truly, fully human.
Best Episode/Moment: The 1994 flashback Best New Girl is a powerful, well-structured, and achingly sad achievement in episodic storytelling. In a single weekend, not one of the Pfeffermans spends it in the way they told others they would. Each person either keeps a secret or starts one, and through those secrets we finally see just how Maura, Shelly, Sarah, Josh and Ali become such disparate splinters on that withered tree stump of a family. But maybe “tree-stump” is a bad metaphor; after all, the Pfeffermans can heal if they want.