Has the recent TV renaissance peaked? Probably not, given some of 2014’s strong debuts and continuing favorites. And while the big screen actually impressed me a bit more than the small one this year, the general quality of the best television still remains higher, its writing sharper, its characters more diverse, and its themes more relatable than most of Hollywood’s fanboy obsessions in the current Save The Cat! era.
Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help noticing the sense of must-see urgency fading from many one-time “water cooler” shows this season. Mad Men still has a great cast and beautiful art direction, but I stopped caring about most of the actual characters long ago, and I barely remember anything that happened in the first half of the show’s 1969 incarnation (aside from Ginsberg cutting off his nipple, which I kinda wish I could forget).
Boardwalk Empire spent half its final season revisiting back story we already knew and the other half haphazardly bumping off characters on the assumption that death automatically equals high drama. (Note to current and future show runners: it doesn’t.) Speaking of which, the Walking Dead‘s cast continued to shrink…and grow…and shrink…and grow…while the illusory forward momentum of a red herring plot progression gave way to yet another showdown with yet another evil human community and ever more running around and around in the woods, in circles, from zombies, forever.
Meanwhile, Louie C.K. spent a few too many episodes of his (admittedly still mostly great) sitcom on a (literally) inarticulate Hungarian love story — after patting himself a little too much on the back for imagining what it’s like to be an attractive, overweight woman in “So Did The Fat Lady”. Lena Dunham has far more credibility with regard to questions of female body image, except I’m so fatigued by her public and fictional personas at this point that Girls has become more of a zeitgeisty hate-watch. And as far as I know, Mitch and Cam still haven’t really kissed on Modern Family, a show that seemed progressive for about five minutes yet now feels as formulaic and dated as The Brady Bunch.
Sure, I get it — tastes vary, and it’s hard to keep even the best of shows fresh — but my Top Ten picks all managed to rise above routine this year, from new visions and old favorites still firing on all cylinders to self-contained sagas that never quite wore out their welcomes and a couple of old standbys suddenly colored with unexpected poignancy.
(i.e., a surely great show not on my list only because I haven’t seen it yet): Orange is the New Black (season 2)
1. FARGO (FX)
Adapting the Coen Brothers’ 1996 Midwestern pop noir classic for TV sounded at first like a lazy, unnecessary Hollywood cash-in — so much so that I skipped it entirely until enthusiastic reviews from early adapters finally convinced me to give the addictive 10-episode crime fable about strength, weakness, and the nature of evil a shot. Of course, Noah Hawley’s endlessly entertaining snow globe of a series doesn’t take its Big Themes quite as seriously as another, more Southern-fried 2014 cops and killers miniseries I could mention. Instead, in a conscious nod to its predecessor, Fargo is far more interested in the pure joy of showmanship (like the blood splatter “wings” that form behind Billy Bob Thornton’s Angel of Death hitman Lorne Malvo during one of the show’s many tightly-coiled, hyper-real suspense sequences). Yet, Hawley’s tale of folksy Middle Americans confronting human predators in their midst plays as more than just a cynical pulp fiction cartoon thanks to the grounded, warm-hearted performances of Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, and national treasure Bob Odenkirk as a trio of cops in way over their heads, Keith Carradine as Tolman’s wise, formidable ex-cop father, and especially Martin Freeman’s breaking bad turn as an ineffectual insurance salesman drawn into the icy dark waters of his own sociopathic Id.
2. OLIVE KITTERIDGE (HBO)
The original Fargo‘s Frances McDormand anchors another stellar cast in a far more naturalistic vision of small town life beset by death and darkness, though director Lisa Cholodenko’s not afraid to mix a bit of surrealism into her adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel of mental illness and quiet desperation across several decades in a coastal Maine community. Some reviews painted the title character as a misanthropic monster who crushes the spirits of her son, Christopher, and her long-suffering husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins). Yet, while Olive comes across as a definite handful — a willful, painfully blunt woman who distrusts tender words and simple happiness — she’s also good-hearted in her way and fiercely loyal to those who deserve it. Her bond with Henry is often contentious, but it’s clear they just get each other on a fundamental, molecular level seldom captured in fictional depictions of marriage.
3. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
SPOILER ALERT is pretty much the official royal sigil of this epic phantasmagoria about the clash of kings (and queens and knights and dragons and psychos and, of course, one slightly overwhelmed Khaleesi) in the brutal realm of Westeros (and points east). That’s because, four seasons in, this full-tilt adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire heptalogy still sparks more “holy shit!” moments than just about any other series on television (past, present, or possibly future). Most importantly, it earns those buzzworthy moments the old-fashioned way, with rich storytelling, great writing, and a deep bench of layered characters we love, hate, and sometimes hate to love (I’m looking at you, Hound). And while the sheer scale and scope of the production means some moments (Joffrey’s wedding, Tyrion’s trial) inevitably work better than others (Jorah’s abrupt ouster, any scene with Reek), even seemingly less satisfying elements can sometimes lead to surprisingly effective payoffs, like Sophie Turner’s perennial whinebag Sansa Stark finally coming into her own as Littlefinger’s partner in crime…or is she merely biding her time? Since I’m not reading the books, I’ll just have to wait until 2015 to find out…and there’s no other show on the air I currently miss as much between seasons.
4. SILICON VALLEY (HBO)
When I first saw the previews for this comedy about start-up entrepreneurs seeking venture capital and killer apps in the titular tech corridor, I worried it would be nothing more than a geek chic variation of Entourage, packed with cocky young programmers blowing internet billions on strippers and champagne. And while there’s no shortage of obnoxious behavior or excess in Silicon Valley‘s inaugural run of episodes, I should have had more faith in series creator Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill), bringing his big-hearted sense of humanity and gently satirical sensibility to this David and Goliath tale of a shy programmer drone (Thomas Middleditch) who leaves the comfortable hive of a Google-type corporation to found his own company with a band of fellow misfits (including T.J. Miller, stealing every scene he’s in as a goofy Steve Jobs wannabe with grandiose theories on everything from corporate branding to optimal tip-to-tip multi-hand job efficiency).
5. TRUE DETECTIVE (HBO)
Was it flawed? Yes. Was I disappointed it didn’t delve deeper into its own spooky mythology? Sure. But writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s slow-boil thriller about the investigation by once and future Louisiana State Police partners Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) into a series of cultish homicides cast a spell of existential dread (and sparked a level of pop culture fascination) reminiscent of no less than the first season of Twin Peaks. And while Pizzolatto’s Southern Gothic mystery never quite hit the heights of David Lynch’s groundbreaking Pacific Northwest procedural (hindered by the overly familiar subplot of Hart’s troubled home life, sluggish pacing, and a less than satisfying conclusion), it likewise didn’t unravel as haplessly as Peaks‘ justly derided second half. Instead, True Detective maintained its fever dream intensity throughout its eight episode run thanks to the compelling chemistry of its leads and an enjoyably outré philosophical arc (resulting in a controversial final scene which struck me as more of an emotionally logical endpoint than a sappy cop-out, though clearly a big chunk of the internet begged to differ).
6. FASHION POLICE (E!)
Catty fashion clip shows don’t usually wind up on Best Of lists (even if, like me, you consistently enjoy their empty calorie entertainment value). But Fashion Police earns a spot in my Top Ten this year because it was the last regular digital residence of whip-smart, foul-mouthed comedy icon Joan Rivers before she was cut down in her prime at the tender age of 81. Celebrities come and go, but Joan was such a familiar, indomitable presence in my life for so long that I took her death earlier this year as personally as if I’d actually known her. As such, the emotional reminiscences of some of the people who did — including her daughter, Melissa, and co-stars Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, and George Kotsiopoulos (in a hilarious, heartbreakingly unexpected season finale) — ranked among the most entertaining and moving TV experiences of my 2014.
7. THE COLBERT REPORT (Comedy Central)
A less terminal yet no less final farewell is currently underway on Comedy Central (until December 18) as Stephen Colbert bids adieu to both his satirical political variety show and the lovably egotistical, truthiness-spewing, Tek Jansen-writing, former New Wave band fronting, Bill O’Reilly wannabe persona who hosted it. Frankly, I’m not sure the real Colbert of future Late Show fame will ever mean as much to me as the fake one has these past nine years, but The Colbert Report earns its Best of 2014 spot for a typically great victory lap of episodes, including an interview with Pussy Riot, a 1970s style 40th anniversary commemoration of Nixon’s resignation, President Obama reinventing “The Word” segment as “The Decree,” and a touching détente with bears.
BROAD CITY (Comedy Central)
Forget Girls — the TV broads I most wanna hang out with these days are Illana Glazer and Abbi Jackson, a raucous pair of New Yorkers who grapple with many of the same issues as Lena Dunham’s nepotistas (neuroses, income instability, relationships, etc.), yet in a far more relatable register. That’s partly because of the megawatt charm of the show’s leads (Upright Citizens Brigade alums adapting their web series with the help of fellow UCB chum Amy Poehler) and the believable, lived-in chemistry of their characters’ friendship, forged from loyalty and shared sensibilities in the grind of workaday life. And while the plots are frequently larger than life (e.g., a Mission Impossible caper to dispose of an embarrassing bowel movement after a plumbing disaster in a crowded apartment during a hurricane), the writing and acting generally feels more true-to-life than the quippy, pleased-with-itself dialogue and arch characterizations of many modern sitcoms. Plus, bonus points for a great supporting cast (including man-of-the-hour, Cosby-crushing stand-up, Hannibal Burress).
9. NURSE JACKIE (Showtime)
Despite fine work by another solid ensemble, I was ready to bail for good on this well-made yet deeply frustrating dramedy after one too many seasons of Edie Falco’s pill-popping title character escaping the consequences of her borderline sociopathic behavior. And then, at long last (and roughly two years after they probably should have), the walls finally closed in for real on the show’s protagonist, in highly satisfying ways. Best of all was the fact Jackie’s downfall hinged on human sunbeam Merritt Wever’s series-long character arc as Zoe, an adoring protégé whose core integrity ultimately trumped her mentor’s manipulative cynicism.
10. SURVIVOR: CAGAYAN (BRAWN VS. BRAINS VS. BEAUTY) (CBS)
The tenth spot of a year-end wrap up is always the trickiest, because so many of the remaining choices are so close to each other in terms of quality and entertainment value. For instance, The Knick and Turn were both highly watchable, visceral evocations of greater New York during the early days of modern medicine and the Revolutionary origins of America’s spy game, respectively. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, Veep and The Comeback are all comedies of the highest pedigree, etc. etc. But given that most of my list this year is about transition and reinvention (especially with regard to shows I’ve long taken for granted), it seems fitting to acknowledge how an old warhorse like Survivor can still bring its A-game after 25+ seasons on the air. Abandoning its tired reliance on “all-star” returning players, Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett resurrected the interesting social experimentation of the reality show’s heyday by pitting brawn against brains against beauty on a remote tropical island, resulting in one of the most entertaining, unpredictable seasons in years.
America’s Got Talent, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Comeback, Downton Abbey, Episodes, Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, The Knick, Looking, Louie, Mad Men, Parks & Recreation, Real Time with Bill Maher (featuring a fascinating, long-overdue, season-long debate about the host’s seeming anti-Islam bias), the dawn of a promising new era of Saturday Night Live, The Taste, a better than expected final season of True Blood (with a much worse than expected ending), Turn, Veep