The Best TV of 2014
This year I’ve watched far more television than movies. I guess I don’t feel as bad since my program is in “Screen Studies” and not solely film studies, and I’m not sure that is so much an indictment about the current state of movies but more that it’s just easier to fit 15-60 minutes into my daily schedule (it also always happens to be on in some form or another as background noise, ambience, the illusion of company, or something to give my eyes and mind a break from reading for a few minutes at a time). But even then, I think TV as a medium feels pretty exciting right now in a way that movies don’t. I think it’s also important to note that I still prefer to watch TV live. I don’t binge watch unless I have to. I binge-watched a season of BSG several years ago and it wasn’t very healthy. I think media is like food and there are mental equivalents to heartburn and indigestion.
One of the purposes of making lists, aside from my compulsion to categorize things (even though it’s been years since I’ve regularly written about music I still did lists for the best albums and songs of the year if you’re interested) is for my memory. Compiling this list (and other lists) I found myself saying, “I can’t believe I forgot about that” or “I need to rewatch that.” I’m also a fan of reading other people’s lists, and I think the purpose is mostly informative to say “hey, you might want to check this out.” There are notable gaps and oversights here; I can’t watch everything (depending on what I can wrangle access to) and I guess the thing about TV is that with all of the programs on the decision to not watch some in favor of others would then color how I see and watch TV in general; there are built-in biases and taste preferences by the very choice. I guess that exists in film too, but it seems more pronounced with hundreds of networks (or at least about 20 that don’t only show marathons of reality shows) that are always on. So anyway…
The 10 Best Shows
1. Fargo, FX
On some level, I still don’t think I can fully appreciate this show because I couldn’t entirely get past the fact that it’s just not quite that Fargo; it feels like a perfect tribute band (or like a band that replaced its lead singer with the lead singer of a tribute band) of the Coen Brothers-a pitch-perfect tribute with the right mix of black humor, violence, middle-class malaise-based tragedy, Jewish parable, riddle-like dialogue, and loads of irony (and it tried occasionally to replicateCarter Burwell’s classic score and Rodger Deakins breathtaking cinematography as best as TV can). By the end, in some thematic ways I feel like this was as much an adaptation of No Country for Old Men, or Cormac McCarthy by way of the Coen’s adaptation of that novel.
Fargo was probably the most refreshing of the hour-long “quality” series on TV this past year. It showed that comedy, albeit of the darkest shades, can better cover philosophic and cosmological issues than drama which is often seen as superior to comedy by virtue of its seriousness. The central philosophical aspect of the Coens is irony, one of the most common and complicated aspects of everyday life, and dark comedy, when well done, certainly demonstrates and explores that irony in all its complexity. In contemporary, “serious,” drama, we prefer allusion. Fargo covered almost the same territory as True Detective and explored similar themes, but because it was a “comedy,” Fargo was able to go further, to dive deeply into its themes and questions and actively explore them in a way that is limited in “serious” drama.
2. Hannibal, NBC
While the show’s gruesome, surrealist inspired corpse set pieces require substantial disbelief, Hannibal spends most of its time concerned with the psyches of its demented characters. It’s also the best looking and sounding show on television. I’ve said this before, but in this supposed “Golden Age” of television, where cable and pay channels are supposed to be the “new arthouse,” the most adventurous and aesthetically interesting show airing right now is on commercial, network television. Hannibal, as character, requires a very precise measure of characteristics, and this show deftly balances cruelty, intellect, and black humor, making Hannibal simultaneously attractive and terrifying, understandable and completely alien.
3. Rick and Morty, Adult Swim
Dan Harmon’s “other show,” his ID to Community’s Super-Ego, an exciting creative marriage between co-creator Justin Roiland’s anarchic improvisational style and Harmon’s obsessive, well-constructed storytelling. It’s crazy, gross, and violent, but mixed with a few earned sweet moments. It also works surprisingly well as an actual sci-fi series with its detailed universes and imaginative devices. While initially based on an X-rated Back to the Future spoof, it is more like Doctor Who…if the Doctor were an irresponsible, depressed, reckless drunk.
4. True Detective, HBO
True Detective suffered from the very expectation about “lean-in” TV that HBO advertises. Three episodes in and the internet was sure that this was like Lost, and began creating theories from the smallest actions and details in the show. Whether or not large portions were plagiarized also demonstrates one of the difficulties and limitations in contemporary storytelling: when does allusion become substitution for ones own ideas? It’s messy, contradictory, uneven, frustrating, brilliant, and troubling, both unintentionally and intentionally. Still, it’s best moments were some of the strongest moments in dramatic television and the finale demonstrated an abrupt optimism that was rather admirable.
5. Louie, FX
It was probably a combination of its 2-year absence and Louie’s continued exploration of new forms of TV storytelling, but Louie felt especially fresh this season. That doesn’t mean that all of its diverse threads and side-roads worked, but as a whole the effect was remarkable. I have often complained that TV largely lacks individual aesthetic style; while film has traditionally been concerned with style and auteurs and TV seems to be more about showrunners and plot. However, Louie is working to develop his own, difficult to categorize style and whereas most “quality TV” is influenced by the French New Wave via it’s American reaction/incorporation, Louie seems to be the person on TV who is most actively influenced directly by its primary texts.
6. Rectify, Sundance
I think Rectify is the most important show on TV from a storytelling point of view (the writers writing themselves into a bit of a corner in the first 2 episodes not withstanding). Most shows are concerned with “what” or “how” to a fault and procedure and plot structure take precedent over character. People may complain that Rectify moves too slowly. While the second season wasn’t as consistently solid as the first, there were strands and subplots that didn’t work as well as others, the point is that what the show’s concerned with, the “why,” are some of those big “whys” of existence. We don’t always need large actions or defining moments to illustrate a character’s movement, and that movement doesn’t need to be a straight development towards progression or regression. Rectify gives its characters space to explore things like the nature of justice, grace, the possibilities and possible limitations of Christian love and forgiveness. Lots of shows are ambiguous, but it’s often a forced ambiguity; witholding information for the sake of dramatic tension. On Rectify that ambiguity feels far more real and substantial: these characters, like real people, like us, just haven’t figured it out yet.
7. Homeland, Showtime
At the end of season two, Homeland convinced itself that it was a completely different show. It actually bought into the Carrie/Brody love story, a relationship that worked either better as subtext or as the one time indiscretion of two troubled people. By season three, the show felt like a chose your own adventure of jump the shark moments. Somehow in this past season the show has returned from the dead, providing incredibly tense, topically relevant moments, primarily by focusing on the character relationships that work and have developed more organically than Carrie/Brody did. In another nice development, the show has also effectively transformed Tracy Lett’s Lockhart character from a rather 1-dimensional Dick Cheney stand-in to the audience’s surrogate.
8. Community, NBC
I grade on degree of difficulty and this season of Community was going down a double-black diamond course. Back from near-death, with the looming threat of cancelation, losing two main cast members and key members in its creative staff, somehow this show returned not just decent, not just good, but as good as its ever been. Sure, some of the second half was a bit too high concept and the finale didn’t quite work for me, but I’m now sure that Dan Harmon works best under intense, depressing, specters of failure.
9. Bojack Horseman, Netflix
While it’s easy to initially mistake it for one, this isn’t in the Seth MacFarlane or Adult Swim cartoon mold. Rather, it’s Californication by way of Ugly Americans, a pull-no-punches comedy-drama about a washed up actor trying to relive his past as the ghostwriter, who is dating his longtime rival, attempts to write his memoir. The voice cast gives Bob’s Burgers a run for its money as the best on TV (and Grouplove’s credits song is the best theme on TV right now) but what’s of importance is that here is a somewhat surreal, animated show that isn’t based on gags or that resets after each episode. Instead its a character driven, season-long story (South Park would later begin using episode-to-episode continuity this season as well). In this case the Netflix binge-watch mode may have made a substantial development in animated TV comedies. Push through the first 5 episodes. They are a bit hit and miss and at times I think I only stayed on because it gets a lot of mileage from just how funny the name Bojack sounds, but the last half of the season was far more moving and far deeper than I expected a cartoon about an anthropomorphic horse to ever be.
10. The Leftovers, HBO
This is about as love/hate a show as there is on TV right now and I can totally understand the reasons for the hate: it’s a rather nihilistic exploration of extreme states of distress that doesn’t promise any resolution or answers to its central mystery. On the other hand, those are also all the reasons I appreciated it. It has tremendous performances, and is also, production wise, probably the most handsome looking show on TV. That’s not exactly a central criteria, but I often watch a show and wonder where the money went and that’s not the case with this show.
Many TV shows have tried to navigate or respond to reality TV and viral videos, but none have the savvy understanding or subtly successful subversion of Nathan For You. Perhaps because just as Colbert did with the Report, Nathan Fielder doesn’t rely on the situations or draw humor solely from making fun of others, but rather has built an awkward, loser avatar to serve as both catalyst and scapegoat.
Silicon Valley, HBO
There needs to be a rule that Mike Judge must have a TV show on the air at all times. This has all of the topics of Judge’s previous interests/comedy containing the technological and work place absurdity of Office Space, the microobsessive -isms of The Goode Family, the myopia of craft speciality seen in Hank Hill’s religious love of propane, the aggrandizing insecure and liberating pride of Peggy Hill, and the cult of convenience of Idiocracy. It’s funny, timely, and has a fun cast. In only a handful of episodes, Christopher Evan Welch’s Peter Gregory was one of the best characters that’s ever been on TV, and the actor’s tragic death may limit the possibility of the show moving forward, but he was a joy to watch on this show.
The Knick, Cinemax
As stylish as Thack’s white shoes, this show brought tension and life to two over-done genres: the turn of the century class drama and the hospital drama. It looks and sounds outstanding (from its shallow depth of field to it’s audio bridges to its anachronistic electronic score); of all the cinematic TV shows it may be the most confident but it often neglects its most interesting characters in favor of lackluster or uneven subplots. The finale seemed to focus back onto the more interesting historical medical and personal aspect of the show so maybe next season will crack the top 10.
The 30 Best Episodes
1. The Secret Fate of All Life,True Detective
I may have had some issues with the series as a whole, but this could be the most artfully realized episode I’ve ever seen on Television. I’m not quite sure how to define what that means other than everything about it worked perfectly.
2. Mizumono, Hannibal
I’m not sure anything like this has ever aired on television, especially on network television. A meticulously crafted turn as Brian Fuller’s staged his “this is my design” moment in which two seasons’ worth of material are revealed not as police procedural but as a Jacobean revenge tragedy that reminds audiences who the real protagonist of the show is and what he is capable of doing. High art mixed with terrifying violence (I found it more disturbing than the Red Wedding) that becomes surprisingly profound when the show’s bizarre aesthetic finds a deeply emotional moment between its two lead characters.
3. Dumb Starbucks, Nathan For You
It would have been enough to just show us one of the great pranks of all-time as it happened. Instead, Nathan Fielder treats the nuts and bolts of the prank and the publicity it generated as secondary to a meditation on the nature of art and fame in the disturbing psyche of his lonely, socially challenged comedic persona. The result is a tour-de-force of meta-critique and deconstruction. Perhaps the best use of the mockumentary since Borat.
4. Two Boats and a Helicopter, The Leftovers
“Mizumono” was nearly impossible to watch because of its visceral physical and emotional violence. This third episode of The Leftovers was perhaps even harder for me to watch in terms of its nearly unfair deployment of spiritual irony (this almost felt more like an episode of Fargo than The Leftovers), as it took the closest thing this show has to a “good” character and places him in an impossible situation that could very well destroy his soul. This should have set the moral rules for the universe of The Leftovers but no other episode replicated the tension between the lines of absolute spiritual annihilation and miraculous grace as did this outstanding episode. Eccleston, who wasn’t given enough to do on this show the rest of this season, deserved an Emmy for his scorched earth of a performance.
5. The Crocodile’s Dilemma, Fargo
Most pilot episodes set up a series of questions that need answering and problems that need to be resolved over the rest of the series. But the best ones, like this, are well crafted, nearly self-contained movies. In this case, it’s kind of two movies: Throw Momma from the Train (more than Strangers on a Train) meets Unforgiven; the hapless loser who, through misunderstanding sets off an unintended act of violence that spirals out of control, while the gruff, aging lawman falls with his “deserve’s got nothing to do with it” stoicism.
6. Meeseeks and Destroy, Rick & Morty
Good comedic parody, homage, or even deconstructions of genres require a loving craftsmanship and devotion to genre expectations as good as the best works in whatever genre it’s concerned with mocking. In this case, Mr. Meeseeks, a type of inter-dimensional Djiin, is one of the coolest sci-fi creations that’s ever been on TV.
7. Comrades, The Americans: As intense, tragic, and violent as this show has ever been. This season had stellar reviews, but I had problems with some of the character’s motivations and decisions, and the rest of the season never reached this height again.
8.The Telescope, Bojack Horseman
There were a lot of darker moments on Bojack prior to this episode; moments where you realized that this wasn’t going to be your standard cartoon comedy. But this is essentially a dramatic episode, and one of the more honestly dramatic episodes of any show all year, as Bojack (badly) attempts to come to terms with the dying mentor he had betrayed years earlier.
9. Grimmy/12-18-2014, The Colbert Report
A talk show really doesn’t need a series finale, but Colbert transcended his faux-talk show concept early and often, developing a rich character and a complex universe of people and references. This was an absolutely perfect wrap-up to all aspects of the show: as a 9-year long comedic performance, wrapping up a fictional character arc, ending a fake news show, and a goodbye to an all-around nice guy that audiences have spent 4 nights a week with for nearly a decade.
10. Unedited Footage of a Bear, Adult Swim Infomercials
I think I may have given this bonus points for giving me an actual nightmare, and if you know the kinds of things I watch for fun, that is quite the accomplishment. “Too Many Cooks” was a viral sensation that took a single concept to absurd lengths, though I felt that the narrative hurt its ability to really pull off the trick that it was trying to pull off, at least on a significant level. “Bear” (a product of the Wham City art collective) has a similar concept; where “Cooks” was one long sitcom theme song, this seems to stem from the “what if a drug commercial kept going?” (an idea explored earlier in the year by Rick and Morty and even earlier in the essential Sprite “Sun Fizz” commercial). While many have written that this is rather Lynchian, and I even wrote about how Lynch was essential for Adult Swim’s comedy aesthetic, but this is a different animal. It’s more influenced by or indebted to the Cinema of Transgression or to late 90’s underground video than surrealism. Adult Swim has lots of avant-garde-ish TV stuff but this, in its a brutal commitment to concept, felt like the real thing.
11. Moving Up, Parks and Recreation: The show ends this year and they have a lot to live up to. This episode would have been one of the more satisfying series finales in recent TV history.
12. Unhinged, Rectify
It speaks to the power and self-confidence of Rectify that the climax of the entire show thus far consisted of characters talking around a table. The ambiguous testimony/confession is brilliantly acted and scripted as we meet a side of Daniel that we haven’t yet encountered. The series could easily sensationalize the “did he do it?” aspect of the show, but instead this season was more focused on demonstrating how that isn’t quite the right question to ask about Daniel, and all of its characters, are as people.
13. Articles of Incorporation, Silicon Valley
Thanking rapper “Florida” aside, this was Peter Gregory’s finest moment, displaying the genius behind his eccentricities as a trip to Burger King solves a serious problem with a start-up. This also was the episode where it felt like the show expanded beyond being solely a start-up satire, deepening its characters psychologies as we seem them engage in different situations.
14. The Laws of Gods and Men, Game of Thrones: Tyrion’s trial.
15. Halfway to a Donut, Homeland: The dynamic between Carrie and Saul, as well as the difficulty of Saul’s ethics and the situations on the ground that would call for compromising them, are the strongest elements of this show and this episode places those characters in an extreme, ethically challenging situaiton.
16. The Cissy, South Park
It’s always a sign that satire is working when there is significant backlash. In our age of internet hot takes this episode encountered criticism before it even aired and then people realized that what looked like an episode making fun of the Trans community was a moving (yes, I said moving about a South Park episode; watch that last montage and tell me you don’t feel anything) celebration of being yourself. Many a think piece also seemed to misunderstand that this season of South Park wasn’t making fun of Lorde, but rather used her as a transcendental signifier of the power of a real artist to manage to succeed in a manufactured, narcissistic, and exploitative pop-culture economy.
17. Boston, The Newsroom: Sorkin’s finest moment on this strange, divisive, show
18. So Did the Fat Lady, Louie: A reoccurring theme during this season was Louie either becoming too self-conscious about telling other people’s stories, or allowing other people to tell stories instead of him and in many ways this episode set the stage for some of the more extensive instances of that.
19. Method and Madness, The Knick
20. Repilot, Community: It’s not as funny as the second episode (which almost made the list), but it’s far more clever as Harmon’s return to the show reclaims its sadder elements and reasserts some of the best character relationships on TV.
21. White Elephant, Archer: The birth of Archer Vice
22. RAM, Person of Interest: I’m not sure which show did it first, but I’m a fan of episodes without the main character or that invert the A/B story focus (Buffy’s The Zeppo being a standout). This one kind of a parallel/prequel episode reiterates the cold, calculated, paranoid universe that has helped Person of Interest transcend way beyond your average CBS procedurals.
23. Sumo’s Boat, Clarence
Most of the cartoons on Cartoon Network aimed at kids (but watched primarily by teens and 20 somethings) are adventurous exercises in pop-surrealism. What’s noteworthy about Clarence, even though it often includes surreal elements and plays with formal sitcom tropes, is that it’s grounded in reality. And nowhere did that work better than in this episode as we see Sumo’s difficult home life and his, very ineptly childlike, attempt to make his father proud.
24. Brick Like Me, The Simpsons
As much maligned as Late-Simpsons (or “Zombie Simpsons” if you are so inclined) has been, the show managed to live-up to its two high-concept event episodes. It nailed the Futurama crossover, and this Lego episode was a stand-out and the best Simpsons episode in years.
25. Tina Tailor Soldier Spy, Bob’s Burgers
Louise: Wait, your troop has a mole? Is she giving away your cookie secrets or something?
Gene: That’s my stage name! Cookie Secrets.
26. I’m So Bad, Inside Amy Schumer: IAS may have overtaken Key & Peele as the best sketch comedy show on TV this year, and this episode shows the range of Schumer’s sketch comedy abilities from the silly innuendo of “Finger blasters,” to the absurd and violent titular sketch, to the dark and topical realistic war video game sketch.
27. White Christmas, Black Mirror: Black Mirror was my favorite discovery of 2014 when Netflix added it’s first two series. This Christmas episode was probably the weakest entry to date but it’s still compelling TV. It was essentially three shorts in one, and while it felt a bit more like leftover ideas from abandoned episodes, it was still full of interesting ideas.
28. Smart Pipe, Adult Swim Infomercials: A satire about the blurry line between social media and surveillance that’s just the right amount of disturbing.
29. Wake up/Escape from the Citadel, Adventure Time: Finn goes to great lengths to meet his father…and things don’t go so well.
30. Listen, Doctor Who: As big as Doctor Who has gotten, Moffat’s timey-wimey plot devices are constantly a potential fundamental problem in the show’s architecture. Getting an older, crankier Doctor was a step in the right direction, as was this episode of New Who which tried a different approach, letting the Doctor act less as comic book hero and more as a scientist.
Gary Blauman, How I Met Your Mother: It’s really hard to not let the series-ruining finale color my opinion about the rest of the series, but this episode does right what a lot of the rest of the final season got wrong.
Aerobics Meltdown, Key & Peele. It’s hard to point to a single episode of a sketch comedy series as being particularly great because there are always weak sketches or stray ideas, and nearly every episode this season had great and less great sketches. But this had the strongest sketch of the season, perhaps of any show this year.
I Like You Hi, Regular Show