Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ed's Top TV Shows of 2014

Eight or nine years ago, I wrote a blog post on my MySpace page bemoaning the end of The West Wing and The Sopranos. I won't bother posting a link to it because it was absolute dogshit, but the basic thrust of it was that with the end of those shows, as well as other early '00s critical darlings like Six Feet Under, I couldn't imagine that TV would ever be as good as it had been over the previous five or six years.

In retrospect, and given the prevailing (and largely correct) wisdom that the last ten years or so have been a Golden Age of Television, that sentiment looks more than a little silly. Like, "buying stock in a blimp company the day after the Hindenburg disaster" silly. 2014 did little to dispel the idea that television (specifically American television, particularly cable networks and the nascent efforts of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime) is in rude health. Not only did a host of returning shows deliver great episodes, but a slew of new series debuted, with many displaying a level of confidence and quality that is quite startling (it's no coincidence that almost a third of my picks are shows which started this year).

I could probably have put another 10 shows on this list and been happy with it, but these are the 20 series which delivered great, often nearly flawless seasons of television in 2014.

Note: It should go without saying that this list is subjective since I'm picking them based on my personal preference, but it's also worth pointing out that I've only included shows if I a) watch them regularly and b) watched the most recent season. So shows I love but am behind on (The Good Wife, Rectify), shows that I have seen a bit of but not enough (The Mindy Project), or gave up on several years ago (The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy) were not considered.

20. Archer (FX)

Adam Reed's insane spin on spy movies and workplace comedies hadn't exactly gone stale by the end of its fourth season, but it did seem to be going over a lot of the same plot points that it had before. The fifth season, subtitled Vice, exploded the basic idea of the show in its first episode, then put together the pieces by having the former members of the (now rather unfortunately named) ISIS spy agency turn their hands to becoming a drug cartel (and peddlers of OUTLAW COUNTRY, WOO). It was not Archer's strongest season - that title still belongs to its sublime second - but it was the most unhinged the show has been for a while. It's been announced that season six will see the team returning to espionage, but hopefully some of that energy will carry over.

19. Comedy Bang Bang (IFC)

Even though you can pick out its constituent parts, there's nothing quite like Comedy Bang Bang on television. It mixes the awkward improvised interviews of Between Two Ferns (a series which host/creator Scott Aukerman also directs) with the brightly coloured playfulness of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, interspersed with sketches that take simple premises (a home improvement show in which a school is given a new music room) and push them to absurd extremes (the school has to pay for all of the improvements done by the show, as well as the wages of their new music teachers, The National). The show has never quite managed to replicate the free floating fun of the podcast that preceded it - which is understandable considering they only have 22 minutes versus 1-2 hours - but in its third season it found the perfect balance between a sprinkling of chaos and more focused, high-concept storytelling, as evidenced by its recent time travel episode.

18. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Over the course of its sixth season, Parks and Recreation had to contend not only with the usual problems of a show entering middle-age - characters being paired off, most of the old conflicts being resolved  - but also the departure of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, who had provided much of the show's heart and nervous laughs, respectively. The show handled the former by having Leslie lose her place on the City Council then ascend to City Manager after Lowe's Chris decided to leave, while the latter was dealt with in the same bittersweet and warm way that has typified the show at its best. That, plus the last minute time-jump that ended the season and prepared the series for its final bow next year, suggest that the show still has a bit of spark left in it (not to mention a great ensemble and at least three of the best characters on TV right now).

17. Key & Peele (Comedy Central)

Another show that shook things up after a few years of dependable quality, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key's sketch show underwent something of a major overhaul in 2014. They ditched the Chappelle's Show-esque sequences in which they talk in front of an audience and replaced them with True Detective-inspired scenes of them driving around discussing themes and ideas which would then reappear in the sketches. Aside from those cosmetic changes, the tenor of the sketches themselves changed. They got darker and weirder, while maintaining the high level of craft and love of gleeful absurdity that characterised their first three seasons. It takes guts to mess with a format that is working, but it takes phenomenal skill and talent to make a new one work as well as Key & Peele's did,

16. True Detective (HBO)

American Horror Story's series-miniseries hybrid bore fruit this year as not one but two imitators adopted the same approach and delivered fine television series in the process. HBO were first out of the gate with a bit of Southern fried existentialism that gave us eight hours to ponder the nature of evil with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they spent decades obsessing over a series of gruesome murders. It fizzled out a little bit in the end as it became apparent that the show's metaphysical trappings were more sizzle than steak, but it still delivered seven episodes of premium, dread-filled tension.

15. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

While Dan Harmon's Community had one of its more tumultuous years (and that really is saying something at this point), this animated series, which he co-created with Justin Roiland, emerged as one of the year's best and most inventive shows. What initially seemed like a more adult-oriented spin on the Doc and Marty relationship from Back to the Future, one in which Doc is an alcoholic, negligent misanthrope, quickly evolved into something quite special. Its science-fiction premise means that it can tell almost any story, including ones in which all of humanity is transformed into horrible mutants nicknamed Cronenbergs, but what makes the show great is the way it builds those crazy ideas around recognisably human figures with real fears and flaws.

14. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine would warrant inclusion on this list on the strength of the ensemble alone. Though Andy Samberg's Jake Peralta is the main character, and that is frequently a deal-breaker for people because he can be a bit big in his performance, the real strength lies in how Peralta plays against his fellow police officers in the 99th Precinct. Chief amongst them is Andre Braugher as Captain Holt, probably the funniest straight man in comedy at the moment, but the show is an embarrassment of riches thanks to great work from Terry Crews, Stephanie Beatriz, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti and Melissa Fumero. On top of all that, you have solid writing that balances the needs of a workplace sitcom with just enough police procedural elements to be intriguing.

13. Louie (FX)

Louis C.K. took a long hiatus between the third and fourth seasons of the show that he writes, directs, sometimes edits, and stars in, so there was quite a bit of uncertainty about what he would do when the show returned. That was heightened by the way that the show aired, with all 14 episodes being played in double-bills over seven weeks. Most of the time that would be cause for alarm since it looks uncomfortably close to episodes being burned off by the network, but C.K. made it work. He incorporated a greater degree of serialisation than in previous seasons, allowing for cliffhangers that would get people talking (not to mention writing: few shows this year generated as many think pieces as Louie did) such as the six-part "Elevator" arc, charting the beginning and end of a relationship between Louie and one of his neighbours, and "Pamela", a two-parter in which the first part ended with Louie forcing himself on his friend/unrequited love interest Pamela, the fallout of which wasn't dealt with for another two episodes. Louie has always seemed to exist outside the norms of television, but in its fourth season it even managed to exist outside the rules it had established for tself.

12. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

One of the downsides of releasing the entirety of a show online in one go is that episodes get produced and released without any opportunity for feedback from audiences and critics, so there's no time for the show to evolve within a season, or to make corrections for creative miscalculations. The upside is that a show can become a genuine word of mouth hit, as something you've never heard of gets devoured and evangelised about organically. In its first season, Netflix's BoJack Horseman embodied both those traits. The first five or six episodes made for a fitfully funny, slightly broad satire of Hollywood, but in the back half the show turned into an often achingly sad depiction of isolation and depression. That the story centres around a half-man half-horse creature and features a sociopathic version of Margo Martindale (playing herself, naturally) only heightens the brilliance of what the show achieved by the end of its debut season.

11. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS)

It's very easy to mock Ken Burns' signature style (so much so that people have been doing it for years and years) in which stock photos and archive footage are combined with talking heads and dramatic readings of primary sources. Yet it's also easy to underestimate how effective it can be when used well. In telling the story of the Roosevelt family, Burns' approach invested historical figures with a richness and a sense of life, while his unadorned style allowed for moments of heartbreak and humour to shine through in a way that might have felt forced in a less sedate style. It helps that focusing on one family gave the show momentum, and prevented it from meandering to the extent that his series on Jazz and World War II did.

10. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Several years ago, I wrote this article for Hope Lies in which I argued that HBO's Luck was a series that prized the purity of a great moment or image over story because such moments could crystallise the themes of a given episode. In its fourth season, Game of Thrones applied a similar principle to a show that people actually watch. Following the events of the third season's Red Wedding, which effectively cut off the conflict that drove the show for several years, the fourth season was an altogether messier affair. Big, world-altering plots progressed from episode to episode with no strong thematic or dramatic purpose behind them, but once or twice an episode some small thing would happen which would make everything snap into place, be it a surprising (to people who haven't read the books) death or a brawl in a tavern. This year marked the point at which Game of Thrones became less about the politics of its world and more about the impact they had on the people who live in it.

9. Mad Men (AMC)

AMC's decision to split Mad Men's final season in two might have made sense from a financial and awards perspective, but creatively it meant that the show could only really tell half a story, withholding all resolution for a year. But within that half a story, Matthew Weiner and his team found a beautiful tale of redemption (or at least the beginnings of one) as Don Draper tried to pick up the pieces of his life after being effectively fired from his own firm at the end of the previous season. What really shined through over the course of the season was how Mad Men, unlike its departed stablemate Breaking Bad, doesn't really need big plot developments in order to deliver a satisfactory ending; there were at least three episodes in this half-season which felt like they could have been the finale and still felt like a good way to end the series. Hopefully next year's final batch will give us some more fantastic moments and maybe a little bit of happiness for some of the people involved.

8. Fargo (FX)

Though True Detective got most of the attention for the way in which it told a self-contained story over a single season, for my money, Fargo was the better show. There's lots of reasons why it worked for me more than True Detective did - the wider array of fun, interesting characters, the dark yet deadpan tone, the wintry beauty of its Midwestern vistas - but the main reason is that Alison Tolman went from being someone I'd never heard of to giving one of the best, most nuanced performances on TV within the course of, at most, two episodes. And not only did it have to introduce a whole slew of characters, most of whom didn't make it to the end, but it also had to compete with the memory of the Coen Brothers' film and a healthy skepticism over whether a TV series of Fargo was even necessary. Within a few episodes, the show had established itself as its own beast, while also paying due homage to the film that inspired it, as well as numerous other films in the Coens' oeuvre. It had an uphill battle ahead of it and it sprinted all the way to the top.

7. Review (Comedy Central)

Over the last few years, Comedy Central has built a fascinating stable of shows that have established it as being at the forefront of American television comedy. The key to that success seems to be a willingness to take comedians and writers with distinct voices and personalities and let them create shows that play to their strengths, something they'd done with Chappelle's Show previously, but which you can really see in the likes of Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll ShowNathan For You, The Ben Show, the aforementioned Key & Peele, and Andy Daly's Review. Loosely inspired by an Australian show of the same name, Review finds Daly playing Forest MacNeil, a critic who hosts a TV show in which he reviews life experiences, ranging from eating a lot of pancakes and quitting his job to getting addicted to cocaine and filming a sex tape. The premise allows Daly to explore a dichotomy that has been at the heart of a lot of his stand-up and improv work; taking a mild-mannered, enthusiastic demeanour and using it to explore dark and weird places. Review is the fullest, funniest version of that persona yet realised.

6. The Americans (FX)

The first season of The Americans was a finely tuned spy show built around the growing trust and love between Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a pair of Soviet sleeper agents posing as a normal American couple. In the second season, the show took their stronger, more unified front and put it under almost unbearable pressure as they had to juggle their usual fear of exposure, the stress of raising two children, a plot to steal plans for stealth technology and an ongoing mystery surrounding the deaths of another pair of sleeper agents. The ultimate resolution of that plot provided the show with a chilling finale that also hinted at even darker days ahead.

5. Looking (HBO)

Initially billed as "Girls, but with gay men in San Francisco" Looking proved to be one of the year's best and richest comedies. The involvement of writer-director Andrew Haigh brings obvious comparisons to his wonderful film Weekend, a comparison that becomes undeniable when you consider that the fifth episode, "Looking for the Future", is essentially a half-hour long remake of that film, but it stands up admirably alongside its cinematic forebear. Both are funny, unassuming and honest portrayals of modern gay life, filled with frank, open discussions about love, sex and identity. (Although only Looking can boast a great supporting turn from Scott Bakula as a representative of an older generation strengthened by death and loss.)

4. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

Anyone who watched John Oliver's stint as the guest host of The Daily Show in 2013 could see that he had what it took to host his own late night show. What few could have expected was how essential that show would become, or how quickly. Using the ad-free format of HBO to its advantage, Last Week Tonight was able to take the format that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had perfected - comedy as critique/explanation of the news - and took it deeper. Oliver's show quickly became defined by long, detailed and hilarious monologues in which he delved into topics ranging from the US prison system to corruption in FIFA and the complex systems of half-truths and obfuscations used in selling Miss America pageants as charitable endeavors. Underpinning all of this is Oliver's passionate yet whimsical tone, something which he honed over many years on The Daily Show and his podcast The Bugle. The end result was a show that could be righteously angry and laugh out loud funny within a single breath, and which became essential viewing, whether you watched it live or in excerpts on YouTube.

3. Broad City (Comedy Central)

In keeping with what I said about Review, Comedy Central's approach to Broad City was to let Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson take their web series of the same name and expand it into a television show, with the end result being the closest American television has come to replicating the weird, distorted vision of living in a modern city found in the likes of Spaced and Peep Show. Broad City is a by turns filthy and sweet examination of two friends muddling through their 20s in New York and trying to find some form of happiness, whether that means finding true love or scoring Weezy tickets. Few shows emerged as fully formed as Broad City did this year, making it one of the most consistently great shows of 2014.

2. Transparent (Amazon)

Amazon's first pilot season, in which the public are able to watch a selection of pilots and provide feedback over which should be picked up for a full season, passed largely without incident or great acclaim. Its second, however, produced not only one of the best series of the year, but arguably one of the best comedy-dramas of all time in Jill Solloway's Transparent. While initially about the attempts of a transgender woman (Jeffrey Tambor) to announce to her family that she is transitioning from a male to a female identity, the show subtly spirals out to examine what that news means for her family, as well as their many dysfunctions. It's a sensitive, funny and scabrous examination of a group of people trying to fight their inherent selfishness (and often failing) as they are forced to re-examine who they are as individuals and who they are as a family.

1. Hannibal (NBC)

Hannibal's first season was largely great, thanks primarily to some of the most beautiful and oppressive cinematography on television and great performances from Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, but it was also hobbled by a case of the week structure that was never a wholly natural fit for the show's lyrical tone. The second season largely shrugged that off, instead focusing most of its energies on the battle of wills between Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Dancy) as the latter tried to expose the former for the monster that he is, while the former tried to convince Graham that he was a monster, too. That psychological codependency provided the meat for a run that was seasoned with plenty of delicious devilry, from Michael Pitt as the detestable Mason Verger, to Chris Diamontopoulos as a man who takes animal husbandry to a whole new level. It also delivered probably the most gut-wrenching and exhilarating finale of the year, an operatic crescendo that combined all the superlative elements of the show into one glorious bloodbath. Like Will Graham, Hannibal evolved this year into something both terrible and beautiful.