Normally, at this time of year, I am scrambling to see all the movies that have come out in the previous twelve months to compile my annual Best Films of the Year list. But 2014 was the year in which I finally admitted to myself, and said out loud, what I've been secretly thinking for a while now: I like TV better.
I'm not making an argument for the superiority of television to cinema as an art form. (I could—and I would mean it—but what would be the point?) But I will say that television excites me right now in a way that no other medium has in a long, long time. I stopped reviewing movies, in part, because I found weeks and months were going by without there being a single movie released that I particularly wanted to watch, let alone write about. In the television landscape, on the other hand—despite a truly ridiculous number of very convenient ways to consume shows—keeping up with the embarrassment of riches on offer has proven all but impossible. I'm always watching something—almost literally—and yet the list of reportedly great shows I still need to check out just keeps growing longer. (For the record, that list includes The Americans, Broad City, The Good Wife, Jane the Virgin, Masters of Sex, Rectify, and a number of other shows that I've seen on other critic's lists of the Best of 2014. I'll get around to binge watching at least some of these eventually, but alas, you won't find them on my list this year.)
A few other caveats for this list: First, I would find it almost impossible to figure out where The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week with John Oliver should go on such a list: I view them more like essential public utilities than TV shows, so just read their greatness as a given.
Second, my definition of a "2014" show is kind of fluid: at least two shows on my list are British imports that originally ran in earlier years, but which only made it to American audiences (through Netflix and PBS) in 2014. I could make a logical argument for including these, but the real reason they're here is this: they were really good, and I want to honor them, and I want to recommend that you to watch them. (That, after all, is the only real point to these lists, isn't it?)
Finally—and this hopefully goes without saying—I'm not really making any claims for objectivity or authority here. "Best" is a bullshit word, and assigning ranks is a bullshit (but fun) exercise. Though I make some effort to prevent my personal fetishes from overriding my critical faculties—my beloved Doctor Who, for example, did not come close to making the cut this year—this is really just a list of my favorite TV experiences in 2014: the shows I loved, the shows that impressed me, the shows that I couldn't wait to watch and re-watch, and the shows I simply had to recommend to all my friends.
The last of which, of course, is what I'm doing now. So, without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite shows of 2014, along with some honorable mentions.
15. TRUE DETECTIVE
I confess, I seriously considered leaving True Detective (HBO) off my list, if only to make it clear that I do not consider it the masterpiece that many other critics seem to see. In my view, the show's status is seriously marred: by a cop-out ending that invalidated much of the show's plot, character development, and worldview; by creator Nic Pizzolatto's refusal to credit material lifted—sometimes word for word—from writer Thomas Ligotti; and by some serious inabilities to deal with its female characters as actual human beings. Nevertheless, there's no denying that True Detective was—for at least seven of its eight episodes—compelling, provocative television of an overall quality and consistency that elevated it above most other shows on the air this year. It turned out that those seven episodes were recklessly writing checks that the finale couldn't cash, but they still made for visually stunning, intellectually stimulating, emotionally harrowing television unlike anything we'd seen before. (And, most importantly, it provided inspiration for our set of True Detective Greeting Cards: order now, while supplies last.)
The third series of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock (BBC & PBS) has proven divisive among the show's rabid fanbase, but polarized reception is often one of the hallmarks of a great and daring season. This year, Sherlock didn't completely abandon its "case-of-the-week" format, but the mysteries themselves took a backseat as the show consciously focused on what has always been its most interesting and engaging element: the complex friendship between Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman). Moving the emotional content from subtext to text was a risky move, and it really shouldn't have worked—but it did, thanks to two extraordinary performances and writing that deftly balanced occasional mawkishness with humor, cleverness, and real pathos. Moffat and Gatiss had a runaway hit and a surefire formula with Sherlock, and they could have kept cranking out variations on the same thing year after year. Instead, they chose to dig deeper, take the story in new directions, and allow the show—and the characters—to grow.
13. HAPPY VALLEY
I discovered a new favorite television auteur in 2014, as Happy Valley (BBC & Netflix) is only the first of two shows from creator Sally Wainwright to make my list. Describing the plot of Happy Valley—which centers around a small-town cop's investigation of a kidnapping plot gone awry—would make it sound like a British version of Fargo, and that's not terribly inaccurate. But what makes Happy Valley special is an unflinching commitment to realism, a powerful and complex performance from star Sarah Lancashire, and an unwavering quality I can only call humaneness. From the cops to the robbers to the victims, Wainwright writes real, complicated people, not the easy TV tropes and archetypes we've seen so many times before. The result is not another cookie-cutter crime show, but an engrossing, sometimes brutal drama about well-developed characters whose lives have been touched by crime.
12. YOU'RE THE WORST
Stephen Falk's You're the Worst (FX) is something of a stealth miracle: it's a broad sex comedy that turns out to have real emotional stakes, a misanthropic work that demonstrates genuine sympathy for human beings, and an extended diatribe against romance that turns into the best and most convincing rom-com of the year. Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) are both cynical, bitter, amoral, relationship-averse singles who hook up for some no-strings sex at a wedding, and discover—to their surprise, mistrust, and occasional terror—that the jagged shards of their damaged souls fit perfectly together. "If we both know that it can't work, then there's no harm, right?" Gretchen asks at the end of the pilot, and so begins a viciously funny, outrageously profane, surprisingly sweet love story between two people who will probably need two or three more seasons to even say the word "love" out loud. With razor-sharp performances from its two leads, and scene-stealing supporting work from Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue as their friends, You're the Worst starts as the best surprise of the season and just keeps getting better.
Bryan Fuller's Hannibal (NBC) is the only broadcast network show to make my list this year, which makes sense: it's a show that often makes me say "I can't believe this is on network TV." Though it boasts good writing and excellent performances from the entire cast—particularly the two leads, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen—what makes Hannibal essential viewing is its sheer audacity. The reckless unpredictability of Fuller's storytelling—in which seemingly anything can happen, at any time, to anyone—makes Hannibal a breathless outlier in the formulaic network landscape, and the show's marriage of stunning, imaginative visuals to blood-soaked Grand Guignol sensibilities frequently produces scenes of strange and startling beauty. It's only because I find the show's characters a little emotionally distancing that Hannibal doesn't rate much higher on my list, but it's still a jaw-dropping high-wire act that gorgeously combines dark psychology, abject horror, and wicked humor.
There was a time—not too long ago—when television shows based on movies were pretty much guaranteed to suck. There were exceptions, of course—M*A*S*H and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are the first two that come to mind for me—but a lot of us remain skeptical every time we hear that a new version of some beloved film or film franchise is headed to the small screen. As it turns out, however, we may need to start giving such shows the benefit of the doubt. Like Hannibal, Noah Hawley's Fargo (FX) avoids all the traps of such adaptations: it doesn't try to recreate the magic of the original, but uses its spirit, themes, and psychic landscape as inspiration for new, more deeply delving stories. The shaggy-dog plot of Fargo's first season loped and meandered in ways I occasionally found frustrating, but the plot was never the point. Like the movie that inspired it, Fargo became a fascinating character study of ordinary people under pressure, only we got to watch it play out over 10 hours instead of two. The long-form, self-contained story is a relatively new thing for American television—the Brits have been doing it forever—but it's an exciting one: watching excellent actors like Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, and fantastic newcomer Allison Tolman traverse a complete character arc over the course of a single season elevates the possibilities of the art form.
9. LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX
The first two seasons of Last Tango in Halifax actually ran on the BBC in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but—because Season 2 didn't run in America (on PBS) until 2014—I'm sneaking it in here on a technicality. The second of creator Sally Wainwright's shows to make my list—and loosely based on her own mother's late second marriage—Halifax tells the story of two widowed senior-citizens (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid) who knew each other as teen-agers, and who now reconnect sixty years later on Facebook. Their impulsive courtship and marriage brings their two very different families together, and their love affair inspires their respective adult daughters (Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire) to start reconsidering the choices they've each made with their lives. Last Tango in Halifax is warmer, funnier, and more domestically genteel than Wainwright's brutal Happy Valley, but the emotional stakes feel just as high. In fact—though there are subplots aplenty, and even a few mysteries—Halifax proves that all you need for compelling television is to allow great actors the room to explore richly complicated, deeply flawed, painfully human characters like these.
8. THE FALL
At this point in my list I can imagine some readers getting frustrated. We get it, you like the Brits, I hear them say in hypothetical exasperation. Yes, I do, and here's why: they do some things way better than we colonials do, and the crime-drama genre happens to be one of them. Allan Cubit's The Fall (BBC & Netflix), set in Belfast, is an excellent example of what I mean. Serial killers are a dime a dozen on TV, but The Fall plays out its single case over two seasons (so far), with a careful patience that never for a moment slacks in intensity. Taking its time this way allows every element of these all-too-familiar scenarios to develop beyond the standard tropes we're used to seeing: the detective-work is more interesting (and realistic), the crimes themselves are more emotionally impactful, and even the minor characters seem like real and fully-fleshed people. There are no anonymous victims here of the type we see on True Detective (let alone on lesser CSI-type dramas): they are actual people, and they matter, and so the stakes of the entire enterprise are raised almost unbearably. The same is true of the "hero" and "villain": the killer (brilliantly played by Jamie Dornan) is no distant demonic archetype, but a real human being who we get to know every bit as well, if not better, than the strong, enigmatic, incredibly complex detective hunting him (Gillian Anderson's Stella Gibson, the best character of her kind since Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison). With absolutely mesmerizing performances from these two leads, and a plot that sustains fantastic tension (with only occasional lapses in logic), The Fall may have been the most compulsively addictive show I binged in 2014.
7. ORPHAN BLACK
I'll be the first to admit that Orphan Black (BBC America) had a few missteps and misfires in its sophomore season, but those infrequent low points were insignificant compared to the dazzling heights creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, and star Tatiana Maslany, managed more often to reach. Playing half-a-dozen very different clones of the same woman, the obscenely talented Maslany is giving a one-woman master-class in ensemble acting, but this gimmick is only the flashiest and most obvious of the ambitious juggling acts that Orphan Black makes look easy. Most impressive, perhaps, is how Orphan Black effortlessly manages what only the best sci-fi can do: use an imaginative and entertaining premise to unpack real emotional truths, examine damaging social paradigms, and provide substantive messages of empowerment. "In a sea of programs that give lip service to issues of female equality and empowerment," I wrote this summer, "this show is just quietly (and awesomely) embodying those things. In a television landscape in which the best we can usually hope for is an awareness of gender bias and misogynistic attitudes, this show is addressing them head on." Orphan Black has proven itself to be the most feminist show on television, and it has done so while remaining the most fun. (Read my reviews of Orphan Black's second season here.)
6. KEY AND PEELE
Sketch comedy is a notoriously hit-or-miss endeavor, but Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele don't miss often. Key and Peele (Comedy Central) has always been good, but this year's fourth season felt like the duo raised the bar for themselves, and in doing so raised the bar for sketch comedy as a whole. (Saturday Night Live has never seemed as irrelevant as it does while watching the average Key and Peele segment.) This year, Key and Peele changed up their format, gave some of their most successful recurring premises a rest, elevated their production values to cinematic quality, and pushed their smart, socially-insightful comedy in new, often dark, usually hilarious directions. Whether exploring the complicated relationships between whites and blacks ("Alien Imposters"), between blacks and gays ("Gay Wedding Advice"), or between men and women ("Dying Wife Promise"), Key and Peele rarely takes the lazy joke, never fails to commit fully to the premise, and is always smart, incisive, and funny as hell.
5. THE AFFAIR
The Affair (Showtime) slipped a notch or two on my list when its last two episodes took an ill-advised swerve into melodrama, but that forgivable misstep wasn't enough to knock Sarah Treme and Hagai Levi's smart, novelistic show out of my personal top five. Centered on the adulterous relationship between a New York writer (Dominic West) and a Montauk waitress (Ruth Wilson), The Affair is telling a familiar story in a bold and illuminating way, by splitting the point-of-view of each episode between the two characters, Rashomon-style. The result is a compelling study of the workings of memory, the limits of subjective reality, and the differences between how men and women construct the narratives of their lives. Both leads are excellent—particularly Wilson, who gives my favorite performance of the year—as are their respective spouses Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson. But the real stars here are Treme and Levi, who are pushing the limitations of the televisual form and creating an insightful, moving story that properly takes place not in either of the protagonists' memory of events, but in the shifting sympathetic imagination of the viewer. My one hesitation about The Affair is that Treme and Levi felt the need to wrap this profoundly intelligent study around a less-interesting murder mystery plotline, but that concession to TV formula doesn't taint the rewarding results of this groundbreaking experiment. (Read my reviews of The Affair here.)
For the past few years I've gotten angry when Louie (FX) inevitably failed to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. (No offense, but fuck you, Modern Family.) But I've ultimately decided such scoring doesn't even apply, let alone matter: Louis C.K. is playing his own game by his own rules, held up only to his own increasingly ambitious standards. Louie is definitely not a sit-com: from the beginning, C.K. has eschewed such quaint conventions as continuity, consistent casting, and realism, taking the liberty to serve each individual story without obligation to whatever came before or might come after. At this point, I'm not even sure it's accurate to call Louie a "comedy" at all, except in the broadest, life-is-a-comedy kind of way: in Season Four, C.K. seems to have consciously decided not to push or manufacture jokes, and to give himself permission to follow the stories he wanted to tell wherever they might lead. The show is still reliably funny—providing some of the smartest, most painfully honest comedy on television, in fact—but Louie finds the humor where it lays, alongside moments of sadness and shame, moments of parental concern and terror, and even the occasional, fleeting moment of joy or absolutely transcendent beauty. C.K. has always been a great comedian, but he's also evolving into a great filmmaker right before our eyes.
3. MAD MEN
In its seventh and final season, it is easy to take Mad Men (AMC) for granted, or even to feel that the bloom is off the rose a bit at this point. But Matthew Weiner's long-form exploration of the decade that changed America is every bit as good as it ever was, even if many of the characters—like America itself—are floundering a bit as the series reaches the end of the '60s. Admittedly, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has lost a lot of his cool over the last couple of seasons, but that's exactly the point: the thin veneer of American confidence and exceptionalism has been meticulously stripped away over the course of the series, and the American dream has been revealed to be just that. Don began the series as the perfect vision of the white American male, but by the middle of 1969 he's been pushed so far off his pedestal that he's now working for the "girl" (Elisabeth Moss) who once was his secretary. The short 2014 half-season leaves us with his humble acceptance of his new role, and Peggy's glorious ascension to the heights he once occupied so easily—events that occur simultaneously with the symbolic death of the older generation (in Robert Morse's Bert Cooper), and with humanity landing on the moon and touching the face of God. We still have seven episodes left in 2015 before we can judge it as a whole, but the care, craft, and integrity Weiner continues to bring to this extraordinary story make it clear, as we approach the final chapter, that Mad Men was always one long, brilliantly constructed work of television art. (Read my reviews of Mad Men here.)
2. BLACK MIRROR
There's nothing like a late addition to screw up your list. I had my shows picked weeks ago, but then Netflix started streaming Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. The series—which originally ran on the UK's Channel Four—has been compared (favorably, and fairly) to The Twilight Zone, but that's a bit misleading: Rod Serling's show was a genuine hodgepodge of tales, but Brooker has something very specific and precise in mind with this sci-fi anthology series. The title refers to the screens that surround and define our very existence in the modern age—TV screens, computer screens, phone screens—and Brooker has set out to examine troubling aspects of our present by imagining where these ubiquitous screens may lead us in the near future. Reality TV, digital commerce, pornography, social media journalism, celebrity, and our addiction to recording and sharing every aspects of our lives online all come under the gaze of Black Mirror, the realities of our current existence tweaked and twisted into imaginative, nightmarish, frighteningly recognizable fictions. Brooker avoids the sort of judgement, preachiness, and hipster philosophizing such a project might fall victim to in other hands, and conjures self-contained stories that entertain (and harrow) in their own right, even as they unsettle us with uncomfortable truths about how we live now that we've all suspected but haven't dared to examine ourselves. Great science-fiction is a lens through which we can re-examine our own society with a fresh perspective, and Black Mirror is among the very best I've looked through in a long, long time.
1. GAME OF THRONES
It's no doubt an anti-climax—at least for my long-time readers—to discover David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's Game of Thrones (HBO) reigning atop my list of the year's best shows. And I'd feel guilty for using this space to feature a show I've trumpeted at such length before if it wasn't for the fact that Game of Thrones—too often dismissed as (at best) a well-made, well-acted genre show—continues to get little or no respect. I've seen enough other end-of-the-year lists to know I may be the only critic to say this, so I'll say it, and I'll mean it: Game of Thrones is the best show on television, by rather a large margin. The sheer scale of this endeavor—an adaptation of George R. R. Martin's epic, sprawling, notoriously unwieldy A Song of Ice and Fire series—would be staggeringly impressive even if it had turned out to be just a well-made, well-acted fantasy series. But Martin's work is cut from finer cloth than that, and Benioff and Weiss are executing this adaptation in a way that preserves, tightens, and enhances the rich, complex, deeply humane themes that underlie all the various storylines and character arcs in this remarkably integrous whole. This season—which began to venture into the messiest (and least finished) chapters of Martin's long story—was a make-or-break time for Game of Thrones, and Benioff and Weiss triumphed, delivering what may be their best season yet. Television is such a disparaged medium that it has become commonplace to compliment it only by comparing it to something else: "it's cinema-quality," we say, or "it holds together like good literature." I won't damn this show, or TV itself, with such faint praise. It does look as good as most movies, and it is as deep and well-constructed as good literature, but Game of Thrones deserves to be recognized for what it is: a truly great television show that is expanding our understanding of what the medium itself can do. (Need more convincing? Read my reviews of Game of Thrones here.)
The Award for "Most Improved" (tie)
For years I found The Walking Dead (AMC) to be the most consistently frustrating show on television, but the series—under the guidance of showrunner Scott Gimple—had an excellent half-season in 2014. The show seems to have solved its pacing problems (knock wood), improved considerably on its tonal problems, and made leaps and bounds towards developing its characters into people we can actually care about. Show me another seven episodes this good, and I'll be forced to put it on my list next year.
Meanwhile, I maintain my love/hate relationship with Jenji Kohan's Orange is the New Black (Netflix), but the second season was infinitely better than the first—mostly because it stopped channeling its point of view through annoyingly privileged straight white people (Taylor Schilling and Jason Biggs), and started making room for the voices of women whose stories are rarely seen on TV.
The "Guilty Pleasure" Award
Speaking of quantum leaps in representation, Peter Nowalk and Shonda Rhimes' How to Get Away with Murder (ABC) is an absurd potboiler of a show, but I keep watching just to see the fabulous Viola Davis sink her teeth into the kind of role—strong, complicated, difficult, powerful, sexual—that black women are rarely allowed to play in any medium.
The "Good but Overrated" Award
Transparent (Amazon) has topped a lot of critics' lists this year, and I agree it's good—but I also think it's less groundbreaking than it's getting credit for being, and more problematic. The cast is excellent, and one can't help but applaud the representation of transgendered people on television, but watching Transparent I found myself wishing three things: that Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) had been played by an actual transgender woman; that, in focusing on her gender identity, Transparent had not neutered Maura of her sexuality; and that her story had not been wrapped in—and often pushed to the margins by—the all-too familiarly neurotic shenanigans of her all-too familiar family.
The "Excellent But I Don't Ever Want to Watch It Again" Award
I was a huge fan of Sean Durkin's debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, so I was eager to check out his four episode mini-series Southcliffe, about a small English town rocked by a random shooting spree. And it was good: raw, intense, unremittingly realistic, and beautifully acted and directed. It was also—fitting its subject matter—bleak and depressing as hell, partially because it refrains from providing any easy answers or uplifting homilies.
The "Most Pleasant Surprise" Award
At first glance, Raphael Bob-Waksberg's Bojack Horseman (Netflix) looks like the sort of surreal "Adult-Swim"-type cartoon for which I have little patience. But this story of a washed-up sit-com actor (who yes, happens to be a horse) turned out to balance its absurdist humor with genuinely character-driven storylines and a surprising amount of heart. I began watching it as an often-funny curiosity, but about halfway through the first season I found I actually cared about the people involved—even if some of them were anthropomorphized animals.
The "Fine, I'll Give It Another Chance" Award (tie)
I watched the first few episodes of both The Leftovers (HBO) and The Knick (Cinemax), and found them both visually impressive but narratively overblown and ridiculous. Seeing them both turn up on so many end of the year lists, however, makes me think I should check out the full seasons…eventually.