Last year I never got around to doing a year-end TV piece. I could claim that it’s because I consider myself above such mainstream banality, but the more honest reason is I started one but never finished it because I’m lazy and somewhat careless, and with no official deadline it simply slipped away. Determined not to let that happen again this year, I made notes to myself all year long about what I was watching, but those last couple of weeks of December slipped by in a holiday blur and here we are a week into 2015. I started working on this article several weeks ago, honest.
it was only after I started turning my notes into written thoughts that I realized that it’s impossible for me to produce a conventional “top ten” list or anything in that vein, for a few reasons. First and probably most important: with the explosion of original programming and providers, it’s impossible to see everything, even for those lucky people who get paid to watch and write about TV. Also, I don’t have HBO or Showtime so there are definitely things I miss out on (I don’t believe in torrenting or otherwise “acquiring” content, and I don’t happen to know anyone with an HBO Go password I can use); and of course there are shows that I just choose not to watch due to lack of interest.
I’ve also never been completely comfortable with the idea of establishing a definitive ranking putting show X ahead of show Y; back when I wrote about music for a now-defunct local publication in the early 1990s, my year-end list would consist of my favorite albums of that year, but in alphabetical order. Therefore, this is definitely not a “best” list, but rather a rundown of what TV shows I found most entertaining and most worth my time in 2014. Alphabetically, then:
In its second season The Americans (FX) made the leap from very good to great by turning introspective and focusing on how Philip and Elizabeth’s mission could and did affect their children (who remain, for now, ignorant of their parents’ secret allegiance to Mother Russia), while keeping the espionage stories tense and credible. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are terrific, but credit must go to the entire cast for outstanding work while wearing some rather unfortunate 1980s wigs and outfits. (Season three begins on January 28th.)
Bob’s Burgers has become the best of Fox’s animated shows, partly because of its relative freshness (The Simpsons is still watchable and good for some laughs, but it’s showing its age) but more for its warmth and willingness to tell stories about a loopy yet realistic family (as opposed to Family Guy’s continued quest for cheap laughs via the laziest and most offensive possible jokes).
Broad City (Comedy Central) arrived on TV seemingly fully formed, clearly benefiting from its earlier incarnation as a web series. The stories of Abbi and Ilana’s adventures were audacious, goofy, earnest, and unafraid to go to some strange places, while also presenting a very realistic portrayal of friendship, relationships, and living in New York in one’s 20’s. I’m so excited for season two (starting January 14th) that I’m rewatching season one (currently available on the Comedy Central website and app) to get warmed up.
Fargo (FX): I didn’t know what to expect from the TV counterpart to the Coen Brothers movie. It wasn’t a retelling or reimagining of the film, but rather a separate story taking place at a different point in time in the same world as the film (the connection was made explicit in a flashback scene). It seemed unlikely to work but turned out to be some of the most compelling TV viewing of the year for me. Billy Bob Thornton was chilling as Lorne Malvo, a remorseless killer with a profound understanding of human nature, and Allison Tolman was a welcome newcomer as sheriff’s deputy Molly Solverson.
The Good Wife (CBS) continues to be the best “grown-up” drama on any of the major networks, due largely to the guiding hands of its creators Michelle and Robert King, who are more involved in planning season arcs and writing individual episodes than many other TV show creators. Unlike many shows (especially legal dramas) that dumb down the storytelling, TGW tells its stories from a point of view that expects the audience to be able to keep up with both content and pace. And the guest casting, even for smaller roles, is consistently stellar.
Hannibal (NBC): it’s mind-blowing that this show even exists, never mind that it’s on a broadcast network. Season two turned the dark-mirror parallel relationship between profiler Will Graham and cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter into more of an overt battle of wits and wills as each tried to outsmart and outmaneuver the other, leading to the operatically bloody season finale. I was a little disappointed that the cases of the week, the source of so much vivid and gruesome imagery, took a back seat to Will and Hannibal’s machinations, but it was understandable and necessary to advance the story.
Key & Peele (Comedy Central): Early in the fourth season I found myself feeling that K&P was still funny but somehow wasn’t quite reaching last season’s peaks, but as I kept watching I realized that they’d taken their writing in a different direction. Being able to look back at the season as a whole, the tone was much darker and the comedy riskier, and they looked like geniuses all over again.
Mad Men (AMC): I recently rewatched the first half of the final season, and I think it stands with the peaks of seasons four and five, especially the last three episodes. The series could have ended with Don’s vision (hallucination?) of Bert Cooper’s soft-shoe (soft-sock?) and I would have been almost entirely satisfied; even though I disapprove of AMC’s decision to split the season, I’m happy there are still seven episodes left.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) kept expanding the back stories of the characters through flashbacks, and benefited from pulling back from focusing so much on Piper. Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee was a formidable villain, and her presence brought several other characters’ situations (Taystee, Red, Suzanne) into sharper focus.
Person of Interest (CBS): After Hannibal, I find this the most fascinating show on a major network. A number of critics wrote it off when it started as just another CBS procedural working the formula, but its willingness to engage in exploring deep issues (along with its regular doses of action and thrills) elevates it to another level. The show’s writing asks tough questions about privacy, security, freedom, and the costs of having those things, knowing there are no easy answers. It’s also a smart show, willing to make its mythology more dense and complex as it progresses, and trusting that viewers will come along. And Bear, the faithful Malinois, is the show’s secret weapon.
The surprise of the year for me was You’re the Worst (FX), which gave the audience a brilliant skewering of romantic comedies with its central couple. Jimmy and Gretchen acted like they didn’t care if their relationship had any more depth than a series of no-strings hookups, but each was secretly longing for the security, steadiness, and companionship of a genuine relationship; after they finally acknowledged that’s what they wanted, they faced the challenge of figuring out how to have it while still being true to who they are. Sidekicks Edgar and Lindsay were as authentically damaged as the leads but in their own specific ways, and the show also managed some sharp jabs at specific pop-culture reference points (mainly hipsters, but also the LA foodie scene and a hip-hop performer whose public persona doesn’t quite align with his real self). FX is moving YTW over to FXX for its second season, so I hope they aren’t basing its future only on ratings.