Monday, December 29, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best TV Of The Year

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best TV Shows of The Year

- So it may not be hyperbole to call 2014 television's best year ever. In the wake of last year's Breaking Bad finale, I think there was a collective panic from industry insiders - was the Golden Age of TV over? Had Breaking Bad set the bar so high that it was all downhill from here? The answer was, in fact, a resounding "no." Breaking Bad did raise the bar, but a number of new and returning dramas stepped up admirably to fill the void. 

You guys know that I'm a huge pop-culture junkie. I watch a lot of TV. But there was no possible way I could keep up with the tidal wave of good stuff this year. In fact, no one could. There was good TV coming from broadcast, cable, and premium networks. There was even more good TV coming from Netflix. And Amazon. And any number of other places. In 2015, we're going to get a new season of Community via Yahoo. We're going to get a new Tina Fey-penned comedy - originally meant for NBC - premiering on Netflix. We're going to watch via streaming, EST, VOD, TVE, and DVR. There's too much content, no question. Luckily, so much of it is good that if you don't have a great show or two that you're into, well, you're clearly living in a cave. 

All of a sudden, IFC is doing great shows. Comedy Central is on an incredible hot streak, helping to usher in a TV comedy renaissance that led to tons of laughs this year. Some of TV's best shows are only getting better - with Game of Thrones having its best-ever season, and Key & Peele emerging as *the* must-see comedy on TV. New shows blew me away with their quality and originality. True Detective, Fargo, Broad City, Penny Dreadful. Even shows that I dismissed have apparently gotten better. Last year, everyone seemed with me as I unceremoniously dropped the likes of Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from my DVR. Now, all I hear is how I need to get back onboard. Speaking of superheroes, there were tons of them on TV this year. Some of the new comic book shows bombed, but others soared. The Flash is probably my favorite new show of the 2014 Fall TV season -a fun, fast-paced series unashamed of its comic book roots. 

Perhaps no show best summarizes the state of TV in 2014 as well as Black Mirror - a British series that actually first premiered in the UK back in 2011. Here is a series that was mostly unknown in the US, but then suddenly dropped on Netflix in December and became an instant viral sensation. This modern twist on The Twilight Zone - a sci-fi anthology that tells darkly-tinged stories about the dangers of technology - received no promotion, no advertising ... it simply went live on Neflix and word-of-mouth did the rest. 

The other mega-hit that sort of defines 2014 for me wasn't even actually a TV show, but a podcast. More and more over the last few years, I've found podcasts a great way to go more in-depth on a particular area of interest. But Serial was the first podcast that I listened to with the same sense of what-will-happen-next urgency with which I watch my favorite TV series. Serial quickly became a genuine pop-culture phenomenon, and it's yet another sign that great content is now coming from just about everywhere, in many shapes and forms. You can compare Serial to old radio serials, or to true-crime TV, or to This American Life (from which it spun out), but the fact is ... this is pretty much uncharted territory. Listening to Serial felt like an entirely new kind of entertainment experience for me. Like many, I suspect, I went in skeptical, but quickly became a believer. Ironically, in a world in which we're all encouraged to buy huge, vivid, LED TV's, many of us found ourselves, in 2014, huddled around our listening device of choice, enraptured by an audio-only serialized narrative. Who would have thought?

It's exciting. In the early days of TV, scripted series were crafted like stage plays. Only later did TV embrace more cinematic storytelling. Now we're sort of seeing TV series evolve to fully embrace all the new ways that people are watching them. We're seeing shows made for binge-watching, shows made for streaming, shows made for web-watching, and some shows that aren't really TV at all. From narrative podcasts like Serial to serialized story-based games like Telltale's The Walking Dead - it's a brave new world of content. It's all happening. Just remember to go outside once in a while.



- I was skeptical going in, but Fargo very quickly became an absolute must-watch. With the same sort of wit, humor, and sense of creeping dread as the Coen Bros. classic, but with a sensibility all its own, writer Noah Hawley's FX masterwork was the best thing on TV this year. The cast was off-the-charts good - Billy Bob Thornton played a villain for the ages, Alison Tohlman emerged as a bright new star, and Martin Freeman lay claim to yet another instantly-iconic role. The look and feel of the show was utterly cinematic - paying homage to the film while also carving out its own aesthetic. But ultimately, what I loved about the show was the same thing that makes the film an all-time favorite: Fargo is a left-of-center look at the best and worst of humanity - examining good, evil, and they grey spaces in between. 


- It was a close race for the #1 spot this year, and for me it was a near toss-up between Fargo and True Detective. I gave Fargo the slight edge, but man, True Detective was an absolute powerhouse of a show. For one thing, the acting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson was titanic. This was some of the best-ever acting on TV. McConaughey wowed as the ultra-intense, scarred-by-evil Rust. Harrelson blew the doors off as powder-keg, would-be family man Marty. The show reminded me of past favorites like Millennium, in that it wasn't content with just being a procedural cop show, but pushed further to instead become a meditation on the nature of evil. The show took on a tinge of existential horror, leading many to believe supernatural elements were waiting in the wings. But True Detective, ultimately, didn't need otherdimensional creatures to make an impact. It did so by showing us the dark side of what ordinary humans are capable of.


- I've loved Game of Thrones since the first episode, but there was always a slight feeling of inconsistency. The great moments were at times nestled between a lot of padding. Not so this year. This year, Game of Thrones delivered one genuine "holy $%&#!" moment after another, blowing up social media and inspiring endless cries of "no spoilers!" The fact is, GoT was an absolute must-watch this year - and it had everything - from gladiatorial battles to patricide to dragons to ice-zombies to all-out-war. Filled with great, iconic performances and an unmatched sense of epicness, this was the year that Game of Thrones went from almost-great to just plain awesome.


- In a year that was a TV comedy renaissance, Nathan For You - and its unlikely star Nathan Fielder - reigned supreme. Nathan For You was good in Season 1, but Season 2 raised the bar and delivered one classic episode after another. The only thing I can rightly compare it to is Da Ali G Show at its peak - because Nathan's ability to meld brilliant sketch ideas with real-world, mostly oblivious-to-the-joke marks is second only to that of the great Sacha Baron Cohen. What's more, Nathan feels like the comedy hero we needed in 2014 - a deadpan geek who mercilessly mocks the consumer culture we find ourselves so squarely immersed in. His outlandish business ideas and get-rich-quick schemes often have a strangely sound logic behind them, but it's Nathan's unflappable commitment to his character and his ideas that sells the joke each and every time.


- This show keeps getting better and better. Season 2 of The Americans upped the tension in the Jennings household, increasingly showing the toll that Philip and Elizabeth's double lives takes on both them and their not-so-little-anymore kids. Seeing Philip's fractured psyche start to collapse, as he balances multiple lives and multiple identities, was incredibly compelling. And Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell (and Noah Emmerich - so great on this show) continue to do top-tier work here. To me, this is the heir apparent of Breaking Bad - a sophisticated, smart, satirical peak down the rabbit hole, showing us the darkest side of the American Dream


- I've been a fan of Key & Peele from the start, but this year the show really upped its game, becoming a true must-watch, each episode delivering multiple instantly-viral sketches that will forever live in the TV comedy cannon. The show looks amazing - with movie-quality direction. And Key & Peele seem to be able to do anything - playing every sort of character under the sun. This is the best sketch comedy going today - not relying on gimmicks or recurring characters, but just trying out material, experimenting, and making some of the funniest comedy out there in the process.


- The most compelling relationship on TV these days is the one between Michael Sheen's Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan's Virginia Masters. The push and pull between them, the delicate balance of love, hate, resentment, attraction, repulsion, respect, and co-dependency is fascinating, and Sheen and Caplan absolutely kill it on this show. Michael Sheen needs to be in the conversation around best performance in a TV drama. He is phenomenal on Masters of Sex - and has delivered some of 2014's best, most memorable, most devastating TV moments as this character. The show excels at depicting this central relationship, but it also has so much to say about men, women, and America - where it's been and where it is. What's funny is how sex is, in some ways, the least essential part of the show. But rest assured, this is one of TV's best.


-  All hail Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his unyielding commitment to making science awesome. Cosmos was educational, informative, and often mind-blowing in its depiction of life, the universe, and everything. But it also was a show with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, relentlessly making the case for science, for the scientific method, for the importance of facts over fallacy. In a world in which influential groups and individuals deny science itself - deny evolution, climate change, genetics - Cosmos was a meticulously-presented refutation to the deniers, and a poignant affirmation to everyone else - of the power and awe-inspiring nature of the universe. Each episode left you feeling awed, humbled, and curious. 


- Community seemed poised for cancellation in 2014, and when word came down, cries of "Six Seasons and a Movie" swelled from the faithful. And with good reason. After a so-so, Dan Harmon-less Season 4, Season 5 was downright next-level, with all-time classic episodes that hit in rapid succession. From "Repilot" to "App Development and Condiments," from "Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" to "G.I. Jeff," Community went totally off its rocker in S5, did pretty much whatever the hell it wanted, and in the process created a whole bunch of awesome. Six Seasons and a Movie indeed.


-  At this year's Comic-Con, I saw fans cheering, applauding, crying, and basically going absolutely bat-$&%# crazy for Orphan Black, and for its multi-talented star Tatiana Maslaney. And with good reason, I think. The show can be messy, uneven at times. Its underlying mythology is still a little weaksauce, and the less said about the "Tony" episode, the better. But beneath all that lies the biggest beating heart of any show on TV. We love these sorts of genre shows because we feel like we're along for the ride as characters we love get put through hell, beat the odds, and emerge stronger for it. And no show makes you root for its underdog characters as does Orphan Black, with the unlikely members of its "Clone Club" (each played, in a performance that continues to amaze, by Maslaney) serving as some of TV's most fun and most badass heroes. Want strong female characters? Orphan Black has 'em in spades. It's no wonder then that when the twisty, action-packed Season 2 culminated in an all-clone dance party, it was one of the most purely joyful TV moments of the year. 

The Next Best:


- Boardwalk's truncated final season got off to a shaky start, but business really picked up as the series finale drew near. In the final summation, Boardwalk was a fantastic show - a brilliantly-woven tapestry of a certain time and place in American history, a look at how the American Dream was sold away to criminals and gangsters. There were so many great, award-worthy performances on the show, but when all is said and done, I have to give credit to Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. It was a quietly powerful performance - a man who thought himself above the fray, but who, ultimately, is undone by his own sins.


- Don't be surprised if Broad City is even higher on this list next year. It came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, yet another hilarious show in Comedy Central's re-tooled lineup that provided a forum for fresh, funny voices. In this case, the voices belonged to Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, a comedy duo that shows that women can do brilliantly stupid stoner comedy just as well as the guys. Their New York-set misadventures are weird and funny, but there's also an authenticity to these two that you can't manufacture. There's no filter here - these girls are doing their thing and I'm just thankful we get to watch.


-  Year-in-and-year-out, Justified is one of the best damn shows on TV, and certainly among the most badass. I sort of feel like I'm underrating this past season, only because while it might have been just a bit of an off year for the show, it still delivered a Stetson's-worth of great moments. Sadly, Justified often flies under the awards-show radar, but Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins - not to mention the kickass supporting cast - just kill it week-in, week-out. And I'll say this: now that there's a bit of a sense of urgency, with the upcoming season being the show's last ... there's absolutely no TV show I'm looking forward to more in 2015 than Justified's last ride.


-  By the end of Season 1, The Goldbergs had become the best sitcom on broadcast TV. It was sort of a throwback - funny and offbeat, but also charming and sweet. The Goldbergs' nostalgic vision of 1980-something suburbia is like looking through an old photo album, and the callbacks to the pop-culture of my youth are always handled with clear and genuine affection. But the Goldbergs is no mere nostalgia-machine. The writing is clever and the jokes are spot-on. My only concern is that Season 2 has grown just a bit same-y and repetitive. Here's hoping for a Goldberg golden age in 2015.


- This show seemed made just for me. An Alan Moore-esque Victorian horror-adventure series that combined literature's great monsters into one pulpy universe? Sold and sold. But I'll admit, the first episode of the show left me wondering if it would really be all that I hoped. As it turns out, the show evolved into something truly special over time. The biggest revelation was Eva Green as the enigmatic Vanessa Ives. As we learned more about Ms. Ives' inner demons (both figurative and literal), the show became a true tour de force, with Eva Green doing some drop-dead amazing acting that elevated the show to instant cult-fave. More, please.


- Brooklyn Nine-Nine's ensemble is very, very strong - and that's led to some of the funniest TV of the last year. Samberg is the headliner, but Andre Braugher is the MVP. His Captain Ray Holt has quickly become one of TV's best and funniest characters, with a deadpan delivery that kills. But the rest of the cast - Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti - have also really stepped up, in a way that reminds me of early Parks and Rec. All the ingredients are there for B99 to become something truly great, and I think 2015 may be its year.


- 2014 marked the return of Mike Judge to TV, and for a brief moment, all was right with the world. Silicon Valley had all the hallmarks of classic Judge, calling to mind things like Office Space and King of the Hill - with Judge's satirical eye now turned towards the tech industry. The cast of the show was great, especially standout TJ Miller. And the way that the show skewered the real silicon valley was nothing short of brilliant. If this was the year that the nerds took over the world, then Silicon Valley showed what it is that we have wrought, warts and all.


- Yes, there is a part of me that wants to rank this higher. It's hard to judge Jack Bauer and co. objectively, because no matter its faults, I love 24 without reservation, and nothing made me happier in 2014, TV-wise, than having the JACK BAUER BY-GOD POWER HOUR back on TV, with Jack dispensing gravitas and kicking-ass like it was 2004 again. The end of 24 had really caused a void on TV, a void that needed to be filled. And thank the lord, 24 returned to give us the badass TV show we wanted and needed. And this wasn't just a nostalgia-run. Kiefer Sutherland was in top form, and the return of beloved favorites (Chloe! Heller!) and the introduction of new ones (welcome Yvonne Strahovski!) made this 24 resurrection a true TV event.


- Parks is one of my favorite TV comedies of the last ten years, and man, I'll be sad to see it go when it finales over the next several weeks. Season 6 sputtered a bit at times, with certain stories feeling a bit dragged out and overdone. But the show rallied late in the season, delivering some flat-out classics, and then shocking us all with an unexpected time-jump cliffhanger to cap things off. Parks is still one of the best - with an all-star cast that I have no doubt will bring us a memorable final season. Saying goodbye to Pawnee is going to be *literally* one of hardest farewells in TV history.


- Few shows are so all-over-the-place, yet so can't-stop-watching entertaining, as AHS. The final few episodes of Coven ended strong, and so far, Freakshow has been an odd but fascinating iteration of the show - toning down the horror in favor of general weirdness and character-driven soap-opera. But man, even when the storylines don't add up, the cast makes things ever-interesting. I could watch Jessica Lange's Elsa Mars spout oddball insights and lurid anecdotes all day. For sheer, jaw-dropping WTF-ness, it doesn't get any better.


- After a rough Season 3, New Girl has really bounced back for Season 4 - once again finding the absurdist center at the bottom of the weekly tootsie-pop that made Season 2 really shine. Max Greenfield continues to kill it on this show, with Schmidt giving voice to weekly witticisms that make New Girl, still, one of the most quotable comedies on TV. At its best, New Girl is home to some of the sharpest writing on TV, and can, on a good day, make me laugh harder than anything else out there.


- I binge-watched through Sherlock this year, and I finally got the hype around the series. Really, it's all in the endlessly-entertaining back-and-forth dialogue. Watching Benedict Cumberbatch's socially-inept Sherlock try to fit in with the rest of humanity is the show's ace-in-the-hole, and that was nowhere more evident than in Season 3's way-too-fun wedding episode. Season 3 also brought back arch-enemy extraordinaire Moriarty, and left the door open for even more adventures to come. Can't come soon enough, says I. 


- My favorite new show of the 2014 Fall TV season, The Flash is pure geekgasm-inducing joy for the DC Comics faithful. Borrowing heavily from classic runs on The Flash comics, the show stands out for actually embracing its superhero and sci-fi premise, showing us a full-fledged superhero, in full costume, doing superhero-y things and going on superhero-y adventures. Imagine that - a show that seems proud and reverential of its comic book origins. It's what makes The Flash one of TV's most purely entertaining series.


- The great Comedy Explosion of 2014 continued as cult comedy faves Garfunkel & Oates got their own show on IFC. I really dug it. The two have a unique sensibility and the observational humor is often spot-on. Match that with the catchy and deceptively biting songs, and you've got yourself a winner. With this, Portlandia, and Maron, IFC had a winning 2014.


- Bates Motel has really found its footing as a quirky mash-up of CW teen drama and Twin Peaks-esque small-town weirdness. And, you know, Psycho. Norman Bates is still not quite a psycho-killer, but he's well on his way, and watching him downward-spiral into the abyss has made for some fascinating TV. Freddie Highmore is still fantastic as Norman, and Vera Farmiga turns in one of TV's strangest yet most endearing performances each week as Norma. This show is well-worth a binge-watch if you've yet to get onboard.


- Portlandia
- Maron
- Sleepy Hollow



- Fare thee well, Stephen Colbert. For years, The Colbert Report has been the spot-on satire we needed, a show that somehow transcended its initial gimmick to become one of the smartest, funniest, and downright essential shows on TV. I congratulate Colbert on his new gig as Letterman's late-night replacement, but man, I will miss the "Stephen Colbert" character. I can only hope that others will step up to fill the void. In the meantime, hats off to Colbert, as it's been a legendary run.


- I did want to mention the fantastic special that aired this winter on HBO, wrapping up one of my favorite shows of 2013. The Hello Ladies special was a brilliant closer to Stephen Merchant's show, and I can only hope that we don't go long without more wonderfully-awkward cringe-comedy from Merchant and his co-conspirators.


The Best TV Heroes of 2014:

1.) Molly Solverson - Fargo
2.) Raylan Givens - Justified
3.) Vanessa Ives - Penny Dreadful
4.) Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, and Cosima Niehaus - Orphan Black
5.) Barry Allen - The Flash 

The Best TV Villains of 2014:

1.) Lorne Malvo - Fargo
2.) King Joffrey - Game of Thrones
3.) Tywin Lanister - Game of Thrones
4.) Boyd Crowder - Justified
5.) Al Capone  - Boardwalk Empire

The Best TV Anti-Heroes of 2013:

1.) Rust and Marty - True Detective
2.) Philip and Elizabeth Jennings - The Americans
3.) The Hound - Game of Thrones
4.) Nucky Thompson - Boardwalk Empire
5.) Helena - Orphan Black

Best Actress in a Comedy:

1.)  - Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer - Broad City

Runners Up: Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation, Carrie Brownstein - Portlandia

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Wendi McLendon-Covey - The Goldbergs

Runners Up: Gillian Jacobs - Community, Alison Brie - Community

Best Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key - Key & Peele

Runners Up: Max Greenfield - New Girl, Jake Johnson - New Girl  

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy:

1.) TJ Miller - Silicon Valley

Runners Up: Nick Offermann - Parks and Recreation, Hannibal Buress - Broad City, Troy Gentile - The Goldbergs

Best Actress in a Drama:

1.) Lizzy Caplan - Masters of Sex

Runners Up: Eva Green - Penny Dreadful, Tatiana Maslaney - Orphan Black, Alison Tohlman - Fargo, Jessica Lange - American Horror Story

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:

1.)  Maisie Williams - Game of Thrones

Runners Up: Annaleigh Ashford - Masters of Sex, Emilia Clarke - Game of Thrones, Angela Bassett - American Horror Story: Freakshow

Best Actor in a Drama:

1.) Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson - True Detective

Runners Up: Matthew Rhys - The Americans, Martin Freeman - Fargo, Michael Sheen - Masters of Sex

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:

1.) Michael Shannon - Boardwalk Empire

Runners Up:  Walton Goggins - Justified, Noah Emmerich - The Americans, Charles Dance - Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones

And that's all, folks - my picks for the best TV of 2014.

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