Best of 2014: Television

More than any other medium — music, films, books or games, I consumed more television in 2014 than anything else. That says either something about my consumption habits or the bite-sized serialized format of television. Or it might say something about the sheer quality of that television reached in 2014. More than any other year, we had more variety and more quality on our screens. Part of it has to do with the changing landscape of TV,  with Amazon joining Netflix in producing their own shows with Transparent  and the networks ramping up their efforts to catch up in terms of quality. Part of the reason also has to do with the fact that television is quickly turning into a magnet for the discontented talent in Hollywood who are frustrated by the narrow vision and non-existent ambition of the film studios. TV, on its comparatively smaller budget and a potentially more persistent cultural currency has its own appeal. And 2014 saw television go from strength to strength to bring us one great show after another.

Let’s remember some of the best things we saw on TV in the past year.

(spoilers are kept to bare minimum, I’ll mark them with SPOILERS before I ever discuss any such thing in the following post)

Best Scene on TV while on Twitter

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_HuFuKiq8U

True Detective was as much of a phenomenon because of its quality and technical feats as it was due to how the Internet culture responded to it. For eight weeks, the Internet became obsessed with the show and unearthing the mystery before anybody could by drawing insane theories. From the identity of The Yellow King to drawing parallels to real-world cases, Internet sleuths found a new life under the spotlight. But if there was one sequence where the show grew beyond that, it had to be the six-minute tracking shot at the end of the fourth episode “Who Goes There”. It was when everyone’s mind exploded to see what TV was capable of achieving now and it was a delight to be watching this while seeing people’s response on Twitter. A delight that extended beyond the mere confines of the screen.

The Highly-Praised Show I Didn’t Watch

transparentfive2Transparent

I love dramas about dysfunctional families and Amazon’s Transparent was well-received across the board for the way it tackled gender dysphoria. It sounds like Shameless but infinitely more interesting (sorry Shameless fans). Jill Soloway’s tragicomedy is something I’ll be hoping to catch up on before it’s second season begins.

Best TV Show To Watch While Eating

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Review

This is an important category for those who watch a lot of TV. The winner of this show has to be slow-paced so you don’t lose track of what’s happening when you look down to decide which nacho chip you should eat. It should be entertaining enough to ensure you don’t faze out and wonder why you’re eating a TV dinner on Friday night. It should not have any sudden laugh-out loud moments that’ll ruin your screen/keyboard (I’m looking at you, Broad City). Basically, a show you can relax and watch with adequate engagement while nourishing yourself with what you believe is “healthy”. Daly’s Review is an excellent show for this. It is based on a simple premise of reviewing aspects of life, where the host goes and tries everything out from sex, stealing to being racist and then rates it in the end. Each episode is divided into three segments, each featuring one thing he tries out. It’s neat, simple and very enjoyable.

Best Intro Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxXRkqXfhYM

True Detective — “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family

Great intro songs are more than just glorified credits. They’re a pathway to the world you’re about to enter. And a show like True Detective which had to create a deep-rooted sense of place and atmosphere, this Southern Gothic folk piece from The Handsome Family was a perfect entrance into the dark world of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart.

Best Television Shows

Honorable Mentions

Justified

Review

Archer

Orphan Black

Game of Thrones

Portlandia

Masters of Sex

Penny Dreadful

Rectify

Fargo

Inside Amy Schumer

Top 10

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10) Orange is the New Black

The show everyone adores returned after a highly successful first season. But instead of sticking to the formula or even playing safe, Jenji Kohan had other ideas with OitNB. Choosing to follow a season-long character arc that encompasses the whole ensemble, the show paid due respect to the richness of its cast and suitably developed many of those characters. New entrants into Litchfield like Lorraine Toussaint packed in powerful performances while old favorites like Laverne Cox, Kate Mulgrew. The most touching aspect was the tenuous friendship between Samira Wiley’s Poussey and Danielle Brooks’ Taystee and among many other similar friend/foe relations, the drama in Litchfield consistently ramped up over its 13 episodes. Piper continued to be the non-protagonist and she had changed enough to no longer be the audience surrogate, allowing her character to develop more organically. In the end, while it may have had its downtime, it was ultimately more than worth sticking throughout all the 13 episodes for a thrilling and emotional payoff in the finale.

Best Episodes:  You Also Have the Pizza, It Was The Change, We Are Polite,We Have Manners

rick-and-morty-review

9) Rick & Morty

Finally, an AdultSwim cartoon that wholeheartedly embraces the trippy craziness of the subgenre while also capturing the sense of adventure that was reminiscent of some of the older Cartoon Network shows. But then, that’s only one reason why Rick & Morty worked so well. The central dynamic between Rick and his grandson, Morty was another one that was repeatedly played to comic effect and the show had enough ideas bursting out of its colorful, psychedelic aesthetics that it never got old. As adults(?) who are nostalgic about cartoons of “our era”, Rick & Morty provides a generous dose of warm nostalgia while having plenty of originality of its own to stay fresh. Come here for nostalgia, stay for the totally bonkers adventuring!

Best Episodes:  Lawnmower Dog, Rixty Minutes, Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind

Doctor Who Series 8

8) Doctor Who

I’ll be the first one to admit I had doubted Jenna Coleman’s Clara, when I heard she was going to continue for another season. She was a decent companion but her time with Matt Smith left her underdeveloped as a flirtatious companion and little else. But man did this season pull out all stops. Possibly the strongest season under Moffat, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor brings a sense of grim, almost dangerous energy to the show that permeates through all the twelve episodes (and the brilliant Christmas special). But where the show succeeds is returning back to Russell T Davies era of using character arcs as its central focus. Gone are the time traveling histrionics of Season 6 & 7, as this season built a deep thematic ground across its episodes between Doctor and Clara, while openly confronting the very foundations of the Doctor. Capaldi’s alien-like demeanor only added to that theme as we got some of the best Doctor Who episodes we have in last few years with Listen, Mummy On The Orient Express and Death in Heaven. SPOILERS: Even the Master’s return as Missy was very well-done and I thought that Michelle Gomez’s rendition had an edginess that was lacking in John Simm’s.[END SPOILERS] Matt Smith fans may not like the serious and more character-centric focus of the new season and the Doctor, but I loved it more than most of what I saw during Matt Smith’s era.

Best Episodes:  Listen, Kill The Moon, Mummy On The Orient Express, Dark Water/Death in Heaven, Last Christmas

true-detective-header

7) True Detective

I think in the end I was able to forgive True Detective for its occasional stumbles in the final third. With the advantage of retrospection, I am beginning to see True Detective as not just merely a solid character study or a Southern Gothic procedural. I am seeing it as one of the best examples in serialized television in recent memory of building a sense of place. Not to be confused with the more heavier “world-building”, True Detective built a sense of place in the grim environs of Louisiana, that each week we only needed the intro song (and that’s why it’s so essential) to immediately orient ourselves in this world. It had a dark, oppressive tone (not unlike the next entry on this list) that was mired in the character’s own mindset of hopelessness. I’m beginning to appreciate the finale ever more and the trip down to Carcosa might be fueled in cult imagery but it almost feels like a culmination of everything True Detective was building tonally for the seven weeks before.

Best Episodes: The Locked Room, Who Goes There, The Secret Fate of All Life

the-leftovers

6) The Leftovers

Speaking of dark, oppressive tone, nothing in 2014 could be a greater downer than watching The Leftovers. It is a tremendously powerful show at times and an equally frustrating one (or a delightful one, depending on which side of Lost you ended up on). But Damon Lindelof’s return may continue to be equally polarizing, The Leftovers saw a town grasping for answers in a post-Rapture scenario. Mixing slow-burning character drama, thriller and philosophical themes, The Leftovers was a heady, grim but ultimately a solid watch. I think it topped True Detective in terms of consistency and overall themes felt better developed here than in Rust Cohle’s “locked room”.

Best Episodes:  Two Boats and a Helicopter, Gladys, Guest, The Prodigal Son Returns

broad-city

5) Broad City

How can you not LOVE these girls? Broad City was 2014’s loudest, meanest, stoner-friendly and subversive comedy on TV. Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer became the poster queens of early-twenty life in New York City, taking the concept out of a successful webseries directly into a TV show while maintaining their ridiculously electric chemistry that comes off their friendship. Few things were as enjoyable as simply watching Abbi & Ilana throw lines at each other. More importantly, it broke a lot of obsolete cultural aspects associated with depiction of women and the humor they would write and create. The show was subversive on several levels with the apparent lewdness of these two girls unsettling many uptight male watchers. Personally, I enjoyed almost every moment of it. It may be a bit normative at times, but this is some of the freshest humor I’ve seen in a while. Sure, the rapid frequency of jokes might mean there is a hit-and-miss ratio to take into account but Broad City had a higher ratio than any other show in the genre, in my opinion. More importantly, Abbi & Ilana’s friendship always served as a consistent foundation for the show and they were backed by a memorable cast including Hannibal Buress’ hilarious character, Lincoln.

Best Episodes:  Apartment Hunting, Stolen Phone, The Lockout, Fattest Asses, Working Girls

louie

4) Louie

I’ve already written 3000 words on why this year’s season of Louie was special and problematic in different ways. In conventional aspects of ambition and quality, Louie very well could be No.1 on this list after all the praise I put on it in that essay. So, why isn’t it No.1? The reason I attribute is to an inherent strangeness in the format of television show. Louie was more serialized than ever before but it strangely felt less tonally cohesive. I don’t mean it as a negative but instead it just meant that Louie continued to be a show that didn’t let the form hold back its experimentation tendencies allowing it to have a Godard-esque escape in Model, a Woody Allen spin in Elevator and nostalgia lost in the haze of weed in In the Woods, all in the same season. But it also meant it wasn’t able to carry the same degree of emotional weight from one arc to another. As Louie shifts more into the territory of drama, this might ironically be the only thing holding it back from the other things. But all that forced negativity couldn’t take away a brilliant season full of free-form experimentation and highly meaningful character arcs.

Best Episode:  Model, So Did The Fat Lady, Elevator (Part 4 & 6), In the Woods

Emmy Nominations Snubs Surprises

3) The Americans

The Soviet spy drama could have had a lucky first season that tied its’ espionage in America plot with themes of trust and blind faith involved in the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. But nope. The second season of The Americans had an ambition to cast a wider net across its talented cast pulling in Noah Emmericsh’s FBI agent and Annet Mahendru’s Russian consulate official Nina. Filled with double spies and backstabbing galore, The Americans drove in its central theme even harder but this time brought in parenthood and the need to protect your children from danger. Dualities are strife in every part of The Americans and much like the other two shows above it, it plays with the “reality versus perception” debate in interesting ways. But the real achievement of The Americans was to switch from low-key emotional character drama into a tense thriller within the same episode. Its’ block-building was more efficient and confident in the second season and the eventual conclusion was far more satisfying and heart-breaking. A show that builds upon its already acclaimed strengths, spells great for its future. And that only means better times ahead for the fans of this show.

Best Episode: Behind the Red Door, New Car, Martial Eagle, Operation Chronicle, Echo

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2) Mad Men

The biggest advantage that TV shows have over their big-screen cousins is that they can retain a sense of history. A history not simply built on the viewers’ investment into those shows but also with the characters’ own aging within the show’s run. Few shows have exercised this as efficiently as Mad Men and it comes as less of a surprise considering Matthew Weiner was associated with The Sopranos, another show that used character histories as its core. But what we learnt in the first half of Mad Men’s final season is that Sally Draper might be the secret protagonist of the show all along. The scene between her and Don Draper in “A Day’s Work is one of the most heart-breaking scenes the show has produced in 7 years. For characters and their interactions to have such tremendous weight and power, you know the show has built such an incredibly intricate foundation beneath all these characters that you can’t help but care for them. Mad Men continues to march forward into the vibrant future of its 70s as we can see with things changing around the workplace, but what it keeps us wondering is, what will happen to the relics left behind. What will happen to the Roger Sterling & Don Drapers, once the world has moved on past beyond it. Death is one thing, being obsolete in life is another. And that’s something all of us have to learn one day, as Mad Men  closes on what might very well be a brilliant second half of the season, mixing a last-gasp effort at redemption based on the glint of hope that Don saw in his daughter’s eyes.

Best Episodes:  A Day’s Work, Time Zones, The Strategy, Waterloo

Hannibal - Season 2

1) Hannibal

A show that took meticulous almost pain-staking effort into perfecting the genre of character study. Hannibal had a brilliant first season but nothing could have prepared us for the second. Hell, nothing could have prepared us for the opening minute of the second season which uses media res to lay down the ground rules. This is a TV show based off Thomas Harris’ novels but it isn’t scared of breaking the rules. And that’s a theme we see at various points in the second season, Hannibal playing off the audience’s familiarity with Silence of the Lambs/Red Dragon and playing it against us in ways that leaves us wanting for more. The dark, disturbing and unsettling dream imagery is amped up, the gloriously artful crime scene staging is made even more beautiful. Everything about Hannibal’s second season takes the much-adored elements of the first and expands upon it, while refining the character drama that holds it together. Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen absolutely steal the show with season-long consistent performances that is mired in such immense subtlety that it keeps the viewers guessing as to what are these characters’ true motives.  Mikkelsen proves once again he is the most refined, menacing actor to play Dr. Hannibal Lecter with his slow, detached, accented delivery drips with so much cold menace, it gave me goosebumps so many times. From excellent visual direction, to unbearably heart-pumping sound design, Hannibal was the best that TV had to offer in a landmark year which saw the medium evolve into something beyond our expectations. And nothing captured all that progress better than Hannibal.

Thank you for reading all of the “Best of 2014” lists. Hope I’ve been able to direct you towards something you’re finding enjoyable.

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A Word From a Consumer