It’s been a good year for TV. Breaking Bad is gone but there were more than a few shows willing to fill the gap. And now it’s time to talk about them. I worked long and hard and crunched a lot of numbers to come up with my top ten list even though my number one choice was never in question. So without further long-winded preamble, I present to you my picks for the ten best shows of 2014. Minor spoilers below.
The first season of Mike Judge’s sitcom was the anti Big Bang Theory. A show that made fun of nerd culture without ever making fun of nerds themselves. It was irreverent, quick witted, smart, and chock full of hilariously insane characters. TJ Miller’s Erlich Bachman and Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle were the standouts but really, there wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Christopher Evan Welch (RIP) and Matt Ross portrayed equally insane but drastically different billionairies while Thomas Middleitch and Zach Woods captured the tortured introversion and various neuroses that come with being a highly intelligent geek. Judge and his crew of writers came up with the best comic scenarios of the year. The scene in the finale, where the guys created a mathematical equation to figure out how long it would take to jerk off an auditorium of over 250 men summed up everthing that was great about the show: it’s vulgar yet sophisticated, whacky yet believable, and highly intelligent yet hilariously dumb. There were some growing pains along the way. It needs female characters who aren’t just love interests and it needs to stop running the plot around in circles, but Silicon Valley was so fresh and funny it more than earned its place in the top ten.
A year or two ago, FX’s modern western would have cracked my top five, possibly even in the number one spot. Its fifth season wasn’t nearly as strong as the third or fourth but a weak season of Justified is still better than most other things on TV. It astounds me how few people are watching this show despite it going into its sixth and final season in January. Usually, when I tell someone about it, I get a response like, “Oh that other Timothy Olyphant cowboy show”. Look people, it’s not a cowboy show and Timothy Olyphant rules. As US Marshall Raylen Givens, he exudes cool even though his character is quite hilariously incompetent at his actual job. He’s great at pulling a trigger and throwing a punch but not so great when it comes to the finer details of his position such as, oh you know, real police work. Walton Goggins is consistently brilliant as Raylan’s childhood friend turned nemesis, Boyd Crowder. The fact that he has never won an Emmy is further proof that awards shows mean fuck all. Boyd remains the most eloquent, likeable villain on TV. That he has a penchant for blowing things up is an added bonus. The whole cast is terrific and the writing does an excellent job of channeling the spirit of the late crime writer, Elmore Leonard. Leonard was always so good at portraying criminals as idiots. Most crime writers make them into powerful monsters but Leonard always knew that criminals are generally little more than foolish children. Take the season five episode where a low level bad guy tried to kill his partner, bungled it, wound up chasing the guy into the woods, and then got himself lost. He soon wound up praying to God, asking for help in finding his prey. The irony of asking a supposedly benevolent God to help you commit a murder was totally lost on him. It was darkly hilarious in the best possible way, like most episodes of Justified are.
The Walking Dead
My relationship with The Walking Dead has been tumultuous to say the least, but since Scott Gimple took over as showrunner, the show has improved tremendously. The episodes that aired in 2014 (the back half of season four and front of season five) have featured some of the strongest hours of TV the show ever produced. The highpoint was the season four hour, ‘The Grove’, which found Carol and Tyrese struggling to take care of themselves and two deeply disturbed little girls. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Just be prepared to be horrified, devastated, and deeply moved over the course of 45 minutes. People often criticize the show for being bleak but I see that as an asset. This new world the characters are living in is a place without hope. It tears at your soul and heart until there is nothing left but a shadow of a human being. Is it possible to hold onto any sense of humanity, compassion, or deceny in a world this far gone? After two seasons of clichés and soap opera bullshit, that’s the question The Walking Dead has finally started asking. The answer may scare you but I think it’s supposed to.
TV has always been a writers medium. But that began to change this year with The Knick, a ten episode historical medical drama starring Clive Owen. Steven Soderbergh directed every single episode and while the writing was strong, it was his consistent, eerie, and innovative camera work that made the show one of the best of the year. It looked like he shot the whole thing through a grimy filter mixing sepia tones with dark blues to create a distinctly seedy quality, which was appropriate considering how gruesome many of the medical scenes were. You needed one hell of a strong stomach to get through some of those surgeries and I say this as a guy who can sit through any Saw movie without cringing once. Soderbergh’s camerawork was never showy or stagy; every move was intentional and there to serve a point. Like the scene where a shot police officer starts convalescing and Owen demands a nurse get him supplies. The camera stays on her as she goes outside the room and quickly rummages through a drawer. This takes no more than fifteen seconds. We then follow her back into the room only to discover that the man has died. The jarring shock of having a room transform from a din of noise and life into a mortuary was stunning and illustrated how quickly life can slip through our fingers. Every episode contained terrific sequences like that one. The Knick also gave us the year’s best mismatched duo in gruff ambulance driver Tom Cleary and pious Sister Harriet. Their clashing worldviews but deep capacity for compassion provided some great and hilarious philosophical discussions. If you’re not completely sold on the show because you dislike medical dramas, then let me put it to you this way: it’s Deadwood in a hospital, complete with all the foul language, gross out scenes, and morally complex characters. But it’s way better directed. And Soderbergh will be back for all ten episodes of season two. I can’t wait.
Game of Thrones
Like Justified, Game of Thrones had a weaker season this year which is why it isn’t higher on the list. The rape scene between Jamie and Cersei was a problem (and fuck you people who said it was ambiguous; it was RAPE and that is fucking that, what are you Bill Cosby defenders?), the season ended with kind of a shrug, and the whole series was a little more scattered than it usually is. Still, when you’re juggling this many characters, plot lines, and settings you are bound to make missteps. But were those missteps enough to stop Game of Thrones from being great? Not at all. It continued to provide the strongest ensemble cast on TV with people like Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Alfie Allen, Gwendolyn Christie, Nikolai-Coster Waldau, Lena Headey, Liam Cunningham, Carice Van Houten, Stephen Dillane, Maisie WIlliams, Conleth Hill, Sophie Turner, Natalie Dormer, and a few others I’m forgetting all giving brilliant performances. The dialogue continued to crackle and pop with malice and mirth while the landscapes, costumes, and sets continued to transport us to a fantasy realm that was at once alien and entirely familiar. Pedro Pascal was a welcome addition as The Red Viper and walked away with every scene he was in. And The Watcher on the Walls was probably the most exciting episode of television all year. No, it wasn’t Blackwater (what the hell is?) but it was an emotionally stirring, viscerally exciting hour that put most summer blockbusters to shame. Game of Thrones may piss us off from time to time but that’s only because we know how amazing it can be when everything clicks into place.
It was a terrific year for crime dramas and this British import that premiered on Netflix more than held its own with some shows that will appear later on this list. It started out as a sort of black comedy focused on the life of Sgt. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) a middle aged hardass who lives with her sister and grandson. Cawood’s had a hard life. Her daughter was raped years ago and committed suicide because of it. Her decision to keep her daughter’s child and raise him as her own ostracized her from the rest of her family. Only her sister (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran), a recovering drug addict, stayed by her side. We were also introduced to Kevin Weatherhill, a middle aged accountant and family man who feels unappreciated by his boss. After being denied a loan, Kevin concocts a kidnapping scheme with some low level drug dealers in order to get what’s coming to him. Trouble is, one of those criminals is a disturbed young man named Tommy Lee Royce. Royce has just been released from prison and happens to be the guy who raped Cawood’s daughter. She’s eager to put him in the ground but knows it’s best to stay away. That doesn’t last long though. Like I said, Happy Valley at first appeared to be a funny slice of life drama with a few mystery elements tossed in. But halfway through its six episode first season, the show turned real dark real fast. Some of the above plot description may sound melodramtic but it never feels that way when you’re watching. Every character is fully fleshed out, from Cawood’s beauracratic Lieutenant to the mid level drug dealer who doesn’t comprehend what a monster Royce is until it’s far too late. Mixing elements of the best Coen Brother’s movies with a thoroughly British sensibility made Happy Valley incredibly watchable. But it was Lancashire and Finneran who pushed the show into greatness. They created two of the most memorable and original characters to grace our TV screens in quite some time. Lancashire had to grapple with two of the most physically and emotionally draining scenes of the year and she nailed every beat. Finneran was equally impressive; she appeared meek and mild but gradually revealed herself as deeply intuitive and wise. The relationship between the two sisters was the real heart of the show. They fought, comforted each other, gave unheeded advice to one another, fought again but always reconciled because they both knew that they’re useless without their other half. It was a marvelous depiction of a relationship that isn’t often portrayed on screen and hardly ever with such focus and depth.
If Happy Valley provided the best female relationship of the year, True Detective was here to give us the best male relationship. Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are two characters who are going to stay in our collective consciousness for a long time. Never mind the riveting mystery, the unbelievably exciting tracking shot, the stunning imagery, and the moments of acerbic wit, this show was a masterpiece because of those two deeply flawed cops. Each had completely different philosophies on life but found themselves drawn to each other anyway. Cohle exposed Hart’s hypocrisy in his constant insistence that he was a ‘good man’ while Hart brought Cohle back down to earth and showed him it isn’t all made of darkness. These actions caused both men to simultaneously hate and love each other. They weren’t anti-heroes exactly but they weren’t traditional heroes either. They were troubled but somewhat noble men struggling to understand their place in the universe. Cohle’s twisted but undeniably logical worldview shocked both us and Marty Hart because of the dark truths it exposed. True Detective was at its best whenever it just put these two guys together and let them talk. Thankfully, it did that 90 percent of the time. Their conversations were so utterly fascinating, so funny, and so, well, ‘true’ it was damn near impossible to look away. Season two has got a hell of a lot to live up to.
I’m tempted to bastardize that old turtle anecdote and tell you that the rest of this list is ‘nothing but crime dramas all the way down’ but that wouldn’t be exactly true. My number two pick has some crime elements but they’re minimal and it would be demeaning to classify my number one pick as just a ‘crime drama’. It’d be like calling The Godfather a ‘mob movie’ and nothing more. But that’s for later. Onto Fargo, the best pure crime drama of the year. On paper, the idea sounded like a blatant attempt to cash in on name recognition but showrunner Noah Hawley did something extraordinary with his interpretation of one of the Coen Brother’s greatest films: he captured the feel of the movie perfectly but crafted a new story that worked on its own merits while commenting on popular TV tropes. It was also funny as hell. We have been living in the age of the anti-hero for quite some time. It began with The Sopranos and, as far as I’m concerned, ended with Breaking Bad. I loved every episode of Breaking Bad but that show made it clear that we need to be done with that particular type of character. I thought of it as the final nail in the coffin but then Fargo came along to throw on the first mound of dirt. It presented us with two characters, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) who would be the main focus of lesser show. Malvo, a smooth contract killer (sort of a mix between Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men and The Joker) was terrifying and relentless but Fargo never reveled in his actions. Sure, some of what he did was funny but the show never portrayed his actions as ‘cool things’. He was a dangerous monster and one to be feared not celebrated. Similarly, Nygaard, a put upon salesman who shared more than a few characteristics with Walter White, was never portrayed as sympathetic. He was a monster too, just one with a different sort of skin. Fargo used these two guys to look at the sorts of characters we’ve become accustomed to cheering for and ask what the big deal is. What the hell should we root for them for when we’ve got good guys like Colin Hank’s Gus Grimly and Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson? As good as Hanks was, it was Tolman who stole the show. Molly, a big hearted cop with a keen detective’s eye, worked her way into our hearts the way few characters ever do. Her determination, intelligence, compassion and warmth were what drove her, not the desire to be a hero or save the day. It felt nice to just root for good people again. They haven’t been on our TV’s for a long time. Fargo made us glad to have em back.
I have to admit when I first heard the premise for Rectify, I didn’t think it would work. “A drama about a death row inmate who gets released from prison? Cool concept for a movie, but how do you sustain that for a show?” The answer is you make a profoundly sad, meditative, poetic, ambiguous, and surprisingly hopeful piece of television that never talks down to the audience. You also fill it with relatable and complex characters. The main character, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was convicted of strangling his girlfriend when he was 18. He spent 19 years on Death Row before being released after new DNA evidence came to light. This is thanks largely to his sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer) who never stopped believing in her older brother. His mother Janet (J. Smith Cameron) is relieved to have her son home but doesn’t quite know what to make of the introspective man who walks out from behind those bars. Her husband and Daniel’s stepfather Ted just wants to be supportive but his son, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) is suspicous of this inerloper and would rather have him out of town. Ted Jr.’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), a religous woman finds Daniel facinating and believes she can help save his soul. All of these people with their completely different but no less understandable motivations help make Rectify the most affecting character drama on TV. There are no heroes and villains here, just people damaged by an unforgiveable act. Two seasons in and we are still not sure whether Daniel is guilty or not. But it doesn’t really matter. This show has bigger fish to fry. It’s more interested in exploring what prison does to a man and exposing his awe and fear of the new world he steps into. It wants to examine what the lives of family members of a convicted murderer are like and how that effects their role in small town politics. It wants to know how people can move on in the face of such overwhelming loss. HBO’s The Leftovers focused on similar things but lacked a crucial element that Rectify has in spades: hope. For all its devastating moments (for there are many) and heart-crushing character revelations, this is a shockingly hopeful show. It presents us with people who do not know and, in some cases, cannot move on but try anyway. The whole series is really a tribute to the human race, lofty as that may sound. Yes we are flawed, yes we make bad decisions, yes we face impossible obstacles but at the end of the day, we still push forward forever pursuing some form of happiness. Rectify is about that pursuit and how it can change us for the better even if we never expect it to.
Hannibal shouldn’t work at all. Everything is stacked against it. First of all, it’s a goddamn network show. It’s on NBC for Christ’s sake, the network that bungled the Olympics and gave us such gems as Bad Judge and The Blacklist. Second, it’s based on a character we all got tired of over a decade ago and that was portrayed perfectly by Anthony Hopkins. What the hell else is there to say about the cannibalistic serial killer? Answer: EVERYTHING. Hannibal is mind-numbingly brilliant, a network show that is somehow more violent, complex, moving, funny, and gorgeous than every single cable show. And not by a small margin either. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has taken the most cynical network idea for an easy hit and turned it into one of the best TV dramas of all time. Mark my words, Hannibal will be talked about for years to come. It dwarves The Silence of the Lambs and makes most cable dramas look like Barney and Friends. Yep, it’s that good. As Hannibal Lectar, Mads Mikkelsen makes the crucial choice to not copy Anthony Hopkins even a little bit. This allows his portrayal to feel equal parts unknowable and familiar. As Will Graham, the tortured FBI profiler who befriends the Devil, Hugh Dancy takes the cliche of the mentally unstable yet brilliant detective and flips it on its head. The relationship between the two men is one of many things that makes the show so compelling. Both are deeply disturbed yet understand each other in ways that are troubling to say the least. There’s a homo-erotic subtext between them (because of course there is) but there’s also deep-seeded fear and genuine love. It’s like watching an Angel and a Demon fall into each other’s spell and after a while it’s hard to tell who is which. But the show isn’t about just them. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Laurence Fishburne makes Speical Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford into a tortured man who throws people into horribly dangerous situations for the sake of the ‘greater good’. Caroline Dhavernas turns Doctor Alana Bloom into a hell of a lot more than a love interest. She’s got her own agenda and it’s sometimes as frightening and misguided as Lectar’s. Then there’s the fact that the show is able to mix episodic and serialized storytelling with unbelievable ease. Did you enjoy the mystery of True Detective? Hannibal tells darker, weirder, more complete stories and does so every fucking week. It’s also beautiful. Gruesome and distrubing images have never looked so magnificent or transcendent. All of that makes the show great. What makes it the best show on TV is the way it examines all of its dark elements with a microscope, exposing them for what they are, asking us to have sympathy for the Devil while also condeming him, using its themes to delve deep into the human psyche, and portraying madness in ways that very few shows or movies ever have. Each episode feels like a piece of great literature rather than a piece of pop culture entertanment. The thing is though, Hannibal is both. It’s rich with subtext, metaphors, allusions, and complex themes but it’s also a lurid, violent and exciting pile of eye candy. Bryan Fuller has managed to merge ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ into his own tapestry of insanity. There’s nothing else like it on TV.