Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Shows of 2014

Now that I only use this blog to post these lists instead of writing on it all the time, I find that the TV list comes more down to "shows I want to write about" than "shows I objectively think are the best". At least, this is what sticks out to me when I look back on the year of television. It's what I really remember watching.

Best of 2014

9. Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories (Adult Swim)

Tim and Eric have always been halfway between bizarre sketch comedy and some sort of horrible David Lynchian nightmare, so it was fun to watch them embrace that second aspect of their work. Some episodes of Bedtime Stories don't even have jokes at all, focusing instead on dark (but still oddball enough to obliquely be considered comedy) story concepts in a Twilight Zone sort of way. Other episodes are just straight comedy, and it's best to think of it as them applying their style to slightly longer-form television and really seeing where their minds will take them. It's often not a very nice place.

8. Doctor Who (BBC)

I was looking forward to seeing the first "old" Doctor of the new series, and I was not disappointed. It's Doctor Who, so of course there's some weak episodes, and I was a bit put off by the Doctor's new habit of insulting his companion Clara's appearance. But that character became a real strength for the show this year as her relationship to the Doctor changed significantly as a result of his regeneration, and her courtship with new character Danny Pink was also a huge asset. After they got on a roll, the show had a string of episodes as strong as anything I've seen the series do, and I liked the renewed focus on good individual stories over convoluted season-long plots that never end up anywhere good. I'm looking forward to more adventures through space and time.

7. Community (NBC)

I don't know if Community truly belongs up here, but just the fact that they took a show that was basically dead, brought back the original creator, lost two main cast members, and ended up with something that didn't suck, that was actually quite good, is pretty amazing. It's not up to the heights of the first three seasons at their best, but damn it, it was Community again. We'll see how the new season on Yahoo works out, but I'll always remember what they pulled off in their last year on NBC.

6. The Legend of Korra (Nick)

Despite weird manipulations and bumbling by Nickelodeon, the crew of one of the best animated action series in years managed to put out not one, but two seasons of their follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2014. They were the better two seasons of the show, up there with the best in the whole franchise, and a great way to say goodbye to this setting, if that's what we end up doing. Korra's central characters are older than Avatar's, and that comes through in the story, which is ultimately a more mature tale about growing up and learning you have to face your own troubles before you are able to help others, and that kicking someone's ass isn't always the answer. Not that kicking ass doesn't work once in a while, as the action scenes in these two seasons are up there with anything you'll ever see on TV. It's also great to see a prominent same-sex romantic relationship come to pass in something kids might see.

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (FOX)

I'm afraid Neil deGrasse Tyson will become too big for his own good. He's a great ambassador for the value and wonder of science, but he doesn't know everything, and sometimes it seems like he thinks he does. His talents are perfect for Cosmos though, his homage and successor to his mentor Carl Sagan's old series about all the wonders of molecules, galaxies, and everything in between. A lot of what you'll learn in Cosmos is stuff all adults should probably know already, but the fact that Tyson and his crew are still bringing people that information in a smart and accessible way is great, and I love how they directly confront some of the bigger human obstacles in the way of progress. At its best, Cosmos captures the awe and wonder I feel at the real size and possibility of the universe and humanity's future in it, and I think it should be required viewing for anyone with the smallest curiosity about life as we know it.

4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

The sense of history in Empire's final season is inescapable, as it closes in on some people, opens up possibilities for others, and brings ultimate closure to far too many. They only got eight episodes and had to skip past several years of juicy gangster dealings, but I feel like we ultimately got everything we needed. Empire isn't quite the epic of crime, family, and politics it wanted to be, but it did an admirable job of working with what it had and providing some great characters and unforgettable moments. A great deal of those moments involve people getting shot in the face, but a lot of times that's how these things went.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

A Storm of Swords is my favorite book in the series, and the fourth season of the show mostly adapted its second half, so of course I liked it a lot. However, they also showed a greater ability to change and shift characters and stories around where needed, which is great, because they're going to need it as they go forward into the more recent books. Not every change totally worked, especially one unfortunate sort-of-rape scene that came off worse than the original material, but on a more general level, they're doing a great job of turning a humongous epic into a manageable episodic story, without really making it feel any smaller. One of the most purely enjoyable shows to just watch from week to week.

2. True Detective (HBO)

Coming right in the middle of the McConaughey renaissance (the McConaissance), True Detective used his and Woody Harrelson's skills to their full extent to craft a great, haunting Gothic-noir-mystery-detective THING that defied easy definition and got at the heart of the struggle between good and evil. It covers years of an investigation into a series of strange killings in Louisiana that end up getting connected with a chain of Christian schools, references to an obscure forgotten city (which got me and many others to read The King in Yellow), and a whole lot of problems for the two leads. It will be hard for the unrelated second season to recapture the magic of the first, but we'll always have the lead performances, Cary Fukunaga's great direction, and the flat circle of time to think about.

1. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Rick and Morty is a show about a brilliant old man with a drinking problem who brings his simple-minded but good-hearted grandson with him on trips to other dimensions for various ends which usually end up only serving him. That right there is enough for a good Adult Swim show, but Rick and Morty is definitely something more, already on the same level in my estimation as The Venture Bros. and possibly higher. There's a ton of imagination in every single episode. It will surprise you with story resolutions that are more disturbing than what they could easily get away with, and then follow that up by turning it into something that really profoundly affects the characters. It's sometimes a story about a failing marriage, and mines that for real emotion rather than simple laughs. It's also extremely funny every single week. I laughed out loud multiple times in every episode. That just doesn't happen, you know?

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2014 but I didn't watch until then.

Prime Suspect (BBC)

The gritty British detective drama that I assume is the basis for the DNA of every British detective drama that followed. Over the course of over a decade, Helen Mirren played Detective Jane Tennison, one of the best realized characters in television. She's a brilliant detective, but also a flawed one; a good person, but also a flawed one. We see the arc of her career in a way you usually don't in a TV show, and along the way she investigates some truly unsettling and cleverly twisty crimes. The double length format is a bit of a slog at times, but if you watch Prime Suspect you watch the maturation of television as a medium. There aren't usually easy answers.

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