Friday, January 2, 2015

Dual Redundancy's Best of 2014: The 25 Best TV Shows of 2014

by Mike Ladue

Another year of great TV comes to a close. Now it's time to look back on the best shows 2014 had to offer. Many of them were newcomers, freshmen series that made strong first impressions or sophomore series that hit their groove. Some are veterans, old stalwarts reaching the end of their runs. Some never even aired on television -- Netflix and Amazon made strong cases for cutting the cords and switching to streaming services in the new year. But which show was the best of the best? Read on to find out, and be sure to check out the links to our podcasts covering episodes, or in some cases full seasons, of these shows. Enjoy!

25. Masters of Sex, Showtime (Covered here)

Masters of Sex lives up to its title. It’s very, very good at presenting sex as overt text, with all the associated dysfunctions – fear, pride, love – as simmering subtext. But in the expansions of scope that come with second seasons, ushered in by unfortunate cast shake-ups (trading Allison Janney, Beau Bridges and Julianne Nicholson for Betsy Brandt, Sarah Silverman and Artemis of It’s Always Sunny fame is no fair deal) and the universal “Now what?” that befalls the successful writer, plots that strayed from that carnal thesis fell flat. Libby’s dalliance in civil rights, Masters’ familial feuds and all things Cal-O-Metric were filler for the beautiful moments shared between Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in that hotel. Despite trademark slump that strikes nearly all Showtime shows, Masters of Sex still pulled a few punches – quite literally in “The Fight”, perhaps the series’ best showing to date.  

24. Jane the Virgin, The CW (Covered here)

The CW used to (and may still) market first-run episodes as “fresh”, which is the perfect word to describe Jane the Virgin. Despite being an adaptation of an existing telenovela, Jane’s Latino-energized cast, tongue-in-cheek voiceover and soaptastic twists feel new and very “of this moment” in the evolution of TV. It’s got all the ridiculous machinations of once-great Revenge, without taking itself half as seriously.  (For the record, Revenge started off care-free, too, then ran into the same second season obstacles mentioned earlier.) Jane may suffer the same fate, as the answer to “big mysteries” like the identity of Sin Rostro,  (my guess – Petra’s not-so-wheelchair-bound mother!), the outcome of the insemination trial and Jane’s budding will-they/won’t they with Raphael and Michael, could wrap disappointingly.

23. Looking, HBO (Covered here)

No twenty-something really knows what he’s looking for. Patrick, a San Francisco-dweller who’s still coming to terms with what it means to be an out-and-proud gay man in 2014 America, thinks he’s looking for love. But by the end of this short, sexy, smart season, as Patrick (Jonathan Groff, who breathes much complexity into a thankless role) admires his nude body in the mirror, with two suitors waiting on his call, his true motivations are open to interpretation. The men of Looking are sensitive, a rare trait in TV today, and it provides for moments of real drama (Agustin’s artistic meltdown) and real beauty (“Looking to the Future”, Patrick and Richie’s own Before Sunrise).

22. Boardwalk Empire, HBO (Covered here)

The tagline for Boardwalk’s final season was “No One Goes Quietly”, but it’d have been more apt to pull one from another 5-season HBO masterpiece, Six Feet Under: “Everything Ends”. For whether they went loudly into that good night, like Michael Shannon’s nefarious Nelson Van Alden, or quietly, like Chalky, Gillian, Al or Nucky Thompson himself, every character got what was coming to them. And as fates changed from riches to rags, the production value of every last shot upheld the sublime standard set in the pilot by Scorsese. Often boring but never outright bad, the show deserved more viewers than it had, though ended with much more dignity than that of its characters.

21. Orphan Black, BBC America

Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany.
Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany.
Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany.
Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana Maslany.

But seriously, Tatiana Maslany. There’s nothing else to say. Season 2 struggled a bit creatively, but never failed in its service to Ms. Maslany, just as she has yet to fail the show or its characters. (OK, perhaps the transgender clone was an all-around fail).

 20. The Affair, Showtime (Covered here)

The pilot of Showtime’s he said/she said relationship drama set Gone Girlish expectations, and while the subsequent season featured flashes of emotionally intelligent penmanship, the plot never quite fell in step. Plot aside – a fairer filter than ever before in today’s eclectic, autueristic television landscape – the series featured several commendable, elevating devices; from its clever plays on perspective in the direction, to the narrative teases that dared to stay open by finale night, to Fiona Apple’s haunting title sequence. The Showtime slump could very well sink all involved into an ocean of melodramatic twists, but the cast – especially late-season bloomer Maura Tierney – may keep this one afloat.

19. The Good Wife, CBS (Covered here and here)

Now in its fifth stellar season, The Good Wife sets the gold standard for television across the board. It’s soapy, it’s regal, it’s heart-pounding – all when the story calls for it. The arsenal of memorable characters and series-long arcs conveys how expansive the show’s world has become. The writers take bigger risks over the course of longer seasons than any other team on TV, and those risks pay off about 88% of the time, like in the dramatic handling of star Josh Charles’ exit.  The show proved its adaptability this year, as standing sets, love triangles and the titular Alica Florrick’s career path shifted to interesting new places, while preserving the essence of what made the first four years fun. It’s the procedural, aged to perfection.

18. Archer, F/X (Covered here)

F/X has become the boldest network in the industry, producing content every bit as “quality” as HBO, with half as many boobs. Archer is the first of many entries on the list this year, after perhaps its boldest year yet. The show abandoned its central conceit and tested the talent of the actors and patience of the audience with a season-long drug-running re-boot. The cast (especially Amber Nash as coke-fueled Pam) rose to the occasion, selling every swerve into uncharted, serialized territory. The audience, in general, seemed less enthused, thus prompting next season’s “de-boot” back to ISIS – not the one you’re thinking of – basics.

17. Bob’s Burgers, FOX (Covered here and here)

No show works harder to get as many smiles as Bob’s Burgers. The writing is quick without being obnoxious. The characters are outrageous without being annoying. There’s a warmth to the semi-crude animation, the half-baked musical numbers, the running gags in the credits and Burger-of-the-Day board. The Belchers are a more loving, lovable bunch of meatheads than the cynical, satirical Simpsons and Griffins (of The Simpsons and Family Guy fame, respectively) ever were. And when the laughs come, they come hard – see Bob’s latest Thanksgiving travesty, Gene’s ‘80s movie mash-up musical, or Tina’s trip to the Equestrenaut convention.

16. Community, NBC (Covered here and here)

The only explanation for this show’s continued existence is that it’s been parodying MacGuyver all along, escaping certain death with nothing more than obscure fan chants, Subway sandwiches and the world’s second-most popular search engine. Creator Dan Harmon staged a season-long disappearing act, rearing his unshaven head to rescue the show and its remaining actors from death/mediocrity, in the process producing some of the series’ most poignant, heartfelt episodes yet. The transition from NBC to Yahoo, sans Shirley, hardly seems like a hurdle given the gauntlet Community cast, crew and superfans have been through. If there is a God, he’s a Greendale alum.

15. Girls, HBO (Covered here and here)

What changes does one make after three years of failing to live a satisfying life? That’s the direction Lena Dunham and the Girls team went this year, and the results were, well, satisfying. The raised stakes and heightened tension caused comedic chafing amongst the ensemble, coming to a head in the perfect “Beach House.” In a year full of backstage casting coups and troll vitriol, it’s no surprise death and loss pervaded the episodes. But the worse things get for the characters, the better they get for the audience, as Dunham and co. have mastered the art of schadenfreude. Whatever Iowa brings for Hanah Horvath (or Star Wars brings for Adam Driver), this weekly wallowing in self-deprecation is still must-see TV.

14. Mad Men, AMC (Covered here and here)

Splitting season 7 in half was a universally panned decision, a hindrance on the inertia required for TV’s now-veteran antihero portraiture to flourish.  It surely affected the year-end placement, as the spectacular final two episodes were offset by earlier, flimsier ones. But despite the exponential decay of awards recognition, Mad Men remains a winning program, brimming with careful thought and craftsmanship and thematic integrity. If an episode misses the mark, it still does so with the ever-assured vehemence of Matt Weiner and the incomparable writing staff. Points are always awarded for trying. The cast is aces, still, with Elisabeth Moss perfectly carrying Peggy’s dissatisfaction amidst successes. The end will be brilliant, for sure, with the real question now on whether Weiner will emulate his Sopranos mentor David Chase with an ambiguous ending, or follow fellow AMC mastermind Vince Gilligan’s suit and fully punctuate Don’s tale.

13. True Detective, HBO (Covered here and here)

Time is a flat circle. All of this has happened before, and will happen again. True Detective roared into 2014 with an A-list starring duo, acting out a whodunit of cynical existentialism that, to many’s chagrin, transformed into something more spiritual. It wasn’t about answering questions; rather, about changing the questions and how or why they’re asked. The expectation was for Rust and Marty’s journey to close the gap between what is wondered and what is known, but real, un-Hollywood learning defies that. Author Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukanaga made a splash that’ll resonate in the industry for years to come. Yet already, with the hype for season 2 billowing higher, the backlash and pitfalls of the sophomore slump are inevitable. Time is a flat circle. All of this has happened before, and will happen again.

12. Broad City, Comedy Central

New York has perhaps never been as funny as it is in Broad City. Seinfeld and Girls and HIMYM and literally hundreds of other comedies call NYC home, but Broad City takes the cake for making the city an award-worthy character. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are the next Fey and Poehler, outrageously funny comediennes soon to skyrocket from Comedy Central into whatever network TV, Ghostbusters sequel, or awards show hosting gig awaits them. The comedy may not be subtle (it’s broad, get it?!) but it’s in full force, as the ladies pass the Bechdel and all other tests of quality fiction by wide margins. This successful web-series turned series-series should be an inspiration to all low-budget storytellers, especially the women.

11. Louie, F/X (Covered here and here)

Another NYComedy, Louie’s 4th season came about after the creator’s year-long haitus, its extended gestation resulting in a more serious, serialized product. The humor was there, for sure, but weighted heavier in one-shots like “Back” and “Model.”  Louie became more conventional in this sense, with arcs and recurring characters and a sense of progress for the titular character, most evident in the widely-publicized “So Did the Fat Lady”, an Emmy-winning episode that, personally, fell a bit flat but at least succeeded in fixing the spotlight on another, the fantastic Sarah Baker. It was a year of nuanced and somber storytelling, reveling in smaller moments and fleshed-out memories to shade in the sides of Louie yet uncolored, relying less on CK as an actor and more on CK as a writer/director.

10. Fargo, F/X (Covered here and here)

If imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery, Fargo was an exercise in idolation. The mini/series fits within the canonical universe established in 1996’s film of the same name, with the Coen brothers’ life-force and dialect effortlessly applied to new characters by slew of talented actors. Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, and especially newcomer Allison Tolman all make inspired choices in one of the most unconvential dramedy projects ever undertook. It’s dark and twisted while being uproariously funny, just as everyone hoped it’d be.

9. The Leftovers, HBO (Covered here)

Damon Lindelof had a lot to live up to in his first series premiering since the end of Lost, a show known for its multi-dimensional characters, addictive plot twists and flair for seemingly unanswerable mythological magic tricks. The Leftovers boasts all of these, and a thematic through-line examining grief and loss more poignant than anything that happened on that damn island. Its religious influences are unabashedly recognized in the unfortunate opening title sequence, hopefully quelling the rage that Lindelof saw erupt in Lost’s spiritual finale. Here, Lindelof must play God, taking control of the story with the events of the first season now caught up to the source material. Can he learn from the pitfalls of Lost season 2 and provide answers (or at least answerable questions) before the audience phases out?

8. The Americans, F/X (Covered here)

Serious and stylized, The Americans is denser than any other show on this list. Yet it commands your attention, with out-of-this-world acting by leads Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, tight writing, brutal directing, brash editing… It’s a production tour-de-force with story to boot. The Jacob arc of season two was perfectly paced and executed, as was everything with Nina and Martha and Paige. The density is what drops it down a few pegs, slightly limiting enjoyment. But when it’s firing full-throttle, it’s a thrill-ride unlike anything else on TV. 

7. You’re the Worst, F/X

Relationships aren’t always as romantic as the movies and sitcoms portray. Sometimes they’re messy, and weird, and vulgar and jealous and funny and sexy and awesome. You’re the Worst is all of those, as is its central relationship between Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash). Unconventional without being alienating, Jimmy and Gretchen’s love affair is painfully relatable to just about anyone who thought to themselves, “Is this really what love is supposed to feel like?” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but that search, that uncovering of all the bizarre idiosyncrasies of a new flame that either draw you close or push you away, makes for fantastic comedy and great television. Add in Lindsay (Kether Donahue), arguably the best new character of the year, and Edgar (Desmin Borges), the show’s moral center, and you’ve got an ensemble cast for the record books. You’re the Worst is one of the year’s best.

6. Veep, HBO (Covered here and here)

Now formulaic in its cynical hilarity, Veep is coasting along, season after season, with a sureness that’s rarely found in a show so funny.  As the stakes get higher for Selena and her band of idiots, the laughs get rightfully louder. Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the best living comedy actress, surrounded by the best comedic ensemble working today. The writing is carefully layered, broad with speckles of brilliant nuance, economically packed with jokes and barbs with no room for things like emotion. Without Larry David’s wit gracing HBO’s airwaves anymore, its fitting the “no hugging, no learning” heir goes to Louis-Drefyus’ comedic triumph.

5. Game of Thrones, HBO (Covered herehere and here)

This felt like a monumental year for Game of Thrones. Coming off of the “Red Wedding” season, with many of the plotlines from the books apparently nearing their ends, the show still managed to reach stellar heights. Full of unpredictable moments and shocking twists, the stories coalesced into the series’ best finale yet, “The Children”, which sets up even more exciting Westeros action to come. From here on out, the focus intensifies on author George R. R. Martin and his ability to churn out story fast enough for the showrunners to adapt. If the show is about to “jump the shark”, at least it ended season 4 satisfactorily.

4. Orange is the New Black, Netflix (Entire season covered here)

The return to Litchfield was a welcome one, with no signs of sophomore slumping among cast or crew. A few episodes focused on members of the ensemble with stories that never needed telling – in particular, Black Cindy and Mendoza. But everything else was marvelous, the drama amplified by Lorraine Toussaint’s exquisite antagonist Vee, the comedy by Samira Wiley and Yael Stone and Uzo Aduba and Taylor Schilling… ad infinitum. Stagnation has yet to take effect, a sign that the prison setting is a rich one for compelling storytelling. May it be a source of creator Jenji Kohan’s unique brand of dramedy for years to come.

3. Hannibal, NBC (Covered here and here)

The best drama series on television is Hannibal. Season 2 took on many forms, like its title character, mashing the procedural and the ethereal and the diabolical. It did everything right, from the in media res opening battle to the heart-stopping finale, “Mizumono”, the best episode of television in 2014. It wasn’t afraid to sacrifice characters, and showed how the loss of a character can be just as impactful on the story as his or her presence. In a way it took all the best aspects of the other great drama series on the list – The Good Wife’s procedure and The Affair’s games of perspective and Masters of Sex’s psychosexual subtext and Game of Throne’s bloodiness and The Americans’ dark density and The Leftovers’ examinations of grief – and created a prestige pastiche. It exemplifies all that was great about television in 2014, with some of the best, if not the best, acting, writing, directing, editing, scoring, coloring, costuming and SFX in existence. Please, begin consuming this show.

2. The Comeback, HBO (Covered here)

After nine years out of the spotlight, Valerie Cherish got her Comeback. The show once considered “ahead of its time” due to its prescient portrayal of the reality docu-series trend now associated with Kardashians, The Comeback was given the increasingly regular opportunity to fit in with today’s audience. Again, audiences struggled to find it. But again, greatness abounded. Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish is the most perfect actor-character combination ever devised. She deserves multiple Emmys for her work this year, showcasing a range of emotions rarely witnessed among entire ensembles of lesser series. Speaking of ensembles, all the original cast returned and gave pitch-perfect pickups of their characters after 9 years away from Val’s cameras. Everything was well plotted. It was funnier than before, sadder than before, more cringe-worthy than before. If this is truly the end of Valerie Cherish, she, and this show, go out as television legends.

1. Transparent, Amazon (Covered here)

On paper, there’s nothing extraordinary about this show. Yes, there’s the “hook” of the patriarch coming out as transgender to his three spoiled adult children, an achievement in diversity in television for sure. But the plot descriptions for individual episodes sound mundane and uneventful. Watching them, however, is blissful. There’s an atmosphere associated with this show that makes it the most enjoyable of 2014, a huge factor in its ascension to the top of the list. Much like Six Feet Under, a show from which series creator Jill Solloway hails, there’s magic to be found in the day-to-day life of these entitled, neurotic, perfectly imperfect characters. Tambor is a revelation as Maura, and the work he does balancing the character’s “him” and “her” should be remembered not just by Emmys, but by all consumers of media. Reliance on flashbacks totally works here, especially due to the unbelievably strong casting of the younger actors. The Pfefferman family is unlike any other on TV, yet somehow like every family in America. The show is everything good television should aspire to be.

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