This is pretty straightforward, and there’s not really a way around it. At the beginning of the year 2014, I set out to consume a nearly equal amount of film, literature, television and music. This didn’t quite happen. By year’s end, I had in fact consumed far more television than anything else. It wasn’t exactly the plan, but television is not only extremely accessible in the streaming/on-demand era, it’s also pretty damn addicting. Luckily though, 2014 was an exceptional television year, so I don’t feel like I wasted too much time on it. To look back on the television year that was, I put together a top 10 list of TV shows in 2014. Remember, as always, this list isn’t a comprehensive or definitive statement; it’s a celebration.
The funniest, fastest sitcom since 30 Rock, deserves every one of the awards that it’s won for its past three seasons. In its first two seasons, Veep was a riotously funny, razor sharp look into the world of the American Vice Presidency. Sitcom queen Julia Louis Dreyfus starred as the politically impotent title character, Selina Meyer, and a handful of TV veterans like, Reno 911’s Matt Walsh and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale, made up the supporting cast. For all of its insults, putdowns and comebacks, it quickly earned a reputation for being one of the wittiest and meanest shows on TV, but it’s also a master class in physical comedy, and its bleak political satire is second to none. In season three, the show found another gear as it tightened its focus on the shameless politicking of the upcoming election.
With more at stake, the show’s talented ensemble cast reached a new level of desperate, as Selina’s team jockeyed to stay ahead of the polls and each other. The most memorable rivalries, petty feuds and priceless pairings included Amy vs. Dan for campaign manager, Dan vs. Jonah, the pathetic ex-White House liaison who (thankfully) won’t go away, and Gary vs. his treacherous bag. Meanwhile, Selina faced off against an array of uninspiring politicians, each one a critique of the endless, empty rhetoric of election cycles. There’s Danny Chung (played by Randall Park – The Interview’s Kim Jung-un), a former veteran who can’t speak without reminding the American people of his service to the country, and sports analogy-spouting Joe Thornhill, a successful ex-baseball manager, whose political appeal stems entirely from the fact, among other winners.
Selina and the people of her campaign (shout out to Gary Cole of Office Space and Pineapple Express fame, too!) don’t particularly stand for anything, and if they do, they rarely act on it. “How much would I love to speak my mind on this campaign. Can you imagine if I did that?” Selina bemoans in one episode. “Mississippi is chock full of assholes. I don’t trust the Chinese. And I gotta tell you something, I’m not going to be able to pass a single piece of legislature that’s really going to make any fuck of a difference in your life, so how’s that for my platform?” Pessimistic? Sure, but darkly funny and probably truer than we’d like to believe.
9. Game of Thrones
Season four of what might be the most popular drama on television not named The Walking Dead was arguably its best, and, definitely, my favorite. Its preceding seasons featured compelling storytelling, gut-wrenching twists and some stellar action set pieces, but much of it felt like a prologue to something bigger to come. Naturally, it took a lot of (s)exposition to understand the vast, complex world of Westeros, and a lot of table setting and throat clearing for George R. Martin’s epic, intricate game to truly take off.
But by season four the groundwork had been laid, allowing Game of Thrones to finally get to the meat of the story. Showdowns that had long been foretold finally occurred; rulers were overthrown; mysteries were solved; moon doors were opened and nearly every one that we cared about was put in danger. The Shakespearan drama at King’s Landing took and held center stage for large portions of the season, but there was movement on the margins as well. The long-awaited battle between the watchers on the wall and the wildlings was an action spectacle. The odd couple pairing of Arya and the Hound was a dark buddy comedy. Oh, and Bran, well, he did some weird magical stuff, too.
The undisputed star of the season, though, was tiny Tyrion Lannister, as played with a sympathetic mixture of wit, passion and pain by Peter Dinklage, whose increasingly dire plight resulted in the season’s most emotional scenes.
8. You’re The Worst
Stephen Falk’s freshman FX sitcom was one of the most overlooked shows on television in 2014. Cynical, sweet and oh so blue, You’re The Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two positively toxic human beings who vehemently reject the notion of romance but can’t help falling for each other anyway. Jimmy is a (hilariously) selfish and insensitive writer; Gretchen is a (hilariously) self-destructive publicist, but they’re perfect together? That’s the enticing question mark that the show ambiguously dances around in its first season. Could their respective explosive personalities ignite the personal growth that they so desperately need, or is their relationship ill conceived and destined to end in flames?
The tension is represented in the show’s charming, outwardly pessimistic theme song. “I’m gonna leave you anyway,” it says over and over again, but there’s a cockeyed sense of optimism under the surface. It’s as if what’s left unsaid is: What’s the worst that can happen, then?
In the early going Louie stood out because in a television world in which, increasingly, Every Thing Matters and not an episode can be skipped, or viewed out of sequence, it was a collection of meandering vignettes that had little to no continuity. The only constant was Louie, his career, his shortcomings and his adorable daughters. Everything else was subject change from week to week. Each episode featured standup comedy and glimpses into the mundane and, occasionally, absurd occurrences in a fictionalized Louie’s life in New York City. Over time, though, Louis CK grew restless and began playing with the format of the show. Season four featured his most audacious experimenting yet.
He devoted a large portion of the season to an ambitious multi-episode arc about Louie’s budding relationship with an Eastern European woman who spoke limited English. What originally appeared to be a traditional romantic comedy ended up being a heartbreaking story about disconnect and Louie’s inability to communicate. He also used an hour-long short story to show how his adventures with drugs in adolescence informed and shaped his parenting strategies (with a fantastic guest star turn by Jeremy Renner, to boot). And he continued to tackle prickly social issues in ways that interested him, rather than in ways that were easiest to swallow.
It’s true that Louie isn’t as straightforwardly funny as it used to be; it’s no longer strictly a comedy. It’s evolved into a drama that is frequently humorous and infrequently laugh-out-loud funny. But as it’s grown, it’s remained one of the most surprising shows on television, and there’s nothing quite like truly not knowing what’s going to happen next.
6. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
When talented British comedian John Oliver walked away from Comedy Central after a blistering summer stint as guest host of the Daily Show, some thought he was making a mistake. It wasn’t long after his new show, Last Week Tonight, debuted on HBO before it was pretty clear that they had had it backwards. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver found a groove by taking the news satire format that has been around for a decade and improving upon it. He took advantage of both the extra screen and preparation time to make the centerpiece of each episode a lengthy report on a single, often under-reported subject. Among the most notable were on state legislatures, state lotteries, Miss America pageants, payday loans, net neutrality and FIFA. Each one incisively and humorously exposed an injustice or an inequality in the world that almost definitely isn’t getting the degree of attention that it deserves in the media.
For years, my generation has been criticized for getting its news from fake news programs and satirical pundits. Now that charge can be thrown out the window. Last Week Tonight is a comedy program that you can turn on to learn about issues that the real news isn’t even covering.
5. True Detective
The first season of True Detective was the most exciting television phenomenon of 2014. The presence of movie stars Woody Harrelson and, especially, Matthew McConaughey piqued enough people’s interest in the early going to make tuning in a communal experience. Sure, more people watched Game of Thrones, but a good portion of that audience already knew what was going to happen. With True Detective, there was no playbook, so scholarly and crackpot theories abound in the space between episodes. On screen, McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart tried to solve a dark mystery that had been plaguing them for the better part of two decades, but from the start there were more compelling mysteries about these men’s partnership and personal histories. The season wrapped up rather conventionally, with the loose ends chopped off and a surprisingly optimistic monologue from the always-philosophizing Rust Cohle. From a certain angle, True Detective doesn’t look all that different from other murder mysteries, but, judged as whole, its non-linear structure, beautiful cinematography, stunning direction and strong lead performances set it apart from almost anything else on television.
When I said “almost” in the last entry, I was alluding to Noah Hawley’s TV adaptation of the great Cohen Brothers film, Fargo. Like True Detective, Fargo was the first season of what was intended to be an anthology of crime/mystery stories that dealt with good, evil and the nature of man. But whereas True Detective was an entirely original story from Nic Pizzolatto, Fargo bared the burden of following in the footsteps of a movie universally regarded as a classic. Noah Hawley and company were working with a much higher degree of difficulty. However, against the odds, it worked, and worked well. The first episode of the series was like a remix of the elements of the movie. There was crime, offbeat, dark humor and snow, but new characters with hidden motivations, too. It also boasted a ridiculously stacked cast, with Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks and newcomer Alison Tolman in leading roles, and Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Glenn Howerton, and Key and Peele in reoccurring ones.
On this version of Fargo, the story revolved around the various crimes of Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo and Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard. Malvo is the human embodiment of pure evil from the outset, but in the beginning Lester comes off as a milquetoast, pre-cancer Walter White. Despite his good-natured appearance, Lester burns with resentment and when the devil Malvo gives him the chance to break bad, he takes it in a heartbeat. On the other end, we have the decent but cautious Gus Grimly (Hanks) and the admirable, underestimated Molly Solverson (Tolman) teaming up to put together the pieces of the damage left in their wake. In 10 episodes, the show reaches its natural conclusion, but it featured heaps of fascinating twists and odd character moments along the way.
3. The Knick
What is there left to say about Stephen Soderbergh’s The Knick? It’s been well documented just how remarkable the first season of this period drama was – here and elsewhere. With a premise unlike any other – a period drama that takes place in a struggling hospital in the year 1900 – The Knick is a story about science, society and humanity. Watching the men and women of Knickerbocker Hospital chafe against the limits of both technology and society as they attempt to push the world into a hopeful future made for good television on its own. But each character is confronted with personal challenges along the way that stem from universal concerns that are just as relevant today.
The cast is also uniformly excellent. André Holland and Juliet Rylance play two strong, sympathetic characters; the former is educated but restricted by the color of his skin, the latter is privileged but, due to her gender, only to a point. As the brilliant and self-destructive Dr. John Thackery, Clive Owen was one of the best leading actors on television; he made the well-worn archetype of male anti-hero worth watching again. However, the most outstanding aspect of the show is one that many TV shows all but overlook altogether: the technical elements. Not only is the production value high and the setting convincing, Soderbergh’s thrilling direction and Cliff Martinez’s heart pounding score practically steal the show. On The Knick, the filmmaking is subjective in a way that TV rarely is. When Thackery goes through cocaine withdrawal at a board meeting, you see the experience through him. When Nurse Lucy Elkins leaves a life or death operation to fetch supplies, the camera follows her. With Martinez’ score, an innocent bike ride can take on an air of significance. In addition to being a fascinating, exciting show, The Knick is a jarring and involving viewing experience.
2. The Americans
What if you were secretly a Russian spy living the life of a suburban family man or woman in America at the height of the Cold War? What if you were married to someone who never knew if you could trust because he or she was also a Russian spy tasked with sabotaging and taking down America? These were the bat-shit insane questions that the FX drama The Americans asked to draw people in during its first season, and it made for compelling, tense and surprisingly moving television. In season two, the show upped the ante in more ways than one. It threw a couple of more questions into the mix: What if your fake marriage becomes real – how does that complicate your life and your objectives? What happens when the kids you conceived to be props for a convincing cover grow up and become individuals with their own needs and desires?
The questions were – and remain – tantalizing, but the exploration of them was brilliant. The masterfully plotted season doesn’t waste a single scene. It’s centered on a season-long mystery of a grisly murder scene that hits Philipp and Elizabeth Jennings (played by the criminally underrated Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) close to home. It concludes in a powerful way that resonates with the themes of the season and prompts even more troubling questions for the show’s future. For all of the darkness on prestige television these days, The Americans evokes a sense of dread that is unparalleled. It’s astounding how a spy show about the ostensible bad guys can sting this much.
1. Mad Men
Despite AMC’s deplorable decision to slice the final season of Mad Men in half, Mad Men still delivered seven episodes of television that entertained me – and prompted me to think and write– more than anything else on television this year. As evidenced by the strength of the shows on this list, that’s saying something.
(Here are links to all of the reviews/recaps I wrote for the first half of this season:
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes travel-related articles for Continental Driftings, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices, The College Fix, and Voice of TV, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.