Monday Morning Critic: The Top 10 TV Shows of 2014
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: The top ten shows of 2014.
Last week, I talked about the shows that barely missed my cut for The Top Ten Shows of 2014. It was my way of acknowledging that lists such as these are often reductive exercises in celebrating the heights that television achieved over the course of a 12-month period. But it was also representative of my three-tiered enjoyment of the medium in general: There are plenty of shows that have aspects that thrill me, a select number of shows that I love watching on a weekly basis, and then an even smaller number of programs that represent not necessarily the best of the medium but those that most reflected what felt important to me at this stage in my life.
It’s crucial to explain that last part in terms of my personal cultivation. It’s not any better or worse a way to generate a list like this, but it’s definitely my way of doing it. This is not to say that the casting, writing, and directing of a television program isn’t important when trying to determine if a show is good or not. But ultimately, lists such as this should more or less tell a story about the critic compiling it. This is listicle-as-biography, in some ways, which is an incredibly narcissistic but valuable way to examine them. It’s certainly a lot saner than gazing at the list below as the sole representation of the “best” of television. I don’t know what the “best” was. I only know what touched me the most. So sure, it’s a self-centered way of approaching this, but it’s also an honest one, and one that I think of lot of other critics actually employ even if they don’t explicit define the effort as such.
All of this is a way of also saying that it’s only natural that this list won’t line up with yours, and any absence isn’t a slight against something you cherish more than I do. The ‘True Detective’ and ‘Game Of Thrones’ fans might rail against their exclusion here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those that love those two shows. Same goes for champions of ‘Mad Men’ (which executed a half-season that only got going right as it ended) and ‘Transparent’ (a show that I am still wrestling with, which speaks to its strengths even if I can’t overcome certain inherent hurdles in its DNA). I can’t put shows on this list simply to appease those looking for either agreement or critical consistency. Neither of those things are ever going to happen, AND THIS IS A GOOD THING. At best, this list might point you to a show or two you might have overlooked and now give a try. At worst, some dude on the internet wrote a list that YOU CAN’T BELIEVE omitted ‘The Leftovers.’ And that’s a pretty sweet worst case scenario if you ask me.
Onto the list! As mentioned before, last week represented the third, outermost tier of shows. Next are the second, more interior level shows, which I’m listing out in alphabetical order. Trying to achieve a hierarchy here seems pointless, as I could make a case for each in the tenth slot as well as the fourth. The last tier will be my top three shows in order, since at that stage I can defend a defined numerical value.
10. ‘The Americans’ (FX)
If season one was the best show of that year about marriage, then season two was one of the best shows on television this year about family. The meat on the narrative bones here isn’t the spy stuff (which is fine in and of itself), but the examination of the costs of the Cold War on the emotional states of those waging it on both sides. The season’s finale cast a new light on all that had come before, suggesting that the true war wasn’t for love of country but for the soul of the next generation. This show’s third season can’t come fast enough.
9. ‘The Good Wife’ (CBS)
Even though it’s stumbled slightly in its sixth season, there’s still more ambition stuffed into an average episode than entire seasons of other network dramas. Stuffing too many interesting characters and plots into a single show is a good problem to have, but in charting Alicia Florrick’s slow-but-steady erosion of her principles, this show is demonstrating how long-form narrative is the strongest way to show how people change over time without them even realizing it.
8. ‘Jane The Virgin’ (The CW)
Who cares that it’s only aired a handful of episodes? Those episodes have been so damn good that its placement here is well earned. Most shows are lucky to do one or even two things well. ‘Jane’ does about eleven things well, and often does six of those simultaneously in the same scene. This is one of those shows I happily champion, since the hurdle inherent in the title and premise seems too high for most even at this point. Oh well. Their loss. On any given week, it can be the most romantic/charming/funny/heartbreaking thing on any network. Seeing the show execute at such a high level so quickly has been the best surprise of the Fall.
7. ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’ (HBO)
Often the most vital show in any given week that it airs, ‘Last Week Tonight’ pushed past its roots so quickly that any pre-air misgivings about its potential redundancy seem insanely stupid. (Spoiler alert: I was one of those idiots wondering if we needed “‘The Daily Show’ with more swearing’.) I wrote a lot about the show here, and I stand by it now. In 2014, this was the very definition of Must See TV.
6. ‘Orange Is The New Black’ (Netflix)
Last year, this was my second-favorite show of the year, and if the newness/surprise of it has worn off, the show still demonstrated that it’s got enough in the tank to make noise for as long as Jenji Kohan and company want to tell the stories of these inmates. By pushing Piper out of the central narrative spotlight and letting lesser characters like Rosa rise in significance, ‘Orange’ reaffirmed that its storytelling boundaries are limitless. There are an infinite amount of stories this show can tell, and the best thing about ‘Orange’ is that so many of these stories are all but ignored by other programs.
5. ‘Penny Dreadful’ (Showtime)
Other programs on this network get more buzz (‘The Affair’) and more critical attention/handwringing (‘Homeland’), but this was the best show on the network in quite some time. Ostensibly a story involving some of history’s best-known genre characters, ‘Penny’ was in fact a story of otherness and the status of the outsider. If you can’t relate to being an outsider, well, congratulations. For the other 99.99999% of us, here was a show that used fantastical elements to convey some very grounded emotions. Throw in Eva Green giving one of the singular performances on the small screen all year, and you had an overlooked gem that deserves more attention.
4. ‘Rectify’ (SundanceTV)
While ‘Sleepy Hollow’ might have stumbled somewhat due to its expanded episode order between seasons one and two, the shift here from a 6-episode first season to a 10-episode second season did wonders for an already wonderful show. The shows meditative qualities got deeper with an expanded order, and it afforded time to linger inside protagonist Daniel Holden’s head while also taking characters like his stepbrother Ted Talbot Jr. through full journeys as well. Here’s a show in which the questions are more important than the answers, since the search for those answers is what drives the show’s most profound investigations of the human soul.
3. ‘Enlisted’ (FOX)
2. ‘Review’ (Comedy Central)
1. ‘You’re The Worst’ (FX)
When I talked earlier about listicle-as-biography, it stemmed initially from me trying to think about why these three shows separated themselves from the pack in my mind. What did they all have in common, if anything? These are, respectively, a semi-silly workplace comedy set at an army base; a metatheatrical criticism of criticism itself; and a snarky, often obscene look at self-centered denizens of Los Angeles. And yet, I would in fact argue they have one key component that unites them, one that collectively pushed them to the top of the heap and helped define what was important to me as both critic and citizen in 2014.
That component? A willingness on its characters’ part to engage with life rather than shy away from it. That’s a vague, pretentious way to link the three, but I do think it’s true all the same. On ‘Enlisted,’ the oldest of three brothers deals with the underperforming members of Rear D but also his post-traumtic stress disorder from his time spent serving overseas. Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly), the host of the show-within-a-show ‘Review,’ tries to be an “objective” observer of life but through that process loses most of what’s near and dear to him. ‘You’re The Worst’ starts out as an anti-romcom but eventually reveals cynicism as the easiest defense against actually being hurt by another individual.
So far, so seemingly morbid. But these were also three of the straight-up funniest shows on television this year, programs that not only stared into the chasm but defiantly yelled into it. There’s a famous story that John Lennon tells about initially meeting Yoko Ono that applies here. When Lennon initially visited a gallery featuring her work, he climbed up a ladder she had set up heading towards a spyglass hanging from a chain on the ceiling. When he looked through the spyglass, a small piece of paper with the word “YES” revealed itself. That positivity appealed to Lennon, and the rest was history. All three of these shows chose “YES” when it’s far more fashionable in 2014 to say “NO”, and that’s why they all sit atop my list.
These were sometimes dark shows, but they were never cynical shows. Characters on them might have been cynical, but the programs themselves never truly took the sides of those people. Someone like Derrick Hill (Chris Lowell) is initially portrayed as a non-caring trickster on ‘Enlisted,’ but he’s ultimately someone who cares more than he admits and often served as the show’s heart. Forest’s struggle to reconnect with his wife in the ‘Review’ season finale is so raw that it produces one of the more genuinely cathartic moments on any show in recent memory. And while ‘You’re The Worst’ protagonists Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) aren’t guaranteed to live happily ever after, they still desperately want to be the type of people that can share a life rather than wallow in solitude.
None of this optimism is easy, which makes these shows and these characters so damn brave. It’s inspiring as a viewer to see that type of small-scale bravery, since it’s actually anything BUT small-scale. Death is so often used as the primary mechanism by which to derive fictional drama that it’s easy to forget that life itself can provide an infinite amount along the way. Sure, surviving the zombie apocalypse demonstrates courage. But so does revealing your all-too-human weaknesses to a fellow soldier, an ex-wife, or a potential lover. It’s far easier to fret in silence than reveal fear. These three shows show the struggle, but also the rewards, of reaching out to those around us.
On top of being really excellent, funny programs, these three taught me more about the kind of person I’d like to be than any other shows I watched in 2014. And that’s why they are my favorites this year.