The Best of the Year in Television 2014

Another phenomenal year on the small screen, and thankfully not one where we can come […]

David Zahl / 12.16.14

Another phenomenal year on the small screen, and thankfully not one where we can come even close to being comprehensive. Series that’ve gotten raves that we’re waiting to binge on would be The Good Wife, The Americans, and You’re the Worst. Here’s our best shot at rounding up what we’ve watched this year. I had some serious help with this (ht McD, EKR, HE).

Top Twelve Television Series of 2014

2014-06-02-veep112. Parenthood. The Bravermans didn’t make it terribly easy to keep watching this year–what with the Joel and Julia debacle–but even after four-plus years, the show can still bring the waterworks like no one’s business. Parenthood has definitely grown more formulaic as the characters have gotten their acts together, and so it has felt at times like they were crossing “big life moments” off their list (divorce, death, coming out) rather than sticking to what would make sense for the characters. On the plus side, though, it’s one heck of a formula, and the isolated moments of grace still warrant its placement on this list. Camille’s sit-down with Julia in the most recent episode of the current season ranks as the single most sympathetic scene of the year, Mbird-wise.

11. Community. I was skeptical, but the return of creator Dan Harmon produced several reminders of what makes this show so special: it reminds you just how much can be done with the 22 minute sitcom. I’m thinking particularly of the ingenuity on display in the “Cooperative Polygraphy” and “Geothermal Escapism” episodes, though the “GI Jeff” one probably had me laughing loudest. It wasn’t a perfect season–the Jonathan Banks addition was hit-or-miss–but you’ve got to hand it to the original cast, their chemistry only continued to improve. If you had told me four years ago that Britta would become my favorite character, I wouldn’t have believed you.

10. Veep. With all due respect to the Greendalers and the Bravermans, the best ensemble on television belonged to this HBO comedy, hands down. Julia continues to astonish. The writers are clearly having a blast writing for her. The third season kept the hilarity chock-a-block (the gun lobby visit, Ryantology, Selina’s haircut, the whole Ray thing, etc), while upping the satirical ante more than expected. The “Alicia” episode in particular was an unsettlingly effective portrait of political logjamming. Only qualm would be the sappiness that seems to creep into such sitcoms during year number three (e.g., Parks and Rec, The Office) and was making its presence known in Veep this season, especially the finale. Here’s hoping Armando and co keep the razor-sharp inanity front and center in season four.

9. Rick and Morty. “The spirit that animates humanity is the spirit of play”, wrote theologian James Evans, and you’d be hard-pressed to any TV show that “blows where it will” to the absurd extent that Rick and Morty does. It had to be, by far, the most exuberant writing-room 2014, and the only thing more surprising than its trans-dimensional capers would have to be the show’s startling concern with matters of the heart. If Bird-Person’s translation of Rick’s mantra, rub-a-lub-a-dub-dub, doesn’t leave you weeping, then you probably don’t have a heart… or are still stuck on the giant tentacle-monster gracing the show’s dénouement. In terms of raw fun, probably the best of the year – though, fair warning, a good dose of irreverence and more-witty-than-you’d-expect middle-school boy humor comes with the territory. Chalk up another victory for Dan Harmon.

Notable episodes: “Meseeks and Destroy”, “Rixty Minutes”, “Something Ricked This Way Comes”.


8. Game of Thrones. (Spoiler warning): Benioff and Weiss just keep getting better. TV’s worst, and probably most meaningless, fantease in years happens in Oberyn Martell, The Red Viper, driving home the reality of suffering and futility “under the [spear-pierced] sun” in a way that more Christian-friendly TV almost never achieves. The finale – probably the series’s best to date – wraps things up beautifully. A couple of book spoilers finally loop readers into the anticipation surrounding next season. Especially on the finale, props go to the show’s exploration of growing pains: leadership and self-definition can be burdensome, and “loss of innocence” to describe these characters would be way understating things. As usual on our GoT stuff, if we were judging, then A+ for plotting, set design, low anthropology, and a welcome (sort of) emphasis on the eschatological “not-yet”; points docked for Dany’s improbable blend of sanctimony and patronization, episode 9’s slightly imbalancing spectacle, and a bit too much descent into shock-value.

7. Girls. Three seasons in, and Lena hasn’t stopped taking chances. The death episode was pitch-perfect, as was the Beach House disaster. The GQ plotline summed up twentysomething anxieties beautifully. And then the final episode, while excruciating, left Hannah’s self-centeredness courageously bare. Say what you will about Dunham, but she does not gloss over the moral/spiritual cost of the life she’s depicting, and it’s refreshing to say the least. All the while, the show remains fun-fun-funny. More Jenny Slate please.

tumblr_n59bqwJLC31s2w235o3_2506. Hannibal. I’d been reading such good things about this series–especially over at The AV Club, which just named it the best show of 2014–that I couldn’t run away any longer. Mads Mikelsson captivates every time he’s on screen, but true star of the show is the gore, which aspires to a gothic beauty that, truth be told, it frequently achieves. I binge-watched this series over one surreal weekend in September, which I would not recommend. Hannibal traffics in big questions and complicated relationships, while rarely if ever telegraphing its many plot reversals. It ended with the best season finale of the year, too. Gripping stuff.

5. Olive Kitteridge. This four-part miniseries featuring Frances McDormand (Fargo, Moonrise Kingdom, Almost Famous) and Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods, Step Brothers), and a sublime Bill Murray surprise, kind of flew under the radar for non-HBO devotees, but it is rich. It is the film adaptation of a novel taking place in a cold coastal town in Maine, following the long-suffering marriage of Olive, a schoolteacher, and Henry Kitteridge, the town pharmacist. Olive is an introvert, a self-described depressive, and almost unbearably tactless mother and wife. Henry, on the other hand, is an extroverted, glass-half-full lover of life. Beautifully shot, with some of the most emotionally mature storytelling out there, the show captures the difficulty of a marriage that must weather one another’s psychological load, from both sides. And it does so in a way that doesn’t pick sides. While Henry’s soft-side allows for empathy in places where Olive might be too thick-skinned to accept it, it also makes him obnoxious. And Olive’s own struggles with depression allow her the means to go the depths with others like her. More than any other show out there, one marriage becomes the lens through which a number of contemporary family issues are handled: suicide, infidelity, mental illness, and family estrangement–all faced with a profound empathy. Nothing is surprising under the sun, at least with humans. But wait for the hospital hold-up scene!

4. Fargo. Speaking of Frances, the Fargo mini-series was the year’s most pleasant surprise. First there was the sheer chutzpah involved in trying to adapt that movie of all movies into a mini-series. It shouldn’t have worked, and it definitely shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Allison Tolman deserved every rave she got, Billy Bob Thornton turned in a truly chilling performance (beware of Rev. Malvo!), and the various quirks (deaf hitmen, Key and Peele, the fumbling Hess brothers) could’ve been silly but somehow hit just the right note. Perhaps the larger gamble, though, was the one that’s been mentioned far less frequently: Fargo was not a show about darkness so much as damnation, which is about the most unfashionable subject imaginable. Indeed, those ten episodes drew as compelling a portrait of a damned soul as I’ve ever seen attempted on television, proof that subtlety and sophistication does not always equate to ambiguity. Lester is not sick or hurt; he is weak and guilty, as despicable as Molly is honorable. Talk about the “self-will run riot”! Only drawback was how the show petered out slightly toward the end.

truedetective3. Rectify. When critic Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted earlier this year that “Rectify is proof that Christian themes can connect with agnostics and atheists if the work is good and isn’t actively selling anything,” he wasn’t lying. The Sundance Channel drama about Daniel Holden (exonerated after being on death row for 19 years for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend) only got better in its second season, a fascinating look at re-entering a family and a small town community after being imprisoned for nearly two decades. Questions about Daniel’s innocence still linger, even though he’s out thanks to new DNA evidence. The strength of Rectify is it’s insistence that we view Daniel as having dignity and being decent, regardless of what he may or may not have done. To read more about what Zoller Seitz meant by calling it “truly Christian art”, go here.

2. True Detective. Given all that’s going on with the Serial podcast at the moment, I think it’s safe to say we’ve entered the age of the simultaneous lash-backlash, i.e. let-me-tell-you-everything-that’s-wrong-with-this-thing-we-all-love-before-it’s-even-over. It’s too bad, then, that the “phenomenon” of True Detective overshadowed the show itself, which really was masterful. It gave us more to respond to, more to chew on, and look forward to than anything else this year. As Adrienne Parks wrote in the second issue of The Mockingbird (full article here!), “This may be the unique potential of the dark fantastique, that it can go into the blackest places of the human psyche and offer there the possibility of light. Unlike its sunnier cousin, epic fantasy for children, the dark fantastique isn’t kid stuff. It has to address the existence of despair, of the possibility, at least, of an argument, à la Ligotti or Sartre, that hell isn’t just other people… The true genesis of the hidden ‘snozzberry’ of faith [True Detective showrunner Nic] Pizzolatto has concealed inside his gritty tale is that we come through the madness to the other side. By surviving the horror, we transcend it. If dark fantasy is the best vehicle for presenting a grown-up Devil, it has to at least leave the door open for the presence of a grown-up God. Today, as always, we get our best sermons from stories, and I hope Nic Pizzolatto keeps telling them.” Amen to that!

1. The Cosmopolitans. We only got one episode, but it was the most genuinely exciting TV moment of the year. Whit Stillman firing on all cylinders, nary a wasted breath. Three months later I stand by my initial review: “A beautiful piece of work, from start to finish–comedies this sophisticated simply don’t exist on television (yet!). Faster paced than Stillman’s other work but retaining the smart, snappy dialogue for which he is known, it may even be his flat-out funniest. In a universally strong cast (including the city itself, which has never looked more charming), the character of Fritz may take the cake. Just thinking about him brings a smile to my face. Only complaint is that it was over far too soon.” Word has it, Amazon has ordered more scripts, but not yet committed to filming them. I trust you’ll join us in saying a prayer or three–but not for a cab.


Honorable Mentions: Mad Men. Hesitant to include it on the list itself since we’re technically ‘mid-season’ at the moment, but Don’s bottoming out has given the show a much-needed boost. With its twin highpoints of Cooper’s dance and Peggy’s embrace, the “Waterloo” episode lived up to its ABBA-referencing title. And the scene in the second episode of the new season where Sally tells her dad she loves him after their mutual confessions is as close to real grace as Weiner has brought us thus far. I sure teared up.

The Leftovers. Some of the Church Fathers described the image of God as man being unfathomable, and God is, in a higher way, unfathomable. The Leftovers could be read as a long, somewhat tortuous explication of that idea. Lindelof nails one of TV’s most likeable (and relatable) characters in Chief Garvey, and kudos too for the sounds, sights, episode cohesion, and Garvey’s bizarre experiences of Romans 7. After that, though, things break down. Christianity, along with most well-developed religion, teaches that mystery can at least be delineated; though we can’t explain it, faith apprehends something of the mystery’s structure. Sadly, Lindelof simply misses religion most of the time. Mystery degenerates into the simply irrational, and that creates a vacuum which only petty suspense can really fill. It’s possible, though unlikely, that this suspense will give way to real Season 2 payoff – this time next year, it either will have been a success or a failure. But one hopes the pseudo-mystery, and the not-quite religion, won’t be mistaken for spiritual depth. People thought the ending of LOST was bad; it wasn’t, but all the high-suspense, low-significance plotlines of the preceding seasons made good resolution impossible. Leftovers is similarly riveting, but guard your heart.

Guiltiest Pleasure: The 100. There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic shows out there, but this may be the most fun, even though it doesn’t have a single likeable character. A much more lightweight Battlestar.

Most Improved: The Walking Dead. On the plus side, the pace has picked up considerably. On the minus, the priest character could not be more unrecognizable or annoying.

Least Improved: New Girl. Last season was admittedly hard to top, but this one has felt like a pale imitation at times. Here’s hoping the decline gets arrested in the new year.

Funniest Newcomer (Not That We’ve Ever Watched It): Review with Forrest MacNeil. Essentially an insane primer on the first use of the law, in no universe would this one be considered appropriate but oh well. They don’t come funnier than Andy Daly.

Best Cooking Show By a Long Shot: The Mind of a Chef. Magnus Nilsson is my new hero.

Biggest Disappointment: Marry Me. Happy Endings was amazing, and Ken Marino and Casey Wilson sure seemed like a match made in heaven but jeez louise. Poor Tim Meadows.