[A version of this review appears in The Rutland Reader.]
It’s that time of year. That magical time when we look back on a year of television and pass judgment one last time. What did we love? What did we hate? What did we want to set on fire? Let’s start by acknowledging some blind spots. There is so much great television these days, and I am only one person. Some shows slipped through the cracks. In particular, Transparent, Mad Men, The Americans, Louie, Hannibal, and Fargo. What follows is the best television based on what I watched in 2014. (Most of these shows are available on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, or some other streaming service so if you haven’t seen them, the winter is a perfect time for some guilt-free bingeing.)
Broad City (Comedy Central)
Comedy Central is on a roll. While the programming has been solid for sometime now, 2014 was a high-water mark for the network. Key & Peele, Kroll Show, and Inside Amy Schumer all turned in excellent seasons. The Daily Show, Colbert, and @Midnight are reliably funny. Broad City, however, takes the prize. Starring Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer as two 20-somethings living in New York, this Amy Poehler-produced series is a screwball comedy with laugh-out-loud premises that proves women are every bit as funny and gross as men. Along with a supporting cast, featuring Hannibal Burress, John Gemberling, and Chris Gethard, Abbi and Ilana inhabit a surreal world of slacker Millennial culture full of weed-fueled urban adventures. Season two premiers Jan. 14, 2015.
Every Simpsons Ever Marathon (FXX)
On paper, FXX’s 12-day Simpsons marathon held to announce the launch of a new syndication deal and mobile app launch had all the trappings of network cross-promotional gimmickry. Instead, the event reminded everyone why “The Simpsons” is one of the best and most important series in television history — at least for the first 10 seasons or so. Since the initial marathon, FXX has devoted a significant chunk of its programming (five nights a week) to mini marathons centered around various themes, characters, or guest stars. As a result, the monorail episode airs at least once a week, and that’s perfectly cromulent with me.
The Flash (CW)
As a Marvel guy, I’ve never been particularly interested in the DC universe. My partisanship is perhaps best exhibited in my defense of the admittedly mediocre Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, the buzz about Arrow was legit so when The Flash debuted on the CW this fall, it was an easy sell. More upbeat than Arrow, Flash serves as a solid complement to its darker brother. As I said in a previous review, both shows are not without their problems — too much melodrama, a paternalistic view toward its female characters — but for all their flaws, they get a lot right in how they bring comic to life with big action, high stakes, and just enough DC camp. (Read my review here.)
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
As a correspondent “The Daily Show,” John Oliver was a pro, showing his ability to sell even the most absurd bit and improvise on the fly in interviews and pre-taped packages. Behind the desk of his own news show on HBO, Oliver proves he is also natural lead anchor. Oliver brings an international — albeit still white and male — perspective to his coverage of the week’s news. The weekly format allows for more in-depth reporting with long-form pieces at the center of each episode that become instantly viral on social media. More than the cathartic pleasure of “Daily Show” or “Colbert,” “Last Week Tonight” is both trenchant and informative. With “Colbert” wrapping up at the end of this month, and “The Daily Show” becoming increasingly inessential, “Last Week Tonight” is a worthy satirical successor, and required watching. (Read my review here.)
“Moving Up,” Parks and Recreation season finale (NBC)
There’s nothing more satisfying on television than watching a show go out on its own terms, and its prime. Season six was uneven at best. With Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) flailing after a series of professional setbacks, it wasn’t clear if the show knew what to do next. Shades of latter seasons of The Office were creeping in — not a good sign — and it looked for a time that we were doomed to run out the series’ clock like the end of a dinner party where nobody’s ready to leave, but everybody’s run out of interesting things to say. Fortunately, the writers had a plan after all. In the final minutes of a strong but hectic season finale throughout which Leslie’s fate in Pawnee is uncertain, the show jumps ahead three years. The transition is smooth and disorienting in all the right ways. Things looks different, Leslie and Ben have triplets, Jon Hamm is there. It’s a bold move that injected new energy and storytelling potential into the series as it enters its final season. (Read my review here.)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Mike Judge has always had a knack for capturing very specific niches of American life. Officespace nailed the bleak drudgery of contemporary office culture. King of the Hill was a lovingly trenchant critique on conservative American values of masculinity, faith, family, and patriotism without taking cheap shots — at times even upholding some of those values, though, often through a more progressive lens. It’s no surprise, then, that Silicon Valley delivers those same keen satirical sensibilities. The series, about a small startup that accidentally developed a game-changing app, lifts the veil of the male-dominated, hyper-competitive, and generally shitty tech world. It’s a smart, funny show, taking pointed digs while also providing some fair insight to just how this world works. With a cast of A-list comedians, including, TJ Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Star, and Zach Woods, Judge has struck comic gold. Look no further than the season finale, which features one of the best dick jokes in recent memory.
True Detective (HBO)
When True Detective premiered in January, no one immediately knew what to make of this moody drama about a bizarre murder starring two A-list movie actors. While Matthew McConaughey’s philosophical musings felt like the ramblings of stoned college freshman, he sold it so damn well no one seemed to care. Showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga told a haunting, visually compelling story that made for some the tensest television of the year (female character issues aside). Not since Lost has a TV series inspired so many fan theories, close readings, and thinkpieces. While the mystery of the Yellow King turned out to be a feint (disappointing some fans), the show still told a satisfying, spooky yet grounded story that ultimately didn’t need to employ supernatural elements to demonstrate the terrible evil within men. The series returns with a brand-new cast and story in 2015.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Going into season five, I had mostly written off this show. However, showrunner Scott Gimple’s decision to tweak the show’s storytelling structure by relying on smaller, character-centric episodes has given the series a level of depth, mood, and forward movement it has rarely achieved in previously seasons. Combined with a tragic midseason finale, The Walking Dead that reminds us, once again, no one is safe, the show has once again become essential Sunday night viewing. (Read my review here.)
You’re the Worst / Married (FX)
Tonally, You’re the Worst and Married are very different shows. The former is an acerbic, acidic take on budding romance. At its center are Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a pair of self-centered, self-destructive souls who cynically decide to pursue a doomed relationship after a drunken one-night stand. The show is unflinchingly crude in its treatment of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and unapologetically mean. But it all works based on the (un)likeability of its cast. If romance is dead, You’re the Worst is here to piss on its grave. On the other end of the relationship spectrum is Married, a subdued study on the existential trauma of marriage, family, and growing up. Judy Greer and Nat Faxon have great chemistry as Lina and Russ, whose relationship is starting to show strain under the pressure of children, money, and a diminishing sex life. With a game supporting cast that includes, Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, and Paul Reiser, the show deftly veers between humor and drama, presenting something surprisingly authentic and, at times, heartfelt. Both series further prove that sitcoms need not be laugh-out-loud funny to be good. There are laughs, to be sure, but, like their network big brother Louie, they also consistently and ably deliver emotion and pathos.
With so much good television, it was hard to narrow things down. Here’s a quick hit list of some shows that, while not the BEST, are still very much worth checking out.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox)
Even a not great episode of Bob’s Burgers is better than most things on TV right now. Five seasons in, and the Belchers are still a delight. The cartoon comedy succeeds at staying grounded while still managing to take flights of fancy — most of them set to music. It tells simple stories with low stakes that rarely fail to satisfy. The show’s love for its characters is both apparent contagious. This is a smart, funny show with a lot of heart that never gives way to cheap sentimentality. (Read my review here.)
Perhaps the best thing about Neil Degrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic exploration of the universe was how much this middle school science lesson enraged social conservatives and science deniers. Politics aside, the Fox miniseries was a fun, awe-inspiring, and accessible meditation on the humbling scale of the universe and just how insignificant humanity really is.
Rick & Morty (Adult Swim)
For those who didn’t think Dan Harmon’s live-action cartoon Community sufficiently bent reality, this actual cartoon by Harmon and Justin Roiland about the adventures of an awkward kid and his mad scientist grandpa is a gross, manic delight.
Too Many Cooks (Adult Swim)
Quietly appearing on Adult Swim at 4 a.m. on a weeknight, this Dadaist take on 1970s and 80s television is one of the most surreal things you’ll watch this year. Clocking in at a little over 11 minutes, the short requires a long attention span and an appreciation for absurd humor. Watch the video on YouTube, and try not to get the theme song stuck in your head.
After three seasons, this HBO series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the craven, vain, and daffy Vice President of the Selina Meyer still might be the funniest sitcom on TV right now. (Read my review here.)