Monday, January 12, 2015

Favorite TV of 2014

Runners-up: The Walking Dead gets the award for overall most improved show, with the second half of season 4 really amping things up and the current season 5 being the best the show has been since its first spellbinding season. My Mad Fat Diary is a British show that needs airtime over here; its second season was almost as strong as its first. Silicon Valley offered a grand new sitcom universe that stars more interesting and less predictable geeks than the continually abysmal "Big Bang Theory". Game of Thrones, with its surprise deaths and compelling character arcs, continues to impress. Girls was an improvement on previous seasons, and finally featured an episode where all the girls have their flaws pointed out in brilliant form. Key and Peele has some of the sharpest and funniest sketches on TV right now. And Shark Tank keeps its crown as the best network reality show, a consistently entertaining hour of business proposals and negotiations.

15. Veep
By the third season, shouldn't we be sick of Selina Myer and her staff? Not when they deliver quality laughs week after week, leaving us wanting more. Bless HBO for bringing this show to us each season, but also curse the network for its limited series runs. 10 episodes simply isn't enough time to spend with this lovable band of buffoons. In season 3, we followed Selina as she prepared to run for president, going through a series of public relations snafus, a handful of variably qualified campaign managers (narcissistic Dan somehow ends up being the worst of them, suffering a nervous breakdown in the process), and somehow finds time for a ludicrous affair with her personal trainer (guest star Chris Meloni brings the funny). Creator Armando Iannucci's acidic political humor is still as sharp and clever as ever, while also letting this incredible ensemble engage in old-time sitcom scenarios, as in "Crate", when the gang has to figure out how to delete incriminating comments from a reporter's digital recorder he accidentally leaves behind.

Best Episodes: "Detroit", with Selina's pacifist daughter punching out a gun rights protester who threatens to get physical with Selena / "New Hampshire", where Selina and worshipful assistant Gary (Tony Hale) share the best moment in the series upon learning some astonishing news / "Clovis", where Selina & Co. visit a tech company (shades of Silicon Valley) while also dealing with Jonah, now a popular political blogger whose viral video about Selina provides another thorn in the campaign's side.

14. Bob's Burgers
This far into the series run (five seasons and still strongly funny), creators Loren Bouchard and Jim Dauterive have perfected this little show that could, and it's now the strongest show on Fox's Sunday night lineup. In fact, it might be the strongest and most consistent show on Fox, PERIOD. The Belchers (dad Bob, mom Linda, and children Tina, Gene, and Louise) are a wild family, each character with their own weird quirks and personalities, providing the show with a great variety of directions to go in with each new episode. Tina Belcher, the eldest of the children and, in her early teens, a swirling mix of ennui, has become a pop culture icon and, voiced by male actor Dan Mintz, a source of countless perfect sound bites. I also have a soft spot for mom Linda, voiced by another male actor, John Roberts, and always a laugh riot. If you're not on-board with this show yet, it's not too late. The beauty of the sitcom is that you can pretty much jump in anywhere, though I'd suggest you start with season 1's "Sexy Dance Fighting" and go from there.

Best Episodes: "I Get Psy-chic Out of You", where Linda believes she is psychic and gets involved in solving a local crime spree with no-nonsense Sergeant Bosco (Gary Cole) / "Tina and the Real Ghost", where Tina finally gets a boyfriend...who's a ghost trapped in a shoebox / "Dawn of the Peck", the Thanksgiving episode with a town-wide attack by killer turkeys, ducks, and geese (it's as crazy as it sounds)

13. Looking
No doubt a controversial choice, considering its polarizing effect on the gay community, Looking bested other gay-themed dramas for me with the first episode. As viewers complained about the lack of identifiable characters and implausibility of some of the story arcs, I had zero clue what they were talking about. The show will not represent the gay experience for everyone, nor does it aim to. In fact, the least interesting thing about these characters is the fact that they're gay. All three of the central characters (Patrick, Agustin, and Dom) deal with issues of self-exploration that many viewers will identify with, gay or straight, and even if you don't, the show is well-written, solidly acted, and very compelling. Count me in the "love Looking" camp and I look forward to the new season, starting in January, especially because season 1 was merely 8 episodes.

Best Episodes: "Looking for the Future", the best episode of the series so far which follows Patrick and his romantic interest Richie as they spend the day together wandering San Francisco and getting to know each other / "Looking for a Plus-One", with Patrick's mother telling it like it is at his sister's wedding/ "Looking Glass", the finale, with intriguing and open-ended conclusions to each of the leads' story lines

12. RuPaul's Drag Race (+ Untucked)
All season long, I had to endure fans complaining that this season of RuPaul's addictive drag competition show wasn't as compelling as the season before it. Oh come on, people! Sure, it was rather obvious from the get-go that Bianca Del Rio was going for the gold and had little competition for the crown, but that didn't drag things down in the slightest, especially after the previous season's irritating Rolaskatox alliance and manufactured Coco-Alyssa rivalry. Bianca, one of the best insult comics I've ever seen, was given prime targets to sink her teeth into, and ended up becoming friends with many of them after all was said and done. The polish of Courtney Act, the sloppy exuberance of Adore Delano, the ditzy accidental humor of Joslyn Fox (the rightful Miss Congeniality), the whiny nightmare of Laganja Estranja, the gender-fuck of Milk, the clueless fish Gia Gunn, the surprising transformation of Trinity K Bonet, the divinely old school Vivacious. No question about it: this was a great season.

Best Episodes: "Snatch Game", for obvious reasons / "Glamazon by Colorevolution", with some of the funniest challenge sketches from the queens this season / "Drag Queens of Comedy", where we finally see Bianca Del Rio in her element, but also some surprisingly excellent work from other contestants [note: all the corresponding Untucked episodes are also excellent and required viewing]

11. True Detective
Some of you may be surprised this didn't rate higher. Blame it on the pretension. For all of its mind-blowing cinematography and practically flawless performances, there was a lot of potential in True Detective without the follow-through. Multiple hints at something larger, something more substantial, in the mystery of the show fizzled by the conclusion of this mini-series. That said, what a ride! There's a reason it's at #10 on my list. Cary Fukunaga, who I greatly admired from his debut feature film Sin Nombre (2008), brought a visual style to the show that was virtually unparalleled, and kept things interesting even when Matthew McConaughey became so wrapped up in his monologues that they often lost any sense of logic or reason. Speaking of McConaughey...such a tremendous performance, one filled with conflict and depth, though it would be unfair to slight Woody Harrelson, given a less-interesting but still solid character to play. The pair play mismatched partners investigating a murder and its ties to the thickly atmospheric Southern community where the men live. If the show had one memorable, intangible thing going for it, it's the atmosphere. It's perfect Southern Gothic, rich with unease and potential violence, a history of evil and disturbance. Shadows and swamp people aplenty. True Detective, while not entirely successful as a whole, was an experience unlike any other on television. Season 2 has huge shoes to fill.

Best Episodes: "Who Goes There", with the epic tracking shot during a violent attempted robbery in a dangerous neighborhood / "Haunted Houses", where the split between Cohle and Hart is illustrated vividly and uncomfortably / "Form and Void", the finale

10. Orange is the New Black
The second season of Netflix's surprise hit was somehow even better than the first, perhaps because we didn't spend as much time with Piper going nuts over Alex (absent for most of the season) and instead got a chance to revel in more of the women's prison politics, character development, and the strongest and most diverse ensemble cast on TV we've come to know and love. As season 2 opens, Piper has been transferred to another prison following her assault of Pensatucky, but is soon back with the regular group of inmates a few episodes in. The major addition to the cast this season is Vee (the always excellent Lorraine Toussaint), the mother figure from fan favorite Taystee's past who vies with old partner-turned-enemy Red (Kate Mulgrew, still amazing) for power status among the younger inmates. We also get major back story, at last, for intriguing characters like Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Gloria (Selenis Leyva, always a favorite), and Morello (Yael Stone). This show continues to startle and delight as the best binge watch Netflix has produced yet, and also had the very best final scene of any show this year. It's hard to pick MVP's among the cast because everyone is so, so good. This is when one wishes the Emmy Awards just had a best ensemble cast award so that everyone here could have a shiny statue on their shelf. Season 3, cannot wait!

Best Episodes: "A Whole Other Hole", revealing Lorna's back story while also featuring a great competition between Boo and Nicky / "You Also Have a Pizza", featuring Poussey's flashback, with an astonishing performance from Samira Wiley / "Appropriately Sized Pots", focusing on Rosa as she continues to undergo cancer treatment and looking into her past

 9. The Comeback
Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish made an incredible return to HBO, almost a decade after the first season of "The Comeback" came and went. The show, though, became a cult sensation and Kudrow and show co-creator Michael Patrick King were just as surprised and pleased as the fans to be asked back by HBO to update us on what's happening with the self-aware sitcom has-been we all know and love at this point. The greatest surprise of all? This season managed to raise the bar. Unlike, say, the fourth season of "Arrested Development", a bizarre train wreck best left forgotten, this long-awaited second season of "The Comeback" brought us a more mature and thoughtful look at the price of fame and the fickle and unusual ways of Hollywood stardom. How Kudrow didn't get a second Emmy nomination for her work here is a mystery, and a crime, if you ask me. The two seasons are so wildly different from one another, and it's not fair to say one is better than the other, but they complement each other in many wonderful ways.
Best Episodes: "Valerie Makes a Pilot", the first episode of the new season that gives us a little of the old with a refreshing hint of the new to come / "Valerie Faces the Critics", with Valerie and husband Mark having one of the most gripping and honest couples' confrontations on television / "Valerie Gets What She Really Wants", the hour-long finale that was practically perfect, with laughs, tears, and perhaps the best final scene of television all year

8. Louie
Louis C.K. tried something different this season, following a few different story arcs over the course of multiple episodes, and it was, of course, very rewarding, funny, and moving. How the man has avoided winning a Best Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy for so many seasons is a frustrating mystery. In season 4, Louie accidentally punches a model, goes shopping for sex toys, and braves a hurricane to save his family. And those are just the "B stories"! The three individual plots flowing through the season follow Louie as he and his ex-wife struggle to address young daughter Jane's flights of fancy that are getting a little out of hand, as he courts the immigrant niece of an upstairs neighbor (Ellen Burstyn, perfectly cast), and as he deals with the sudden return of Pamela, his lost love who just pops up out of the blue to complicate his emotions all over again. All three stories are beautifully done pieces of comedy and drama, up to the usual excellence the show has exhibited during its entire run so far. While I have loved the show since Pamela's departure (Adlon merely moved behind-the-scenes rather than continue appearing on-screen), it definitely lost something when she took off for Europe. The two have undeniable chemistry, developed so strongly from the actors working together for years, so the direction Louie's relationship with Pamela takes after her reappearance is totally satisfying. And it also gives us more C.K. nudity, which is always a major plus. Louie can do no wrong.

Best Episodes: "So Did the Fat Lady", which gave guest actress Sarah Baker, playing a larger woman interested in Louie, a major career boost / "In the Woods 1 & 2", an hour-long flashback to Louie's youth and his first experiences with drugs; Devin Druid (as young Louie), Jeremy Renner (as a charming but dangerous drug dealer), and Transparent's Amy Landecker (as Louie's mom) give three of the best performances the show has ever seen / "Pamela Part 3", the finale with one of the best and warmest final scenes of any show this year

7. Outlander
Where Downton Abbey has failed in its period piece melodrama this season, Outlander has successfully mixed the classic political intrigue and fantastic elements of Game of Thrones with the romance of paperback novellas to create superior "chick flick" entertainment that exceeds that confining label. The show is based on a series of very popular books, like GoT, Former model Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire, a young former nurse in post-WWII England who travels with her estranged fiancee to a small village, where he can research his family tree. There, through the magic of the local ruins, she is whisked back to the 18th century, a time of conflict between England and Scotland, where she falls in with a Scottish clan who hold her a captive "guest", distrusting her English roots. To betray too much more would detract from the joy of experiencing this show for yourself. The fact that it airs on Starz means its audience isn't as big as it should be, but when it returns in the spring for the second half of its debut season, you should be watching. Play catch-up on-demand!

Best Episodes: "The Gathering", as Claire attempts to escape her hosts, with a great boar-hunting sequence / "The Wedding", where almost the entire episode is spent in the bedroom of bride and groom as they explore and get to know one another / "Both Sides Now", the mid-season finale

6. Inside Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer, after making a splash with her stand-up specials and roast appearances several years ago, has really broken out as one of the best comedians working today, and her show is giving established funny men (and women) a run for their money. Her cheeky brand of humor tends to revolve around the sexual and the scatological, but she also isn't afraid to tackle hot button issues like rape in the military and the misuse of the word "feminist" by today's eager-to-label generation. Inside Amy Schumer is funny and gross, brave and brilliant. There is no excuse to not be watching this show. You're missing the boat otherwise.

Best Episodes: "I'm So Bad", where Amy learns about military protocol while playing a video game and she and her friends beautifully play those women you love to hate...for good reason / "Allergic to Nuts", where Amy lands a great gig voicing an animated cartoon character and finds herself mysteriously attracted to a magician / "Slow Your Roll", with a therapy session most young people can completely identify with

5. Mad Men
Like "RuPaul's Drag Race" (maybe the only comparison one could make between these two shows), this season of "Mad Men" was bemoaned by viewers who were uncertain if the show was good anymore, wondering if the fire had gone out. I can say unequivocally that it hasn't and I am on the edge of my seat waiting for the final 7 episodes. Which leads me to why this show isn't listed higher, considering I love it so much: splitting the final season into two parts isn't new ("The Sopranos" did it), but giving us just seven episodes and then disappearing for a year was a pretty great disservice to the fans. Rather than the standard 13-14 episodes per season, maybe Matthew Weiner could have super-sized things to 16-18, giving us a few extra shows per half-season. In any case, this year saw more provocative Peggy stories, veering from Lucille Ball-style misunderstandings to moving reflective moments, Roger encountering the dark side of his love affair with the counterculture, and Don paying his dues all over again while juggling his crumbling marriage to Megan (still Team Megan here, no hate). We only saw Betty briefly, which is a plus, and she is still a frustrating character; some good Bob Benson material; Pete somehow has landed a California Real Estate Barbie for a girlfriend; and Ginsberg, oh Ginsberg.... "Mad Men" is a show I revisit in its entirety once every year. It's a show I've loved since the beginning and will continue to love after it exits the screen.
Best Episodes: "Field Trip", with the most awkward day at the office for Don, as he awaits a partners' meeting to OK his return to work / "The Strategy", with the best Don and Peggy moments since "The Suitcase" / "Waterloo", with the moon landing, the loss of a beloved character, and Don passing the baton to Peggy

4. Please Like Me
A slowly developing cult following has built around this Australian sitcom, the product of 28-year-old wunderkind Josh Thomas. He is sort of the gay male Lena Dunham, the young alternative voice of a certain generation. Take that however you wish, but don't let it stop you from watching this show. This year saw the second season, with more episodes than the debut season, and Josh has upped his game in terms of storytelling, characterization, and humor laced with pathos. His best friend Tom is still a mess, he is still navigating the messy waters of dating after coming out, his mom has gone from an amusing nutcase to a full-fledged mental home patient, and his dad and stepmother have welcomed a new baby into their home. Enter new characters Patrick, the new gorgeous roommate Josh has a crush on, and Arnold, a troubled potential love match. Where the show excels are in its dialogue scenes, where characters interact believably and have engrossing conversations where they discover more about themselves as we, the audience, are as well. The show should still be available on demand and it's a pure pleasure to discover for yourself.
Best Episodes: "Ham", with a birthday party for Patrick gone wrong / "Scroggin'", where Josh and Mum go on a camping-trip (this is one of the best not-quite-a-bottle-episode's I've ever seen) / "Truffled Mac and Cheese", where Josh locks Tom in his room for stealing Josh's special mac and cheese and the two guys share an amusing and revelatory afternoon with old friend Claire

3. Masters of Sex
When "The Affair" won the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series, I was shocked that Showtime had campaigned so hard for its new show, which is decent, and had apparently thrown its crown jewel to the wolves. If possible, season 2 of "Masters of Sex" was better than the first, pursuing the relationship between Virginia and Bill in unexpected ways, revealing another surprising side of Libby, delving into the sham marriage of Betty and her meal ticket, and following the Masters and Johnson team as they jump from place to place in search of an accepting environment for their "sex study". Perhaps most poignant was the storyline of Lillian DePaul, the hard cancer researcher facing her own mortality each day, with Virginia, a woman she clashes with constantly, as her only confidante. Betsy Brandt ("Breaking Bad") also made a major impression as a sexually dysfunctional patient in a role that should have been given more attention come awards time, and comedienne Artemis Pebdani gave another wowza recurring performance as a diet pill huckster. This season moved quickly, even jumping forward in time around mid-season, and each episode continued to build and grow the show into something truly spectacular. "Masters of Sex" was easily the best drama on TV this year, and it's just a shame that more people haven't recognized that.

Best Episodes: "Fight", most of which is a bottle episode in a hotel room with Bill and Virginia discussing their relationship, but also features a moving subplot about a hermaphrodite baby / "Blackbird", with Lillian and Virginia's final clash / "Mirror, Mirror", with new patient Barbara reaching a psychological breakthrough about her dysfunction (Betsy Brandt, you are a revelation here) / "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", the gripping finale which must have been Lizzy Caplan's "for your consideration" episode

2. Transparent
Amazon has its first big hit on its hands, winning Best Actor and Best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it deserves all of its accolades. There has never been anything like "Transparent" on television before, not just in terms of its focusing on the transitional period for transgender men and women, but in its interplay between such an unusual and compelling, though not entirely likable, family. You'll also be hard-pressed to think of another openly Jewish family on television today, but this show revels in the Jewish lifestyle and traditions of the Pfefferman household. Take that, "Goldbergs"! All of the press about this show is true. Tambor is mesmerizing and brilliant as Maura (formerly Morton), who has decided to take the long-awaited steps towards transitioning into the woman he has always been; the show's humor is dark, but genuinely funny and true, as the Pfefferman family recognizes Maura, but also takes the opportunity to re-examine their lives; the entire cast is perfect, including Gaby Hoffmann (long overdue for this career renaissance as of late), Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Melora Hardin, Rob Huebel, Carrie Brownstein, Kathryn Hahn, and Bradley Whitford, they're all giving career-best performances here. It's fun to see Holly Woodlawn and Alexis Del Lago, drag legends from the New York scene, in cameos at the LGBT retirement community where Maura lives, as well as footage of the late great Crystal LaBeija (in footage from 1968's The Queen) under the show's title card. I cannot wait for season 2!

Best Episodes: "Pilot", one of the best and practically perfect pilots I've ever seen / "Moppa", where Ali and Sarah go on a field trip with Maura / "Best New Girl", a flashback revealing Morton's previous friendship with a cross-dresser named Mark and their journey to a transvestite summer camp

1. Broad City 
My favorite of the year, without question, was "Broad City". It's a show I've watched over and over, with ease, as it only lasted eight episodes. It's the best show about young millennial life, the best show about living in New York, and it features the strongest and most enjoyable friendship on television at the moment (RIP Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins). Springing forth from their popular YouTube series of the same name, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have created what has become affectionately known as the "anti-Girls", a show that follows twenty-something women in New York with raucous humor often hiding the commentary on millennial lives. Most importantly, "Broad City" isn't as concerned with selling its message to the's a show that wants you to laugh at and with these two wild and crazy gals. And how could you not? The upcoming season will hopefully be just as good, if not better, as Abbi and Ilana navigate their way through the streets of the city in search of their next big adventure together. Best show of 2014, hands down.

Best Episodes: "Working Girls", the first masterpiece of the season where Abbi has to go to great lengths to get her neighbor's package after she misses the delivery window / "Fattest Asses", where the girls go all out for a rooftop party and have a hilarious encounter with a pair of douchebag DJ's / "Destination Wedding", where the girls and their group hop all over town trying to find a way to Connecticut to make an old friend's wedding / "The Last Supper", the season finale where the girls' posh dinner for Abbi's birthday goes horribly wrong