Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year End 2014: Started from the bottom now we're here

The last two years in which I've written a TV top ten list (i.e., the only times I've ever done it), I ended the post with a question, or even a dare. The first one was "Whattaya got, 2013?" and holy shit, 2013 responded with perhaps the best year of television drama the small screen has ever seen. And then last year, I closed my top ten post with the suggestion, "Top that, 2014. I dare you." And dare I say that...2014 might have done just that. It's easier than ever to find quality shows with so many new outlets for programming, and that only makes it more difficult to parse down my ten to twenty favourite TV shows of the entire calendar year. But I've carefully selected the ten shows I feel represent the best in television for 2014. And those shows will appear to you by clicking the "read more" button below!

#10. Mad Men

I feel super weird about this for a lot of reasons. The first is that "Mad Men" will probably forever and always be my favourite television show ever, so putting it in the number 10 spot is making my brain go "whaaa?" But I also feel weird about it because a part deep inside me knows that "Mad Men" is really only at number 10 because I just couldn't bear to ever leave this show off my top 10 list. Was the first half of its seventh and final season the show's all-time best run of episodes? I wouldn't say so, but saying that almost means nothing since even the weakest episode "Mad Men" has ever done was still probably like the third or fourth best thing that aired on TV that week. Were there really only nine TV shows in 2014 that I thought were better than it? For any other show, one that I had significantly less emotional attachment to, I'd probably admit that there weren't.

But I can remember watching the season's second episode, "A Day's Work," and thinking that this was an all-time classic episode for the show because it juggles so many interlocking story pieces and characters over the course of the day, as Peggy endures a terrible Valentine's Day and Don bonds with a truant Sally. It just felt like the show at its best, maybe even "vintage" "Mad Men" even though current "Mad Men" is just terrific. It spoke to everything Don told me about nostalgia in the show's first season finale "The Wheel," about a twinge in our heart that takes us back to a place where we know we are loved. I'm so in love with this show and I don't know what I'm going to do with myself when it ends. I'm both impatient and relieved that we're still months away from the beginning of the end.

#9. Nathan For You
(Comedy Central)

It seems that nobody commits to a televised comedy bit these days like Nathan Fielder does. His faux-reality show mocking the type of "please save my business!" shows you'd see on A&E, TLC, Bravo, or even Spike TV with something like "Bar Rescue" are usually pretty gut-bustingly funny, with Nathan's ideas always just so absurd when playing off the deadpan, unsuspecting business owner. More importantly, the joke is almost on the dweeby Nathan and his obviously terrible ideas, and never on the entrepreneur unless they unknowingly invite it (as was the case in the first season when Daniel the gas station owner told Nathan about his family tradition of drinking a toddler's urine to alleviate fear, and not even the ever straight-faced Fielder could keep it together).

And then there are episodes like that gas station rebate scheme, where Nathan encourages the station to sell gas at rock bottom prices after a rebate, which must be claimed in person at the top of a mountain that is only accessible via a 90 minute hike. He's surprised when people actually want to try and claim this seemingly impossible rebate, but runs with the idea and rents a van to shuttle customers to the base of the mountain, devises a series of nonsensical riddles to locate the rebate box, and sets up tents for the three customers who want to spend the night on top of a mountain to save between $10 and $20 on gasoline.

The equivalent episode from this year's stellar second season depicted Nathan trying to save a fledgling Hollywood souvenir shop by making passersby think a movie was being filmed in the store, casting a Johnny Depp impersonator to play the lead in the film, casting a worse Johnny Depp impersonator to make the first impersonator look better by comparison, and then casting unsuspecting tourists to play extras in the movie by having them buy large quantities of souvenirs with their own money. When the tourists tried to return the souvenirs or get compensated for their participation, Nathan had the Johnny Depp impersonator sign all of their souvenirs at a meet-and-greet session to make them both non-refundable and "priceless memories" for the tourists.

From there, Nathan starts to get emails asking when this fake movie, "The Web," will be released, because they've excitedly told their friends and family that they'll be making their Hollywood debut. He consults his legal expert, a retired Los Angeles judge, who confirms for him that his actions constitute fraud and put him and the show's production at legal risk. As a loophole, Nathan decides to finish "The Web" by casting an actress as the lead of a romantic subplot, create his own "Eastern Los Angeles International Film Festival" and entering "The Web" as a short film that will compete only against a six-second YouTube clip of a man farting. He hires a script supervisor to act as a respected Hollywood peer to judge the film and give it an authentic industry seal of approval, protecting him from any legal action the souvenir shop customers might take against him.

All in 22 minutes.

My jaw was hanging open through the entire episode. I was amazed by its escalation within the budget and production schedule the show works under even more than how much it made me fall out of my chair laughing. Man, on second thought, do I have this show too low?

#8. Shameless

While “Shameless” is a very funny show, there are times when it’s tiptoeing of the line between silly and cartoonishly surreal veers more towards the latter, resulting in unpleasant storylines with Frank, Sheila, Sammi et al. But even flat, boring scenes where Frank creates an illegal hot tent or Sheila tries to marry Roger Running Tree to adopt his children couldn’t thwart an otherwise terrific season of “Shameless,” a year in which the show fully surrendered to the absolute, rock bottom darkness that can envelop even the most upwardly mobile Gallagher. Fiona had finally gotten herself into a position to drag the family over the poverty line only to have one douchebag brother, poor judgment, and some cocaine flush all her progress down the toilet.

And the thing is, I don’t even know what’s left to say about Emmy Rossum: she consistently delivers one of the best performances on television so it didn’t surprise me in the slightest when she nailed the toughest role of her career to date. Most of her younger co-stars did as well, as John Wells and his team of writers shouted “jump” and Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Noel Fisher, and Emma Kenney all impressively asked “how high?” When a show airs early in a year that turns out to be so rich with great television, it can sometimes easily be lost in the shuffle when it comes time to make top 10 lists in December. But the Gallaghers never left my mind all year, and I can’t wait to see them again on January 11.

#7. Please Like Me

I've always been intrigued by how Todd VanDerWerff at Vox has talked about his relationship with "New Girl," because he finds the show (or at one time did) very funny but admits he gives it more leniency at times because he identifies more with its themes of early-30s angst than people who are not also in their early 30s might. I really understood where he was coming from when I watched the Australian comedy "Please Like Me" from twenty-something writer/star Josh Thomas. There's an episode in the fantastic second season (from the stretch of the season's virtually perfect final six episodes) where Josh barricades his best friend Tom in his room and steals his computer and cell phone to get back at him for eating his beloved truffled mac and cheese. Much of the rest of the episode is Josh, Tom, and their friend Claire sitting on the floor of their shared house realizing that they are spending their day either committing to barricading someone in a room, or in Tom's case, pretending that he cannot come and go through his bedroom window as he pleases, all because he knows Josh is in a vulnerable state and doesn't want to give him yet another loss. By extension, they all realize none of them have any idea what they want in life nor what their respective next steps are.

"Please Like Me" speaks to me personally in more ways than one, and it's almost certainly why it's cracked my top 10. But it's also absurdly funny at times - particularly when the gang all went to see Tom's high-school aged girlfriend act in her terrible school dance recital, where everyone's giggle fest becomes infectious and takes the viewer into the auditorium with them - to people of any age and in any life chapter. "Please Like Me" also spoke right to my weakness for two-person bottle episodes (even though, again, the Tasmanian wilderness cannot be a bottle) with the terrific "Scroggin'" that sent Josh and his mother on a camping trip following the suicide of her friend from the mental institution. I can definitively say that nothing about that experience personally speaks to me, but I loved it more than anything else in this stellar sophomore season of comedy.

#6. The Americans

I spent a lot of last year's top 10 and second 10 lists starting off a show's entry with some variation of "show X drops a few places from 2012, but it's a still a really good show and its placement only speaks to what an overwhelmingly good year it was for television". I bring this up because in back-to-back overwhelmingly good years for TV, I feel it's worth mentioning that FX's "The Americans" is one of only two shows from my top 10 list to move up rather than down or fall out entirely.

Alan Sepinwall summed up "The Americans's" year two leap pretty nicely by simply stating that the show did more of what was good in the first season and less of what was not as good. And what the show did well in the first season was tension of varying types, whether it's quiet, interpersonal marital and familial tension (which this show does better than almost any other on the air right now), or balls to the wall action violence tension starting from the season's very first episode where Phillip and Elizabeth's long time KGB friends are slaughtered in a hotel room along with their daughter.

There are times when I wonder why this show doesn't get the kind of attention that something like "Breaking Bad" got in its "successful, but not yet earth-shattering" years. But I realize that it puts people off because it's so good at that first type of tension that it becomes all too real and painful and deep-cutting for a TV audience that prefers to watch "NCIS" over anything else. "Breaking Bad" played emotional tension terrifically, but probably not as well as its moments of "oh my god, they just blew half that guy's face off" tension. It's sad to think that "The Americans" might have the plug pulled on it before it really gets off the ground, so you can bet I'll be savouring every second of the upcoming third season. Please be nice to this show, FX, and please dear viewers, watch this amazing show so that FX doesn't need to choose between giving it pity renewals or a heartbreaking cancellation.

#5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

This is my third year doing a top 10 list and the first in which I’m including a “late night” series. I established a rule to not include shows that aired multiple times a week simply because it would mean automatically surrendering a top 10 slot to “The Daily Show” for as long as Jon Stewart was captaining the ship. I even held off last year putting “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in my number 10 slot so as to recognize its greatness regardless of whatever happened to Fallon when he moved to "The Tonight Show" (his show has more or less remained the same, so no real regrets).

But I have to make an exception for a superior debut year for HBO's "Last Week Tonight," a show that we've probably all forgotten premiered at the end of April amid lots of "but how is John Oliver going to differentiate this from his summer on 'The Daily Show'?" questions that seem ridiculous in retrospect. Because Oliver's weekly half hour quickly established itself as something unique and vital on television - a healthy, intelligent and strangely joyous outlet for deserved outrage based on impressively detailed research in long segments that took advantage of HBO's commercial-free model. For the first time in recent memory, television provided us with an extremely relevant and admirable watchdog service that shone a light on lesser known issues and invited us to get angry about them without ever feeling too cynical about our messed up world. Mostly, I think, because it balanced those sentiments of perplexed outrage with dancing space geckos, an all puppy Supreme Court, and Right Said Fred rewriting the lyrics to "I'm Too Sexy" about the president of Syria being an asshole. When "Last Week Tonight" deservedly wins a Peabody this spring, it will be one of the biggest no-brainers in the history of the awards.

#4. Transparent

The funny thing is, I almost didn't watch "Transparent" in time to consider it for a place in my top 10 for the year. I had heard such high praise for it all through the fall but kept thinking back to the February before when I watched the original pilot posted on Amazon. I thought the series had enormous potential and applauded the hell out of Jeffrey Tambor for taking a role as complicated as Maura Pfefferman, but I found the kids pretty irritating and selfish (and I know, they were absolutely supposed to be) to the degree that picking the show up again and allowing myself to be consumed by its universe required more effort of me than just rewatching old episodes of "Parks and Rec" or something.

But then I thought back to last year, when the morning after I published my top 10 list I sat down to watch Charlie Brooker's fantastic horror anthology series "Black Mirror". I've spent the entire year kicking myself for not including it in my top 10 and this year I was determined to not let anything with such potential slip away from me. Yet top 10 lists aside, I'm just so glad I finally watched "Transparent" because it is almost the definitive thesis on why I love television. Sure, it's a show specifically about transgender issues and sexual identity, which brings much-needed visibility to that community to a wider audience (even if it's only the small number of subscribers who watched the show on Amazon Prime). But more generally it's a show about relationships, many of which are in crisis and many of which are in the process of either rebuilding or finally being created after periods of being long overdue. I watch TV because I want to know how real people with real feelings and real difficulties face real problems. When the problems are this specific and give the voiceless a voice, it transcends being a great show and also becomes a necessary show.

#3. Broad City
(Comedy Central)

I had been doing some Comedy Central bingeing back in the early part of the year, watching some of their currently airing series as well as catching up on the first season of "Nathan For You". I was so impressed by their renaissance and very eager to tell my friend about all these shows I wanted her to watch, and yet the show I was probably the most enthused about (and knew she would like the most) likely made the smallest impression on her.

But the relative, superficial unimpressiveness of "Broad City," perhaps the lowest concept comedy on TV (executive producer Amy Poehler's pitch to Comedy Central was likely just "they're friends in New York City and weird things happen to them and it's just really hilarious and I'm beloved comedian Amy Poehler so you will put this on the air"), is also what makes the show the year's best and funniest sitcom and one of the most impressive debut seasons for any show I've seen in quite some time. Now granted, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have been a comedy duo for quite some time, with "Broad City" originating as a web series on YouTube - albeit taking a different form from the current series. I still find it remarkable, though, how assured the two are in their comedic voice and the tone of the show. To my mind, it's the best first season of a sitcom since "Arrested Development," which is appropriate considering how much Ilana Glazer looks like Alia Shawkat's older sister.

#2. Orange Is The New Black

"Orange is the New Black" was a show I liked a lot in its first season - as you may recall, it landed at #6 on my top 10 list last year. But it was a show that many people had poised to leap into the spot of "obvious successor to 'Breaking Bad' as the best show on TV," and I just wasn't prepared to get on board with that. Sure, it was obviously a good show, but it wasn't that good, was it?

Well then I watched the entirety of the second season over the weekend it was released back in June, and screw that, you guys. I am fully on board the train now. The clear goal of the first season was to use Taylor Schilling's Piper as our audience surrogate into the larger world of the Litchfield Prison. And once the show got her story out of the way of all the other more interesting characters (save for some minor annoying L-plots involving Larry and his new girlfriend or whatever), "Orange is the New Black" was able to echo one of TV's all-time greatest dramas in "Lost" by having episodes parallel in-prison stories with a particular inmate at the center of them with flashbacks to their lives on the outside world showing us how they ended up where they are or what sort of person they used to be. It is a show that is both deeply committed to and caring of its characters, and writes them with authenticity and vulnerability. I mean, Poussey is not a character that on the surface tests will with the focus groups, but there was maybe nothing more heartbreaking in the entire second season of "Orange" than the flashbacks to her adolescence as a military brat, constantly having love ripped away from her when father decided to up and move. That's about as universal a disappointment and sadness as any of us can relate to. When you have characters like that in your television show, it's pretty difficult to mess it up.

#1. Review with Forrest Macneil
(Comedy Central)

I love when something sneaks up on me like this – it happened last year to an extent with “Enlightened,” a show I had long thought of only as “that weird thing with Laura Dern that comes on after ‘Girls’” before finally experiencing it firsthand. And it happened again this year when very randomly in the middle of March, Comedy Central unleashed “Review” to the masses, Andy Daly’s long-stuck-in-development-hell show-within-a-show adaptation of an Australian series about a critic who reviews “life itself” rather than food, books, or film.

Now had "Review" maintained the level of quality it displayed in its first two episodes, the show probably still would have given me enough chuckles and proved itself different enough from other mockumentary type things to earn a place somewhere in my second ten list. I found it pushed the boundaries of familiar cringe-worthy comedy into some very funny places without really shifting into full gear. And then came episode three, entitled "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes" which proved that seemingly mild-mannered Forrest Macneil was willing to not only sacrifice his well-being for the sake of his television show, but actively destroy his own life for it. It was a dark episode that put a bigger pit in my stomach than the 30 pancakes put in Forrest's, and should not have been topped. But two weeks later, Forrest was assigned to review what it would be like to go to space - he invited along his ex-father in law and inadvertently killed him on the shuttle.

Central to the show's narrative was the relationship between Forrest and the audience responsible for assigning him his reviews. It was clear part way through the season that the audience had realized Forrest was blindly committed to this premise no matter the cost to him personally, but it's interesting to see how they take advantage of him: they're not really being malicious, I don't think - it's more just that they've realized he'll do whatever they ask of him and are curious to see what would happen to him when placed in very abnormal circumstances. The audience at most is likely very ambivalent about what Forrest relates to them about the experiences he reviews each week - and yet by the end of the season, this show and these people by extension are all he has left. To them, Forrest isn't anyone but the guy on TV who does crazy things. He's just as much a character to them as he is to us, and it's a really insightful commentary on how we find validation in a world where we're constantly plugged in.

Perhaps the most interesting (and/or disturbing) thing of all about this show is that I think you could create a fan edit of "Review" as a horror series and all you would need to do is replace the show's opening credits with that of "Black Mirror". Need I say more about why "Review" was the best show on television for 2014?

Other shows considered for a place in the top 20: Black-ish, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Community, Enlisted, The Goldbergs, The Good Wife, Louie, The Middle, Moone Boy, Orphan Black, Parenthood, Parks and Recreation, Scandal, Silicon Valley, Trophy Wife, True Detective, Veep, You're the Worst.

Stay sharp, 2015!