Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year End 2014: Close, but no cigar

The annual best of the year series continues with a look at my "second ten" for the year in television. Much like with last year's second ten, almost all of these shows would be top ten worthy in a lesser year of quality programming, but given how many outlets we now get "small screen content" from, it seems unlikely we'll ever get another slow year. But hey, no complaining from me! (Just ignore any time I tweet about how hard it is to keep up with everything currently airing, like the two or three episodes of "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder" currently sitting on my DVR which will be lucky to be watched even before they both return at the end of January).

To the list!

#20. King of the Nerds

The best reality competition show on television also remains one of the medium's most hidden gems. In a TV landscape where the most superficial representation of nerd culture attains the small screen's biggest audience, "King of the Nerds" thrives creatively because of its refusal to pander to the broad, young-skewing, all-encompassing laughter-loving TBS audience. While I would rank the first season cast slightly above this year's, no nerd from the debut season holds a candle to Zack Storch, one of the most entertaining lunatics cast on a reality show this side of the E! network. And like in the first season, "King of the Nerds" once again made major miscalculations in its season finale last spring, but the unrelenting self-aware fun and goofiness of this show make me so, so happy Curtis Armstrong and his team will get a third try in a few weeks' time.

#19. The Fosters
(ABC Family)

I didn’t really find enough shows to round out a full list of 10, but catching up on “The Fosters” over the summer really inspired me to try and make a separate top 10, as part of all these year-end lists, for “TV shows that make me feel good about the universe”. The heartwarming and mostly authentic family drama is among the best things ABC Family has ever aired, well written and with a pretty stellar young cast (I watched all 32 episodes having no idea that star Maia Mitchell is actually Australian).

Most importantly, this is a show I would want my children to be watching. It oozes positivity in a way that never feels like a treacly after school special, but rather an overdue outlet for a lot of demographics that don’t currently have a voice on television (juvenile delinquents, children in foster care, blended families, and teens questioning their sexuality to name just a few). Among the themes it consistently emphasizes are that differences should be embraced because they make people special and offer opportunities for growth and learning; family is created by love, not just by blood; and no matter how many times a person is kicked down, there is always a hand to help you back up if we concede that trying to live for ourselves alone is a fool’s errand. I’m just so, so happy this is something that exists.

#18. Girls

There are critics who feel it's unfair that the second season of "Girls" has been underrated for taking some experimental (but ultimately all too fracturing, in my opinion) risks. And that doesn't change the fact that I love episodes like "One Man's Trash" or "Video Games". But the third season that aired earlier this year only reaffirmed for me that I was right to feel disarmed by the somewhat sloppier (in a bad way) tone of the show's 2013 run. By keeping a tighter narrative through-line with all of her show's characters, but particularly with Hannah and her relationship with Adam as they both prepared to enter uncharted professional waters, creator/writer/star/key grip Lena Dunham led an effective build to a very satisfying conclusion to the season (which for "Girls" means leaving most of the characters in varying states of misery), neither of which occurred when weekly sojourns into Patrick Wilson's home or Jessa's parents house upstate made Adam's sprint through Brooklyn via Facetime feel like a perplexing and uncomfortable denouement for season two (also in a bad way). I hope the show's creative juices are still flowing as we prepare to enter the fourth season.

#17. The Chair

While I'll praise "King of the Nerds" until I'm blue in the face, there was no reality television experience this year that I found more satisfying than Starz' "filmmaking experiment" "The Chair," which pitted two first-time directors against each other as they each made a film using the same script. Thankfully, the rather pointless competition aspect of the show was almost an afterthought (shockingly, YouTube superstar Shane Dawson got more fan votes from the online poll than small indie filmmaker Anna Martemucci) and the pure, gritty, occasionally ugly side of making movies emerged, creating one of the most authentic and gripping reality/documentary projects since the early days of "Survivor". And as someone who watched Shane Dawson videos in my high school days and then naturally outgrew them (as one really should), there were fewer scenes of television in 2014 that felt more primally, schadenfraude-y amusing than executive producer Zachary Quinto's disgusted tirade against Dawson's film "Not Cool" (even if Quinto, who I'm really not a fan of, came off like a smug, holier-than-thou douche while doing so). Of all the show's in my top 20 for the year, this is far and away the one I'm hoping gets renewed for another season.

#16. Hannibal

I'm going to echo what a lot of critics I admire have been saying about "Hannibal" since it premiered in the spring of 2013: it defies logic that this show exists in any form, let alone that exists on network television and is as good as it is. After a first season finale that flipped the roles of Lecter and his pursuer, "Hannibal" only grew more frightening but twisted-ly beautiful in 2014, turning the Hannibal/Will Graham cat and mouse game into a three act performance that culminated in such horrific and violent tragedy that still looked as utterly gorgeous as anything put on film in the decade thus far. And then there was the episode where TV's Michael Pitt cut off pieces of his face and fed them to Will's dogs, before slicing off his nose and eating that himself (but say "fuck" and the FCC will end you). NBC, please just tell me when the show is coming back on the air. I really don't care if you show it Sundays at noon after "Meet the Press" - we're past the point where a mainstream audience might get behind this orgasmic nightmare - nor do I care when you're airing "The Slap". Please just put it back on Friday at 10 soon so I can make the end of my week just a little bit more awesomely queasy.

#15. Inside Amy Schumer
(Comedy Central)

Fewer TV shows in 2014 proved themselves as necessary to cultural conversation as "Inside Amy Schumer" did with its continually hilarious dark examination of 21st century feminism. More so than in its first season, Schumer found a deft balance between expressing a bitter and even sometimes sinister resentment over the treatment of women in the entertainment industry (or like, in general) and joyfully mocking the exact types of character archetypes she's been expected to play for her entire career. As alluded to in my best episodes list, the season's second instalment ("I'm So Bad") touched on military rape, the fact that society shames women for nothing more than they shame them for their weight, and the controversially idiotic "are women funny?" question that kept popping up online for a few years - all in under 22 minutes. And Schumer's sketch show also provided me with three of my most viewed YouTube clips of the year - one in which the fictional Amy agrees to be the voice of a meerkat in a new animated movie, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin parody "The Foodroom"; and a hilarious but bizarre narrative that charts the journey of a rather dumb woman who loves to give toasts wherever she goes, as she is put on trial and executed for murdering her friend. What a shame that until this show, I thought of Schumer as only one of those tepid regulars on Comedy Central roasts.

#14. Looking

I really didn't expect much from "Looking" when it premiered, other than being intrigued by default by any show about LGBT characters simply because there have been so few of them in the history of this medium. The show received not totally unfair comparisons to "Girls," primarily because Jonathan Groff's Patrick shared many annoying "white people problems" as that show's Hannah Horvath seems to, nor was it as funny as I expected it to be (even if HBO has very few legitimate "comedies" on the air right now). But creator Michael Lannan and his team of writers managed to turn many of them into touching three dimensional characters, particularly Murray Bartlett's Dom as he dealt with the specific difficulties of growing older as a gay man. While the show dropped the ball at times with characters like Agustin, who transcended being intentionally annoying and terrible and ended up really feeling like a waste of the show's limited running time, "Looking" really nailed relationships like the one between Patrick and Richie, whose elegantly simple showcase "Looking for the Future" is one of the five best episodes of television from the past year. And kudos to the quickly changing TV landscape for the fact that this is not the highest-ranked show in my top 20 with a gay protagonist.

#13. The Leftovers

From the beginning, "The Leftovers" felt like a dangerous exercise on the part of HBO - not because I really doubted its quality with "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof at the helm, but because it seemed like it was gleefully defying audience expectations for "this kind of show". Yes, "The Leftovers" would be about a very strange phenomenon that claimed 2% of the world's population in a "sudden departure," but it was made clear from well before the show began airing that it was unlikely to be exploring the "why" of any of this. All the better, I say. As a quiet, depressing reflection on how we deal with our personal grief in relation to a shared trauma, "The Leftovers" excelled particularly when pausing what little overall "plot" there was to the series to spend an hour on a supporting character and delving into how they specifically were coping two years after losing loved ones ("Two Boats and a Helicopter" and "Guest" join the aforementioned "Looking" episode on the list of the year's five best TV episodes). And the season's penultimate episode, flashing back the day before the departure, highlighted who these people used to be and how hard the coming tragedy was going to hit them all, making it a wonderful payoff to the season-long gut punch that had preceded it.

#12. Fargo

While I think the Coen brothers' "Fargo" is a terrific film, I have no real sentimental attachment to the movie (or to the Coens as directors) since I only saw it for the first time about two years ago. That being said however, I understood wholeheartedly the skepticism some had when FX announced Noah Hawley, a screenwriter with credits both good and bad, would be adapting the film for (what was at the time) a miniseries. Instead, FX's "Fargo," now renewed for a second season, was all at once a unique and interesting "true crime" story that felt like a respectful tribute to the film and a tonal adaptation that didn't feel like just a copycat. And I can't tell you how much I love the choice for the second season to focus on Molly's father during his own time on the force in the 1970s (speaking of Molly, if "Fargo" had done nothing else than introduce us to Alison Tolman, the year's best new acting find, I would have loved the shit out of it).

#11. Rectify

The second season of "Rectify," a show so quiet (or perhaps "noiseless") you might accidentally think you had muted your TV without realizing it, strangely suffered perhaps only because an increase from six to ten episodes made the story arcs feel like they wandered a little more than they should have (much as the end of Teddy and Tawney's marriage was emotionally powerful, it definitely felt a little too drawn out even for a show that carefully takes its time when telling any individual story). But otherwise, "Rectify" remains a compelling drama that certainly isn't for everyone, but with thoughtful writing and great performances for those who appreciate its commitment to rich storytelling.

#10.5. Too Many Cooks
(Adult Swim)

A bonus entry! I know there are people who hate "Too Many Cooks," and to them I would apologize for getting the theme song re-stuck in their heads for the next two months. But I will not apologize for recognizing that "Too Many Cooks" is by far one of the most creative, funny, and original "things" of television not just to air in 2014, but ever broadcast anywhere by anyone. In a digital landscape where the boundaries and definitions of TV are constantly being challenged and reformatted by streaming video and even those weird, YouTube-only web series that somehow qualify for Emmy consideration, it is remarkable that there are still new avenues in which content is being offered and discovered. Even if that avenue is a disturbing, bizarre 11-minute viral video parodying the tropes and opening credits of various televisual predecessors, disguised by Adult Swim as an infomercial airing at four o'clock in the morning. Because I have to agree with The Atlantic's David Sims - we all went crazy for the absurd, relentless strangeness of "Too Many Cooks" for a week in early November, but can you imagine how terrifying it would be to randomly stumble across that at 4:00am, or how cool it would have been if the network didn't make it available anywhere online and we all had to stay up and stumble upon it ourselves after a friend told us about it? Especially considering anyone still watching Adult Swim that late is probably stoned out of their mind? In my opinion, to not recognize "Too Many Cooks" somewhere in my year end series would have been a rather large gap in discussing the small screen's achievements in 2014.

Next up: *the* correct top 10 shows of the year. Completely and totally un-quibble-able.