The year is ending, and list-making time is beginning. I like looking at the year that was and, in a way, express my gratitude for all the media that made me think, feel, or sparked any other kind of reaction in my life. I will be writing about my favorite movies of the year sometime in January (it’s so frustrating that so many movies get released in the last weeks of December!), but for now, enjoy my take on the best television shows of 2014.
Honorable Mentions: Before I get to the list proper, let me take some time to give a shout-out to some shows I really love, but couldn’t make room for them on the list. First, there are Adventure Time and Bob’s Burgers, both fantastic examples of the heights that can be achieved through animation. Adventure Time is a masterclass in world-building, while Bob’s Burgers features some of the best (and funniest) character work. The reason they’re not on the list is simply the fact that I am not caught up on their most recent seasons (although I did watch the Bob’s Burgers premiere, “Work Hard of Die Trying, Girl”, which was hilarious). Similarly, although I sung its praises in a lengthy article, I must admit that I’ve also been very bad at keeping up with the delightful, and Golden Globe nominated, Jane the Virgin.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to the actual list! (and yes, I know it’s not a top ten, but I just couldn’t keep any of these shows off the list).
1. Over the Garden Wall (Cartoon Network)
When it comes to making lists, and especially when it comes to numbers ones, one is always plagued with doubts about whether or not he is making the right choice. I probably loved many shows on this list as much as I did Over the Garden Wall, but the complete lack of love for this fantastic miniseries from most publications and critics making best-of-the-year lists was enough to secure its place at the top. If no one but me is going to admit that this animated series is a work of genius, well, I’ll take that job with pleasure. One of the most original and touching pieces of media to be released in the entire year, Over the Garden Wall is a treasure. A true gem. If you want the details of what makes it so special, then you will be glad to know I wrote extensively about this show a couple months ago. If you haven’t seen this yet (and I think very few people have), you’re in for a treat.
Show MVP: The best character is Greg, the little brother who is as funny as he is adorable. I found him so awesome that I made him my Twitter avatar.
Best Episode: The show’s real power kicks in once you’ve seen the whole ten-part miniseries, and with each episode being only 11 minutes long, finding the time to watch it shouldn’t be a problem. That being said, my personal favorite is episode 3, “Schooltown Follies”, and not in small part because it features my new favorite song of all time.
2. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Perhaps the most important show to air on television last year, what initially seemed like an ad-free version of The Daily Show ended up becoming one of the most essential programs for anyone who wanted to get thoughtful news. That you would also laugh your head off became just a bonus, as Oliver was willing to dedicate full half hours of television to news stories that were barely touched upon by America’s mainstream media, while never being afraid to show all the colors of the story, no matter who ended up looking like an idiot. A wonderful reminder that intelligence means being interested, and always questioning, what is happening around you.
Season MVP: Considering it’s his show, it has to be John Oliver. But I will use this space to point out how effective a host he is, and how his outraged persona works wonderfully with this type of content.
Best Episode: It’s hard to choose, with Oliver making amazing episodes on Miss America and the World Cup, but considering my roots, I just had to go with this clip.
3. Mad Men (AMC)
I think at this point not even a catastrophically bad finale would keep Mad Men from having a place at the top my “best of” list next year. We’re only seven episodes away from the show coming to an end, and I’m pretty confident saying it has become my favorite show of all time. What doesn’t make sense, though, is that so many people are saying that it isn’t as good as it once was. To these people I want to say: “What show are you watching?!” Especially now that we’re reaching the finish line, every line, every scene, every gesture comes wrapped in layers of meaning and history that we’ve seen develop through the past seven years. The big finale might not have aired yet, but the seven episodes that aired this year set us up for an amazing finish.
Season MVP: One of the best things about this season was the way it payed off, in more ways than one, the relationship between Don and Peggy, and the truth is those moments wouldn’t have had the same impact if it weren’t for Elisabeth Moss’s acting skills.
Best Episode: While we’re on the topic of the Don-Peggy relationship, the biggest moments for that pair came in “The Strategy”, but just the fact that pieces of television as genius as “A Day’s Work” and “Waterloo” weren’t the best episode of the season speaks volumes about what a great year it was for Mad Men.
4. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
I also wrote extensively about this HBO original miniseries, and how freaking amazing it is. But in case you don’t have to read my whole article for some reason (jerk), then let me tell you really quick that this four-episode saga about the life of a grumpy lady and the other inhabitants of a New England town -adapted from the Pulitzer-winnning novel of the same name by writer Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko- is some of the most empathetic and humane pictures of a complex human being I’ve ever seen on television.
Show MVP: There is no touching the genius that is Frances McDormand’s performance in the titular role, but among the supporting cast (which includes great turns by Zoe Kazan, Cory Michael Smith, and Bill Murray), I have to single out Richard Jenkins, who, as usual, turns in some incredible work.
Best Episode: It’s hard to tell, this being only a four-part miniseries, but I have a strong preference for the second episode, which focuses on Olive attending her son’s wedding.
5. Hannibal (NBC)
When I made last year’s equivalent to this list, I had only seen two episodes of Hannibal. Having caught up with the series since, I had to mend the mistake of leaving off the list. This is not only hand-down the best show on network television right now, it’s one of the very best the medium has to offer, a true audiovisual nightmare, and the rare show where the images as artistic and revelatory as the dialogue. This comment is not meant to diss creator Bryan Fuller, who has managed the impossible in crafting an exciting and refreshing story out of the tired Hannibal Lecter character, but to praise his recognition of the full potential of television as a visual medium.
Season MVP: Anthony Hopkins’s hamminess could have driven any character into the ground, so props to Mads Mikkelsen for erasing Hopkins’s Hannibal from my mind and replacing him with his morbidly chilly take.
Best Episode: The season finale “Mitzumono”, one of the most violent and shocking hours of television this year.
6. Fargo (FX)
Making a television series out of the Academy Award-winning Coen Brothers movie about a pregnant small town cop trying to solve a grizzly kidnapping in eighties Minnesota? It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and yet, writer Noah Hawley and his team came up with a fantastic story that is not so much a sequel as it is a spiritual companion to the original movie, and an homage to the Coens’s iconic career. For someone that thinks the Coens might be the best American directors working today, this show was nothing but a joyride.
Season MVP: This show was full of name-stars turning in great work, from a despicable Martin Freeman to a superhuman Billy Bob Thornton, so it was unexpected, but very rewarding that newcomer Allison Tollman’s ended up giving the most outstanding performance as Officer Molly Solverson.
Best Episode: “Buridan’s Ass”, the episode that brings Oliver Platt’s character’s sub-plot to an end, and features one of the tensest scenes of the year when a shootout is interrupted by a blizzard.
7. Transparent (Amazon)
Amazon ventured into television last year, but unlike Alpha House and Betas, 2014 saw the release of a show that people were actually interested in seeing… and talking about. Jill Soloway’s Transparent is the story of the Peffermans, a family whose dynamic is turned upside down when patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out of the closet to his three self-absorbed children as a trans woman. Soulful, quiet, observant, funny, clever, and touching are all suiting articles to describe the vibe of Transparent, the rare show that is willing to take as much time and energy as is actually needed to have a conversation about the way we relate to (and through) our sexuality.
Season MVP: It’s hard to not go with Jeffrey Tambor, who obviously has the meatiest role playing Maura, but still should be commended for his touching work. Sometimes the role of a lifetime is just the role of a lifetime.
Best Episode: The first six episodes of the show are fantastic, but they gain so much new gain when all the plots come together and build-up is finally payed off in episode seven, “Symbolic Exemplar”, which you might remember as the “trans got talent” episode.
8. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Last year’s favorite might have lost its title thanks to shinier new toys, but it’s still one of the best shows on television, and secured its spot by refusing to sit on its laurels, and daring to go further in its exploration of Litchfield Correctional Facility. This second season ended up being less the story of Piper Chapman and more the story of how messed up the prison system can be, and how such an institution can be kept from crumbling. Throw in the fact that Orange is one of the few Netflix shows that seems designed to be binge-watched and you have yourself a fascinating winner.
Season MVP: One of this show’s biggest strengths is its ability to take minor background characters and turn them into you absolute favorites. This year, Miss Rosa came into the spotlight and ended up being the stand-out of the season thanks in no small part to Barbara Rosenblat’s performance.
Best Episode: It’s hard to pick a favorite episode when a show is as serialized as this one, but if I’m going based on which episode featured which flashback story, the most effective one was “A Whole Other Hole”, which gave us a heartbreaking glimpse at the inner life of Lorna Morello.
9. Review (Comedy Central)
A show about a man who has a show about reviewing life experiences. Does it sound complicated? Well, it isn’t. If you want to know what it feels like to go to space, or being a drug addict, or if you ever wondered what it’s like to be a racist, you just write an email and host Forrest McNeil (Andy Daly) will experience and review those things for you. I’m not gonna lie, this is a weird show, but also the funniest thing I saw on television this year.
Season MVP: This show IS Andy Daly, and he deserves all the praise he can get for going to the dark and weird places he goes to in the name of comedy.
Best Episode: If you are not sure about this show yet, just watch the episode titled “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” and all doubt will be gone. Pure genius.
10. The Knick (Cinemax)
I’m one of those people who doesn’t quite get the critical fandom for director Steven Soderbergh, so it was really surprising that his turn to television would be the project that would make me warm up to him. Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for shows (and movies) set at the turn of the century, but even then, The Knick is a solid (if albeit familiar) workplace drama (taking place at a hospital at a time when healthcare technology was still relatively primitive) that is taken to new heights by Soderbergh’s stylistic and idiosyncratic direction.
Season MVP: The show has a pretty fantastic cast. It’s actually really hard for me to choose someone, so I’ll go with Matt Frewer just because of his AWESOME beard.
Best Episode: By the time the show reaches episode seven, titled “Get the Rope”, it is ready to spin multiple plates all at once, and deliver an action-packed episode inspired by the 1900 Tenderloin District race riots.
11. Louie (FX)
People are starting to get over him (I can feel it), but to me, Louis C.K. will always be a genius. And with such a flexible production arrangement as the one he has with FX, it’s becoming really fascinating to see what kinds of stories he wants to tell next, and how he decides to flex his muscles as he evolves as a filmmaker. Case in point, this season was characterized by longer story-arcs, including the extra long episode that flashed back to Louie’s childhood, and the epic feature-length “Elevator” saga. That, plus classic Louie pieces like “Model” and “So Did the Fat Lady” make this still one of television’s bests.
Season MVP: Just because saying Louis C.K. year after year would be too repetitive, let’s praise this season’s guest casting, especially Sarah Baker, Skip Sudduth, and the kid who played Louie in the flashback episode.
Best Episode: Even with the epic six-part “Elevator”, I would still say my favorite episode was the “In the Woods” flashback.
12. Broad City (Comedy Central)
Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are not the future of comedy. They are the now. Executive produced by Amy Poehler, Broad City could be reductively described as a funnier version of Girls, but that would negate the originality and sharp-edged humor that makes these women’s voice such a welcome addition to the television landscape.
Season MVP: I guess it’d be cliché to say you’re either an Abby or an Ilana, but if I had to choose, I would go with Ilana Glazer. She just makes me laugh harder.
Best Episode: They’re all hilarious, but “Stolen Phone” has Hannibal Buress acting opposite a bunch of cute puppies.
Special Mention: 2014 was also the year of the Every Simpsons Ever marathon, which had me watching way more Simpsons episodes than I had seen in the past five years, and while I discovered that the show’s decline in quality wasn’t as sharp as I thought it was (gems can be found in almost every season of the show), the year’s truly transcendent Simpsons experience came in the form of animator extraordinaire’s Don Hertzfeldt’s couch gag, which at two minutes, is as fascinating as any piece of filmmaking that I saw this year.