We’re halfway through 2014, which feels like the perfect time to look back at the TV which has come before. If only because by December, some of these shows might have been forgotten — which would be a tragedy. So we each picked five shows that really stood out over the first six months of 2014 (working not to overlap with each other). These choices are, of course, subjective, but still represent some of the best television we saw this year.
There are, technically, better shows that should be on this list. “The Americans,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Hannibal,” “Orphan Black”… But to not acknowledge “Scandal” as a major player in the 2014 TV landscape just feels wrong.
The third season of “Scandal” lost a little of the grounded element that made Season 2 so captivating, but it represents a very important endangered species: Appointment television, the kind that terrorizes viewers with the threat of spoilers into watching as soon as humanly possible, DVRs and commercials be damned.
And wow, it was FUN, especially as Season 3 came to a close, to try to keep up with the lightning-fast monologues and plot twists, to watch characters dig deeper into their darkest selves, and then question the decisions they’ve made. Hearts were broken. Lives were threatened. Bombs were exploded. Children were murdered. And all under the watch of the brilliant Kerry Washington and a diverse and talented cast.
It might not have been high-falultin’. It might have strained the boundaries of believability. But it was the kind of television that made you remember why you liked television in the first place.
5) “Bob’s Burgers” (Ben)
The number of comedies may be dwindling, but the quality continues to climb. “Bob’s Burgers,” a brightly animated comedy with equally brilliant characters, was once seen as a third fiddle to FOX’s recently-cancelled Animation Domination line-up. However, after four seasons, it’s arguably the network’s best program (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is right there, too), aided greatly by subtly maneuvering its titular character to more of a supporting role and letting the ensemble work together like never before.
The move paid big dividends thanks in no small part to the unparalleled voice work from H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, and Dan Mintz (as Bob, Louise, and Tina, respectively). “Bob’s Burgers” is a rarity of creative convergence. Everything works even as its creator, Loren Bouchard, continues to push for original stories, concepts, and executions. Between the Bronies homage episode “The Equestranauts” and the two-part season finale “Wharf House” and “Wharf House II: The Wharfening,” “Bob’s Burgers” is still bursting with ingenuity in its fourth season.
4) “Trophy Wife” (Liz)
Freshman comedies never have an easy time of it (yet two made this list). The first season of “Trophy Wife” wasn’t as successful as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” especially when it came to its moving pieces. (I think Natalie Morales is FANTASTIC, but I bet you five dollars that if it hadn’t been canceled, her odd-man-out character wouldn’t have returned for Season 2.) But for a young new show with a borderline not-great title and an occasional weakness for sitcom cliches, it found its way.
Alas, the ABC gods have spoken, but worry not for one of the best ensemble casts of the 2013-2014 season — they’ll find other work, though it’s sad that they won’t be working together. The combination of established comedic actors Malin Akerman and Michaela Watkins, Emmy-winning Bradley Whitford, Oscar-winning Marcia Gay Harden and three of the best under-18 performers seen on a new show since MAYBE “Modern Family” (Bailee Madison, Ryan Lee, Albert Tsai) was at times a little awkward. But midway through the first season, they blended into a unique family situation that managed to be both heartfelt and hilarious.
In its short run, “Trophy Wife” brought us the joys of Marcia Gay Harden making out with Dennis Haysbert, Bradley Whitford’s erotic legal fiction, a truly amazingly disastrous Christmas and of course wunderkind BERT! It also got away with some truly amazing jokes. (A young man looking at a spice rack: “Gross.” Meg: “It’s pronounced ‘cue-min.'”) Rest in peace, show.
The sixth season of Amy Poehler’s undervalued comedy classic was the saddest yet. Not only did we lose two beloved characters when Ann and Chris moved from Pawnee to Michigan (Michigan?!), but their departure marked the beginning of the end for a show that’s struggled to survive this long (ratings have never been stellar). Then the time jump at the end of the season illustrated the creator’s need to move quickly in order to wrap everything up, while new cast members marked the show’s age simply by existing.
Yet all of it was hilarious, warm-hearted and smart as a whip — or as fans would call it, “classic Knope.” Ann and Chris’ departure was handled with grace and proper respect without sacrificing laughs (finding out Anne dated Perd Hapley during her “dark days” is unforgettable), the time jump gave us the best cameo in years (Jon Hamm > Michelle Obama), and it feels like Billy Eichner has been with us all along (also, yay for Jim O’Heir and Retta making the opening credits!). The end is nigh, but “Parks and Recreation” has shown no signs of aging where it counts: On screen.
3) “Fargo” (Liz)
I will always and forever remember “Fargo” as the show that convinced me how good an actor Martin Freeman is. He’s been a favorite of mine for over a decade, ever since discovering the original “Office” on DVD via Netflix (remember when Netflix was a company that sent you DVDs in the MAIL?). But even after years of watching him solve crimes with a sociopath and steal stuff from a dragon, it took an FX miniseries to inform me of his real talents.
Freeman is just one of the many fascinating pieces that make “Fargo” such an engrossing puzzle; while exactly the opposite of a mystery, the Noah Hawley-scripted series still manages to take the tone of the Coen Brothers’ bleak snowbound 1996 masterpiece of a film and translate it for a new cast and a new narrative.
“Fargo” is much more than Martin Freeman, with a real murderer’s row (pardon the pun) of great actors (including Billy Bob Thorton, Colin Hanks and brilliant newcomer Alison Tolman). But as Freeman sank deeper and deeper into the role of weasily, cowardly Lester Nygaard, his depiction of the nice guy gone wrong became a thing to behold. By the horrifying twists that conclude Episode 9, you totally believed him — and a beloved actor became someone you could hate.
3) “Mad Men” (Ben)
Splitting the final season in two was always going to make the first half a challenge. No matter what Matthew Weiner gave us in 2014, the payoff wouldn’t arrive for another year. Yet the skilled planner managed to create a half-season almost as enriching as full years of the past, with many standout moments (Ginsberg’s nipple, Don’s gamble and Peggy’s dance) and enough to dwell on until 2015 arrives.
Don, in particular, moved forward in ways we hadn’t seen before. Imagining him slow-dancing with Peggy during episode one would have been impossible, and his acceptance of the burden laid down on him wasn’t one of defeat but resilience. Even his few moments of melancholy were met with an openness previously unassociated with our stubborn protagonist. Don’s grown up — now we wait to see if he can find life’s meaning outside of maturity.
What shows topped our lists? The answers lurk on the next page.
2) “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Liz)
When cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” won the Golden Globe for best comedy series this January, many thought it was a premature decision, as “Brooklyn” picked up the award after only airing 11 episodes in 2013, while long-running shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Girls” got snubbed.
However, if you were to judge the first season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” against the first seasons of those shows, you might not be so doubtful. The first season sitcom is universally recognized as a tricky beast; the actors need time to gel, and the writers need time to figure out what they can get away with, both on a show and a network level. “Brooklyn’s” pilot episode isn’t perfect, but smart scripts, a great cast, and (most importantly) de-emphasizing Andy Samberg as a comedic lead and refocusing as an ensemble piece, helped it find its footing much faster than other shows, especially in the episodes aired during 2014.
Let’s face it: There are characters on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” you just can’t see anywhere else. The confident, brash scarred Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz); sober, sardonic authority figure Captain Holt (Andre Braugher); schoolmarmishly adorable Santiago (Melissa Fumero); and Terry “TERRY CREWS!!!!!” Crews. Just remember Scary Terry’s catchphrase: “This is taking too long!! I’m gonna miss the farmer’s market!” Then, yes, please give the show a trophy.
2) “Veep” (Ben)
Ruthlessly funny is the only succinct way to describe Armando Iannucci’s third glorious season of politics at its worst and comedy at its best. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus fighting to escape the least powerful position of power — and knowing it — 2014 found a cast unifying as they never had before. The crew has always been sharp, focused, and quick with complex yet direct dialogue, but season three found them moving at a breakneck pace to deliver the most jokes per minute of any comedy on television.
They’re not cheap, though. Each carefully crafted exchange pays dividends on a second or third viewing, still rewarding the viewer with delights easy to overlook in a flood of fantastic folly. It’s hard to imagine “Veep” improving again next year, but so far the cast and crew have given us no reason to doubt they’ll do just that.
1) “Game of Thrones” (Liz)
Whether you’re an obsessive fan of George R.R. Martin’s books or just happy to tune in for the gratuitous violence and naked people, it’s hard to deny that “Game of Thrones” is captivating viewing. In its fourth season (wrapping up this Sunday), the series continued delving into the more fantasy-based elements of Westeros, but never lost sight of the reality of its characters and their lives.
We’ve written an awful lot about this show, so let me keep things simple. Episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” contains a moment that perfectly encapsulates the series: No, not the ending (though that was pretty mind-blowing — that pun was unintentional, but I’m going to keep it). Instead, it’s when the supremely unlucky Arya Stark finds out the latest bit of bad news to curse her life — and she completely loses it, bursting into hysterical laughter.
Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) on “Parks and Recreation” said it best: “They would never cancel ‘Game of Thrones.’ It’s a crossover hit. It’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts, they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world.” Ben Wyatt, if you’re interested in a freelance gig at Indiewire, just let me know.
HBO’s smash freshman series isn’t simply the best show of the year, it’s also a beautiful representation of the state of television in 2014 as a whole. It brings together all the elements that make the medium incredibly exciting, from the movie stars to the cinematic imagery to the solo writer and director at the helm. “True Detective” is the future of television. Not that the smaller screen needed to cater to the whims of its big brother, but it’s finally been able to blend the best elements of the two worlds.
Despite its comparatively short season, the eight weeks of time-jumping mystery were revolutionary in that it constituted a series, not a miniseries. The message will continue even without the characters, despite these two men being the true focus of the show. Marty and Rust will certainly be missed, but Nic Pizzolatto will strive on in a much-anticipated season two. Until then, he’s given us plenty to dwell on in the never ending battle between the light and the dark.