Though I made claims for the best TV series (“Mad Men”) and best episode (“The Strategy,” “Mad Men”) earlier this month, neither list quite satisfies my desire to shout what I love about television from the rooftops. And so, this grab-bag of year-end awards includes just about everything but the best series and episodes, with no show mentioned more than once. Looking back from the last day of 2014, it’s clear that the medium had a great year.
Best Miniseries: “True Detective” (HBO)
Despite my defense of Nic Pizzolatto’s Southern Gothic stemwinder, the conclusion of Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) murder investigation failed to make good on the occult promise of the miniseries’ early episodes. Nevertheless, with especial credit to director Cary Fukunaga’s eerie rendering of Louisiana’s bayous, exurbs, and strip malls, “True Detective” emerged as appointment viewing, and brought about one of the most lively critical debates of the year.
Best TV Movie: “The Normal Heart” (HBO)
The inconsistent Ryan Murphy — the man directed both the pilot of “Glee” and “Eat Pray Love,” after all — applies all the messy physicality of “American Horror Story” to firebrand Larry Kramer’s call to arms, which debuted at New York’s Public Theater in 1985. The result is a bold, colorful, sensual, frightening, and ultimately quite moving memento mori for a generation lost to the AIDS crisis, and to the generation of activists, including Kramer, who used their “big mouths” to make change.
Best Ensemble: “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
No series relies on its supporting characters as much as Jenji Kohan’s women’s prison dramedy, which treats each Litchfield inmate, from the privileged Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) to the neglected Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), with the care of a marquee name. The series’ diverse cast is groundbreaking, yes, but the foremost accomplishment of “Orange is the New Black” is to deploy that diversity in the service of a rousing, warmhearted yarn.
Best Actor (Drama): Michael Sheen, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
The luminous Lizzy Caplan may receive the lion’s share of praise, but as pioneering sex researcher Dr. William Masters, Sheen is the line to her circle. In his hands, Masters both embraces convention and sets it aflame, balancing his professional mission against a longing for connection that can’t be quantified. It’s a surprisingly forceful performance, and the sparks he produces with Caplan, as in the brilliant “Fight,” lend “Masters of Sex” its delightful ardor.
Best Actress (Drama): All of the actresses. All of ’em. Especially Tatiana Maslany.
When Oscar observers lament the “thin” Best Actress field, I thank my lucky stars. The Emmys could fill two ballots with worthy nominees, and that’s not counting comedies: after Maslany (“Orphan Black”), first among equals, Amy Brenneman (“The Leftovers”), Caplan (“Masters of Sex”), Claire Danes (“Homeland”), Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder”), Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel”), Tea Leoni (“Madam Secretary”), Julianna Marguiles (“The Good Wife”), Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”), Keri Russell (“The Americans”), and Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) are all contenders. Hats off to television’s surfeit of talented women.
Best Actor (Comedy): Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent” (Amazon)
Jill Soloway’s beautifully crafted portrait of Maura Pfefferman and her three wayward children succeeds, in part, on the merit of Tambor’s delicate, humane performance. In every nuance of inflection, perception, and body language, he seeks to understand Maura from the inside out, reflecting her own search for self with aplomb; the high water mark of his performance, as Maura performs in a talent show that begins with sparkles and ends in sorrow, transcends heartbreak. It’s a marvel.
Best Actress (Comedy): Lisa Kudrow, “The Comeback” (HBO)
Reviving Valerie Cherish after a nine-year hiatus, Lisa Kudrow uncovers new depths of pain and humiliation in Hollywood’s treatment of women, easily shifting between pathos and absurd humor. As Valerie’s personal life unravels, professional success arrives, and Kudrow slowly turns “The Comeback” into a parable of decency in the face of a merciless system. The season finale was so perfect, I almost hope the series ends here. I want to remember it just like this.
Best Line: “Crutchfield,” “The Knick” (Cinemax)
“Nothing breaks a man like a good cock punch.”
Best Sex: “Pilot,” “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
Whether you prefer a first-year law student (Alfred Enoch) stumbling onto a late-night office rendezvous between a hunky detective (Billy Brown) and a high-powered defense attorney (Viola Davis) or, as I put it earlier this fall, “a little ass-play” from an interracial gay couple (Jack Falahee and Conrad Ricamora), Shondland’s latest hit may as well have been called “How to Get Away with Sex on Primetime Network Television.” I’m hooked.
Best Scene: “The Strategy,” “Mad Men” (AMC)
I’ve discussed Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Don’s (Jon Hamm) slow dance to Frank Sinatra plenty this year, so suffice it to say that no single moment on television made me happier, or more melancholy. I don’t know what I’ll do without “Mad Men.”
Best Musical Number: “Monsters Among Us,” “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
Though “AHS” has meandered through much of the current season (maybe I just don’t find clowns scary enough?), Jessica Lange’s rendition of “Life on Mars” remains a high point of soulful, surreal invention. A blue-suited homage to David Bowie by way of Marlene Dietrich, it’s anything but the “saddening bore” of the song, which is still the anthology series’ greatest asset. (See the video here.)
Worst Episode: “Oh Shenandoah,” “The Newsroom” (HBO)
A mere three weeks after the series’ finest hour, “The Newsroom” served up the stinker heard ’round the world. Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin’s hectoring liberal worldview found its most risible expression yet, managing to troll rape survivors, web journalism, a traditional American folk song, Sam Waterston, and possibly the medium of television itself. Even after hate-watching three seasons’ worth of “The Newsroom,” “Oh Shenandoah” was too ghastly for me: I needed three more weeks to gear up for the series finale.
Worst Series: “Californication” (Showtime)
Speaking of self-satisfied misogynist claptrap, “Californication” came to an end this year, approximately six seasons too late. Even so, the final 12 episodes managed to plumb new depths for the series’ adolescent humor and quasi-literary wet dreams, all before concluding with the most inane love story trope of all — the last flight out. Good riddance.
Worst New Series: “Gracepoint” (Fox)
“Gracepoint” fans are already mad at me for trashing the “Broadchurch” remake a second time recently, so I’ll remind you that I described the series as “practically poisonous” in my initial review and leave it at that. (I stand by every word.)
Review I Got Totally Wrong: “The Affair” (Showtime)
On the basis of the pilot, I acclaimed Showtime’s “Rashomon”-style mystery, starring Ruth Wilson and Dominic West as participants in an extramarital affair during a summer in the Hamptons, for its seductive, impressionistic treatment of time, memory, and point-of-view. As the season wore on and the differences in Alison and Noah’s respective recollections widened, however, the premise came to resemble a gimmick, and “The Affair” failed to beguile me any longer. My viewing petered out after three or four episodes, and I have no plans to return anytime soon.
Review I Got Totally Right: “Bates Motel” (A&E)
Well, not totally right: if I had known the “Psycho” prequel (of sorts) would winnow away extraneous characters and directionless subplots until the twisted relationship between Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) became the sole focus, I might have awarded the A&E potboiler three stars instead of two and a half. Early on, however, I spotted this crazed potential in Farmiga’s strangely affecting rendition of “Maybe This Time,” from “Cabaret,” and Highmore’s willingness to find a similarly high emotional pitch. I’m so pleased “Bates Motel” exceeded my expectations, and I’ll be waiting for season three with bated breath come spring.
Best Reader Comment: Mark, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
“Didn’t quite make it through high school, did you Matt? Go back to writing for the Daily Fart, your middle school paper. Downton was exceptional in season 4 and will be exceptional in the coming season as well. Your comments on camera positions are too asinine and uninformed to go into, and your dithering that the show is suddenly too dark and dreary can only come from a flaming queen. Go watch old episodes of “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” they will be easier for you to understand.”
From your favorite Daily Fart correspondent, have a wonderful New Year. And thanks, as always, for reading along.