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.
5) "Scandal" (Liz)
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.
4) "Parks and Recreation" (Ben)
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.