BEST TV OF 2014: OUR TOP TEN

There is a lot of stuff on TV; as diverse as our music and movie and book tastes might be here at SportsAlcohol.com, probably no end-of-year voting offered as many different hours as our collective list of the best TV of 2014. Nearly fifty different shows were mentioned across our ballots, which is something like 500 hours of television, give or take. Yet a clear consensus did emerge, and that was that we pretty much all watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine but don’t quite love it the best. Here, below, is what we do love the best (maybe next year, Samberg).

The Best TV of 2014

10. Mad Men

Seventh Season, AMC

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After this, we’ve only got one more year to take the consistent greatness of Mad Men for granted! With an abbreviated AMC-mandated half-season, the show returned in 2014 with a batch of seven episodes as good as (or better than!) any they’ve ever done. As per the usual arc of a new Mad Men season, fans took a while to warm to it, despite the usual assortment of wonderful stories and moments in those first few episodes. From grace notes, like the shots of Don that end the first two episodes, to stories, like the jockeying over where to put Dawn or Betty chaperoning Bobby’s field trip, the show was as humane and well-made as ever. And detours like the story of Ginsberg and the computer or Roger’s trip to the commune found new ways to explore the characters as the sixties draw to a close. While it didn’t attempt anything like the cliffhanger urgency of Breaking Bad‘s divided final season, the last couple of this year’s batch of Mad Men episodes generated real intrigue in terms of office politics and provided character moments that we’ve been waiting and hoping for for years (think Don and Peggy in “The Strategy”). But really, I’d be happy to see Mad Men on the list simply for that final, beautiful and surreal flourish with Bert Cooper bidding us farewell for this half-season. – Nathaniel

9. New Girl

Third/Fourth Season, Fox

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A lot of people flipped out with a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and let’s say nausea when New Girl‘s Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) blundered into and later out of a relationship during the show’s third season. But this flailing, seemingly semi-improvised plot development (semi-improvised in the sense that it probably wasn’t part of a grand scheme, not in that naïve assumption that shows don’t have writers) fit the comic aesthetic of Elizabeth Meriwether’s delightful show, which has always maintained a looser, shaggier vibe than some of its more tightly organized NBC and Fox contemporaries (which, look around, aren’t really on this list, are they? New Girl is the only network program, in fact, that made our top ten and, as such, aired episodes from two different seasons in the eligibility period). Again, that’s not meant to diminish the show’s writing – just to point out that comedy shows need not all proceed with the same meticulous attention to arcs. New Girl is more about character than story; it happily grabs onto hoary sitcom tropes like Nick pretending to be gay to smooth over Jess’s date, or Schmidt recruiting his friends to pose as random members of a focus group, and lets its gifted cast play around. It’s these dynamics that allowed the show to bounce into some of its funniest episodes ever in fall 2014, shaking off the repetition of the Nick/Jess relationship while making a play for its best season ever. That goofy Nick-pretending-to-be-gay story caught some flack, but it’s actually a hilarious upending of gay panic: Nick suggests the ruse, then happily spends the episode working on his character, including a surprise kiss with Schmidt that no one finds especially gross, just slightly awkward (Max Greenfield aces the rejoinder, an accepting but confused “I think you needed that more than I did”). Season four has also seen Nadia’s baby shower, Nick sweating up a storm, and another classic Cece-Winston mess-around — proving that while networks have largely abandoned high-quality drama, they can still excel at comedy, when they bother.

8. Silicon Valley

First Season, HBO
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It’s odd that Silicon Valley made this list. I would not have guessed that it had broad appeal: Do this many people read ValleyWag, PandoDaily, or Hacker News? Are jokes about Scala and Scrum really going to translate to a broad audience?

But then again, Silicon Valley‘s appeal is the satire of a myth that is gaining some form of sacred status—the myth of the tech entrepreneur. While Halt and Catch Fire was more business case than entertainment (see brilliant articles here and here), Silicon Valley is the Mike Judge Office Space-like treatment of this myth. All the elements of the myth are there: the tech founder, the strategy hype man, the mad genius VC, the tyrannical tech CEO billionaire, the roving group of brogrammers, and a logo with lowercase letters. It works because we have heard the myth so many times, and the satirical version, like all good satire, exposes truths we recognize. For example, Steve Jobs was brilliant and created a company that made products the public demanded, but he would go long periods eating only one type of food, like carrots. That’s insane. And that’s the point: Silicon Valley has become a parody of itself—to the point where it’s hard to know how much of a satire Silicon Valley actually is

On the other hand, one of the criticisms leveled against the show has been its depiction of women. (See this recap with spoilers for an example.) And while this is a strong and valid criticism of the show, it’s interesting to compare it to the awful things that happen to women in the real Silicon Valley again and again and again and again and again. So maybe Silicon Valley made the list because it is easier to find the fun in the myth than in the real Silicon Valley. – Ben

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFYy3oEnzVg

7. You’re the Worst

First Season, FX

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You’re the Worst became one of the best shows of 2014 by taking the idea of a traditional romcom and smashing it together with the antihero boom that has saturated cable drama. Jimmy and Gretchen are, as the title promises, terrible people. Jimmy revels in telling the ugliest possible truths at the least opportune times. (One of my favorite recurring gags is that he writes out lists of possible burns before leaving the house.) Gretchen, on the other hand, is a liar, telling people what they want to hear so that they’ll leave her alone or do what she wants. (She’s a publicist. Enough said.) Neither one of them wants a relationship — or, I should say, a “relationship,” this thing that they’ve built up in their mind that will change their entire personality and force them to become boring and phony. But they are real, human, layered characters, and they want a connection even if they can’t admit they want it. When they find each other (at a wedding, naturally, where Gretchen steals a gift and Jimmy roasts the bride on the dance floor), they each assume their night together will be a fling. But because they don’t expect it to go anywhere, they end up treating each other with the openness and acceptance that lays the groundwork for an actual relationship. Not a “relationship” that changes who they are, but one that lets them be themselves. Maybe even slightly better versions of themselves.

Jimmy and Gretchen can be brutal — to each other, to their friends, to society. And yet the show is never brutal with them. It treats them as complex, damaged people who feel things, despite their avowed callousness, and whose feelings matter. And it finds amazing humor in going for the gut-punch. This is a romcom for those allergic to schmaltz and wary of overt sentiment, but who want to believe that humanity is essentially good. Sun-day Fun-day! Sun-day Fun-day! – Maggie

6. Girls

Third Season, HBO

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Girls is a polarizing show to begin with, but if there was an episode that was divisive even for its fans, it would be “One Man’s Trash,” the fifth episode in the second season that guest-starred Patrick Wilson. The episode was so stand-alone it confused people; some even insisted it was a dream. In light of the argle bargle and foofaraw that caused, Girls returned with a third season that had even more of these self-contained episodes — and they were the strongest of the season. “Beach House” (where they all visit Marnie’s Long Island summer home) and “Flo” (about Hannah’s dying grandmother) don’t really advance an overarching season master plot, but that’s what makes them great. They’re each incredibly well observed — “Beach House” especially had me texting one of my high-school friends about ill-conceived sleepovers we both went to — but about completely different, unrelated areas of life. But they don’t have to directly connect to each other to accomplish their story goals.

In this way, the third season of Girls feels more like short stories, or essays in a memoir, than chapters of a novel. But that’s what Lena Dunham excels at. With each season, the show is starting to feel more and more like her, like she’s honing her voice — a voice of a generation. And it may be more cartoonish or fictionalized than Dunham’s essays, but, as Laird says, just because it isn’t real, doesn’t mean we don’t feel it. – Marisa
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW1IhB3CXxU

5. Broad City

First Season, Comedy Central

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As much as I love Girls (and clearly many of us at the site do), there’s a certain distance to the privilege of Hannah, Marnie, Shosh, and Jessa, even when it’s satirized. But the eccentric, sometimes scatological, always fly-by-the-seat-of-their-skirts misadventures of Abbi and Ilana on Broad City have the texture of real life, despite the show’s comparative cartoonishness. Whether they’re touring a string of increasingly awful apartment rentals or rolling into the bank with a big fat check only to be instantly deflated by a dismissive teller, it’s their bright but unvarnished vision of broke twentysomething life in New York City that hits home more. Living with a roommate who does inappropriate things in the communal areas is much more relatable than watching Hannah ask her parents for a $2100 a month stipend for her rent. Both are funny, but one makes you cringe with recognition and the other embarrassment. But what elevates Broad City, aside from its consistent hilarity, is the central friendship between the two women: often sweet, sometimes a little gross, but true to the end. We should all be so lucky to have someone who’ll take care of our shit. In Abbi and Ilana’s case, that’s literal. – Sara

4. Orange Is the New Black

Second Season, Netflix

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I loved the first season of Orange is the New Black so much that the prospect of Season 2 made me nervous. What if it wasn’t as funny? What if the backstories weren’t as raw? But as I began actually watching Season 2, I realized that my fears were unfounded – the show was as strong as ever. One particular highlight featured a field trip with one of my favorite characters, the always red-lipsticked Morrello that revealed a crucial piece of her funny-sad-scary backstory, but there were plenty others to choose from: sincerely moving moments in a chemotherapy center, scenes from Taystee’s childhood, and a hysterically funny tour de force of star-crossed hookups. Hopefully Season 3 will give more time to Sophia, Nicky, and Poussey; the show’s wealth of rich characters is almost overwhelming. But now we know not to worry. – Lorraina

3. Fargo

First Season, FX

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What the hell business did this show have being any good? It’s a TV adaptation of one of the most perfectly constructed movies ever made; at the outset, everything about it just screamed inessential. Confusion about what this show even is lasts most of the way through the first episode: You have Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, who seems like a strange echo of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard — same defeated air and Scandanavian surname. And newcomer Allison Tolman seemed to be maybe some version of Marge Gunderson as Molly, although her story somewhat worryingly begins with her being corrected by a male police officer, reversing the gender dynamics of the “not too sure about your policework there” scene from the movie. That makes Billy Bob Thornton maybe Steve Buscemi? This sort of vague grasping for parallels and connections continues right up until the moment when Lester straight-up murders his wife. I think I said “oh, OK” out loud at that point.

The show would later reveal its precise relationship with the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, but by that point the connection had become more of a delightful surprise than the show’s reason for being; the TV show no longer had anything to prove. In fact, more than anything else, the defining characteristic of Fargo‘s first-season run was confidence. Sure, let’s make a TV adaptation of a beloved movie. We need two FBI agents? Let’s cast those two guys with the sketch show on Comedy Central. We need a strong female lead to anchor the whole thing, so we’re going to go with the actress that nobody’s heard of. Oh, and we don’t need to have her have a showdown with our evil guy at the end. In fact, they never even need to meet. The show possessed such an overwhelming air of self-assurance that there was no need to worry about a serious misstep, leaving you free to worry about what was going to happen to Molly and Gus.

It certainly helps that this cast (which will not, by design, return for another season) is wall-to-wall stellar. Tolman has deservedly received a lot of attention for her breakout performance, and she is excellent. Freeman is great at accumulating sympathy in the first episode and then immediately throwing it away with both hands. And sure, Keith Carradine is great, but you knew that already. In a lot of ways, I’m most surprised by Billy Bob Thornton. In recent years he’s let his public persona as an odd person get a little out of control, and I’d basically come to think of him as someone who asks people if they would ask Tom Petty that (sidenote: there’s Jian Ghomeshi again). I had sort of forgotten that he can really act. His performance in Fargo recalls my favorite element of Ian McShane’s in Deadwood: both men possess the kind of coiled menace that makes it entirely possible that they will stab whomever they’re talking to at any moment.

And that’s how a show that sounded like a terrible idea became one of the best of the year. I didn’t even miss the woodchipper. – Craig

2. Last Week Tonight

First Season, HBO

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HBO’s On Demand menu simply calls this show “John Oliver” — a fittingly direct (mis)title that conceals the show’s true sense of surprise. The surprise isn’t that Oliver, Daily Show veteran that he is, delivers great topical jokes. The surprise is how well he energizes a half hour that is basically a solo performance — with no commercials, few interviews, and no correspondents to throw to, Oliver spends each episode in the hot seat, and delivers each and every time. The surprise is how he entices us to join him as he finds comedy in seemingly mundane topics, like the Kafkaesque world of property seizures and lawsuits against inanimate objects. The surprise is how he transforms a context, one man in a small studio, that could be limiting, into a low-budget comedy holodeck where unicorns, space geckos, and Right Said Fred can show up to bring a joke to life. In 2014, Last Week Tonight quickly proved itself the best kind of surprise, a show that grounds comedy in a thoughtful and vivid point of view. – Michael

1. True Detective

First Season, HBO

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If you used quantity of internet think pieces as the only metric, True Detective was the most discussed television show of 2014. From critiques about how male-dominated the story is to countless theories on the identity of the main antagonist, I wondered if there was anything left to say when I worked on this blurb. Most of those pieces, though, were for people already swept up in the show. How would you explain True Detective to the uninitiated?

Most obviously from the name, it’s a cop show. It’s also a prestige cable drama, so the crimes are exceptionally gruesome and the cops are deeply flawed antiheroes. Shows like what I just described are a dime a dozen, though. What sets True Detective into a class of its own is density of detail. In just eight episodes, this unconventional whodunnit unfolds by seamlessly jumping between a grisly rape/murder investigation 1995 and a potential copycat in 2012 with a few stops in between, giving you only the sliver of the story our protagonists are witness to. The locations, photography, and a plethora of lived-in swamp people put the viewer in the heart of the rural Louisiana Bayou (or at least some nightmare-like approximation of such). While there are no supernatural elements, the sense of foreboding doom and misanthropy is practically Lovecraftian. The show fires on all cylinders, but the main driver is the relationship between the two leads.

If time is a flat circle, then these two geniuses made the best TV show of 2014
If time is a flat circle, then these two geniuses made the best TV show of 2014

At the center of everything are Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Following a decade of mostly uninspiring studio work and a year or two of career reinvention at the movies, True Detective finds McConaughey at the apex of a creative renaissance. He steals the show as drug-damaged, philosophy-spewing Rust Cohle, a preternaturally gifted detective who is, by his own admission, “not great at parties.” Although given a less showy role, Harrelson more than holds his own as Marty Star, introduced as a straight man and audience proxy who is revealed to be an unreliable narrator with his own host of demons. While Rust is a wild man, it’s out there for all to see. Marty’s denial of his true nature and struggle with accepting who he is gives him more of a character arc and drives much of the non-investigation drama. Most importantly, these two are great foils for each other. Even though there are sometimes literally at each others’ throats, their decades-spanning relationship is rich and nuanced. The show would be a dark, nihilistic void if not for the humor derived from Star and Cohle’s constant sniping. Forget the oft-repeated “Time is a flat circle.” The key line in True Detective is: “You are like Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_HuFuKiq8U

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.