The best (new) things on television in 2014
Television — as we have come to know it — is both the greatest and the worst medium.
With streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime … even YouTube) and premium cable, we have literally every imaginable moving image at our fingertips. And yet we are still inundated with Real Housewives franchises, homophobic hillbillies and Nancy Grace. Shows on broadcast networks that 20 years ago would not last a season due to low ratings are now considered hits as eyes move elsewhere.
TV is both intimate and grand: There are things on the small screen that the movies are just not capable of coming close to (Game of Thrones), while at the same time, “Gee, there’s nothing on” is still a familiar refrain.
It doesn’t have to be that way. While 2014 was the year we lost Colbert, we’ll regain him again in 2015, albeit in another format; not so of David Letterman, which is an historic loss.
For this year’s best-of list, I have done something I have never done before: Retired recurring favorites that would otherwise dominate the list (Key & Peele, House of Cards, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the aforementioned Thrones), and limited myself only to new series — those that began their runs or completed their first seasons in 2014. The distinguishing characteristics of many of the finalists? Darkness loomed. And there was a lot of gay out there to soak in. And short seasons (six to ten episodes) seem to be the way to go. Working our way toward the top:
10. Vicious (PBS) … or as I like to call it, Absolutely Fagulous. Old pros Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen (both openly gay in real life) play a pair of bitchy queens in their twilight years, lusting after the clueless straight boy next door and spewing venom with every line. It’s old-school broad comedy, written by American Gary Janetti (whose tweets, by the way, are some of the best out there) but with that Brit bitterness that goes so well with camp.
9. Transparent (Amazon Prime). Although the style of this half-hour streaming series is a bit lopy, the premise alone — that a man in his 60s (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender and deals with the fallout from his selfish adult children — is practically earth-shaking, especially when its portrayed with such clear-headed respect for the LGBT community.
8. Garfunkel & Oates (IFC). The most unexpected delight of the year for me was this single-camera, low-budget comedy about two novelty folk singers (Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome) who intersperse their actual lives with musical numbers that reveal the awkwardness of life for women in their late 20s. It’s a funnier Girls, and you don’t have to look at Adam Driver. (Garfunkel & Oates would be on the list anyway, if only for the touching song about marriage equality, performed with puppets.)
7. Gotham (Fox). Every year, there’s a series that gets the hell promoted out of it in the summer and when it debuts doesn’t live up to the hype. Gotham is the exception — a show that sustains itself with increasingly intriguing glimpses of how a pubescent Bruce Wayne was transformed by the murder of his parents into Batman. Although it focuses on the upright destined-to-be-commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben Mackenzie), it’s the villains who pull your focus: The Penguin (a creepily sociopathic Robin Lord Taylor) and Fish Mooney, played with brio by Jada Pinkett Smith.
6. Fargo (FX). Billy Bob Thornton’s return to TV was a far cry from his sitcom days: This sorta-remake, sorta-sequel to the Coen Brothers crime drama. But it was Texan Allison Tolman — in a breakout role as a pregnant sheriff who’s smarter than all the men around her — that wowed us in this tale of revenge and the depths a psychopath will go.
5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO). After his successful subbing for Jon Stewart in the anchor desk of The Daily Show in 2013, wide-eyed Brit John Oliver got his own comedy-news show on the edgy network, and proved lightning can strike twice. Oliver’s deadpan delivery in interviews frames his outraged ranting in the “can you believe the shit going on in the world?” segments. You laugh … then you cry.
4. The Normal Heart (HBO). The second of three HBO shows that consecutively made the list, this screen adaptation of Larry Kramer’s searing stage play about the early days of the AIDS crisis and the activists who kept the faith was almost difficult to watch sometimes because the pain and desperation was fully palpable.
3. True Detective (HBO). While Fargo plumbed the banality of evil, True Detective was more of a philosophical cop drama, as two miss-matched investigators — clear-eyed Woody Harrelson and Zen-like Matthew McConaughey — get brought back together to revisit a murder that seemed to have been solved 20 years ago. But was it?
2. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS). Ken Burns’ seven-part dissection of the lives and influences of three relatives — Theodore Roosevelt, his niece Eleanor and her husband (and cousin) Franklin — was something we don’t see much anymore on broadcast television: Appointment viewing. (The last time we felt this way was probably Burns’ The Civil War in 1990.) For one week, we couldn’t wait to spend the night glued to our sets watching this compelling portrait of America in microcosm.
1. Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey (Fox). Fundamentalists’ heads almost exploded when the network owned by Rupert Murdoch aired this 13-part science series — an updating of the late physicist Carl Sagan’s seminal 1980 series — which, lo and behold, takes it as an article of faith that the universe is far more complex and wondrous than we can fully fathom. Focusing on thinkers as well as ideas, host Neil deGrasse Tyson escorted us from one side of the cosmos and back with stirring visuals and smart (but not jargon-y) explanations of life (and light) as we know it … so far.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2014.