Is there any more tiresome millennial rite than the conversation with the TV zealot? “Oh my GOD how have you not seen The Wire/Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones/House of Cards/Gritty Cable Drama Du Jour??? GO HOME AND WATCH IT NOW.” It’s such a cliché at this point that Cecily Strong should insert it into her routine. (Full disclosure: I have been said zealot more than once.)
TV really is the televisual novel, if not in terms of storytelling than most certainly in terms of time commitment. Sure, I’ll take your movie recommendation: it’ll only take me two hours, three if you’re a Chris Nolan acolyte. But TV is something we live with. It’s something we devote hours and hours to, not necessarily because it “deserves” all those hours. Of a potential televisual conquest, rather than, “Is it good?” I ask, “Do I want to spend 50 hours in this world?” TV is no longer something we set our alarms to and watch over dinner; it’s consumed via iPad late at night, or in another browser window while we study for the GREs. Even when it’s not all that comforting – and many of today’s best shows aren’t – it’s comfort food, the eternal millennial salve. Who needs jobs when we’ve got Netflix?
So don’t take this as a harangue. Take it as a celebration. Here are eleven exemplars of fine television art. Maybe not the eleven best of the calendar year, but eleven that all of us gave over a significant portion of our lives to. So they’ve got that going for them. – Jordan Pedersen
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Blame Community. So much of our modern comedy is obsessed with – and even built on – commenting on storytelling conventions and pop culture tropes that we seem to have forgotten how to subvert those tropes. Understanding and then dismantling the paths most shows trod is clever; simply pointing out that you’re on TV is not.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine certainly understands, but it doesn’t dismantle. The Andy Samberg vehicle – that isn’t really an Andy Samberg vehicle, but we’ll get to that – is entirely content to stay within itself, within rote sitcom structures. You can plot out the A- and B-plots by the time you’re halfway through the first act. The show is an exercise in execution, because it has to be: it lives and dies by the jokes-per-page ratio, and the batting average thereof. And on every count, it’s a runaway success.
Last season ended with a mild twist, sure. Samberg’s detective Jake Peralta went deep cover to infiltrate a crime family, and he confessed his feelings for fellow detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero in a breakout role) on his way out. But the operation is over before this season’s opening credits even roll. The return to the familiar is predictable, and predictably hilarious. “The Jimmy Jab Games” – derived from a bastardization of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name – is emblematic, a joke-delivery system that hides some interpersonal drama in the folds. That might be the key: Jake’s cautious pursuit of Amy is endearing, but the show remembers to keep the jokes front and center (see: “The Road Trip”).
If there is an ace up Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s sleeve, it’s the ensemble. Andre Braugher plays Captain Raymond Holt superbly, and Stephanie Beatriz is hilarious as the stone-faced Rosa Diaz. Samberg’s female counterpart, Chelsea Peretti, steals scenes as the absurd Gina Linetti. The show also receives a mid-season jolt from Craig Robinson, whose Doug “The Pontiac Bandit” Judy has inimitable chemistry with Samberg.
That Robinson’s white whale is a recurring character might signal creative stagnation on other shows, but it’s welcome here. So is the repeat of last year’s Halloween caper. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not a genre-bending experiment. It’s just funnier than your favorite show. – Paul Thompson
I always find myself talking about Hannibal in terms of True Detective. Maybe it’s because I think, despite its lack of six-minute tracking shots, Hannibal is a better show than True Detective.
True Detective is an aesthetic triumph, there’s no denying. But I found the storytelling muddled, and I think Nic Pizzolatto wanted the feel of a mystery, but he didn’t want to do the homework to make the narrative snap into place.
Hannibal, on the other hand, is watch-like in its precision. What began in the first season as merely a stylish procedural has transformed into a grand tale of revenge, identity assumption, and psychological manipulation. Season one followed Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as he coaxed the recalcitrant FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) out of his shell and then proceeded to pin his crimes on Graham. Season two picks up with Will and Hannibal having swapped places: Will’s in the cell that should be Hannibal’s, and Hannibal is out pinch-hitting as a profiler for the FBI.
Much like Gone Girl – 2014’s other great tale of shadowy machinations and murder – Hannibal traces broader and broader circles of manipulation as it goes: Will’s eventually sprung from his cell, but is his release despite Hannibal’s wishes or in service of them?
Will’s subsequent spiral into Hannibal-aping psychopathy is never fully convincing, despite his notable brutalizing of the corpse of a museum guard: he’s gotta be doing it to catch Hannibal, right? But “Mizumono,” the second season’s nightmarish, Grand Guignol finale suggests that even if Hannibal wasn’t quite the outright master of ceremonies, he might at least always have the jump on Will and the rest.
And that’s where Hannibal’s essential brilliance – and terror – lies. While Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga lay out exquisite horrors on True Detective, with Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me) aims to implant the horrors in your mind. The truly scary part about Hannibal is not the beautiful and terrible tableaus Fuller creates: it’s how Hannibal’s plans, layered ingeniously on top of one another like the human color palette from “Sakizuki,” when taken as a whole, reveal that Hannibal is nearly always in control.
Piles of pretty dead southern girls and Yellow Kings of Carcosa are scary. But powerlessness is the true horror. – Jordan Pedersen
High Maintenance (Vimeo)
Pretty much everybody’s favorite web series – whether fans were neophytes or nervously unsatiated by the initial run of episodes in 2012 – had a tall order to deal with in 2014. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair created a community of characters different but the same; most represented in High Maintenance’s Brooklyn are high-strung young people sometimes acquainted tangentially, but primarily tied together through their connections with one person. The Guy, the patron saint for upwardly mobile stoners, full of insights, good humor, a Tupperware container filled with baggies, and a wedding ring he wears because he feels it makes him look trustworthy. Even without the wedding ring, The Guy is the kind of, um, guy you would love to invite into your house to sell you weed, and he’s so charming and affable you can only hope he has time to extinguish a joint with you.
After exploring such a wide array of themes weaving through their character sketches, the series had already set a high bar leading into 2014. I mean, how is anybody supposed to top the legend of Homeless Heidi?
One of the most singular achievements of High Maintenance is the variety of tones seeping into each episode, and this year’s shorts are no different. In a single episode, “Matilda” explores the idea of taking your wildly precocious niece to a Broadway play, trying to make sure she doesn’t find out you’re a pot dealer, the perils of meeting someone on Grindr, and how to make the best of a night when your plans get ruined. In “Genghis,” Evan Waxman attempts to forge a career he thinks will be internally rewarding and satisfying, only to find out that the people he’ll be working with – teenagers – are the worst people walking the earth. The easily influenced, emotionally overwrought couple in “Geiger” go from having your average yuppie neuroses to full-on survivalist panic in record time.
Even though the show can jump from cynicism to heart-pumping fear as easily as The Guy can roll a J, the most poignant moments in this year’s collection of High Maintenance episodes contain unexpected moments of sweetness, particularly in “Ruth,” where a potentially awkward second date turns nuclear in terms of cringe factor but still ends successfully – the two people on the date wake up together the next morning – and “Rachel” – easily the best episode of the show so far – where a writer (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens) struggles with his next novel, as well as his identity and masculinity as he runs with his boy to school, comes home, and smokes weed and procrastinates all day wearing Rachel Comey dresses. High Maintenance has a near preternatural understanding of the human condition, and it has such a naturalness to itself that it drives home the idea that even the most insular communities contain a vast of individuals. The show is basically Humans of New York without the overt, saccharine sentimentality, and with a shitload more weed. – Martin Douglas
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
Here’s how Last Week Tonight works: John Oliver begins every show with a wrap-up of the week’s news, but, already, he distances himself from the herd. His wrap-ups rarely cover exactly what everyone’s talking about. He leaves that grunt work – valuable and well-executed grunt work though it may be – to The Daily Show and the recently dearly departed Colbert Report.
In fact, wrap-up is probably the wrong word for these opening salvos, since a wrap-up would assume the audience already knows the material. More often than not, Oliver covers international news, and, as any current events junkie knows, nobody knows jack shit about international news. And Oliver very casually treats stories about Turkey and Thailand the way they should be treated: as vital pieces of news that everybody should know about.
The show’s second section doubles down on reporting the underreported. These long, digressive explorations have become the show’s centerpiece. By now, we’re all familiar with how, on the Monday after each episode, Oliver’s extended investigations of civil forfeiture, state lotteries, and the Miss America pageant begin to seep out of every nook and cranny of the internet. I think that’s because Oliver doesn’t choose his subjects because they’re the funniest: he chooses them because he believes people need to hear about them.
But – and this is important – this doesn’t mean Last Week Tonight isn’t a comedy show, like a few silly TV bloggers have asserted. Because all of these segments are as funny as they are deeply felt, even if, as was the case when he tackled the death penalty, Oliver simply uses humor to sweeten up a bitter pill. (In that case, the sweetener was that great video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito.)
It’s the show’s third segment, though, where it demonstrates unequivocally that it’s a comedy. This is where Oliver takes the subject of his second segment, and, after badgering and bloodying it to the point where it scarcely stands upright, blows it up outright. His episode on Dr. Oz’s shameful peddling of horse shit “miracle cure” dietary supplements crescendos with Oliver actually expressing empathy for Oz and TV hosts like him, who have to fill hundreds of hours of airtime.
But then Oliver brings out a pandering parade: trashy reality show wives tossing cabernet on one another, video chats with George R.R. Martin about which characters he’s going to kill, puppies. “Neither I nor the puppy are making unsubstantiated claims about potentially harmful dietary supplements,” he coos viciously.
And it’s the transformation of the tragic into the absurd that marks Last Week Tonight as not just a comedy show, but one of the deftest, most vital comedy shows around.
With The Colbert Report having just ended, and the future of The Daily Show in doubt with Jon Stewart’s contract up at the end of 2015, it’s unclear whether John Oliver will start having to do the heavy lifting for the satirical industry, and take on the mainstream subjects he’s so far been able to eschew. I’m sure he’s up to the task, but it’d be kind of a shame: he’s so brilliant working on the margins. – Jordan Pedersen
New Girl (Fox)
How do you stumble backward and end up the best comedy on network television? When it debuted in the fall of 2011, New Girl was as bright eyed as its star, Zooey Deschanel, who unfailingly read like a deer caught in blinding gender politic headlights. (How the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope became another excuse to hold open season on women in television and film is another discussion entirely.) Brett Baer, one of the show’s executive producers, called New Girl “the first post-9/11 show”, citing a lack of edge, an abandonment of satire. Ridiculous as it sounded at the time, he was right – and that was the problem.
But now, three years later, New Girl is near-unparalleled on the channels your grandparents get. In the currently airing fourth season, Deschanel’s Jess occupies a rare space in comedy, that of a show’s linear and emotional center who is also the funniest person onscreen. And the bar has been raised across the board: the show’s principals have all grown wry and acid-tongued. Episodes like “Background Check” and “Teachers” house some of the tightest comedic dialogue on all of television (with nods in particular to Lamorne Morris as Winston and Max Greenfield as Schmidt).
The other running narrative with New Girl has been its role in preserving the romantic comedy, a genre increasingly absent in theatres. But after Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson) broke up at the end of last season, the show has recentered itself; the post-breakup aftermath is seldom a plot point and never a crutch.
There are still problems: Nick is often too broad; Coach (Damon Wayans, Jr.) often feels superfluous; Cece (Hannah Simone) simply isn’t that funny. But the show has begun to push boundaries both topical – there’s an episode about a micropenis – and formal – there is no longer any discernible pattern to in-/out-of-apartment episodes or to combinations of characters. After it seemed destined to drag on as forgettable fluff, New Girl has repositioned itself atop the comedy dogfight, like some sort of manicured Lazarus in ballet flats. – Paul Thompson
Review (Comedy Central)
Comedy Central’s Review could have been merely a mildly clever show with a one-trick gimmick. The show’s central conceit of a rigidly stentorian intellectual critiquing absurdist life experiences like “drug addiction” and “racism” is amusing enough on its own, but over the show’s nine episodes something much grander and ambitious occurred. Review aims for transcendence as a serialized mockumentary about one repressed surbanite’s slow self-destruction in service of his job.
Andy Daly’s Forrest MaNeill – an effete Ira Glass-like character- is a tragic figure unlike anything you’ve probably seen on television. His psychotic devotion to his job – Forrest must partake and review the episode’s activity regardless of how destructive it to his personal life – is the type of painful cringe comedy The Office can only dream. There was no episode of television this season that was as funny or as emotionally arresting as the “Pancake, Divorce, Pancake” episode in which bookends Forrest’s unwilling divorce with his lovely wife – he’s still in love with her – with the forced consumption of massive amounts of flapjacks. Review is one of the most unexpectedly brilliant experiences on television. – Doc Zeus
Rick and Morty (Cartoon Network)
In a year when a lot of television got richer, more expansive, and deeply emotionally textured (Transparent, Orange Is The New Black), one of the best new series just went straight for weird. Rick And Morty, created by Justin Roiland and executive produced by Community‘s Dan Harmon, is hands-down one of the most insane things to ever air. Though the premise is a relatively straightforward parody of Back To The Future – mad scientist Rick forces his dim grandson Morty to go on wacky adventures – the show has sprinted past its original inspiration to take on Inception-style mind games, the Devil, and the end of the universe itself. As nuts and faux-epic as Rick And Morty can be – and it can be pretty nuts – the show has still established its characters well enough to do some vaguely emotional stories about them. Though parents Beth and Jerry are mostly doofuses, their failing marriage is surprisingly affecting.
And the show’s best episode so far, the sublimely inspired, classic “Rixty Minutes,” doesn’t even leave the house, instead opting to focus on Rick, Morty, and the rest of their family watching television. It’s mostly animation done to fit Roiland’s apparently drunk improvising, but the show leans in on the conceit and produces a series of incredible gags, including an ad for “Real Fake Doors” and trailer for the action series Ball Fondlers (which actually looks pretty cool). Who could have guessed watching other people watch TV would ever be the funniest thing on the air? – Eric Thurm
Silicon Valley (HBO)
For the last eight years, the relentlessly idiotic Big Bang Theory has bombarded television audiences with an image of the Great American Nerd that is hopelessly out-of-touch with the modern conception of geek culture. Big Bang exists in a world where love of Star Wars and “comic books” are the exclusive signifying traits of the type of people who are hopelessly socially repressed weirdos that can’t speak with a girl or understand human emotion. Thus, it’s refreshing to see HBO’s tech start-up satire Silicon Valley implicitly seeking to remedy that ideal.
The geeky characters on Silicon Valley are real people who operate in a world of immense inherent absurdity. The computer programmers featured on the show might be perverse and neurotic but they are functionally identifiable humans that fuck and fight and bicker over the most effective way to jerk off an entire auditorium of venture capitalists. These characters exist within the story of a fledgling start-up company navigating the consciously ridiculous and effected landscape of the Palo Alto tech community. One particularly hilarious episode deals with the boys trying to find the properly edgy logo for their nascent company, to logically erotic results. Silicon Vally is one of television’s best and most original comedies of the year. – Doc Zeus
Transparent is all hurt. It’s waves of hurt, emanating from a single source. At age 70, patriarch Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) announces to his family that he identifies as a woman. His three adult children – on a sliding scale of solipsistic from slightly to catastrophically – all take the news differently: his eldest Sarah (Amy Landecker) is nonplussed. She chuckles awkwardly. That she discovers her father dressed in women’s clothing while cheating on her husband with her college girlfriend (Melora Hardin) complicates things more.
Mort – now Maura – has a second daughter, spoiled layabout Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who’s overjoyed when she hears about her parent’s transition. But Ali’s also rolling hard when she hears the news, so we take her reaction with a grain of salt. Josh (Jay Duplass), a successful music producer and far less successful romantic, takes it the worst. His greatest sin of self-absorption is his contention that his dad’s doing it for the attention.
Creator Jill Solloway (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara) chooses to front-load the awfulness of the children and the sympathy for their parent. “They are so selfish,” Maura opines to a support group. “I don’t know how it I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”
But Transparent does. The show’s frequent flashbacks trace Mort’s journey towards discovering his true gender, and they’re joyous: the first time Mort and his buddy in gender discovery Marcy (Bradley Whitford), decked out in resplendent dresses, get called “ladies” by a waitress, is monumental.
We can’t forget, though, that Mort allowed Ali to cancel her own bar mitzvah so he could go to a weekend getaway for cross-dressers. And Mort’s wife Shelly (Judith Light), appalled by her husband’s poorly excused departure, beats a speedy retreat for her sister’s house, leaving all three kids entirely without supervision. In light of such neglect, it’s no wonder Mort/Maura’s kids are so fucked up.
Transparent is a landmark battle in the war for transgender acceptance, absolutely. But it’s not a didactic tract on gender. It’s a story about the hurt that parents pass on to their children, even when they don’t mean to. The parent in Transparent is finding their true gender, but they could just as easily be struggling with alcoholism, or the death of their own parent.
Transparent doesn’t blame the parents for passing on the hurt, or the kids for inheriting it. It’s about how once you’ve identified the source of hurt, you can finally start fixing it. – Jordan Pedersen
True Detective (HBO)
If you’ve seen True Detective, you don’t need me to sell you on how good it is. The show’s writing is taught, its direction is tense, and McConaughey and Harrelson give two of the finest performances to ever grace the television screen. True Detective is everything that they say it is.
What’s most impressive about the show is how immersive the world of Bayou crime that creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga have created is. Over the show’s eight economical episodes, the viewer gets lost in a world of backwater deceit, deadly conspiracy, occult fantasy, and a philosophical nihilist who calls himself a murder detective. Who is the Yellow King? By the time that Rust and Marty descend into Carcosa, you’ll never forget True Detective. – Doc Zeus
Almost no one I know watches Veep. That means I’m missing out on being able to talk about television’s best comedy with my friends, that I rarely get to trade lines from any of the incredibly quotable characters on the show while I’m farting around on the internet and that I always have to try to convince people to watch a show that stars actors from Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and Office Space. It shouldn’t be like this.
Because there really shouldn’t be any reason why people aren’t down with Veep. Politics are a joke to begin with, so that could be an entry in to this show. Snark, sarcasm and zingers are at an all-time high in today’s world, so there’s another one. To me, this show is the spiritual descendant of your 30 Rocks, your British Offices and your Always Sunnys: it’s quick, it’s funny, and it’s pretty mean. All in all, it’s the funniest show on TV, and it’s got me thinking I need new friends. – Trey Kerby