On the eve of 2014, I thought I’d collect some long-gestating thoughts about the year in television. As the list of shows I watch continues to dwindle, I’ve come around to what Grantland’s Andy Greenwald hypothesized last year, that the so-called Golden Age of television is over, due to a variety of causes: genre-driven shows coming into favor over showrunner-driven ones (The Walking Dead), the proliferation of what Greenwald calls “prestige simulacra” (House of Cards, Low Winter Sun), the rise of gussied-up, reality-agnostic soap operas (Scandal, Homeland), and the demise of shows suffering from overlong runs (Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, How I Met Your Mother).
With all that said, it was still a great year for television. Even though I haven’t caught a handful of shows that could have made this list, both old (Game of Thrones) and new (Orange is the New Black, Masters of Sex, Broadchurch, etc), I still found myself consuming more television than most other media. Hopefully, I’ll have more time/energy to write about a topic that I spend an inordinate amount of time enjoying, digesting, analyzing, and discussing in 2014. Until then, here are some of my favorites (I’m saving my favorite discovery of the year, The Good Wife, for its own post).
I will try to write this without punning on the title, but four seasons in, Justified continues to entertain and surprise more than I ever thought it would, remaining at the top of my recommendations list. While the third season stumbled when it replaced Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett with Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles, shifting focus from a Hatfield and McCoy grudge match to a convoluted set of wheeling and dealings, the fourth season recovered its balance with a compelling season-long arc that weaved in Raylan’s father issues and Boyd’s quest for respectability. Throw in a storyline about the post-war support (or lack thereof) for soldiers, excellent character work all around, and dialogue as poetic as anything since Deadwood, and you’ve got a show as captivating as any of its more prestigious company.
The show with the hardest shoes to fill. True, Boardwalk Empire will never be that other New Jersey crime show or that other sprawling analysis of corrupt and broken institutions, but it has certainly become its own beast. Like The Wire’s second season, this season changed the poles of the show, shifting the protagonist from Nucky to Chalky and letting the Chicago plotline stand on its own. Michael K. Williams was certainly up to the challenge, with an equally adept sparring partner in Jeffrey Wright; once again, the show bucked expectations by leaving both men broken but alive by season’s end. After Richard’s Taxi Driveresque superheroics last season, his arc closed beautifully: another soldier who died a long time ago. As the show heads into its fifth season, watching the rise of Capone, the Syndicate, and even J. Edgar Hoover is sure to be a treat.
Mad Men’s penultimate season gave us Draper’s Infero: 13 episodes of an increasingly-unraveling Don Draper in a nosedive towards redemption. His grasps at controlling his fate were increasingly haphazard and cringeworthy, from a harried merger that was the antithesis of the SCDP founding to his desperate, soul-baring Hersey’s pitch. A one-night stand with Betty only looks favorable in light of his debased affair with Linda Cardellini’s Sylvia Rosen, which ends when Sally literally catches her father with his pants down (the lowest point in a brutal coming-of-age). While the 60s aren’t over, the combination of MLK, RFK, and the DNC is certainly the turning point as the show heads into its final season. However, after witless fans spent the whole season pondering the meaning of Bob Benson (he’s a serial killer!) and Megan (she’s already dead!), I am not looking forward to a year of speculation that Don will tumble out his window in the finale.
Bob’s Burgers / Archer
Bob’s Burgers quietly became the best family sitcom on television, finding its singularly strange voice and fleshing out its quirky characters. In its first full season, it tackled genre staples like mother-daughter relationships and first crushes, but also found the family shanghaied on a cruise ship, visiting a swinging seniors home, and dealing with espresso addiction. With spot-on parodies of Jaws and ET (the latter of which featured Jon Hamm as a talking toilet), Zach Galifianakis as a Christmas mannequin come to life, and Kevin Kline’s increasingly-bizarre Mr. Fischoeder, the show is also hitting its stride with its secondary characters and guest stars (reminiscent of The Simpsons, pre-stunt casting).
Transitioning to the other animated show which stars H. Jon Benjamin, Archer opened its season with a Bob’s Burgers reference inside A History of Violence reference (or is it the other way around?) — a meta moment during which I almost exploded with glee. With references so layered and esoteric that they need a Vulture column to decode (seriously), Archer is still the best joke-per-minute show on television. And even as the season’s throughline was wanting, the individual episodes (Archer’s homoerotic love with Timothy Olyphant’s Lucas, Ron Cadillac’s gangster past, border battles with Justified’s Nick Searcy) were as hilarious and twisted as ever. Lana’s pregnancy was foreshadowed nicely, and even if Adam Reed has promised that Season 5 is “a radical departure” for the show, I’m curious where they take it.
Best New Drama – The Americans – Another feather in FX’s cap, The Americans is a show about a failing marriage, disguised — with spirit glue, a fake moustache, and a wig — as taut, Cold War-era spy thriller. It fell into the escalation trap a few times too many, but “Gregory” felt like something between The French Connection and Ronin.
Best New Comedy – Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Parks & Recreation at a police station. Featuring the strongest (and most diverse) ensemble cast on television, this one gets a lot of laughs from the duo of Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher, the latter of whom is a surprisingly hilarious straight man.