Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Best Television of 2014, pt. 2 - Returning and Continuing Shows

The Americans has a lot of fun putting very pretty people in very ugly wigs

Editor’s Note: So work and life have gotten crazy for the last couple of months, preventing me from doing much writing, but I figured that if the Oscars can air in late February and the Grammys in 2015 can give an award to a song that was first released in June of 2013, then I can wrap up my Top Shows of 2014 posts in March.

The whole “too much good television” thing feels like such a cliché now that I’ve said it about a hundred times in the past two years, but when I look at this list of “also-ran” shows, I can’t really think of anything else.  There are nine continuing shows that make my “Next Best” list this year and I could make a decent argument to put any of them in my Top Ten, and very nearly did in a couple of cases.  But as will become apparent in my Best Of list, coming next week, I took a different tactic in evaluating shows this year, so some very great television did not quite make that final list.  Here, then, are the best continuing shows (those that aired in 2013 and will continue in 2015) that were almost the best in 2014.

30 for 30 (ESPN) –
For the past several years, ESPN has been putting together some of the best documentary work on television in its 30 for 30 series, but while the last few years haven’t quite seen the same highs as the initial two years did (in 2009 and 2010), 2014 featured some of the best films in the entire series.  Beyond even the quality of the episodes (installments?) is how diverse they are.  30 for 30 is capable of playing somber (if a little naïve) in Requiem for the Big East (and its look at how television and the quest for cash both created and destroyed college's premier basketball conference), introspective in Brian and the Boz and Rand University (chronicling the careers of bigger-than-life stars Brian Bosworth and Randy Moss), serious and political in Brothers in Exile (which followed the lives of Cuban immigrants Orlando and Lívan Hernandez), and even light-hearted and comedic in discussing the flamboyant era of the NBA in Bad Boys and When the Garden Was Eden.

The two pieces that stuck with me most this year, however, were two that covered topics I’d never been familiar with: Hillsborough and Slaying the Badger.  The latter surprised me in its ability to make me care about a sport for which I have no affinity at all: cycling.  Additionally, in a film about the rivalry between American cyclist Greg LeMond and the Frenchman Bernard Hinault, it would have been so easy to paint the pair as hero and villain, as was done so often when they were competing.  But Slaying the Badger effectively humanizes both men and made me care about the Tour de France for an hour, something not even the tour itself can usually do.

Hillsborough, meanwhile, was, outside of the Ferguson protest coverage, the single most important piece of news journalism this year.  Airing in concert with the World Cup as part of 30 for 30’s “Soccer Stories” series this summer, this feature-length documentary explored the Hillsborough disaster, still the worst stadium-related disaster in British history.  For decades, the official story, bolstered by doctored police reports, was that drunken fans had forced their way into an already over-filled stadium pen, leading to a crush that ultimately killed 96 people.  Only after twenty years of dogged efforts by the families of the dead was the truth ultimately revealed: that an understaffed, unprepared police force, in response to malfunctioning entrance turnstiles, opened an exit gate, which ultimately led to the mayhem.  Hillsborough is important television for reminding us how fragile the public trust is and how easily it can be violated by those in power.  And it was only one of many excellent episodes 30 for 30 produced in 2014.

Most 30 for 30 documentaries are currently available to stream on Netflix.

The Americans (FX) –
I really wanted to put The Americans in my Top Ten.  If you pressed me, I would probably say it came in at #11 or #12.  In terms of overall production value, it easily could have come in at #1.  The writing, directing, and acting were all top notch and the show took a huge leap forward in 2014.  But something about the show just doesn’t connect with me personally the way so many shows did this year.  I love all of the at-home stuff with the Jenningses and their children, but the spycraft often leaves me cold, especially anything involving Phillip’s alter-ego “Clark” and Martha.

Still, while I don’t personally react to The Americans, it is an extraordinarily well-made show and might feature one of the most complex, nuanced, and fascinating marriages on television.  It also happens to be the sexiest show on television, even without any nudity.  It may not have ended up in my personal top ten, but that’s more an indication of my particularly tastes right now than the quality of the show, which was one of the best dramas of 2014.

Season three of The Americans began on January 28th while the previous two seasons are available on Amazon Prime.

Arrow (CW) –
While Marvel has spent the last decade building a film empire, DC has found its success in the world of television, with Gotham one of the year’s top new shows, The Flash and Arrow holding down the CW’s best ratings (not a high bar I know), and a Supergirl series in development.  What’s been most surprising is how, while most of the Marvel’s films have turned out roughly the same (there’s a maguffin, the bad guys want the maguffin, the good guys want to stop the bad guys from getting the maguffin), DC has found success in diversity.  Gotham is a period cop show and, while Arrow and The Flash share a universe, the former is more clearly a drama while the latter is an action comedy much of the time.

While I enjoyed the first season of Arrow, it was really this past spring when the show kicked in to high gear, fueled by great guest stars, a strong and remarkably affecting revenge plot, and some of the best action on television.  For a year-and-a-half the show struggled integrating the island flashbacks into the main storyline in any meaningful way (and really have struggled again at the beginning of season three), but bringing together the two stories in the form of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke worked perfectly, giving the season’s big bad ample personal stakes.  The show also played the “nobody’s safe” card perfectly keeping the specter of death just around every corner.  Even though I never want to hear the word “Mirakuru” ever again, the second season of Arrow was action television at its best.

The first two seasons of Arrow are currently available on Netflix while the third season is currently airing on the CW.  The five most recent episodes are available on Hulu.

Banshee (Cinemax) –
Speaking of action television, Banshee returned for its second season as pulpy and over-the-top as ever.  But, buried deep in the blood, broken bones, explosions, and T&A was a turn to the serious and, at least once, a step into the realm of “serious television.” 

It’s easy to write Banshee off as a guilty pleasure, especially for the young, heterosexual male demographic, but it runs a tad bit deeper than that.  There are questions of loyalty, love, and family and which will ultimately triumph.  And the show can, at times, make legitimately beautiful television.  It’s not a show for everybody, but if you can get on Banshee’s wavelength, it offers a hell of a ride.

The third season of Banshee just finished airing on Cinemax with the first two seasons available on Max Go.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) –
2014 was a huge year for comedy, as my top ten list will soon show, so that the following three shows all end up as also-rans instead of big winners should be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine was celebrated, perhaps a bit prematurely, in early 2014 when, after only eleven episodes had aired, both it and star Andy Samberg were honored with Golden Globes.  The show had not yet found its footing so the awards came off more as hopeful than as reflective but, thankfully, the final half its first season and the first half of the second elevated Nine-Nine to becoming one of the best comedies on television.

Most pleasant to see in 2014 was how Nine-Nine developed each character and relationship.  It’s so easy for sitcoms to find one funny aspect of a character and then lean on that characteristic until all of the humor has been squeezed out of it (just look at how Modern Family treats basically all of its adults).  Nine-Nine, on the other hand, is able to constantly find new humor in its characters.  Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt, once mostly used as the straight man for Samberg’s antics, has become the master of the out-of-nowhere punchline (“Hot damn!”) or the steadily building running joke (his pronunciation of “Kwazy Kupcakes” is just delightful).  Samberg’s Jake has been toned down and allowed to develop real relationships with the other characters and the supporting cast has been fleshed out nicely as well.  It started a bit slow, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine has turned into a solid comedy.

The current season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is currently airing on Fox and all previous episodes are available on Hulu Plus.

Key & Peele (Comedy Central) –
Last year coming in at #6 in my overall Top Ten, Key & Peele falls down the list this year, again, not because of anything they did particularly wrong, but because of the overall strength of comedy this past year.  True, there were a few times this year when it felt like the show was coasting and I wasn’t a huge fan of the decision to abandon the live studio audience bits used to introduce each sketch in favor of the more tied-together driving interstitials.  But as with any sketch comedy show, the whole can only be as good or bad as its parts and this year featured numerous brilliant sketches. 

There was Meagan’s return in the finale, desperately trying to find her boyfriend in the darkened movie theatre.  Yes, it’s an old joke that’s been done many, many times before.  But it is the specificity of the character (asking Siri to call her boyfriend instead of just pulling up the number, walking the long way down the row) that sets this piece apart.  There was also the ‘80s fitness video (again, startling in its specificity) that turns into a black comedy.  But probably my favorite sketch of this season involved Jordan Peele’s spot-on Reginald VelJohnson and the evil that is Steve Urkel.

The first three seasons of Key & Peele are available on Hulu Plus

Louie (FX) –
After taking a year off to recharge creatively, 2014 was a year of experimentation for Louie.  Granted, the show has never been one to make a straight comedy, so to speak, but its fourth season saw even crazier things than usual.  There was the six part “Elevator”: essentially a feature-length movie told in installments.  There was the two-part (really three when you consider the hour-and-a-half extended running time) “In the Woods,” which was almost entirely a flashback to Louie’s childhood.  Even the “normal” episodes found ways to be different and interesting.

I don’t know that Louie was as funny in 2014 as it has been in the past, but then Louie has never been a show that relies on setups and punchlines.  It is a show capable of finding comedy in the mundane but also heart, love, and passion.  The freedom that FX has given Louis CK in making his show has helped build what is probably television’s most unique creation.

The first three seasons of Louie are currently available for streaming on Hulu Plus.  To my knowledge, season four is not yet available anywhere.

Mad Men (AMC) –
It feels kind of weird to leave Mad Men off of my Top Ten list because, truth be told, I don’t think it was any less successful in 2014 than it was in the past.  But the truncated seventh season (spanning only seven episodes of a planned 14-episode final season) felt a bit like it was performing a lot of setup work for the eventual payoffs to come in the final 2015 episodes. 

To be clear, there were some great pieces here: “The Strategy” was a masterpiece, pure and simple; Robert Morse’s song and dance routine in the finale was beautiful; and, for as much as some people complained, I actually enjoyed seeing Don fail in the same ways again. 

Mad Men had a strong half-season, but it was only a half-season, and a half-season that felt like it was setting up something bigger.  I feel like I have to see they payoff before I can appropriately rate the setup.

The first six seasons of Mad Men are currently available on Neflix while episodes 3-7 of season seven are available at  Final episodes debut on AMC on April 5th.

Person of Interest (CBS) –
An inconsistent fall kept me from considering Person of Interest for my Top Ten list, but this past spring, the show put on a run that elevated the show from one of the best science fiction shows on television to simply one of the best shows on television.

The show has always had a difficult time balancing between its procedural elements and the serial science fiction story it occasionally wants to tell, but in the wake of a main character’s death, Person of Interest threw itself headlong into a plot involving competing artificial intelligences, the shadowy government organization wanting to control them, and the anarchic group that wants take them all down.  Expanding the cast has worked wonders, bringing a new energy to the cast, even if it did serve to make some characters redundant.  They seem to have done a good job of identifying those redundancies, however, and have been able to keep the show fresh and always changing.

It’s not a perfect show by any means, but at times, Person of Interest is capable of some masterful storytelling.  This most recent season has been a little lacking in that regard, but the episodes from last spring were simply fantastic.

Person of Interest is currently airing on CBS and unavailable for streaming, but the first three seasons will be coming to Netflix this fall.

So those are my picks for the best continuing shows on television in 2014.  Up next (hopefully sooner than this post), my Top Ten for 2014.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.