The State of the Art: Television 2014

Last year, whittling down the television shows I watched to the top five was pretty simple. It was a good year for TV, but only a handful of shows really blew me away, and it was easy to decide what should get top marks. This year, I'm sitting here agonizing, because I want to put about ten shows into my top five. I've had to make some very painful cuts, but ultimately decided that by pure virtue of their novelty, newer shows are standing out more than shows that have been on the air for a while. All this to say that while I still adore Bob's Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation, they're taking a bit of a backseat this year so I can sing the praises of shows that managed to capture my heart in their first season, which is a difficult feat to accomplish.

My top five also ignores a lot of critically-acclaimed shows that I'd probably like as much as everyone else, but just haven't had a chance to get to yet. I promise I'll try to watch The Good Wife and The Americans at some point, but unlike all the critics fawning over them, nobody's paying me to sit around watching TV, so I'm working with more limited options here. Older seasons that I'm finally getting to (and loving) aren't eligible, which is a shame, but I have to play fair. Enough caveats, though! Let's get to the list!

#1: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - Season 1

Though I just described the difficulty of whittling my list down to a top five, there was never any doubt as to what would take the top spot this year. It's tough enough to make a show entertaining. Making it entertaining, educational, visually arresting, and socially-conscious-without-being-didactic is nigh on impossible. Cosmos could only scratch the surface at explaining the weird and wonderful aspects of our universe and the scientists (both famous and forgotten) responsible for exploring it, but what a scratch. In everything it attempted, it struck a perfect balance. It corrected popular misconceptions without being polemic. It explained advanced scientific concepts in a way that a general viewer could understand without being condescending. It highlighted just how small and insignificant the human race is to the universe while stressing the importance and responsibilities the human race has in the past, present, and future of our own small corner. It was fun and important and gorgeous, and I'm hoping against hope that they produce more episodes. Even if they don't, Cosmos will always stand as the highlight of 2014 television.

#2: Orange is the New Black - Season 2

Even after all that blabber about featuring new shows on my top five this year, I had to make room for this. Far from going through a sophomore slump, Orange is the New Black managed to put out a terrific first season, then proceeded to get even better. I still don't know how a show with so many characters managed to not only make time for everyone, but did so without feeling rushed or bloated. All the characters, no matter how kind or how evil they're initially presented as, are written as real, multifaceted humans with understandable motivations. Every single storyline that took place within the prison's walls was riveting, with special mention going to Morello's backstory, which literally made my jaw drop. A show this immense would usually have a few miscast characters, a few unnecessary plotlines, and a few insufferable scenes. But no. Aside from a little dead weight in the form of characters outside Litchfield, Season 2 was funny, sad, thrilling, and scary. This show is a machine with a thousand moving parts, and in 2014, that machine was firing on all cylinders.

#3: Black-ish - Season 1

There seems to be a theme in this year's list: It's Difficult To Pull Off [Fill-In-The-Blank], But This Show Did So Admirably. It's difficult to present science lectures as entertainment. It's difficult to write for more than twenty believably human characters. Know what else is difficult? It's difficult to handle storylines with racial implications. It's difficult to write kid characters that aren't annoying (or played by annoying actors). It's difficult to balance family and work scenes. And Black-ish came out of nowhere to knock all three of those out of the park. I started watching it out of curiosity, hoping that it'd give me a decent chuckle or two, and instead, it's effortlessly ensconced itself as my favorite sitcom of the year. It can take old saws such as in-law friction and school crushes and make them funny again, but what really shines about this show is its ability to contrast the experiences of its characters with more mainstream (read: white) ones without being self-important about it. Storylines that could be potential landmines, such as tokenism in the office, the morality of spanking, or the justifications of minorities that play Oppression Olympics with other minorities are handled not only gracefully, but hilariously. All four of the kids in this show are good actors who can sell shallowness or smug precociousness without being obnoxious, but the real standout is Tracee Ellis Ross. Sitcom wives are often put-upon killjoys or shrill shrews who are constantly attempting to wrangle a wacky husband and his schemes. In Black-ish, Ross gets to be as wacky and scheming as her husband, and she absolutely shines.

#4: Silicon Valley - Season 1

People spend a lot of time trying to craft funny jokes, but it takes a lot of skill to incorporate dudebro humor into that while still maintaining a show's intelligence. Veer too far into esoteric humor, and you get Dennis Miller's disastrous stint on Monday Night Football. Veer too far into the lowbrow stuff, and you've got Adam Sandler. Silicon Valley managed to be a whip smart show about starting a business in a cutthroat environment, developing emerging technology, and...dick jokes. Nerds are often presented as a monolithic type of archetype, but all of the characters in this show are their own kind of nerd, with unique ways of being socially awkward. The bickering and the collaboration of the characters are all entirely natural, and between the satirization of tech billionaires and scenes of awkwardly trying to alter a sexually explicit company logo, this just might be the smartest comedy that aired in 2014.

#5: Looking - Season 1

Gay characters are starting to improve. Once upon a time, they were non-existent. Then they were allowed onto the screen, but only as sassy accessories for straight women. Then they were allowed to be their own characters, as long as they never did anything as icky as actually displaying affection for each other or - god-forbid - wanted to have sex. Even when gay characters actually had agency, you weren't guaranteed to get a quality show out of it, as the hacky, melodramatic, soft-porny American version Queer As Folk proved. So in a sense, Looking is a revolutionary show; it features gay characters that are actually believably human. As in Orange is the New Black, none of the characters are entirely good or entirely evil. They often have good intentions that are waylaid by fear or temptation. They deal with problems and quirks that affect people in the modern gay dating world. And they have sex! And not with bow-chicka music to a dance club backbeat, but the way real people have it - rolling around in bed in a messy apartment on a Sunday morning. And as I mentioned in the review, though the show is at the bottom of the top five list, "Looking For The Future" (in which two characters simply hang out for a day, and grow closer by talking about their backgrounds and hangups) is probably my favorite individual episode of anything this year.


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