Sunday, June 1, 2014

Best Shows of the 2013-14 Season - Part One

So, I went a little overboard with this year's list, at least relative to last year's. While that one fit into a single post, this time I wound up picking not only ten shows and writing a few hundred words on each, but also selecting ten honorable mentions from among this fine crop of 2013-14 series and writing some stuff on each of those. (And I still left off some good shows.) The result is a list that I think is a lot better than last season's, and a lot more reflective of all the great stuff that aired on TV during the past year. But it's also considerably longer. Because of this, I've elected to divide it into two parts: the first covering the honorable mentions and shows #10-8, and the second (which will post Wednesday) counting down from #7 to #1.

As usual, this covers programs that aired during the last 12 months. Minor spoilers for most of the shows listed (and fairly major ones for Hannibal):


Obligatory Pre-List Caveat: As usual, I did not get the chance to see the most recent seasons of a great many premium cable favorites, including Masters of Sex, Homeland, and everything on HBO not named Treme. Other shows absent due to my not having seen them yet include: The Returned, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Childrens Hospital, Cougar Town, Person of Interest, and Arrow (though I'm working on this last one as we speak, and loving it).  

Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order)

Though it didn't make the top ten this year, Archer was actually better in 2014 than it was in 2013. While it was still very funny last season, a slight feeling of tiredness was starting to seep into the show. Running gags were starting to feel played-out, and once-hilarious character traits had started to lead to increasingly predictable humor. So as far as I'm concerned, creator Adam Reed picked the exact right moment to launch a season-long arc involving the ISIS crew becoming drug dealers. In truth, it didn't change things all that much; most of Archer's signature elements were still very much in place. But it brought with it a new sense of energy and renewed snap to the writing—the dialogue between Pam and Archer in "Southbound and Down" is just a work of art—that produced several of the show's best episodes ever. (Also, there were no farting dogs this year, so that's definitely a plus.)

Had I caught up with Bob's Burgers earlier, season three might very well have earned it the #1 spot last year. It was just that good. I'm still not 100% sure why season four wasn't quite as amazing, other than that it just didn't deliver as many awe-inspiring, reducing-me to-tears-of-laughter level episodes as the previous year did. Which is to say that it still contained a fair few that reached that level (with best of the season honors probably going to another wonderful Thanksgiving episode, "Turkey in a Can"). In short, this was still one of the most consistently funny things on TV this year, and (like Archer) its placement here has more to do with the quality of the competition—comedic and dramatic—than any major issues with the show itself. There's every possibility it will be back next year.

I know Enlisted is many people's pick for the best new network comedy of the year. I don't agree (my heart belonged to Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but that doesn't mean I'm not lamenting Fox's asinine and ultimately fatal scheduling of this gem of a series. Pete's struggles to cope with his post-traumatic stress were one of the most quietly powerful storylines on any show this year, and while there were one or two lesser installments among the nine that aired during the 2013-14 season, for the most part the series was successful at achieving whatever tone it aimed for: be it moving, charming, or screamingly funny. Great cast, equally superb writing . . . dammit, Fox, this could have been a hit. Maybe not a massive one, but it deserved better than a Friday night midseason slot. Instead, we'll be spending the month of June watching the network burn off the remaining four episodes, and wondering what might have been.

When all is said and done, I think the one and only year (at least as it concerns this particular story) of Fargo will stand as one heck of a season of TV, especially now that the show seems to have developed an emotional core to match its superb pacing, and beautifully grim visual vocabulary. That core is largely the same one that the Coen Brothers explored so well in the film—good people having to come to grips with living in a bleak, often brutal world—but the series arguably delves deeper in some regards, as it depicts the struggles of its police officers to untangle the web of destruction and violence being weaved by Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard. The very good but somewhat less soulful early episodes work even better in hindsight, now that it's become clear exactly what Fargo is doing on a thematic level: namely, depicting the struggle to eradicate evil as a matter of containing it. It's a day to day battle that will never be fully won, but rather than finding the struggle entirely futile, the series appears to see hope in the endeavor. If it's not quite as complex as The Americans or as subtle as Mad Men, this sense of quiet perseverance still makes for rich and involving television, and one of the best new dramas of the season.

The Fosters had a couple of extremely misguided storylines (mostly involving the character of Brandon) in its first season. And I do mean extremely misguided: storylines so bad—so tremendously, deeply bad—that they would almost certainly have ruined a lesser series. That they never did is a testament to the strength of the familial core at the show's center. Whatever else was going on in a given episode, the sibling, parent-child, and marital interactions (Stef and Lena are hands down my favorite television marriage since Tami and Eric on FNL) always felt so lived-in, loving, and endearing that they were able to carry the show through the occasional ill-advised narrative decision. Plus, the performances are all first-rate; Maia Mitchell and Teri Polo especially are just doing phenomenal work. Here's hoping the writing gets a tad more consistent in season two. If it does, this could easily turn into one of the very best shows on television. It's already almost there.

How exactly does the second season of Hannibal miss the top ten? Well, the answer is the same as it was for Bob's Burgers and Archer: there was just so much that was even better. Plus, this season did have some slight stumbles here and there: among them the massive leaps in logic that led to Beverly going into that basement alone, that bizarre and pointless (albeit virtuosically edited) sex scene in "Naka-Choko", and the unnecessary misdirection regarding Freddie's fake death. Yet I feel bad about leaving it off, because the high points—which far outnumbered the shakier moments—were as good as anything on TV this year. Outside of maybe Rectify, no show features dialogue as layered as this one, and Will and Hannibal's season-long chess match gave Bryan Fuller and company ample opportunity to weave multiple meanings into the characters' spoken words: meanings that the actors brought to emotional life even more brilliantly than they did in season one. And in terms of sheer, exhausting, emotionally draining terror, I'm not sure anything else this year (aside from Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias") can touch that finale. This was big, bold, stunning television, and if certain parts of it didn't quite work, on a macro level Hannibal's design proved once again extraordinary.

Key and Peele's third season was probably its weakest, relying way too much on repetitive recurring jokes and concepts from previous years. But there was still a ton of genius to be found here, Among the many standout sketches were an interview with basketball star Charlie Sanders about his attempts to "deal with adversity" (in the form of fellow teammate Adversity Johnson), an inspired take on method acting, and a hilarious parody of a certain modern horror franchise. Hopefully we'll get a lot more of that kind of great material in season four, while at the same time seeing far less of Wendell and (especially) those two strenuously unfunny, Liam Neeson-obsessed hotel valets. Or how about none of either of them? None would be good.

Maybe I'm reacting a little too harshly to one bad episode in dropping Louie all the way out of the top ten. The show has done some remarkable stuff this year; up until last week's second episode, I was ready to call the "Elevator" arc one of the best things I've seen on TV in 2014 so far. (And I still think part four is probably the finest episode in Louie history.) But unless the arc's final episode addresses the consent issues involved in those last couple of scenes between Amia and Louie (and I have serious doubts that it will), part five will stand as my least favorite episode of the series so far by a wide margin. And honestly, it wasn't like the show was really threatening for too high a spot even before then; "So Did the Fat Lady" was stellar, but the season's opening doubleheader (while still excellent) trod very well-worn territory that recalled earlier, better episodes. I still love this series, but every show that cracked the top ten did so because it was transcendent—not just excellent—pretty much every week. In contrast, I'd say season four of Louie is batting a little over .500 in that regard so far. That's still a terrific average, but it's not quite going to get it done. Not this year, at least.

The quality of Parks and Recreation was all over the place this year. It started with a superb premiere that I ranked as one of my favorite episodes of 2013, before proceeding to take a sharp nosedive for a few weeks. Then it got pretty great again for the rest of the fall. Spring was a similar story; one week I was noting that the series was finally starting to show its age (tired character beats, increasingly strained and predictable jokes, etc.), only for it to then deliver an episode that reminded me why this is one of my favorite comedies of all time. And of course there's "Ann and Chris", one of the best half hours Parks has ever produced, and an episode responsible for my favorite television shot of the year: that beautifully melancholy concluding crane shot depicting the remaining characters' feelings of sadness as simply one part of the much larger canvas that is life. This was the show's most uneven full season by far, but it was still capable of giving us moments like that. And with the events of the finale (as well as the knowledge that next season will be the last), the stage has hopefully been set for a concluding run as strong as that of 30 Rock.

Rick and Morty's deft combination of family sitcom and science-fiction weirdness proved tremendously impressive. If I don't love it quite as much as most of its other devotees seem to, that's because it struck me as just a tad less consistent than the comedies that ended up making the top ten. The biggest misfire was of course episode seven (with its wildly unsuccessful attempts to make fun of gender stereotypes, as well as a couple of seriously groan-worthy fart jokes), but the Pluto excursion and the Titanic reenactment both also fell largely flat. On the other hand . . . the Meeseeks. Super-intelligent dogs taking over the planet. Pizzas ordering people for dinner. Pretty much the entirety of "Rixty Minutes", which managed to be both one of the funniest episodes of 2014 so far and one of the most emotionally resonant. The often-goregeous animation, packed with so much visual creativity that it's hard not to be awed, even on those rare occasions when you're not laughing hysterically. So praise away as effusively as you'd like, Rick and Morty fans. My adoration might not be as strong as you, but I do adore this show. It is just plain awesome.

10. Treme 

There were definitely a few times when the limitations imposed upon the final season of Treme—five episodes, as opposed to the usual ten or eleven—were apparent. In some ways the timing was fortunate; though I missed Sofia, her new life at college meant that her only showing up for the premiere and finale felt like natural evolution of her story. On the other hand, Annie's arc felt vastly underdeveloped, as did a few others. But for the most part, they pulled it off: bringing this sprawling story to a satisfying and bittersweet conclusion while maintaining the infectiously leisurely pace that has made this show such a joy to watch over the past few years. Treme is a different kind of masterpiece than co-creator David Simon's previous series, The Wire—just as cynical about institutions, perhaps, but more hopeful due to its focus on the individuals struggling to rebuild their lives in an imperfect world—but it's every bit as much a masterpiece. Which is why I can't be too mad at HBO for reducing the final-season budget; no one else would have even green-lit this project, let alone kept it alive for four seasons. And the TV world would have been poorer for it. 

9. Orphan Black 

And here I was, half-thinking Orphan Black was going to completely fall apart this year. I suppose there's still time for that to happen, but it's looking less and less likely with each disturbing, thrilling hour season two has produced. The show hasn't lost its senses of excitement and humor (Helena's recent "Sugar Sugar" singalong is one of the most delightful things I've seen all year). But even more than in season one, the horrifying implications of the premise have been on display just about every week. Sarah and her fellow clones have some allies, but they're struggling to overcome larger and more entrenched forces that all want to lay claim to them (and their children): religious cults and corporations, which serve both as the relentless antagonists of this work of fiction and as metaphors for real-world patriarchal entitlement. The constant narrative momentum—and of course Tatiana Maslany's astonishing performance, which has been even better in season two than it was last year—ensures that this is one of the most fun shows on TV. But its rich feminist commentary also makes it one of the smartest and most unsettling. Together, they make it one of the very best.

8. Orange is the New Black

Season two of Orange is the New Black is just days away. But before we see how the show will follow up the first season's eventful finale, let's pause to consider one more time how great—and how devastating—that season really was. Orange can be incredibly funny when it wants to be, but it submitting for the Emmys as a comedy is absolutely ridiculous, given the powerful way the series addresses important and angering issues such as power abuses by prison guards (which are rightly framed as a systemic problem rather than simply the actions of isolated individuals), the U.S.'s incredibly screwed-up parole system, and the inhumanity of solitary confinement. But like Treme, this isn't really a show about the problems with large-scale institutions. Rather, it's about the people trapped (in this case, quite literally) within those institutions: well over a dozen major characters, each of whom was fleshed out magnificently through both present-day scenes in the prison and (in many cases) flashbacks. (Not every character has gotten one yet, but I strongly suspect that will have changed by the end of season two.) There were a few bits and pieces of the story that didn't work quite as well as others, but this was a terrific, important, and deeply moving season of television: one of the finest dramatic series debuts of the last few years.

Thoughts? Comments? Guesses for the top seven? 

3 comments:

  1. Curious about your reasons for hating that Louie episode you mentioned, can you please elaborate?

    Also, yes, Fargo, Rick and Morty and Louie will indeed be at the top of my personal list, but you'll hear no complaints from me about Hannibal's placement on your list. Remember in the penultimate episode when Bedelia is warning everyone about Hannibal but they (of course) ignore her and ask for help in trapping her and she replies that the best thing to do is to trap him in a false sense of security because "he can get lost in his own sense of cunning, self-congratulations and whimsy"? That's what I've felt about this season which, aside from 3 amazing episodes felt like such a huge, disappointing mess with more emphasis on the visuals as if they were trying to challenge the FCC instead of focusing on the human side of the cases like they did in season 1.

    Anyway, my own list won't be out until august, that way I can include the summer shows and see it as a ritual to be prepared for the fall TV season. It's also a good chance to finally start watching Orange is the New Black and other shows (it'd also be cool to see if the shows I love like Rick and morty will stand against these shows I plan to watch this summer.)

    As for guesses in the top 7,two of them are probably shows in which the acclaim annoys me, but if The Good Wife is your number 1 choice, then all will be forgiven :p.

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    1. Okay, it all has to do with the way Louie ignores Amia's attempts to say "bye" at the beginning of the scene. That is a pretty clear indication that she isn't interested in having sex with him at this particular point in time. But he keeps pushing, even when she repeats her wish to leave. I've seen plenty of people argue that this wasn't at all troubling, since it's clear that Louie would have let her leave had she kept insisting. But it's only clear to us, who know the fictional (and real) Louie better than she does. Consent is only consent if it's voluntary, and the fact that she only did so after he disregarded her initial wishes means that it wasn't.

      This is a situation that I think happens a lot in real life: a man subtly pressuring a woman to sleep with him, even after she's expressed reluctance. In most cases the guy doesn't think of it as coercive; he knows he's a "good guy". Good for him. She doesn't, and so it is absolutely an act of coercion. Now, it's possible that what we see the next morning (Amia leaving) is a depiction of the consequences of that coercion, which is why I'm leaving room for the possibility that the show might address it further. But I really doubt it will, because I don't think Louis C.K. realizes what his fictional character has done. Just like a lot of men don't, because they're so wrapped up in the idea that they're nice and non-threatening that they have no idea what it feels like to be a woman in that situation. That needs to change.

      I also really hated the Todd Barry stuff earlier in the episode, for the record.

      Regarding "Hannibal"... I'm definitely not as down on it as you were this year. But I do prefer season one. This one was really ambitious (which I appreciate), and it stuck the landing in a big way, which is why I probably wouldn't use the word "mess" to describe it. They clearly knew where they wanted to take the story. I just have some issues with the routes they took getting there.

      I will tell you right now that "The Good Wife" is not my #1. But I know you're a fan of the show that is (though perhaps not as big a fan as me). Meaning it's not "The Americans". Hmm... what else could it be? :)

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    2. Ohhhhhhh, I bet I know what it is! If it's what I think it is, I sadly haven't been watching it this year though :(. However, if I see, I don't know, something like Brooklyn 99 in the Top 3, I'll be so betrayed :)

      As for that episode, maybe it speaks volumes about it, but for the life of me, I can barely recall anything that happened in that episode. I enjoyed the Todd Berry stuff (It's actually kind of cute, my little sister was on the couch watching the episode with me, she had never seen an episode of the show before, but she actually looked up from her phone for the duration of that scene, so I can't hate it for that.)

      As for the Amia stuff, yes, that too escapes my mind, except for the last scene, which was of a disgusted looking Amia looking at Louie as she left the bed, without saying anything to him. Her face makes me think that there will be repercussions for this later on, but we'll find out in a few hours.

      Ad for Hannibal,I guess I had more issues with the routes than you did. The finale though, is still one of the finest I've ever seen and joins Sleepy Hollow and the Good Wife as my favorite season finale I've seen all year (oh look, Sleepy Hollow got inadvertently mentioned! you should totally check out that series :p)

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