Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Best Shows of the 2014-15 Season - Part One

We've got an awful lot of turnover between this year and last. Some of that is due to shows ending (goodbye, Breaking Bad and Treme), but overall it's kind of a disappointment considering how strong 2013-14's freshman class was. Review hasn't aired its second season yet, so it gets excused, but Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Orange is the New Black all made the cut last year as well. And while each had plenty of good stuff to offer this year as well, their sophomore campaigns were all flawed enough (for various reasons) to mean they won't be making a return appearance this year. Likewise, The Good Wife's season six disintegration—maybe the single biggest disappointment of the year for me—ensures that it too is nowhere to be found. Indeed, only two shows from the previous season's top ten earned spots this year.

But of course, there's also the inverse of this phenomenon, in the form of the veteran show returning to glory and/or the promising first-year series making a massive leap in its second season. And 2014-15 had these as well, including a certain FX drama recovering from a dismal season last year, a previously frustrating animated series going out in similarly excellent fashion (as well as delivering the year's best series finale), and a certain CW science-fiction show rising above the network's more heavily hyped programs to become one of the best things to be found anywhere on TV. Oh, and there were a couple of amazing new shows too (as there always are).

As usual, I've divided the list into two parts, the second of which will post next week. In the meantime, comment away with questions, complaints, or whatever else may be on your mind as we head into the 2015-16 season.

Here are a few honorable mentions that didn't quite make the cut (in rough descending order of preference): You're the Worst, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Orange is the New Black, Community, Bob's Burgers, Better Call Saul, Archer, Happy Valley, and The Honorable Woman.

And a partial list of shows that might well merit consideration, but that I'm not anywhere near current on right now: Portlandia, Person of Interest, Black-ish, BoJack Horseman, Inside Amy Schumer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, The Middle, and most premium cable shows.

Note: Spoilers Ahead 

10. Justified   

There are some shows that go out with a fantastic finale that rivals all that came before. Indeed, three of these shows will be featured later on this list. Justified, alas, is not one of them. I would put "The Promise" on the same general level as Breaking Bad's "Felina", with both functioning as good but not great endings that don't take the kinds of narrative risks that other, better episodes of their respective shows do. The good news is that, even with that slight letdown of an ending, Justified still put together a strong enough final campaign to merit inclusion here. The show's general approach (basically the one it's used ever since season three) of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks has met with mixed success over the years, but in this case it mostly worked, with the season's numerous antagonists complementing rather than detracting from the momentum of the central arc. That arc, meanwhile, brilliantly brought Joelle Carter's Ava back to the forefront of the show in a way she hadn't been in a long time, upending expectations that season six was going to just be the Raylan vs. Boyd show, and providing one of the single biggest holy crap moments (outside of The Americans) of the year. Moments like that helped secure the show a spot here, even if the season didn't quite stick its landing as effectively (or resonate as powerfully on an emotional level) as, say, seasons two and four. In the end, Justified will not go down as one of the very best dramas of its era; it was far too messy and unwieldy for that, and too occasionally given to spinning its wheels. But when it was firing on all cylinders (as it frequently did this year), it was quite something. Most shows would be content with that level of achievement, and with a final season this solid. As they should be.

9. Jane the Virgin 

After a nearly unimpeachable fall run, Jane the Virgin sometimes struggled to hold on to its initial magic as it got deeper into its 22 episode season. The spring episodes certainly weren't less than good, but the pacing became a little more uneven, sometimes struggling to balance the show's trademark twist plotting with the more grounded story arc involving Jane's day-to-day life. At the same time, I don't wish to sound too negative about some of Jane's mild faults, because it remains a series that has given us so much: among other things, consistently clever voiceover narration, the warm and endearing familial relationships between the three Villanueva women, and of course Petra (though I do have some significant reservations about where her arc went over the last few episodes). It's been a long time since we've seen a network drama be this confident out of the gate, using every stylistic tool at its disposal—onscreen text, ingenious editing, striking color schemes, and so forth—to enhance and complement its already-strong story. I still have my concerns about the show's sustainability going forward, particularly as a number of the on-again, off-again romantic plotlines—especially the Jane/Rafael and Rogelio/Xo pairings—have already begun to wear on me. (And this is me we're talking about; I'm a total sucker for a good TV romance.) But for now, Jane the Virgin remains a consistent joy, and a series that I'm immensely happy exists.

8. The Legend of Korra  

The first two seasons of Legend of Korra weren't terrible television, but (in addition to the initial book's truly awful politics) they each followed a frustrating pattern of taking until halfway through to find its groove, finally building some momentum, and then throwing it away with a last minute deus ex machina. Not so with the final two books, which make up perhaps the strongest 20+ episode run of the entire Avatar franchise. Rather than resolving every conflict, book three's finale led to a fourth season that spent much of its time dealing with Korra's long, painful, and difficult recovery from the trauma of being poisoned by Zaheer. The show had multiple opportunities to take the easy way out (both with this storyline and others), but instead book four enriched everything that came before, demonstrating a commitment to ongoing character and world development that the earlier seasons just didn't have. There are a few moments that I wish they'd handled differently (among them the simplistic and condescending characterization of the Earth Kingdom citizens' actions after the Queen's demise), but overall these last two seasons proved far more willing to interrogate the structural and social realities of their world than the first two, allowing them to avoid a repeat of book one's woefully misjudged Amon arc. Add in the best two antagonists to be introduced in this world since Avatar's Azula, and you have a show that made a massive leap forward in all aspects this year. Heck, it even achieved something I thought was impossible for this series: a compelling romance, in the form of the slowly developing bond between Korra and Asami. It's just a shame it took so long for Korra to get this good. One can only hope that folks discovering it later don't bail midway through season two's Unalaq debacle, because they'd be missing out on some of the greatest animated television ever created.

7. Steven Universe  

Speaking of amazing animated television, Steven Universe (which I've only recently caught up on) basically won me over from the very first episode. And it's only gotten better with time; the episodes that aired during the 2014-15 season were almost universally fabulous, expanding the show's mythology beautifully while also providing oodles of emotion and laughter. There are one or two lesser episodes among this group, of course, but on the whole the show is just spectacular in the way it consistently manages to construct eleven minute slices of television bliss each week, while at the same time never ignoring the multifaceted character and plot arcs that play out alongside Steven's various weekly adventures. Those arcs could get incredibly, wonderfully dark; indeed, some of the best episodes this year ("Rose's Scabbard", "On the Run") were those that dealt with deeply heavy material, including feelings of grief and isolation. The fact that Steven Universe can deliver those kinds of deeply heartbreaking storylines, then effortlessly pull off a musical fight scene in its first season finale . . . well, that's just all the more incredible. Beautifully animated, devoted to careful world-building, and populated with lovable characters (Pearl is the best character on TV right now, and I will fight you if you say otherwise), it's just an utter delight to watch.

Also, did I mention it had a freaking musical fight scene? Be still my heart, for you have found your newest television love.

6. Rev. 

Tom Hollander has gone on record as saying Rev's third season will at least be the last for a while. That's for the best, I think. Though I'll miss it dearly, the six episodes presented here are about as perfect an ending to the story of Rev. Adam Smallbone—or at least this particular chapter of it—as could be imagined, cementing the show's status as one of the absolute best (and most unique) of recent years. If you're looking for a comparison, the closest might be HBO's Enlightened, with both shows sharing a tendency to construct certain episodes as quiet tone poems or meditations on a theme (while at the same time never abandoning more traditional narrative storytelling). Each series likewise displays a fundamental optimism in the ability of people to be better than they are, and season three saw Rev. explore that idea as powerfully as it ever has. It's a season that tests our affection for many of the characters, depicting both the ugly and beautiful sides of human nature and challenging us to embrace the latter, even when it may be difficult. In addition to the astonishing fourth episode (the greatness of which I've already discussed), the season's final two installments parallel Adam's story with that of Jesus, and find him struggling to follow the example Jesus set. Some of the imagery is a bit on-the-nose in terms of symbolism, but Adam's moment of subdued spiritual uplift as he chooses to forgive and embrace his congregation one last time (after himself experiencing forgiveness earlier in the season) is one of the most moving things I saw all year. If you believe in a higher power, you can read the ending as him letting the divine back into his life. But one need not be religious (I'm not) to find meaning in the character's final moments; they function equally well as a beautiful statement of secular humanism. Either way, they're extraordinary TV, and a fine way to conclude this unique, endlessly thoughtful masterpiece of a show.

Thoughts? Guesses for the top five? 


  1. *Unsheathes Rose's sword from Lion's head*
    I'mma let you finish, but GARNET is the greatest television character of all time.

    1. Pearl >>>>> Garnet > Greg > Amethyst > Steven >>>> The rest of TV, basically.

    2. Way to put yourself on the list, Greg.