There was a lot of good TV on in 2014. There are more quality dramas and comedies on at the moment than ever before. But I am just one man. I do not have the time or the patience to watch everything.
Just like in 2013, there are still plenty of acclaimed shows that I haven’t seen or am still catching up on (for example, I finished watching True Detective just a few hours ago so that I could fit it on this list).
Nevertheless, here, in no particular order, are the best episodes of TV in 2014.
That I’ve seen.
Which is quite a narrow selection, really, but there we are.
HANNIBAL – KAISEKI/MIZUMONO
Hannibal’s second season is incredible.
It’s difficult to pick out favourite episodes, partly because they’re all so good, and partly because of the fact that the episodes being named after courses in a Japanese meal makes it difficult to remember what happened in which one. They all start to blend together into a nightmarish haze, punctuated by grotesque crime scenes, tense conversations, shocking moments that I dare not spoil, and the occasional bit of dark, dark humour.
Hmm, “Takiawase” – is that the one with the corpse in a horse? No, wait, that’s “Su-zakana”. Or is that the one with a corpse in a tree? Or the one with Will on trial? Or the one where a man cuts off bits of his own face? Oh, forget it, I’ll just put the first and last episode of the season on this list, because they, and all the episodes in between, are excellent.
I praised the first season in a lengthy gush of words that could be summed up as ‘OHMYGOD THIS IS SO GOOD WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING IT?’, but I didn’t expect that it could get so much better.
The show seemed to be more confident this season, and it showed in every area. The storytelling was perfectly paced and confidently done, the case-of-the-week stories never felt like filler, were often used to highlight themes that the main story arc was exploring, and featured some of the weirdest murder victims on the show yet, which is really saying something (see above – corpse in a horse. Corpse. In. A. Horse.).
It seemed like the writers were gleefully pushing the envelope as far as it could possibly go, and in doing so pointing out the hypocrisy of the NBC censors, who stop them from showing any naked bums but do allow some of the grossest images that have ever aired on American network television.
The beautifully stylish, surreal look of the show was turned up to 11 and the musical score was more adventurous and strange than ever before.
There were plenty of moments where the bombastic sound design and the horrific visuals worked together horribly well and actually made me turn away from the screen and mute the sound, which is a rare feat, and these weren’t always because of the disturbing deaths. The show could cause a similar reaction without a single drop of blood being spilt, such as when a repressed memory came to light or during an unconvential therapy session.
Oh, and the finale. The finale deserves special mention.
Last year I wrote, in a breathless and hyperactive stream-of-consciousness way that seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight looks a bit amateurish, about the massively-distressing but ultimately inevitable climax that Breaking Bad reached in two episodes of its final season, which provoked a visceral reaction from me that I’d never had to any episode of TV before.
Now, less than a year later, I had a similar reaction again to a similarly devastating and similarly inevitable climax where everything goes horribly for our heroes. It’s impressive for a show to provoke that reaction at all, but to do it in less than half the time than Breaking Bad did is really something.
It’s bloody good, is basically what I’m saying here. It’s bloody. And good.
Unless you’re squeamish. Then maybe give it a miss.
TRUE DETECTIVE – WHO GOES THERE
Every media publication in the universe has gone on at length about this bloomin’ show and how incredibly good it is and how it’s some of the best television in years and how brilliant the performances are and how you have to drop whatever you’re holding – food, paperwork, babies – and watch it immediately.
From all the hype, I was braced for a letdown. But the critics were right. True Detective is indeed brilliant.
It’s a bit of a slow burn at first but it’s never boring and always thoroughly engaging. This is mainly due to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who both give tremendous performances as Rust and Marty.
Rust is, to put it mildly, a bit of a pessimist, rambling on about the futility of life and the darkness inherent in all humans, much to the annoyance of his colleague. McConaughey gets plenty of great material to dig his teeth into, and he’s amazing. It’s easy to get transfixed and hang on his every word. His performance threatens to steal not just the scene, but the entire show.
As a character, Marty seems fairly ordinary by comparison. He’s an all-American family man who loves his kids and is devoted to his job. But Harrelson gets plenty of chances to shine, too, as the case which he and Rust investigate progresses and the cracks in his perfect life begin to show.
There’s murder afoot in mid-90’s Louisiana, with possible links to the occult, but it’s not our main concern. The investigation is more of an excuse to spend time with these two characters, to learn more about them and see how they change.
We see them in the present, recounting the details of the case to their colleagues, while flashbacks show how it all played out. Past Rust is stern and sober, while Present Rust is a haggard alcoholic who looks like he’s on death’s door. Past Marty is happily married, while Present Marty isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Finding out what happened to them is the show’s real hook.
True Detective has the feel of an eight-hour movie rather than a TV show, partly because of the two award-winning movie stars that headline it, partly because the whole thing’s directed and written by the same two people, and partly because of how it looks.
Nothing looks like a set, every location seems real and lived-in. From the wide, sweeping shots of Louisianan marshland to the close-up, moodily-lit interiors full of dust, smoke and haze, the show is dripping with atmosphere. Almost everywhere is decayed and old, faded, rusted and dim. The place is as much of a character as the actual characters.
‘Who Goes There’ is where the show’s slow-burn storytelling explodes, ending in an intense, unbroken six-minute shot following Past Rust as he tries to salvage an undercover operation gone wrong and escape alive. Compared to the leisurely pace of the previous episodes, it’s a jolt of adrenaline that makes you fear for Rust’s safety despite knowing that he’s still alive in the present.
It’s a sequence I watched over and over, each time marvelling at how on earth it was done. The amount of effort and co-ordination and perfect timing that must have been needed to get it right is just mind-boggling. The fact that the next episode is just as good without resorting to anything as flashy is also impressive.
Oh look, I’m rambling again. Safe to say, it’s worth a watch.
And now for something completely different.