2014’s Top TV

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 2

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

true-detective

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.

DOCTOR WHO – MUMMY ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/FLATLINE

mummy

The Doctor’s had an interesting year. First, he had to get used to a new face while figuring out why a dinosaur spontaneously combusted in the middle of Victorian London, then go inside a Dalek, then meet Robin Hood, then hunt a monster that may or may not actually exist, then break into the universe’s toughest bank, then fight a robot in a school, then go to the Moon, then solve a murder on the Orient Express (in space, obviously), then fight monsters that make people 2D, then investigate… trees? (not the best episode, that one), then confront an old foe and an army of familiar enemies. Then he met Santa in an Arctic base full of aliens.

Phew.

After Matt Smith’s fine-but-mostly-unremarkable final series in the role (excluding the anniversary special, which was fantastic), Peter Capaldi stepped in and gave the show a refreshing change. Save for a couple of duds (the Moon episode, the trees episode), this was the best series since Matt Smith’s first, which shows that a change in Doctor can do wonders for the show’s quality. It’s the most fun I’ve had watching Doctor Who in ages.

The convoluted, needlessly-complex over-arching storylines that Moffat has been a fan of  were gone and replaced with a far simpler mystery. The sort of complex timey-wimey plot that the Moff loves was instead used sparingly, to great effect, in the excellent ‘Listen’.

Capaldi’s Doctor is different to Smith’s Doctor in almost every way. He’s unapologetically distant, cranky and short-tempered (though still capable of whimsy, as ‘Robot of Sherwood’ proves), wandering through the typically outlandish plots and capers with the air of someone who’s getting far too old for this shit.

In ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, victims drop dead like flies and he carries on seemingly unaffected. The episode and the one that follows are highlights of the series, both written by newcomer to the show Jamie Mathieson.

Aided by an engineer who looks an awful lot like Frank Skinner, the Doctor tries to figure out why people are being killed by a mummy that only the victim can see, on a train speeding through space and captained by an over-friendly AI.

The plot rattles along at a good pace with a few smart twists and reveals. The Doctor gets to be extremely Doctor-y – wry, clever, weird and bold – and Clara gets some time away from the Doctor to explore her relationship with him and wonder why she’s travelling with this dangerous, cantankerous madman.

Meanwhile, ‘Flatline’ had practically everything you could want from a Doctor Who episode. It has a great new enemy that’s well-realised, brought to life with good CGI, and constantly evolving. It has fun ideas that are well-executed and well-explored, new characters that are likeable rather than intensely annoying, and a plot that keeps you guessing while never becoming too ridiculous (well, relatively speaking).

The concept of a shrinking TARDIS is the source of a lot of the episode’s laughs and drama, it leads to a lot of great visual humour and allows this miseryguts of a Doctor to have some fun for a change. And, nine episodes in to the season, we finally get this Doctor’s first big ‘I am the Doctor, so fuck off’ speech to the bad guys.

The rest of the season is mostly great, too, but I’m hoping for the writer of this brilliant double bill to come back soon. He gets what makes Doctor Who so fun to watch, more so than Moffat at times, and it would be a shame if these were his only contributions to the show.

UTOPIA – SERIES 2 EPISODE 1/SERIES 2 EPISODE 2

utopia

The quirky conspiracy drama returned this year for a second series that was just as good as the first. I’ve talked about Utopia before on this blog, praising its unique, striking look, its bizarre soundtrack and its splashes of bloody violence, so I won’t repeat myself much here.

The first episode of the second series makes the bold and unusual decision of flashing back to the 1970s for the entire episode to reveal more about the origins of the mysterious network.

For one episode only, the wide-screen is squashed into a letterbox 4:3 (like a TV show from the ’70s), the bright yellows and blues are replaced with murky reds and browns and the main cast are nowhere to be seen. It’s almost a completely different show, but still full of the dark and unsettling story that is typically Utopia. The letterbox look also makes every scene seem claustrophobic, which suits the characters’ paranoia and the conspiratorial plot.

It is then almost a shock to return, after a year’s absence, to the comic-book colour palette and screen-filling shots in the second episode, which is a reassuring reminder of what makes the show unlike any other on TV. It also makes it clear that the quality of the first series will be maintained, unlike other shows that have returned for a second series that turned out to be disappointingly lacklustre (*cough* The Fall *cough*).

The thrill of the unknown that made the first series so gripping is all-but-non-existent by the end of the second, now that the characters know exactly what they’re caught up in, but it was still fantastic.

Unlike the first series’ finale, which wrapped everything up nicely, the second ended with a series of exciting events and cliffhangers that teased a third series that could be even better than the second.

Then Channel 4 cancelled it, and refused the creator’s request for a one-off special to wrap everything up.

This seemed quite baffling to me. The viewing figures were down significantly from the first series, so cancellation wasn’t a total surprise, but surely the boost in publicity that the US remake would give it whenever it airs would make Utopia worth keeping around for at least a few more episodes.

Channel 4 also likes to boast about how it makes unique, ground-breaking drama and cult hits, but when it has a perfect example of a low-watched but critically-adored drama that is truly daring and different from anything else other channels have or would even be brave enough to air, it cancels it.

What a shame.

FARGO – THE CROCODILE’S DILEMMA/BURIDAN’S ASS

fargo tv

A televisual sort-of-sequel to a 20-year-old film seems like a rather pointless thing to do. If it’s rubbish, it just taints the memory of a classic, and even if it’s good, it would probably leave people wondering why it exists. It would have to be something really special to justify its existence.

Thankfully, Fargo, a sort-of-sequel to the 1980s-set Coen brothers film of the same name, is very good indeed.

Martin Freeman is wonderful as the put-upon husband with a dark side and a silly accent, and Billy Bob Thornton has a thoroughly menacing presence whenever he’s on screen, though even he has a few moments of playfulness.

It manages to be similar to the film it follows on from in look, tone and theme, without feeling like it’s retreading old ground or coasting by on the film’s merits without being any good by itself.

It feels like a worthy successor, though you don’t have to watch the film at all to follow what’s going on. There are references you may miss, but these are mostly minor, and more like little bonuses for those who have seen Fargo and the rest of the Coens’ films.

I should’ve known it was good when my parents began singing its praises. I love them, but our tastes in TV drama don’t normally overlap. They stick to the soaps, mostly. Mum watches Call the Midwife and Dad ‘watches’ grisly detective dramas like Law and Order or The Following, or something called Stalker.

When I walked past the living room when Fargo was on, they were both transfixed. Even Dad was watching it, and he doesn’t really watch TV. Well, not properly. He tends to look at his iPad and play Mahjong or check his emails while listening to whatever’s happening on-screen, occasionally looking up when something particularly noisy happens. This happens with everything. TV, films, 3D Blu-Rays, everything. It annoys me a bit – what’s the point in having a big-screen TV if you’re gonna stare at a little iPad instead?

But when I walked past when Fargo was on, he was – gasp – actually watching TV. The iPad was nowhere to be seen. Both of my parents were hooked. They gasped and shouted at the TV, they talked about it afterwards, Mum went on and on about how wonderful it was, they loved it.

I’m aware that this may sound a little bit condescending, but I don’t mean it to be. I was just surprised. And now I’m annoyed with myself, because when Mum suggested that I watch it with them, I said no, because I thought I should watch the film first. Past Me was a fool. By the time I’d got around to watching the film, the season was over.

Don’t miss out on this. It’s excellent, gripping from the first episode (‘The Crocodile’s Dilemma’), features an episode set during a blizzard which is one of the best things I’ve seen all year (‘Buridan’s Ass’), it’s completely unpredictable, it’s full of great performances, it has a great story, and it’s not a massive time commitment either.

Like True Detective or American Horror Story, it’s an anthology series. One story per season, completely self-contained, done and dusted in ten episodes.

Give it a go. Or, at the very least, watch the film.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

Game of Thrones – ‘The Lion and the Rose’/’The Mountain and the Viper’ (AKA The ones with Joffrey’s wedding and Oberyn’s headache), Black Mirror – ‘White Christmas’, Community – ‘Cooperative Polygraphy’, Sherlock – ‘The Sign of Three’.

Incidentally, if you’ve actually read all of this, you have my sincerest thanks. I do go on a bit, I know, but I hope you liked what you read, agree or disagree with my choices (let me know in the comments if you want to) or have been persuaded to give some of these shows a try.

-Dan

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