by Benn Ray
Benn Ray is editor of the Mobtown Shank, and he co-hosts a weekly podcast about the NBC TV show Constantine called "No Smoking." He also has another TV-show-releated podcast in development.
Having insomnia throughout much of 2014 really provided me with a lot of late night/early morning TV watching time. And good thing too, as there was a lot of TV to keep up with this year, a lot of really good TV, in fact.
Every once in awhile, I still see a car with a "Kill Your Television" bumpersticker on it. And while I may have agreed with that sentiment in the late 1980s-early 1990s, it is an idea every bit as dated as those represented by "Ron Paul 2012" bumperstickers.
When I see those "Kill Your Television" bumperstickers, I feel pity for the person who owns the vehicle.
"You poor, ignorant fool," I think, "You still think of TV in an outdated way."
It would be like having an "Rock & Roll Corrupts" or "Comics Cause Juvenile Deliquincy" or "Movies Waste People's Time" bumperstickers. Idiotic, right?
But they're still out there. Keep an eye out for them - the drivers of such vehicles are not to be trusted - who knows what other antiquated and dangerous beliefs they may hold.
If only they had tried to watch any of the TV shows I list below, things may be different for them.
BEST DRAMAS OF 2014
1. Fargo (FX)
This show is every bit as much a masterpiece as the movie that spawned it. Being a fan of the Coens' film, I was totally confused as to what this show was. Was it a sequel? A prequel? A retelling in new way with reconstructions of iconic characters from the original? But then, a handful of episodes in, the snow storm shootout - which is essentially all about obscured vision, how it all fits togeter snaps into brilliantly sharp focus. There was noting better on TV this year than Fargo.
2. The Americans (FX)
The show's complextity and brutality continues to grow and develop. Spies are being played, coutner-espionage is at work. Identities are constantly on verge of being exposed. And the real repurcussions of spying on a foreign government while trying to raise a family at the same time all converge - as does the slow, creeping suspicion that perhaps neither side is all that great.
3. JUSTIFIED (FX)
I worried if this series might wobble a bit after the loss of genre genius and co-creator Elmore Leonard, but it didn't. The tales of desperation from Appalachia, with drug lords, would-be drug lords, wannabes thugs, lackeys, and dumbassess is still just as good as ever - presided over by a questionably moral (and possibly criminal) Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant). Razor sharp dialogue, fascinating characters populaed by well-known character actors giving typically the best performances of their career, and lots of plot unpredictabilty. Also, the foil of Boyd to Raylan is complex and fun (every great hero needs a great nemesis). The final season is coming up (if only Ian McShane showed up as a baddie!).
4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
I knew it couldn't end well for Nuckie, but I didn't realize how badly it was going to end for everyone else. In the series finale season, Nuckie finds himself positioning to go legit as the end of Prohibition is drawing near - but his past sure as hell ain't helping him in that regard. This final season is bleak, brutal and in the end, very appropriately unfulfilling as the characters you want to win simply won't. Simply can't. Guess my dream of a Downton Abbey/Boardwalk Empire ends here.
5. The Walking Dead (AMC)
I know there are some who disagree with me when I say that each season of Walking Dead just keeps getting better, but those poeple are wrong. It does. The best season yet - with a mix of horror, betrayal, paybacks, sacrifice and more. We lost some likeable characters, gained a few new ones, and had a major mullet revelation (that comics readers knew was coming). Can't wait to return to this world for an hour a week. The future is as bleak and promising as it ever was.
6. Game Of Thrones (HBO)
This season offered a number of unexpected but much-appreciated twists, reminding viewers that no player is safe in this Game of Thrones. Still as large, dynamic, and unexpected as ever.
7. Mad Men (AMC)
A number of shows I like this year seem to thematically involve people trying to adapt to the changing times or situations of their lives. As the era of Mad Man marches on into a counter-culture future, the conflicts and struggles and threats become more apparent. The computher that can replace staff, for exampple Plus, rooting for Don to get his, er, Don back in action feesl good.
8. Dowton Abbey (BBC)
Another show that deals with institutions facing changing times and how to cope. The era for this sort of social sytem, as a result of the war, is pretty much over, and the Abbey must find a way to continue to exist. Meanwhile, personal stories of the staff get particularly complex when an upstairs guest's downstairs servant rapes a Dowton employee. Things must be hushed, people musn't know - and not just because of the social awkwardness it would create. The Abbeys seems to be teetering on a precipice.
9. House of Cards (Netflix)
The political machinations continue to be ever-fascinating as does the Underwood family and their thirst for power. Collateral damage happens along the way (Freddy's BBQ, for example), characters come apart, careers are crushed, but you can't help but root for the Underwoods (even though we know that an America with them at the helm would be the most dangerous thing in the world).
10. Hannibal (NBC)
This is a simply delightful reworking of the Thomas Harris characters. The horror is gorgeous. The plots complex. The look and the feel of the show is consistently unsettling. And you find yourself rooting for a serial killer. Every minute of screen time is gorgeous - it's impossible to look away, even when you really want to.
True Detective (HBO)
This show was a little too all over the place for me to rank it as a best show of the year. The ending of the season was a let down. The allegations of plagairism concerning some of the best dialogue also makes my feelings about this show rather complex. Still, all and all, it was a fun ride, and McConaughey and Harrelson together were a treat - and the filming of each episode was just so goddamn beautiful.
I think we're currently in a sitcom down time. There are a handful of really good ones, and then everything else is utter rubbish (at best). These are the handful of sitcoms that are good. If you like a sitcom and it's not on here, that's because it's crap (with the exception of Parks & Recreation). If you watch and laugh at shows like Big Bang Theory - you're part of the problem.
1. Veep (HBO)
As Selena climbs ever closer to the presidency, for every two steps forward, she seems to take 3 steps back. Her humiliation, the scurrying of a staff in over their heads, and the comic wranglings of the Inside The Beltway political machinations make this show a joy. I also fantasize about a Veep/House of Cards crossover. I'm not sure who would win that battle.
2. Silicon Valley (HBO)
When I thought this was just another comedy about Silicon Valley nerds, I groaned. Then I saw that Mike Judge was one of the creators, and my expectations were set higher - I expected funny, original, and social commentary - and Judge's show hits all those notes. A geeky group of techies are trying to be successful in the feeding frenzy IT world.
3. Louie (FX)
The season before this one was a little iffy. And I wasn't much of a fan of Louie's Atheist Punching nonsense this past year, but his "So Did The Fat Lady" episode should become a staple in cultural and womens studies classes thorught the country. The longer narrative stories like "The Elevator" were approaching art film quality again. And his relationship with Pam is suffiiciently weird. His kids are getting older, which looks like it's going to cause even more problems for Louie. When this show is good - it's art. When this show is not good - it's disappointingly stupid. Fortunately, it's mostly good.
4. Broad City (Comedy Central)
It's sort of like Girls - only with much less entitled characters - struggling to scrape by in New York. This show is at its best when it starts to get weird - like the wedding episode or the storm episode. The focus is two young, female, New Yorkers who are slightly gross, who are slightly self-involved, and who are trying to figure out their place and life, with a handful of equally interesting and funny friends, acquaintences and hookups. The characters feel real and knowable. Oh yeah, and one of the two leads went to MICA.
5. Girls (HBO)
The blowback and hate that Lena Dunham contines to generate only makes me like her more. She is becoming a voice for her generation, and she is sartizing and mocking a certain priveldged class and an entitled group. She points out their sheer absurdity - but then, youth is absurd. I am desperately hoping for a Girls/Broad City crossover.
6. The Mindy Project (FOX)
This show is weird in a great way. Yes, it seems like your typical, formulaic sitcom, but it's loaded with quirky characters with quirky attitudes. However, it's the ridiculous pacing of the humor that makes it so good. Sometimes when the jokes fly, they come at you like they're being fired by a machine gun - the pacing and rhythm is unique and fun - as if they aren't afraid of an audice missing a joke because hell, everyone has a DVR and can rewind that shit anyway.
7. Married (FX)
The first show to deal with people in my age group to realistically handle relationships. The show is funny, but it's not that mean-spirited funny where you begin to wonder why they characters are even in a relationship with each other - it's more a cooperative funny, where you feel like those who love each other, despite their problems, really do love each other. Revolutionary.
8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
So there is really nothing revolutionary about this. It is pretty much a solid, formulaic, cop sitcom. It just happends to be really, really funny. There are a lot of comically talented cast members, but the real stand out is straight man Andre Braugher. I like to pretend he's Pembleton from Homicide, and that this is just where he works now.
COMIC BOOK/MISC. SUPERNATURAL TV SHOWS
There are a number of superhero/comic book TV shows now (and not bogus ones based on some made-for-tv superhero character, but ones based on real DC and Marvel superheroes). And, admittedly, I watch all of them. And while I enjoy Arrow and The Flash, I would not say these are GOOD shows. They are entertaining, and I get a kick out of them (and getting my nerd up over appearances of characters or story arc suggestions from the comics series), I can't really recommend them. And I enjoy Constantine so much, I do a weekly postcast about the show (but the show needs more time to find it's footing to become good - and it looks like NBC isn't going to give them that time). And while I may have a couple "supernatual" shows in my general Drama list above, I have a few more here that I also enjoy and would have made my top 15 if I had done it as a top 15. So these shows are in my top 15, overall, but they get their own genre call-out.
1. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
Being a Joss Whedon fan, and enjoying Marvel's movies of their ever-expanding universe, I gave SHIELD a try for about 3 - 4 episodes. It did nothing for me so I gave up. Later, friends insisted that I watch it because "it gets really good - specifically around episode 11 when Hydra emerges as a result of the events in Captain America's Winter Soldier." Begrudgingly, I gave it another shot and I'm happy I did. Bill Paxton shows up and gets increasingly more awesome per episode. Plus, this is the best performance of Kyle MacLachlan's career. The cast grows huge, the special effects are decent - and it totally feels like a Joss Whedon show - which discourages you almost from getting too invested in the characters becuase you know betrayal, maiming, torture and/or death await them all.
2. Supernatural (CW)
I love Supernatural. And after 10 seaons, it's a testament to cast and crew that it is still one of my most anticipated weekly shows. This season seems to be meandering or taking its time a bit more than previous seasons, probably because they know they have a season 11 to work on regardless. This show is very much like a DC Vertigo comic - and really, it's what NBC was hoping and hasn't managed to capture with Constantine.
3. Gotham (FOX)
I call this show "Batman babies." Sure, it's not quite canon. Sure, there isn't much in the way of capes, but Gotham is itself enough of a fascinating city. At it's heart, it is essentially a police corruption/gangsters TV show, only with the child-versions of soon-to-be major players running around. The writing is getting better, and the fact that the show brought on Ben Edlund (The Tick, Angel, Supernatural) is a positive sign of greater things to come.
4. Vampire Diaires (CW)
It surprises me that this show has lasted 6 seasons, and it surprises me even more that I like each season more than the last. Small town in Virginia hosts vampires, werewolves, witches and more. The plot twists are not only almost always unpredictable, but always fresh and fun.
Once upon a time, there would be a Rachel Maddow or a Daily Show in this list. Not this year. Maddow gets a little too repeititious, and I find her cheerleading from the bench to be, at times, disappointing. Do I still watch her every night? Yep. But as she frequently cycles through the same covered-to-hell stories again and again, I fast forward or turn it off. And little segments like the Friday Night News Dump gameshow feel like something an executuve is forcing on the show to try and boost ratings. It's annoying and out of place.
With the 2016 election looming, Jon Stewart is playing punch the hippie more and more to try and establish some sort of balanced, centrist bonafides no one will ever give him credit for.
So that leaves me with just 2 political shows worth watching (one officially ended in 2014, and one airs very infrequently):
1. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
Yes, I will miss the Colbert Report (infact, I already do). Stephen's complex brand of satire helped keep me sane for a number of Bush-Era years. His fearlesness as this character he played for almost 10 years is remarkable. There is not a smarter political satire on television. And there won't be again. On a plus note, really on about 10% of his Colbert Report material was dependent upon him being the "Stephen Colbert" character. He could bring his writing staff to network TV and still deliver the same kind of humor when he replaces Letterman on The Late Show. Fingers crossed.
2. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
I'm not quite as ramped up on this show as other people I know. It essentially feels like a Daily Show, but airing only once a week, with a bigger budget and cussing. Oliver is charming, but his humor and entertainmnet lies more in provoking humorous outrage than traditional jokes. But he also borrows a page from the Colbert Report's Colbert Nation and frequently asks viewers to take place in pollitclally motivated actions.
For a little while, with the loss of direction of Adult Swim, the world of cartoons was falling off. I'm happy to report things might be slowly starting to turn around. Here are a handfful of my favorite cartoons this year.
1. Bob's Burgers (FOX)
Even after so many seasons, Bob's Burgers still feels fun, refreshing, and funny. The family dynamic is atypical for TV which is also nice. The characters are as lovable as their hijinks.
2. Archer (FX)
So Archer might have started of a little rough with it's "Miami Vice" season, but it found it's way quickly and was just as laugh-out-loud enjoyable as any other season. Outlaw coutry, Christian Slater as a CIA drug ops guy, a military coup, and Pam literally eating up all their cocaine, which was the only thing they had left of any worth. Archer is still Archer. Which is right on.
3. Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)
I gotta say, I'd expected to have exhaused all the wonder I could get out of Adventure Time by this point, but nope. I save the episodes up and then watch like 10 in a row - and it's still surreal, psychedelic, trippy and heartbreaking. And also funny. I still love it.
4. Mike Tyson Mysteries (Adult Swim)
I had a few friends whose opinions in such matters I trust tell me I need to watch Mike Tyson Mysteries. I was reluctant because I don't want to participate in anything that will help bring Tyson any sort of monetary success given his past issues. However, I gotta stay, dammit - this is pretty funny. Tyson, his adopted daughter, a ghost and a man who's been turned into a pigeon get mysterious messages and have to solve mysteries - such as helping Cormac McCarthy come up with an ending to his book. Tyson's inability to pronounce some words during the recording process makes its way into the show, adding another touch of humor and a level of likeability to someone I don't really want to like.
Too Many Cooks (Adult Swim)
This video, coming on late at night on Adult Swim, leaves the typical stoned viewer with a surprisingly pleasant "What the hell" experience. A satire of every tv show intro of the late '80s/early '90s morphs into a horror story. All while the introductory credits keep rolling.
Unedited Bear Of A Bear / Infomercials (Adult Swim)
Put together by Baltimore's own Wham City, this delightul little mindfuck starts with bear footage, moprhs into an allergy informercial until it finally settles into a surreal horror story.