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With 2014 quickly coming to a close, we have our two senior TV Critics look back at this great year in television. More companies are now in the TV market such as Netflix and Amazon, take a look to see how the landscape has changed and where your personal favorites fall into place. Feel free to let us know how you feel in the comments below!
Yaysa’s Winner: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Runner-Up: Transparent (Amazon Prime)
If the first season of Orange is the New Black was about introducing us to a broken prison system (specifically that of Litchfield correctional facility) and the people who navigate it through our protagonist Piper Chapman’s eyes, then the second season is all about opening up that world considerably. Piper remains the touchstone for the series but the show delves deeper into the lives of her fellow inmates giving us a closer look of supporting characters like Taystee, Suzanne, Morello and more, making it that much more engaging. Though the narrative went to emotional and dramatic places with great ease, it never stopped being one of the funniest shows out there. Whether the series explores the realities of being elderly and imprisoned, growing tensions within the prison population, institutional corruption, or sex wagers, it always does so with a fresh and compelling point of view. This is a show that didn’t just rely on the impressive critical high of its first season, but took substantial risks in its sophomore year that paid off wonderfully.
Perhaps the most melancholy comedy currently airing, like OITNB, Transparent could be better categorized as a “dramedy” but its mix of affecting pathos and (sometimes) broad humor makes for an engaging comedic show that tackles difficult and complicated themes in an open-minded, non-preachy way.
Honorable Mentions: Bob’s Burgers, Archer, Last Week Tonight, Inside Amy Schumer
Jean’s Winner: Transparent (Amazon Prime)
Runner-Up: Veep (HBO)
Hands down, the year’s best comedy was Amazon Prime’s Transparent. Smartly written and perfectly cast, this was one of the year’s most amazing surprises. I’m still astonished that Transparent managed to deftly handle subject matter that has never been dealt with before in this depth on television with grace and an edgy brilliance. The Pfefferman’s are one of television’s most compelling and interesting families. The series is unafraid to show us the good and the bad behind each character- something that shows often fail to do. These are three dimensional characters who are pretty darn selfish and self-serving, but who do, deep down, love and care for each other. I wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes in their presence, but I can’t wait to spend another 10 episodes watching them next year.
Jean’s Winner: Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report, Comedy Central)
Runner-Up: The Hound (Game of Thrones, HBO)
I’m going with a sentimental choice for this one. After nine years on the air, television audiences said goodbye to one of television’s most complex and amazing characters when Stephen Colbert signed off from the final installment of The Colbert Report on December 18th. Ridiculously quick with comebacks, and slavishly committed to remaining in character, the fictional Colbert was a true television treasure.
So good was the character that it was incredibly easy to forget that there was an immensely talented comic actor by the same name (with a slightly different pronunciation) playing the part. I was lucky enough to attend a taping of the series, and while the show itself was delightful, watching Colbert address us in the audience out of character prior to the start of the taping was the most magical part of the experience. Seeing the man behind the curtain only served to give me a greater appreciation for the character himself. While Colbert the performer will be gracing our screens again in the new year, it will be hard to face a future without America’s favorite pundit.
Honorable Mention: Gary Walsh (Veep, HBO)
Yaysa’s Winner: Nora Durst (The Leftovers)
Runner-Up: Bette & Dot Tattler (American Horror Story: Freak Show)
Easily one of the most engaging characters of the year in any show, Nora Durst is the best part about The Leftovers. Having lost her entire family in the rapture, her tragic story is immediately sympathetic, but it is what the show does with the character afterwards that makes her so compelling. It would have been easy to keep her as a noble figure but instead the writers make her a complex and multi-faceted character. She is petty and angry and entitled and manipulative, never hateful, but imperfect and incessantly watchable. She gave us many a memorable moment, from her hilarious drunken make out with a fake cadaver, to her awesome takedown of a couple of GRs loitering in front of her house, to her harrowing reaction to the Memorial Day reveal, and so much more. She is the character that most deeply affected me in this television year and the one whose story I anticipate the most.
American Horror Story has given us a variety of peculiar and unique characters in its four year run, but conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler are a remarkable achievement both technically and acting wise. Sure, it often feels like their scenes belong in a completely different show, but they are always among the most engaging in a given episode. Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of two very distinct personalities makes it easy for us to believe these are two women in one body, it is hard not to fall in love with both sisters as they struggle with each other and the outside world in their search for happiness.
Honorable Mentions: Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones), Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Helen Solloway (The Affair)
Most Disappointing Show
Yaysa’s Winner: The Strain (FX)
Runner-Up: American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX)
Guillermo Del Toro. Carlton Cuse. Corey Stoll. David Bradley. FX. Vampires. The Strain had all the potential in the world to make a fun, pulpy and scary television series, but all we got was a hokey, clichéd, horribly acted mess.
Anticipation was high for this season of American Horror Story, especially after the mess Coven turned out to be. With so much promotional material and hype surrounding Freak Show, expectations were incredibly high. Though the season started off surprisingly nuanced and understated, it didn’t take long for Ryan Murphy and company to do the usual crazy, nonsensical narrative shenanigans we have come to expect from them unfortunately.
Honorable Mentions: Constantine
Jean’s Winner: Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Runner-Up: True Blood (HBO)
It pains me to say this, as I was one of its most ardent cheerleaders last year, but Sleepy Hollow is this year’s Most Disappointing Show. Season two has been a complete mess, with muddled storylines that led to nowhere, a number of characters (new and old) without any purpose, and way too much Katrina. Sure, it’s still charming when Abbie and Ichabod are chatting, but Sleepy Hollow needs to find its purpose again (and, while they’re at it, could the writers give us a reason to care about Katrina- or just get rid of her for good?) fast, or Moloch and the armies of the undead will be the least of the show’s worries.
Jean’s Winner: Jeffery Tambor (Transparent)
Runner-Up: Woody Harrelson (True Detective)
Jeffery Tambor took the major step from character actor into leading man (or, really, leading lady) with his work as Maura Pfefferman on Transparent. Watching Tambor navigate between Mort and Maura is equal parts stunning and heartbreaking. There’s a quiet pain that is always present when Tambor is Mort, and seeing Maura slowly blossom throughout the season was one of the year’s greatest television joys for me.
Tambor never makes Maura a victim, and she is never a joke, which makes her struggles and her failures all the more resonate. Maura is a flawed human being (as are the rest of her family members), and Tambor embraces the good right along with the bad in the character and doesn’t seek to sugar coat her at all. While the series itself is a masterwork, it’s Tambor’s performance at the center of the piece that gives the show its heart.
Yaysa’s Winner: Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent)
Runner-Up: Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)
Jeffrey Tambor’s unbelievably real and heartbreaking performance in Transparent is absolutely remarkable and perhaps the biggest reason for the series’ success. The show basically rides on whether or not we buy his character, and he makes it incredibly easy for us to invest in Maura’s journey and care for the Pfefferman clan. There has been much talk about casting a non-trans actor for the role, but the actor’s off-screen persona actually helps to tell the story. We too are adjusting to this new version/side to this person, just like the members of her family. Tambor captures the depressing and bleak moments just as well as he does the ridiculous and comedic notes making for a varied and nuanced portrayal.
As the carousing, cunning and noble Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage has always been a fan favorite of Game of Thrones fans. Though the show has given him wonderful material to play through the years, it is this latest season that has given the actor his best character arc yet. Tyrion’s storyline is an emotional and tense narrative that pushes the actor to achieve new emotional heights and he does so in an incredibly effective way. Who didn’t feel for Tyrion in those final moments of the season?
Honorable Mentions: Billy Bob Thorton (Fargo), Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Yaysa’s Winner: Carrie Coon (The Leftovers)
Runner-Up: Eva Green (Penny Dreadful)
If there is one thing to be grateful for in The Leftovers, it is Carrie Coon’s flawless performance as Nora Durst. The divisive drama may or may not be your cup of tea, but it is virtually impossible to deny the profound strength of Coon’s talent. If anything, the show warrants its place in television history for bringing this generally unknown actress into the limelight and for that we shall forever be indebted to it. There is never a false moment in her portrayal, every single choice feels entirely real and natural and completely convincing. After watching the ten-episode season of The Leftovers I confidently believe that Carrie Coon should be in everything always. Give this woman her own show!
Eva Green undoubtedly gives the year’s most unabashed and brave performance in Penny Dreadful. She was front and center for the series’ best episode of the season, “Closer than Sisters” which follows Vanessa’s origin story, a truly magnificent hour that showcases Green’s stunningly audacious style.
Honorable Mentions: Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story)
Jean’s Winner: Allison Tolman (Fargo)
Runner-Up: Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black)
A year ago, Allison Tolman was an unknown sketch comedy artist in Chicago. Now, she’s an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress. Oh, and she also managed to steal the entire series of Fargo from a list of name actors that included Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Freeman, and Key and Peele. So, Tolman’s been having a pretty good year.
When I think back on the brilliance that was the first installment of Fargo, all I can see is Tolman’s face as she incredulously questions Freeman’s Lester Nygaard or the dogged determination she expressed as she chased two killers through a snowstorm. Tolman’s Molly Solverson, was the heart and soul of Fargo’s first season, and it’s a testament to her work that fans expressed despair when it was revealed she would not be appearing in season two (which will take place 25 years before the initial series took place). Without Tolman, Fargo wouldn’t have worked. With her, it soared.
Jean’s Winner: Vee arrives, Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Runner-Up: Selina’s rise to the presidency, Veep (HBO)
I’ll admit, I’m cheating a bit with this one, but I’m picking the Vee storyline on Orange is the New Black. If season one of OITNB was about Piper acclimating to prison, season two was about the women who surround Piper. And this was best shown through the arrival of Lorraine Toussaint’s psychopathic Vee. The storyline brought out the best and the worst in the show’s characters, with Taystee struggling with the return of her only mother figure (giving us amazing work from Danielle Brooks), Poussey struggling with the pain of losing her best friend (a heart wrenching storyline for Samira Wiley), and Red forced to confront the past (giving Kate Mulgrew a true chance to shine). Vee and the turmoil she wrought on Litchfield changed the entire face of the series, bringing in a darkness that elevated the show in its second season.
Yaysa’s Winner: “The Guest” (The Leftovers)
Runner-Up: “The Strategy” (Mad Men)
The most engaging hour of television this year was hands down The Leftovers’ Nora Durst-centric “The Guest”: a near perfect installment of television bolstered by one of the very best performances of the year. Nora’s experience living in the world without her “legacy” identity is profound, absurd, emotional, funny, and transformative all at the same time.
“The Strategy” works as a great follow-up to Mad Men’s most beloved episode: season four’s “The Suitcase.” Focusing on the show’s central and most affecting relationship (Don & Peggy) the hour builds on the tension that has built up all season between the two and resolves in such a satisfying way that it could easily have served as a series finale.
Most Overlooked Show
Yaysa’s Winner: Banshee (Cinemax)
Runner-Up: The Comeback (HBO)
Cinemax’s Banshee is shamelessly violent, explicit, over the top and batshit and it is amazing. Its heightened world with its pulpy sensibility, penchant for sensational violence and ridiculous narrative is so beautifully and expertly rendered that even action-adverse viewers will find something to latch onto. Whether it be for the creepy, incest-y vibes of Kai Proctor and Rebecca’s relationship, the badass-ness of Lucas Hood, the awesomeness of Job or its surrealistic style, Banshee is worth watching. Though it is considered a success for Cinemax and the third season will be premiering soon, it hasn’t reached the mainstream success that some other cable shows have enjoyed and that the show deserves.
Coming back after almost a decade after its first season, this reality show styled comedy has been serving insightful critiques not just about the state of television but the institutionalized sexism of the industry as well as interpersonal politics in any workplace. Also it is hilarious, especially if one is a Bravo reality show aficionado. This show is definitely geared more towards a certain type of viewer (one who is familiar with reality show tropes and is interested in behind the scenes workings of the industry) but is good enough to transcend that limitation.
Honorable Mention: Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Jean’s Winner: Looking (HBO)
Runner-Up: Black Mirror (currently streaming on Netflix)
This past winter, HBO launched an excellent new comedy. No, not Silicon Valley, although it did have an excellent freshman season. The comedy was Looking, a show about three gay friends living in San Francisco. And it was really, really great. But, unlike Silicon Valley, which has gotten a number of major award nominations, Looking has been, well, overlooked. And that’s a complete shame.
It’s a smart, well-written, and superbly acted series that takes a fun and complex look at the lives of three men as they struggle with finding success and stability. It also boasts the best work from Scott Bakula since Quantum Leap (I was absolutely distraught when it was announced he would be on NCIS: New Orleans, at it would mean he may not be available for season two of Looking, but he will, in fact, be appearing again on the series- huzzah!). Season two is set to start early next year, so there’s still time to catch up on the eight episode first season. Really, it’s great. Give it a chance.
Honorable Mention: Happy Valley (currently streaming on Netflix)
Jean’s Winner: Fargo (FX)
Runner-Up: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Looking back on the past year, only one show made me desperate for more after each episode: FX’s Fargo. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the show when it was first announced. I wasn’t a fan of the film (in fact, I only watched it for the first time the day before the show’s premiere), so I wasn’t particularly worried about whether or not it would be true to the source material. But I had little hope the show could transcend what the Coen brothers had done.
Boy, was I glad to be wrong. With a cast that was firing on all cylinders and the absolutely stellar writing of Noah Hawley, Fargo was, far and away, the year’s sharpest and best executed drama. Unlike the flashy, yet flawed, True Detective, Fargo allowed each of the show’s cast members to shine and created a star in Allison Tolman. With the heights it reached in its first outing, there is great pressure on Hawley to deliver with next year’s second installment. But, considering how well he did when the television world doubted him last year, I have faith that our return trip to the world of Fargo will be even more enjoyable the second time around.
Honorable Mention: Happy Valley (Netflix)
Yaysa’s Winner: Mad Men
Even with a truncated season, the AMC drama delivers amazingly layered and engaging material. Don Draper’s story continues to be a fascinating tale that goes in unexpected but perfectly fitting directions. The final two episodes are two of the series absolute best, concluding the wonderful year with two poignant hours that could have easily served as the final episodes of the series.
Adapting the beloved and fantastic Joel and Ethan Cohen film or television sounded like the worst idea ever. Somehow writer and creator Noah Hawley captured the specific tone of the original with an impressive accuracy and constructed a thrilling story with unforgettable characters.
Honorable Mentions: Game of Thrones (HBO), The Leftovers (HBO)
Jean’s Winner: HBO
HBO takes home this mantle after a stunning year that saw the network launch two exceptional new comedies in Looking and Silicon Valley, continue its drama domination with Game of Thrones, and maintain the status quo of awesome with another stellar season of Veep. While Netflix and Amazon Prime certainly had more flashy years, the continued consistency of HBO is something that is truly unmatched on television. No other network has greater quality programming across the board, or is willing to take the risks HBO undertook this year (bringing back The Comeback was a risky, but lovely, choice). Sure, there were some missteps (most notably with the Newsroom debacle, which only served to highlight the network’s decision to end the series this year), and HBO does need to commit to greater diversity within its projects (namely at the showrunner level), but HBO still stands for quality. In terms of consistency throughout the year, HBO had the greatest level of strong content, engaging new programs, and smart storytelling.
Yaysa’s Winner: FX
Runner-Up: Comedy Central
With the commercial success of the American Horror Story franchise, the much talked about culmination of Sons of Anarchy, great new comedies with You’re the Worst and Married, and the critically acclaimed The Americans and Fargo, it isn’t hard to see that this cable network had an amazing year. FX has forged its place in the cultural zeitgeist and has become one of the most interesting destinations for genre television as well as character-driven series. Though its biggest commercial hits might not necessarily be the highest quality (i.e. American Horror Story – despite boasting incredible production values and a ridiculously impressive cast) they allow for the network to take risks in their programming and produce some of the most exciting shows on television.
Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, @Midnight, Review, Broad City, Drunk History, South Park and so on. Has a network ever had such an impressive and funny programming line-up as Comedy Central’s in 2014?
Let us know all your thoughts below!