My wife Katie and I had a baby in February, which meant that the majority of the entertainment we consumed happened in our apartment, in the small window of time we had after our son went to sleep at night. Luckily, this was an awesome year for TV. And even though we generally only got through one episode a night (the rare evenings when we tackled two felt–and continue to feel–like the hugest luxury, like a crazy binge-watch), we still got through a fair amount of shows.
So, as an end-of-year gift from me to you, here’s, in no particular order, my favorite TV of 2014:
(And keep in mind, there’s a ton I have not yet watched, including things I’m pretty sure I would love like Transparent, Key and Peele, and Fargo. You will also not find True Detective here, though I did see it; I had mixed feelings.)
Broad City has been hailed as the first female stoner comedy and though this may be true–with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s awesome natural chemistry and beautifully uninhibited performances–it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the show’s whip-smart writing wasn’t constantly nailing universal truths about being in your twenties in New York City. When this show’s hitting on all cylinders, as it was in at least half of the episodes in its first season, it’s hilarious and zany and true-to-life and astoundingly good.
Favorite episodes: “The Lockout” and “Stolen Phone”
Nathan for You, in which awkward dude Nathan Fielder sets out to improve real-life small businesses with ridiculous suggestions, is a genuine delight. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, following comedic ideas all the way down the rabbit hole, and Nathan Fielder is a bona fide genius. The season premiere–in which Nathan encouraged a real-estate agent to advertise herself as the Ghost Realtor, offering 100% guaranteed ghost-free residences–made me laugh harder than anything else I’ve seen on-screen this year. In later episodes in the season, Nathan’s persona at times leaned more toward being a jerk than an awkward nice guy, which diminished the show’s glow a bit for me, but nevertheless, I still wholeheartedly recommend it if you like amazing, uncomfortable, high-concept comedy.
Favorite episodes: “Mechanic; Realtor” and “Souvenir Shop; ELAIFF”
I don’t know how Orange is the New Black pulled it off for the second season in a row, but somehow it’s able to make you truly care about so many characters. Not only that, but said characters are predominantly played by people you would never otherwise see on TV, women of all ages and ethnicities and sexual identities; the sole thing the members of the cast have in common is that they’re all phenomenal actors. What takes the show into even higher heights, though, is its singular tone, genuinely cracking you up one moment and then turning scary-intense at the drop of a dime. And making it seem effortless. By focusing this season less on Piper and more on the ensemble as a whole, the show got richer, its many effortlessly-juggled story arcs bouncing off each other in interesting ways; everything that every character does has an impact on all the other characters (which, on TV isn’t always the case), and OITNB did a brilliant job of following those karmic chains episode to episode, culminating in a deeply satisfying season finale.
Favorite episodes: “A Whole Other Hole”; “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.”
Olive Kitteridge is one of the best book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. Considering the source material by Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite books of all time–tapping effortlessly into those tiny life moments of pain and love that make being a human such a beautiful, heartbreaking experience—this is no small feat. Bravo to director Lisa Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson, and to Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins (and the whole cast, really), who absolutely wrecked me. I felt like I wanted to cry the whole time I was watching. That’s an incredibly pretentious thing to say, but it’s also the truth. Watch all four hours of this thing. It will give you a deeper appreciation for mankind.
Katie and I just started watching Jane the Virgin this month, and even though we’ve only seen five out of the nine episodes that have aired, we are already both so sold. Its outlandish premise—23-year-old virgin gets pregnant because of an artificial insemination medical mix-up—and over-the-top telenovela-esque storylines actually work because they’re executed with such smarts and tonal assuredness, and grounded by heartfelt, honest performances, none more so than Jane herself, the truly terrific Gina Rodriguez. She’s instantly relatable, nailing comedy and drama equally well by always playing the truth of a scene, with a face so expressive it sometimes seems straight out of a graphic novel. Now that we’re firmly in the era of the 13-episode cable series, it seems insane that this network show will have to sustain its high quality for 22 episodes, but Jane has been so good thus far, I have faith.
Favorite episode: “Chapter One”
And here are other shows I thought were great:
Parks and Recreation – The second half of last season had no right to be as good as it was this far into the show’s run. It’s one of those rare gems that pulls off heart without losing any of the funny. Super-sharp writing and one of the best comedic ensembles of all time.
Doll & Em and Playing House- Like Broad City, these are both awesome half-hour comedies about two best friends grappling with adulthood, co-created by and starring two real-life best friends. The similarities end there; Doll & Em is quiet, biting, and dry, with the entertainment industry as a backdrop, and Playing House is sweet and loose, with the BFFs reuniting in their small hometown. In any other year, just one of these shows and their wonderfully accurate, heartfelt depictions of friendship would be an anomaly; in 2014, we got three of them. Good stuff.
Louie and Girls – I will never stop watching these shows, both of which are bravely original and unafraid to go into strange territory. Even in those rare moments when I’m not feeling them, I’m still onboard, because they’re always trying new things, blurring the line between comedy and everything else. Unlike many shows, which deal with a variety of studio and/or network notes, I know the episodes I’m seeing of these are pretty much exactly what their creators—Louis CK and Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner—set out to make. And that purity of creative vision is always exciting.
Mad Men- I honestly don’t remember much about this season—pardon me, half-season–except for its fantastic last episode, with Peggy’s amazing pitch and that unforgettable last scene. But those two things are enough.
Drunk History- This show is so funny, but it’s also so damn educational. Even if its facts aren’t always correct, I always finish an episode feeling like I’ve learned some things, which is delightful. (Note: my sister Mariel is an assistant editor for this show, but the above would be my opinion regardless.)
The Comeback – After a shaky start, with an unnecessarily-complicated plot device weighing down the first episode, this show got back on its feet, as hilarious, sad, insightful, and uncomfortable as ever. Lisa Kudrow so fully inhabits Valerie Cherish, and in his two episodes Seth Rogen does some of the best actor-playing-themselves acting ever.
Hooray, 2014! Thanks for all the good watches. Here’s hoping 2015 is just as stellar.