Thursday, January 1, 2015

Best of 2014

How good was 2014 for TV? For the first time since 2011, Mad Men was not my favorite show of the year.

This is to no fault of Mad Men, which offered seven episodes of catharsis - a humbled Don Draper finally making peace with all of the demons he conjured over the years. Cannot wait to see how Matthew Weiner chose to end one of televisions' last great giants.

Though the networks still offered plenty of retrograde entertainment, casually progressive shows started to crack through. Black-ish not only revitalized old sitcom tropes, but also took on hot button issues with wit and pathos. And although How to Get Away with Murder has badly stumbled over several structural errors, Viola Davis' performance demonstrates how so many untapped stories still lay untold. For my money, there was no show as wonderfully progressive or subversive as Brooklyn Nine Nine - which manages to consistently deliver crackling comedy without reducing anyone to out of character histrionics.

Amazon burst into the big leagues with Transparent. Though Jeffrey Tambor's performance is a revelation, the show's depiction of casual religion and frictional family tension will stick with me even more. Proof positive that gender is just a thing we internalize, Transparent proves that real progress doesn't come when we deify marginalized groups. It arrives when we treat everyone like real people, with flesh and blood prejudices and biases and long held grudges and desires. The tenderness of Tambor's performance stands every bit as memorable as Josh's forlorn quest to find a female vessel for his insecurity, or Ali's directionless flopping around, or Sarah's marathon race to lock in long-term love like a business transaction. Its a shame how many people will turn their head away from Transparent, because its on Amazon or because it explicitly seeks to smash barriers. Though Transparent was not the very best television series of the year, it may have contained my favorite scene - a Shabbat dinner gone horribly right, portraying the chaotic clashing of old rituals and new necessities with a profoundly Jewish pragmatism.

Other shows also gave us plenty to chew on; FX's The Americans steely precision and fiery performance by Kerri Russel deserves far more than the single sentence here. HBO's True Detective may have leaned too heavily on old tropes like the nagging wife, but its sense of atmosphere and loss were unparalleled. FX's Fargo improbably paid proper homage to its inspiration and offered a reminder that payoffs don't have to arrive years later. 24: Live Another Day livened up the summer with a superbly plotted season that reminded everyone that old relics can be dusted off, polished, and hold just as much power as our newest infatuations. Game of Thrones continued its overambitious march towards insanity, a continual high wire act that redefines what event television can be. Arrow and The Flash pushed its budgets almost as hard as its pushed the boundaries of network television storytelling, with incredible institutional memory and densely plotted payoffs conjuring the spirits of Whedon shows past.

Even I struggled to keep up with the avalanche of quality entertainment - the second seasons of Orange is the new Black and Masters of Sex are first on my list of shows to watch in the new year.
But there was no show that left a deeper mark than FX's You're The Worst. My eyes glazed over the gaudy promos that pitched it as yet another nihilistic comedy about terrible people being terrible. Instead, I found a modern romance, the freshest story about two people falling in love since Harry Met Sally and subsequently froze the genre in amber. You're the Worst gleefully takes an axe through those tropes, laughing all the way.

You're the Worst captures the sensation of falling in love. It captures that moment when your significant other hears one of your secret shames and thinks it the coolest thing in the world. It captures the tug of war that underlines any relationship, correctly treating dating as something far more messy than a chess match. It captures that moment when you choose to unburden yourself ever so slightly, right after you've chosen to shoulder someone else's burdens not because you have to but because you want to.

Every single traditional show on television crams in a "romance", whether its warranted or not. And so people fuck like marionettes, or blandly crush on a coworker for a delayed love triangle, or drearily burp up platitudes. You're The Worst argues against all of that bullshit, unafraid to show real worry and vulnerability. When Gretchen gets an offer to spend the weekend with another guy, Jimmy doesn't coyly find a contrived way to get her to stay. Instead, Gretchen bluntly asks him to tell her to stay, if he wants to. And so Jimmy looks at her and says, with devastating earnestness, "Don't go."

It also features a dildo hooked up to christmas lights, too.

For that reason and so many more, You're The Worst was my show of 2014, in a year that left the waters once carved out by The Sopranos for an unknown, unpredictable, but incredibly fulfilling future.