We have arrived at the top! After five grueling days of deconstructing the best and worst that the 2014 television season has to offer, we’re ready to discuss the best of the best and the worst of the worse.
Did your choices make the cut?
Traditionally when a show debuts at the start of the year and is still bouncing around in your head by the end, it’s worth exploring what makes it so memorable.
In the case of Syfy’s Arctic epidemic / alien show, what makes it so memorable is that it is a festering turd of a show. And that fact has stuck with me ALL. YEAR. LONG.
Yes, folks, the worst show of the year is Syfy’s Helix. The brainchild of Battlestar: Galactica, Ron Moore, Cameron Porsandeh and showrunner Steven Maeda, there was plenty of promise in a series about the CDC dispatched to the Arctic to assess the viability of a disease outbreak. Instead, however, Helix ended up very similar to Extant; the writers tossed everything they could think of into the series. The difference between the two is intention. Extant has no idea what it’s doing – it’s as though children are creating the show. Helix, on the other hand, clearly considers itself both a comedy and a drama, ridiculous and serious, as evidenced by both its marketing and the fact that the plot includes eeeevil corporations, alien “super races” with silver eyeballs, a teenage assassin, goo zombies, frozen screaming monkeys, and Jeri Ryan’s head in a jar (actually that last one may be actually be awesome).
The problem is that these elements are all in the service of WTF, not an actual series. They’re not well balanced and the resulting product is a clusterf*ck of unfinished and incoherent plot lines. There’s a difference between “ohhh this is intriguing” and “seriously, stop dicking us around” and Helix falls into the latter category because nothing gets resolved, storylines are added and dropped and no one acts consistently. Take, for example, the motivations of the head of the research station, Dr. Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada); he’s deliberately kept shady for more than half of the season because the writers think that makes him mysterious. Instead it just makes for bad drama and hilariously awful daddy drama when his intentions are revealed. Characters like series lead Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who should be incredibly intelligent, acts like a complete idiot, making emotional decisions about his love life instead of focusing on the task at hand. Others, like Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) are annoying, while Dr. Jordan (Jordan Hayes) alternates between ditzy girl status and compulsive liar. In fact the only truly tolerable character, Doreen Boyle (Catherine Lemieux), is killed and eaten by monkeys in the first five episodes.
I couldn’t actually finish the season – it was that bad. Reading reviews for the final few episodes suggests that Julia became a supervillain and the action has now moved out of the Arctic to France or something. Umm, whatever. Wherever Helix goes in S2 (because yes, this dreck also got renewed – apparently there is no god), I certainly won’t follow. Helix is easily the worst show I wasted hours of my life on and I’ve got much better things to do in 2015.
- # of episodes watched: 4
- Returns: Friday, Jan 16 at 10pm EST on Syfy
- Caveat: My concern is that some people may read the random assortment of plot lines listed above and think it sounds awesomely bad. Don’t be confused. It’s not “so bad, it’s good”. It’s just sooooo bad.
When TVAngie and I discussed our worst shows, we had a number of show overlap. The few that I won’t be discussing in tomorrow’s ‘Rising / Falling’ column (because I didn’t watch a single episode) include Stalker and Gracepoint (aka the pointless Broadchurch redo). Feel free to try and shame TVAngie into sharing why she hates them so much
The placement of FX’s Fargo so high on this list likely isn’t a surprise to anyone who has been keeping up with entertainment news in the past year. Not only is Noah Hawley’s re-imagining of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece one of the most popular choices for Best of lists, it has been nominated for the Golden Globes and won big earlier this year at the Emmys. In short, the show is great. It is a deft mix of comedy and noir, paying homage to the film from which it took its name but standing wholly alone as its own series. Considering how fearful and contemptuous most people, me included, were when this series was announced, the reversal of opinion is pretty impressive.
It doesn’t hurt that Hawley’s writing is top-notch. It’s witty, thematically rich and filled with observant details about the hilarities and misfortunes of everyday life. It also deftly transitions between different genres and tones with ease, balancing scenes like a rain of fish with a blistery whiteout shoot-out in a single episode. Of course the actors bringing Hawley’s scenarios and dialogue to life are essential and the cast, including Billy Bob Thorton (rightly recognized), Martin Freeman (playing effectively against type) and especially newcomer Alison Tolman (who needs to be in everything) are all fantastic. I personally loved Keith Carradine’s Lou, the retired police office who tends the diner, so I’m beyond excited to hear that season two will focus on the case he infrequently referred to throughout S1.
If Fargo made one mistake, it was in its final episode, which begged for a Molly vs Malvo showdown, not a whimper of a climax featuring Molly’s scaredy-cat husband Gus taking on the deadpan assassin. That’s small criticism, however, considering how well-executed the run up to those final episodes were, especially how truly deplorable Freeman’s Lester Nygaard became in his quest for riches and fame. Fargo was a rich, exciting experiment that ended up being a hugely exciting surprise and I can’t wait to see where Hawley and his team take us next.
- Returns: Likely late 2015 considering that shooting begins in January with a cast that includes Kristen Dunst (um…yay?) and Jesse Plemons (yes!)
- Watch: All 10 episodes, but particularly 1×06 ‘Buridan’s Ass’
#1: Transparent S1
By this time you might have noticed a trend on this year’s Best TV list: a whopping eight out of 10 of the series that made the list debuted this year. We’re truly living in the best period for television ever and new projects continue to spring up in the least likely places (who’s excited for the debut of Powers this year…on Playstation?!).
The show that lords over them all, however, is a relatively simple family drama called Transparent. It’s about a Jewish family – the Pfeffermans – who initially appear to have all of the same kinds of problems everyone has. By the end of the Amazon pilot, we learn that the family patriarch is actually trans and identifies as Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, outstanding). As far as hooks go, it’s pretty good, but if Transparent were just about Maura’s journey out of the closet, it would not be half as powerful as it is. Just as integral to the show are Maura’s children – experimental lesbian Sarah (Amy Landecker) with a husband and two kids, relationship f*ck-up Josh (Jay Duplass) and screw-up/financial sponge Ali (Gaby Hoffman).
Transparent uses Maura as an entry point to explore broader themes of family, identity, religion and responsibility. The result is a finely-crafted piece of art. Take for example the series use of found footage of real trans people’s past for its credits (a lovely homage to home videos of the past). It’s part of the indie film sensibility that creator Jill Soloway and her writers infuse in the visual look and feel of the series. The locations feel lived in, authentically real, even if the specifics of the Pfeffermans’ lives are uniquely their own. The acting, too, is wonderful, with all of the actors giving rich, layered performances. Tambor is the natural stand-out; I hesitate to use the term ‘vulnerable’, but his Maura is wonderfully raw, proud, beaten and maternal. Each of the Pfefferman children is fantastic in their own way (I particularly enjoyed Hoffman’s measured performance as the aimless youngest child). While I can appreciate accusations that they’re all petty and terrible, I would argue that everyone on Transparent is fully fleshed out – which means they’re embodied with both good and bad qualities.
Over a scant ten episodes we accompany Maura as she comes out to each child, moves into a new apartment and begins to embrace her new lifestyle. Integrated throughout are flashbacks to the mid-90s that chronicle why it took so long for Mort to become Maura, as well as how the children’s past shaped their future. It would be too simplistic to say that the all-flashback episode 1×08 ‘Best New Girl‘ (a series highlight) explains everything, but it certainly illuminates how different events can have long-lasting implications for different people in very different ways. Ultimately the Pfefferman clan is a bunch of messed up, challenging and unorthodox family members trying to make it work. The series is rich, perfectly performed and groundbreaking (a trans character as the lead is completely out of the norm, sadly). Transparent is beautiful, heart felt and surprisingly uplifting. It is both the best drama and the best comedy I watched in 2014, which is why it is #1 for the year.
- Returns: Fall 2015? Amazon has yet to set a date
- Watch: All 10 episodes obviously!
There are certain shows that don’t appear, but might have if we were caught up and/or watching. They include The Affair S1, The Americans S2 and True Detective S1.
So that’s our top ten best / bottom five worst shows of 2014. Did our lists match up with yours or do you have other shows you think we missed? Where do you think TV will take us in 2015? And if you could name a single episode as the best of the year, what would it be? Hit the comments below and let us know!
And look for a new feature tomorrow, our first ever ‘Rising/Falling’ list tomorrow morning at 9am EST.