2014: The Year In Television

2014 was a landmark year for television.
The so called “golden age” of television is over and we entered a new phase. The age of the showrunner as God and the 'troubled man' anti-hero narrative was over while a new phase focusing on aesthetic, mood and the director was birthed with shows like True Detective and The Knick.
Anthology series' took hold as limited run seasons came of age. New networks - online and cable - began producing content, flooding the market with a quantity of quality content never before seen. There were simply so many new, good shows out there it became overwhelming. Experimentation flourished as series' pushed the bounds of formal and structural norms.
Looking ahead it’s only going to get busier with more big name directors entering the fold (David Lynch and David Fincher to name just two), weirder short run shows getting commissioned and several young series beginning to come of age.
But for 2014 we got so much great TV I couldn’t limit it to ten. Instead here are 13 amazing, vital, innovative and exciting television moments from the last twelve months.
A late addition but a necessary one. After waiting nearly two years for more Black Mirror Charlie Brooker gave us a brilliant Christmas treat with this cleverly structured movie length episode starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall. Shrewdly intertwining three separate tales into a darkly satisfying whole this special episode hit all the classic Black Mirror beats from astute riffs on modern technology to an aggressively cynical climax. It wasn’t a perfect 90 minutes of television but no one understands and comments on our relationship with technology better than Brooker and this turned out to be vital viewing for all.
This Netflix animated series started off a bit arch and derivative, playing off its weirdness at bit too heavily but as the season progressed and began to take its characters seriously it suddenly turned into a surprisingly surreal examination of depression and how we deal with it.
All within the form of a surreal, psychedelic cartoon about a talking horse with an amazingly diverse and interesting voice cast (Paul F Tompkins for the win!).
One of the biggest surprises of 2014.
I didn’t realise how much I was enjoying this series until near the end of its first season when I realised that creator Steven Falk had managed to take the generic rom com formula and weave it into a crude and funny televisual form.
Falk also struck gold in casting the charismatic Aya Cash and Chris Geere who elevate two terrible self-obsessed characters into charming three dimensional people you care about.
An impressive debut season.
Being a big fan of the original Australian incarnation of this series I was initially quite forceful in my criticisms but as the season progressed and it shook off its initial imitative form, Review became excitingly dark. The way a narrative continuity was subtly weaved throughout the nine episodes was genuinely thrilling and seeing one of America’s best comic talents (Andy Daly) get a moment in the spotlight was great fun.
"There All Is Aching" was probably most enjoyably surreal 10 minutes of TV I saw all year.
2014 was the year anthology series came back into fashion and while others may look to True Detective as their highlight I feel Fargo understood the formal play of the medium a little better.
Despite a flaccid (and madly frustrating) final episode and some terrible loose ends, these ten episodes created a really magnificent meta-play on not only the original film but on the Coen Brothers filmography as a whole. For about three or four episodes in the middle of its run it was gosh darn brilliant.
Billy Bob was pretty fantastic too!
It's brutal that this final season has been split in half but the sheer run of classic and memorable moments that Matthew Weiner packed into these seven episodes makes one ridiculously excited for the final seven.
It felt like the most surprisingly hopeful stretch of episodes in a show notorious for its nihilistic turns. Every episode felt like a big event in the best possible way. Don and Peggy dancing in the office, Ginsberg and the missing nipple, the family shot in the fast food restaurant - these episodes were packed with profoundly rich and classic moments.
Could this show stick the landing?
Simply unlike anything ever produced this strange, exceptionally bleak but quietly satisfying debut season was messy and imperfect but ultimately incredibly powerful. Damon Lindelof used all his storytelling tricks to keep Tom Perrotta’s dour story ticking along and while it didn't always work, it was always compelling.
By the end of the first ten episodes the narrative reached a beautifully sincere emotional crescendo that was meaningful and original. The way the series explored how we approach grief and loss was challenging, bold and frequently grim, making it a tough run for many viewers but the conclusion felt like it was saying something truly important and it’s stuck with me for some time.
Up until this fourth season I’ve only been a mild fan of Game Of Thrones but showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss finally escaped the strangle-hold of its source material this year and began to create episodes of television that felt like great episodes of television and not like dense chapters of a novel.
The way this season bifurcated many of its episodes into half world building catch up and half extended single setting set pieces resulted in a satisfying rhythm that the series hadn’t been able to manifest before now. The more the show breaks from the chronology of its source material the more exciting it gets and with this fourth season it finally achieved the greatness it had been previously yearning for.
After an almost two-year break, the fourth season of TV’s most auteurist show appeared more experimental than ever. Louis C.K may have gone light on big laughs this year but he ultimately produced one of the most creatively interesting seasons of anything on television.
Oddly structuring the season with several long form arcs interspersed with compelling digressions (from a long double episode flashback to the now infamous “fat girl monologue”) we saw C.K boldly playing around with the form of a television season in truly novel ways.
This is innovative and exciting television.
What began as something that seemed like a side project for Community creator Dan Harmon while his main show was suffering growing pains turned into one of the most unexpectedly surprising and experimental animations to hit our screens in years.
Each episode was structurally different, each story was beautifully realised and the volume of great jokes packed into the season was astounding. With the help of co-creator Justin Roiland this show appeared fully formed from episode one and the amount of instant classics in the first season was unparallelled.
In its second season, The Americans wholly lived up to its promising premise offering up a perfectly structured 13 episodes of television. Rich with fascinating moral dilemmas, exciting spy scenarios and sharply nuanced performances, the series served up a truckload of complex and novel situations that felt unlike anything else on television.
Serious classic status is on the horizon if this series continues to wring gripping stories out of this fun concept.
More people need to get on board now!
In terms of formal innovation, Steven Soderbergh’s work on The Knick was constantly thrilling showing us one of America’s most skilled filmmakers getting super experimental. While Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s writing was occasionally a little formulaic, Soderbergh’s work behind the camera was never less than captivating.
Directing, photographing and editing all ten episodes himself (a stunning feat in and of itself), Soderbergh constantly pulled off jaw-droppingly unexpected and unconventional moments with a magnetic lead turn from Clive Owen and an excitingly anachronistic synth score from Cliff Martinez, The Knick became a genuinely addictive serial experience.
Hannibal is easily the best television experience to be found in 2014.
As its second season progressed Bryan Fuller’s series developed into a most entrancing, stomach churning and visually innovative dream with Mads Mikkleson doing stunning work as Hannibal Lecter. The texture and visual language of this show is simply astounding and the overall atmosphere it generates is thick with an operatic, hypnotic haze.
With a fabulous supporting cast (Michael Pitt’s turn in particular was memorable), gorgeous direction and a perfect final few episodes this series turned into the most memorable and exciting show on television. There is nothing at all like it.