Monday, August 25, 2014

The Top Ten Shows Currently on Television: 2014 Edition

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Last year, I marked the end of Emmy Week with a list of the top ten television shows on the air. This year, I decided to update that list. Two times makes it a new tradition right? Anyway, the criteria are simple: this list is limited only to shows that I regularly watch (obviously), it includes only scripted, "primetime" programs (meaning no miniseries or reality shows, not necessarily airing in primetime), and needs to be still in production/on-air. And with those criteria set, here are the new top ten shows currently on television.

With apologies to: Breaking Bad (no longer on the air, as per the qualifying requirements of this list); Mad Men (I never got a chance to catch up on the show's most recent season before compiling the list); The Leftovers (a compelling show, but not enough episodes for me to really consider it here); The Good Wife (I know I need to catch up, and I swear one day I will)

Honorable mentions (just missing the cut): Boardwalk Empire, Looking, Parks & Recreation, Homeland, Archer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, House of Cards

10. New Girl (last year: #5)

Season two of New Girl ended remarkably, by burning past the "will they/won't they" between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) and planting them firmly in "they will." Season three - the show's latest - picked up immediately afterward, with the characters wondering where to go next. The show seemed to be asking itself the same question, figuring out how to maintain the incredible chemistry of the ensemble while also changing the dynamics of their relationships. It wasn't always easy to watch, as the return of Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) took time to grow and the "departure" of Schmidt (Max Greenfield) from the loft was amusing if inconsequential. But the show handled the Nick-Jess relationship well, and turned in a collection of episodes that could be dramatically relatable and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. It remains one of television's most underrated comedies, with a crackerjack cast that can make just about anything funny.

9. The Middle (last year: #10)

The Middle came up to a difficult point in its run this year: oldest child Axl (Charlie McDermott) moved off to college, which distanced himself from the rest of the Heck family. "The College Years" are a pitfall that many television shows have fallen into over the years, yet The Middle handled it surprisingly well, keeping Axl in the loop either literally (constantly returning home for various reasons) or thematically. Growing up was the running theme for the show's fifth season, as all three Heck children - Axl, Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) - navigated various stages of adolescence and explored who they are. Parents Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) faced the similar realization that it wouldn't be long before their children were out of the house for good. The Middle has long flown under-the-radar as ABC's best sitcom, providing huge laughs courtesy of its talented cast (Heaton and Sher being the MVPs) and its relatable slice-of-life vignettes. This season was the show's most emotionally resonant, in addition to being its best.

8. Game of Thrones (last year: #3)

In an effort to prevent the show from catching up to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based (five of his proposed seven novels have been published), showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have taken to dividing books across multiple seasons. Season four, then, represented the back-half of A Storm of Swords, and in many ways it felt like it. Most of this season's storylines felt like a collection of payoffs from the previous season instead of self-contained narratives, and there were so many in play at once that none were given too much room to breathe and grow. At worst, this season attempted to shock for the sake of shocking, such as the never-again-mentioned rape of Cersei (Lena Headley) and the parade of gruesome deaths. But at its best, this season proved why Game of Thrones remains one of television's best dramas. In particular, Daenerys Targaryan's (Emilia Clarke) march of liberation through Slaver's Bay has been a powerful, thoughtful examination of power and what it means to rule, proving that being leader requires more than idealism. Though this season lacked the cohesiveness of the rest of the show's run, it was nonetheless fascinating, thrilling, and wholly rewarding.

7. Masters of Sex (last year: unranked)

On the surface, Showtime's Masters of Sex looked like the network's attempt to replicate the success of Mad Men: a glossy, mid-20th-century setting and the built-in prestige factor of being based on the famous sex study conducted by Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). But make no mistake, this isn't a clone. The show's first season was a strong effort to make sense of sexuality and human relationships, and wisely focused more on the latter than the former. But what has really made Masters of Sex one of the best shows of the year are the performances: Sheen and Caplan are fantastic, and they're surrounded by terrific supporting turns by Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Julianne Nicholson, Annaleigh Ashford, Heléne York, Nicholas D'Agosto, and the phenomenal Allison Janney. The show is a stunning examination of sex and relationships, all with a warm, beating heart underneath.

6. Girls (last year: #4)

I wrote in my review of season three of Girls:
"…Girls has more in common with Louie than it does Seinfeld. Louie attempts to make Louis C.K.'s standup cinematic, and in the same vein, Girls could be seen as a collection of filmic essays and short stories involving the same characters."
This season, more than the previous two, found creator Lena Dunham adapting that short-story format. From Hannah's (Dunham) job at GQ Magazine and attempt to get her e-book together to Jessa's (Jemima Kirke) stint in rehab to Shoshanna's (Zosia Mamet) attempts to graduate from NYU to Marnie's (Allison Williams) general narcissism, this season's overarching narratives felt more like loose ties between episodes than anything else. The season (and series) reached a high-watermark with "Beach House," as all four main characters got together for a weekend together that ended in their relationships with each other more fractured than ever. If this season was about anything, it was about finding momentum in life, with all four women struggling to figure out what comes next in life. And it wasn't just the women, either, as Adam (Adam Driver) landed a role in a Broadway revival of Mother Courage and questioned where his relationship with Hannah was going. Girls still isn't the laugh-out-loud comedy people want it to be, but it is a searing portrait of finding your way in your 20s in the 21st century.

5. Hannibal (last year: #9)

The second season of Hannibal really felt more like two distinct mini-seasons. In the first half, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is imprisoned for the crimes Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) framed him for, with Will attempted to exact his revenge from his cell. The second half finds Will pairing with Margaret Verger (Katharine Isabelle), the sister of the deranged Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), to take down both Hannibal and Mason. This season was, in most ways, a marked improvement on the show's already-great first season, with more beautifully-shot grostequeries and disturbing plunges into the dark, twisted psyche of Will Graham. The performances, too, were universally strong, particularly Dancy, Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the FBI head looking to protect Will and make a case against Hannibal. If there is one quibble with the season, it's that it struggles mightily with female characters, turning the most interesting women - like Alana Bloom (Caroline Dharvas) or Dr. Beverly Katz (Hettinene Park) - into sexual pawns or cannon fodder. If not for that, Hannibal could make a strong case for being the best show on television, period.

4. Bob's Burgers (last year: unranked)

Bob's Burgers is, without a doubt, the odd-one-out in FOX's animation lineup. It doesn't hail from the Seth McFarlane factory (Family Guy), nor is it The Simpsons. It's also far superior to either of those two shows in their current runs. The Belchers are, naturally, an unusual bunch: Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin, one of the funniest voices in animation) runs a boardwalk burger joint with the help of his wife Linda (John Roberts), who's prone to bursting into song, awkward oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz), obnoxious son Gene (Eugene Mirman), and troublemaking youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal). It's a well-worn setup, but Bob's Burgers succeeds by making all of its characters just a little bit weirder, which in turn makes them all the more relatable. It's hard to watch Tina go through the pains of puberty without recognizing a bit of yourself in her. Moreover, the Belcher family may annoy one another, but there's never any doubt that this family loves each other and will do anything to help one another. In many ways, it's a lot like The Simpsons during its '90s heyday: lots of laughs mixed with a good dosage of heart.

3. Orange is the New Black (last year: unranked)

There were very few surprises on television this past year quite like Orange is the New Black. It wasn't exactly inspiring on paper: Jenji Kohan, best known for creating Weeds, would create a show based on Piper Kerman's memoir of her sentence in a women's prison, to be aired on Netflix. The two seasons that are currently available, though, are an absolute marvel. Using the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman who ends up in Litchfield for a crime she commits with her drug-dealing girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), the show enters a society where women are restricted in their rights and often abused at the hands of the predominantly-male guards and management. Sound familiar? The show works best as a study in gender, race, and sexuality and as a scathing critique of the American prison system and androcentric society. That's heavy, but it goes down easy thanks to the very best cast on television and the sharp writing, which can switch from comedic to tragic on a dime. It's safe to say there's nothing else like it on television.

2. Louie (last year: #1)

Season four of Louie was perhaps the toughest the show has yet produced. I've already written extensively about how this past season was an attempt by creator Louis C.K. to make his inner turmoil into something…well, if not watchable, then at least tangential. And at times it was close to be unwatchable in its awkwardness and refusal to provide any sorts of "laughs" the way a show defined as a "comedy" ostensibly should. It was nigh unbearable at times because it was so honest. It was C.K. bearing his soul, his fears, his personal dilemmas to us, and he pulled no punches in doing so. He wasn't afraid to make himself the bad guy. Episodes like "Model" seemed to be taking place entirely in Louie's (C.K.) head. It wasn't a particularly funny season. But it was a challenging, riveting, and wholly personal 14 episodes of a show that has been subverting television conventions since the beginning.

1. Veep (last year: #8)

For a long time in the creation of this list, I debated over which show would get the top spot. I mentally made cases for each of the top five shows on this list, whittling it down until it was just Louie and Veep. Two of television's top comedies are also the top shows. But when I finally had to make a choice, I decided on which show made me laugh harder than any other this year. I decided on the show that worked my brain just as much as my funny bone. I decided on the show that features the most loveably caustic, despicable people the medium of television has every produced (give or take the gang at Paddy's Pub). I decided on the show that I actively looked forward to the most week after week. I decided to cast my vote for Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Veep. This season saw the show blossom into a razor-sharp political satire, with each episode a high-wire act of vicious put-downs, quick jokes, and shit-eating comeuppance upon shit-eating comeuppance. Having Selina begin a new campaign for president was a stroke of genius, allowing creator Armando Iannucci and company to delightfully skewer election-year mayhem through any number of means. One episode spent its entire 30 minutes on Selina and her team trying to determine her stance on abortion, lampooning the political doublespeak that dominates Washington. Another - a crossover with Iannucci's previous show, BBC's The Thick of It - sent Selina to London, where she was clearly out of her element. The writing was as pointed as the barbs Selina's staff trade with one another, and the performances from the entire cast were nothing short of inspired. Some actual workers from Capitol Hill have said that Veep is the most accurate depiction of Washington on television. I don't know whether to be impressed with the show or terrified of the reality. Perhaps both. It's all the more reason why Veep tops this list as the best show currently on television.


Stephen Davis said...

No big bang theory?

Jason H. said...

I like it, but I don't watch it regularly enough. I mostly catch the reruns, not the first-run episodes.