Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Dan's 10 Favourite TV Shows of 2014

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

It's that time of the year again. I know the internet's full of top 10 lists, but mine's less about what was "the best" and more what became "a favourite". Sometimes, show X is objectively better than show Y, but X has something about it that just makes it more entertaining—for me. Basically, here are the TV shows that most captivated me during their runs, and I looked forward to sitting down to watch every week.

Isn't that all that matters, really?

10. DOCTOR WHO (BBC1) – Series 8
The best year since Series 5, thanks to a combination of three things: a simpler mytharc to focus on, a less predictable approach to writing The Doctor (with Peter Capaldi making the character distinct from his immediate predecessors), and a welcome focus on companion Clara (with Jenna Coleman benefiting immensely from the boost of material). There were low points and disappointments, but ultimately it worked as a much-needed rejuvenation after the increasingly frantic and unwieldy Matt Smith years.

9. THE GOOD WIFE (CBS, More4) – Season 5
Still the gold-standard series in terms of juggling old-school episodic requirements with the modern desire for serialised arcs. This legal drama is a weekly joy, and the fifth year was particularly memorable because of the birth of a rival law firm (resulting in friends becoming enemies), and the genuinely harrowing death of a major player. (I haven't seen any of the currently-airing season 6, but hope this standard's been maintained when it comes to the UK.)

8. TRUE DETECTIVE (HBO, Sky Atlantic) – Season 1
Indelible performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as the odd couple detectives, in an ambitious storyline straddling two time periods, shot through with a heart of pure darkness. It was also beautifully directed by Cary Fukanaga (shout-out to Adam Arkapaw's stunning cinematography), with a technical highlight being the extended "one take" shot closing episode 4. However, there were flaws that prevented it ranking higher on my list: good female characters were at a premium (to be polite), and the ending wasn't as brain-meltingly awesome as the show's arcane influences subtly promised.

7. HOMELAND (Showtime, Channel 4) – Season 4
An effective rebuttal to whisperings Homeland was about to crash-and-burn without Damien Lewis around. By setting the action overseas in Pakistan, new life and vitality was breathed into the now-veteran drama. By the time the show started having freewheeling fun (Deaths! Kidnapping! Siege!), I was sold on Homeland's rebirth as an intelligent drama edging closer to the thrills-n'-spills of 24 without that show's format restrictions.

6. MAD MEN (AMC, Sky Atlantic) – Season 7, Part 1
The final season of Matthew Weiner's critical darling was unwisely chopped in half by AMC, and some of the early episodes were shakier than usual, but things picked up and this first batch of eight episodes ended on a real high. I loved seeing Don Draper brought down a rung or two within the firm, having to claw his way back up the corporate ladder, and the resolution of the recent Don/Peggy acrimony was simply glorious.

5. THE LEFTOVERS (HBO, Sky Atlantic) – Season 1
Undeniably depressing for extended periods, but what do you expect from a prestige drama examining grief and the myriad of human responses to 2% of the world's population instantaneously vanishing? Fantastic performances and clever writing, I wrestled with this show for much of its run, but that's to its huge credit. Was it difficult to watch at times? Oh yes. Was it occasionally too slow and naval-gazing? Well, sure. But it made you think, it eventually made you care, and it was often utterly devastating and emotionally pure. There's room for improvement (I didn't care about the central Garvey family one iota), but this was still one of the best new shows.

4. GAME OF THRONES (HBO, Sky Atlantic) – Season 4
Not as great as season 3, because almost every highlight concerned the King's Landing goings-on, with everyone else served less well by the storytelling. But how can you deny the sheer joy of episodes concerning a royal death, Tyrion's day in court, the ensuing trial-by-combat (with that ending), and the spectacular attack on The Wall? My only concern is an awareness GoT is now adapting the George R.R Martin novels most fans consider inferior to the initial three... but hopefully this will mean the TV writers have more opportunities to improve on the source material.

3. THE KNICK (Cinemax, Sky Atlantic) – Season 1
Clive Owen somehow makes a potentially lazy Victoria-era Gregory House a fascinating new character, but it was Steven Soderbergh's directorial touches that brought The Knick to gruesome life—helped by Cliff Martinez's memorably, anachronistic soundtrack. This turn-of-the-century medical drama rarely put a foot wrong; delivering a streak of strong, grisly episodes that placed audiences into its fully-realised world very effectively.

2. FARGO (FX, Channel 4) – Season 1
The idea of basing a television miniseries on an Oscar-winning Coen Brothers movie sounded ridiculous, but Noah Hawley's adaptation opted to only recycle the style and tone of the Coen's Fargo, to craft something different. The UK's own Martin Freeman was excellent as 'mouse who roared' Lester Nygaard, while there was unforgettable support from Billy Bob Thornton as a devilish hitman, and newcomer Allison Tolman as a small-town cop. It wobbled in the middle, perhaps, but the ending left me completely satisfied.

1. HANNIBAL (NBC, Sky Living) – Season 2
Not as consistent as the first season, but I was nevertheless spellbound for much of Hannibal's queasy sophomore year. It helped that showrunner Bryan Fuller splits seasons into two distinct halves, to help with pacing, and it was again filled with inventively gruesome moments. However, it's the psychological complexities that help this show burrow itself into your soul, turning Hannibal something grander than a simple blood-n'-guts horror show. Aspects of the Mason Verger arc could have been stronger (it needed a longer run to sell it), but I was stunned by the gut-wrenching finale.

Honourable mentions: THE WALKING DEAD (started so well, slipped into the usual tedium), OUTLANDER (underrated escapism; immensely likeable), PENNY DREADFUL (watch it for Evan Green's sensational performance), 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY (an unlikely return to form thanks to a format and location overhaul), THE AFFAIR (nuanced scripting, beautiful performances), ARROW (still the best superhero TV series, ever).

Conspicuously absent: SHERLOCK (mostly forgettable this year), JUSTIFIED (an unfortunate misstep), MASTERS OF SEX (went flaccid on me), THE AMERICANS (couldn't get excited about anything happening, so decided to bail), LOUIE (strongly disliked it; too few laughs), THE FALL (a watchable but ridiculous follow-up), BROADCHURCH (good, overrated).

Notably unwatched: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, RECTIFY, HOUSE OF CARDS, GIRLS, LOOKING, THE MISSING, HAPPY VALLEY, PEAKY BLINDERS, TRANSPARENT. I know many of these feature on other people's end-of-year lists, but I either find them overrated or have never found time to watch them.