Best Stuff of 2014

30Dec14

This is not an organized or ranked list. This is a collection of the cultural things (mostly TV, but not exclusively) that I most loved in 2014, presented in alphabetical order. There are many things not on this list – they are absent because either I did not love them or I did not consume them. (If it is a movie, it’s probably the latter, as I saw almost no new films this year.)

The Americans – one of those odd series that I always fall way behind on, but always love when I watch it. I still have a few episodes left to finish the second season, which is completely inexplicable.

Andre Braugher’s performance on Brooklyn 99 – I enjoy the series well enough, but Braugher cements his status as one of television’s all-time most indelible performers with his supporting role. Has any sitcom ever been so defined by a purely deadpan character before? He never says a joke, but is always the funniest person on-screen. If I could find a video of his monologue from “The Mole” online, I’d provide it as Exhibit A for how to create humor without being funny.

Bob’s Burgers – I find myself taking it for granted by now, but Bob’s might be the greatest animated series since The Simpsons, and still completely unpredictable in its fifth season.

The Colbert Report – he went out in style, embracing both the egomania of the title character and the sense of gonzo absurdism that has always made the show more than just a satire of punditry.

Fargo – there was no reason to expect this would be anything but a failure. Instead, it took full advantage of its form, providing intertextual pleasures with the film, while functioning on its own as a delightfully dark morality play.

Girls – I still love it, and when it’s on target (like the beach house episode), nothing is quite like it.

The Good Wife – consistently the best show on television. Doing everything that makes both network and cable drama great, and getting better every season.

Hannibal – the first season was a dark romp; the second was pure madness. The finale was probably the most sustained example of avant garde filmmaking I’ve ever seen on television.

Her – released late last year, but I only saw it this summer, and I loved it too much to have it go unmentioned. Spike Jonze has directed four features, all perfect in their own ways.

Jane the Virgin – I love whimsy so much, and Jane nails its tone perfectly.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – taking the Daily Show model forward by embracing the long-form investigative comedy structure that the weekly non-commercial format allows.

The Leftovers – a searing season of television that was imperfect, but so powerful. Carrie Coon’s performance was probably the best I’ve seen this year, with this moment from the finale burned into my retinas for months:

The LEGO Movie – while I saw very few films this year, I’m pretty sure this would be one of the best I saw regardless. The first 3/4 are a pitch-perfect blend of action, comedy, and satire, while the final act makes it into a heartfelt postmodern masterpiece.

The LEGO Movie Videogame – my son and I play LEGO videogames together regularly, and this is my favorite. Besides nailing the tone of the film (and adding many more jokes), it’s the best implementation of the game series’s mechanics and gameplay yet.

Olive Kitteredge – one of the great untapped potentials of American television is creating miniseries adaptations of interesting novels, unfettered by the time constraints of film. A few years ago, Todd Haynes set the bar with his brilliant Mildred Pierce miniseries, and this year HBO succeeds again with Lisa Cholodenko’s wrenching miniseries. Amazing performances and sense of place.

Review – prior to this, I knew little of Andy Daly, but soon discovered his brilliance in a masterful comic performance. The scene in outer space was the most I laughed all year.

Serial / This American LifeI’ve been writing about Serial for Antenna, where I chart out many of the issues I have with it, especially its uneven use of its serial form. Nevertheless, it is great audio storytelling that has rightly garnered attention. But I hope it will inspire people to listen more to This American Life (from which it spun off), which still does thoughtful nonfiction audio better than anyone – probably my favorite podcast moment of the year was this story about a man leaving a Utah cult with his kids, featuring heartbreaking music from Stephen Merritt.

Solforge – despite having taught a videogame course this spring, I played very few traditional console or PC games this year, and nothing notable (except LEGO Movie Videogame). But I played a lot of mobile games, and by far my favorite is this collectable card game that takes full advantage of its native digital format—think Magic the Gathering but not constrained by the material limits of cards. I’ve tried the far-more-popular Hearthstone, but Solforge has more imaginative gameplay and interesting mechanics. Like all CCGs, it takes awhile to get into it, but if you sign-up via this link, I’d be happy to send you some cards to help build decks.

Transparent – in a year with many great new series, I think this was my favorite. Despite having no characters who are conventionally likeable, it exudes warmth and affection.

Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There” – “Tramp” was my favorite album of 2012, so I was skeptical that this year’s follow-up could match those heights. “Are We There” might even be better, working as one of those albums that I simply cannot stop listening to.

Veep – I’m uncertain with the direction the plot took this season, but no series is more consistent in generating laughs.

The Wire scholarship – Although it is widely regarded by academics as peerless television, scholarship about The Wire has been pretty erratic. 2014 saw the publication of two excellent and accessible (and short!) about the series, both of which I had the honor of reviewing pre-publication: Frank Kelleter’s Serial Agencies: The Wire and its Readers is a compelling take on the cultural circulation of the series, while Linda Williams’s On The Wire is an impressive analysis of the series in the framework of melodrama. Both are highly recommended for Wire fans & scholars alike.

You’re the Worst – again, no expectations helped make this comedy into a surprising little gem, with far more of a soul than its misanthropic premise might suggest.

One final trend to mention is that this seems to have been the year when television direction began to eclipse (or at least match) its writing. There have always been series whose style and tone help distinguish them, but so many of my favorite series this year (Fargo, Transparent, Hannibal, Girls, The Leftovers, Olive Kitteredge) were notable for their innovative and striking visual and sonic sensibilities. Even series that I didn’t love this year, like True Detective, Louie, Game of Thrones, Gracepoint, and The Missing (and some I haven’t watched yet, like The Knick and The Honorable Woman), stood out more for their excellent direction more than writing (at least this year). It will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward, as TV’s production model still privileges writers over directors, but perhaps this is shifting, as per The Knick.

Finally, one of the worst elements of 2014 was how bad I’ve been in terms of blogging. I really hope to post more frequently in 2015 – see you then!



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