TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club compares watching TV to shopping at a farmers market.

Entry 4: Watching TV now is like shopping at a farmers market. In a good way.

The Americans, Penny Dreadful, and Rectify.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via FX, Showtime, and the Sundance Channel.

Dear Willa, Jim, and June,

I love you all, but you’re the worst. Your lists gave me pangs about what I didn’t watch this year, even though it sure seemed like I spent all 365 days with my face glued to some kind of screen. I didn’t get to Srugim, I’ve heard great things about the pot-dealer show, and then June had to go and mention Black Mirror, which everyone has been raving about and which finally hit Netflix on this side of the pond in December. Well, great! More unwatched TV to feel guilty about. Doesn’t anybody get that I started out ahead on the guilt front, what with being raised Irish Catholic and all?

The amazing thing is, when I look at your lists and those of other critics, feelings of joy overwhelm the guilt, which is saying something. How can I do anything but celebrate television’s exploding diversity? What the Galápagos were to Darwin, the current television scene is to tired but excited critics, who keep finding new adaptations and evolutions around every corner. Before I fall too deep into that metaphor, however, here’s my Top 10 list (and I go alphabetical because I Am a Rebel and Live on the Edge):

The Americans
Happy Valley
Jane the Virgin
Orange Is the New Black
Penny Dreadful
You’re the Worst

Remember when our lists were dominated by antiheroes, smart procedurals, and deft comedies that hewed to the Platonic ideal of what a TV comedy is? Doesn’t it seem like that was 100 years ago? 

I want to pick up on something Jim said in passing—the reference to the “pallet-load” of TV that is delivered to our DVRs each Sunday night. That’s a metaphor I can get behind—it does sometimes feel like we’ve all bought too many cases of episodic television at Costco. (In this analogy, the episodes of Manhattan sitting on a person’s DVR are like that enormous case of frozen lasagna that, for one reason or another, never got eaten.)

To extend the metaphor beyond frozen food, lately I’ve been thinking about the most exciting arenas of TV as a pretty great farmers market, one that sells handmade and artisanal goods; you may not like the jam (and honestly, $8 a jar is pushing it, The Affair), but you’re bound to find an organic candle or a one-of-a-kind hand-knit sweater that you simply must have. The shows in my Top 10 have almost nothing in common, except that they feel like they came from a specific person’s brain; they’re organic to one individual’s wavelength. They’re the opposite of one-size-fits-all.

Obviously it’s not necessarily accurate or fair to cast the creation of a TV show as a heroic story revolving around one individual; we all know TV is one of the most collaborative mediums out there. But, even more so than other years, in 2014, so many shows felt personal and individualistic—the expression of a singular point of view.

John Logan wrote every episode of Penny Dreadful and Jill Soloway directed almost every episode of Transparent, and there were similarly singular voices and visions that informed everything from The Knick to True Detective to Review. The Leftovers and Broad City were not my cup of tea (can I admit to having no affinity for the latter without being driven into TV-critic exile?), but those shows had unique visions, and I certainly appreciated that fact. At no point, when watching either show, did I sigh and say, “Oh, great, another show involving deeply painful, slightly surreal grief metaphors!” And during Broad City episodes, I never whimpered, “Oh, come on—not another comedy about stoned, irresponsible women trying to get by in New York.” Those shows—and the other programs on our lists—just aren’t like anything else, and it’s the cohesion and confidence of the visions on display in these programs that makes me certain that 2014 really was different and special in important ways.

That specificity and cohesion extends to characters as well, and that might be the greatest aspect of the past year’s bounty. Whether or not you thought Molly Solverson’s Fargo arc wrapped up in a way that felt right (and I’m in the “not really” camp), she was one of a kind. There are 30 elements of Jane the Virgin that feel fantastically fresh, despite the fact that the show is an amalgamation of 100 things we’ve seen before. And this trend toward organic, artisanal products shows no sign of slowing down. I agree with June that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt moving from NBC probably means that the show is “being given a chance to prioritize finding its creative feet over finding its audience,” and nothing could be more cheering if that’s the case. I tend to think that the more options creative people have, the more likely many of them are to shepherd their projects to homes that will allow them to present something they’re proud of. Amazon, Netflix, and the braver cable networks are willing to bet the farm on shaggy, indelibly unique people, which is smart, because if they don’t, I’ll just watch imports like Happy Valley on a constant loop.

I’m just going to say it: For the most part, the broadcast networks suck at creating compelling characters in one-hour shows. Their track record on that front, as represented by the past few years’ worth of pilots, has been mostly appalling. And that’s because so often they prioritize broad concepts, promote-able taglines, and big stars over the creation of characters that anyone will want to spend more than three seconds with. Why is Shonda Rhimes such a huge success? Partly because Shonda-speech gives any scene a turbo-charge, partly because she’s willing to be hella transgressive within deliciously twisty plots, but partly because the uncompromising boldness of her characters stands out in a generally pallid, timid broadcast-network landscape. (Christopher Walken aside, of course.)

The shows on our lists (even the ones I haven’t seen, probably!) are packed with characters we could discuss for hours over drinks. What do you think Molly Solverson’s baby shower was like? What are those goofball soldiers from Enlisted up to now? How much schmear can the Pfeffermans go through during one family crisis? There’s a depth and heft to these people and the worlds they live in—and that goes for not just the shows on my list, but for the other 40 shows on my other lists. (Sorry, I have a lot of guilt issues regarding the programs I left off my Top 10.)

I’ve read a few pieces on the death of the American mall lately, and so I’ll extend this mercantile metaphor to (or past?) its breaking point. I am all for the survival of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—and they’re the equivalent of anchor tenants in a mall built some time in the ’80s. When the big players take big risks, the results can be exhilarating; their selection and reliability is not to be dismissed.

But the bigger broadcast networks’ models, like those of larger departments stores, are based on not ticking off a large number of people. Meanwhile, their competitors’ business models—the folks at the farmers markets and funky boutiques—are based on hitting the sweet spot of a manageable number of people who are rabid about their specific products. To demetaphor my thoughts: The broadcast networks are too often running from specificity and strangeness even as almost everyone else is pursuing those things with ever-increasing confidence, and it’s probably clear which strategy I think will pay off.

And you probably noticed I didn’t mention the CW in the paragraph above, because I watch a ton of shows on that network, which has really figured out how to super-serve its demographic (which I have almost-but-not-quite aged out of). The CW is crushing it, yo.

Do people say yo anymore? Anyway, back to you, Willa.