TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club highlights a great year for tech and science on TV.

Entry 6: You know what else TV did great this year? Science and tech.

Cosmos, Silicon Valley, Halt and Catch Fire
Cosmos, Silicon Valley, and Halt and Catch Fire.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Fox, HBO, and AMC.

Dear fellow gazers,

I would add to Willa’s discussion of sex on TV in 2014—by mentioning Transparent’s mapping of sex and gender boundary zones, for instance, and Outlander’s journey from sexposition to pecsposition—but her sexegesis was so thorough that I already need a cigarette, and I don’t smoke.

By way of a segue, though, I’ll share one of my favorite sex-related scenes on TV in the past year. It featured no actual physical sex, everyone remained fully clothed, and it was played for laughs. I speak of the first-season finale of HBO’s Silicon Valley, in which the Pied Piper development team is stuck on a solution for the compression algorithm they’re committed to show at TechCrunch Disrupt. (I’ll assume you understand what all that means and will pretend that I do.) Erlich (a splendidly douchey T.J. Miller) pledges that they will win “if I have to go into the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience.” Which raises the questions: How fast could you do it? How would it work? How do you account for girth?

It’s a hilarious, extended dirty joke, complete with mathematical equations and animated pantomimes. But it would never work as well as it does if the scene didn’t also capture the commitment of these characters, how, despite themselves, even as they’re watching their startup go potentially down the toilet, they’re riveted by the task—they can do nothing but pull out the whiteboard and detail the operation of a Platonic-ideal, hot-swapping jerk-off machine.

The math, apparently, checks out, kinda. But what’s really convincing is the portrayal of an engineer’s drive to solve even the most absurd and TV-MA of problems. And Silicon Valley was part of a welcome trend in TV lately, to find the storytelling potential in discovery, the drama of science, the social power of technology.

It’s kind of amazing that we’ve had so many shows devoted to lawyers and politicians when our smartphones and social media hold so much more sway over our everyday lives. Coming from Mike Judge, the comedy nailed the jargon of the startup scene (the chorus line of pitchers claiming “We’re social, mobile, and local,” “We’re mobile, local, and social”) and the chilly, Randian hubris of tech moguls envisioning a paradise of driverless cars and automated personal islands.

For some folk, Silicon Valley wasn’t fiercely satirical enough. Personally, I think a room full of guys blue-skying a perfect masturbation machine is an on-point satire of the sausagefest that tech culture can be. (And indeed, the show’s casting, while impeccable as far as it went, was almost all male.) But this wasn’t the scorched-earth satire of Judge’s Idiocracy; just as Judge spoofed Texas culture in King of the Hill while appreciating the old-school integrity of propane salesman Hank, Silicon Valley respected the work while lampooning the business.

A few more shows are starting to recognize how intimate science and tech’s influence on us has become. (Consider: 1. Cosmos came back this year; 2. Seth MacFarlane produced it; 3. It was pretty damn good!) Black Mirror, as some of you have noted, is arguably the first sci-fi/horror anthology of the social media era. The Good Wife, with its storylines about surveillance and search engines, has become a technology show hidden in a law-and-politics drama’s power suit. And I thought it was significant that Mad Men devoted significant metaphorical office space to the arrival of the computer in the workplace in 1969, which in retrospect was at least as historically giant a step as that year’s moon landing. (Even for those of us whom, unlike poor Ginsberg, it did not cost a nipple.)

That notion—that the social effects of computing are a bigger part of our history than TV has acknowledged—was central to AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, a show that I loved for its ideas and ambitions even as I was frustrated by how it carried them out. The show daringly staked itself on the claim that the unsexiest part of the computer revolution—the spread of boring IBM knockoffs around the world—was one of the most significant. Its main failing was deciding that in order to get us to watch it needed to make Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan another tortured, beige-box Don Draper clone. But around the edges, if you stuck with it, it was terrific: I was especially entranced by Kerry Bishé as Donna, who first seems like another wet-blanket wife crushing her engineer husband’s dream but (as a computer scientist herself) proves to be a creative partner with a passionate artist’s drive. It was a weird, frustrating show, but I loved its potential and was delighted—if shocked—that it got a second season.  

Even Masters of Sex, which I agree is excellent at making sex both hot and a vehicle for expressing character, is also at heart a love story between nerds and their work. Among the many breathtaking aspects of Lizzy Caplan’s performance as Virginia is her palpable hunger for science and research: Needing to grow and discover, she suggests, is as elemental a force in humans as the drive to reproduce. And the drama in science was central to another of the many runners-up on my best series list this year, and one that surprised me like an atomic flash from the blue sky: Manhattan (on WGN America, which is a thing now), about the WWII atom-bomb project, which managed to be both an espionage thriller and a study of the ripple effects of pressure and secrecy on relationships.

None of these shows were smash hits (certainly not next to The Big Bang Theory, which is more about finding the comedy in being smart than in any of its characters’ professional passions). But to me this trend is an example of another kind of diversity TV benefited from in 2014: diversity in subject matter, which can lead to, and grow from, diversity in voices and perspectives.

With dozens of outlets for new programming—WGN, I tell ya, WGN!—and the ability of shows to get by with smaller audiences, TV is finding stories outside the courthouse and operating room. (And even finding new ones there: The Knick was really as much as anything a show about bleeding-edge tech in 1900.) I haven’t watched Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle yet, but good or bad, how great is it that 2014 will give us a show about the comedic gold of the cutthroat classical-orchestra world?

Maybe none of my nerd-obsession shows will have a massive audience. But as the scientists of the Manhattan Project found, sometimes in the tiniest particles, you can find the force that powers the Universe.

I Am the Cosmos,