Dear James, June, Mo,
I am pulling up my chair to the televised Yule log, stretching out my fingers in its flickering yellow light, and settling in for what I know is going to be a long, heady, digressive conversation about the year in television. I want to discuss whether The Comeback or The Americans had the year’s best oral sex scene; if Homeland genuinely got its groove back; where John Oliver’s show really lives, on HBO or on the Internet; if Black Mirror made you write tweets that more accurately reflect your personality (in case your loved ones need to re-animate you after your untimely death); and whether the networks’ rock-bottom ratings really matter to the larger TV ecosystem or are just a riveting train wreck.
But I want to start by identifying what I think of as this year’s organizing principle: diversity.
When I say diversity, I am of course referring in part to the increasingly wide range of people—of all races, genders, sexual orientations—that showed up on TV this year. I am talking about Shonda Rhimes and her ongoing efforts to single-handledly take over and alter ABC and network television and (this is not even an exaggeration) the world. I am thinking of Transparent, Amazon’s breakthrough series about a Jewish L.A. clan with a trans matriarch; of the bilingual Jane the Virgin, the CW’s best show in years; of Orange Is the New Black. I am percolating on how diversity became a lens through which to critique even those corners of the TV landscape—late night, antihero shows, premium cable—which can barely be said to be diverse at all.
But I am also talking about something other than demographics. I am talking about diversity of genre, type, form. What did a good TV show look like in 2014? The answer is more robust and unruly than it has ever been.
In the years since The Sopranos, the blueprint for what a great, serious drama looks like had become codified, and 2014 had a handful of series that hewed to that code. Whether you loved it or hated it or loved it but then hated it, True Detective, which premiered just two weeks into January, was TV’s ultimate cultural phenomenon this year. For the eight weeks it aired, it captured the conversation, big-footed the zeitgeist, taught people to fear the Yellow King. I am, in broad strokes, a fan of True Detective—it is flawed, but it captivated me. Still, the extent to which it looked and felt exactly the way a big-deal, highbrow drama is “supposed” to look and feel was, I think, instrumental to its staggering success. It was on Sundays on HBO. It was made by two self-styled auteurs. It had a movie-star cast, disturbing and dark themes, and, of course, a relentlessly masculine worldview. Despite my most fervent wishes and near magical thinking on the subject, the women on True Detective remained ancillary to the very end.
But before it was even over, True Detective was called out on its “woman problem.” (Here’s a project for our TV Club: come up with language to critique a show’s handling of diversity that does not use the word “problem,” which makes misogyny or racism or homophobia sounds like a pesky skin condition.) This is where the two sorts of diversity I’m talking about collide: True Detective did build its story on the corpses of dead women, like many shows before it—but it didn’t get a pass because there are now so many other types of shows, even other antihero shows, that do no such thing. Just look at FX’s Fargo, which in so many ways is True Detective’s twin, an auteurist anthology series with dark themes and a specific setting that focuses on tortured and torturing men. I think it, too, had its share of woman problems—James, I know you’re a fan, tell me why I’m all wrong!—but it also provided a showcase for one of the best female performances of the year: Allison Tolman’s turn as the skilled detective Molly Solverson.
But Fargo and True Detective were mostly exceptions to what good TV looked like this year, not the rule. If, despite my crowing last year, the antihero is not dead yet, he is at least getting elbowed around by his descendants, like a Neanderthal who finds his progeny, with their souped-up DNA, pushing him out into the cold. One type of series that springs from the moody, broody, TV-should-be-challenging genetic material of the antihero show is a genre I called bummer TV because of how it makes you feel (namely, bummed). I am referring to gloomy series like HBO’s The Leftovers, both versions of Broadchurch, the American version of The Killing, and FX’s The Bridge, shows that linger on sadness, upending a long-held but possibly untrue maxim about television: that it should always be fun. I confess I still prefer it to be fun, which is why I respected some of these shows more than I liked them.
I am much more tickled by another descendant of the antihero: the fearlessly “unlikable” character (often female) who is unconcerned about alienating the audience. I am thinking of the unapologetic individuals at the center of Girls; Transparent’s flawed, fighting Pfeffermans; The Comeback’s irksome, indefatigable Valerie Cherish; the gloriously free heroines of Broad City; the intertwined besties of Doll & Em; the satirically observed stoners of High Maintenance; and Louie, who this year tried to rape someone, albeit incompetently. I want to point out here that Girls, which wasn’t on my Top 10 list, had a direct influence on most of these shows, many of which did make my list. Transparent, Broad City, and Doll & Em, different as they are from Girls, are all deeply intimate, specific, shaggy, and almost impossible to imagine in a world where Girls hadn’t blazed a trail. Louis C.K. getting naked and climbing into a bathtub was in direct conversation with Lena Dunham’s work.
This year proved once again that even that old fuddy-duddy, the procedural, need neither be fuddy nor duddy. The Good Wife, one of television’s best dramas, continues to be smart, slick, and cynical not despite its procedural trappings, but because of them. I was not a big fan of Steven Soderbergh’s gorgeous The Knick—I know some of you were—but I can better appreciate and admire that show when I think of it as a thrillingly handsome period procedural, rather than another overpraised show about a difficult man.
And then, to circle back to where I started, there is Shonda Rhimes, who has done as much as anyone to change our expectations of what “good” TV looks like. Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder (which Rhimes produces) look nothing like what high-minded television has historically looked like, and not only because of the diversity of their casts. These shows, like Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and the CW’s wonderful Jane the Virgin, play around with belittled forms like melodrama and camp and soap—and they are wild, thought-provoking, essential, and fresh. If justice and capitalism work as they should—Shonda’s ratings are one of the few network bright spots—at this time next year we should have a bevy of batso series inspired by Scandal to sort through, which sounds pretty great to me.
Maybe some of them will even be as great as the series listed below, which make up my Top 10 list. (You can find a more verbose version of this list here.)
Guys, this list reminds me—I haven’t even talked about Srugim yet! Or Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Key & Peele, Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, Silicon Valley, Olive Kitteridge, Outlander, Inside Amy Schumer, and so many other worthy subjects. James, June, Mo, let’s get down to it. Tell me about what trends and themes stood out to you this year. Tell me about the shows you loved and the shows you hated. Tell me about the moments you can’t forget and the ones you wish you could. Talk TV to me.