Friday, December 19, 2014

Best of 2014: The Television Edition

Television has gotten good. It's so good that when I watch older shows, I'm shocked at how bad they are in comparison. It's so good that I feel totally justified in watching TV over reading a book: they pack an equal intellectual punch. (I mean, they can. Bookworld has its Fifty Shades, televisionland has its Real Housewives.) Because we stream all our TV, I'm usually pretty far behind on television, so I've never really been able to participate in discussions of current shows. This might be the first year we've been watching the same things as everyone else. We started a few shows that turned out to be duds, but in general this has been a great year for the small screen. But man, have the shows been dark! I mean, three of my top five have the word "black" in the title. Reflections, perhaps, of our rather trying times?

1. Transparent: This show premiered in 2014 on Amazon. I find it interesting how many streaming companies are beginning to make their own products, rather than simply distributing others' shows. The producer of this show, Jill Soloway, says she shopped the idea around quite a bit before Amazon took it up, and she is both grateful to them for the opportunity and for the long leash they gave her. Traditionally, producers get to float only a few shows, and if the audience isn't biting, the show gets canceled. But Soloway was able to film and distribute the entire first season, putting all 10 episodes on Amazon at once. The show is about a 70-year-old parent of three adult children who comes out as trans. Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, born Mort and assigned a male gender at birth. Maura has decided at this late stage to embrace her female identity, and her kids react variably to this announcement. As I've said before, this is not a show for young viewers, but for teenagers on up it's a fantastic exploration of gender, sexuality, identity, siblings, and aging. There's a lot of sex on the show, most of it awkward and not meant to be titillating. (Which is an unusual choice.) Soloway, whose own parent came out as trans later in life, hired trans and other LGBQ writers to make the depictions of that community as real and non-exploitative as possible. But it's not a didactic show; watch it for the acting, the character development, and the story.

2. Orange is the New Black: A Netflix original that premiered in 2013, OITNB follows the funnydrama of Piper Chapman, a fairly sheltered pretty blonde chick thrown into a women's prison after she was arrested on drug trafficking charges. It's based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, but is only loosely based on her real-life experiences. Season 2, in particular, departs from Kerman's real story. Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is both adorably naive and tough as nails, and somehow manages to pull both personas off flawlessly. There's a lot of humor in this show but it's not a comedy. There's serious drama as well, and some interesting statements about prisoner abuse, race, sexuality, and the cost of the war on drugs. I watch this with my family and we find it totally addictive; be prepared to binge-watch both seasons and go into withdrawal while waiting for Season 3.

3. Orphan Black: This BBC America show premiered in 2013, and we were totally hooked within seconds of turning on the pilot. That's unusual: I find most pilots to be terrible introductions to a show, a ton of boring worldbuilding that we have to suffer through before we get to the real story. Orphan Black gets straight into it, and lets the backstory come through naturally through the action. Tatiana Maslany plays a whole bunch of cloned characters, which might seem gimmicky except she pulls it off so beautifully. Maslany should get an Emmy for this show, and most fans are outraged she hasn't already. The basic story involves a cloned young woman discovering who she is — and who else she is. It's a little bit sci-fi and a little bit techno-thriller. One criticism I've heard, which is fair enough, is that Season 2 got a little too interested in plot details and less interested in character. Hopefully the writers will correct that trend, because the characters playing off each other is far more compelling than the "whodunit" aspect of why the girls were created. Fans of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" will love this show, which is a similar concept but pulled off much better.

4. Black Mirror: Our newest addiction. Black Mirror is a BBC show that just became available to American viewers via Netflix — another reason I'm glad I kept up my subscription to that ailing service. The setup is very similar to the Twilight Zone: each episode is self-contained, there is no through-line. It's like watching one Christopher Nolan movie after another. Like the Twilight Zone, the show is speculative fiction, meant to highlight some moral quandary, warn us of a potentially terrible future, or to be thought-provoking in some way. And it succeeds. While there is no plot through-line, there certainly is a theme, which is "how can technology go wrong?" One episode is about a woman who obtains an AI version of her dead lover, only to find the sorts of disappointments one might expect. (And some unexpected and hilarious upsides.) Another is about a technology that allows people to record the entirety of what they see every day; think cop lapel cameras for every citizen. Imagine how having such recordings would effect any disputes you have. All those times you lay awake at night, replaying conversations, wondering if you heard something right, wondering if you saw those people really doing that, wondering how to interpret an interaction — you could literally replay all that. I've found each episode fascinating and uncomfortable in equal measure, and I appreciate creator Charlie Brooker's pulling no punches. My one complaint is that he sets up what looks like a real quandary for the viewers, but he can't quite stop himself from tipping his hand: he tells you how you should feel. He'd do better if he left viewers truly divided. I do not recommend this show for anyone with a weak stomach, and I don't think Episode 1 ("National Anthem") is actually a good place to start. New viewers: start with "Fifteen Million Merits" or "The Entire History of You."

5. Brooklyn Nine Nine: Let's finish up with something totally different. This is a very light comedy show about cops, and is our family's palate cleanser. Comedian Andy Samberg is the star, and his goofball charm is a perfect foil for Andre Braugher's straight-man bit. We were already huge fans of Samberg from his work on Saturday Night Live and with the comedy-music group The Lonely Island. B99 is much cleaner, but no less funny. The show has a great cast, each player pulling their full weight as various comedy archetypes. The show airs on Fox, but we stream it on Hulu Plus.

As with any best-of list, this one leaves off great contenders. What have I missed? What do you recommend?


  1. We love OITNB. Transparent sounds good. On Netflix streaming we also like Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax (both are British shows).


    1. Thanks, Janie! I've never heard of either, looking forward to checking them out. :)


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