Monday, January 26, 2015

Ranking the TV Shows of 2014, #s 50-41: Downton Abbey, HBO Finales, and More

[Note: If you're wondering what happened to the conclusion of our ranked list of 2014 movies, don't worry, we haven't forgotten about it. But before finalizing our top 10 list, we feel it's our duty to track down and watch a few more critically acclaimed releases—including Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year, and Two Days, One Night—as those could feasibly contend for an appearance on the final list. As such, we're postponing the countdown for one week and switching to television as a stopgap.]

We are living in a golden age of television. Network TV may be a graveyard these days, but between the premium cable boom and the rise of original programming on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, television viewers have no shortage of high-quality options. Some are serialized and novelistic in scope, others are episodic and tightly plotted, but overall, the world of television is growing increasingly cinematic, blurring the line between big screen and small. Movie stars pop up on FX, A-list directors collaborate with HBO, and industry talent in general is eagerly exploring the unique storytelling opportunities that TV has to offer.

And boy, are there loads of opportunities. The Manifesto is nominally a movie blog, but that hasn't prevented me from diving deep into the wonderful world of television, which brings me to my confession: I watch a lot of TV. It could be charitably described as unhealthy. All told, I watched 50 separate TV series in their entirety in 2014 alone. I feel confident, and a bit ashamed, in declaring that that's more than you watched. But as more strange and intriguing TV shows continue to pop up, I spend more and more time plopped on my couch, basking in the glories of original high-definition content.

And so, what follows is a ranked list of every TV show that I watched in 2014. Yet the scary part is that, even with the ludicrous number of hours I've committed to the realm of television, there remain a number of highly regarded programs that I've yet to see. These include, by way of example: Mozart in the Jungle, Jane the Virgin, Archer, Parks and Recreation, Black Mirror, Broad City, Rectify, and Review. I apologize that I failed to get to each of those series, and I fully intend to devour all of them at some point in the future.

But here's the best part: I could theoretically watch any of those shows right now, just as you can watch any of the 50 shows I'm about to discuss with the push of a button. So fire up your Netflix account, hit up your friends for their HBO Go passwords, and figure out whether you want to use iTunes or OnDemand to discover the magic of FX and AMC. It's a brave new world of television, and the access point is right at your fingertips. Get to it.

On to the list. Fifty being a nice round number, we'll be splitting these into 5 posts of 10 shows each. As always, don't concentrate too much on the specific ranking, which is ultimately arbitrary. I should note, however, that this list is not a bell curve—I don't consider half of the shows on this list to be below-average. Thus, once we get into the 30s, I can happily recommend that you watch all of the series I'll be writing up; by the time we reach the final two posts, that recommendation will turn into a plea.

Without further ado, here is the Manifesto's ranked list of every television show that we watched in full in 2014 (for convenience, I'm including the network and particular season number in parentheses):

50. The League (FX, Season 6). The League used to be an enjoyable show—hit-and-miss, sure, but generally wacky and inspired in its misanthropic humor. Now? There's a scene in this season of The League in which a mentally retarded Asian man is hired to teach a woman how to prepare gourmet food, only for him to dump a bowl full of noodles onto his head. Later, the same character defends himself in a fight by shitting himself. This is what passes for comedy on the current iteration of The League.

49. True Blood (HBO, Season 7). It's a shame that True Blood ran as long as it did, because people will forget just how fresh it felt when it premiered back in 2008, or how a hammy Denis O'Hare stole its third season with a magnetic performance. But the ratings juggernaut concludes with a pitiful whimper: the plotting is scattered, the action is limp, and the character development is inane. Let us remember this groundbreaking show at its best, not at its last.

48. American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, Season 4). I don't deny that the latest entry in FX's gonzo flagship is crazy. When you revolve your show around a murderous silent clown, conjoined twins, and Jessica Lange as a German sexpot, you're going to have crazy in abundance. The problem is that Freak Show's ridiculousness feels turgid rather than fun. Yes, it's violent, it's lurid, and it's bonkers. It's also just plain dull.

47. Tyrant (FX, Season 1). Tyrant is an American television show set in the Middle East. That alone is laudable. But Tyrant always feels like a TV show: stiff and false, with actors playing parts rather than inhabiting characters. (A shaky lead performance from Adam Rayner doesn't help matters.) When I learned that Tyrant was in development, I was pleased that FX was taking such a risk. Then I watched it, and my pleasure evaporated, replaced by bafflement and dismay.

46. The Spoils of Babylon (IFC, Season 1). You'd think that a parody of soapy prestige pictures starring Will Ferrell and Tobey Maguire would be a can't-miss proposition. But while some pieces of Oscar bait may be overwrought, at least they tell stories. The Spoils of Babylon didn't need to have a great screenplay to work, but it needed to have some sort of hook beyond Ferrell's drunken rants that bookend each half-hour. As it is, the show feels like a potentially funny SNL skit stretched over six painfully long episodes.

45. The Strain (FX, Season 1). Some would argue that pop culture has reached its saturation point with vampires, but I still think the bloodsuckers can serve as the foundation for fruitful stories, both literal and metaphorical. But The Strain takes itself so damn seriously that it turns its vampire-infestation plot into a drag. It is also, with the exception of one gripping bottle episode, poorly executed, with feeble effects and hilariously overdone flashbacks. The Strain had potential—any show starring Corey Stoll and David Bradley does—but similar to its fanged villains, it sucks all the fun out of life.

[Also, if it seems like I'm unduly hammering on FX here, what with the network placing four shows in the bottom six spots on this list, don't worry: There was plenty of terrific stuff on that channel this year. Just wait.]

44. Community (NBC, Season 5). The darling of Internet fandom, Community was always a polarizing show, though I never really understood why. Its much-beloved first three seasons were thoroughly uneven, offering moments of inspired parody and wit to go along with thinly sketched ideas and pandering humor. And though creator Dan Harmon made his much-anticipated return for Season 5, the show's final go-round with NBC (it's being resurrected online in the near future), his guiding hand doesn't really change that hit-and-miss comedy quotient. Every episode of this season's run made me laugh at least a few times, just as every episode made me groan. That may be the most damning indictment of a show that courted such controversy and passion: It's completely adequate.

43. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 4). Speaking of adequate, it's difficult to imagine a more middle-of-the-road show than Falling Skies. It has solid production values, the acting is decent (it's always good to see Noah Wyle and Will Patton getting work), and the plot, while dopey, is at least reasonably imaginative and well-executed. There's nothing terribly great about this series, but there's not much wrong with it either. It approaches its alien-invasion concept with thoughtfulness and care, even as it also makes room for a swaggering character like Colin Cunningham's wisecracking outlaw. The pieces don't always connect, but they're still interesting pieces. If this were the '90s, Falling Skies would likely be one of the best shows on TV. Its relative mediocrity says less about its own merits than about just how far television has come.

42. Downton Abbey (BBC/PBS, Season 4). I just can't give up on Downton Abbey. Sure, its increasingly swollen cast of primary characters is absurd, and roughly half of its innumerable subplots are insufferable (looking at you, Isobel). And while its period reconstruction is convincing, I don't care for its waxy, video-like look. Still, some of the characters' stories remain deeply affecting, particularly the uncertain future of Lady Mary (the marvelously icy Michelle Dockery) and the warm respect between Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Downton Abbey never gets under my skin, but it also rarely gets on my nerves. If that sounds like a tepid endorsement, it's only fitting for a show that is playfully, unfailingly polite.

41. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 3 (back half) and 4 (front half)). Grimm seemed destined for cancellation long ago, but I'm pleased it stuck around, since it's finally starting to develop some rhythm. Its slow pacing is irksome, and it's as likely to offer up a horrendous hour as a good one, but such is life with the 22-episode network format. (Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a few duds mixed in to its 144 episodes.) But the cast now gels together nicely, especially the friendly rapport between Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli, miles along from where he started) and Eddy Monroe (Silas Weird Mitchell, the series' MVP). Grimm will never be a great show—it is too formulaic and tentative for that—but it has its pleasures, including its ever-expanding mythology and its sense of camaraderie. Given the current state of network TV, you could do a lot worse.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 40-31.