Friday, January 30, 2015

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2014

And finally, the Manifesto presents its top 10 TV shows of 2014. If you missed them, here are links to our prior posts:

Nos. 50-41
Nos. 40-31
Nos. 30-21
Nos. 20-11

10. The Affair (Showtime, Season 1). The bare-bones plot of The Affair hardly covers new ground. Two married people find themselves drawn to each other, and the inevitable happens; resistance kicks in, passion overcomes, regret ensues, calamity strikes. We know the drill. So why does The Affair feel so fresh and vital? The most obvious answer lies in its dual perspective, an audacious, Rashomon-inspired technique that grants the show a sense of infinite possibility. Each episode begins from the point of view of one of its unfaithful participants: either Noah (Dominic West), a reasonably happy father of four summering in Montauk with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), at her father's luxurious estate; or Alison (Ruth Wilson), a sorrowful local attempting to piece her life back together, starting with her foundering marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson). Then, roughly halfway through, the show rewinds and presents the same basic events from the other character's point of view. It's a startlingly provocative device, and showrunner Sarah Treem wrings all manner of intrigue from it, repeatedly demonstrating how our perception can color our memory. (In the pilot, for example, each party recalls the other as the aggressor, which is why in Noah's segment, Alison wears a slinky white dress, while in hers, she's dressed more modestly in a T-shirt and jeans.) But The Affair isn't a one-trick pony, and as the series progresses, its overlapping structure becomes less prominent. It's an astute decision on Treem's part, because as novel as the show's design may be, it would eventually feel ostentatious if it weren't in service of compelling material. Thankfully, there's no shortage of that, as The Affair dives fearlessly into the lives of its hopelessly confused characters, who are continually beset by dissatisfaction, jealousy, and general paralysis. The whole cast is good, but it's Wilson's agonizing uncertainty that serves as the show's emotional fulcrum, while Tierney's wounded pride helps transform Noah's marriage to Helen from a plot point into something real and heartbreaking. (Helen's father, meanwhile, is played with characteristic haughtiness by John Doman, and yes, Wire fans, this means McNulty and Rawls are together again.) That's the key to The Affair, the way it presents seemingly familiar situations, then blurs and distorts them to dizzying effect. It's about things you've watched a thousand times before, yet it's unlike any TV show you've ever seen.

9. Justified (FX, Season 5). Is Raylan Givens a hero? Certainly he'd like to think so, and Justified would probably agree. But if Raylan's white Stetson is a metaphorical symbol as well as a sweet-looking hat, his penchant for extralegal tactics is indicative of the thorny and complicated nature of Justified's universe, one in which outlaws come in all sizes and the lawmen court bloodshed instead of cowering from it. It's a cops-and-robbers Western retrofitted for the new millennium's moral ambiguity, which is why its best character, Boyd Crowder (a magnetic Walton Goggins), is both a ruthless murderer and a cheerful rapscallion, walking the line while the real evil stirs up trouble. That evil arrives in Season 5 in the form of Daryl Crowe Jr. (a shockingly good Michael Rapaport), whose easygoing charm obscures the fact that everyone around him seems to die. The serialized plot of Justified's fifth season is a bit hectic, with a less identifiable through-line than the show's prior outings. Frankly, though, the story on Justified is just gravy. It's really about paying homage to Elmore Leonard's trademark combination of pulp action and elaborate verbiage, and it continues to do so with remarkable flair. The show's best scenes tend to involve tense conversations, whether it's Raylan (played by Timothy Olyphant with sly humor and colossal swagger) exchanging ominous pleasantries with Boyd, or riffing amiably with Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, hysterically understated), a behind-the-scenes player who never gets his hands dirty. (The series' weakness remains Boyd's fiancé Ava, though Season 5's immensely promising finale augurs change for the better heading into its final go-round.) There's a scene midway through the season in which Raylan and a confederate corner a band of scheming criminals in a bar that might as well be a saloon, and everything seems to be building to a storm of bullets... only then one of the gunmen delivers an intricate analogy involving King Lear. "I don't know what's going on here," Raylan confesses, "but I gotta admit, I'm interested." With a show as vividly detailed and effortlessly entertaining as Justified, it's hard to blame him.

8. Hannibal (NBC, Season 2). From a purely visual perspective, Hannibal is the most stunning show on TV. It's a grotesque paradox, how the series can discover such twisted beauty while plunging into so much death, but the show's aesthetic is simply magnificent, jolting its audience with odd angles and redolent colors. (The sound design is similarly outlandish, though it isn't as uniformly effective.) It's been this way from the beginning, but as striking as the show's first season was, it could occasionally become overwhelmed in its sensory immersion, losing track of the stories and characters at its center. Season 2—which opens with a crackerjack fight sequence, then flashes back months earlier before steadily climbing back toward that point—corrects that error, fusing breathtaking imagery with the profound battle for one man's soul. That man is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and the two men clawing over him are Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, rock-solid) and, of course, Hannibal Lecter, played with sublime strangeness and exactitude by Mads Mikkelsen. There's much more to it, of course; showrunner Bryan Fuller is technically adapting Thomas Harris' novels, and he imports many of its misshapen characters, including Mason Verger (Michael Pitt, munching scenery) and his sister, Margot (Katharine Isabelle). (Fuller's most inspired maneuver in this regard remains turning unscrupulous journalist Freddie Lounds into a woman, played with spunk and style by Lara Jean Chorostecki.) Mostly, though, Hannibal's second season is about Will and whether he will finally succumb to the seductive darkness that, thanks to years spent profiling sadistic killers, has become a part of him. It makes for a harrowing season of television, expertly plotted and entrancingly filmed. Hannibal Lecter is brilliant, precise, and even sensitive; in manipulating his puppets, he is also without mercy. In this, and in all other ways, Hannibal is worthy of its namesake.

7. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 4). Television is a democratic medium, which is why many series feature large casts; unlike a two-hour feature, a TV show has the luxury of time, allowing it to spread itself across a wide range of characters. The problem with this model, especially as shows expand in size with subsequent seasons, is that some characters are inevitably less interesting than others, and the series' imperative to devote coverage to all areas invariably results in a peaks-and-valleys rhythm, one in which the superior material is weighed down by listless filler. Game of Thrones should suffer from this malady, because Lord knows, the show is fucking enormous. But it escapes. Not because it doesn't follow the same structural formula, mind you. It's because the show's subplots don't range between good and bad so much as great and greater. Everything on this show is fantastic: the treachery in King's Landing, where Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, now and forever the show's MVP) must try to outwit the family that despises him; the messiness in Meereen, where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, improving with every episode) discovers that seizing power is easier the wielding it; the glum honor of The Wall, where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) must reconcile his loyalty with his duty; the starkness of the Riverlands, where Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, MVP-in-training) and The Hound (Rory McCann) prowl about as Westeros' greatest tandem of deadpan comedic assassins. It's all riveting. (Even the Bran storyline, a dead zone in the books, achieves crackling excitement on screen, thanks to the barren Icelandic locations and some shrewd adaptation choices.) The execution is uniformly spotless (partly because of to the unlimited budget), but what's truly epic about Game of Thrones is David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' uncanny ability to streamline George R.R. Martin's gigantic tomes into fleet, action-packed episodes that never feel lumbering or exhausting. Consider "The Mountain and the Viper", arguably the series' best hour to date. It closes with a jaw-dropping action sequence, a supremely visceral fight of kinetic beauty and graphic bloodshed. But just before that, it makes time for Tyrion's showstopping "Smash the beetles" monologue, a marvelously low-key speech that ponders the meaning of human choice and existence. This is an absolutely mammoth show, overwhelming in its scope and ambition. But it also features innumerable moments of character work that are touching, funny, and soulful. Game of Thrones is the biggest thing on TV, but the reason it's so good is that it sweats the small stuff.

6. The Honourable Woman (BBC/Netflix, Season 1). In today's era of long-form storytelling, many TV shows are growers; they take their time setting things up, seducing you with whispers and suggestion rather than immediate action. Then there are shows like The Honourable Woman, which features such an explosive pilot—a ferociously suspenseful and exciting hour that establishes its murky world of heightened stakes and political intrigue with decisiveness and economy—that it's impossible to stop yourself from clicking straight through to the next episode. Seriously, this thing had me hooked within 30 seconds, as it opens with Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing, if you can believe it, a British baroness of Jewish ancestry, and playing her well) issuing a pensive voiceover about trust—a monologue the series cleverly repeats over its "Previously On" montages going forward—while an act of brief and shocking violence occurs on screen. From there, The Honourable Woman throws us right into the maelstrom, introducing us to shadowy spies (including the invaluable Stephen Rea), corrupt politicians, and a house full of secrets. The series revolves around the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it's admirably specific about its material; showrunner Hugo Blick seems to know this region and its bloodthirsty operatives. But these characters would be lost at sea anywhere, and The Honourable Woman creates a clouded, corrosive atmosphere of compromise and capitulation. Yet as electric as the show feels, it's also patient, gradually revealing the full weight of its decade-spanning story with merciless calculation. It's a breathless viewing experience, made all the more powerful with heartfelt performances—in addition to Gyllenhaal and Rea, Lubna Azabal is superb as Nessa's most devoted friend, while Janet McTeer is flawlessly icy as Rea's boss—that evoke a quiet sadness, contrasting curiously with the show's relentless momentum. The Honourable Woman traffics in hidden motives and long-simmering feuds, where vengeance begets vengeance and conciliation is futile. As a result, it's really all about one thing: loss.

5. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7). Can a program that's generally regarded as one of the best shows of all-time somehow be underrated? Perhaps I'm not properly taking the pulse of the American public, but I feel like people are failing to appreciate just how extraordinary this show is as it enters its seventh and final season. (Well, sort-of final—Season 7's back half will conclude this April.) Mad Men has always been about change and, more specifically, its characters' unwillingness to change. When Season 7 opens, Don Draper (Jon Hamm, still peerless) is still behaving as though he's a high-profile creative partner at Sterling Cooper, even though he's forced to funnel his pitches through Freddy Rumsen. His daughter is growing up, his wife is living across the country, his office is occupied by another man—when is he going to wise up that things are different? But even if Mad Men is too subtle a show to grant Don a philosophical epiphany, this season nevertheless feels like it's charting the final evolution of one of television's greatest antiheroes. There remain moments of piercing pain—Don ends the season premiere huddled against the cold on his balcony, looking out forlornly at a world he struggles to comprehend—but there are also slivers of genuine happiness and hope. Most of those revolve around the beating heart of the series, Don's relationship with his protégé, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, never again referred to as "the daughter on West Wing"), a partnership that has forever vacillated between warm and frosty, respectful and mistrustful. It's no different here, but the lasting impression is one of ultimate understanding, and the silent, tender dance the two share near the end of "The Strategy" feels like the apotheosis of their first meeting all those years ago. Mad Men is full of quietly devastating moments like that, from Don's teasing meal at a diner with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), to his excruciatingly honest conversation with Megan (Jessica Paré), the woman who wants so desperately to make him happy but never quite can. Of course, Mad Men is about more than just Don Draper, and Matt Weiner continues to extend his generosity to the entire cast; and so, we can bask in the twitchy arrogance of Pete Campbell, the unwavering resolve of Joan Harris, the proud loyalty of Roger Sterling, even the ongoing follies of Harry Crane. But Don is the show's center, and as the midseason finale's ingenious conclusion makes clear, Weiner has positioned the final seven episodes to serve as a personal reckoning. Don may never find peace, but I for one hope he does. It seems only fair—he's brought us so much joy.

4. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 2). Masters of Sex should seem small. It's a slow, talky series, one whose most explosive scenes involve two people chatting in a hotel room. It has no violence, no death, and—at least until Season 2's gut-punch finale—no real plot twists. Yet Masters of Sex is so thoroughly about people—how they relate to one another, how they love, how they fight, how they fuck—that it feels like a watershed show for American television, one that demonstrates how a ruthless focus on complicated characters can be just as intense as any actioner. Its heroically flawed protagonist, Bill Masters (Michael Sheen, impossibly persuasive), is a selfish, spiteful man, one whose monstrous pride repeatedly impairs his noble pursuits of scientific discovery. His counterpart, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, as painfully sympathetic as Sheen is crisply calculating), is more socially adept, recognizing how to use her good looks and silver tongue to her advantage, but she herself is frustrated, troubled, and arrogant. The show's best moments—especially "Fight", a semi-bottle episode that doubled as the single best hour of television I saw all year—involve these two proud, principled scientists bickering in that aforementioned hotel room, baring their bodies and their souls to one another. You see quite a bit of flesh; after all, Masters of Sex is decidedly a show about sex, and about all of the stigmas and taboos that the ritual entails. But it's also about how people hide from one another rather than confront the truth, and how society's entrenched mores discourage open and honest communication. There's quite a bit going on in Season 2—Masters' wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, an odd but interesting screen presence), gets involved with the Civil Rights Movement, while Johnson deepens her peculiar friendship with Lillian (Julianne Nicholson, pitch-perfect)—but the show always comes back to the two pained, volatile figures at its center. They don't want to change the world, just make it a bit more comprehensible. Likewise, Masters of Sex just wants to understand these characters, but in the end, it does more than that. It makes them human.

3. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 2). Let me just come out and say this: Tatiana Maslany's performance on Orphan Black is the greatest television performance I've ever seen. But maybe I should say "performances", since Maslany isn't just essaying one character; she's playing a bunch, and she's doing it with astonishing craft and subtlety. Every different person she portrays is unique, but not completely so—somehow, amid the revolving door of accents and transformative physical tics, Maslany weaves a common thread through her disparate portrayals, a fierce intelligence that each clone wields in different ways. It's a miraculous effort that enhances the show's abiding "nature vs. nurture" debate, one that continually asserts itself as the clones circle one another with wariness and confusion. (Doh, I just broke the first rule of Clone Club.) Maslany is so good that her greatness threatens to overshadow the quality of the show she's carrying, a bracing amalgam of new-age science and old-school crime fiction. Season 2 deftly expands the fascinating mythology from the first season while also improving the quality of its villains, one of whom is naturally played by Maslany herself, only she isn't quite a villain because she instinctively feels a pull toward her genetic brethren, even though she's been raised to be cruel and callous toward her fellow clones, which means that... whoa, my head is spinning. But that sort of metaphysical quandary is par for the course for Orphan Black, a freakishly brainy show that also liberally dispenses visceral thrills. As if that's not enough, it is routinely hilarious, thanks of course to Maslany's superb comic timing and deadpan facial expressions. If you ever hear anyone grousing about the state of modern entertainment, just point them toward this show, a funny, heady, well-plotted marvel of killer effects and sharp storytelling. It's the kind of wildly ambitious series that never could have existed as recently as 10 years ago. But to quote one of the show's more peripheral but nevertheless compelling characters: It's a brand new day.

2. Fargo (FX, Season 1). "How could that possibly work?" That was me after learning that FX intended to reboot Fargo for television. You can forgive my skepticism, as it's not like the Coen Brothers' '90s crime masterpiece cried out for improvement—it's as fresh and funny now as it ever was. But Noah Hawley does everything right in this masterful 10-episode miniseries, beginning by not hewing too closely to the Coens' narrative. Certainly, Fargo mimics certain features of its theatrical counterpart—the Midwestern location, the odd characters, the collision of good and evil—but it stands perfectly well on its own, conveying its chilling, off-kilter crime saga with admirable weirdness and estimable craft. The acting is scary-good: Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman completely inhabit their characters—Thornton as Malvo, a supremely composed force of darkness, and Freeman as Lester, a meek insurance salesman who discovers a talent for manipulation—while newcomer Allison Tolman lights up the screen with her warmth and sincerity as Molly, a plucky and resourceful detective. Where Fargo really excels, however, is in its execution. Every episode features multiple scenes of superlative style, whether it's an office-building rampage viewed entirely from the exterior or a mid-blizzard shootout cloaked in snow and haunting ambiguity. This isn't a TV show; this is a 10-hour movie that FX somehow stole the rights to. Of course, it would be meaningless without interesting characters, but Fargo teems with color and life, grappling with the moral weight of its blood-soaked trajectory even as it plays up the opportunities for farce and black humor. Yet there are more layers still, none more disturbing than Lester's ascendance from pathetic weakling to criminal mastermind, a climb that coincides with his descent into moral oblivion. Fargo is a cold, forbidding place, and Fargo is a stark, ruthlessly well-made show, one that hums with eerie precision. "Walk away," Malvo barks in one scene, a rare moment where this malevolent predator seems rattled. He means business, but you wouldn't dream of missing what happens next. Besides, you wouldn't dare turn your back.

1. The Americans (FX, Season 2). The Americans defies categorization. Is it a geopolitical thriller? A domestic drama? A coming-of-age tale? A tragic love story? A dark comedy? It is, of course, all of these things, but to describe this show as the mere sum of its electrifying parts does it a disservice. It is bigger than that, and its grandeur derives directly from the marriage that forms its malleable, fascinating nucleus. The show's phenomenal first season explored the frailty of that marriage, and of the crisscrossing web of emotions that Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, in what will surely be her career-defining performance) felt for her mostly steadfast husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys, astonishingly expressive). Their union feels more secure at the beginning of Season 2, but that doesn't make them feel safe. On the contrary, they now have something to protect, and one of the many threads that The Americans gently tugs on over the course of the season is whether Elizabeth and Phillip can maintain a truly happy marriage while simultaneously fulfilling their duties to the motherland. (In case you missed it: They're Russian spies. Consider yourself caught up.) That tension extends, like a nefarious tendril creeping out of the darkness, toward their children, specifically their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor, suitably convincing), a blossoming teenager yearning to channel her newfound sense of civic responsibility into something productive. Could she become a spy? Would Elizabeth and Phillip let that happen? Would they want to?

Those questions provide the setup for next season, but in the meantime, Season 2 has plenty else to tackle. The plot is astounding in its meticulous construction—there's a reveal in the finale that shatters everything you thought you knew about one character's sense of family and honor—but on a micro level, the show is just electric. As gifted at The Americans is in mining emotional drama from its rich premise, it's equally capable of producing stunning set pieces. What's remarkable about these mother-of-god moments is that they're rarely traditional action scenes; in fact, most of them involve inaction, as when Elizabeth watches, essentially paralyzed, while one of her comrades is slowly strangled, or when a spy ruefully poisons her lover and then attempts to ease his passing while fighting back tears. Indeed, the two most breathtaking moments of the season aren't even action scenes at all. One involves Phillip's tense and chilling conversation with a pastor, an exchange that makes him question his role as a husband and father. The other, amazingly enough, is a sex scene, when Elizabeth asks Phillip to don one of his undercover disguises and then gets more than she bargained for. It's the latter passage that epitomizes The Americans' unique greatness: the way it can meld domestic relations and spy craft into something profound and devastating.

In the premiere of Season 3 of The Americans, which aired two nights ago, Phillip and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, drowning in pain)—an FBI agent who is Phillip's ostensible friend and most dangerous potential enemy—attend a self-help conference, where the speaker preaches about the dangers of living through "non-experience". It's gobbledygook, and both Phillip and Stan get a good chuckle out of it, but from a meta perspective, the guy might be onto something. The Americans is not a show you can absorb through the prism of "non-experience". You cannot watch this show passively. It attacks your nervous system and goes straight to your head, overwhelming you with its impeccable plotting and exhilarating action. And then, just when you think you've protected yourself, it stops your heart.

And for completists, here's the entire list of rankings in one place:
1. The Americans (FX, Season 2)
2. Fargo (FX, Season 1)
3. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 2)
4. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 2)
5. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7)
6. The Honourable Woman (BBC/Netflix, Season 1)
7. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 4)
8. Hannibal (NBC, Season 2)
9. Justified (FX, Season 5)
10. The Affair (Showtime, Season 1)
11. The Knick (Cinemax, Season 1)
12. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 1)
13. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 1)
14. You're the Worst (FX, Season 1)
15. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 2)
16. True Detective (HBO, Season 1)
17. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 4 (back half) and 5 (front half)
18. Sherlock (BBC, Season 3)
19. Veep (HBO, Season 3)
20. Happy Valley (Netflix/BBC, Season 1)
21. The Newsroom (HBO, Season 3)
22. Girls (HBO, Season 3)
23. Transparent (Amazon, Season 1)
24. The Missing (Starz, Season 1)
25. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 5)
26. The Bridge (FX, Season 2)
27. 24: Live Another Day (Fox, Season 9)
28. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 2)
29. Peaky Blinders (Netflix/BBC, Season 2)
30. Louie (FX, Season 4)
31. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 1)
32. Olive Kitteridge (HBO, Season 1)
33. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 2)
34. Married (FX, Season 1)
35. Homeland (Showtime, Season 4)
36. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 1 (back half) and 2 (front half))
37. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 3)
38. Outlander (Starz, Season 1)
39. Looking (HBO, Season 1)
40. Getting On (HBO, Season 2)
41. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 3 (back half) and 4 (front half))
42. Downton Abbey (BBC/PBS, Season 4)
43. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 4)
44. Community (NBC, Season 5)
45. The Strain (FX, Season 1)
46. The Spoils of Babylon (IFC, Season 1)
47. Tyrant (FX, Season 1)
48. American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, Season 4)
49. True Blood (HBO, Season 7)
50. The League (FX, Season 6)