Top 10 TV shows of 2014
Posted by Ed Williamson, Rob Young, Christopher Ratcliff, Iain Robertson, Ali Gray, Luke Whiston at 16:00 on 31 Dec 2014
Seriously though, here's the thing. This is the end of our fourth year since I took the helm of the good ship and, while it's a privilege on a par with being selected to represent the human race in an advance party to make contact with confirmed intelligent life on another planet, let me tell you: writing round-up lists of TV shows can get a bit dull. This is because, unlike with films or albums, they tend to include a good number of the same shows every year. This means you have to find something new to say about them beyond "Yeah, it's still good. They still kill zombies the whole time."
Yes, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Girls, House of Cards, Elementary, Sherlock, Justified, Toast of London, Homeland, Orange is the New Black, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones: all continue to be great. Boardwalk Empire and The Newsroom both finished their series very effectively. All deserve to be here; none of them is included.
So here are ten. Ten I've loved this year enough to write something about. Or beg someone else to write something about, at short notice, when they had far better things to do. Thanks a lot to everyone who helped out, both on this and throughout the year. I couldn't have done it without you. Well, I could, but it would've been even worse. Ed
Starring: Mackenzie Crook, Toby Jones, Lucy Benjamin, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Rachael Stirling
Despite having the online persona of a dynamic and complex individual, I am in reality a simple and deeply boring man who likes nothing more than to disappear into a hobby for two to eight months at a time. So it's heartening that between endless police dramas and cookery shows, the BBC found time to air a series seemingly aimed precisely at me. Set against the backdrop of small-town rural England, Detectorists charts the fortunes of Andy and Lance, a pair with nothing in common except for their love of metal detecting, and the odd pub quiz down the local watering hole. Aaand that's about it. OK good round-up guys haha same time next year?
No wait, obviously there's more. Driven by a quest to unearth their "Holy Grail" – a haul that will make their name in the detecting community – Andy and Lance spend their free time scouring fields in search of that elusive "beep". But when does a hobby become an obsession? And how far should you take that obsession when it begins to affect those around you? Ah, the crux. It's testament to Mackenzie Crook's writing skills that he manages to string out a fairly threadbare story featuring a small group of people into something as twisty and turny as any cop drama out there, and with enough emotional impact to belie the brisk 6x30 minute run, all the while delivering comedy that doesn't so much make you belly laugh as emit a gentle "ahh" sound.
With a second season commissioned for next year it should be clear that, in the finest tradition of the ever-so-slightly-tragic British comedy character, Andy and Lance's quest doesn't exactly end how they would have hoped – although that's not to say it doesn't have a satisfying conclusion (you'll have to watch it to find out what that is, however). What Crook has created with Detectorists is a nice open-ended world where adventure awaits even the most boring of us. All depends on your definition of "adventure". Luke
Starring: Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins
It's quite probable that Netflix know what they're doing. It's increasingly difficult to review the content on the streaming service without commenting on the service itself, but when they're serving up shows like Bojack Horseman - a 30-minute animation that practically begs to run from beginning to end without a break, like a champion thoroughbred - you have to doff your cap and bow to the new home of truly essential TV. Would the networks have even dared tickle Bojack's subversive underbelly? He looks fun and approachable from afar, but get up close and Horseman kicks like a mule.
The set-up is genius in its simplicity: there's a guy who used to be the star of an 80s sitcom but now he's all washed up and desperately clinging to the fringes of fame. Also he's a horse and he's sleeping with a pink cat who is also his agent. Bojack Horseman is funny, but you'd hesitate to call it a comedy per se. Because even though Will Arnett's deadpan delivery is perfectly pitched, and the humour running through the show is perfectly accentuated by Lisa Hanawalt's delightful anthropomorphic characters (the hens that lay eggs when surprised still kill me), Bojack is a series that has sadness running through its core. There is another show called Bojack Horseman in an alternate universe where all the gags are as cheesy as the ones Bojack himself used to perform in "Horsin' Around". But not here.
The plot hides a thick streak of melancholy - is there anything sadder than a deluded person trying to stay afloat? - and the expert writing by the show's excellently-named creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg (who sounds like three Ninja Turtles at once) makes you feel for Bojack as a character, not a caricature. Sure, there are killer lines ("There's nothing the least bit funny about stealing a meal from Neal McBeal the Navy Seal!") and overtly comic characters (Mr Peanutbutter's V-neck will never not be funny), but the episode in which Bojack misguidedly attempts to make amends with a wronged former colleague with cancer makes for just about the most uncomfortable television I've seen all year. Thanks to Netflix, I didn't have to wait a week for the gloom to lift. Ali
Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan
If we'd have been on the ball four years ago and done a top 10 shows of 2010 list you can be pretty sure you'd have found The Trip flirting near the top of it. Michael Winterbottom's semi-improvised comedy – with the help of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – was one of the most original, cleverest shows the BBC had produced in a long time. And then The Trip to Italy came along. And it was even better.
Travelling from Liguria to Capri, Brydon and Coogan embark on another food-fuelled tour as they follow in the footsteps of Lord Byron. The soggy Lake District is replaced by the sun-drenched Mediterranean and the Range Rover has been swapped for a convertible Mini. The good food, air of tragedy and constant barrage of impressions? Yep, they remain.
Coogan and Brydon, playing those exaggerated versions of themselves, are still two bitter, middle-aged comedians who perhaps believe they should be more famous than they are, locked in a constant battle of one-upmanship. But it's during their ad-libbed lunchtime chats where the success of the series lays. A discussion about their Mini leads to a Michael Caine-off, which quickly leads on to a dissection of The Dark Knight Rises where they talk about Alfred burying multiple "Batmen", liken Christian Bale's voice to a deaf man's and complain about understanding Bane. They're just two extremely talented entertainers who simply don't know how to switch off. And the results are extremely funny.
Running through the series, however, is an undercurrent of resentment and despair. These are two men who aren't quite ready to admit they're over the hill, despite their pastel shirts, cargo shorts and fedora hats saying otherwise. Crucially they're also both envious of each other's success. At one point Brydon belittles Coogan, comparing him to more successful comedians, but does so while hiding behind the safety of a Michael Parkinson impersonation. And later in the series Steve is too embittered to even bring himself to congratulate Rob when he announces he's won a part in a Michael Mann film.
If Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did nothing else but do impressions over lunch for the rest of their careers, I'd be quite happy. Rob
Channel: FX, Channel 4
Starring: Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
OK. Let's get this out of the way early on. I've never seen the film Fargo. I've been meaning to: it's on my Netflix Watchlist. So while others more familiar with the Coen Brothers' 1996 black comedy crime caper can proudly state "It's very similar, isn't it?" I don't have that luxury. Quite frankly I haven't the foggiest clue if that's correct or not. But what I can confidently say is Fargo, as a well-cast, totally unpredictable, brilliantly original standalone series with, I imagine, little connection to the movie, works excellently.
Having never seen the film, what stumped me at first is that the show isn't even set in Fargo. Instead we're dumped in the quiet frozen town of Bemidji, Minnesota, where we first meet Billy Bob Thornton's drifting hitman, Lorne Malvo. A despicable, evil man; a man who seems to single-handedly influence much of the sleepy town's population and turn them against one another, no more so than the stressed and fed-up insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, played superbly by Martin Freeman.
Meanwhile, good-as-gold Deputy Police Chief Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is trying to solve a series of local murders. Oh, and there's a couple of other hitmen running about too, and some FBI agents. There are multiple layers and subplots to Fargo's well-structured story but it never becomes overwhelming. And it all ultimately, and cleverly, leads back to Thornton's Anton Chigurh-like character and Freeman's ever-confused Lester.
Created by Noah Hawley with the blessing of, but zero creative input from, Joel and Ethan Coen, it's astounding how he's captured the tone and style of the directing brothers. The set-up, the darkly funny tone, the graphic violence and bumbling characters unwittingly getting themselves into all sorts of trouble: it all had sparks of No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading.
Will I be coming back for Fargo season 2? You betcha. Hopefully I'll have watched the film by then too. Rob
Channel: HBO, Sky Atlantic
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
HBO's True Detective was undoubtedly the most talked-about show of the year. The story of two detectives investigating a string of murders in Louisiana over the course of nearly 20 years gripped viewers over the course of its eight episodes. Featuring a career-best performance from man of the moment Matthew McConaughey, and what would be a career best from Woody Harrelson if he'd never been in Cheers, the focus of the show was the relationship between their two deeply fucked-up characters. Harrelson's womanising Martin Hart is impressive, but it's McConaughey's Rust Cohle that steals the show, philosophising on the nature of good and evil one minute, having trippy, drug-induced hallucinations the next.
It was by no means perfect - the denouement's a bit of an anti-climax if we're being honest, and the female characters (including the superb Michelle Monaghan) were given short shrift, all seemingly there to get either dead or naked. But for the most part this was thrilling television, and the six-minute tracking shot that closes out episode four is, quite simply, the best TV moment for many a year.
Due to the anthology nature of the show, neither McConaughey nor Harrelson will be returning in 2015, with two men desperately in need of a McConaissance, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn, taking over. The casting speculation was such that it gave rise to the year's most annoying meme. Take a picture of any two celebrities: Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, Keith Harris and Orville, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile (OK, maybe not), tag it #TrueDetectiveSeason2, and voila, millions of retweets and the adoration of the Twittersphere guaranteed. It stopped being funny after about 10 minutes, and yet utter fuckwits are still doing it. Have a look, or, alternatively, just bask in the magnificence of that tracking shot again. Iain