Lauren Giordano/The Atlantic The Atlantic's editors and writers pick their favorite moments from Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, Looking, and more from 2014. (Spoilers abound; consider this the first and only warning.)
Adventure Time, “Is That You?”
The seventh season of Cartoon Network’s trippy wonder Adventure Time has continued to plumb stranger and stranger narrative depths, with a host of great episodes shifting focus from heroes Finn and Jake to the show’s deep ensemble. But Adventure Time’s most satisfying 11 minutes were this time-bending wonder, where interdimensional dream god Pismo (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) engineered his resurrection through dream pickles, time loops, and causality. Yes, if you don’t watch the show, the plot of any Adventure Time episode sounds like utter lunacy. But “Is That You” was the cartoon at its very best—quietly emotional, brazenly hallucinatory, and whimsical without ever seeming cheesy. It’d likely come off as nonsense to a newcomer, but the thriving, complicated universe Adventure Time has created in its seven seasons means it can deliver emotional payoffs like this one.
Showtime The Affair, “Episode 1”
It’s unfair how good the premiere of The Affair is, not just in comparison to the otherwise generic pilots of the fall 2014 season but also in comparison to the show itself, which hasn’t been able to match its opener for edge-of-your-seat captivation since. When it was released online in October, much was made of the Rashomon-like structure and zeitgeisty take on the sobering state of the modern marriage, which followed Gone Girl and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. The show’s two-points-of-view narration highlights how everything is open to interpretation: Was that a meet-cute or a meet-creepy? A sexual assault—or post-argument coitus? Did Noah initiate or Alison? The conceit could easily be annoying, but instead the ambiguity fosters a constant state of sexy suspense, a climactic tension way more effective than when the pesky murder investigation gets developed later on.
The Affair isn’t dead yet (it’s returning for a second season), and while its pulse has weakened in recent weeks, the pilot remains premium-content television at its best: Sixty minutes of nothing happening, compellingly. I’ll keep watching, hoping the next season will reach the magnificent, baffling heights of its abstract opener.
The Biggest Loser: Second Chances 2, “Finale”
NBC The Biggest Loser is, like many reality shows, based on a premise that is inherently grotesque, even as it touts its credentials when it comes to “transforming” lives and confronting the obesity epidemic. The ultimate goal isn’t a healthy weight; it’s a $250,000 cash prize. It was only a matter of time until one contestant took it too far.
In February, that contestant was Rachel Frederickson, a 24-year-old former athlete who walked into the finale as a gaunt, grinning specter of her former self, visibly shocking a number of the show’s professional trainers in the process. On the scale, she became the first competitor to finish the show underweight at 105 pounds, simultaneously clinching the prize and illuminating the murky morality of mining weight loss for mass entertainment.
FOX Bob's Burgers, "The Kids Rob a Train"
It's sometimes hard to believe our collective good fortune that we're on five seasons and counting of Bob's Burgers, the best family sitcom on TV and very often the funniest show in a given week. In "The Kids Rob a Train," the Belchers take a weekend wine-train excursion, where kids are "allowed but not welcome." Obviously, Linda's the enthusiastic one while Bob just wants to relax. But with their parents slurping and swishing wine in the front, Tina, Gene, and Louise are thrown in the "juice caboose" along with occasional chum Regular-Sized Rudy. The best Bob's episodes see the kids engaging in oversized adventures involving what's essentially kids' stuff, and so it is here.
The prospect of four hours locked away in a no-fun train car is utterly unendurable, particularly with a chocolate fountain so tantalizingly close in the dining car. So the kids plot to defy their smug jailer, Ethan, and score them some chocolate. Where many comedies succeed by going big, Bob's kills it when it goes small, and that's never truer than when the affable, asthmatic Rudy is involved. Contrasting his sweet calm with Louise's agent-of-chaos hollering is nothing short of delightful. Meanwhile, Bob and Linda's sommelier nemesis proves to be a perfectly pompous foil, one who's subject to a nicely disgusting comeuppance.
Comedy Central Broad City, “Stolen Phone”
The greatest trick Broad City pulls every week is coming off as shaggy while simultaneously executing a complex comedy caper that dovetails to a satisfying, messy conclusion. It’s having its pot cookie and eating it too, and we should be all the more delighted for it. “Stolen Phone” tracks Abbi around New York as she tries to recover her lost cell before a cute guy texts her back, while Illana has a one-night stand with a beautiful, airheaded boy (and Lincoln hangs out with a lot of puppies, which gives Hannibal Buress the opportunity to show us he can even have electrifying chemistry with random dogs).
Everything I love about Broad City, probably the best new comedy of 2014, is best encapsulated in “Stolen Phone.” Its perspective on New York felt fresh and grounded without losing the satire (like Illana and Abbi’s bafflement upon visiting the Upper East Side). Its female leads are rollicking, flawed, lovable three-dimensional women, of whom there are still not enough on television. And Hannibal Buress talks to a lot of dogs. Hannibal Buress should probably have a whole talk show where the only guests are dogs.
The CW The Carrie Diaries, "This Is the Time"
It's been almost a year since The Carrie Diaries left forever, and there's still a short, big-haired hole in the TV landscape because of it. Somewhat improbably, Carrie hitched a ride on Sex and the City nostalgia and created TV's best teen drama. The show was always a bit more than it needed to be: more fun than its competition; smarter; sweeter than expected; far less forced than its predecessor series in its attempts to be shocking or to create a cultural statement.
"This Is the Time," the second-last episode of the series, sees Carrie and her best friends attending prom at the Waldorf. Like all the greatest prom episodes, it sees its characters at various crossroads in their young lives, but it also makes time for the kinds of character moments that separate really good shows from the pack. Mouse and Donna's unlikely friendship gets a nice spotlight, for example. Walt takes a brave step back to Bennet and out of the closet. Carrie takes her own brave step down the road to the kind of self-sufficient city gal that we know she's going to become. One of the tragedies of not continuing with the series is we'll never get to solve the mystery of how this Carrie, surrounded by great friends and close family, ended up losing all these people en route to that big advice column. We get a taste of that here, as her dad cuts her off when she chooses a job over college, but we're only left to imagine the rest.
Cristela is a family sitcom. That both refers to its format—a highly traditional multicam half hour starring a brassy, fun comedienne—and its specific sense of humor, delightfully biting in all its oxymoronic glory. The pilot shows off the best parts of both Cristela and star Cristela Alonzo: good jokes with great delivery by a compelling, lovable lead.
Cristela isn’t afraid to laugh along with its audience—and to make viewers feel like part of the family. The first episodes have been uniformly good, but it’s the premiere that stands out largely because it’s so assured of itself. This is Cristela, staid format and all. It doesn’t care if you like it—but for your sake, it hopes you do.
Enlisted, "Pete's Airstream"
It feels self-aggrandizing to say that the TV shows that you love and that get cancelled never really had a chance, too pure and good and brilliant were they for such an awful, unappreciative world. But that's how it feels for fans of Enlisted, the one-and-done season of heartfelt, army-barracks comedy from Kevin Biegel. It never managed to get off the ground, despite appealing leads (take a look at Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young as three brothers assigned to rear-detachment duty and try not to swoon even a little) and a heartland-friendly concept. Alas, all we can do now is remember the good times ... like "Pete's Airstream," which deploys a plot about Pete trying to find some solitude away from the doofuses he lives with in service of poking into Pete's PTSD from active duty. It's a story that nails the funny/sweet/poignant/funny again vibe that made the show so great. Even better, the episode gets a boost from a subplot about "lone wolf" Perez learning to loosen up and have fun with the girls.
Game of Thrones, “The Mountain and the Viper”
Even as someone who digested the first three seasons of Game of Thrones the three days before the fourth season premiered, I was ill-prepared for the level of mercilessness that concluded the Oberyn-Mountain trial by combat (it was a cruelty only rivaled by the slew of brain-explosion puns and Princess Bride allusions that followed). And because I had unfortunately heard about the tragedy that would come at the end of “Rains of Castamere,” Oberyn’s death was, essentially, my Red Wedding.
Yes, other things happened in this episode: Sansa finally wised up and proved a worthy (if newly vampy) rival and ally to Little Finger. Reek transformed into Theon to help Ramsay Sn—I mean Bolton capture Moat Cailin. Danaerys uncovered Ser Jorah’s betrayal and banished the heartbroken knight. But because this show is consistently filled with strong moments and plot development such as these, it doesn’t feel cheap to turn to this episode for its most memorable storyline—the jail-cell chat, the battle, the fall of the Red Viper, the chillingly delivered death sentence.
It’s a wound fans (or at least I) will never fully recover from; the best I can do is imagine Oberyn spinning his spear in the land of eternal summer, where the Dornish wine flows as fast as free as blood in Westeros.
CBS The Good Wife, "A Few Words"
There were more truly great episodes of The Good Wife this year than can be counted on one hand. Much has been said about installments like “The Last Call” (a worthy wake for a main character) and “Oppo Research” (an hour of thorny personal dynamics, with a brilliant centerpiece performance from Julianna Margulies). But season-five episode "A Few Words" stands out for its ambition—it was easily the best-directed hour of The Good Wife in 2014. It has a playful relationship with time—flashing back and forth as Alicia Florrick prepares a speech about the days of her life just before the first season began.
“A Few Words” changes viewpoints of past events to reveal more; not just events, but feelings and emotions. Director Rosemary Rodriguez did ace work—the resulting episode is an entertaining, thought-provoking, stellar piece of television.
NBC Hannibal, "Mizumono"
There is no show like Hannibal on television. Or on streaming services. Or in your worst nightmares. But it's not the violence and gore that sets it apart. ... Okay, it's not just the violence and gore that sets it apart. True, Hannibal gets away with more artfully arranged revulsion than you'd ever expect on network TV, even tucked away as it is on Friday nights at 10 p.m. where no one is watching. But that kind of brazen grand-guignol quality is merely one quality of a show that's been fearless in all aspects, from plotting to characterization and beyond. The second season sent ostensible protagonist Will Graham past the edge of outright villainy, put Hannibal Lecter in genuine peril, and tied up its characters in psychological knots and let them wrangle their own ways out. The audience was put through the wringer repeatedly, whether they were losing beloved characters or having to watch a guest star claw his way out of the belly of a horse.
"Mizumono" is the best episode of the season because it brought all that horror to a head ... and then took it further. As a possible series finale (as all season finales of low-rated network shows must double as) it offered a bold crescendo to Will, Jack, and Hannibal's inevitable three-way collision. As a possible season finale, after which the show is expected to pick up the pieces and resume, it was downright insane.
Showtime Homeland, “13 Hours in Islamabad”
It’s hard to think of a show whose pendulum swing between sublime and ridiculous is as dramatic as Homeland’s. The first seven episodes of the fourth season encapsulated everything that has historically irked me the most about Carrie and co., from the manipulation of mental illness for dramatic effect (finger guns, anyone?) to the prioritizing of personal storylines over professional ones.
But then everyone started doing their jobs again and the show remembered it was about counterterrorism and everything culminated in this Benghazi-inspired episode in which the Taliban stormed the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, killed 36 people, and escaped with the names of all the covert CIA agents in the field. Yes, it was preposterous, and yes, it felt like Die Hard in the best way, but I’m starting to think that this is what Homeland should have been all along: a batshit crazy, well-crafted action drama rather than a subtle analysis of the personal stakes of the war on terror. When you do something so well, why fight it?
House of Cards, “Chapter 14”
Netflix No one saw it coming. We could have, because Frank Underwood is nothing if not despicable, but it was viscerally shocking nonetheless when, in the first episode of season two, he pushed his former lover, Zoe Barnes, right into the path of an oncoming Metro train, killing a major character and giving me countless commuting nightmares in the process.
“Chapter 14” embraced brutality wholeheartedly, from Freddie lasciviously describing how his pigs are slow-bled for extra flavor to Claire’s threatening the life of Gillian’s unborn child by withholding her health insurance and outing Gillian to her baby daddy’s wife. Never has the Underwoods’ credo been more visible than in the episode’s closing focus on Frank’s new cufflinks: appropriately engraved with the letters F and U.
The CW Jane the Virgin, “Chapter Four”
It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Jane the Virgin has restored my faith in shows with traditional values. In an era of world-weary vigilantes, detectives, and zombie killers, the character Jane arose angelically, bafflingly, from The CW (bless them) with a devotion to honesty, the Catholic Church, keeping her artificially-inseminated child, and sticking to a vow of chastity until marriage. The virgin-birth conceit is preposterous, yes, and that’s the show’s point and pleasure as it repurposes the plot twists, tongue-in-cheek narration, and pop-art sets of a telenovela while proffering some wholesome moral lessons along the way. Jane the Virgin succeeds by balancing grounded family drama with the murder, romance, and pulp, and no episode did that better this season than Chapter 4.
The episode’s a reversal of affairs: Straight-laced Jane’s having pregnant sex fantasies about the father of her child (not her boyfriend) while her flirty mom is struggling to own up to the identity of her father. Which really means we get the best of everything: Jane seeing Rafael with a perpetual halo, Andrea Navedo getting serious, and lots and lots of Rogelio, her self-absorbed telenovela star dad. The way it treats the Catholic Church’s hilarious attempts to stay hip isn’t bad, either. I laughed, I welled up, I literally said “bravo” to my computer at the end of the episode. Get thee to Jane the Virgin, there’s no better, or less guilty, a pleasure.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians, “Kim’s Journey To the Altar”
E! Despite the dress fittings (in which Kanye West tried to make his mother-in-law’s neckline more revealing) and the scenery (gorgeous shots of Paris at night) and the family drama (in which Rob Kardashian ditched the wedding and flew back to Los Angeles in a huff), for me, the highlight of the KUWTK Kimye wedding episode was seeing a brutally hungover Khloe sitting on the edge of the runway next to a private plane, trying not to throw up. It was an oasis of unglamorous truth in a desert of micromanaged, perfectly made-up Kardashian-West fantasy.
This episode was ostensibly filmed by “friends and family” of Kim and Kanye to get around the latter’s objection to TV cameras invading his private life (to be with the one you love, sometimes you have to love the ones they come with, whether that’s Kris Jenner or an entire E! production team). Although an inordinate amount of time was spent discussing hair (Kylie’s was blue and Bruce couldn’t decide if his should be up or down), ultimately the episode ended with a wedding, which is all any post-modern, paparazzi-infested fairytale can ask for.
HBO Looking, “Looking in the Mirror”
Strangely naïve and a bit self-obsessed, Looking’s protagonist Patrick is the kind of charmed rookie who brandishes the “boyfriend” label before thinking to Define The Relationship. Looking itself, however, is not so oblivious. What initially came off as a low-key tale of San Francisco gay men mumbling turned out to be a pretty daring and hilarious exploration of sexuality, society, and peri peri chicken.
The sixth episode exposed characters’ dumber, yet typical, assumptions about the world, and the results were both cringeworthy and moving. Dom despairs of turning 40—that’s when Grindr sends you a death certificate, he says—but his older business partner just scoffs and talks about doing mushrooms. Later at the birthday picnic, Patrick indulges a host of very-2014 prejudices: mocking effeminate voices, insisting that his working-class boyfriend harbors greater career aspirations, and tacitly endorsing the idea that he’s dating a Mexican hairdresser to prove something to himself.
That Mexican hairdresser, by the way, is the best thing about Looking so far. As played by Raúl Castillo, Richie wears his various identity markers proudly, rejects every attempt to belittle him, and just seems like a really cool guy. His self-assurance contrasts with Patrick’s friend Agustin, who, while trashing Richie, mentions his own Cuban heritage for the first time all season. When confronted about his racist nonsense, Agustin finally breaks out some Spanish to try and defuse the situation. “Now I'm your hermano?” Richie replies, awesomely. “Man, fuck you.”
HBO The Leftovers, “Guest”
People griped about its messy structure and its Lindelof weirdness, but I loved The Leftovers, in spite (because?) of its bleak, relentless nihilism. Never was it darker or more enigmatic than in this Nora-centric episode, in which Mapleton’s most bereaved woman bought groceries no one would eat, paid a prostitute to shoot her in her (Kevlar-protected) chest, and took a quick trip to New York for a conference of businesspeople who’d somehow forged careers out of the Departure.
Carrie Coon was perhaps the show’s strongest performer, giving Nora layers upon layers of barely suppressed emotions, from grief to rage to desire. At the conference, which also served as a neat reminder that even the most pointless of human activities will survive the apocalypse, Nora lost her identity (her nametag, and her status as a survivor) then clawed it back again via booze, pills, and a hug from Holy Wayne, for better or for worse.
AMC Mad Men, “The Runaways”
Every time you think you know Mad Men, Matt Weiner shoots off Ken Cosgrove’s eye or unleashes a lawnmower as a not-so-gentle reminder that sexy, sophisticated New York advertising in the ‘60s wasn’t nearly as put-together as Joan’s tailored suit dresses are. That’s the case with the latest season’s fifth episode, which contains a horrifying moment that Weiner’s been building up to. He delivers it in one bold, broad, and terrifying stroke that viewers perhaps should have seen coming.
But far from being an episode about a single twist, “The Runaways” is at its best revealing how its characters are transitioning into new, more mature roles. Sally doles out some of her best sass yet to Betty, while Betty airs a controversial political opinion at an otherwise paradisiacal suburban party. Megan asserts herself and her new California-fabulous lifestyle in yet another glorious, freewheeling addition to the annals of Weird Stuff that Happens When Don Goes West. All in all it’s an episode of well-placed moments showing characters coming into their own in the new era, a dynamic that is just so iconically Mad Men. And throughout, the office’s massive new computer hums ominously, which gives Weiner ample opportunity to make jokes about early tech anxiety, but also to hint that people were right to fear the coming of the machine.
FOX The Mindy Project, “I Slipped”
“I slipped,” Danny tells Mindy.
She does not believe him.
Hilarity ensues, as do—The Mindy Project being a primetime network sitcom—many double entendres. “My office only has one entrance, and I don’t think that’s enough for you anymore,” Mindy tells Danny, indignantly.
Let's dispense with the euphemisms. Danny offers his explanation while he and Mindy are in bed; “I Slipped” is about anal sex. The episode is good because it explores a subject that, at least within the primetime network sitcom, has remained taboo; it is great, though, because in the end its story has very little to do with the taboo in question. “I Slipped” is concerned not with sex itself, in all its dimensions, but with sex as one of many frontiers in a relationship. What happens to romance when novelty—all those firsts, tiny and large—inevitably gives way to familiarity? The episode opens with Mindy and Danny settling into the easy domesticities of coupledom; to complete the tableau, he delivers a nose hair trimmer to her in the bathroom. “I’ll be out in 20,” she informs him.
This is not romantic. Or is it? Either way it's the other side of intimacy, the stuff of comfort and companionship and nose hair, and Mindy and Danny are, in their own ways, both eager and terrified to embrace it. And that’s where “I slipped” comes in. Here is a new thing! thinks Danny. I don't want to be boring! thinks Mindy. These thoughts lead to a series of absurdities as the episode's real double entendre plays out: Did Danny really slip? Or did he just slip up?
Questions like that made “I Slipped,” understandably and productively, controversial among critics. For Mindy Kaling, though, the objections miss the episode's point: to explore the intimate and the awkward as they, inevitably, collide. The “uncomfortable places,” Kaling pointed out—in relationships, as in everything else—are “where comedy lives.”
Modern Family: “Las Vegas”
ABC There’s something about the use of farce in television comedy that can be very stressful (usually when it’s Frasier Crane-related). But the joy of Modern Family is that you can almost always bank on nothing bad happening, which is what made the fifth season’s adults-only excursion to Vegas such a gift.
The episode featured guest appearances by Fred Armisen, Patton Oswalt, and Stephen Merchant (the latter’s turn as a “bath butler” was one of the weirdest, funniest cameos in recent memory), as well as a climactic final sequence involving endless entrances and exits, mistaken identity, accidental loss of clothing, and the “Kilty Pleasures,” an all-male troupe of Scottish-themed strippers. In other words, all of the fun of the farce with no unnecessary angst.
New Girl, "Landline"
FOX Every once in a while, a show that has hit its stride will step out with an experimental episode that exists not to drive the plot but to be, simply, fun. For New Girl, “Landline” is that episode. The main story goes like this: It turns out that the only area of the loft that gets cell reception is a corner of Nick’s bedroom (the corner, as comedy requires, that is occupied by his bed). Jess decides to solve the problem—and further her ongoing cause of roommate unity—by purchasing a phone the roommates can share. Jess being Jess, the phone ends up being a landline: a bulky, perky specimen of analog uncool.
The landline, perched on a table in the middle of the loft’s massive living room, takes on a mystical quality—a crystal ball of plastic blue—and begins to reveal wacky truths about each character. Nick, at home all day while everyone else is at work, ends up taking messages for the other roommates, and relishing his self-imposed secretarial duties. Winston turns out to have a preternaturally smooth Phone Presence—a fact he uses to give an interview, posing as Schmidt, to the perfectly named magazine Business, Man!. Schmidt, under the phone’s influence, becomes even more Schmidty. (“I'm just excited to have a new number—home, work, and cell. Damn, I'm reachable!”)
Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the phone’s magic is practical: Having to share the thing—the loft’s connection to the outside world, with all its seductions and confusions and inconveniences—forces the roommates to come together as the pseudo-family they are. Though, per the logic of the Weird Episode, the landline is scuttled come the next episode, and no one ever speaks of it again.
Netflix Orange Is the New Black, “A Whole Other Hole”
“Some people collect buttons or Taco Bell Chihuahuas; I collect orgasms.” The words of an Apatow comedy bro? Barney Stinson? No, it’s Nicky Nichols of Litchfield women’s prison, kicking off a competition with Big Boo over who can sleep with more of their fellow inmates. Obsessing over one’s “number” is an old pop-culture trope, but it’s normally the domain of pick-up artists, teenagers, or man-eaters—not bored queer women behind bars.
The sex-off is just one of the raunchy, refreshing throughlines in the fourth episode of the Netflix show’s second season. Another: Some of the less privileged among the inmates apparently missed the sex-ed class that would have taught them where their “pee hole” is, which necessitates a lecture on genital anatomy. The fact that said lecture comes from the transgender woman Sophia isn’t just a clever writers-room choice—it’s plausible storytelling. “I designed one myself,” she explains.
B-plots like those are amusing reminders of why Orange Is the New Black is so radical. We just haven’t seen these stories told on TV, ever. Same goes for the wrenching centerpiece of the episode, when viewers learn of gum-smacking sweetheart Lorna Morello’s backstory, involving stalking, mental illness, and wild deceptions. At the start of the hour, you root for her because of who she seems to be; by the end, you're sympathetic because of who she actually is; once again, Orange Is the New Black has shown you something new.
USA Playing House, "Bird Bones"
After having made six episodes' worth of wonderful, underappreciated comedy for NBC with Best Friends Forever in 2012, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair made it back to TV this year with Playing House. Once again, the pair played best friends (Maggie and Emma) helping each other through some life changes. This one looked like it might end in disaster as well, but USA just renewed it for an eight-episode second season. Which is great news, because how frustrating would it have been to lose another comedy blessed with Parham and St. Clair's easy, unforced chemistry, especially in an episode like "Bird Bones."
Maggie and Emma get invited to brunch with Tina, the titular "Bird Bones," wife to Emma's ex and object of Maggie and Emma's high-school mockery. It's a classic awkward sitcom setup made daring by the way it explores an ugly side to Maggie and Emma's close friendship, particularly that they can get mean when cloistered together. Poor high-strung Tina makes herself an easy target, with her surface-perfect life and meek demeanor, and obviously Emma has another agenda in trying to figure out how this simpering thing scored her ex. As happens, however, a series of comedic mishaps brings the women closer together—then farther apart—then closer together at the end. Maggie and Emma's friendship is a force of nature, and those forces can be destructive sometimes. Other times, those forces can be well-versed enough in Oprah's hoarding-themed episodes to help a friend out.
Pivot/ABC Australia Please Like Me, "Margherita"
Please Like Me, the Australian comedy from young creator Josh Thomas, tried to do a lot at once in its second season. This proved frustrating at times: There was an entire section of the show—basically, any plotline involving the mental hospital and its patients—that felt disconnected, as if it belonged in a different series entirely. Yet creator and star Josh Thomas brought it all together in the second season finale. It was Please Like Me at its best: hilariously sad and sadly hilarious.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in its climax sequence: Josh and current love interest Joel taking care of a very inebriated Patrick—Josh’s previous love interest. In just one scene, Thomas captured two real difficulties: the simple frustrations of dating, and the very serious frustrations of mental illness. “Margherita” is great on its own, but even better in terms of the rest of the season; it was the episode where Thomas finally said what he wanted to say all along.
Lifetime Project Runway, "The Highest Bidder"
Reality TV shows tend to run far beyond their primes, and Project Runway is certainly no exception. Season 13 was a total snooze, filled with bizarre judging decisions that rewarded mediocre talent, all while spinning nonsensical “narratives” for the season. And yet for once, with six designers remaining in the game, all the bells and whistles didn’t drown one another out. Instead, “The Highest Bidder” paired an oddball challenge—bid on storage units in teams to create a mini-collection of three looks—with pure personal drama to great effect.
Korina, the season’s designated villain, wound up in a last-minute sew-off against Char, who had been virtually saved from elimination by series mentor Tim Gunn twice. Korina’s hate for the situation manifested itself in an ugly garment and delicious personal drama. It was uncomfortable, challenging, and painful for all involved. But it was impossible to look away.
Comedy Central Review, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”
There’s comedy that makes you cringe, and then there’s Andy Daly’s Review, which every week made me gasp in horror and cover my eyes in fear at Forrest MacNeil’s latest endeavor in the name of art. Asked to “review” life experiences by online fans, Forrest begins the episode eating 15 pancakes at a diner—a fairly sickening, pointless experience—then goes back to the studio and gets his next challenge: “What’s it like to get divorced?”
The conceit of Review—Forrest puts himself into embarrassing situations to try and understand what it’s like to, say, be a racist or rob a bank—was funny to begin with. But this episode, the third in the season, raised the stakes in a fascinating way. Review was pitched almost as a sketch series, with Forrest doing three or so “reviews” per week. But when he approached his wife in the kitchen and out of the blue told her he wanted a divorce, it became clear that we were watching a show about a demented man set out to ruin his life for reasons too arbitrary to understand. The episode’s ending gag is too tragically hilarious to spoil, and you might not believe that you could laugh so much at one person’s anguish. But you’d be wrong.
Scandal, "Randy, Red, Superfreak and Julia"
ABC Like the final product or no, there’s no denying Scandal sped off the rails in its third season. To continue at that velocity would have been a show-killer—so a reboot in the fourth season was necessary. Yet Shonda Rhimes and her team pulled off something far more remarkable: a successful relaunch that didn’t forget what came before it.
Olivia Pope and her team are left nursing battle scars in the season opener—and despite how they all feel about one another, they still come together to bury their fallen friend. After an episode dedicated to making them likable again, Olivia, Abby, Huck, and Quinn stand together for a brief, beautiful moment at Harrison’s funeral. Then, they part. Healing takes time when so much blood has been spilled. This is just the first step—but what a beautiful first step it is.
Showtime Shameless, "Emily"
Watching Shameless and liking Shameless (not nearly the same thing) requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the viewer. It's so much of a heterogenous mixture that even when it's at its very best, there are entire characters and subplots (usually the Frank stuff) that are pretty terrible. The show's dedication to its own ugliness can feel forced, but the sludge in which this show wallows makes the moments of greatness shine brighter.
"Emily," the season's penultimate episode, saw Fiona sent to prison after a season's worth of downward-spiraling, Lip made into a bad-boyfriend scare tactic for his girlfriend's parents. Frank's storyline isn't even its usual braying, horrid self; in a post-surgery delirium, he mistakes a sick little girl for his own daughter, Fiona, and apologizes for being a rotten dad. But it's Ian and Mickey's defiant coming out in a bar full of drunk old cretins (Mickey's family, particularly his awful dad) that makes the episode special. In the context of all of Shameless’s gloom, the smallest of victories, even those that present as a barroom brawl, can seem downright beautiful. The sight of a bloody-mouthed Mickey, handcuffed on a police-car hood, screaming defiantly to his dad about taking it up the ass was better than any televised gay wedding.
ESPN 30 for 30, "The Price of Gold"
January's Winter Olympics in Sochi made for the perfect timing, and ESPN's 30 for 30 the perfect platform, for what now stands as the definitive take on the 1994 Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal, a story that remains every bit as riveting today as it was then. While NBC would go on to air its own doc during the course of the Olympics, that one with Kerrigan's participation (and thus her tacit approval), "The Price of Gold" was superior, both as a document and as a piece of entertainment.
What director Nanette Burstein understood was exactly what she had in Harding, an endlessly fascinating subject who maybe still doesn't understand how she comes across. With footage from as far back as Harding's early teen years, the portrait of her is tragic, defiant, off-putting ... and yet strangely endearing. She's positively delusional, thinking if she'd only landed a triple-axel at the Olympics, that's what she'd be remembered for, but her anger at a figure-skating establishment that had always treated her as white trash is palpable and relatable. It's an eye-of-the-beholder thing, but it's also a testament to Burstein finding every bit of humanity, good and bad, beneath the tabloid legend.
Too Many Cooks
The Internet regularly offers up weird, subversive quirks of art that gain rapid followings and just as quickly suffer a heady backlashes. Too Many Cooks somehow transcended that dynamic. Yes, once admiration for this Adult Swim one-off created by Casper Kelly reached fever pitch (it's past four million views on YouTube), there was some mild grumbling that it might be overrated. But by and large, Too Many Cooks felt like an inspiring success story. Airing at four in the morning during the channel's "Infomercials" block, Too Many Cooks is a deceptively simple mockery of overlong '80s TV theme songs that builds up a horrifying throughline before spinning off in all kinds of wacky directions. Also, Snarf the magic cat is there.
If you haven't watched Too Many Cooks yet and you're still reading this description, stop. It's really best experienced with as little information as possible. Don't even look at the runtime on YouTube. Just soak in its charming weirdness. Then show it to someone else, sight unseen. If Too Many Cooks is the future of television, then we have much to look forward to.
Amazon Transparent, “Looking Up”
“I’m just here to make you happy.” It’s maybe the single most beautiful line uttered in Transparent, a tender, funny, and smart show about a family of pathologically selfish people trying to be a little less pathologically selfish. Often their individual journeys don’t align: When one Pfefferman experiences a rare moment of clarity, another may be too deeply self-involved to care. And yet each family member, in his or her own way, struggles to care and be cared about. When they succeed, it’s often in painful and small ways.
In this penultimate episode, Shelly’s “done” with taking care of a bedridden, dying Ed, who seems to be an inconvenience for all. The family handles the uncomfortable question of morality awkwardly, with self-righteousness and, sometimes, bizarre tone-deafness.
And so it’s perhaps fitting that the real gut-punch moment of the episode is preceded by an irony-free, wordless dream sequence: Ed rises, wobbling, from his bed, and stumbles out the front door completely unnoticed; a hazy, gorgeous POV shot follows him ambling out into the soft lights of the early evening, filled with the sound of crickets and splashing of ducks. And then there's a flashback to his earlier days with Shelly, when he tells a goofy joke and says “I’m just here to make you happy.” The utter selflessness of the line feels devastating—and it’s this deft handling of humor and sadness, delusion and self-awareness, regression and growth that makes Transparent the best show to debut in 2014.
HBO True Detective, “Who Goes There”
“Easy, easy … 30 seconds in and out, 30 seconds in and out.”
In the way that the episode title “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” means nothing to a lot of Mad Men viewers until you say “The one with the lawnmower,” this True Detective episode title means nothing until you say “Six-minute tracking shot.” It may feel unfair to spill more digital ink on an episode with most-hyped scene of the most-hyped show of 2014.
True Detective earned praise and scorn for its grandiose cinematography, bouts of self-serious fatalistic cerebro-babble, a bayou-intrigue plot, and an often-grim but ultimately profound cop-buddy duo at the center of it all. But push this all aside and you get something “Who Goes There” crystallized and negotiated so well, particularly in its final moments: atmosphere. One minute, you’re lulled by the gloomily beautiful palette of colors and Rust Coehle’s throaty drawl; the next, the show’s spun you up in a ring of dread, mystery, and sheer awe that made the series’ debut season so hypnotizing for many.
Vanderpump Rules, "I Lied"
Vanderpump Rules plays like the heedless twentysomething child of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—louder, nastier, but also more aware about things like creating your own narrative on reality TV. At this point, it'd be rather naive to tut-tut about what's real and what's not in shows like these. When you're living your life as if it's a primetime soap opera, where does "real" even enter the discussion? There was a point in the second season when the cast—waitstaff at Lisa Vanderpump's Sur restaurant in L.A.—peered out from the kitchen at Lisa and her Real Housewives pals staging a contentious lunch at the restaurant and commented on what they were doing wrong/right.
Do we need a Bravo-lebrity 2.0, where the participants are even savvier about their own drama? Maybe not. But sometimes the net result is Stassi finding out that Kristen and Jax had sex (twice!) while Tom was asleep in the other room, and Kristen engineered a Haldeman-worthy cover-up before Stassi finally figured it out, staged an ambush, and then backhanded her frenemy with more precise fight choreography than we got in half this summer's blockbusters. In that case, it's worth it.
HBO Veep, "Clovis"
Watching Selina Meyer go through the tedious, often humiliating business of serving as the nation's second in command was already pretty hilarious, but Veep went and topped itself in its third season by taking Selina out on the campaign trail. "Clovis" sees Team Meyer (sans a few members, particularly Dan Egan, who is nearing the end of his angry little rope back in D.C.) make a stop at the titular tech company, an incredibly thin gloss on Google. The brilliance of the episode lies in how it manages to mix the obvious with the surprising. Having earned its reputation as TV's preeminent spewer of hateful barbs, there were high expectations for Veep to skewer tech culture, and from the first Lego station, they don't disappoint.
But rather than rest on cheap gags about hoodies and ping-pong, Veep also pokes at some darker corners of the conflicts of interest between tech, business, and government. "We consider ourselves post-tax," says the Clovis CFO, as her boss lobbies Selina, plying her with free iPads for her education initiatives. That such pointed social criticism sits side by side with porn jokes and the usual Jonah slams ("Jonah with money. It's like if Hitler could fly.") is what makes Veep as special as it is.
AMC The Walking Dead, “Consumed”
The fifth season of The Walking Dead was a surprise from start to finish for its narrative restraint and emphasis on developing character so as to build up satisfying stories. There was no better example than “Consumed,” which spent its entire time with two of the show’s most compelling characters (Carol and Daryl) as they rove through Atlanta trying to find their kidnapped compatriot. It was almost a bottle episode, but set in an entire city, flashing back to critical moments in Carol’s life that informed the haunted, lonesome warrior she had become.
In an earlier season of The Walking Dead, a quiet hour like “Consumed” might have felt like the result of a show stalling for time, but here it came off like a necessary breather in an action-packed arc. It played to all of the show’s strengths, using the empty, apocalyptic Atlanta landscape to generate tension, being as spare with dialogue as possible, and balancing on a knife-edge every moral decision the pair have to make. Pretty much every episode of The Walking Dead was good this season, but “Consumed” was artful in a way the show couldn’t have pulled off even a year before.
FX You’re the Worst, “Fists and Feet and Stuff”
It’s tough to pick one episode from You’re the Worst’s splendid first season, so it makes the most sense to take the finale, which demonstrated all the surprising strengths of this under-the-radar anti-romcom. Acidly thumbing its nose at the traditions of the genre, You’re the Worst charted the halting romance of two emotionally crippled narcissists in Los Angeles who slowly realize that their lives have progressed to the point where they might actually want to settle down. Kinda. “Fists and Feet and Stuff” was the final episode in a loose three-parter to wrap up the first season that saw our heroes Gretchen and Jimmy break up (hardly a surprise, given their poor communication skills) and get back together (much more of an accomplishment).
You’re the Worst is not without its swooning romance, it just comes in a different package. In the finale, Gretchen tells Jimmy that they’re like angry pitbulls who can somehow only interact with each other. It’s a harsh line, but delivered by the toxically charming Aya Cash, it makes the heart beat quicker all the same. There’s room for many kinds of love in the world after all—and the best kind of optimism always comes from the most pessimistic sources.
~~~~ When you are born, you cry, and the world rejoices. Live so that when you die, you rejoice, and the world cries. ~~~~ You cannot hate people for their own good.