Of all the TV prospects this year, what looked as though it would have the steepest uphill struggle was an adaptation of a much-admired Coen Brothers classic, an untouchable source as you could likely find. So it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find that Fargo was the best new show of the year. Writer Noah Hawley starts off with a familiar set-up and character approximations reminiscent of the film, and references are sprinkled here and there. But the story here goes off in different directions, yet it still manages to encapsulate everything about the tone of the original. This is just another weird, funny, violent tale in the world of Fargo. And what’s better than getting something you didn’t think you wanted but now can’t imagine not ever having?
Some elements and threads don’t quite work, sure. But these can be largely overlooked thanks to some of the best performances of 2014. Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk and Colin Hanks were all brilliant, while Martin Freeman surprised as one of the slipperiest customers imaginable, proving even seemingly ordinary people can be capable of doing very bad things. However, it was Allison Tolman who was the breakout star, and as much as you enjoyed watching the bad guys try to get away with their crimes, it was impossible not to root for her. A resounding success.
After a frustrating first season, the second time round for Hannibal fulfilled its potential and then some. Dark and disturbing in its beauty, it’s deliciously ripe dialogue and characterisation is executed with such relish, especially whenever Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy lock antlers, that even its often ludicrous plotting is just part of what makes it such a joy to watch. Stripped for the most part of its meandering subplots and ‘killer-of-the-week’ constraints of the first season, season two is a sleeker beast, while the music, sound, and imagery remain as impeccably crafted as Hannibal’s culinary creations. And even for this hardened gorehound, there were at least two scenes that made me yelp and squirm like few before it. As sophomore seasons go, this takes some beating.
3. Mad Men
It’s easy to take Mad Men for granted these days. In a certain regard, it feels like a product of a bygone era, not just in terms of its setting, but a lot has changed in the television landscape since it made its debut. Yet, with its first half of its final season, it delivered as strong a string of episodes as it ever has. Devoted fans will have found much to unpack with some pivotal moments in history providing the backdrop for characters we have grown to love/appreciate/admire/despise (delete where applicable) as they ready themselves for a final hurrah. And for all the slow burn and subtlety of Mad Men’s opening seasons, so much is being paid off with this current run of highly entertaining episodes, that even in the unlikely event that it goes downhill from here, the journey has already been its own reward.
Against all odds, and probably against all good advice, 24 returned for a special mini-season four years after Jack Bauer last winced and grimaced his way through a terrorist threat. After three seasons that ranged from mediocre to rotten, the world had moved on. And so had I. Or at least that’s what I thought, as 24: Live Another Day (a nonsense Bond-style subtitle that never seemed to be used outside of TV listings) was a complete return to form. Moreover, it directly benefited from a halved run of episodes (no stalling for time or launching new lengthy arcs). As silly as ever (drone strikes and Wikileaks the hot potatoes of the day) but also self-aware, the staff this time knew exactly what the audience wants from the show and didn’t disappoint. 24 was always designed to deliver blockbuster thrills on a TV budget, but few seasons have ever offered quite so many fun and exciting action sequences as this one. And the added bonus of a London setting meant we get the thrill of hearing Jack Bauer say ‘West Ealing’ and ride the Underground and get to play the “he’d never drive across town in that time” game LA residents have previously enjoyed. If it wasn’t British enough, Stephen Fry played the Prime Minister for god’s sake. I must have laughed out loud three or four times each episode.
5. The Knick
As Boardwalk Empire reached its final season (still not seen any – one day though!), the hunt is on for the next vaguely old-timey period drama with sex and violence to take its place. Peaky Blinders was an early contender, its second season more focused than its first, now with added Tom Hardy – though it still feels like its overcompensating when trying to play with the ‘big boys’ and ending up just sounding a bit silly as a result. Penny Dreadful had an impressive cast and creative team for its gothic horror mish-mash, but never quite lived up to its premise. Rather it was The Knick that emerged the most impressive candidate. True, the whole season felt more like it was setting the scene for future episodes than offering plots to really sink your teeth into (he’s the troubled but brilliant doctor with a drug habit at the forefront of new advances in medicine at the turn of the 20th Century, but here comes a new African-American surgeon!). But there was still enough intrigue, energy (with director Steven Soderbergh’s cool clinical direction and Cliff Martinez’s pulsing electronic score) and entertaining period detail (look at them marvel at X-rays!) to keep me engrossed. And perhaps in season two they’ll finally reveal what the hell Clive Owen’s accent is supposed to be.
6. Black Mirror: White Christmas
A late entry (and a one-off at that), but not only was it good to have Black Mirror back, this might have been the best episode yet. While its twists and turns ranged from the fairly obvious to the slightly ridiculous, that didn’t stop it from being as amusing/upsetting as ever. Charlie Brooker’s writing, with its matryoshka doll-like structure and smart integration of future-tech without weighing the dialogue down with unnecessary exposition, remains the main draw, but excellent performances from its cast, especially Rafe Spall, Rasmus Hardiker and Jon Hamm in supreme charismatic slimeball mode, made the wait for a new Black Mirror instalment well worth it.
Beginning with a corking opening episode set decades earlier (that worked brilliantly as backstory, recap and a standalone thriller in its own right), Utopia 2 retained its dark oddball charm for another bout of grim comic book conspiracy. Though the second series was perhaps more epic in scope, it felt tighter and more ‘close quarters’, realising that a story need not be overly convoluted to be exciting. Either way you look at it, its cancellation was too late (it should have ended after series one) or too soon (it should not have ended with a cliffhanger). With David Fincher currently working on an HBO remake, let’s hope it matches the tone, look and sound of the original that made it so unique. But my advice would be to not wait around and get on the ground floor now.
8. Game of Thrones
Along with The Walking Dead (which enjoyed a very good run of episodes in 2014 with the last half of season four and the opening few of season five, but fell apart to an extent before the mid-season finale), Game of Thrones has solidified its position as one of the most popular shows in the world right now (if torrenting stats are accurate). However, with its key characters far too scattered round, even to someone unfamiliar with the source material it felt for the first time that the writers were trying to stretch storylines and fill up the time with detours and cul-de-sacs. A shame after a propulsive and exciting third season. Yet, if Game of Thrones became more about individual moments, it made sure those moments would be hard to forget, devoting great chunks of running time, even whole episodes, to single pivotal sequences. One of the few dramas that can pass as event television nowadays.
9. True Detective
Though never quite as good as the hype suggested – and these were my thoughts pre-backlash – its vision, inventive structure and performances made True Detective truly compelling. Eventually, for all its symbolism and pretentious monologues, it all boils down to a fairly conventional serial killer thriller. And yet few shows even across multiple seasons have managed to get quite so deep into its leads nor deliver quite so many memorable scenes as True Detective managed in eight episodes.
10. Doctor Who
With the goodwill generated by the series’ 50th anniversary and the highly entertaining Day of the Doctor special, Peter Capaldi’s installation as the new Doctor had a lot riding on it. But while the opening episode (directed by the usually capable Ben Wheatley) was something of a mess, it seemed to right and correct itself remarkably well. Much of this is down less to the storytelling per se as the perfectly pitched but always shifting relationship between the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman, now freed from a gimmicky arc). If Doctor Who had fallen out of your favour in recent years (though it has easily been more consistent now than it ever was after its reboot) or if you’ve even never experienced its charms and peculiarities, this series was a good starting point as you’re likely to get.
And something about comedy…
Being sorely behind on current running American comedy series and somewhat cruelly denied by Comedy Central UK failing to show many of its US counterpart’s key offerings (Review, Broad City, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Key & Peele), only a few Stateside shows got my attention. Enlightened’s second series finally got shown and was a fine send off for a show that burned brightly in its short lifespan. Of the new shows I did see, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver proved to be essential viewing, while Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley also impressed. And the third series of the increasingly disturbing Check It Out! With Dr Steve Brule might just be the best thing Tim and Eric have ever done, John C. Reilly’s Brule now easily established as a great comedy character.
Meanwhile, Vic and Bob’s House of Fools and Matt Berry’s and Arthur Mathews’ Toast of London proved the art of very silly comedy is not dead. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle returned for a third time for its strongest series so far, now with added Chris Morris. Cuckoo lost Andy Samberg, but gained Taylor Lautner who became an unexpected highlight. And The Trip to Italy, while admittedly and openly a retread of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s previous culinary expedition, still had me crying with laughter. Nick Helm’s sitcom Uncle surprised with its poignancy amongst the ‘bad role model learns to be good through child forced upon them’ tropes. And once you got past the generic title and set-up, The Walshes from Graham Linehan and Diet of Worms, had a very high gag hit rate.