Top 10 TV shows of 2014

Ed Williamson,
Rob Young,
Christopher Ratcliff,
Iain Robertson,
Ali Gray,
Luke Whiston

31st December 2014

Channel: FX
Starring: Louis CK

Traditional narratives are taking a bit of a battering as the definition of what constitutes TV keeps stretching, in terms of viewing methods and episode lengths and numbers, while creators in turn keep on reinventing the idea of what the medium can achieve. But in Louie, the sort-of sitcom that Louis CK writes, directs, produces, stars in and then edits on his Macbook Pro, the idea of story is more or less irrelevant.

There is stand-up spliced in, but mainly it's him living a divorced parent's life in New York. Episodes stand alone in general, and a story in one might wholly undermine one in another. The same actor might play two characters, for example, or backstory from Louie's childhood might be rewritten to suit the needs of this episode.

It's not a lack of development in the traditional sitcom sense, in which the characters are returned to their normal state at the end of each episode to go again next week. It's in the sense that this is not a world where continuity is important, where actions have consequences, or even where scenes make sense. After a disastrous date with Louie, the woman runs off into a helicopter that's been waiting out of shot, and flies off into the air as he watches. His two children are white while their mother is mixed race, and it's a bit of a letdown when someone finally asks him about it in season four. (I liked that it had gone completely unmentioned.) He flies to China on a whim rather than going to visit his sister and spends New Year's Eve with a family on the Yangtze River.

None of this is explained and that's the point: Louie is on one level an absurdist piece, which you could justifiably read as a guy developing every little thing that happens to him into a quick vignette to shove into his show. More accurately, I'd say, it's a bold break with the idea that television needs to make structural sense in order to satisfy, and a triumph for FX in trusting an artist with absolute creative control. Ed

Channel: BBC
Starring: Danny Dyer, Adam Woodyatt, Kellie Bright, Maddy Hill, Matt Di Angelo, Danny-Boy Hatchard, Sam Strike

I know, I know, but hear me out. I knew months ago that Eastenders was going to feature high on this list, and it's not an attempt at controversy or a strident defence of "guilty pleasures". It's because no other show has engaged me so fully this year, and because it's done something I've never seen a soap do before.

Yes, I revisited the Square after a long hiatus mainly because I was interested to see how Danny Dyer fit in, but what surprised me was how unmissable it became and how quickly. Not because it's "an easy watch" but because Eastenders, under the stewardship of showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins, has pulled off something pretty bold. Soap is the land of quick pay-off: someone commits a crime, they're either dead or in jail a month later. Not here. The Lucy Beale murder, the primary narrative this year, occurred on Good Friday and won't be resolved until early 2015. It was a risk, but viewers have been accorded the respect of an attention span.

Their reward for sticking with it has been rich: new family the Carters (Dyer and co) have made the Queen Vic their own, with a Christmas-to-Christmas arc that took them through PTSD, a gay son coming out to his father (winning deserved plaudits for Dyer and Sam Strike), epilepsy (Maddy Hill as Nancy has not yet had enough to do, but is plainly the best actor in the world), a sensitively handled rape scene and its fallout, and a sister who's actually your mother. Dyer has reacted wonderfully well to the discipline of soap, and with the advantage of some character foreknowledge created the opposite of the tiresome geezer villain you expected. Mick Carter is funny, loving and – a character choice Dyer seems to have devised himself to emphasise the impact when his family later blows apart, to pub-smashingly good effect – brimmingly tactile, always hugging and touching his loved ones' faces.

Risks are taken in introducing ideas then leaving them alone for long enough that you forget, only to spring them on you weeks later, as with the conspiracy of Nick Cotton's faked death. It's like The Wire, basically. I mean, it's not, but you know what it's got? Ideas. And no one's bothered much with ideas in soap for a long time. Ed

Channel: NBC, Sky Living
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Caroline Dhavernas, Laurence Fishburne

I've been promising Ed that I'd write something about Hannibal for the best part of a year now. In a cultural exchange he wrote a hilarious piece about Ice Cube for Popdin. Now it's time for my end of the bargain. Which is basically a 250-word paragraph as part of a much larger rundown, 12 months late, which blathers around off-topic for a third of its length and finally when it comes to saying anything about Hannibal itself, stops dead in its tracks and goes "Woah, I don't know what the fuck to say about my favourite television series of the last couple of years." Sorry Ed. That's what you get for outsourcing.

So yeah, Hannibal is fucking terrific. The strengths of the first season continue and are doubly enforced throughout the second. The cinematography and art design are of a consistent and ridiculously high quality episode-to-episode, truly making beauty out of literally gut-wrenching horror. There's more of a dream-like quality this time around though, in particular the discordant sound design, which adds to the lucid way the two protagonists pop in and out of madness.

Mads Mikkelsen continues to be am oddly heroic embodiment of Hannibal, managing to do the impossible and eclipse every previous incarnation by becoming the definitive Lecter. The second season's playful foreshadowing where Will Graham is in the cage and Lecter the free man is brilliantly handled and gives Hugh Dancy something interesting to do other than brood. Other characters touched on in the canon of Thomas Harris's novels are given satisfying backstories and subtle twists that keep things surprising for die-hard Lecter fanatics. Check out Michael Pitt's lunatic Mason Verger, whose comeuppance doesn't hold back at all. Sick bastards.

There are so many surprises and reveals, but they all manage to feel like they were planned from the start. The flash-forward and the very beginning of episode one to the finale also places a huge ticking clock hanging over each of the 13 episodes, creating even more tension and urgency.

And that ending. My God ... the horror. I felt numb from the stress of it all. Imagine the Red Wedding, but more artfully composed and with an emotional resonance that somehow makes you sympathise with the vicious psychopath.

It's brutal, beautiful and gorgeous and, for me, television didn't get better than this in 2014. Christopher

Channel: HBO, Sky Atlantic
Starring: Thomas Middleditch, TJ Miller, Zach Woods, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani

The language of tech is still pretty arcane – to me, anyway – but the narrative of the tech startup is now well enough known to be compelling and still feel oddly familiar. And thanks to Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, we now know how to make a story full of conflict out of young men in hoodies coding. It's the modern-age American Dream rise-and-fall story, like Goodfellas with subroutines.

All that remained was to add the funny. In 2014 that's what Mike Judge did, and I love him for it. Silicon Valley doesn't feel like it's made by outsiders trying desperately to document the enfants terribles de nos jours (sorry), or shoehorn in jokes for a broader audience. (MySpace is old enough hat that joking about how it's old hat is old hat.) It feels like it's written by someone who understands the tech world, comedy, and storytelling all at the same time. And it is: Judge worked in Silicon Valley in the late eighties before going on to make King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-head, and Office Space.

Just as in The Social Network, there's a message of kids subverting what we've come to know as corporate America. A great idea is a great idea, and Zuckerberg-lite Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch) has one: a data compression algorithm he created almost by accident as part of his run-of-the-mill music app Pied Piper, and now everyone in town wants in. He can't deal with it alone, but his pitches are handled by his Sean Parker, Erlich Bachman (TJ Miller), the brashest and funniest thing in the show. ("You just brought piss to a shit fight!")

That we can experience drama in how quickly and effectively a file can be reduced in size is highlighted by the plot device of the Weissman Score: a fictional metric to measure lossless compression that provides an easy way for us to understand how well the algorithm works. The season finale presentation at a tech expo features Richard compressing a file on stage in front of hundreds, having rebuilt the now-obsolete Pied Piper compression engine the night before after an epiphany inspired by the rest of the guys brainstorming a mathematical model for how Bachman could jerk off every man in the auditorium with optimum efficiency. It's great drama and great comedy, mined from something that isn't inherently dramatic or funny. Ed

Channel: HBO, Sky Atlantic
Starring: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Liv Tyler, Chris Zylka, Margaret Qualley, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd

If you ask me, there's probably no god. Arguing about whether or not there is one is just one of the many ways in which the internet is an excellent use of your time, but as fun as it is to watch Richard Dawkins slug it out with Peter Hitchens in an intellectual blowhard contest, the question is fundamentally insoluble. Everyone, by definition, is agnostic.

HBO's The Leftovers, the best TV show of the year, takes the idea that humanity will always live in uncertainty and amplifies it with a "what if". What if 2% of the world's population suddenly disappeared with no explanation? Like The Walking Dead, only the survivors are in no visible danger, and are left only with gaps where some people used to be, and time to ask the big questions without the inconvenience of zombies to decapitate. Where did they go? Why were they taken? Why was I not? Were they being punished, or am I? Will it happen again?

Like the characters, you're left guessing, but more importantly you get to see how they react. The local priest (Christopher Eccleston) believes it was the Rapture, and can't accept that he was left behind, so sets about trying to out the sins of those who were taken, to demonstrate that they were being punished. Police Chief Kevin Garvey's (Justin Theroux) whole family was left intact, but his wife has joined The Guilty Remnant, the mute, white-wearing cult who believe they'll be taken next and want to remind those left behind what they've lost. His son has also disappeared to follow Alan Johnson from Peep Show, as good a Messiah as any.

As in man's search for meaning, the asking is more important than the answers. And what I like the most is that The Leftovers doesn't answer the question of what happened. Like the human race, it is agnostic. Having a curious mind is more essential than any answer you'll ever find. As I grow older I search more for meaning in life, and this pursuit is one that I don't expect will ever be over. But I also like watching TV, and The Leftovers provides hours of stimulus in both regards. Ed
Three HBO shows at the top of the list in four years. Maybe they're on to something, or maybe they slip me some cash every December. If they did they'd be suckers: no bastard actually reads this. If you're one of the ones who does, I love you and you can rest assured you can expect more of the same semi-regular blend of ill-informed yet self-important cultural commentary and jokes about Saul from Homeland's beard in 2015. Don't have nightmares; do sleep well.

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