You know how when you repeat a word many, many, many, many times in a row, it can begin to lose its meaning and become strange? What does “many” really mean? How can that collection of sounds mean “a lot”? For that matter, how can “a lot” mean “a lot”? What’s language anyway?
I have not, for the record, been smoking with the Broad City girls. It’s just that at this time of year something like this always happens to me with the word best. What is best? Something that is scientifically, mathematically, objectively the best? But then how would one scientifically, mathematically, objectively measure what’s best when it comes to a TV show? What looked best? Was acted best? Was scripted best? Addicted me best? What does best even mean? Why does it sound so much like beast?
Every year, I get to this point, and I think to myself, screw best. I’m going to stick with love—subjective, unscientific, mathematically immeasurable love. So with that it mind, here is a list of the TV shows from 2014 that I loved … best.
1. Broad City
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s buddy comedy about the exploits of two besties navigating a somewhat surreal New York City is hilarious and toked up. Glazer’s character does whatever she damn pleases. Jacobson’s struggles to do whatever she damn pleases. Together, they make friendship look nourishing and supportive, wacky and spirited, and very GIF-able. The show is casually radical, with its structural loosy-goosiness, its belief that being good-natured is as cool as being jaded, and in the IDGAF attitude of its lackadaisical heroines. But most relevantly to its No. 1 spot, it made me laugh and laugh, which this year started to seem like the most challenging feat for any television show to accomplish. Just visualizing Abbi high out of her mind, scrunching around on the floor of a dentist’s waiting room is enough to set me off on a giggle jag, for the umpteenth time.
In the post-Sopranos era, TV has put a reverse spin on an old cliché: It’s not whether the ends justify the means, but whether the means justify the end. That is, does the experience of watching a show outweigh the fury/disappointment/dissatisfaction that a large percentage of the audience is apparently destined to feel after any given finale? I was very much one of the dissatisfied when it came to the True Detective finale, and yet watching Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson talk-talk-talk their way through the Bayou on their way to finding the Yellow King was as exhilarating and all-consuming a viewing experience as I had all year. And while, yes, I wish the Yellow King were more than a bunch of dirty rags hanging off some sticks; that the show’s female characters were more than dead, shallow, or nutty; and that the unforgettable Rust Cohle was looking for something more than New Age healing, True Detective nonetheless ensorcelled me. When time is a flat circle, what do ends count for anyway?
The members of the Pfefferman clan, the Los Angeles family that is the subject of Jill Soloway’s fantastic Amazon series, have such a specificity that months after watching the show, I still half-expect to run into one of them in real life. The impeccably acted series mixes exacting realism and a churning plot (and a dirty sense of humor) as Maura née Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as a woman to her three grown children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), each already in the midst of his or her own various emotional crises. The show captures the messiness, the delight, the importance, the inter-connectedness, and the awfulness of family, those people who know you better than you might ever want to know yourself.
Srugim, a subtitled Israeli drama about the dating lives of five Modern Orthodox Jerusalemites who are so observant they won’t touch, let alone sleep with, someone of the opposite sex, was my ultimate binge-watch this year. Nothing much happens, and yet I devoured all of it. Modern in so many ways, the show’s characters—Yifat, Hodaya, Reut, Amir, and Nati—are also so old-fashioned that they have revived the marriage plot. Getting married is what they—and their families and God—are fixated on. This puts an enormous pressure on their dating lives, a pressure that makes every clichéd dating scenario—from the blind date, to reuniting with an ex, to a one-night stand—feel newly important and unexpectedly raw. It’s got the stakes of a 19th-century novel, but a 21st-century setting. I can’t recommend it more highly.
The best show on network television went through a surprising cast upheaval toward the end of its fifth season and emerged as focused, sharp, sexy, cynical, and made-for-adults as ever. As I said last year, The Good Wife makes other procedurals look like they aren’t trying hard enough—and it makes most serialized dramas look like they aren’t sophisticated enough. This season, the show’s sixth, is following up on material laid out in the pilot, with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) running for political office. It took her six years to accrue not only the necessary experience and the brand name but also the comfort with the spotlight, the moral flexibility, and the taste for power. The Good Wife has made it abundantly clear that power—and all the adult pleasures that come with it—tastes good.
In a year when many, many people tried to make romantic comedies and failed, Stephen Falk’s dirty, twisted love story succeeded. You’re the Worst is about two semi-awful, fully jaded people with great chemistry who may or may not be perfect for each other. Jimmy and Gretchen (Chris Geere and Aya Cash) do almost every lowdown, emotionally stunted, hurtful (and, of course, funny) thing to one another they can, not just because they are broken and sick—though they are both broken and sick—but because they are terrified and overwhelmed by how much they like each other. Love makes you do crazy things, and the craziest just might be thinking that this time it will work out.
Each gorgeous episode of this Web series about a weed dealer and his large clientele is between five and 15 minutes and focuses on one of the dealer’s clients—who are portrayed with rigorous, often satirical, clarity. The show is a kind of who’s who of mostly upwardly mobile Brooklynites, including a secretly homeless girl, a cross-dressing dad, a lonely shut-in, and an asexual magician. Like Broad City, High Maintenance is a show about stoners, but unlike Broad City it is exact and precise instead of ramshackle and loopy. Every episode of High Maintenance feels perfectly formed, delivered via Vimeo polished and gleaming, further proof that Shakespeare was onto something when he identified brevity as the soul of wit.
In its second season, Jenji Kohan’s Orange in the New Black continued to be one of the most flat-out entertaining shows on television—despite having an explicit social mission and being set in a dreary women’s prison. Orange drew back further in Season 2 from affluent, college-educated white girl Piper (Taylor Schilling) to explore in more detail the inmates around her, women of every shape, color, age, and sexual orientation. If this second season could be almost too kind to its characters—the inmates at Litchfield are everything under the sun, except boring or irredeemable—it also contained the most disturbing revelation thus far: that sweet, spacey, boy-crazy Morello (Yael Stone) is actually delusional, unbalanced, and capable of planting a car bomb under a man’s car. As well as we seem to know these women, there’s always more to know.
FX’s hugely enjoyable, emotionally rich spy series about two deep-cover Soviet agents mixes pleasurable genre thrills—tradecraft, dead drops, wigs, chase scenes—with heady insight into less flashy, but more fundamental institutions: marriage, parenthood, citizenship. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are raising their two American kids in the ’burbs and this puts them in a kind of perpetual limbo: They are double agents acting against the interests of the United States, but when it comes to their children, their cover is often who they really are. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the show’s sex scenes, which are better—more psychologically astute and kinky, without being gratuitous—than any on TV, including a memorable 69, which was somehow as romantic as it was surprising.
I did not love everything about this season of Louie. The six-parter about Louie’s relationship with a woman he could not communicate with didn’t go much of anywhere. The most talked about episode of this season, “And So Did the Fat Lady,” felt like a revelation to some and condescension to others. The exploration of Louie as a creep—a guy who would date a woman he couldn’t communicate with, who needed to be told fat women are people too, who would grope the love of his life—was dropped so he could heroically rescue his family from a hurricane and begin a healthy relationship with the same women he had recently accosted. And yet all of these flaws speak to what remains so nourishing about Louie: its willingness to be flawed, experimental, emotional, and not fully baked. Louis C.K. does not always know exactly what he’s trying to communicate and he’s not always trying to communicate any one thing. And that makes Louie complicated, expansive, life-like, even when it’s not at its very best.
See all of Slate's coverage of the best culture of 2014 here.