Here's to an absurdly bountiful year for TV. 2014 had it all — bloody dramas, wasted comedies, bad detectives, stoner broads, sex doctors, purple weddings, transgender dads, clone wars, spies and politicians and jailbirds. Plus the occasional demented aerobics dancer. So here's a celebration of the year's greatest small-screen moments.
The clones band together to fight the power and dance. Tatiana Maslany dazzled all season, one actress playing an army of rebel clone girls on the run from the sinister Dyad Institute that created them. There's never any breathing room in Orphan Black — the camera is always screaming "Don't open that door" or "Watch out for traffic" or "For the love of God, stay away from the garbage disposal." But Orphan Black thrives on that frantic pace, as the clone-club sisters turn that post-adolescent "What the hell am I doing here?" paranoia into one long ridiculous punk sci-fi caper.
A lost VHS tape from the 1987 Jazz Fit Championships, starring a couple of spandex-rocking aerobic dancers named Flash and Lightning. There's also a director holding up cue cards. ("Just got some bad news. Keep dancing.") Oh, it's not pretty inside the cut-throat world of competitive jazzercising. Key & Peele had so many killer moments this season, mostly playing on their favorite theme, the grim side of masculinity — the massage, the "slap ass!" relapse, that unspeakably depressing visit to the mattress store. ("Who got that good D?" Sweet mother of Christ.) But there's something particularly creepy about that "Aerobics Meltdown" sketch. Maybe it's the spandex.
The highlight of a mixed season — Marnie and Jessa might as well be named Fast and Forward by now. But the "Flo" episode is one of Girls' best, as Hannah tries to give her dying Grandma Flo (June Squibb) the sort of sentimental deathbed scene only a twit as maudlin as Hannah could imagine. No, Flo isn't buying it, and neither is Hannah's ever-delightful salt lick of a mom. (But Adam is, because he's an even bigger twit than Hannah.) It's a pleasure watching these tough old bags argue in the hospital and recoil from the collegiate simp they spawned.
The New Mexico desert, 1943: A team of scientists races to invent the atomic bomb before Hitler does. The Manhattan Project's mission: bring an end to World War II and begin a new age of…what exactly? They have no idea, which is what makes Manhattan so unnerving, with its Mad Men-style vintage drama of nuclear physicists and spouses and hookers and spies. The saddest moment comes in the first-season finale, when one of the scientists struggles to explain the future they're building in the desert. "There will never be another war. We're writing the prologue to a new era — the history of peace." For a moment, he even believes it.
It's educational! It's also really drunk, with host Derek Waters poking into both the dusty corners of U.S. history and his buddies' liquor cabinets. The brilliance of Drunk History is how it captures a surprisingly wide range of inebriated moods — some episodes you get stuck with a bore who won't shut up, just like in a real bar. For the "First Ladies" tribute, Molly McAleer, Jen Kirkman, Casey Wilson, Courtney Cox and more raise a rowdy toast to the women of the White House. They teach valuable lessons about the War of 1812, Woodrow Wilson's stroke, Grover Cleveland's sex drive, and…uh, there was a War in 1812, so you guys, wait, where's my cheesy bread?
Welcome to the 20th century — what a dump. Seriously, The Knick has the most viscerally disgusting hospital scenes in TV history, with Stephen Soderbergh relishing every dangling entrail he can coax out of the human torso circa 1900. But all through the show's amazing debut season, what grabs you is the emotional brutality of Clive Owen's Dr. John Thackery. He's the Al Swearengen of this medical Deadwood, high on toxic levels of ego, as well as newfangled inventions like cocaine. It's startling to see him react when a mob riot explodes in New York's Tenderloin district — Thackery realizes he's face to face with American racism, i.e. something bigger and scarier than he is.
Jill Soloway's bittersweet, eminently binge-worthy comedy became 2014's word-of-mouth sensation — once you dip in for one episode, your whole weekend is shot. Jeffrey Tambor shines as the seventy-something American dad making the transition from Mort to Maura, and dragging the deeply dysfunctional Pfefferman family along for the ride. It's that rarest of specimens, a genuinely funny show about old people, which means (among other things) jokes about lugging around your ugly memories and sharing them with people you dislike. So the odd emotional highlight came with an episode flashing back to 1994, "Best New Girl." Mort spends a weekend retreat at cross-dressing camp, finally getting a chance to become Maura — only to find that none of Mort's or Maura's problems have gone away.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted another gloriously chaotic Golden Globes bash — as they said at the end, "This was the beautiful mess we hoped it would be." And messes don't get more beautiful than grande dame Jacqueline Bisset accepting her Best Supporting Actress award — she took a zigzag stroll to the stage, paused along the way to kiss Jon Voight, gave an awesomely incoherent speech, said "shit" on live network TV, ignored the orchestra and milked the moment like a true star. Hollywood, baby.
"We should celebrate. We found someone who is equally dead inside." Now that's modern romance to believe in. You're the Worst is the realest rom-com in the universe, unless Broad City qualifies. Aya Cash and Chris Geere play a couple of "I don't do feelings" people who fall into bed and then start doing feelings, though hardly ever the same feeling at the same time. Gretchen and Jimmy might be faintly horrible humans, but that doesn't mean they don't earn their moments of empathy. ("I know what will cheer you up — we can do it backwards while you watch foot-fetish anime." Keeper!) The second season can't come fast enough, unlike Jimmy at a three-way. And remember, like Grandma used to say: It's only a walk of shame if you're capable of feeling shame.
If anything sums up the madness of 2014, it has to be the pivotal scene from Shonda Rhimes' latest sex-and-murder soapsterpiece. Crime-fighting law professor Viola Davis casually holds up her phone and speaks the immortal words: "What is your penis doing on a dead girl's phone?" Truly, the question of the year. Anyone got an answer?
One of the year's surprise triumphs — it's safe to say nobody expected John Oliver's Daily Show spin-off to hit anywhere near this hard. He defies our click-click-click attention spans with longform rants about political crises from net neutrality to Right Said Fred. (All this plus the worst haircut on TV, unless you count the dude from The Strain, which I don't because that shit was never hair.) Oliver's finest moment: His 15-minute screed about Ferguson, tackling the question of how small-town American cops got their hands on so much military hardware and how they plan to use it on the rest of us. (Why do the police in Keane, New Hampshire have an armored assault vehicle? To defend the local Pumpkin Festival!) What do you know — somebody actually scored a hit betting on the intelligence of the American people. It figures it took a British geek to make it happen.
A woman lounges on the couch, watching her boyfriend play a Call of Duty-style video combat game. Hey, that looks fun. Blam! Kaboom! So she takes a turn. Except she finds her experience as a female soldier is a little different. The sketch veers into extremely bleak places, and then just keeps getting bleaker. ("That's never happened to me — you must have pressed the wrong button.") In a ludicrously abundant year for cable comedy, Schumer really dropped the bomb.
The Cold War spy thriller tightened the screws, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as married Soviet agents, living undercover in the D.C. suburbs of 1982. The phenomenal second season had a phenomenal finale—a chase scene scored to Golden Earring's faux-metal, faux-new-wave, faux-everything classic "Twilight Zone." Somehow all the rapid-fire emotional and political betrayals come together, as the song screams out the riddle these spies desperately need to solve: "Where am I to go now that I've gone too far?" When the bullet hits the bone, indeed.
Armando Iannucci's political satire gets faster, nastier and funnier every season, with a daring plot twist nobody saw coming — Julia Louis-Dreyfus' toxic-tongue Vice President stumbles toward the Oval Office, with her path finally clear to take over. Hopefully now she has the clout to pursue her domestic agenda: "God, I would love to fuck a fire-fighter."
The episode "Fight" sums up everything that makes Masters of Sex so devastating. The 1950s sex researchers — played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan — sneak off to a posh hotel, under fake names, for a little horizontal (and vertical) (plus diagonal) lab work. Strictly business, all in the name of science. But all the bedroom role-playing opens up the NSFW feelings they spend the rest of their lives ignoring. They expose the flesh under their bathrobes — as well as way too much of the pain under their flesh. An hour of erotic agony, from a drama that never plays it safe.
All the incarcerated scarfaces at Litchfield Penitentiary have some dark shit in their past — that's how they got here. Even Yael Stone's Morello, who used to seem like a harmless little sap with a soft spot for wedding magazines, until we get a flashback to her hidden previous life as a psychotic stalker. The Morello episode is a profoundly sad, cruelly funny highlight from Orange Is the New Black — the superb second act of Netflix's prison drama that everybody figured was a one-shot.
Ghost Bert needs to be a permanent Mad Men character from now on. Imagine him consoling Peggy with his soft-shoe "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," or cheering up Pete Campbell with the "Stairway to Paradise" number from An American In Paris. (I mean, we better get at least one tango with Joan to "C'est Magnifique.") I'll miss the hell out of Bert Cooper, one of the coolest TV characters ever. Sterling Cooper's crusty-ass patriarch was always the scariest guy in the room — behind that genial smile, that crooked old bastard knew Don Draper's guiltiest secrets, just like he seemed to know everybody else's. But what a goodbye! Ghost Bert gives Don Draper one last piece of advice, singing "The Best Things in Life Are Free." And Don utters the only three words that will ever truly get him hot: "Back to work."
This was the Led Zeppelin IV of Game of Thrones seasons, and just like that album, it peaked at the end of Side One. On trial for his life, with his despised father as the judge, Tyrion finally snaps and rails against his family: "I wish I had enough poison for the whole lot of you!" Only Peter Dinklage could pull it off, frothing in a Richard III rage. Every second in this scene stings — especially the way Shae repeats the word "whore," for twice the pain. (As we find out later in the season, saying "whore" a second time is the kind of thing that can get you killed.) Like the rest of this epic Thrones season, it was a true mind-blower. And not just in that "never let a guy nicknamed 'The Mountain' get his fingers around your skull" kind of way.
How did the rest of us function before we met these two ladies? Abbi and Ilana were the comedy rookies of the year, two Jewesses trying to make a buck, stoner soul-mates with a private language nobody else gets. ("Never mind about that umbrella idea — I forgot there's raincoats.") The weekly wait for Wednesday night was agony. Nine out of 10 episodes were genius (I hated the Hurricane Sandy one) but they saved the best for Abbi's 26th birthday, raising hell in a fancy restaurant. Ilana scratches her cleavage with a fork, Abbi jumps on the table, they get the busboy baked. It all ends with them cuddling in a hospital bed at 3 A.M., eating leftover chocolate cake while listening to the old man in the next bed shuffle off this mortal coil. (Hey, at least he didn't die alone.) That bed scene is the most moving two minutes of television that 2014 had to offer, a shocker of a joke that's also full of weird sadness and horror and affection — and cake. Plus Ilana gets to cross "be held in Abbi's arms" off her bucket list. A perfect Broad City moment — brutal, tender, hilarious. More, please.
Damn, just look at those eyes. The way he fiddles with a crushed Lone Star Beer can while musing, "Time is a flat circle." The way he gazes into the distance at dark birds only he can see, hearing a Thirteenth Floor Elevators guitar drone in his head. The way he sweet-talks a confession out of a murderer, then offers some twisted advice. Matthew McConaughey faces all the horror of True Detective with his vacant Joe Walsh-after-electroshock stare, which only makes it more chilling. Neither McConaughey nor Woody Harrelson have ever been stronger, and both performances stick with you all year long. The Southern Gothic noir is packed with strange details, right down to Harrelson's Pink Floyd Division Bell T-shirt — just what a downward-spiraling Louisiana cop would wear to a vice raid in 1995. True Detective gets new shivers out of the most ancient cop-show cliche — fighting monsters turns you into one. But the most terrifying monster in it? The one lurking in McConaughey's eyes.