Best TV Shows of 2014

It’s the end of the year and you know what that means – it’s list time! Television rocked my socks big time this year. And judging by the amount of big name movie stars showing up on the small screen, it rocked a few Hollywood A-lister’s socks as well.

It feels a bit like this year was the year cinema screens were left for the multi-million dollar blockbuster action spectaculars and all the incredibly well written scripts were left to the small screen. In fact there were so many good shows, it’s lucky companies like Netflix and Amazon have allowed us all to embrace binge watching, otherwise I have no idea how I’d ever get out of the house.

So here’s my picks for the best TV shows of 2014.

Transparent

This list is in no particular order, but if someone put a gun to my head and made me choose (because that’s likely), I’d probably sayTransparent, about a transgender parent attempting to come out to his self-possessed family, was number one. It was so good I wrote a whole post on it, so have a read here.

True Detective

This show gave us one of the most original (and quotable) characters on the small screen in a long while in Matthew McConaughey’s often incoherent babbler, Rust Cohle. Except for my one little niggle with the totally out of character actions of Rust in the ending, it had me a virtual shut in while I binged my way through all eight hours. True Detective wasn’t just dark, it was a lesson in nihilism.

Fargo

Speaking of dark, Fargo reached new heights of black humour. Martin Freeman absolutely nailed it as hapless Minnesota-ite, Lester Nygaard, who gets caught up in a web of evil after being pushed that little bit too far by his ball-busting wife. If ever there was a more perfect morality tale to illustrate the saying ‘one bad deed begets another’ this is it. Billy Bob Thornton and his man-bangs were equally as brilliant as the menacing psycho Lorne Malvo.

Broadchurch

Set in a small, British seaside town, Broadchurch follows local detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and out of towner Alec Hardy as they search for the murderer of an 11 year old boy.Watching this show drained me, but in the best possible way. It’s a deeply moving series, to put it mildly, one where not just the subject matter, but the tone, the music and the landscape work hard to give you a big old emotional smack in the face. Watch this before you see the American version, Gracepoint (which apparently has a different ending).

Babylon

The woeful pilot episode almost made me give Babylon a miss, but stick with it as episode one shows you its real potential. Set amidst the communications office of the London Police, it stars Brit Marling as an American rising star brought in to work her magic on the force’s ailing public image. Although Lena Dunham gets raves for being a young female writer/ director/ star, Brit Marling ticks all those boxes too (although here she only acts) but gets much less of the accolades. If she’s decided something is worthwhile enough to act in, it’s a sure bet for me the project is a good one. Her decision in this case was probably helped along by the fact that Babylon is directed by Danny Boyle and written by the same team who did the excellent ‘Four Lions’.

Silicon Valley

With all that doom and gloom and murder and mayhem, Silicon Valley was a light hearted relief. Set in the title city, home of all things ‘start-up’, the show is about a group of super-techy nerds who take on the giants of the computing world to start their own… errr… start up. It’s a light but deceptively cleverly written satire on the effects of money and success in a world where whole careers can begin and end in a matter of days.

As well as the new shows above, my favourite returning shows were (somewhat obviously) Orange is the New Black Season 2, Game of Thrones Season 4, Sherlock Season 3 and House of Cards Season 2. If you haven’t watched previous seasons of any of these shows, ohhhhh, lucky you. There’s your whole winter sorted.

Transparent – best show of 2014

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Nat Thought – a brilliant, clever, honest depiction of a wonderfully messy L.A family. It’s about time TV-land.

What’s it About?

The Pfeffermans are a tight-knit Jewish family in L.A. Despite their closeness, father Mort has been hiding a secret from his children for decades. Now 70, he’s decided it’s time to begin living openly as a woman, and it’s from this we get the title, which is not transparent as in see-through, but Trans – Parent.But telling his three, self obsessed kids about his alter-ego Maura proves to be more difficult than he imagined as everyone seems to be struggling with their own issues.

Son Josh is a successful but emotionally needy record producer, daughter Sarah leaves her husband after reconnecting with a lesbian she had a fling with in college, and youngest Ali is floating through a life of no direction thanks to continual funding from Mort. Even ex-wife Shelley is facing her own crisis involving her dementia suffering second husband, Ed.

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An early incarnation of Maura, with her friend Marcy at a cross-dressing event.

Who’s in It and Who Made It?

The creator of Transparent is writer/director Jill Soloway, who not only wrote four seasons of one of my all time favourite shows, Six Feet Under, but was also the showrunner of The United States of Tara, starring Toni Collette as a suburban mother with multiple personality disorder. While the first two seasons of Tara were amazing, I think it lost its way a bit in the third, but even so, just seeing Soloway’s name attached to Transparent was enough for me to be (not so) secretly excited about it before I’d even watched episode one. Add to that the fact that her own father came out as a trans woman late in life, and you know the series comes from a place of experience and understanding that we just haven’t seen on TV before.

A show like this wouldn’t work unless the audience accepts Mort/Maura and Jeffrey Tambor is perfect casting. I’ve only really seen him in absurdist-comedy mode in Arrested Development, so I knew he could be funny, but here he gets to show us how good he really is. His Maura is not only funny, but touching and at times heartbreaking too.

Jay Duplass is someone we’ll be seeing more of soon when his show Togetherness (which he wrote and stars in with his brother Mark) airs in 2015. While he’s great as the love-lorn Josh, I did find myself wondering how such a little boy lost, nerdy looking guy could really get all that action with the ladies. Is it because he’s a rich, record producer, or do women take pity on him and his big, puppy dog eyes? Go figure. Gabby Hoffman as youngest child Ali is my favourite character here. Hoffman’s just rocking my socks so much lately, especially her appearance in season three of Girls. And Amy Landecker is Sarah, the well-off, bored suburban housewife who switches teams and leaves her husband after a chance encounter with a past lover. In case you’re as confused as me, and it seems half the internet, Amy Landecker is not Amy Brenneman. The confusion is warranted though, don’t you think? I mean, come on, look at them side by side…

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For me there are only two weak links in Transparent. Well, maybe one and a half. Melora Hardin as Tammy, who Sarah performs the typical lesbian U-haul with (that’s not sexual innuendo by the way) and Judith Light as Shelley both seem to be trying too hard at times; Hardin as a lesbian and Light as an old lady. Hardin seems to have decided she’ll just do an Ellen Degeneres impression, only with really unfortunate pants. And by pants I mean trousers, although actually, the issue could be the pants she’s got on beneath her trousers. Seriously, can the wardrobe department do something about that for season two please? And Light, well, she’s fine when she’s sitting down, but when she walks across a room, she ends up looking like someone trying to portray a hundred year old lady, not someone in her sixties. Take it down a notch Judith.

Is It Any Good?

Oh yes. It’s good. It’s brilliant in fact, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it when I wrote my Top 5 New Shows for Autumn/Fall. Following on from the legacy of Orange is the New Black, Transparent is choc-full of people who haven’t had their stories told before, and that excites me. But on top of that, the writing and acting is seriously top notch.

As Soloway has explained in a few interviews, because Transparent is distributed by Amazon, it doesn’t have to play by the same rules as most other network or studio shows. The script doesn’t have to go through multiple levels of approval from CEO’s and and marketing departments who ask the creators to tweak elements they don’t think will appeal to a wide audience. So the artists are left with a hell of a lot of freedom to create a universe as they see it, largely unedited by ‘management’.

One obvious bi-product of all this freedom is seen in the conversations between the characters. Often watching TV I’m left thinking “Who the hell speaks like that?” but the writing in Transparent just seems so natural, so honest and so much how real families talk to each other. Well, real families where absolutely no subject is taboo.

I also love that nobody is outright mean, nobody’s the baddy. OK, most of them have some horrible character traits, and don’t we all, but there’s not one character that’s there specifically to be the one you love to hate. There’s not that feeling that anybody is there purely to elicit a particular emotion from you, to tick a demographic box.

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Maura moves out of the family home and befriends Davina, who helps her with the complexities of day to day life as a trans woman.

If you’re thinking that Transparent is not for you, you should know it’s not simply a show about being transgender. You don’t have to have an interest in the topic, so to speak. It’s about family and love and life and truth and identity. Every person is going through some kind of gender or identity issue, nothing with them is purely ‘straight’ and ‘normal’. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Tambor described it well when he said ‘In our show, there’s laughter in the most awkward of places and there’s tears in the most unheard of places.’ It’s messy and crazy and so is life.

Transparent is an incredibly well written, well acted, funny, sad and enlightening new show and I have no doubt it will be voted the best show of the year. For me it’s going to be a loooong wait till Season Two.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure yet – Happy binge-watching people.

22 Jump Street – I can’t believe I actually liked this

Nat Thought – Amazing. I liked 22 Jump Street. Admittedly, I did throw down a few alcoholic beverages in the hours preceding the viewing, so maybe I need to watch it sober and come back to you. But actually, I can’t really see myself sacrificing another 2 hours of my short life before I die of liver failure to settle that argument. So we’re going to go with a positive review.

This shot alone should tell you what you're in for here.

This shot alone should tell you what you’re in for here.

What’s It About?

Geez, was there even a plot? 22 Jump Street is the sequel of 2012’s 21 Jump Street, which was loosely(and I mean really really very very loosely) based on the 80’s TV show of the same name which gave us Johnny Depp and of course the greatest actor of our generation, Richard Grieco.

Really, all you need to know here is that two pretty useless cops, who somehow managed to catch some bad guys when they were sent undercover in a high school, have now been given almost exactly the same gig, but this time in a college. Jenko is the cool, good looking one, his partner Schmidt is the slightly rotund, slightly more intelligent one. How will they infiltrate the college kids to bring down a new set of drug dealers before lethal drug WHYPHY – Work Hard Yes Play Hard Yes kills more students? God only knows…

You can almost hear the WHYPHY/WIFI jokes already can’t you?

Who’s In It and Who Made It?

I’m giving the most credit for the success of 22 Jump Street to the writers. One of them, Michael Bacall, also wrote the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs the World, so it’s no surprise to me his script is quite clever in parts. The writing actually reminded me a lot of Team America from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, so if you enjoyed that, you should get a giggle out of this. And I guess I shouldn’t begrudge dual directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller some praise. Together they wrote and directed uber successful The Lego Movie, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. Not a bad CV.

On the acting front, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as the bumbling Jenko and Schmidt do good impressions of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, Ice Cube yells as screams his way through the film as new police Captain Dickson and someone called Amber Stevens puts me to sleep as Schmidt’s totally unbelievable love interest Maya.Far and away the best character however is played by the brilliant Jillian Bell as Maya’s cantankerous roommate Mercedes. Without her I doubt 22 Jump Street would have been anywhere near as funny.

Yet more proof 22 Jump Street won't strain any brain cells to get through.

Yet more proof 22 Jump Street won’t be straining anyone’s brain cells to watch.

Is It Any Good?

At the half hour mark, I was ready to throw a rubber brick at my TV to spare me from any further pain. But then 22 Jump Street went all South Park on me, so I kept watching.

Essentially there are only two reasons to watch this film. Well, maybe we can stretch that to three. First is the double entendre back and forth between Schmidt and Jenko as they discuss their ‘partnership’. Hilarious.

Second is Jillian Bell as snarky room mate Mercedes. Her deadpan delivery of her lines surely must be ad-libbed, and if they are, my praise just doubled. She has improvisational theatre written all over her. In a good way. If this role doesn’t open up all of Hollywood’s doors for her it will be a travesty. Even Jonah Hill says “Jillian makes me want to quit show business and realize I am a complete fraud, because she is the funniest person I have ever met in my life”. And he’s not just spinning PR porky pies, like when actors rave about the kissing abilities of co-stars we know they can’t stand. She really is that good.

The third reason to stick with it is the parody sketch during the end credits. 22 Jump Street is very self aware about what kind of film they are.They know they’re not winning any awards, except maybe something from MTV.They know their film is silly and they play up on it. Bonus points for that.

You Don’t Say…

Football jock Zook is played by Wyatt Russell – otherwise known as the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. He sure does have his Dad’s jawline.

The film is absolutely littered with in-jokes. Here’s a few: Maya’s room has a Devo poster on the wall. The composer of the score, Mark Mothersbuagh, was the lead singer of Devo. Richard Grieco is in the final credits. Schmidt says Cpt Dickson’s office looks like an ice cube. Capt Dickson is of course played by the rapper/actor called Ice Cube. In the spring break section, we see a restaurant called “Gringo Pendejos” which roughly means “Dumbass Americans”.

Snowpiercer

What’s It About?

In 2014, scientists trying to stop global warming suffer the mother of all oopsies when they instead cause a new ice age and the destruction of Earth. All human life is wiped out, save for the inhabitants of a temperature controlled train perpetually circumnavigating the globe.

An engineering marvel, the train carriages are divided into a class system. Closest to the engine, and the god-like engineer Wilford, people looking suspiciously like they could have come straight from the Hunger Games’ Capitol live a life filled with gourmet food, drinks, drugs and endless parties. On the opposite end of the scale, the people crammed into the last carriage, a surprising number of whom have missing limbs (the reason eventually and heartbreakingly revealed), live a life of squalor, domination and punishment.

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Good hygiene is obviously something that’s hard to come by in the rear of the train.

Seventeen years later, encouraged by mysterious notes sent to him hidden in the hideous protein bars the rear of the carriage survives on, revolutionary ‘chosen one’ Curtis is preparing for a rebellion to storm the front of the train.

Who’s In It And Who Made It?

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, in his English language debut. Until now Joon-Ho was probably best known to audience’s outside Korea for his 2006 hit The HostCaptain America Chris Evans stars as Curtis, John Hurt is Gilliam, a kind of spiritual leader of the rear and Tilda Swinton is Mason, the demented ‘captain’ of Wilford.

In smaller roles are Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and of course Ed Harris as Wilford. Last but not least, there’s also Song Kang-ho as the drug addict security expert who designed the train’s systems and Go-Ah sung as his equally addicted daughter. Both actors appeared in director Joon-ho’s ‘Host’ and to me are the most interesting characters of the film.

John Hurt has been in so many distopian/revolutionary roles by now that he could probably do this in his sleep, but he’s so good that even if he was, we wouldn’t know. Tilda Swinton, looking like an alternate version of Effie in The Hunger Games brings a kind of demented comedy to the proceedings. She’s like a really sinister Nanny McPhee, although the life lessons she’s spooning out to her ‘students’ are as lethal as they are daft.

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Apparently these are Tilda’s own glasses that she and the director found while rummaging through her things one day.

Is It Any Good?

Snowpiercer was a very happy surprise for me. You know when you’re in one of those moods where you just want to watch an action film, you can’t be bothered thinking and just want to see some karate chops (how is it that every film character these days knows martial arts?) and if you’re lucky, maybe get a decent story line too? Well, I got action alright, but I also got a brilliant, intelligent story, cool visuals and a whole lot of violence to boot. Unfortunately I didn’t get to not think, but that’s OK, when the story’s this good, I’ll wake my brain up for a couple hours.

Speaking of violence, have you noticed (just like karate chops) every film/TV show these days seems to be ramping up the violence? Even Season 2 of Chicago PD (don’t judge me!) is showing brain matter pouring out of shooting victims’ heads. What’s that about? I blame the Europeans, well at least for the TV part.The amazing TV coming out of the continent these days is definitely having an impact on mainstream telly.

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Just a little axe fight, nothing unusual here…

This is the second film I’ve reviewed this year from a Korean director. If you’ve read my review on Stoker, you’ll know I liked that film a teeny tiny bit. If this is indicative of the kind of stuff the Korean film industry is producing, I really need to go broaden my film watching repertoire.

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The piggy-back of the future???

There’s so many things to love about Snowpiercer; the story, the action (especially the torch scene) and the Terry Gilliam inspired set decoration (also the inspiration for John Hurt’s character name) are awesome. But I don’t want to say too much in case of spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me. You may not have heard much about it and it didn’t/won’t make anywhere near the amount of money as other sci-fi blockbusters this year like Guardians of the Galaxy and Gravity, but I think it’s easily the best sci-fi of the year. And lest I steer you in the wrong direction, there’s a good deal of tragedy, pathos and an all important bit of hope to round out all that karate-choppy blood and gore action.

Just watch it people. That’s an order.

You Don’t Say…

One of the producers of Snowpiercer is Park Chan-wook, director of Stoker.

Tilda Swinton’s character Mason was originally written as a man.

Tootsie – the other Mrs Doubtfire

Nat Thought – think Mrs Doubtfire as an actress on a soap instead of a housekeeper, turn the hilarity down a few notches and you’re on the right track.

What’s It About?

Out of desperation, struggling actor Michael Dorsey auditions for the role of a woman on a daytime soap called Southwest General. Through sheer ballsiness (hah!) he lands the part. Whilst just keeping up the guise of his creation (Dorothy) is hard enough, Michael complicates things further by falling in love with the beautiful lead actress on the show (Julie) and sets out to be her Knight-in-Shining-Spanx when it becomes obvious the show’s sleazy producer is out to break her heart.

And you thought your lady-stache was troublesome.

And you thought your lady-stache was troublesome.

Along the way Michael’s alter ego Dorothy/Tootsie becomes a sensation both on and off the small screen, he learns how to be a better man and he and Julie start to form a close friendship. Well, Julie forms a close friendship with Dorothy I mean, not Michael. But what will Julie say when she finds out he’s a man? What will happen to the ratings of the show? And is anybody going to notice that Dorothy seems to have stolen her fashion sense from Jane Fonda’s character in 9 to 5?

Jane Fonda In 'Nine To Five'tootsie

Who’s In It and Who Made It?

It’s not hard to see that the success of Tootsie is pretty much down to Dustin Hoffman. Oh alright, I’m sure the writers and director had a bit to do with it too. But he does real justice to Dorothy and makes her a great character, one we care about, sort of a less over the top Mrs Doubtfire.

Almost as good is Jessica Lange as Julie. There’s something about Jessica Lange in her younger years. She did the damsel in distress role so well. There’s this vulnerability to her that makes it no surprise men fall over themselves to be the one who gets to look after her. People who only know her from American Horror Story these days would probably be very surprised to watch her here. Yes kids, I’m talking about you.

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That look from Dustin says it all.

Supporting roles from the likes of Teri Garr, a very sedate Bill Murray and Charles Durning are all quality. Geez, whatever happened to Teri Garr? The rehearsal scene she and Michael do together was the first time I realised acting is a real skill and that delivery is everything. Naomi Watts would remind me of this again 20 years later in Mullholland Drive.

Director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, The Firm) also who makes a cameo appearance as Michael’s despairing agent.

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Pollack doing slightly more than a Hitchcock and giving himself a couple of scenes with his star. It was actually Hoffman who needled him to play Michael’s agent by sending him roses every day until he agreed.

Is It Any Good?

If asked to name a movie where a man dresses up as a (very unattractive) woman, most people would automatically rattle off Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire (even more likely in light of his death). And yes that’s a great film, but Tootsie will always be my favourite. In 1982 I went to see Tootsie at the cinema seven times. Seven! I was ten. Watching it now, I think that says more about what a strange child I was than any real indication of the movie’s brilliance.

While the message (not to mention the clothes) is a little out of date – it’s only when he puts on a dress, make-up and heels and experiences being treated as a piece of meat by a man that Michael/Dorothy finds his inner feminist – it means well. And even though the plot may sound a little underwhelming today, Tootsie is surprisingly sweet and touching. And come on, it was alllll the way back in 1982, so probably quite ahead of its time actually.

The ten year old me was beguiled. The 40 year old me is slightly more ‘meh’. But Tootsie’s got a real place in my heart and it’s one of those films that’s perfect for a wet afternoon wrapped in a blanket on the couch eating pancakes.

Erm… does everyone else get a pancake craving when there’s a storm or is that just me?

You Don’t Say…

Geena Davis shows up briefly (and in her briefs) in what was her first ever film role. And Jessica Lange won and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Julie. Dustin unfortunately had tough competition for the Best Actor Oscar that year; he was up against Ghandi.

The film was originally going to be called Would I Lie to You but was changed at the suggestion of star Dustin Hoffman. Tootsie was the name of his mother’s dog.