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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best in Television of 2014

It's hard to believe that another year has breezed by, and it's time to look back on the wide world of entertainment. Here are my picks for the year in television.

The big four networks continued to make strides toward irrelevance as they continued to offer such earth-shaking fare as Dancing with the Has-Beens, American Shrieker, Modern Smug and Unfunny Family and Three and a Half Douchebags. Cable, as always, was the place to see imaginative and innovative work.

With Breaking Bad all done and The Walking Dead deteriorating into a bloody bore, FX rushed in to grab the edgy programming mantle from AMC, and brought some good stuff to the screen this year.  

The Master in The Strain
The Strain is enjoyably bizarre sci-fi from Guillermo Del Toro, chronicling an outbreak of alien vampirism in New York.

Multi-layered and constantly shifting through locations and time periods, it's packed with so many ideas that you'd think your eyes would roll into the back of your head from the complexity of it all, but Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, working from their novels, manage to keep it all fitting together like the world's most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And we get trademark Del Toro creepy flourishes, too. I can't wait for Season Two.

Back for its fourth season on FX is American Horror Story: Freak Show. Unless this season makes some serious missteps, it will stand as one of the most unique and moving testaments to "otherness" that television has ever offered. In one fell swoop, creator Ryan Murphy takes on prejudice — against minorities, the LGBT community, and people who just happen to look different — and grabs it by the throat, throttling it until it's (hopefully) dead.

AHS: Freak Show's pinheads
Not to mention how far Freak Show is pushing the envelope in terms of violence and sexuality. Almost every episode has a scene or an incident that shocks with its extremism. The sex is "R" territory, the violence is bloody. Kathy Bates is sure to get an Emmy nom as the hilariously Baltimore-accented Bearded Lady, as will Finn Wittrock as the seriously sick Dandy.

I just hope it resists kitchen sinking in the way the first and third seasons did. Murphy needs to trust the plot and character decisions he's made, and resist the temptation to heap incident upon incident until it all comes crashing down. Coven, after a hilarious "who's come back to life now?" season, devolved into a ridiculous Bewitched episode for the finalé. Let's hope that fate doesn't befall Freak Show. Some wags are already complaining, but it hasn't jumped the shark for me yet.

The Silicon Valley gang
Mike Judge came back to the small(er) screen this year with HBO's Silicon Valley, a scathing and absolutely hilarious skewering of the world of tech start ups.

Packed with turtleneck-wearing Steve Jobs wannabes touching their fingertips together and endlessly harping about "making the world a better place," the show centers on a small company, Pied Piper, and its first experiences navigating the treacherous waters of Palo Alto.

Having worked in the Valley himself in the late '80s, Judge has a feel for how these characters talk and behave — and all the inherent pretentiousness. This is another series I'm looking forward to continuing with next year.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos
Thirty years after Carl Sagan's original, executive producer Seth McFarlane and host Neil deGrasse Tyson were back to blow the minds of a new generation with Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, demonstrating that reality can be much more awe-inspiring than fiction. Quality education and entertainment in one smart package!

Tackling such heady subjects as black holes, the expansion of the universe and the way light works, Tyson made them comprehensible but no less "whooaahhh"-inducing. And the fact that it made so many creationists' heads explode was an added bonus. They even petitioned deGrasse to give them equal time on the program in order to present a "fair and balanced" view of how the universe began. Fair and balanced? Where have I heard that before? ...

Jamie Bell and Seth Numrich in Turn
Speaking of education, AMC did manage to offer something good this year — Turn, the true story of America's first counterspy ring during the Revolutionary War.  It's got intrigue, hissably bad Brits and a look at American history that's not only entertaining but damn fascinating as well. It's also pretty nice to watch, with its lush Virginia locations and convincing CG effects.

Veteran shows that I'm looking forward to continuing with next year are Shameless, Nurse Jackie and Episodes. They all finished strong this year and it looks like the shit is really going to hit the fan for the two aforementioned titles. And what will Sean and Beverly do next? Masters of Sex is another one I'll look in on in 2015, but as I mentioned earlier, The Walking Dead appears to be living up to its title — if the 2014 season is any indication.

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