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BEST OF 2014 - Top Ten TV

I used to be an Internet TV Reviewer, you know. Writing blog-length reviews of TV show episodes, expressing my critical thoughts, trying to be funny without tipping into bitchy snark. I eventually burnt out on sheer volume of critiquing, not to mention it wasn't justifying the time spent neglecting fiction, but still, I never reviewed purely for attention. I did it because I love the work.

So, I haven't reviewed a TV series weekly since Game of Thrones season 4 finished in April, but I have run down my top ten TV shows every year since 2012 on The Digital Fix and here in 2013, so I see no reason to stop now. Let's see this year's list, which includes The First Ever Non-Fictional Shows To Chart.

#10 - The Fall

Relegated to honourable mentions last year, The Fall jumps to the proper chart for series 2. Gillian Anderson's Stella Gibson closes the net around misogynist serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), desperate to stop him before too many innocent women die.

And if that sounds like a lot of other shows, fair enough. The appeal of The Fall is mostly in the execution - the acting (Anderson especially is magnificent, Dornan very strong too), direction and writing are all at a high level, digging into the motivations of everyone involved and making the investigation challenging without the police looking like idiots.

It gives in to a slightly cheap semi-cliffhanger at the end, but The Fall was still amazingly good viewing. And it lets me imagine a final season of Dexter that wasn't terrible!

#9 - Homeland

At long last, a year or two later than they probably should've, Homeland sloughs off Damian Lewis' Nick Brody and reinvents itself as a spy thriller revolving around Claire Danes as Carrie Matheson. She's in Islamabad, a new and wholly un-American backdrop, to make her latest morally ambiguous battle with terrorism seem fresher.

Much like the previous season, it starts off slow, but was completely compelling by about halfway through. Claire Danes is still great, but Mandy Patinkin as Saul is what really sold this season for me. His performance during his kidnap plot is gutwrenching, scenestealing work. To be honest, I feel bad not placing this run of Homeland a little higher, but alas, 'twas a competitive year and the final episode was a tad disappointing.

#8 - True Detective

As you may note if you've read a lot of these year-end list, most people had True Detective a little higher than I've ended up placing it. I'm not saying it wasn't a fantastic work of technical TV, with Woody Harrelson and the much-praised Matthew McConaughey delivering well-written dialogue pitch-perfectly. Not to mention a considered, atmospheric look and, yes, that astounding unbroken long shot.

But still, this chart is a list of what I enjoyed the most, and although it was well done, there were long stretches when I felt I was admiring True Detective rather than enjoying it. Not to mention, yes, I am one of those people who found the ending a bit of an anti-climax. Still nicely done, but after all the slow, slow build, I was hoping for more actual incident. So here it lies at #8, falling just short of...

#7 - Doctor Who

It's only climbed one place since last year, but that doesn't convey the extent to which I feel Doctor Who has improved in its eighth series. It mostly just represents the scale of the competition. So yeah, this was Peter Capaldi's first series in the part, and I thought probably the best since the first Matt Smith run, restoring a little mystery, fun and drama to the whole affair.

It helped that (perhaps bruised by scathing criticism last year), showrunner Steven Moffat and his writers were clearly determined to retool Jenna Coleman's Clara into a character with the depth to carry the show. Some said this resulted in a run focused on the assistant to the detriment of the hero, but series seven was more about the Doctor, and it just felt rambling and ungrounded as a result. This one had some heart, plus a compelling arc around Missy. The Christmas special wasn't bad either - albeit marred by obvious rewriting at the end after Coleman changed her mind about leaving.

#6 - Brooklyn Nine Nine

Brooklyn Nine Nine coming in here means True Detective isn't even the highest ranking police-based show on the list. The American mainstream sitcom genre ran a little dry lately, so a new one coming through with the right combination of wacky jokes, character banter and real feelings is always a cause for celebration.

Will we end up hating Brooklyn Nine Nine when it reaches season eleven and we've heard all its jokes a thousand times? I'll be honest, I can't rule it out, but for now, it's so nice to have a new, assured, reliably uplifting comedy in town, I've given it a generous placing. Captain Holt alone (the amazing Andre Braugher) would probably get this into the list somewhere. Oh, and the first season is just up on UK Netflix.

#5 - Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

The first ever non-fictional show to appear on this annual list (although not the last one this year) is Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, a one-man stand-up show featuring the so-called comedian's comedian talking at extreme length about the topic of the week. After a year or two to get the format right, they've found the confidence to just show one man talking for the whole episode, with only a slightly different man to break it up.

Lee's grim, knowing, deadpan humour is not  to everyone's taste, obviously, but again, this is my list, and as far as I was concerned, this was one of the most successful TV exercises of the year. Absolutely nailed all its targets, and having Chris Morris as Lee's main interrogator was the icing on the cake.

#4 - Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones must surely be one of the most successful TV shows in current Western society. The epic saga of Kings fighting Kings to be King, with some Queens and some incest, and god knows what else. This wasn't actually their best year to date, there was some slack plotting as characters clearly just killed time waiting to get somewhere, and also a confusing rape scene that just made certain character arcs harder to grasp.

Still, here it is at #4, because even when the characters are rambling along, the dialogue, acting and moment-to-moment storytelling is always great. Not to mention, whenever Game of Thrones hit a big set-piece scene (Joffrey's wedding, the Viper's big fight, the invasion of the Wall, Tyrion's trial, the final few scenes of this season), they utterly nailed it. Great show, still one of the most watchable things currently running. I await season five with interest, as we've finally finished book three and now, surely, entirely new things gotta happen?

#3 - Last Week Tonight

Not too long after our first ever non-fictional show, here comes the second. Last Week Tonight is HBO's vehicle for John Oliver, freshly poached from The Daily Show and ready to show us what he'd do if given a desk, some graphics and the chance to be sarcastic about the news. Well, after a few weeks to find his feet, Oliver has settled on his offering - long-form investigative journalism that takes dry subjects and somehow makes them intriguing, funny and accessible. For sheer cultural impact this year among leftie internet types, Last Week Tonight may be unparalleled in TV terms.

Not to say it's a flawless venture - in particular, the fun-video segments thrown in to break up long spells at the desk often fall a little flat or overstay their welcome. But when this show works, it really works. And I'd say that even if I didn't have a lot of affection for John Oliver from The Bugle.

#2 - Hannibal

When I wrote last year's Top Ten TV, Hannibal landed at #2 and I was confident, with the mighty Breaking Bad gone, it would ascend to the #1 spot in 2014. As you can see, that hasn't happened. However, Hannibal remains one of the most uniquely stylised, strange, funny, scary, charismatic dramas on TV. It clearly lives about six feet up itself, but it always has a sense of humour about both that and the horrible things it does to its characters.

In short - yes, Nick Bryan likes a bloody dark comedy. Surprising. Still, Hannibal had another great year developing its universe further, making major changes to the show's set-up but still remaining fundamentally recognisable. Intelligent, self-referential and with a magnetic central performance from Mads Mikkelsen as the cannibal himself. Oh, and it finished off its second season with the other big thing that makes me like a TV show - an absolutely killer cliffhanger that didn't feel unearnt or cheap. Bravo. Can't wait for season three.

But it still isn't at the top, thanks to the arrival of...

#1 - Orange Is The New Black

Every so often, a show arrives that works in every way, has a huge and varied cast yet almost no weak spots, good acting across the board, minor characters that are almost as compelling as the supposed lead. In 2014, Orange Is The New Black was that show. It was the best, most absorbing and affecting thing I saw this year, bar none. Netflix gets a lot of good press for their original content, but even if the rest of it was garbage, the creation of this series would probably justify the entire initiative.

From the writer of Weeds and starring so many good people that I feel bad singling anyone out, Orange Is The New Black is funny, addictive and brilliant. I watched both seasons this year, which may explain why it's had such a particular impact upon me, but the 2014 season was excellent. Even the mostly-absence of major character Alex (apparently for schedule/contract reasons rather than a desire to quit) didn't slow them down much, and it seems she'll be back in a bigger way next season.

I was particularly impressed with the direction of Piper in season 2 - for much of the first one, I thought she'd end up becoming one of those lead characters who was the worst thing in their own show, but they've really made her work, simply by allowing her to grow believably, rather than keeping her as a tedious static anchor. They've also introduced a new character who is basically Piper from when she first arrived, to hammer home that contrast.

Amazing show. If you have Netflix and haven't seen it, I recommend rectifying that. If you don't have Netflix, consider signing up for the free month just to hammer through Orange Is The New Black.

Honourable Mentions

My prime honourable mention this year is Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, definitely #11 in the list. It improved by leaps and bounds after the dull first two-thirds of season 1, and at this point, midway through season 2, is close to becoming the espionage-with-superpowers show we all hoped it would be. The Walking Dead also had a very good year.

Other nearly-almosts were Orphan Black, Sherlock and House Of Cards - I watched both seasons of House Of Cards this year, liked the first one a fair bit, but it just fell apart in season 2 for me. With the exception of a couple of exciting episodes around the beginning and end, there were no interesting characters left and watching it was a chore. Oh, and The Newsroom might've crept in with its final season if the second half were as good as the first.

And that, at last, really is that. Wait, one last shout-out for Arrow, which I didn't include in the list as I've barely seen any 2014 episodes, but season 2 especially is just stellar. If you have any affection for superheroes, or action-driven TV in general, check it out. Looking forwarding to starting The Flash soon too.

Okay, I'm finished now. I swear. That was 2014! Let's all move on with our lives!


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