Well, another year is on the books -- another year of hand-wringing about the future of television, even as it delivered some of the best and worst programming in the history of the medium.
What we now call “television,” (i.e., broadcast, cable, streaming, etc.) is so vast that it’s impossible for any one person to watch every worthy or socially significant TV show. Consequently, any review of any particular 12 months will be impressionistic at best. With that wimp-out caveat in mind, here are some of my favorite things from the previous year.
1. Alison Tolman – An unlikely breakout star in the miniseries “Fargo,” a terrific police drama about the gradations of good and evil, Tolman’s humanity kept us grounded and emotionally vested in the outcome. With such a short career to date, it’s hard to know whether we love Tolman herself or her character, but having seen her in a few short parts on “The Mindy Kaling Project,” I’ll say it’s a bit of both. Tolman exudes a decency that’s in short supply on TV.
2. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – An Andy Samberg cop comedy set in a Brooklyn precinct house, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is one of the few reliably funny sitcoms on TV. There are no pretensions on this show, just humor that’s a step above silly and a step below meaningful.
3. Don Pardo – For 39 years, Don Pardo was the opening announcer for “Saturday Night Live” -- and, as is so often the case, a bit underappreciated until he was gone. "SNL" alumnus Daryl Hammond has been announcing since Pardo’s death in May (at age 96!) and since then the opening hasn’t had the same zip and joi de vivre as it did when Pardo belted out the intros.
4. Podcasts – Now that “Serial” has taken the nation by storm, people are discovering there’s this thing called “podcasts.” But not every podcast is about true crime. There are a ton of great podcasts about TV and culture. My personal favorites are Grantland’s “Hollywood Prospectus,” Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” and Bald Move’s “Mad Men Happy Hour.”
5. That single-take tracking shot from “True Detective” – The highlight of “True Detective,” one of the most absorbing and visually arresting series of the year, was a six-minute single-take tracking shot in which an undercover cop played by Matthew McConaughey orchestrates a heist in a drug-infested Louisiana housing project. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, this is possibly the most exciting single scene of the year, with the tension building minute-by-minute as the camera glides through drug dens, cramped rooms, backyards and even above a chain link fence. This is a scene worth watching again and again just to appreciate the directing mastery.
6. “Olive Kitteridge” – This beautiful HBO adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s collection of interlocking short stories provides a lot for a depressive to chew on. Olive is too smart and too honest to be happy in her small Maine town, but she endures.
7. The ending of “The Colbert Report” – We’ve come to the point where every show that’s been on more than a couple of years is expected to come up with an emotionally gratifying series finale. “The Colbert Report” sent us off with a sappy song (“We’ll Meet Again”) performed by one of the most astounding array of personages ever assembled on one stage: a diverse group of writers, politicians, inventors, activists, sports figures and even a few celebrities. These performers, including Henry Kissinger, George Lukas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gloria Steinem, Tom Brokaw, Ken Burns, Alan Alda, Big Bird and many many more, were joined with shout-outs from Bill Clinton, J.J. Abrams, the troops in Afghanistan and the space station.
8. The world’s greatest selfie – The Academy Awards were as ridiculous and self-aggrandizing as ever this year, but there was a stand-out moment when Ellen DeGeneres convinced a group of A-List movie stars to pose for a selfie. These are very high-end stars: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, etc. And yet like teenagers at the prom, they couldn’t help crowding and pushing all over themselves to get into the picture.
9. “Mad Men” – The once highly acclaimed series no longer gets the respect it once enjoyed, having been passed over at the Emmys and left off most top-ten lists. 2014 seemed to be a year of “Mad Men” fatigue, which is a shame because the seven episodes shown this year were among the best of the series. Don Draper began the season at his lowest point ever, rejected by his partners for bad behavior and faced with another marriage on the rocks. By the end of this short run (which was the first half of the final season), Don has fought back and regained his former position at the firm, repaired some ruptured relationships, and gained important self-insight and honesty. Perhaps my favorite scene was the final one of the year, which, like Colbert’s show concludes with a corny old song: the recently departed Bert Cooper reappears to Don and sings and dances to “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
10. The iPad Air ad – My favorite ad of the year featured Robin Williams quoting Walt Whitman as innovators and explorers are shown using the iPad to create, build and inspire. As the nation’s most successful company, Apple can afford to offer beautiful, inspiring ads without worrying about an immediate ROI on its ad spend. I know that all ads are ultimately cynical and manipulative, but I’d rather be manipulated by Walt Whitman than a sexy beer drinker. After all, as Whitman asks, in a vain and grasping world, what’s the point of it all? “Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”So, there we have it, another great year on TV. Will we even be watching conventional television next year at this time? Probably, but who knows? Either way, happy 2015!