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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

TIMBERMAN ON THE YEAR THAT WAS IN TV

STEVEN TIMBERMAN ON TELEVISION IN 2014

How good was 2014 for TV? So good that there is no critical consensus. Years past saw a relatively small list of television shows dominate the critical conversation – The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, maybe a sprinkling of Friday Night Lights or Lost if the critic wants to feel particularly transgressive. Shows written before 1999 are seen not as genuine predecessors but chicken scratch compared to the gorgeous calligraphy to come. It remains one of the things I love about American television – with ample time and a steady hand a relative newcomer can easily track down and absorb the medium’s accepted canon. A medium in relative infancy has no room for the gloriously messy and anarchic world of literary publishing.

And then 2014 happened. With Walter White’s conclusion told with deadened clarity, critical consensus collapsed. Critics went from arbiters to advocates – for the single-minded True Detective, the offbeat Fargo, the progressive Transparent. And I’d like to feel bitter about this shift, but the sheer weight of great material that aired last year speaks for itself. Even my own list saw a shake-up. Matthew Weiner’s elegiac Mad Men fell short for the first time in three years.

This is to no fault of Mad Men, which offered seven episodes of catharsis - a humbled Don Draper finally making peace with all of the demons he conjured over the years. Cannot wait to see how Weiner chose to end one of televisions' last great giants.

Though the networks still offered plenty of retrograde entertainment, casually progressive shows started to crack through. Black-ish not only revitalized old sitcom tropes, but also took on hot button issues with wit and pathos. And although How to Get Away with Murder has badly stumbled over several structural errors, Viola Davis' performance demonstrates how so many untapped stories still lay untold. For my money, there was no show as wonderfully progressive or subversive as Brooklyn Nine Nine - which manages to consistently deliver crackling comedy without reducing anyone to out of character histrionics.

Amazon burst into the big leagues with Transparent. Though Jeffrey Tambor's performance is a revelation, the show's depiction of casual religion and frictional family tension will stick with me even more. Proof positive that gender is just a thing we internalize, Transparent proves that real progress doesn't come when we deify marginalized groups. It arrives when we treat everyone like real people, with flesh and blood prejudices and biases and long held grudges and desires. The tenderness of Tambor's performance stands every bit as memorable as Josh's forlorn quest to find a female vessel for his insecurity, or Ali's directionless flopping around, or Sarah's marathon race to lock in long-term love like a business transaction. It’s a shame how many people will turn their head away from Transparent, because its on Amazon or because it explicitly seeks to smash barriers. Though Transparent was not the very best television series of the year, it may have contained my favorite scene - a Shabbat dinner gone horribly right, portraying the chaotic clashing of old rituals and new necessities with a profoundly Jewish pragmatism.

Other shows also gave us plenty to chew on; FX's The Americans steely precision and fiery performance by Kerri Russell deserves far more than the single sentence here. HBO's True Detective may have leaned too heavily on old tropes like the nagging wife, but its sense of atmosphere and loss were unparalleled. FX's Fargo improbably paid proper homage to its inspiration and offered a reminder that payoffs don't have to arrive years later. 24: Live Another Day livened up the summer with a superbly plotted season that reminded everyone that old relics can be dusted off, polished, and hold just as much power as our newest infatuations. Game of Thrones continued its overambitious march towards insanity, a continual high wire act that redefines what event television can be. The Flash pushed its budget almost as hard as it pushed the boundaries of network television storytelling, with incredible institutional memory and densely plotted payoffs conjuring the spirits of Whedon shows past. Deeply disappointed in the infantile House of Cards and sanctimonious Newsroom, I went international and found the Danish import Borgen. Though it finished airing in 2012, my most enduring memory of 2014 may very well be Birgitte Nyborg telling her fellow politicians that “All of us here have become ever so Professional.”

Everyone I know struggled to keep up with the avalanche of great television. The second series of Orange is the new Black and Masters of Sex are first on my list of shows to watch in the new year. 

But there was no show that left a deeper mark than FX's You're The Worst. My eyes glazed over the gaudy promos that pitched it as yet another nihilistic comedy about terrible people being terrible. Instead, I found a modern romance, the freshest story about two people falling in love since Harry Met Sally and subsequently froze the genre in amber. Well, at least in America.

In Britain, authors took a keen eye to enduring myths and changing attitudes – shows like Coupling, Gavin and Stacy, and Spaced took a gleeful axe to their suddenly stodgy American counterparts. Stephen Falk, creator of You’re The Worst, went into Hollywood pitch meetings and told them that he wanted to puncture every gaudy and internalized facet of the American romantic comedy. Gone was the over baked artifice. Instead, we follow two caustic cynics bonding over their own mutual dislike of other people – when Gretchen admits to setting her high school on fire to avoid a math test, Jimmy finds it to be one of the most romantic things he’s ever heard. They negotiate their kinks – Jimmy’s foot fetish is both a fountain of jokes and a part of his character. They eat and they drink and they fuck – but mostly, they just enjoy being around each other’s company.

You're the Worst captures the sensation of falling in love. It captures that moment when your significant other hears one of your secret shames and thinks it the coolest thing in the world. It captures the tug of war that underlines any relationship, correctly treating dating as something far more messy than a chess match. It captures that moment when you choose to unburden yourself ever so slightly, right after you've chosen to shoulder someone else's burdens not because you have to but because you want to.

Every single traditional show on television crams in a "romance", whether it’s warranted or not. And so people fuck like marionettes, or blandly crush on a coworker for a delayed love triangle, or drearily burp up platitudes. You're The Worst argues against all of that bullshit, unafraid to show real worry and vulnerability. When Gretchen gets an offer to spend the weekend with another guy, Jimmy doesn't coyly find a contrived way to get her to stay. Instead, Gretchen bluntly asks him to tell her to stay, if he wants to. And so Jimmy looks at her and says, with devastating earnestness, "Don't go."

It also features a vibrator hooked up to Christmas lights, too.

For that reason and so many more, You're The Worst was my show of 2014. Over fifteen years ago, David Chase created The Sopranos and lit the industry afire. And over a decade, television went from an also-ran to a true creative fault line. David Simon’s The Wire is the finest indictment of modern society I may ever witness. Show after show after show lined up and gently pushed the boundaries of how we use television to tell stories. There was a queue.

Stories now spin out in new directions, unafraid to show a man crying, a woman cracking a joke, a biracial kid tentatively trying to straddle two worlds - these elements no longer notable for their uniqueness but their ubiquity. And there are those who will want to return to the safer confines of the well-executed but well-trodden path of entertainment with clearly identified motifs and white hats and network-approved Comic Relief Characters. And those products will continue to exist and serve their audience. But me?  I’ll take this newer path. I want to see where it leads.
 
STEVEN TIMBERMAN IS AN AMERICAN WRITER WHO SOMETIMES IS KIND ENOUGH TO LET EYEWEAR PUBLISH HIS IDEAS AND THOUGHTS ON POPULAR CULTURE.
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