TIME Television

Review: The Colbert Report Is Dead. Long Live Stephen Colbert!

"If this is your first time tuning into The Colbert Report, I have some terrible news"

It’s a rare man who gets to attend his own funeral. It’s an even luckier man who gets to cheat his own death, dust his prints off the murder weapon, read his own eulogy, and rise to live again in another form.

That’s what Stephen Colbert did Thursday night with “Stephen Colbert,” in a show that sent his bloviating host character — one of the greatest sustained performances in pop culture, TV or otherwise — off into TV eternity. And his final Colbert Report was both a sweet ending and a perfect summation of the show’s spirit — smart and surreal, sly and sincere. The finale nodded to the massive creation that Colbert wrought over nine years, and — as he flew off with Santa, a unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek — promised something different to come.

Colbert began his last Report by riffing on what pop-culture commentators have been riffing on all week, his show’s legacy, though tongue-in-cheek. “I did something much harder than change the world,” he said. “Folks, I samed the world. Another Bush governor is running for the White House. People on TV are defending torture. We are sending troops into Iraq.” When the Report began in 2005, he said, “I promised you a revolution, and I delivered. Because technically, one revolution is 360 degrees right back to where we were.”

But Colbert revolutionized much more than that in between. A quick rundown of some of his greatest stunts over the years — the Rally for Sanity and/or Fear, the SuperPAC — was the closest he got to breaking-character sentiment: “You, the Nation, did all that. I just got paid for it.”

Then, following a bizarre setup in which one last “Cheating Death With Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA” ended with his killing Grimmy and becoming immortal, Colbert launched into a grand, punchy sing-along of “We’ll Meet Again,” with a celebrity cast of dozens that demands DVR rewinding but included, in part: Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Bryan Cranston, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Brokaw, Big Bird, Keith Olbermann, Katie Couric, Gloria Steinem, Samantha Power, Michael Stipe, James Franco, Charlie Rose, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Stewart, Christiane Amanpour, Arianna Huffington, Alan Alda, George Lucas, Henry Kissinger, Vince Gilligan (still chained in Colbert’s basement after the Breaking Bad finale), soldiers in Afghanistan, Esteban Colberto, Bill Clinton, an astronaut, JJ Abrams and Smaug.

Read more Why Stephen Colbert Is Signing Off at the Perfect Time

The all-star sendoff is a staple of talk-show finales, but this one seemed to say something here about the vast world that Colbert created with the Report. The show itself was not the sum total of the production that Colbert has put since 2005. It was just the flagship product of a larger performance that extended to the Internet, to public rallies, to political campaigns, and even to space.

By transforming himself into a character, and taking his performance far beyond the thirty minutes of the show, Colbert was engineering a way to satirize a subject — the media and political culture — that had moved almost beyond satire. It started with one big idea: that in American discourse, gut feeling and team affiliation had replaced reason (indeed, had labeled reason itself a kind of contemptible bad faith). The Report debuted just after a Bush adviser speaking to reporter Ron Suskind dismissed, in pre-satirized terms, the “reality-based community.”

So Colbert created not just a show but a massive work of performance art set in the reality-liberated community. It opened with not just a hilarious routine, but what felt like a summary of the era, in which Colbert introduced the concept of “truthiness.” The nation, he said, was divided between “those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.”

It was funny, it was perceptive, and you might expect that to fuel a show for, what, half a year? That Colbert was able to be “Stephen Colbert” at such a high level for some nine years was the 56-game-hitting-streak of American comedy, a feat we may not see equalled again. He kept it up in part by taking the show on the road. He brought his act to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, got Doritos to sponsor his favorite-son run in the 2008 South Carolina primary, and — in what was probably his high-water mark — in 2011 went through the process of founding a real SuperPAC. It was simultaneously an epic work of performance-art satire and genuine public-service education.

Read more 5 Times Stephen Colbert Changed the World

Before the finale, Colbert was already in the process of letting go of “himself”; on Wednesday’s show, he held a yard sale of Report memorabilia, unloading a copy of his correspondents’ dinner speech to a crying baby, selling a bottle of “Ass Juice” to a lucky bargain hunter. He seemed at peace, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s going on to something new, taking over for David Letterman at CBS. And while that’s generated much interest in what Colbert will do as himself, I’m not too concerned.

Because truth be told, one of the undersung aspects of the Report was how he infused his satire with his actual character, from his geeky enthusiasm for Tolkien to his sincere passion for ideas and ideals. If you expected him to give us a taste of what we’ll see from him on CBS, though, you’ll have to wait until later next year. Except for a post-credits sequence of him cutting up with Jon Stewart during a 2010 taping, he maintained his rock-solid professional facade.

But the plaintive strains of “Holland, 1945″ by Neutral Milk Hotel — a favorite band of the honest-to-God Colbert — clued us in to the bittersweetness of this see-you-later. Right up to the end, Stephen Colbert did not break character. But the rest of us can be forgiven if we broke down a little, saying goodbye to America’s greatest, most genuine phony.

Read next: Stephen Colbert: A Great Talk-Show Host? No, the Greatest!

TIME movies

Sony Should Stream The Interview — Now

A poster for the movie "The Interview" is taken down by a worker after being pulled from a display case at a Carmike Cinemas movie theater, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, in Atlanta.
A poster for the movie The Interview is taken down by a worker after being pulled from a display case at a Carmike Cinemas movie theater on Dec. 17, 2014, in Atlanta David Goldman—AP

James Poniewozik is TIME magazine's TV critic and writes the Tuned In column, about pop culture, media, and society. They always told him that TV would rot his brain, and this is the result. Follow his RSS feed here.

The Seth Rogen and James Franco flick is arguably America's first literal culture war — and free speech lost

The hacking of Sony and the threats against theaters planning to screen The Interview is arguably America’s first literal culture war. And the battle just claimed a big casualty: Sony announced, after several distributors pulled out, that it was canceling the Dec. 25 release of the Seth Rogen comedy, which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Plain and simple, free speech lost a battle here. It may have been inevitable, after the massive cyberattack on Sony’s computer data was followed by violent threats against theaters. The fear of violence and legal repercussions — and, maybe, the aura of danger created by the hacking — was enough for major theater chains to pull out. Sony, already in a corporate nightmare, was running out of places to screen the movie. None of this was especially brave, but it was corporations acting as corporations do, in their interest, not on principle.

But in a statement after the decision, Sony argued that there was a principle at stake: “We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

O.K., then: if Sony supports the American public and its filmmakers’ right to free expression, then it should let the American people see their filmmakers’ work. In our living rooms, if necessary. If theaters are afraid to show The Interview, make it available, as soon as possible, through home streaming on demand.

The technology is in place. The legal and business arrangements may be more difficult (one reason that studios have avoided immediate VOD release, ironically, is resistance from theater chains), but reportedly Sony has considered it as an option.

Sony’s absolutely right that this is an effort to suppress a movie. And right now, after their action, it’s worked. Which gives angry parties — foreign states or anyone with an axe to grind — incentive to do it again. (Already, a Steve Carell thriller set in North Korea has been scuttled.)

Maybe Sony is waiting to see if it can put the film in theaters later; maybe it’s afraid of further cyberrepercussions. But if this is an issue of principle, then act like it. Americans have broadband, big-screen TVs, and plenty of free time around Christmas. Give us the chance to make our own statement, if we so choose, to show that we don’t want bullies squelching our expression.

Artists and audiences lost an unprecedented battle here. But we can still win the war, even if we have to do it in our living rooms.

Read next: U.S. Links North Korea to Hack

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Television

The 10 Worst TV Shows of 2014 (That I Watched)

FOX

There may have been worse things that aired on TV in 2014. But if so, pray that you never see them.

Warning: This post contains spoilers, albeit of shows I do not recommend that you watch.

First, the usual disclaimer: these are not, necessarily, the 10 Worst TV Shows of 2014. If it’s hubris for me to declare that I have seen the best things that aired all year, it’s even more so to pretend I could isolate the worst, much less rank them.

It’s physically possible, at least, for a critic to screen enough of the year’s good TV to identify the best of the best. But millions of hours of TV is piped over cable a year. There must be awful, awful things that I have not seen–because they are awful, because I do not seek them out, because life is a gift that it is a sin to waste. There are probably many bad things I have seen and forgotten, because the human brain protects itself from trauma. And there are shows that began terribly and got better, or slightly less bad.

So the below are not the 10 Worst TV Shows of the Year. They are simply the worst things that someone who watches a lot of TV for a living can recall seeing. And for now, that is good, or rather bad, enough. Alphabetically:

The Brittany Murphy Story. It was a banner year for Lifetime movies, badness-wise; this was also the year the channel gave us The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story and Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. But this poorly conceived, poorly cast, rubbernecking biopic had the bad taste to put it over the top.

How How I Met Your Mother Treated Its Mother. HIMYM itself wasn’t the worst comedy of the year, and for much of its run it was one of the best sitcoms on air. But its final story arc, which introduced, then killed off, a love interest in order to got Ted and Robin together, was an example of the danger of sticking to a show’s original plan no matter what.

I Wanna Marry “Harry.” I’ve defended reality TV more times than I can count. I even defended Joe Millionaire. But this crass, sexist Buckingsham, roping women into a dating show with a fake prince, was indefensible, unwatchable and quickly cancelled.

Marco Polo. If not the worst TV show of the year overall, at least the worst in terms of dollars-to-quality: Netflix’s reported $90 million budget bought sluggish drama, laughable nude martial arts, and a Silk Road caravan laden with embarrassing Orientalism.

Mixology. ABC’s dating comedy at least had an interesting concept–one night out at a bar, over the course of a season–but in practice, it was a tumblerful of singles-sitcom clichés shaken into a nasty cocktail.

The Mysteries of Laura. NBC’s detective drama was at heart an unremarkable, old-fashioned, corny whodunit. But the premise–she’s a cop and she has kids! can you believe it!–managed to have it all, in all the wrong ways.

The Newsroom, “Oh Shenandoah.” After a promising start to The Newsroom‘s final season, an episode focusing on campus rape and digital culture combined the worst of this show’s preachy tendencies into a perfect storm of hot air.

“The Simpsons Guy.” Introducing the Simpsons into a bloated episode of Family Guy was like having the Sistine Chapel repainted by the guy who draws Mallard Fillmore.

Stalker. Even by the standards of TV’s most exploitative crime stories, this lurid women-in-peril drama was slimy. Naturally, it’s been picked up for a full season.

Utopia. It was the fall’s most promising reality-show concept–a group of people spend a year building a society, in rural isolation–but, filled with irritating personalities for maximum conflict, it managed to be both depressing and dull. But it did at least get cancelled, leaving our own world a little bit closer to perfect.

Again, this is only an incomplete list, for the sake of my own sanity. Share the worst things you’ve seen on TV in 2014 in the comments–and better luck in 2015.

TIME News Media

The Sony Hack, and Why Stolen News Is Still News

The Hollywood e-mails may have been swiped by bad people for bad reasons. But news outlets need to judge the information, not the informers.

The Newsroom is over, but Aaron Sorkin’s critique of the media is not. Writing in the New York Times, the screenwriter says that any reporter who is reprinting information released in a massive hack of Sony computers–seemingly as retaliation for The Interview, a Seth Rogen comedy about an assassination plot against the leader of North Korea–is “morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable.”

Sorkin, as he admits, is an interested party: he’s writing a movie about Steve Jobs that’s the subject of some of the e-mails. I don’t hold that against him, though. He’s wrestling with a genuinely tough, disturbing subject, one that, when you start chasing down precedents and what-ifs, can make a hypocrite of just about anyone who argues it.

Including me: just this year, I argued against people watching the execution videos released by ISIS. A beheading video was “a deliberately filmed murder, a grisly performance meant explicitly to be shared for effect,” I wrote. “Watching them literally completes their purpose.”

But I wouldn’t argue against reporting that the ISIS executions happened. And like all analogies, this one breaks down on closer inspection. A hacked company e-mail is not the same as a murder is not the same as a stolen nude selfie. The Sony hack was (at least apparently) meant to expose and to punish; it’s another kind of violation, and intended for media consumption. Journalists reporting on it are indeed doing the work the hackers wanted them to do.

But they’re not simply posting raw hacked data wholesale. They’re applying judgment–not always correct judgment but judgment nonetheless–and deciding what part of the information constitutes news. You might not think a Hollywood salary dispute, say, is important news, but if it were reported through normal means, no one would bat an eye at it.

So the real question here is: does information that otherwise would be considered news suddenly become Not News because it’s given to you by bad people, through bad means, for bad reasons? To answer, we need to ask, to borrow a journalistic cliché, who, what, where, when, why, and how. Or at least four of them:

How: How did the Sony data come out? Because someone stole it, plain and simple. What’s not plain and simple is whether that makes it off-limits. It would be nice if there were a plain and simple rule, and that’s what Sorkin tries to set, arguing the legal standard of “the fruit of the poisoned tree.” But…

When: Stolen info is not always off-limits, as he later notes: it wasn’t in the case of the Pentagon Papers–or, for that matter, in the main storyline of The Newsroom‘s final season, in which the ACN crew held fast to their right to report an international-news story leaked by a Snowden-esque government whistleblower. Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times, has said that the Sony data is “not the Pentagon Papers” and yet “we have used documents surfaced by others.” Reporters do traffic in stolen information and report on communications they’re not supposed to have access to. The question is when: Which brings us to…

What: In other words, is any of this material legitimate news? Would we consider it newsworthy if it were obtained by other means? Certainly, a lot of the details the press has been picking over have been little more than gossip. (Then again, so is a lot of Hollywood news not obtained through stolen e-mails.) But whether or not you think that executives’ racist jokes about President Obama are the equivalent of the Donald Sterling scandal, it’s hard to claim, in the same year as the Sterling news, that they’re not news at all. And if it’s important–indeed, scandalous–that someone may be trying to punish a studio for offending North Korea, how is it not news (as the New York Times reported, using the e-mails) that that same studio asked filmmakers to change their movie to avoid offending North Korea in the first place? And if it isn’t…

Why: The critiques of reporting the data come down to the motives of the hackers. If (as is possible, though not definitive) they stole the documents to punish artistic expression, should news organizations have a higher bar because the source has bad motives? Should there be a lower bar for publishing stolen information from a whistleblower with good intentions? And who decides which intentions are which? News outlets decided that the information from the Edward Snowden leaks–also called “fencing stolen goods” by some–was important enough to publish. Snowden claimed patriotic motives–but what if he didn’t? Say he provided the exact same information, but did it with the express intention of bringing about the downfall of the United States. Would the same information suddenly become off-limits because of the mindset of the person who provided it?

That last question is the one that finally bothers me. I agree the press shouldn’t be complicit in airing snuff films, disseminating stolen nude pictures, reprinting the Social Security numbers of people who work for a targeted company. I agree that “We can, and other people will do it if we don’t” isn’t a good reason to run a story. “We’ll get a lot of traffic from it” is even worse. From all we can see, the Sony hack was a vile act done for vile reasons.

But I’m also disturbed by the idea of the press deciding who’s stealing information for the right reasons and for the wrong ones, and adjusting its definition of news accordingly. In the end, the right question to ask–at least journalistically–is, “Would this be news if we got it under other circumstances?” News judgment isn’t easy, and it can often be wrong. But I’d rather have news outlets judging news than judging their sources.

TIME Television

REVIEW: Khan Job: Netflix’s Ludicrous Marco Polo

Phil Bray / Netflix

This tour of the Mongol Empire is a sprawling mess.

If there is an equivalent in today’s TV business to the Mongol horde and its cavalry, it may well be Netflix and its algorithms. Not only has the streaming service’s recommendation engine threatened long-standing TV empires and conquered our video habits by sending us from binge-watch to binge-watch–“If you like this, you might like this”–but also, so the company says, it has allowed Netflix to use its copious data to precision-target an audience for its original shows.

Marco Polo (first season debuts online Friday), the lush drama set in the 13th-century court of Kublai Khan, feels less like precision targeting than a flurry of wildly fired arrows, the scattershot, overstuffed result of a “You Might Like…” algorithm run amok. If you like Game of Thrones, and historical drama, and pay-cable softcore, and martial arts movies (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, whose sequel Netflix is also making)–and you want them crammed together, narrative sense be damned–you might like this gorgeous but ludicrous saga.

But you might also wish Netflix and creator John Fusco had anticipated that you “might like” credible dialogue and characters as well.

The series begins with Italian explorer Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) being left by his merchant father as a gift/servant/hostage for the Khan (Benedict Wong), in hopes of winning access to the Silk Road. Kublai rules a massive empire, but still has unfinished business: the holdout remnants of the Chinese Song dynasty, as well as fellow warlords who fear that conquest has softened the Mongol out of Genghis’ grandson. The Khan sees the quick-witted “Latin” Marco as a useful scout and spy, dispatching him on reconnaissance missions among enemies and frenemies.

Marco is the protagonist only in name; Richelmy is too bland to be more than the handsome camera through which we explore the empire. The imposing Wong, on the other hand, could be the show’s compelling star–a Mongol Al Swearengen–if the series didn’t make him such a growling B-movie tyrant. Early, he’s challenged as to whether he wants to be a Mongol or Chinese ruler. “Emperor of Mongolia, Emperor of China,” he roars, “I will be Emperor of the world!“–and impales a map with his sword. It’s a mission statement for the series, if that mission is to make you laugh unintentionally.

Mission accomplished, repeatedly. Mind you, this is no amateur production. Filmed in Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Venice, Marco Polo looks like it took the riches of east and west to make. (Reports put the season’s price tag at $90 million.) The vistas are stupendous, the sets and costumes gorgeous (and purportedly researched in detail). This would be a great show to watch on a new giant-screen TV you’re getting for Christmas.

And even more so if the sound doesn’t work. Marco Polo quickly becomes a travelogue of pulp clichés: the oily Song chancellor intoning proverbs about “the strike of the mantis break[ing] the back of the cricket”; the concubine-spy (Olivia Cheng) who leaps up fully nude in slo-mo to take down two armored soldiers in her bedchamber, as if in a Rated-Adults-Only video game; and Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) the sightless martial-arts master who trains Marco with a stream of listen-carefully-grasshopper nuggets–“Untrue by an inch, untrue by a mile” and “Of the yin and the yang, you have an abundance of yang.”

The series’ problem, too, is how badly it balances its contrasts. Making Marco Polo dumb fun would be just as legitimate as making it weighty historical realism. But the show tries to be both (sort of, though producers freely admit to playing with facts and the timeline), lurching between modes without warning. Sometimes it’s a study of court intrigue, as when we see the Song leaders riven between diehards who want to fight the Khan and those who would sue for peace. Other times, it’s like someone watched the most caricatured Dothraki scenes in the first season of Game of Thrones and asked, “Could we have a show of just this?” Then there’s the obligatory sex, worked in a gracefully as pop-up ads; an orgy montage in the pilot, which intercuts naked, red-lit courtesans with images of Hundred Eyes kung-fu-posing with a cobra, is Orientalist hoohah as pure as the spun silk of distant Cathay.

You can’t say Marco Polo isn’t committed to spectacle and popcorn entertainment, and that may make it a hit worth its price tag. But it reminds me of the Simpsons episode in which Homer gets to design a car that has every feature he wants, and ends up with an expensive monstrosity that includes bubble domes, multiple horns and shag carpeting. It may be that Netflix really knows just what we want. With Marco Polo, it’s giving it to us good and hard.

TIME Television

In the Golden Globe Nominations, Some TV Virgins Experience Their First Time

This is your annual reminder that unless you were eligible for a Golden Globe in television, you should not care overmuch about the Golden Globes in television. It’s a fun awards show representing the tastes of a small body of foreign journalists covering Hollywood, is unlikely to save any show from cancellation or boost its ratings–and unlike with movies and the Oscars, it bears little relation to the Emmys, except maybe to predict which new comedy might lose to Modern Family next year. (Here’s the full list of nominations, in film and TV.)

But people like to care about things, and if you’re going to anyway, one regular pleasure of the Globes is its receptiveness to new names. (In that way, it’s almost the anti-Emmys.) It may even acknowledge new shows to a fault; I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but don’t think it was the top TV comedy last fall after half a season. But that means the Globes can be a good marker of shows and stars that are building buzz.

All of which is to say: yay, Gina Rodriguez and Jane the Virgin! The season’s best new broadcast show and its most appealing new star were recognized in both the best comedy and comedy-actress categories. Yay, Jeffrey Tambor and Transparent, which also made the comedy lists! And the Globes also opened the books for Silicon Valley, which made my top 10 TV series list for 2014, so I can’t complain.

On the drama side, the Globes recognized Viola Davis in newcomer How to Get Away With Murder–though that’s less of a surprise as the Globes always enjoys a movie star. (Hence Liev Schreiber, yet again, for Ray freakin’ Donovan.) In general, there were fewer surprises and debuts on the actor and drama sides–though there was quite an impressive freshman showing for The Affair. (The foreign press, it would seem, is very fond of l’amour fou, or tomato chutney.)

If there’s one interesting overall conflict to watch out for at the Globes, it will be the head-to-head showdown between Fargo and True Detective, both of which the Globes placed in the miniseries category. (So give them points over the Emmys for consistency.) The Globes air Jan. 11 on NBC. Stock up your liquor cabinet, enjoy hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and above all, enjoy the low, low stakes.

TIME Television

Sons of Anarchy: The Long Goodbye

FX

The series died as it lived, as an emotional, excessive--and sometimes seemingly endless--classic-rock jam.

Spoilers for the series finale of Sons of Anarchy follow:

Did you know how Sons of Anarchy was going to end? If you’ve watched the show for any length of time, I bet you did. Maybe you didn’t know that Jax would arrange his exit from the club and from Charming, that he would die and that he would give himself up to death by crashing into a truck riven by Michael Chiklis’ Milo, a nod to Chiklis’ The Shield, which SoA creator Kurt Sutter once worked on. (See Melissa Locker’s recap for more details.)

But you knew it would end with a montage.

The montage would be long (around seven and a half minutes, scored to the original “Come Join the Murder” by house band The Forest Rangers). It would be mournful. It would intercut the series’ final actions with resolutions and goodbyes to cops and club members and family members, zipped up body bags and California landscapes, a presidential motorcade of police vehicles and a heavenly/hellish murder of crows flying an aerial salute to Jax before he raised his arms in a crucifixion pose and drifted into the path of Milo. (Who yelled, correctly, “Jesus!”)

If it was not a great ending, it was a fitting ending for Sons of Anarchy, which, for better and worse, was always an extended classic-rock song of a show. It was unedited and undisciplined, a colossal anthem taking up a whole vinyl album side, with cowbell and extended drum solos and a dozen guitarists lined up on stage to get a turn to riff over the coda. If it felt an emotion, it primal-screamed it. It threw in intrigues and complications like a jam band throwing in bridges and time changes. At its best it was “Sweet Child o’ Mine”; at its worst, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

This was the reason I drifted out of the show’s lane over the last few seasons, though I was a fan early on. There was a strong story at the core of it: J.T.’s legacy, Jax’s conflicts with Gemma and Clay and the question of whether Jax could change the club and himself. But as the show sustained itself over seven seasons, that became buried under a vast amount of gang wars and investigations and bloody machinations with the Irish and the neo-Nazis and black and brown and yellow and for all I know purple.

As the show got more and more popular, the complications only multiplied. It became clear that Sons of Anarchy the show was not going to give up its violent entanglements any more than Jax was going to get SAMCRO the club to do so: too many people were too invested in keeping the mayhem going. And at the same time, the show took an approach to storytelling that was emblemized by those montages and its growing episode run times. It left everything in: to SoA, everything was important, but that undercut the sense that anything was particularly important.

For all that, there were moments in the last few episodes that still hit me, as a longtime viewer. Katey Sagal’s final moments in the garden as Gemma were genuinely affecting as she accepted, even invited, her fate. In the finale Jax’s recognition that his only hope for his kids was that they grow up hating him was a simple, powerful admission. Both characters’ ends returned to the show’s tragic theme: these people knew they couldn’t really change their fates or their selves. But it was also diluted by the long, long walk of goodbyes and tying up loose ends.

Sutter, of course, was not interested in making a show for people who wanted less, and I assume he made the maximalist finale he wanted. There was enough talent and thoughtful provocation in SoA‘s best moments that I’ll watch with interest what he does next. But I’m hoping it’s a little more punk rock.

TIME Television

AFI Names Best TV of 2014, From The Americans to Transparent

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in FX's The Americans. Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The TV awards, from a movie organization, show the breadth and strength of television in 2014.

Another hour, another best-TV-of-the-year honors. A while ago I posted about Fargo winning the Hitfix 2014 TV poll, in which I (and many other critics) participated. This year I also voted in another, quite different TV awards, from the American Film Institute (which apparently also honors some upstart genre known as “movies”).

Unlike the Hitfix poll, the AFI awards are decided by a jury of critics, academics and TV professionals. (Among our crew this year was Vince Gilligan, who had no dog in the fight a year in between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.) Also unlike that poll, and most others, it doesn’t rank its finalists in order (which I wouldn’t either if TIME didn’t require it). We just watch our shows, argue for our favorites, complete a ballot, and publish a civilized, alphabetical list. This year, those ten shows were:

THE AMERICANS
FARGO
GAME OF THRONES
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
JANE THE VIRGIN
THE KNICK
MAD MEN
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
SILICON VALLEY
TRANSPARENT

Exactly half of those shows were on my own top ten list, and almost all the rest came close. (Except for How to Get Away With Murder, which I don’t think is quite there but is definitely a hell of a lot of fun.) The AFI also considers only scripted TV, so one of my picks for TIME, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, was ineligible. But even if I didn’t vote for each of these shows, I like the range they represent, in genre, style and format. (Though in a sign of the times, there are only two broadcast network shows–the same amount as shows from online streaming services.)

As usual, it was a fun process that helped me sort through my own feelings about the past year in TV. As for yours, feel free to quibble or offer up your own list in the comments. Alphabetization optional.

TIME Television

TV Critics’ Poll Names Fargo Best Show of 2014

Chris Large/FX

In a year with a lot of vote-splitting, the Minnesota saga pleased enough of the people enough of the time to win.

Entertainment site Hitfix today released the results of its annual TV critics’ poll, and this time it was Fargo that would go far. FX’s new series (miniseries? serial miniseries?) finished number one both for best show of the year and best new show, finishing ahead of The Good Wife and Transparent respectively. (True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey won the separate Best Performance poll.)

As always, just because I vote in the polls doesn’t mean I agree with all the choices: I’ve already published my own top 10 of 2014 list, so you can compare these lists with mine if you want. But honestly, I don’t need a list like this to confirm my tastes–that’s what my own is for. It’s much more interesting to me to see how they reflect the averaged-out preferences of a particular group.

This year, it sheds a little light on what a wildly diverse group of top shows 2014 gave us. I don’t just mean there was a lot of good TV, but there was no one show dominating most critics’ lists as Breaking Bad did last year. (Even if I was one of a few dissenters in 2013, putting Enlightened #1 and Breaking Bad #2.) This year, a casual glance down the individual critics’ picks find many different, plausible top picks: Transparent (my choice), The Good Wife, The Americans, True Detective, Game of Thrones. Hitfix’s own Alan Sepinwall picked The Leftovers as his #1, and while I though its season was too uneven, I loved its high points so much I immediately regretted not ranking it higher.

As for Fargo, it would not have been my guess for the top spot, and yet in retrospect it seems obvious. The show has had its detractors–The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for instance. But in general it was a show a lot of critics loved or at least liked a lot, without a major backlash, which meant it was high enough on enough lists to rack up a lot of points. It stood up better over time and in memory (compare True Detective, which was an obsession for two months last winter but ended up #5 on the Hitfix list), and it didn’t run the risk, like The Good Wife, of running a fall season that didn’t quite measure up to its earlier winter season. Not everyone agreed one single shows was the best in 2014, but enough critics–myself included–believed that Fargo was one of the best to make it tops overall.

(A key factor here is that critics vote in the poll by ranking their top 10 picks; so even though Fargo tied The Good Wife and Transparent in #1 picks, it got enough close-to-#1 picks to make the difference.)

Agree or not, Hitfix provides enough data to make an interesting deep dive for TV geeks–not just each critic’s individual ranked lists, but how many votes each show got, from whom, and in what place. Go ahead and do some investigating of your own–that’s what Molly Solverson would want.

 

TIME Television

Listen Here, Internet Girl: The Newsroom Rapesplains It All

HBO

The show's latest episode couldn't have been much better timed, or much worse made.

Spoilers for the latest episode of The Newsroom below:

The timing of the second-to-last episode of The Newsroom ever, “Oh Shenandoah,” was perfect. It included a subplot about campus rape and the ethics of reporting rape accusations, which have been everywhere in the news–from the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape investigation (which the magazine just embarrassingly walked back) to the re-emerging Woody Allen and Bill Cosby rape accusations. (And that’s even before you get to the parallels between ACN’s new tech-zillionaire “disrupter” owner Lucas Pruit and The New Republic’s Chris Hughes.)

But the timing of “Oh Shenandoah” was also terrible, because “Oh Shenandoah” was terrible.

Its arguments about whom to “believe” in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible. Its cranky obsession with the evils of the Internet was terrible. And it added up—in a final season that began with the promise of the series becoming better and subtler in the end—as a terrible episode even by the standards of the series’ earlier, most terrible ones.

Let’s begin with Don’s visit to Mary, the rape accuser. Mary–and credit to Sorkin for resonance with current events–says that she was raped, that she reported it to college authorities and the police, and that none of them did anything about it. So she’s set up a website through which women can anonymously report rapes. This unsettles Don; he’s worried about the potential for a guy’s career to be ruined by a false accusation. Mary answers that he seems a lot more concerned about that than the statistically far more likely possibility that a woman will get raped and her attacker will get off scot-free. It’s a canned dialogue and more than a little mansplain-y on Don’s part, but it is, at least, an actual discussion going on in the news today.

Then we get into the issue of “belief” and he-said-she-said, and it gets worse. So much worse. Asked who he believes, Don, with visible discomfort, says that she’s credible and has no reason to lie; the student she’s accusing seems sketchy and has every reason to lie. But, he says, morality tells him that “I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy.”

OK, what the hell? Don’s not saying that he can’t know whom to believe yet. He’s not saying that he doesn’t have hard proof. He’s not saying, “We don’t know enough to say.” He’s saying that, lacking proof, he has to affirmatively believe the story of one of his subjects–a less credible one–over the other. Forget journalists–many men’s rights movement advocates don’t even go that far.

The journalistic-ethics part of his argument is even more confused. Don is ostensibly worried about Mary’s website and the danger of anonymous accusations. So he wants Mary to turn down the ACN interview–in which she’s not only not making an anonymous accusation but in which the accused will have the chance to defend himself. This is literally the opposite of the criticism of the Rolling Stone story–that the magazine’s reporter did not speak to any of the accused gang-rapists, or attempt to track them down, or even explain what it did or did not do about them. ACN has done all that, and Don wants to scuttle the story anyway, because he doesn’t like the website. Because “there’s no way” some woman won’t use it to make a false rape accusation. Because think of the theoretical Stanford Medical School applications!

For this “Oh Shenandoah” makes him a hero.

And that gets to the larger problem of the episode, and The Newsroom in general. The Newsroom is a didactic show, by which I mean, when it presents an argument, it hints pretty clearly which side it believes is right. It works in heroic, not antiheroic mode. This is a trait of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows, and it’s not automatically bad. The Wire is the greatest drama in TV history, and it was plainly didactic about its argument against the war on drugs.

But when you make an episode as didactic, as righteous, as sanctimonious as this, you own what it preaches. Its rape subplot is not saying, “Here are a couple sides of a difficult issue. What do you make of it?” Like most such Newsroom parables, it gives you obvious clues–tone, cadence, music, camera angles, who gets the better speeches–to lead you to the path of virtuous and true thinking. And although Mary is sympathetic too, what dominates the story is how committed Don is, how terrible he knows the situation is, how damn hard it is for him (he spends most of it with his eyes watering), but how he has to make this call anyway, even if it breaks his heart, even if it gets him fired, because right is right, dammit.

And the rape story is only the most attention-getting subplot in an episode loaded with awful sermons. Except for Jim and Maggie’s romance on the Snowden Express, every storyline here is a screed about how the Internet and wrongheaded populism are threatening truth, privacy, justice, journalism and civil society.

It’s ironic that the Internet is the one topic that reliably makes Sorkin reach for the CAPS LOCK button like a blog commenter. Combine that with a woman character and it’s a perfect storm, something foreshadowed in real life during the first season when Sorkin dismissed a female reporter with, “Listen here, Internet girl.” In The Newsroom the Internet is silly, gossipy–and thus, in its view, feminine, not unlike reality TV, which Will said in season one turns us into “old ladies with hair dryers on our heads.” (See also everything this season involving Hallie, who first gets fired from ACN for a tasteless tweet about the Boston Marathon bombing, then lands a job with a website that gets her to write a personal essay dishing about a fight with her boyfriend Jim.)

So Mary’s story is an extension of The Newsroom‘s woman problem. But it’s also is of a piece with all the other storylines in the episode, crying that digital culture, its anonymity, its renegade Redditors, its insistence that passion equals truth, and its ability to bypass the filter of expert judgment, has bought us all a ticket on the Acela straight to hell.

Mary–who at least gets in some potent arguments–is arguably the most generously treated antagonist in the episode. Elsewhere, Jailhouse Will argues about Eastern establishment elitism with his cellmate, an imaginary stand-in for his abusive dad, who gets in a few good points–except he’s a wife-beater who hates the Jews, so there’s that. Sloan vivisects the tech guy who’s created a celebrity-stalking app (a practice even Gawker has dropped), a gross, smug troll given only a few limp clichés (“They signed up for this!”) to defend himself with. And Pruit turns out to be exactly the crass, bullying philistine everyone was afraid he’d be, raving and threatening to fire the entire office for breaking his beautiful surveillance app. This is all too much for Charlie–for some reason he’s spent most of the episode as fiercely carrying out Pruit’s philosophy as he earlier fought it–who, under the strain of holding it all together, actually drops dead.

That’s right, folks: The Internet killed Charlie Skinner! And you did, and I did, all of us with our shallow obsessions and demands for cheaper, faster, more gossipy news! Are you happy now, are you?

The most baldly offensive thing in “Oh Shenandoah” was watching Don mansplain rape to a woman. But to focus only on that would be to diminish the sheer, monumental, top-to-bottom -splaininess of this episode. Will McAvoy is so good a mansplainer he can even mansplain to another man. Then Sloan Sloansplained privacy and the rights of celebrities. And Charlie, in the climax of The Newsroom‘s worst episode ever, finally and unanswerably deathsplained the demise of journalism.

RIP, Charlie. At least you got out.

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