TIME Television

Here Are the 10 Best TV Shows of 2014 (So Far)

HBO

The shows that already made a big impression in 2014 (by June, at least)

Correction appended June 3, 1:20 p.m.

Every year, I keep a running list of shows that amuse me, amaze me, impress me or depress me (in a good way). At the end of the year, I whittle that list down to 10, and I have my best-TV-of-the-year list. But it’s tough. I have to leave out a lot of really good stuff. And why should arguing over subjective choices come only once a year?

In that spirit, I give you my very provisional list of The Best TV of 2014 (So Far). But first, a few notes:

  • This list is only in alphabetical order, because I only rank lists if my editor makes me. (That said, I’m glad The Americans begins with ‘A.’)
  • I kept this list to 10 items, because you have to stop somewhere or you’ve got an “everything I like” list. There are a few others that came very close. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s the road to madness.
  • That said, I reserve the right to put shows on my year-end list that I omitted here, because I changed my mind / considered new arguments / saw later episodes / suffered a blow to the head.
  • This may go without saying, but criticism is a snapshot: several of these series are currently airing, so they can always get better or worse.
  • I’ve seen six episodes of Orange Is the New Black, the entire season which will be live on Netflix June 6, and I would have put it on the list on the basis of those episodes except for the timing. If the rest of the season holds up, it’s a good candidate for my year-end list again.
  • There are many other shows critics adore but I somehow don’t connect with (Hannibal). There are shows that I love but just got crowded out at the moment (Bob’s Burgers). And there is one show that is obviously the best thing on TV now, maybe ever, and I just left it off because I am a biased idiot who should be fired (Your Favorite Show Here). Please, tell us about it in the comments!

And now, the Best TV Shows of 2014, as of very early June, according to some guy from TIME:

THE AMERICANS - Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Frank Ockenfels/
FX

The Americans (FX)
And you think you have work-life balance problems? KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings tried to find the secrets of the Stealth program, their children struggled to find themselves, and this ’80s drama found a new gear.

Comedy Central

Broad City (Comedy Central)
Meet your new favorite two broke girls. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson deliver the contact buzz of laughter in the weirdest, freshest, funkiest new comedy of the season.

COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: More than three decades after the debut of "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," Carl Sagan's stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Seth MacFarlane (FAMILY GUY, AMERICAN DAD) and Sagan's original creative collaborators.  Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (pictured), the series will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time.  COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY premieres Sunday, March 9 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX and simultaneously across multiple U.S.  networks, including National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo and FOX Life.  CR: Patrick Eccelsine/FOX
Fox

Cosmos (Fox)
Neil DeGrasse Tyson picked up his mentor Carl Sagan’s work (with the help of Seth MacFarlane), breathing new life into the ancient universe and making a passionate argument against the forces of anti-science.

FARGO -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: /Matthias Clamer
FX

Fargo (FX)
This miniseries isn’t a remake of the Coen Brothers’ movie so much as an extended jazz cover of it — in an improvisatory yet deeply original string of riffs. It’s a bloody yet playful examination of the seduction of evil and the hard cold road of good.

HBO

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Daenerys’ dragons, this fantasy epic in its fourth season continues to grow in scale and confidence. But what makes it great is that it handles small conversational duels as well as its epic battles.

The Good Wife
CBS/Getty Images

The Good Wife (CBS)
For five years running, this sharp-witted legal drama has offered more pleasure per season than anything out there. Taking on love, politics, technology and (spoiler) death, it shows no sign of adjourning.

HBO

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
The Daily Show alum’s blistering comedy-cast is very new, but it’s the most welcome addition in a year of late-night change. Reorienting the fake-news format toward world events and commercial culture, it’s becoming the go-to chaser to the stiff drink of Sunday-night TV.

LOUIE: Episode 8: "Elevator Part 5" (Airs Monday, May 26, 10:30 pm e/p). Pictured: Louis C.K. as Louie. CR: KC Bailey/
FX

Louie (FX)
The only predictable things about Louis CK’s show are that it will be unpredictable and that it will linger with you long after you watch. From philosophy to sex-toy jokes, vignettes to the equivalent of a full-length movie, this is TV that can be whatever it wants to.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Betty Francis (January Jones), Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/
AMC

Mad Men (AMC)
We’ll see if the back half of the final season can close the deal next year, but this was a fine start. In seven often-haunting episodes, the age of Aquarius met the age of IBM, and it left us with a song.

's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga
HBO

True Detective (HBO)
Few shows have inspired so much obsession so quickly, and it wasn’t just The Yellow King’s magic. This one-season story (rebooting next year) dripped talent, from Harrelson and McConaughey’s testosterone-drunk performances to Nic Pizzolatto’s dirty poetry to Cary Fukunaga’s direction, in which you could practically see ghosts come alive in the postindustrial bayou air.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of a character on The Americans. It is Philip Jennings.

TIME Television

RECAP: The Americans Watch: Something Greater Than Yourself

Patrick Harbron/FX

Mother Russia asks Elizabeth and Philip to make the supreme sacrifice, in an outstanding finale to what has been the best season on TV so far this year.

Spoilers for the season 2 finale of The Americans follow:

“Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause and to the world. We all do. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?”

It’s not exactly rocket science–or stealth-airplane science–to say that a drama about covert agents is going to involve questions of loyalty. But a major concern of “Echo,” and really much of the fantastic second season of The Americans, is the bigger, moral/social question that “loyalty” implies: Whom do you belong to? To your loved ones? Your country? Your ideals? Your god? Or only to yourself? And what does that mean beyond feel-good words: if you belong to something larger than yourself, what does that person, that community, that institution have the right to demand?

This was the stark question that Claudia (welcome back, Granny!) sprung on Philip and Elizabeth in the season finale’s gut-punch of a closing twist. (At least I didn’t see it coming–though I started to wonder, with Paige’s increasing fervor, if Elizabeth might be tempted to bring her in on her parents’ true identities.) But it was also a hard-to-miss theme in the episode overall. It was the heart of Paige’s Christian activism: Jesus “was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.” It was the story of poor Fred, find some meaning by dying for the sake of the Cause and a paint sample. It was Elizabeth’s attempt to comfort Jared about his parents’ deaths: “They believed in something greater than themselves.” And it was, horribly, Jared’s justification as he gargled out his confession to their murder: “I had to protect my cover. What we do, it’s for something greater than ourselves.”

Recognizing that something is greater than yourself may be a noble thing, but it’s also deeply dangerous. Once you are willing to accept that you don’t belong to you, it opens the door for a lot of parties to claim you, for a lot of purposes. When a cause becomes convinced it has a righteous claim on its followers, it’s only a short step to claiming their children.

And that claim strikes to the heart of Philip and Elizabeth’s double life. Their children, after all, are not simply the kids they go home to after work; they are literally a product of the job, conceived as part of their cover. That the state should claim them–Paige, at least, for now–as “second-generation illegal” agents is ghastly, but seen through the lens of state ideology, the cause is simply claiming its due. Paige would not exist without Soviet matchmaking; her third parent, truly, is Mother Russia.

On a lesser show, Granny’s order would be one more external problem to solve–neutralized, as it seems at first to be, by Philip’s threatening visit to Arkady. Stay away from my daughter, problem solved, danger averted. But because this is The Americans, the big conflict is within the marriage. Philip is a dedicated agent, but as a father, he’s adopted the immigrant ideal, believing he’s truly raising his children to have a life different–safer, more comfortable–than his own. Given that his job is to bring down the system in which they live, there’s a bit of a contradiction there, and Elizabeth calls him on it. “It would destroy her,” he says. “To be like us?” she answers.

When I call The Americans an intimate thriller, this is what I mean. It brings the suspense–the final fight with Larrick, the getaway scene scored to Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”–but the ultimate drama, what makes it great, is about personal choices. Who are you? What are you willing to give up? Is it more terrifying to see your children in danger, or to risk losing them emotionally forever, seeing them become strangers to you? In a minute of downtime, Elizabeth and Philip share stories of their childhood hardship: to her, it’s a better alternative than losing her daughter to kumbaya Christianity, but to Philip, it’s something to save his children from. (It’s a nice touch, by the way, that his story is interrupted, and he never gets to finish it.)

Elizabeth and Philip have survived this life; they’re good at their jobs. But we see that things don’t always work out well for people who give themselves to something greater. Stan has lost his marriage, loses his lover, may lose everything, but he elects to roll the dice rather than betray his country. Which means the end of the line–for now anyway–for Nina, whose composure, resourcefulness, and bravery were not enough to secure Stan’s treason or the state’s mercy. In a heartbreaking image, she looks back at Arkady with the portrait of Lenin, powerful and impassive, over her shoulder. (I hope we haven’t seen the last of her, but Annet Mahendru here reminds us why she’s been the MVP of season 2.)

This finale capped off a season in which not only nearly every move The Americans made went right (I could pick nits but I won’t), but the things that went right worked well together too. Season one had a thrilling cat-and-mouse game with the Jenningses and neighbor Stan, but it posed a danger in the long term: if every season becomes a variation on “Stan almost finds out who they are,” it risks becoming tiresome or making him seem merely incompetent. So this season spun him off into his own crises at work and with Nina, challenging his dedication and enriching the already fascinating internal dynamics of the Rezidentura.

And the kids: wow. Dramas with a family element often struggle with kids’ stories, for instance; they can often seem tacked on or insignificant in comparison to the adult’s storylines. But this season used both Paige and Henry remarkably. The scene in which Henry, caught breaking into a neighbor’s house to play video games, miserably pleads “I’m a good person!” is one of the most wrenching things I’ve seen this year. It shows a kid’s problem, but also conveys that this is really one of the worst things he’s experienced–his confidence in his very nature is shaken–and that in turn echoes Philip and Elizabeth’s moral crises.

Paige’s story, meanwhile, has been an utterly believable journey of self-discovery for a teenage girl in the early ’80s–compounded by the fact that she’s fighting for independence while living in an artificial world created by surveillance professionals. (She, meanwhile, is getting naturally suspicious of all those “business emergencies.”) She sees her parents as denying her individuality; her parents–fighting for a system that’s none too keen on the individual–see her becoming an opiate-of-the-masses addict.

Elizabeth and Philip have saved their family, physically, but only for now. And it’s in jeopardy emotionally, as we see in that fantastic last tableau in the park, the Jenningses sitting together but separate, Paige reading, Mom and Dad staring off separately, Henry flying a kite alone and spinning, spinning, spinning. And unlike last season’s ambiguous season ending, the orders for the Centre promise an impetus that will give season 3 immediate plot and emotional urgency. (Oh, and? Martha. Has. A. Gun.)

I can’t wait. But for now, I’d consider The Americans the best season of TV I’ve seen so far in 2014, and it will take some work for another show to displace it. (Yes, I considered True Detective. Whatever other show you’re thinking about too. We’ll see.) And as for next year–hoo boy. Paige talked about the inspiration of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for the good of humanity, but little does she know that, behind the scenes, this is not the story of Jesus. It’s God telling Abraham to lay his child on the altar.

TIME Television

The Americans Gets Picked Up for a Third Season

THE AMERICANS -- "Behind the Red Door" -- Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, April 2, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings -- CR: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
(L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings Craig Blankenhorn—FX

Next year, fans of the spy drama will get even more secrets, more disguises and more wigs

The Cold War espionage is far from over: FX has ordered a third season of The Americans. FX said Wednesday that the hit show would get 13 new episodes airing next year.

“We are so delighted and grateful to continue telling the stories of these characters,” executive producer Joel Fields told Variety.

The critically-acclaimed spy drama set in the 1980s is currently in its second season and has been averaging 3.08 million total viewers. “The Americans” was trending on Twitter within hours of the announcement.

The Americans continues be one of the best shows on television,” FX’s co-president of original programming Eric Schrier said in a statement. “Fans will be blown away by the rest of this season, and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.”

[Variety]

TIME Culture

There’s a Reason There’s So Much Rape on Your Favorite TV Shows

THE AMERICANS -- Comrades -- Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, February, 26, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth  Jennings --  CR: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans Craig Blankenhorn—FX

This year on TV, female characters have again and again been forced to face a rape from their past—a plotline that reflects how our society is finally confronting rape culture.

There’s been an awful lot of rape on television this year. Though we expect to rape plot lines on procedurals like Law and Order: SVU, sexual assaults have become a mainstay on high-brow dramas too: The Americans, Scandal, Top of the Lake, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey have all had prominent incidents of assault. Some have dismissed this trend as an easy means for creating tension, drama and sympathy. Along with death and torture, rape ranks right up there with the worst things that can happen to a character.

“Now, in several of the current rapes on TV, we have female characters who are known to audiences as cold, merciless and calculating. These characters are unloved or even hated by audience,” says Lisa Cuklanz, a professor at Boston College and author of Rape on Prime Time. “When we learn about their former sexual victimization, this new knowledge serves to humanize the character.”

Elizabeth from The Americans or Mellie on Scandal or Robin on Top of the Lake or Claire on House of Cards all do fit the bill of strong but cold women who can be hard to love. But, sometimes the rape-for-sympathy ploy backfires and looks cheap, as many pointed out earlier this year when a flashback on Scandal showed Mellie getting raped by her father-in-law.

But I don’t think these are the usual plot twists. There’s something different about these rapes. Whereas we used to see or hear about sexual assault in real time and see how it changed the characters, now TV screenwriters like to revive assaults that happened before the show’s timeline. In the case of The Americans, Scandal, Top of the Lake and House of Cards, the plot features a woman who must confront a sexual assault that happened years, even decades, ago. We don’t see the attack in real time, but rather in a flashback (if at all). These women have already dealt with the aftermath, buried their pain and moved on with their lives. Only when their rapist resurfaces (The Americans, House of Cards) or a new circumstance like investigating a crime or an interview reminds them of the incident (Top of the Lake, Scandal) does the “rape plot” begin.

And this change in the way sexual assaults are depicted isn’t entirely coincidental. The small screen is mimicking what is happening to our society on a larger scale. As a culture, we are confronting the long-buried problem of rape in new ways—just like these fictional characters. The idea of “rape culture” has arisen in the past few years as a major topic of conversation and debate. The Steubenville rape case, sexual assaults on campuses and assaults within the military have brought the long-time problem of rape to the forefront in the media. We’ve seen plots where characters avenge a rape (Veronica Mars), save themselves or others from a rape (Buffy) or use rape as a plot twist on a couple’s story (Mad Men). But this new trope of rape survivors dealing with the long-term consequences of their attack seems to stem directly from our culture.

Richard Cartwright—ABC

As Joel Fields, producer on The Americans—a Cold War spy drama on FX—points out, “There’s been an effort in the popular lexicon to stop referring to people as sexual assault victims and refer to them as sexual assault survivors. And that really applies [to Elizabeth].” Though Joe Weisberg, creator and head writer for the show, says they did not write the plotline as a gambit for sympathy but as a long-hidden secret that would have kept her from ever becoming close to her fellow spy and husband, Philip.

“It would be something that she’s repressed,” says Weisberg. “In our storyline, I think a lot of our thinking involves ideas that repressing that event can be a big part of what separated her from her husband over the years.It’s only when Elizabeth reveals the secret to her husband that the couple is able to begin to close the gulf that’s been between them.

The Americans has taken the trope to another, meta level this season as Elizabeth continues to heal through a bizarre sort of therapy this season as she disguises herself as a rape victim in order to get information from a mark.

Elizabeth in disguise with Brad starts to talk about that rape and repurposes it in a way that unconscious and conscious at the same time. But in disguise and by proxy she’s able for the first time to express and explore some of those feelings in this bizarre, safe parallel environment for her.” says Fields.

As a spy, Elizabeth plays the victim we’ve traditionally seen on TV—a blatant bid for sympathy. But Elizabeth, the wife and mother, struggles much more deeply with how to resolve her feelings about her rape. Elizabeth may take comfort in the fact that her husband killed her rapist; in House of Cards, Claire can congratulate herself on her plan to justify an abortion and to retaliate against her assailant at the same time by announcing his name on national TV; in Top of the Lake Robin can breathe easier knowing the man orchestrating an underage sex ring is dead; Scandal’s Mellie—well, at least her father-in-law finally died.

But these women truly begin to heal when their secret is revealed—the the world or their husbands or a close confidant, not when they enact vengeance. Elizabeth and Philip grow closer on The Americans when he finds out about her attack; in House of Cards, Claire becomes stronger and enacts revenge against her attacker without her husband (whereas she usually must follow her scheming husbands lead); on Top of the Lake, the show ends with Elizabeth poised to help raise a child that resulted from a gang rape (after giving up her own child many years ago); and on Scandal Mellie finds comfort in her husband’s pick for Vice Presidential candidate Andrew—the only one who knows her rape. Whether consciously or not, this is reflective of our society’s effort to unearth assaults old and new, to deal with the fact that for so long rape was something swept under the rug. Only then can we begin to heal.

 

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