As I measured various critics’ 2014 “best of” television lists against my own, the increasing anachronism of such endeavors became clear. What were the best things I watched in 2014? The final season of Breaking Bad, Louie, The Affair, True Detective; select episodes of Homeland, Game of Thrones, and Sons of Anarchy; but also the first and second season of House of Cards—though season one was a product of 2013—and iTV’s Broadchurch, also of 2013. And just looking at my planned viewing queue, I imagine there are several more contenders that I won’t get to until well into 2015. I haven’t watched Transparent yet, or season two of Orange is the New Black, or season four of The Killing.
There have been more great television series produced annually in recent years than an employed human who requires sleep and maintains at least a few human relationships can reasonably keep abreast. Largely enabled by Netflix, HBO Go, and other VOD platforms—2014 was the year that I first experimented with and then fully embraced “consecutive viewing.” This means I’m largely out of sync with those who still view weekly installments, but that has been less troublesome than I’d imagined. For over a decade, I’ve lived enough out of sync due to DVR-based viewing that conversations about television viewing had become uncommon, even though I tended to keep up with episodes weekly. In comparison, I’m now only marginally more disconnected. There are several series I see discussed that I’m not watching—but I add the interesting ones to the queue. In exchange, I experience stories with a much richer appreciation of their nuances due to the consecutive immersion. It also makes “2014” a an uncertain category for considering best work.
Perhaps annual “best of” television lists will take on the meaning “best of” film lists have for me. As a mother of children who require a babysitter for me to leave the house, I’m perpetually far behind in film viewing. Given my bloated television queue, I rarely make an effort to see a film until makes it to HBO, Showtime, or my Netflix stream. Admittedly, each year there are several films I intend to see that I never get to or forget about, and I suspect this will happen more and more with television. I wonder if we’ll soon endeavor to maintain lists of excellent television over a multi-year period; or maybe we’ll keep lists of shows worthy of watching all the seasons. I’ve noted many more “best moments” or “best episodes” lists this year, which I suspect is related to these changes in how we view. Just as Netflix and Amazon have led generations of network television viewers to question the common sense of waiting a week between installments of video storytelling, maybe we need to rethink how we recognize the most accomplished works in television as well.
Most of my top contenders for the best of 2014 originated their runs years ago, so if I had to credit 2014 with a single, noteworthy programming accomplishment, it is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The world was made just a little bit better for the 12 or so hours of smart, funny, social commentary it provided. Although once a devout The Daily Show viewer, I reached a point that I stopped watching regularly—about the time my husband and I had to admit that our toddler had made us a family and that it was no longer acceptable for family dinner to consist of DVR-provided “dinner with Jon.” But truth is, it was hard to keep up with four episodes a week, and there was often just about one excellent half-hour of material in the week. Last Week Tonight provides that finely-tuned half-hour, takes advantage of having a week’s production time, and also responds to the limit of arbitrarily enforced brevity that continues to restrict both “real” and Daily Show-type segments and packages. Oliver’s longer form and detailed investigations and explanations of both issues of the day and things that should be issues of the day were enlightening even if a regular reminder of the many ways our world remains truly messed up.
The best television of 2014? Last Week Tonight—at least of the 2014 television I’ve managed to watch so far.