Boardwalk Empire, “Devil You Know”
Written by Howard Korder
Directed by Jeremy Podeswa
Aired October 12, 2014
After four seasons of deliberately paced, character-based storytelling, Boardwalk Empire wasn’t going to change its approach in its final truncated season. Instead of introducing new intrigues or foes, the series used much of its time to reflect on the paths that brought Nucky and the other main characters to this point and to say an extended goodbye to the people and world of the show. With Nucky facing off against well known historical figures, an air of doom pervades much of the final episodes before they reach their poetic, but inevitable conclusion. More intriguing is the antepenultimate episode, “Devil You Know”, which says goodbye to two of the series’ most colorful characters and powerful actors, Michael Shannon’s George Mueller/Nelson Van Alden and Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White. Shannon’s intense and frequently hilarious performance is captivating right to the end, as Van Alden resurfaces through the facade of Mueller, Shannon’s fervor for a moment convincing the audience that perhaps Boardwalk Empire will take a last minute left turn and abandon historical accuracy all together. Chalky’s interactions are more measured, a suicidal revenge mission shifting to one of sacrificial mercy when Daughter Maitland unexpectedly returns. Williams’ still, yet expressive performance speaks volumes and the counterpointing of Van Alden and Chalky’s final moments point to two of the few options remaining for Nucky and the series: a desperate, impassioned struggle to the last, or cool consideration and resignation. Boardwalk Empire may not have been the most buzzed about or critically lauded series of the year, but it went out well, playing to its strengths and ending on its own terms. (Kate Kulzick)
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Jane the Virgin, “Chapter One”
Written by Jennie Snyder
Directed by Brad Silberling
Aired October 13, 2014
2014 was the year the CW definitively trounced its network neighbors, first by solidifying its place as the most consistent purveyor of genre TV (Arrow, The Flash, The 100), then by quietly unleashing the best new show of the fall, Jane the Virgin. “Chapter One” establishes everything that makes Jane one of the most consistently delightful series in recent memory: its distinctive visual language (bright colours, explanatory intertitles, flights of fantasy), its relentless optimism, its distinctive and hilarious narration courtesy of Anthony Mendez, and of course, its note-perfect lead performance from Gina Rodriguez. “Chapter One” has some extremely heavy lifting to do in terms of selling viewers on both an extremely loaded premise and the series’ boatloads of supporting characters and plot points, but writer Jennie Snyder Urman and director Brad Silberling make it look easy, taking advantage of the hourlong runtime and finding surprising amounts of breathing room for its characters to process the ludicrous circumstances naturally. “Chapter One” is so winning because it is very much like Jane herself: unfailingly charming and honest, even when circumstances seem impossibly complicated. (Simon Howell)
Key and Peele, “Scariest Movie Ever”
Written by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele
Directed by Peter Atencio
Aired October 29, 2014
I’ve quite enjoyed Key and Peele‘s cinematic, markedly different fourth season, with its longer sketches and new levels of underlying, lasting weirdness. As one might expect, “Scariest Movie Ever” is another series of disturbing sketches that might not be as funny as seasons past, yet are as unsettling as ever. Headlined by a creepy Make-a-Wish patient, a downright cruel anti-drug campaign, and a hilarious Room of Mirrors “showdown”, “Scariest Movie Ever” encapsulates the greatness of “old” (aka seasons one through three) and “new” (season four, best recognized by its True Detective title sequence and car ride interludes) Key & Peele. Regardless of which form of the series you prefer, there’s no denying the multiple levels of genius (from direction, to performance, to scripting) at the heart of each sketch. (Randy Dankievitch)
Olive Kitteridge, “Security”
Written by Jane Anderson
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Aired November 3, 2014
A show nobody talked about enough this year, HBO’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulizter Prize-winning novel is a powerhouse of performance and emotion, a relentlessly bleak, slow burn of a character study centered on its titular character, a woman who struggled with depression and keeping her mouth shut for her entire life. Headlined by Bill Murray’s guest performance as Olive’s new partner Christopher, “Security” is really an episode that exists in the shadow of the show’s heart, Olive’s slowly-dying, stroke-afflicted husband, Henry. Thankfully, Murray’s performance (albeit a brief one) is an absolute knockout, even though it exists in the shadow of Frances McDormand’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Olive. Where it ends is the most beautiful: after the death of her husband, a bad visit with her son, and a lot of depressing conversations with Christopher, Olive decides not to commit suicide because, as she says, “It baffles me, this world… I don’t want to leave it yet”, ending one of the year’s most underrated shows on a powerful, evocative moment. (Randy Dankievitch)
Over the Garden Wall, “The Ringing of the Bell”
Written by Tom Herpich and Amalia Levari
Created by Patrick McHale
Aired November 6, 2014
Certainly one of the most overlooked series of 2014, Over the Garden Wall strikes an amazing balance of tones ranging from casually humorous to melancholic to frightening. No other entry better exemplifies that diversity than part seven, “The Ringing of the Bell,” which also manages to be Over the Garden Wall’s best stand-alone entry. What makes “The Ringing of the Bell” work so well is its masterful combination of elements: a creepy premise (the traditional figure of an old hag, who eats black turtles and seemingly controls a young woman via a magical bell), a subversion of expectations (the devourer that is alluded to several times in the episode is not what she seems) and emotional resonance (Wirt helps Lorna at a time when he’s feeling guilty for having alienated himself from Beatrice).
While Over the Garden Wall has more impressive individual scenes and works best as a cohesive whole, “The Ringing of the Bell” it its best overall episode. Creator Patrick McHale’s work on Adventure Time and experience with the 10-minute episode format contributes to its tight storytelling and standalone elements, though the series’ overarching concerns aren’t left behind entirely (the Beast features towards the end, setting up the powerful conclusion to come). Unlike other episodes on this list, it’s hard to recommend “The Ringing of the Bell” as an introduction to this miniseries. Viewers who haven’t had the chance to see Over the Garden Wall are better off putting aside the 1 hour 45 minutes it takes to watch the whole thing, discovering in the process just how deftly “The Ringing of the Bell” handles itself. (Sean Colletti)
Individual picks: The critics at SoS TV watch a lot of television, but even we can’t see everything. After compiling the above list, the panel felt strongly that several essential episodes were missing, ineligible because not enough of the panel had seen them, due to the happy problem that there’s too much great TV to keep up with all of it. Below, each panelist makes the case for one more of the year’s best episodes.
Among the most overlooked series in a year full of entertaining freshman comedies, Playing House premiered with only mild fanfare in April on USA. Discovering it after the fact, and just in time to celebrate its renewal for season two, was one of my highlights of the second half of 2014. The series’ premise pilot is solid, but its second episode, “Bird Bones” quickly pushes the series into a higher gear. Co-creators and leads Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair are wonderful together, their years of collaboration giving them an easy rapport and precision comedic timing, but it’s the episode’s use of its supporting cast that takes the show to the next level. Plenty of fall 2014 comedies featured a likable protagonist or two; very few knew what to do with anyone else. Lindsay Sloane is fantastic as “Bird Bones” Tina, completely neurotic yet utterly relatable, and it’s great to see Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key in such a straightforward supporting role. His everyman relatability as Mark grounds the more extreme action and allows Sloane and guest star Neil Casey to play as big as needed. Casey’s victim of gnome-napping is over the top to say the least, but his theatricality, counterpointed with Key’s exasperation, gives the episode its biggest laugh lines, while Parham and St. Clair’s jealousy of and later bonding with Sloane give it its heart. 2014 has been a great year for comedy, with new voices emerging and seasoned veterans of the genre coming back stronger than ever. If you haven’t yet made time for Playing House, do yourself a favor and check out “Bird Bones”, one of the most delightful episodes of the year. (Kate)
Ricky D’s pick: The Flash, “Pilot”
Written by Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns
Directed by David Nutter
Aired October 7, 2014
Right from the opening scene of the pilot, it was clear The Flash was racing in the right direction. The series premiere follows the origin story of the Silver Age Flash, incorporating Allen’s iconic transformation as well as a worthy opponent in the Flash’s longtime nemesis the Weather Wizard (here known as Clyde Mardon). It even recreates a specific panel via slow motion, from Showcase #4 (“The Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt”), and features John Wesley Shipp (who played Barry Allen in the original 1990 series, The Flash) as Barry’s father. This pilot introduces a full supporting cast for Barry in the span of an hour, all of whom stand out in their own unique and memorable ways. But the greatest achievement may be how well the pilot establishes a mythology necessary for a slightly more modern take on the character. The creators wisely dispense with the soap opera cliches that weigh heavily on early episodes of Arrow and instead of pandering to the CW’s pre-teen viewers, they create a series people of all ages can enjoy. After only one episode, it was clear that The Flash was more than capable of standing on its own. (Ricky)
Sean Colletti’s Pick: The Legend of Korra, “Korra Alone”
Written by Michael Dante DiMartino
Directed by Colin Heck and Ian Graham and Melchior Zwyer
Released October 12, 2014
It has been a rough year for fans of The Legend of Korra, who have had to witness Nickelodeon’s poor, rushed treatment of the series and a frankly disappointing final season. “Korra Alone,” however, is a huge light in the dark and is undoubtedly one of the series’ finest episodes. Despite several major characters in Korra’s cast being almost wholly ignored in season four, the series thankfully did not lose sight of its heroine, which is actually fairly rare in genre series. As Korra struggled with the brutal aftermath of Zaheer’s violating attack on her at the end of season three, it was important and cathartic to see the always headstrong Korra retreat into isolation and depression. It was never just about Zaheer; everything that the Avatar has had to deal with since landing in Republic City that has made the weight on her shoulders unbearable. In “Korra Alone,” we see all of that manifest into an evil Avatar-state Korra that the real Korra has to fight both physically and metaphorically. The episode also pulls some uncharacteristic tricks in form, eschewing linearity and paying off big moments with repetition.
Unfortunately, the rest of the season rarely reaches any of these heights, but “Korra Alone” is a wonderful reminder of what both The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender can do in a focused, determined episode intent on exploring genuinely meaningful things for their characters (“Korra Alone,” of course, is a spiritual successor to “Zuko Alone” from Avatar, also one of that series’ best episodes). Despite any of the season’s or series’ flaws, “Korra Alone” also reminds us what Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko gave us with The Legend of Korra: one of the greatest animated series of all time. (Sean)
Les Chappell’s pick: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “The Mole”
Written by Laura McCreary
Directed by Victor Nelli, Jr.
Aired November 2, 2014
Much like creator Mike Schur’s last sitcom Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been on a phenomenal hot streak in its second season, using its terrifically talented cast and propensity for rapid-fire jokes to produce what’s arguably at this moment network TV’s strongest sitcom. “The Mole” is a prime example of that trend, an episode packed with so many good things that it’s hard to single any one out as the best. Between Holt’s “Is everything okay?” monologue providing the umpteenth example of Andre Braugher’s masterful comedic deadpan, Terry’s confusion at the nature of the silent disco, Jake and Amy discovering Gina and Boyle hooking up (in matching silk wolf robes), or the introduction of Gina’s new dance troupe “Dancy Reagans,” the laughs just keep coming non-stop. And at the same time, “The Mole” expands the show’s wider universe, with more aggression from Holt’s archenemy Deputy Chief Munch (Kyra Sedgwick, matching Braugher beat for beat), the resolution of the Boyle/Gina hookup situation, and new depths to Jake’s friendships with both Amy and Holt. If only the cold open had been the now transcendent “HOT DAMN!” moment from “Jake and Sophia,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine would have turned out a pantheon episode. (Les)
Written by Heather Bellson & Seth Hoffman
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
Aired November 9th, 2014Despite its laughable mid-season finale, season five of The Walking Dead has been the series’ best, doubling down on the smaller, contained stories of season 4.5, and capitalizing on the characters they’ve finally started to develop. What still impresses me is how well “Self Help” uses its flashbacks to flesh out Abraham’s story, giving his character context outside of his mission to help Eugene, revealed in this episode to be one big fat lie to have Abraham save his life (mere minutes after Abraham’s discovered his murdered family). These flashbacks turn “Self Help” into a microscopic Greek tragedy, a mediation on the power of hope and the utter despair of disappointment and failure. Is trying to maintain our humanity through a shared lie (in this case, over a cure; in the case of everyone on the show, the nature of civilization in their world) something that represents hope, or just a futile act of desperation? That philosophic debate has re-formed The Walking Dead into a much richer, more interesting show than in seasons past, improvements on full display in “Self Help”. (Randy)
Simon Howell’s pick: Kingdom, “Cut Day”
Written by Ryan Farley and Tom Garrigus
Directed by Tim Iacofano
Aired December 3rd, 2014
Kingdom is yet another hidden gem almost no one watched in 2014, at least partially due to its being tucked away on the Audience Network, a subsidiary of DirecTV which you may have just learned exists by reading this sentence. Byron Balasco’s surprisingly agile drama takes place in the more-macho-than-thou milieu of MMA fighters, but its down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to interpersonal drama and character flaws makes it as much an heir of Friday Night Lights as, say, Sons of Anarchy. In the penultimate episode of the series’ debut season – it’s already been renewed for two more – two resurgent fighters in very different headspaces train together on the toughest day of all: “cut day,” in which each must sweat out a certain amount of weight in order to qualify for their upcoming bouts. Ryan (Matt Lauria) has both a grueling amount of weight to lose and some well-founded self-confidence issues to face down; luckily, he’s training alongside Jay (Jonathan Tucker), whose immense self-confidence and cocksure swagger wind up providing enough fuel for both of the, albeit with a serious side helping of smack talk.
Over the course of the season, Balasco and co. develop the good sense to let Tucker cut loose and have fun in the role, and Jay’s enthusiasm does a lot to brighten up a sometimes dour, self-serious series. “Cut Day” capitalizes on Tucker’s infectious performance in the best way possible, playing him off of the perpetually grim Lauria and the terminally tight-lipped Nick Jonas, who plays Jay’s withdrawn younger brother. Together, the three have remarkable comic chemistry, suggesting that the series might have a very strong sophomore outing if it can continue to play to its strengths. Oh, and this episode also features a half-dozen scenes of Frank Grillo and The Wire’s Andre Royo getting trashed and shooting the shit. What’s not to like?