Hard to believe, but 2014 is at the halfway point. TV has never been more fascinating to follow as a business, from the Supreme Court’s verdict against Aereo to Comcast and AT&T attempting to swallow up Time Warner Cable and DirecTV, respectively. But for the viewer, this has also been an exceptional year. If I were laying out 28 moments, I’d have space for Game of Thrones‘ blockbuster fourth season, Modern Family‘s landmark gay wedding and The Good Wife‘s character assassination. But I’m not. So here are my 14 most memorable moments of the year so far:
1) Richard Sherman speaks it plain after helping the Seattle Seahawks advance to the Super Bowl. The NFC Championship Game was already a barn-burner that came down to the last play between two bitter rivals. But when Seattle defensive back Sherman came up big against Michael Crabtree’s San Francisco 49ers and was asked about it seconds later by Fox’s on-field reporter Erin Andrews, his ultra-assertive reply went viral. The resulting furor, which revolved around the perennially fraught topic of race, made Sherman a pop culture celebrity and cemented the NFL’s place of primacy on American TV.
2) True Detective expands the possibilities of series TV. The long shadow of the show still falls across the prime-time landscape, and watch out when Emmy nominations come in later this month. The show was crafted like a film (director Cary Fukunaga came from the independent film world, having lensed the likes of Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) and featured two cornerstone performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Beyond those assets, though, it was a limited series, eight episodes of procedural as opposed to the yawn-inducing 22 audiences had grown accustomed to over the years on broadcast networks. The show exemplifies why movie stars are more than willing to cross the divide to explore television.
3) Sherlock deduces less is more. You want limited series? How about three episodes limited? This posh update of Holmes (far superior to the Americans’ Elementary) runs 90 commerical-free minutes per outing so there is plenty for fans to feast on, even if it’s all over in less time than it takes for The Voice to hold auditions. The show had a dandy cliffhanger to resolve between its second and third seasons, with the end of the second had shown Holmes leaping from a rooftop, presumably to his demise. Soon, all that was shown to be an elaborate ruse, and the show’s kinetic, verbally exuberant approach gave am adrenalized rush to seeing how the illusion was pulled off. The two subsequent episodes gained considerable emotional force and the interplay between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson is more compelling than any other duo’s on TV.
4) The Oscars get a shot of relevance. The 2014 Academy Awards telecast, which managed an uptick in the ratings, will be remembered for a few things, among them the pseudo-spontaneous selfie that “broke Twitter” and host Ellen DeGeneres having pizzas delivered. But any awards show is ultimately about the awards, and it was a watershed night of recognition for 12 Years a Slave, which took Best Picture and gave the elegant Lupita Nyong’o a platform for one of the best speeches seen in years.
5) Mad Men grapples with modernity and its own mortality. As it headed into the home stretch — seven episodes this spring, with the final seven to follow in 2015 — Mad Men had more than a little to prove. Its previous season was generally regarded as sluggish even by its own navel-gazing standards and ardent fans were wondering how it would find an artful way to wrap things up. In the compressed mini-season, the show returned to its roots, mining the office for satisfying drama and offering up unexpected pleasures like Robert Morse’s music number, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” No show has done period as masterfully as this one. Bring on the finale.
6) Silicon Valley breathes life into the comedy. As comedies across the TV dial succumb to competition from resurgent dramas and online video (count them up — there are fewer, at least for grown-ups, these days), Mike Judge showed how it’s done with Silicon Valley. At once a surgically precise send-up of tech culture and an accessible free-for-all with a gifted ensemble of actors, the show is far and away the year’s best new comedy. Thankfully, its next season will have 10 episodes, up from just eight in its debut run.
7) CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian jet shows an all-news network does need news. The mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was initially mesmerizing, with its almost X-Files-like array of possible outcomes. But as hours became days and days became weeks, CNN’s dogged focus on the story became less and less defensible. Of course, ratings were high, so the network never reconsidered and the fact it was a remote country and the flight had few American ties made it possible to go all out. Still, of any story to break in 2014, this over-covered one offered a stark cautionary tale about the 24/7 cycle.
8) The Americans‘ espionage thrills resonate. The FX drama, about Soviet spies living undercover in suburban New York in the early 1980s, has been compelling since its debut in 2013. But Season 2 ended with such a flourish and with such a brilliant, gotta-tune-in-for-Season 3 twist that it easily merits a spot on this list.
9) John Oliver breaks down net neutrality. The consolidation wave transforming the cable and Internet landscape has a lot of repercussions for net neutrality. Still fuzzy on exactly what the term means and why it matters? Worry not — John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, breaks it all down for you.
10) The Daily Show skewers Google Glass. Any best-of list would do well to include The Daily Show, which continues to hit a high level even as more attention lately has gone to network sibling The Colbert Report. This expert rip on Google Glass, by the show’s most reliably excellent correspondent Jason Jones, is the best argument of many this year for why the show still merits nightly attention.
11) Orange is the New Black shows streaming staying power. It’s a sign of the convergent times we live in that a Netflix show can not only garner an admiring audience in Season One but improve in Season Two while generating even more publicity. Of course only the company knows for sure what kind of audience the series is attacting, but Orange combines quality acting and writing that’s rare on any platform, combined with themes and settings that we have rarely seen at all.
12) Brian Williams’ interview with Edward Snowden shows network news has a pulse. The era of the “get” may be waning, but this bravura exchange between NBC’s chief anchor and the newsmaking spy-buster delivered an entertaining and enlightening hour. Given the issues at stake, it is also apt that so many millions tuned in to finally see Snowden, until then a fairly shadowy figure better known for his deeds than his words. And credit to Williams for not letting him off easy while also not making himself the featured attraction.
13) Spurs conduct a hoops clinic during the NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs’ demolition of the Miami Heat was a flat-out beautiful spectacle for fans and non-fans alike. In an era of isolation offense and pick-and-roll monotony, the Spurs shared the ball religiously and passed it seven, eight or nine times on a typical possession before finding the basket. Remember this the next time someone complains the pro game is boring.
14) The World Cup charms American viewers again. The Brazilian event, praised long before its July 13 conclusion as one of the best ever played, has certainly cast a spell on American TV audiences, which keep growing every four years for the Cup. They have feasted on not only a surprisingly competitive U.S. team but a host of storylines — Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, Uruguay’s biting scandal, Mexico’s flame-out — all playing out in a picturesque setting. Forget taking the day off for the U.S.-Belgium match. Take a few minutes of “me time” to relive some of what we’ve seen already. Likely the culmination to the tournament will be on the second-half best-of list.
By Dade Hayes