My Top 10 TV Shows of 2014

To say that there has been an abundance of good television shows this year is an understatement. I really wanted to make this list a top 20, then thought maybe 15, considered 12 for a moment, before realizing that it would only be right to narrow it down to just ten and give honorable mentions to all the shows that did not make the final cut.  Is that cheating? Maybe. But so what.  Here we go with honorable mentions (and for the record, there are no spoilers for any show):

Honorable Mentions: Comedies

Louis C.K and Sarah Baker combined for seven amazing minutes of television on Louie
Louis C.K and Sarah Baker combined for seven amazing minutes of television on Louie

Louie (FX) – Always great and this year’s episode of “And so did the fat lady” was perhaps my favorite half-hour of television this year.  Just a fantastic job by Louis C.K and guest star, Sarah Baker, a thoughtful, smart and funny 30 minutes that everyone should find and watch.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX) – The only network comedy I can stand to watch right now and it consistently makes me laugh every week.

Last Week Tonight (HBO), The Daily Show (Comedy Central) – John Oliver’s new show on HBO did a wonderful job of mixing the way The Daily Show covers topics in the news, with the way, The Bugle, Oliver’s podcast, finds important stories that are not being covered by the mainstream outlets.  Meanwhile, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show remains the go-to place for coverage of everything that is going on in the political world and beyond.

Silicon Valley (HBO) – Well put together show and enjoyable first season, but it was not must-see like the comedies that did make the list.

Jeffrey Tambour has his best role of an incredible career in Transparent
Jeffrey Tambour has his best role of an incredible career in Transparent

Transparent (Amazon) – The hardest omission from the top ten and one I desperately wanted to find a way to include it in the list.  Jeffrey Tambor is absolutely brilliant in the leading role, but the supporting cast is also fantastic and I watched the entire season within a week.

Honorable Mentions – Dramas

Mad Men (AMC), Homeland (Showtime) – Both of these shows have been among my favorites in previous years, but neither had strong overall seasons in 2014.  The second half of Mad Men and a string of five Homeland episodes were among the best installments of any show this year.  However, I seriously wondered why I was still watching Mad Men during the opening few weeks of the half-season, while I was outright hate-watching Homeland until it suddenly got good again.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) – It was not the best season of this once-great gangster story, but it was good enough to give a fitting finale to the show.  The penultimate episode was one of the most entertaining hours of television in 2014.

In my mind, McNulty moved to Brooklyn from Bawlmore and vacations in Montauk
In my mind, McNulty moved to Brooklyn from Bawlmore and vacations in Montauk

The Affair (Showtime) – I thought this was a compelling and excellent new show, though to be fair, I will always watch McNulty (Dominic West) in a leading role.  Throw in any actors from The Wire and you can usually guarantee I will be in…except if it is a show about zombies (sorry The Walking Dead fans, you’ll not see that in my top 10…or Game of Thrones – all of my favorite shows take place in a version of the real world).  The split-narrative of The Affair could have turned out to be clunky after the opening episode, but it was handled brilliantly and gave the show a unique story-telling device.  Alongside Dominic West, Ruth Wilson is also great as the other participant in the affair that gives the show its title.

Sherlock (BBC/PBS) – My wife and I did not watch any of the Benedict Cumberbath/Martin Freeman version of Sherlock Holmes until this January, so it was tempting for me to include it.  However, the three episodes that were released in 2014 were not as good as what had come before, so it drops down to honorable mentions.

Justified (FX) – A really fun show every year, but next year’s final run of episodes with a much-anticipated showdown between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder could find it crack the top 10 in 12 months’ time.

The Missing (BBC/Starz) – Another import from the UK, the first hour of The Missing was an incredibly hard show to get through, not because it was bad, but because of the harrowing nature of the subject matter.  James Nesbitt stars as the father of a boy who goes missing in France in 2006 and the duel narratives between present day and the events from eight years earlier are incredibly well intertwined.

Onto the main list. Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 11 – 13

This is either Xander Feng or Kim Kardashian
This is either Xander Feng or Kim Kardashian

Although it took us slightly longer than some who binged on the entire second season of House of Cards in the first weekend it was available, my wife and I still got through all 13 installments within five days of its release – not bad with a toddler who still dislikes sleeping.  The reason we got through it so fast is because of how compelling this show remains in its second year, combined with the fact that knowing that the next episode is readily available is a good motivating factor to watch another installment each night.  Coming up are spoilers for the last three chapters (previous reviews: 1-3; 4-6; 7&8; 9&10) of the season, so look away now if you are not yet up to date, otherwise mind your hands as you help me pick up a broken wine glass…

Episode 11

Both The Sopranos and The Wire had a tendency to save their best and most action-packed installments of each season to the penultimate episode, but in its second year it was the third from last chapter of House of Cards that was the peak of the run.  At the opening of this hour, Francis Underwood is forced on the defensive as, during his testimony to the Special Prosecutor investigating foreign funds being channeled into a super PAC, Heather Dunbar reveals that they have proof that the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, had made a trip to both Kansas City and Beijing on the very day that the Democratic leadership had been discussing the GOP attack ad.  When questioned about Raymond Tusk and Xander Feng, Underwood pleads ignorance and claims that he has only heard about that latter through newspaper stories, thus he is as familiar with the Chinese businessman as he is Kim Kardashian.  As he negotiates the group of reporters waiting to quiz him as he leaves the hearing, Frank speaks to the audience and tells us that he has gone from the lion’s den to a pack of wolves, now he will need to throw them some fresh meat to survive.  That meat will come in the form of the President of the United States.

Like a wild animal, Underwood is at his most dangerous when he is backed into a corner and this proves to be the case once again, as he uses the revelation that Stamper had been looking into the super PAC money to his own advantage.  With the claim that it will help prove their innocence, the Vice President turns over his official travel records (his sojourn to Cathedral Heights metro station to meet Zoe Barnes is presumably absent from that data) since the time he had become Whip and encourages the President to do the same, telling him that he should not be worried about the counseling sessions – before informing us that is exactly the thing about which Walker should be concerned.

Underwood also confesses to the viewer that he feels isolated and exposed and one of the main reasons for this is the slipping in performance of Doug, who had previously been such a reliable and formidable ally in executing the Vice President’s dirty work.  Stamper is attending AA meetings more frequently than before, not because he is drinking again, but rather his obsession with Rachel makes him feel the same way as alcohol does.  A showdown with his boss jolts Doug back to reality and he is grateful when the Vice President gives him a third chance (the second came when he got sober 14 years earlier), vowing that things will be different going forward.  In order to achieve this, Stamper attempts to control his addiction to Rachel by deleting her from his phone, before destroying his Blackberry (something he should have done in about 2008 – though his replacement is the exact same phone model), which also stops Gavin the hacker from being able to track him.  It does seem like Doug is back on his game – he embraces assistance from Seth Grayson, while in his testimony to the special prosecutor, he dismisses his trip to the casino as just an investigation during which he found nothing, since he did not have the same resources as the Department of Justice.  However, at the very end of the episode we see Stamper return to Joppa to check in on Rachel, witnessing her and Lisa in the throes of passion when he peeks in through the window.  Underwood’s Chief of Staff might be formidable, but like Achilles – whom Frank references a couple of times – he has a serious weakness that could be his undoing.

Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 9 and 10

Unknown-1If rumors are to be believed, the Winter Olympics have been continuing, there was a new episode of True Detective on Sunday night, and there were things to do in the evening other than watch House of Cards.  As neither my wife and I are that interested in such rumors, we have been continuing to plow our way through the second season of the Netflix show at a pace that will make us soon regret that we have no more new chapters to watch until next year.  Nevertheless, it is so hard not to take advantage of the entire season of House of Cards being available at once, as the plot is gripping and each installment seems to fly by in no time at all.  If you have not yet watched episodes 9 & 10, look away now (perhaps to the previous reviews covering episodes 1-3; 4-6 and 7-8, 11-13), otherwise, come with me to a BBQ restaurant in the suburbs with faux peeling linoleum…

Episode 9

I consider it a bad sign if a minor character whom I like in a show is prominently featured prior to the opening credits, since it means there will be a focus on them in that episode and that could spell trouble.  So was the case in this installment of House of Cards – which was directed by Jodie Foster – as it opened on Freddy the barbecue man going through his morning regime…clearly far too much attention being paid to him…why can’t they just leave him alone and let him serve breakfast ribs to the Vice President?  Alas, Freddy will not be spared and so we have to watch him make the walk down the street (which for fans of The Wire – or those who just know Charm City – is very clearly Baltimore) to his BBQ joint and watch him as he burns the newspaper story about Claire Underwood reportedly having had an affair with Adam Galloway.  We watch the representative from the company who wish to franchise his restaurant describe how he wants to give an “authentic” feel to the new locations by not making them “too nice”, but still locating them in the suburbs so white people will go to them. Oh, and he is offering Freddy a guaranteed $95k just for signing the deal . . . consider me doubtful.

To pile on to the inevitable downfall, Freddy is shown going to visit his son and grandson, offering to give his boy, Darnell, a job and buy a house of them both, now that he finally had something he could give.  However, the “no matter what” of the $95k is unsurprisingly not actually guaranteed, since there is a “morality clause” in the contract and the company pulls out when Remy – acting for Tusk to get to Frank Underwood – leaks that Freddy had served time for vehicular manslaughter.  The situation is exacerbated as Darnell then pulls a gun on a member of the paparazzi who is trying to get photographs of his Dad in the street and, when Francis makes a special secret trip to see Freddy, he learns that not only has he lost the franchise deal, but also he has to sell his restaurant in order to put up the bail for his son.  The barbecue man is philosophical about the downturn of his luck and, while he clearly still has an affinity for Underwood – he tells him that those out to get him will learn that “they done stepped on the wrong damn motherfuckin’ rattlesnake”. Freddy also states that even though the Vice President had been a great customer for 20 years, that did not mean the two were friends.  I’m really sad that this part of the show will no longer be there – in my review of the first season, I stated that I would be excited for the second season even if all 13 episodes just involved Frank going to the BBQ joint. I blame the reporter who got the restaurant known and started this whole thing (played by Jeremy Bobb, coincidently a college classmate of my wife’s), but allow me to believe that Freddy’s skills in making ribs are still second-to-none and he opened a food truck, finding success selling his barbecue from New York City to Portland . . . Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 7 and 8

House_of_Cards_title_cardBefore I get into the reviews of the latest two episodes of House of Cards season 2, a reminder that my thoughts on episodes 1-3 can be found here; 4-6 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here; while you can also follow Political Footballs on Twitter @politicalftball and like us on Facebook here.  Spoilers for chapters 7 and 8 of season two are coming up, so if you have not watched those yet do not read on, otherwise join me on a flight to Kansas City…

Episode 7

This installment starts with the Democratic leadership of the Executive and Legislative branches of government watching an attack ad that the Republicans have made questioning their ability to lead, noting the trade war with China, and the failings of Congress, pointing out that Francis Underwood was taken from that badly functioning (according to the commercial) body to be made Vice President.  The ad is paid for by Friends of a Better America, which sounds about as far removed from the real world Americans for Prosperity – the right-wing SuperPAC with ties to the Koch Brothers – as the People’s Front of Judea is from the Judean People’s Front.  Having heard the criticisms, the President and Vice President think about better ways they can lead, while Congresswoman Sharp discusses ways to make sure Congress is more effective…wait, no they decide to find out where the money has come from to finance the cost of running the ad and how they can get funding to launch a response.  Politics, eh?

When everyone else has left the room, President Walker turns on Underwood and starts blaming him for all the things that have gone wrong, most notably the negotiations with the Chinese, which leads to Francis angrily telling him that if he needs to continue using him as a punching bag to carry on, but it would be better if he was allowed to do his job.  The fraught nature of this discussion suggests that the relationship between the pair is dissolving, but the Vice President wins himself back into  his boss’ good graces by sending him an actual punching bag with a note advising him that this one does not come with a loud mouth attached.  It is just as well the pair are getting on better, since President Walker and his wife Tricia are to be dinner guests at the Underwoods that night, with the hosts bringing in Freddy to make his delicious ribs for the meal. Claire’s previous efforts to ensure that the First Lady would be paranoid about Christina working too closely with the President came to fruition during the Walkers’ car ride to the meal, as Tricia tells her husband that she suspects his assistant is attracted to him and points out, as evidence, that she has a history of such behavior.  The President is annoyed that his wife even raised such an issue and during dinner he is hostile, so when Francis takes him to see the miniature Civil War model he has been working on, Claire gets back into Tricia’s ear, suggesting the Christina fight is just a symptom and recommends the First Couple should consider seeing someone who could provide some therapy. Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 4-6

Go on, you can watch one more episode…

I do love Netflix’s method of releasing all the episodes of their original series at once, but it does result in the dilemma each evening of whether or not to watch one more chapter, when really it is time to go to bed.  So far, my wife and I are two-for-two on opting to view an extra installment of the second season of House of Cards, so below are reviews of episodes 4 to 6 (my thoughts on 1-3 can be found here; 7-8 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here ) and to avoid spoilers look away now, (you can safely ready episode 4 without anything from being 5/6 being mentioned and so forth).  Otherwise, come closer to the door so you can talk to your spouse through a walkie-talkie…

Episode 4

After getting an appropriations bill through the Senate in the previous installment, Vice President Underwood now finds himself back involved in his old job of Democratic Whip, as he attempts to assist his successor, Jacqueline Sharp, to get the House to pass it and ensure there is no government shutdown.  Unfortunately for Francis, this means he has to try to convince Congressman Donald Blythe – whom he screwed over in the first season by shredding his education bill – not to vote against the special amendment, with Blythe holding a lot of power as he has a block of 28 Representatives who intend to vote with him.  Before the meeting, which Frank manages to hold in his old office to give himself as much home field advantage as possible, he turns to the audience and tells us that with time he has always been able to convince Blythe, but on this occasion he only has 2 hours and 17 minutes before the bill is taken to the floor of the House.  With Underwood, when circumstances turn in his favor it tends to be with the guiding hand of Doug Stamper, but on this occasion it is seems to be good fortune that allows him more time trying to convince Donald to change his mind as a staffer in the Whip’s office opens an envelope and is covered in white powder, forcing a shutdown of the Capitol (due to a potential terrorist threat rather than an economic one) while men in HazMat suits investigate the substance.

claire2I would not be at all surprised if it is later revealed that it was the Vice President who orchestrated that chain of events in order to win himself more time with the vote – after all, he does turn to the camera and tells us that “good things happen to good people”, but the delay also means that he will not be able to appear alongside Claire on a television interview they are set to record that evening.  With Frank in quarantine, his wife prepares for the inevitable question of why they did not have any children, preparing with her communications guy, Connor, a rote answer that she has given many times before.  At the start of the interview – which ends up being only with Claire and broadcast live to due Francis’ delay – Claire shows her prowess in how she deals with a range of questions about her childhood to whether or not the Vice President had been primarily interested in her for her father’s money, which helped him win his first campaign.  The interviewer – CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, who follows Rachel Maddow as the latest journalist to make an appearance as themselves on House of Cards – asks for Claire’s most vivid memory from her childhood in Texas and she recounts a time when her father took her to Dealey Plaza to show her where President Kennedy had been assassinated, then told her that “he made the world a better a place and sometimes that comes at a price”.  It was a really poignant memory that seemed so personal and important to Mrs. Underwood, I could not help but think it was also completely fictitious.

Claire is forced to alter the truth once more when Ashleigh will not accept her standard answer to the question about why they did not have any children and she brings up a rumor that had surfaced during one of the campaigns that Mrs. Underwood had an abortion, though we learned in the finale of the first season that she has in fact had three during her life.  When asked directly if she has terminated a pregnancy, Claire recognizes the delicacy of the issue, but does say that she has before asking for a break, which allows her to consider her options and she decides to not only talk about having been raped – stating that was when she had the abortion – but also naming her attacker as General Dalton McGinnis.  While the VP’s wife is putting herself in a position where it could be her word against a General’s, during another intermission the network receives a call from a Private who had also been assaulted by McGinnis and Claire convinces her to tell her story so that others will be protected.  The corroborating evidence also ensures that the big headline from the interview will no longer be the abortion, but sexual assault by a commissioned General.  A big problem for Claire will now be keeping her own truth about the timeline of events and the number of terminations she has had a secret, something that she needs help with from Connor, played by the guy who raped his own wife, Joan Harris, in Mad Men.

Back in the Whip’s office, Francis had shifted from a campaign of calling Donald Blythe “no better than the Tea Party” for his unwillingness to even negotiate, to sympathizing with the Congressman over his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and at times does not remember him after thirty years of marriage.  Underwood being Underwood, it is of course all a tactic to try to get Blythe to forget his convictions and vote for the appropriations bill, in exchange for one that provides more funding for research into Alzheimer’s, but when Donald figures out that it is just a ploy, he gets angry with the Vice President and refuses to talk to him any more.  However, after watching Claire’s interview he hands Frank a drink and tells him that his wife is a brave woman, a compliment that Underwood reciprocates, before rushing home as the all-clear has been given since the substance was just talcum powder and wheat (again, the fact that the wheat gave a false positive suggests whoever sent it knew what they were doing and how to provide the longest possible delay, so it appears to have Francis’ fingerprints on it).  The final moments of the episode provide a nice moment of intimacy between Claire and Frank as they share a cigarette – a real one he had hidden under the lamp – and, at her request, he sings to her, though the choice of song is not quite so sweet: the ballad of Pretty Polly, about a young girl who is murdered and buried in a shallow grave.

Elsewhere in the episode, Jacqueline Sharp proves herself more than capable of whipping up the votes for the bill without her predecessor’s help, as she both uses and then ignores advice from Remy, Tusk’s lobbyist, to convince some of her party to change their mind and support the super amendment, before guilting Blythe into getting four of his bloc to change their votes to avoid the looming shutdown.  Also, Lucas Goodwin continues his search into the Deep Web as he attempts to uncover Zoe Barnes’ phone records to prove a relationship with the Vice President that could implicate him in her death.  Goodwin goes to the lair of a hacker, Gavin, who appears to be a James Bond style villain with his multi-screen setup and habit of stroking a pet while he talks (though in his case it is a guinea pig, not a cat).  Instead, we discover that Lucas is being set up as a law enforcement agent meets with Gavin and discusses how they will get him arrested on cyberterrorism charges, with the hacker providing assistance as he attempts to avoid jail time for his own crimes.  Finally, my favorite part of the episode was the exchange at the very beginning between Francis and the returning Remy, as they exchange quotes at each other impressing Underwood as he says “you know your Churchill”.  The lobbyist tells the Vice President that in fact it was inscribed on a watch that he given him, but Frank assures him that he would have had no knowledge of that, since Nancy – his assistant – handles all of the gifts. Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 1-3

house-of-cardsWhile some people will have already plowed through the entire thirteen episodes of House of Cards, my wife and I will be taking it at a slightly more leisurely pace – which involved watching just three episodes on Valentine’s Day night, starting from the moment our daughter fell asleep.  Because of our more judicious pace to watching the show – which I loved the first season of here and placed fourth in my top 10 of 2013 here – I thought I would cover a few episodes at a time in a review.  So if you have not yet watched any of the second season of House of Cards and do not wish to be spoiled, look away now, otherwise you can step a little closer to those train tracks. Continue reading