The human brain doesn’t distinguish between binges, whether you’re overdosing on crystal meth, prestige television, or the Emmy-winning combination of both. The initial rush and surrender triggers the same steady flow of dopamine; the eventual crash triggers the same feelings of withdrawal and shame, and the unceasing drumbeat calling for more, more, more.
Let’s be honest: We all woke up hungover back in January. 2013 had been that type of year. In September, AMC’s Breaking Bad had careened to a brutal, brilliant end, its final episodes representing the perfect, chemical culmination of TV in the young century. When Walter White went limp, so too did a specific instant in television history, one in which the glow of critical prestige bonded seamlessly with the yawp of popular acclaim. For a brief, broadcast moment in the fall of 2013, we weren’t separated into a nation of red and blue states. We were all bright blue and high as the sky together.
Now? Now we’re just buried. More than 145 original scripted series and miniseries aired in 2014,1 a 14 percent increase over 2013 and a crazy-making 1,000 percent jump from where we were 15 years ago. To attempt to watch all of these shows would be foolhardy. To attempt to watch all of these shows in the way the majority were intended to be watched — which, increasingly, means choking down every episode, in order — would be fatal. Yet the content kept coming, freighted with ambition, riddled with backstories, infested with sagacious ruminants. The long tail of television’s golden age wrapped itself around us more tightly than ever in 2014, squeezing viewers until there was barely any oxygen — or free time! — remaining.
Source: Variety, September 16, 2014.
Making it worse is that, at first blush, nothing felt quite as worthy of all that attention. With so very much television on tap, it’s inevitable that much of it was good and some of it was even great. But the collective bingeing that had seemed revolutionary just a year ago appeared gauche in 2014. Instead of high-fiving at the Sizzler salad bar, we suddenly found ourselves going gorillas over tapas. The reaction didn’t suit the meal. Smaller plates are now in; smaller audiences unavoidable. Unanimity and consensus appear to have met the same bleak end as Heisenberg.
The reasons for this shift are unclear. Perhaps we viewers have taken a long, hard look in the (black) mirror and changed our habits accordingly. Maybe we’re all watching a little bit more and loving a little bit less. More likely, it’s because those making television haven’t any idea how to satisfy the raging appetites they themselves created. Certainly the traditional broadcast networks don’t, with their ham-handed attempts to appeal to a porous, likely fictional middle.2 Not the upstart streaming services, with their stated goal of addictive narrowcasting. (And, it should be mentioned, all the terrible things that happen when they attempt to reverse engineer a phenomenon.) And not even the once-nimble cable giants, who have seen their most dramatic swings miss the sweet spot of passion and praise that not so long ago fueled a revolution. The lyricism of Mad Men’s final season was sacrificed in a dunderheaded play for Breaking Bad–style ratings, leaving TV’s most mature show looking amateurish and craven. (It missed my top 10 list not due to poor quality but because I refuse to acknowledge AMC’s split-season stunt as legitimate.) The Walking Dead, while riotously popular, isn’t universally respected. (And I say this as someone who has recently become infected!) At the end of 2014, HBO’s regal, expensive Game of Thrones reigns as TV’s one remaining communal show.3 It’s a lion in a winter that arrived sooner than anyone thought.
For the first time since I started making these lists, not a single broadcast show cracked my top 10. Better luck next time, I Wanna Marry ‘Harry.’
What do I mean by this? I mean a series that has high ratings but also a far-reaching, tempestuous fan base that transforms a traditional season into a 24/7 free-for-all of tweets, theories, accusations, excitement, and recrimination.
If this reads like a complaint, I apologize. In fact, it’s the opposite. Forced to cast my critical net wider in 2014, I was thrilled and surprised to discover that the haul was considerably deeper. There were shows I loved that felt as if they had been made just for me, like SundanceTV’s slow, rapturous Rectify. And there were shows I loved that felt as if they had been made just to test and upset me, like NBC’s horrifically beautiful Hannibal. There were modest comedies that carried the emotional weight of the best dramas (Showtime’s Shameless, HBO’s Looking), British imports that left me as wobbly as a figgy pudding (Netflix’s Happy Valley, Starz’s The Missing), and a whole passel of worthy shows that thrilled me even as I tried and failed to keep pace with them (BBC America’s Orphan Black, the CW’s Jane the Virgin). With Banshee and The Knick, Cinemax was single-handedly able to satisfy my hunger for escapist pulp and auteurist flair. And is it my fault I was able only to dip in and out of Comedy Central’s scabrous Inside Amy Schumer, or can I blame the network’s equally terrific Key & Peele and Review for distracting me in the first place? Should I apologize for missing the boat on Pivot’s charming Please Like Me, or should I just be grateful I was able to catch a few minutes of it on a recent cross-country flight? We talk about television in terms of seasons, but it remains a medium of moments. Definitive experiences are no longer vacuum-sealed inside of DVD boxed sets — they’re cobbled together out of casually curated DVRs, viral GIFs, and lucky, late-night discoveries. You don’t need to watch everything to see greatness. You just need to pay attention.
What unites the four shows at the top of my top 10 list — The Americans, You’re the Worst, Transparent, and The Honorable Woman — is simple: I adored them. (I also adored them more or less equally; I was fiddling with the final order until the last possible second.) The other thing that unites them is relative unpopularity. FX’s The Americans is the lone silver age drama capable of connecting its big-ticket premise (Soviet spies inside Reagan’s America!) to small-bore emotional observation (what she said!). The performances, especially from stars Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Noah Emmerich, are stronger than hammers; the writing and plotting are sharper than sickles. And yet the ratings remain as unpleasant as a Moscow winter; new episodes average an anemic 1.3 million viewers in their first airings.4 That’s still considerably higher than what You’re the Worst, another FX production, earned in its first season. No matter: Nothing on TV made me happier in 2014 than the promise of another new episode of this savagely funny, secretly sweet romantic comedy. It simultaneously breathed new life into the creaking sitcom and tomahawk dunked on its uninspired competition.
Thank Lenin for the relatively enlightened attitude of FX. The network makes a point of ignoring overnights, preferring to consider the total audience after DVR viewings are taken into account.
And nothing on TV seemed more improbable than Transparent. An acutely observed, deeply felt portrait of family in transition, the series was triumphant and utterly unique. It wasn’t just the careful way the show illuminated the journey of Maura Pfefferman — it was the way Transparent inveigled its way into the dusty, hyper-specific corners of its characters’ lives, from standing lox orders at the deli to secret love letters in the cereal boxes above the fridge. Creator Jill Soloway, like a very small number of small-screen visionaries,5 creates episodic television expressly to satisfy the most exacting consumer of all: herself. At a time when the future of the art house — not to mention the future of non-blockbuster TV — has never been more blurry, Amazon’s celebration of this sort of singular vision is uplifting and essential. I have no idea how many people watched Transparent when it debuted in September. (Amazon, like Netflix, doesn’t share such pedestrian data.) All that matters is that, as time goes on, more and more people can and will.
Who else is on this list? Louis C.K., Matthew Weiner, Jenji Kohan, Shonda Rhimes, and … ?
Besides, popularity is never a good indicator of quality, not in this or any other year. (The faceless millions that made The Mysteries of Laura and Stalker legitimate hits have a lot of explaining to do.) And the changing nature of the industry allows for profits to be mined from underperforming shows in the most surprising and creative of ways. Even so, it’s been interesting to watch the ravenous Internet culture that developed during the boom years of Lost and Breaking Bad adjust to this more diffuse landscape. Used to fatted calves, the perpetually snarking hive-mind has had to make do with jerky, tearing into considerably slimmer pickings with the same carnivorous gusto. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. FX’s Louie had a brilliant, digressive season that veered from laughless comedy to absurdist tragedy. That this dissonance was entirely the point was nearly lost in the spinning blades of public opinion making. It’s ironic that the window for passing judgment on a TV show has shrunk just as the window for actually watching it has expanded. Thanks to streaming platforms and the constant quest for extra revenue, the relevant afterlife of a series now stretches on for years, even decades after the actual cancellation date. Tweets are short. Art is long.
The actual duration of television shows, however, is increasingly not. As critics, professional and otherwise, slice and dice popular series into abstraction, it’s undeniable that chopping of a different kind is the future of the medium. The slow-burn investment that put Breaking Bad into the pantheon is a luxury now, not a right. Whether you call them limited series, miniseries, event series, or “a mistake,” it’s clear that the best way to capture the attention of overtaxed viewers is to promise not to hold on to it for very long. Never mind my opinion on the merits of HBO’s True Detective; opinions, like assholes, are flat circles. What mattered most about the show was that, over eight woozy weeks, it managed to distill the consumptive frenzy of the Internet into something potent and intoxicating. And then, in 2015, it’ll do it all over again — with a fresh cast and fresh eyes, including those of even its biggest skeptics.
FX Networks boss John Landgraf told me recently that playing with length — of scenes, of episodes, of series — is the one weapon left in a programmer’s arsenal of surprises, and I’m inclined to believe him. His Fargo was the year’s most unexpected treat (and a close no. 11 on my list of favorites), thanks in part to Noah Hawley’s brilliant Coen brothers karaoke, but mostly because of the tightness of its conception and the precision of its execution (or, I guess, executions). All involved were smart enough to realize Minnesota in winter is worth a visit, but not an open-ended stay. The show’s mortality was essential to its appeal. Similarly, SundanceTV’s British import The Honorable Woman was, to my mind, the most forward-thinking series of the year. Written, produced, and directed by a single bloke — former Wayne family assassin Hugo Blick — the show, a contemporary political thriller about the Middle East, had a rhythm and drive I’d never encountered before on television. It thrummed with a sort of creative delirium as Blick gleefully undermined decades of television orthodoxy: Minor characters revealed themselves to be major, assassinations happened exactly when they were least expected, and the hero of the story turned out to be both a victim and a patsy. Many of us still turn to TV for comfort. When that comfort is withheld, the results can be exhilarating.
And nothing was more exhilarating in 2014 than Too Many Cooks. The 11-minute short debuted on Adult Swim in late October. For an entire week it aired, mostly unremarked upon, at 4 a.m. Then it dropped onto YouTube like a tab of lysergic acid and the whole world suddenly slipped sideways.
Here’s what you need to know: Too Many Cooks is a perverse celebration of sitcom opening credits that never stops opening. Here’s what else you need to know: nothing. The very best thing about Too Many Cooks was the way it dropped into our lives on November 7, unannounced and unexpected, a surprise perched somewhere between a novelty check and a home invader. The very worst thing about Cooks was the way that gift was summarily unwrapped, appraised, and filed away for safekeeping all in the span of a few short hours. You’d think something so brief, so crazy, and so beautiful would be spared the gnashing fangs of our residual binge lifestyle. But you’d be wrong. Before the sun rose on November 8, Cooks had spawned nearly as many Q&As and hot takes as views. The overreaction spoke to all of our worst instincts as a culture-obsessed culture: the need to bag and tag everything in order to appreciate it, the desire to answer all the questions before they’ve even been properly asked. I’m happy a guy called Casper Kelly was responsible for this level of genius. And I’d be happier still if I never learned another thing about him.
I don’t think this instinct makes me a Luddite — after all, look how I make my living. But I do think it says something important about the televised year that was, one in which savoring felt far more substantial than gorging. Not that the trough is cutting off any time soon — Variety estimated that more than 350 new and returning shows were ordered for the 2014-15 production cycle. Thankfully, Too Many Cooks vamped on this, too; its central joke is that TV never, ever ends. Not its best instincts nor its worst tropes, not its deadening haze of nostalgia nor its withering obsession with bloodshed and murder. But the outsize joy of the microscopic Too Many Cooks is the way it proves that even the medium’s hoariest clichés are eminently bendable. Too Many Cooks repeats its joke until it loses all meaning, until the most familiar building blocks of story have been rearranged into abstraction. And then it repeats and rearranges it all some more.
It’s a lesson that echoed in 2014 from the bowels of Carcosa to the wilds of Bemidji, from Westeros to the west side of Los Angeles. Imitation begat originality; individual quirks resonated with millions. Don’t be discouraged: TV’s relentlessness is the key to its perpetual rebirth. There are never too many shows, just as there can never be too many cooks. The broth can’t spoil if you never take it off the heat.