There’s a formula for writing annual ‘Best Of’ TV lists. First it’s compulsory to observe how pointless a task it is making such a list for a vast and varied medium like television, then talk about how your criteria will be completely different, before naming the SAME EXACT shows as every other critic. Well, I don’t think it’s pointless, at least no more futile than doing it for books or films (where critics don’t seem to have the same anxieties about habitually omitting factual and lifestyle titles). I have no wish to create an opaque ratings system that will lead me back to shows which come pre-ordained as the best of TV. But I do want to ensure that the titles I choose won’t appear on anyone else’s list, something which gets harder and harder as critics begin to fawn over the nichest possible television. So don’t consider this the year’s best TV (see I’m doing it in spite of myself!) but rather good TV that has been overlooked simply because it doesn’t get listed.
Real Husbands Dr. Paul Nassif (disguised as Moe Syslak from The Simpsons for ease of viewer identification) and Dr. Terry Dubrow (other two-quarters of Heather Dubrow, who must always be named twice) are L.A. plastic surgeons who specialize in fixing botched jobs. There’s some emotional hard luck stories but basically it’s the best excuse ever for social voyeurism and with patients like a Human Ken Doll and a 33-year old man with the face of an early-teen Justin Bieber it’s about as visually mesmerizing as reality TV gets. The show is also indispensable body horror, with its drop-in circus of malfunctioning and distorted anatomy. Even E’s glossification can’t mask the raw psychological distress.
90-Day Fiancé (TLC)
A show close to mine and G’s hearts, since I arrived in the US on a marriage visa. This observational documentary follows six couples during the 90-day window for visitors to the US to marry on the K-1 visa. It’s as compelling for its cartoon parodies of loving marriage as it is for reaffirming the borderless beauty of the institution. So extraordinary and bizarre is the experience for these culture-clash couples that the network barely needs to meddle in the melodrama, as it does for its other reality shows, giving it a more natural (if no less extreme) flow of real events than heavily devised TLC docu-soaps like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.
Muppets Most Wanted (Disney)
Probably more likely to be dismissed on grounds of not being a TV show, this was nonetheless the movie that in 2014 most thoroughly blurred distinctions between film and television. The Muppets are a creation of television, stars Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey are all television personalities, and the legacy of The Muppet Show is privileged at the expense of the movie franchise (the latter self-consciously in comic acknowledgements of the diegetic amnesia around popular movie characters and sequels). The movie is a joyous celebration of the achievements and talents of television past and present, reminding us of how far the medium has come. And it’s full of commercials!
A show that will doubtless elude recognition for its monotony and ubiquity, but this doesn’t change the fact that host Kelly Ripa is by several miles of open country the funniest, smartest, wittiest and most multi-dimensional presenter in daytime. Her work in morning television is more akin to what Conan, Colbert and Craig Ferguson have done with the late-night form than the platitudinous moron-making of virtually everybody else on TV at that time, and until about 11 in the evening. This is an everyday occurrence, which makes it all the more startling, but her essential impersonation of Laura Linney in the Halloween parody of PBS Masterpiece Theater speaks volumes.
Dare I say that Craig Ferguson’s departure from late-night talk shows will leave an even bigger hole than David Letterman? While Letterman innovated within the format, Ferguson created a new late-night form that was genuinely subversive, avant-garde and experimental, importing a brand of British vaudeville surrealism reminiscent of Reeves & Mortimer and The Mighty Boosh. Like those acts, Ferguson meshed light entertainment with serious art, carved out an absurd fantasy using television grammar, and delivered alternative culture disguised as broad comedy. It was a rejection of all that was bland and formulaic about one of American TV’s most intransigent genres, and a complete reinvention of its possibilities.