Some jewels from the golden age of television
We've been enjoying a golden age of television now for so long it must have graduated to platinum status.
It feels like the term started cropping up sometime around "The Sopranos," and despite all the muck and crud that has surfaced since then — the "Housewives" and cupcake competitions, the duck hunters and naked survivalists — the description has hung on.
With good reason. The sheer volume of offerings available on what was once known as "the idiot box" has become staggering thanks to streaming video, on-demand and the continued proliferation of cable channels. With so much happening, the great challenge becomes picking the jewels out from the common pebbles.
Luckily there are plenty of jewels to be had. Hungry for content, television has become an incubator of ideas great and ghastly, a Wild West medium where almost anything can be tried. And with great risks come great rewards at times.
No one can even come close to covering all of television. But these are the jewels I most enjoyed in 2014:
"Olive Kitteridge" (HBO) Oscar winner Frances McDormand produced this low-key miniseries about small town lives and starred as the title character, a woman whose heart is near-buried in bitterness. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids are All Right"), this film transcended medium.
"Transparent" (Amazon) Creator Jill Soloway follows a dysfunctional family as their patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender. Wonderfully cast — Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Judith Light — and written with just the right blend of humor and compassion.
"True Detective" (HBO) Matthew McConaughey continued on his career roll as Rust Cohle — a drunk philosopher and crack detective — starring alongside Woody Harrelson as cops in search of a serial killer. Other characters will take over the anthology series; the bar is set high.
"Orange is the New Black" (Netflix) It's so satisfying to see the diversity of this women-centric series, even if the majority of those diverse women are in prison. Creator Jenji Kohan continues to explore individual back stories while driving the series forward.
"House of Cards" (Netflix) No matter how far-fetched the turns, no matter how dark the portrait of politics and power, this show can always rely on the icy countenance of its central power couple, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
"The Good Wife" (CBS) The last season of broadcast television's best drama brought some exciting, even upsetting shifts. But the show continues to find a balance between the political and the private while also offering consistently compelling courtroom jousts.
"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" (HBO) Comedy Central's loss was HBO's (and viewers') gain. Oliver's comic news summaries had plenty of golden moments, but his key contribution has been his in-depth weekly rants, which could only be done on a noncommercial network.
"Sons of Anarchy" (FX) The bad boys ran out of time this year, but they certainly didn't run out of gas. Kurt Sutter's epic motorcycle gang series went out in a flood of blood and darkness, just as everybody knew it had to. Again, a great cast and characters.
"Homeland" (Showtime) This show returned to its "24"-like roots at the same time that Carrie (the still sublime Claire Danes) brought her style of crazy to a whole new level. But as far out as "Homeland" gets, it's still reflective of very real-world tensions.
"American Horror Story" (FX) We now have two Oscar-winning actresses (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates) and one Oscar nominee (Angela Bassett) anchoring this horror series, which shifts stories each season, surrounded by a wealth of young talent (Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe) and augmented by Sarah Paulson, the series' real heart. Witches, freak shows, asylums — bring it on.