When I was a kid, I loved reading Gene Siskel's movie reviews for the Chicago Tribune.
Not because I agreed with him (friendly rival Roger Ebert's brainy populism was really more my style). But Siskel's tastes were so well-defined and sharply argued, after reading a piece I knew whether or not I wanted to spend a week's allowance on a film, even if I didn't necessarily agree with his conclusions on whether a specific movie was any good or not.
That story comes to mind as I start the annual ritual of picking the best stuff on TV this year. The fact is, there's so much good TV on the air and online that you can make at least a half dozen different Top Ten lists, depending on where your attention and enthusiasms lie.
So any listing of TV's best this year is going to tell you as much about the reviewer as the year in media. In my case, that means hearing from an unabashed comic book geek, longtime musician, sci-fi nerd, journalism fan and staunch believer that diversity in subject matter, staffing and characters makes most every TV show better.
With that in mind, here's a look at my Top Ten TV Shows of 2014 (with extras)
1. Fargo (FX) Nevermind the spot-on performances by Billy Bob Thornton as an eccentric hitman and Martin Freeman as the put-upon insurance salesman who takes an awful inspiration from him. Or the sly callbacks to a beloved film that's nearly 20 years old. What's amazing here, is how executive producer Noah Hawley made a TV version of a deeply weird and darkly comic film that works without any characters from the original movie — besides that "Minnesota nice" patios and an awful lot of snow.
2. True Detective (HBO) Only the rushed ending kept this story of two Louisiana cops chasing a twisted serial killer from the top spot. I love how the series starts with Matthew McConaughey looking like the more dysfunctional and burned out of the two, only to later expose Woody Harrelson's serial cheater as someone just as damaged in a different – and possibly more pathetic — way.
3. Transparent (Amazon) This could have easily gone so wrong. But Jeffrey Tambor is giving the performance of his career as a 70-something man finally admitting to the world — and his supremely messed-up,sexually confused adult kids — that he has always been a woman living in a man's body.
4. Black-ish (ABC) Proof that you can make a Cosby Show for the 21st Century if you talk about race and culture instead of avoiding it, stocking the cast with ace performers like Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne who were too often given short shrift in previous TV gigs (yup, Law & Order and CSI, that was about you).
5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) It began its inaugural season as a weekly Daily Show clone and ended it as something entirely new – a news satire that does its own original reporting. The only danger: we'll now expect the next expose of the Miss America pageant's hypocrisy to be even funnier, no matter who does it.
6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) Lorraine Toussaint. Remember that name for next year's Emmys, because this character actress extraordinaire helped make OITNB's second season even more powerful than its first, playing a jailhouse villain who turned the prison upside down.
7. Comic Book TV: Gotham and The Flash (Fox and The CW) This year comics soared on TV, from Grant Gustin's earnest, superspeeding hotshot on The Flash, to Ben McKenzie's hardnosed idealist Det. Jim Gordon on the Batman prequel Gotham. Each show takes itself seriously when it has to, has fun when it can and respects the traditions of comic books even while reinventing them. Not bad for two freshmen.
8. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC) Bandleader Questlove told me in May that he thought Jimmy Fallon was hosting a variety show disguised as a talk show. But it's more: Fallon has managed the impossible, smoothing over the transition from Jay Leno and putting a modern stamp on a 60-year-old institution by turning it into the coolest party in late night.
9. Foo Fighters Sonic Highways (HBO) Some critics predicted a documentary tracing the band's travels to make its latest album would be little more than bandleader Dave Grohl's travelogue/vanity project. Instead, it's a vibrant, detailed, loving diary – a rock fan's tribute to the studios, sounds and cities that have made modern music so special, while also tracing the inspiration of one of rock's most underrated talents.
10. Doctor Who (BBC America) Let the fanboys and girls grouse over the episodes with a creature hatching from the moon or a dinosaur in the Thames. Peter Capaldi's latest version of the BBC's 50-year-old science fiction hero soared by grappling with how a 2,000-year-old alien might love humanity and be irritated by specific humans, making the most impatient, ruthless and grouchy Time Lord in recent memory also one of the most compelling.
Chris Rock's Media Tour for Top Five: OK, its not always on TV and I don't know how good his movie is. But Rock's inspired comments on race, wealth and Hollywood in a cover story he wrote as an essay for The Hollywood Reporter, an interview he did with New York magazine and an appearance on Fresh Air has made his media tour to promote the film more compelling than most other movies.
Amy Schumer and Louis C.K., Comedian Auteurs on Cable TV: Both FX's Louie and Comedy Central's Inside Amy Schumer had banner seasons this year, mostly because both stars got a lot of leeway to say what they wanted how they wanted, whether it was Louie's overweight woman chewing out fat guys for hypocrisy in not dating her or Inside Amy Schumer showing a shoot-em-up videogame where the female soldiers must navigate the military's sexual assault bureaucracy.