It’s been a long, wonderful year for television. Now that 2014 is finally drawing to a close, I found myself looking back not at just shows, or episodes, or performances, but some mish-mash of all three—those moments, as a fan of television, that came back to me again and again, reminding me how fascinating, exciting and fun this medium can be. Rather than share a top 10 list I thought I’d do something a bit more free-form. Here’s a list of 29 pieces of 2014’s television that stayed stuck in my head—the high points, the surprises, the indelible performances, the catchphrases. It’s a smorgasbord of superlatives—reflecting the quality and diversity of a fantastic year for TV.
1. Viola Davis taking off her wig in “How to Get Away With Murder.”
It’s a scene that elevates a fractured murder mystery into a powerful story about race—the moment where Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, broken by her husband’s infidelity, strips off the many layers of artifice she wears daily, while staring at herself in the mirror. Off go her false eyelashes and foundation, her wig, while, as Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya wrote about the episode, “Let’s Get to Scooping”: It’s a moment where Keating is confronting herself, in the mirror, and a moment where Davis the actress is confronting the audience with her reality. “It’s an intimate, powerful moment television doesn’t often show: A black woman removing all the elements white supremacy tells her she has to wear to be beautiful, successful, powerful.”
2. Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson in “Fargo”
FX’s “Fargo,” the miniseries based on the film of the same name, never quite found its way into my good graces, though the production was undeniably high-quality and well thought out. But despite my issues with the show as a whole, Tolman’s Molly stole my heart from Episode 1. Molly’s a character based on Frances McDormand’s monumental Marge Gunderson from the Coen brothers’ film, so Molly could have been just a pale shadow to Marge’s presence. But in Tolman’s hands, Molly becomes her own person—a thoughtful single woman following in her father’s footsteps who stumbles across the path of a man who seems to be an incarnation of pure evil.
3. “Outlander,” “The Wedding”
There’s so much to say about this seventh episode of Starz’ historical romance—where the accidental time traveler Claire Randall has to marry an incredibly hot Scotsman for her own protection, and then proceeds to get down. Mo Ryan wrote an excellent analysis of “The Wedding,” observing that the episode is entirely from the perspective of the feminine appreciating the masculine—not the other way around, as cinema and television usually are. But the important thing here, really, is that it is sexy as hell; “The Wedding” combines drama, romance, sexual chemistry and loving camerawork to create the kind of nudity that female viewers can get behind.
4. "Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle.' Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they're gonna be in that room again and again and again forever."“True Detective” is without a doubt my show of the year—combining devastating performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson with the unfolding horror of rural Louisiana and Cary Fukunaga’s bold, lush direction. But nothing will be as indelible as Rust Cohle’s rambling, beer-and-coffee-fueled sermon in the police station, informing us in drawling syllables just how the universe is structured.
5. The cold open to “Broad City’s" “Apartment Hunters,” set to “Started From the Bottom” by Drake.
6. Noel Fisher as Mickey Milkovich in “Shameless.”
Showtime’s “Shameless” often has its ups and downs—four seasons of drama for the Gallagher clan has produced some stories that matter and too many more that are best forgotten. But this fourth season was quite possibly its best yet—as the American show has grown out of the shadow of its British forebear into something that tells a unique story of American poverty. In the midst of a season that featured patriarch Frank getting a liver transplant and Fiona accidentally poisoning little Liam with cocaine, the quiet MVP was Noel Fisher’s Mickey—a peripheral hoodlum who has been part of the story for years and only this year came into the limelight. Mickey’s story is, unexpectedly, a love story: After years of hiding his sexuality, and his relationship with Ian Gallagher, in this season he not only comes out of the closet but does so publicly, declaring his love for Ian in the middle of a bar to his drunk, abusive dad. The event concludes the only way a touching moment in “Shameless” could: a drunken brawl. Mickey’s swagger in public is matched only by his sweetness in private; Fisher brings astounding depth to a character who was a part-time villain for most of the show’s history.
7. That time Fred Willard’s body bobbed around in zero gravity while Lance Bass recited corporate slogans, better known as “Review,” “Best Friend, Space."
8. Eva Green’s demon possession in “Penny Dreadful’s" second episode, “Séance."
“Penny Dreadful” is a remarkable gothic fantasy, a pastiche of Victorian thrillers constructed around a story of a woman who betrayed her best friend and a father searching for the missing daughter he long neglected. Its main flaw is that its ambition leads to muddled storytelling, but over the course of its first season, showrunner John Logan threw his characters—some original, some borrowed from Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker—into a Victorian wonderland that thrills and horrifies as much as it delights. Green plays Vanessa Ives, a woman with a connection to the demimonde—the secret, subconscious spirit world. And during a spontaneous séance in Episode 2, that connection explodes in the form of nasty, malicious possession, a demon possession that is not just fantastic or sexy but uncomfortably intimate. Green’s performance is physical torment and mental possession; she speaks in tongues and rolls her eyes back in her head with abandon. And just as she throws herself into the moment, so too does the camera, which closes in on her tight and listens to the murmur of her voice as she channels something from the beyond. The scene is remarkable, and further so for being long. The possession does not stop when you, the viewer, is ready for it to stop, or when the collected guests are ready for it to stop, and certainly not when Miss Ives wants it to stop. Instead, “Penny Dreadful” lets this moment of possession steal the scene and even the episode; the journey parallels the horrific experience. “Penny Dreadful” features supernatural storytelling the likes of which I’ve never seen before, summed up in this one stunning take.
10. Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings as Clark Westerfield, “The Americans”
It’s one thing to play a spy; it’s another to play the long-con of a spy pretending to be someone else. And this season, as Rhys’ Philip has had to further the charade of being Clark to the point that he and his fake-wife Martha are talking about having kids, his performance has attained the layers of a Russian nesting doll. This is particularly on display in episodes like “Behind The Red Door,” where the lines between Clark, Philip, that person behind his American alias who signed up for this mission blur and dissolve—specifically, when he’s having sex with his wife, Elizabeth, a woman with her own matryoshka of identities.
11. Julianna Margulies’ entire wardrobe in “The Good Wife”
It’s been a fantastic year for this show, and a fantastic year for Julianna Margulies, who won another Emmy for portraying Alicia Florrick. But real talk: It’s Alicia’s magnificent power suits that are going to stay with me.
12. “Not today, Satan. Not today."
Which is a line from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Bianca Del Rio that has become a mantra. Accompanied, fittingly, by Adore Delano and Trinity K. Bonet’s lip-sync elimination battle to Paula Abdul’s “Vibeology.”
13. The “Hannibal” fandom, which along with astounding dedication to reading romance into a show about murder, produced for the world this perfect gifset.
14. “Veep,” “Alicia”
This HBO comedy is such a reliable contender that it’s easy to overlook; three seasons in, Armando Iannucci’s American response to “The Thick of It” is still a scathing, brilliant satire of Washington politics, from Vice President Selina Meyer right down to her bodyman Gary, whose sole job in the world is carrying the vice president’s bag. “Alicia,” the third episode of this season, is that perfect blend of dark and hilarious that makes the show so wonderful, telling the story of Meyer’s attempt to unveil a new policy while trying to offend as few people as possible. Caught in the crossfire is a D.C. mother named Alicia and Meyer’s daughter, Catherine, who ends the episode by making an impassioned speech on how Selina needs to win this election, because otherwise her shitty childhood will have been for nothing. It’s on point. It’s dark. And thanks to the comedic chops of the cast and the brilliant writing, it’s hilarious.
In a year of astounding debuts and incredible performances, Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” stands out as a masterpiece, and Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura as a titan.
17. “Game of Thrones,” “The Mountain and the Viper”
The fourth season of “Game of Thrones” offers no easy answers and no happy endings—characters who were already estranged are further torn apart; the good guys keep losing, to be replaced by bad guys that keep getting worse. “The Mountain and the Viper” is centered on the bloody battle between Oberyn Martell, the Dornish Viper, and Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides. Only one man wins, and it’s not the man you want to win. But for me, the ambiguity of the season is highlighted in a different moment—the moment when Sansa Stark appears at the top of the grand staircase in the castle called the Eyrie, wearing her dead aunt’s clothes, ready to make a deal with the devil. Over the course of the show, she’s been manipulated and victimized. In this moment, she’s either totally succumbed to the pressures of her captor, Littlefinger, or begun to play the game of thrones in her own way. It’s hard to say which, and maybe it’s both. And that makes the moment shine even stronger, as Sansa comes down the stairs, twirling a pen, with the setting sun at her back.
Andrew Haigh’s HBO series had an incredible freshman season. It’s a show so subtle and intimate that it’s easy to overlook, considering that it lives on the same network as “Girls,” which is a continued magnet for controversy, and the far splashier “Game of Thrones.” But while there are droves of stories that attempt to tell the experience of being young and confused, “Looking” manages to find it by distilling it to the one word in its title. It’s about gay men in San Francisco, undoubtedly, and the peculiar triumphs and pitfalls of that scene. But it’s mostly about the optimism and frustration of that age, coupled with the optimism and frustration of hipster life in San Francisco.
20. Aya Cash and Chris Geere in “You’re the Worst.”
A hilariously unlikable couple who hate weddings just as much as you do.
21. “Mad Men,” “Waterloo”
The moon landing. Peggy presenting the BurgerChef account. And the ghost of Bert Cooper dancing in his socks in the lobby of Sterling Cooper & Partners, having left the earthly realms behind. The moon belongs to all of us; the best things in life are free.
22. Greg, the kid with a teapot on his head, from “Over the Garden Wall.”
It’s a Halloween costume, but it takes you nine episodes to learn that, and in the meantime, there's this hilarious kid with a teapot on his head (who keeps changing his mind about what he wants to name his frog).
23. “The Comeback,” “Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees,” an episode that breaks the conventions of male-centric Hollywood without seeming to break a sweat
24. “Louie,” “So Did the Fat Lady”
Sarah Baker dines on Louis C.K.'s hypocrisy for an early dinner by the East River, and “Louie” introduces the concept of having two complete meals back-to-back—the bang-bang—to the viewing audience. The world will never be the same.
25. Danny and Mindy, "The Mindy Project"
They started the year with a bang—making out in the back of an airplane during turbulence—and continued with a year of relationship highs and lows, including romance found at the top of the Empire State Building and the in-the-dark terrifying words "I slipped." But throughout, despite the show's flaws, the rapport between Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling has been what holds the show together and keeps viewers involved. They're adorable and relatable, and the show is doing the hard work of making a relationship funny and consistent, which is not easy. But mostly, I love it for giving us moments like this one:
26. “Manhattan,” “Acceptable Limits”
I have a soft spot for any story line that puts two people with excellent unresolved sexual tension in a situation where they have to pretend to be married. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s always so much fun to watch.
27. The fight between Helena and Sarah in "Orphan Black," "Governed As If It Were By Chance," that culminates with this arresting, indelible, series-high moment:
28. The last 60 seconds of "The Newsroom's" finale "What Kind of a Day Has It Been"
The rest of the episode is fine, but the subtle, atmospheric last minute of "The Newsroom" is lovely. It's the last episode of "News Night With Will McAvoy" that we the viewers will watch being made, and a minute before filming, the camera pans back to let us watch the characters do their daily work of making the news come to life. Mackenzie McHale is in the control room, watching her monitors, and in front of her several technicians are working soundboards and murmuring into their headsets, communicating with McAvoy, sitting behind his desk on set. Her deputy Jim is making a call out to Washington to ready them for the broadcast. In the newsroom, the staffers are conducting research on stories, and in the foreground, one woman brings a file to another. Phones ring. The conversation murmurs in the background. The work continues, and for once, no one is shouting about it. Not only is it one of the best moments of the show, it is a vision of "The Newsroom" that demonstrates what the show could have been.