2014 – The Year in Television

TV 2014

As Hollywood recovers from the lowest box office since 1995, the new Golden Age of Television continued on, showing that now, more than ever, the best bang for your buck is to just stay home and let the TV goodness wash over you. Or, at the very least, to open up that laptop and let the Wi-Fi guide you to the light that is the finest the entertainment industry has to offer. Join me as I take a look at the best- and worst- that TV had to offer in 2014.

Arrow Season Season 3 Episode 8 The Brave and the Bold 10

New Super Visions

As ever, new shows were pretty hit or miss, but there was some gold amongst all the dross- looking at you, “Manhattan Love Story,” “Selfie” (with apologies to the always adorable Karen Gillan- better luck next time!) and, ironically or not, anything with “bad” in the title: i.e. “Bad Teacher,” “Bad Judge.”

On the superhero front, the excellent “Arrow” managed to not only successfully spin-off the new series “The Flash,” but to do so with a completely different and largely upbeat vibe that completely separated it from its sister show. For those burnt out on the post-Nolan downbeat dystopian comic book adaptations, this was like a breath of fresh air. (Hollywood got a similar lesson with the enormous success of the under-the-radar “Guardians of the Galaxy,” one of the best- and highest grossing- films of the year.)

Not that those who prefer their comic book spin-offs dark were left wanting, mind you. While it was somewhat shakier out of the gate than “The Flash,” the pre-“Batman” series “Gotham” provided a clever alternative to the Batverse by going back- way back- to Bruce Wayne’s childhood and focusing in on the gestation of the villains over the good guys, with the notable exception of a young Jim Gordon.

Gotham (Fox) Episode 5 Viper (2)

While some villains fared better than others- namely the superb portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot, aka “The Penguin,” expertly embodied by Robin Lord Taylor, as opposed to the sometimes shaky new character Fish, played perhaps a little too broadly at times by Jada Pinkett Smith- overall, the show managed to breathe new life into a story we’ve all heard a million times by approaching it in a wholly original way by focusing on the criminals over the good guys. (Look for Hollywood to do the same with the forthcoming “Sinister Six” flick, amongst other proposed films of that sort.)

Alas, those who tried to create their own new mythos fared less successfully, with the J.J. Abrams-produced effort “Almost Human” faltering, and “The Tomorrow People,” an American take on a cult British series each making a heroic effort that ultimately failed to connect with audiences, resulting in a one-and-done season for each.

“The 100,” a superhero-adjacent apocalyptic thriller in “The Hunger Games” vein, fared just well enough to garner a second season, but it remains to be seen whether the expansion of that show’s mythos will truly connect with audiences, after it headed in a new direction for its sophomore season that seems to have split the fans of the show, some of whom preferred the initial “Lord of the Flies”-esque approach.

orphan-black

Genre Mind Benders

Faring even better, IMHO, were the perennially underrated BBC America shows, “Orphan Black,” whose astonishing performance(s) by the incredibly talented Tatiana Maslany should be garnering much more award show love than it does; and the even more under-the-radar “Intruders,” the latest from “X-Files” writer Glen Morgan, “Blair Witch Project” director Eduardo Sánchez and “The Last Exorcism” director Daniel Stamm.

“Intruders,” based on a novel by Michael Marshall Smith, featured the best turn in years from actress Mira Sorvino, and an eye-opening and disturbing one from newcomer Millie Brown that was worth the price of admission alone. I barely heard any love from critics for this one in particular, but hopefully, streaming services like Netflix will help spread the love for it and land “Intruders” a well-deserved second season.

On the bright side, Showtime’s classic horror creature feature reinvention “Penny Dreadful” wowed critics and audiences alike, garnering itself a new season of vampires, werewolves, and other familiar monsters. Cleverly taking elements of tales we all know well and subverting them in fresh ways- i.e. “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” et al.- the show also continued the trend of landing well-established film actors like Eva Green (“Casino Royale”), Josh Hartnett (“Sin City”), former Bond Timothy Dalton and former “Dr. Who” companion Billie Piper on the small screen. Green, in particular, shined, with her possessed turn in “Séance” truly something to see, putting the similar big screen likes of “Ouija” to shame.

Meanwhile, the movie “From Dusk Till Dawn” was successfully turned into a series as the flagship show for director Robert Rodríguez’ new cult movie-and-show driven El Rey network. Reimagining the film as an expanded ten-episode mini-series, the show was nothing if not a guilty pleasure, even if it often stretched the source material to its breaking point. As the second season will continue on past the end of the movie, it will be interesting to see how it expands the mythos of the movie into heretofore unexplored territories. While the tone of the show often wildly varied (as did the movie, to be fair), it was just interesting enough to keep watching, so I’m definitely curious to see what they do with a second season that isn’t as tethered to its origins as the first.

Salem 1

Another flagship show, “Salem,” marked the first foray into original programming for the WGN America network, and was even more successful, getting a second season order mere weeks into its initial run. A reinvention of the Salem Witch Trials that split the difference between historical accuracy and flights of supernatural fancy, the show managed to be both sexy and eye-opening, with its FX-ready mix of the salacious and the gruesome. (The show was originally pitched to FX, who turned it down largely because the third season of “American Horror Story” was also witch-centric.) Though occasionally venturing into camp territory, the show actually got better as it went along, which may bode well for the second season.

Last, and probably least, the “Walking Dead” knock-off, “Z-Nation” boasted a breezier and lighter tone than its obvious predecessor, as well as a decent cast that included DJ Qualls (“Supernatural”), Tom Everett Scott (“Southland”), and Harold Perrineau (“Lost”)- though (spoiler alert!) not all made it out alive by the end of the first season. While nowhere near as effective and well-written as “TWD,” the show did serve as a nice palate cleanser between the first and second halves of that show for those who just can’t be without a little zombie mayhem in their lives for too long. Besides, any show with the always-endearing Qualls as one of the leads can’t be all bad. Apparently, viewers agreed, as the show did just well enough to garner a second season.

Ravenswood Episode 1 Pilot (12)

Here Today Gone Tomorrow Shows

As ever, new shows were pretty hit or miss. In addition to the ones already mentioned, many didn’t make it past a few episodes, much less a full season. Among them were “Ravenswood,” an attempted “Pretty Little Liars” spin-off that took one of that show’s characters into the realm of the supernatural, but failed to connect with viewers, resulting in a premature end to the story, which was barely alluded to on its sister show after the fact, leaving its few supporters in the dark like so many fireflies. (See what I did there, fans?)

The mid-season replacement “Resurrection” did well out of the gate, but viewers abandoned it in droves in the second season, leading a planned full season order to be cut in half early on, and leaving fans wondering if they’d ever get a satisfactory ending to the story at hand. (Suggestion to those worrying about it: check out the vastly superior original, “The Returned,” on Netflix, if you can get past subtitles.)

Sam and Cat

Other shows that didn’t last long, often with good reason, include the re-imagined “Dracula” NBC series, which traded scares for complex plotting revolving around electromagnetic power (!) and a shadowy secret society; “The Carrie Diaries,” which made it to a second season at least, but showed that maybe viewers thought the idea of a “Sex and the City” for teens was a bit on the icky side- even by the CW’s oft-dubious standards; ABC Family’s “Twisted,” which took a stab at another “Pretty Little Liars”-style murder mystery with lesser results- though it lasted longer than “Ravenswood” at least; the multi-show spin-off “Sam & Cat,” which derived from the Nick’s hit teen shows “iCarly” and “Victorious,” debuted strong, but fell prey to the rising star of singer/actress Ariana Grande and a brutal shooting schedule that was supposed to be a 40-episode first season! The show made it to thirty-three before being unceremoniously dropped, much to Grande’s relief, no doubt, allowing her to focus on her singing career instead to much success.

Bad Dad

Saddest of all, though, was the failure of “The Crazy Ones” to take off, which may or may not have contributed to the depression that ultimately led to star Robin Williams’ suicide. The likable show, which was getting better as it went along, was also posited as a comeback of sorts for everyone’s favorite vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar, but, alas, it failed to capitalize on its initial success and was cancelled at the end of its first season. One can’t help but wonder if it might have made a difference if the show had continued on, but I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that sad question. Williams will certainly be missed, in a year that took from us some of the greatest celebrities of our times, notably including “Fashion Police” diva Joan Rivers.

Fargo

Success Stories

Not all new shows faltered, however. The superb HBO series “True Detective” took the crime procedural to new heights, and gave Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey their best roles in years, with the latter also snagging his first Oscar to boot (for “Dallas Buyers Club”), in what some wags dubbed the “McConaughassance.” The show will continue on with all all-new case with an all-new cast next year, somewhat akin to “American Horror Story.”

The movie spin-off “Fargo,” on FX, managed the impossible by successfully translating the notoriously quirky Coen Brothers vibe to a taut mini-series that wowed with an excellent cast of big name stars like Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman and rising stars like Alison Tolman and Colin Hanks, and without the Coen Brothers themselves contributing at all, mind you. Neat trick that.

Other strong efforts included two computer-centric series, one comedic, the other dramatic: HBO’s hilarious “Silicon Valley” and AMC’s “Halt & Catch Fire.” The former, from “Beavis & Butthead” and “Office Space”-mastermind Mike Judge, managed to be smart and dumb all at once- much like the other stuff he’s known for; while the latter took a fascinating look at the infancy of computer technology, as a group of Texas-centric geniuses did their best to take computers out of the offices and into one’s home in a quest to build the better laptop PC in the early 80’s.

Stalker Episode 10 A Cry For Help08

Meanwhile, on network television, the geniuses of CBS’ “Scorpion” squad took the Geek Squad concept to a whole ‘nother level, as a group of outsiders, each with special talents, banded together to solve high-concept crimes, adding yet another hit to the crime procedural-happy network. CBS also fared well with the latest from “Scream” scribe Kevin Williamson, “Stalker,” inspired by the writer/producer’s (“The Following,” “The Vampire Diaries”) own scary experience with a stalker on the heels of his early horror successes. Though it can be hit or miss, the show has nonetheless managed to consistently find unique approaches to the procedural format that keep you guessing.

Two wildly different variations on the same theme arose during the summer via the cable series “The Last Ship” on TNT and “The Strain” on FX, both of which revolved around the spread of a deadly virus- just as a real one was scaring the pants off of people IRL. The former tackled the matter under a “NCIS”-meets-“Battleship” type of vibe, with lots of action courtesy of producer Michael Bay. While I’m not a huge fan of Bay, I’d nonetheless take “Ship” over “Transformers” any day, as the show proved to be more engaging than it maybe had any right to be.

As for “The Strain,” writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and author Chuck Hogan’s apocalyptic pseudo-vampire tale was reasonably creepy, with some great effects and set-pieces, even if the big reveal of the lead beastie was a bit of a letdown, looking like an outcast from that old movie, “The Dark Crystal.” (For my younger readers, think evil Muppet.) Both fared well enough to earn second seasons, though, so there’s that.

Other new shows sought to be a bit more cerebral, with varying results, such as the half-baked Spielberg-produced “Extant,” which managed to eke out a second season for itself, despite a wildly erratic first season that often found big name star Halle Berry seeming like she was in a daze more often than not- and not just because the story called for it. While the show certainly had some interesting ideas at play, including the ramifications of Artificial Intelligence, particularly in regards to humanoid robots (a la Spielberg’s “AI”) and how to handle the discovery of extraterrestrial beings; it often faltered with its heavy-handed tone and lethargic pacing.

The Leftovers Season 1 Premiere 2014 Pilot 4

Faring far better with big ideas was the latest from “Lost” writer/producer Damon Lindelof, the fascinating adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s cult novel “The Leftovers.” While the HBO series was admittedly a bit of a downer, to say the least, it also made for fascinating television, with one of the most intriguing premises for a show in recent memory- what if, out of the blue, a significant portion of the population disappeared without warning? And what if it wasn’t some sort of rapture thing, with only the “good” being taken, but an inexplicably random occurrence that raised more questions than it answered? There may have not been much in the way of answers, and perhaps in light of the mixed reaction to the “Lost” finale, Lindelof has warned not to expect too much forthcoming, but it was a fascinating journey nonetheless. I, for one, am in for a second season, even if I might need to stock up on antidepressants to get through it!

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention some of my favorite new comedic efforts, including the hilarious new Comedy Central show “Broad City,” based on the web show of the same name, which has its second season premiering in January. If there’s any justice in the world, stars Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson will become household names next year, a la their comedic predecessor Amy Schumer, who’s “Inside Amy Schumer” powered through a critically acclaimed second season, with some genuinely clever, smart observational humor hidden amongst all the sex jokes. “City” isn’t nearly as heady as “IAS,” but it’s just as funny, as the two lovable stoners have an ongoing series of misadventures in NYC. For those who miss “The Sarah Silverman Show,” be sure to also check out IFC’s similar “Garfunkel & Oates,” which, like that show, finds time to squeeze in an amusing musical number in between the laughs.

faking-it-s2

I also want to give a shout-out here to the most surprisingly effective show to spring from what sounds like the worst premise ever, “Faking It.” It’s about two female friends who decide to pretend to be gay in order to become more popular, which sounds terrible on paper, but is actually- much like its companion show “Awkward”- a clever, modern dissection of what teen life is like in the millennial era. I mean, think about it older readers: can you fathom a time in high school before now where pretending to be gay would actually make you more popular? Such are the times we live in.

Yet, by smartly making one of the girls actually gay and having trouble coming to terms with it, the show is savvy enough to deconstruct the premise as it has fun with the stereotypes that come along with our preconceived notions of what being gay is in the first place. (See also writer George Northy’s similarly-amusing “G.B.F.,” which treads similar ground and features another winning performance from “Faking It” star Michael J. Willet, available on Netflix.) It’s a winner, even if you typically avoid MTV’s wasteland of reality shows like the plague.

Not as winning: MTV’s “Happyland,” which has an amusing premise- a girl deals with the ups and downs of working in a Disney-like amusement park, a la “Adventureland,” but without any of that movie’s smart writing, unfortunately. The primary female cast on that show is likable enough, however, so maybe there’s hope for it yet. That said, “Faking It” stars Rita Volk and former “American Idol” contestant Katie Stevens are stars in-the-making, mark my words.

24: Live Another Day Episode 3 Day 9: 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM (12)

So Long, Farewell, Goodbye

Any number of shows bowed out this year, some of them on their own terms, others not so much. For instance, the critically acclaimed-but-viewer-challenged “The Killing” had to venture over to Netflix to complete its story after being cancelled not once but twice (!) by former home AMC. Meanwhile, “24” was flat-out raised from the dead by FOX in the half-season long and aptly-titled “Live Another Day,” which was like slipping into an old comfortable, torture-ready pair of slippers.

Meanwhile, cult favorites like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Being Human,” “Warehouse 13” and “Psych” all ended fairly strongly, while “True Blood,” which lost its luster some time ago, boot-and-rallied for a decent-if-somewhat-underwhelming final season that was nonetheless better than the previous few seasons at least. Hey, at least Eric and Pam came out on top- and that rascal Sarah got what was coming to her.

Less satisfying was the much-ballyhooed “How I Met Your Mother” final season, in which the mother was finally revealed at the beginning of the season- and (spoiler alert!) promptly killed off in the finale! (Actress, and aforementioned mother, Cristin Milioti didn’t fare much better in her subsequent series “A to Z,” which was also unceremoniously killed off in its first season.)

And while it wildly divided critics, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” did a decent job in its shortened final season, coming to a reasonably satisfying conclusion- at least for those who still liked the show by the time it ended, that was. I had mixed feelings about the show overall, but I thought it ended strongly, even if that sing-a-long bit was a little much. That said, Jane Fonda is worth her weight in gold, it must be said. Good evening.

Sons of Anarchy Season 7 Episode 10 Faith and Despondency (6)

Arguably the strongest final season of them all, however, was the superlative “Sons of Anarchy,” which took out major cast members and featured a sad, if true-to-itself series finale that brought the motorcycle club saga to a screeching, effective halt- though nothing was going to top that penultimate episode where (spoiler alert!) Jax finally confronted his mother about killing his wife and dealt with it accordingly. All of the deaths this final season hit hard and close to home for longtime fans, and the season as a whole was pretty fantastic, despite the potentially derailing stunt casting of the likes of Marilyn Manson (who actually wasn’t bad) and Courtney Love (as a preschool teacher!). “SOA,” you will be missed.

On the talk show front, two much-beloved, and much-debated talk shows also bowed out with much fanfare: “Chelsea Lately,” the landmark first hugely-successfully female-fronted late night talk show that offended as many as it entertained, if not more; and the pundit-spoofing “The Colbert Report,” which ended its run by making its star immortal! Both featured star-studded sing-a-longs that were true to their respective hosts’ tastes- though I’m guessing they didn’t share a lot of celebrities in common amongst the two of them. They will also be missed, though both will go to potentially greener pastures: Chelsea Handler to Netflix’s first stab at a talk show, and Stephen Colbert to replace a departing David Letterman next year.

Well, that about sums it up. Sure, I had to skip some biggies- of course, “Game of Thrones” was awesome as ever, while former star Sean Bean managed to survive the hit series “Legends”; “Louie” continue to brilliantly blur the lines between comedy and drama; and Shonda Rhimes all but owned Thursdays for many a viewer, adding “How to Get Away With Murder” to her list of successes- but that’s the great thing about TV these days: there’s enough awesomeness to go around, and then some. (Note to TV execs, we really need to talk about the embarrassment of riches on Sunday nights.)

Thank God for the DVR, that’s all I’m saying.