And so our golden age of television treads on. Between the steady output from the major networks, the reliable smashes from premium cable channels, and the continued ascendance of new content creators—Amazon joined the fray with the remarkable Transparent this year, and Netflix suggested they’d like to debut a new series every fortnight—these are heady times for TV lovers. Jaime J. Weinman and Adrian Lee break down the best new shows, the biggest disappointments, and the series you should check out next year, as part of our Best of 2014 web series.
Five best new shows
With the end of Breaking Bad, the expected wind-down of Mad Men and the forthcoming finales of some dominant comedies, there’s a ton of opportunities for a slate of new shows to clamour for the crown. Here are five of the year’s new shows that stood out:
FX’s marquee show of 2014 was breathless, suspenseful, urgent, beautiful—and that’s coming from someone who thought the original Coen brothers’ flick was more surface-level sheen than substance. The pilot episode knits you into the quilt of this little community of Bemidji, Minnesota, introduces you into the warm hearth of immediately likeable characters, and gleefully shatters a handful of them in the show’s opening hour, sudden spatterings of blood against its snowy backdrop of whooshing, whistling whiteness. Stunningly acted and narratively taut, benefiting from the serial, one-off nature of each season, it doubles as a treatise on how thin the line between meek victim and horrible evil can be. It’s the one show this year I felt the need to inhale as quickly as possible—and the only show that left me inadvertently talking like the characters in the ensuing weeks. (Oh, hufda.)
This year’s best new show from Showtime, looking for something to take the place of Dexter and pair with the resurgent Homeland, is The Affair. It’s several simple conceits rolled into one ambitious, cinematically gorgeous one: a Rashomon-style game of unreliable narrators, a juicy murder mystery, a hot romance. But rather than bleed out into a muddled sprawl or devolve into a boring formal exercise, each part perfectly balances the other, so that, when the unfaithful couple at the show’s core begins to veer too closely to triteness, the viewer is lured back in to try to track the differences in each narrator’s telling, and the power of personal bias. It has the psychological intimacy and naked rawness of In Treatment and the signals of higher thought that made the overrated True Detective so buzzed about, and it doesn’t hurt that its stars—Ruth Wilson, best known from Luther, and Dominic West, The Wire‘s McNulty, who shows he hasn’t lost a step from the BBC’s tragically short-lived The Hour—are logging Emmy-winning performances.
Nothing much happens on Broad City, really; each episode is a gambol of often drug-fuelled New York City hijinks between its two young stars, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. But that’s kind of the point: These are girls as aimless, stoner best friends, and it’s eminently refreshing. The pair nail it as if they’ve been here before, all by their confident fourth episode, a memorable adventure that features pepper spray, stolen lotion, inadvertent homelessness and surprising tenderness. It’s also a star-making turn for Hannibal Buress, an exceptional stand-up comic who has taken the leap this year, in particular, with a rant against Bill Cosby that helped ignite the tinderbox he’s in now. Quite simply, there hasn’t really been an episodic TV show quite like it. Its second season looks even punchier, and it’s likely to become more and more influential as time wears on.
Netflix’s animated series Bojack Horseman—where Will Arnett plays a Saget-esque washed-up sitcom star who happens to be a horse, in a cartoon world close to ours inexplicably inhabited by anthropomorphic animal-people—may not be for everyone. But, beneath the absurdist veneer and whip-smart wisecracks is a surprisingly doleful, tonally exact show that gives a much-needed tweak to the rapidly expanding adult-cartoon genre, so that you find yourself rooting for a horse like it’s a day at the races. (The show also wins the prize for best recurring gag of the year, in the form of the boyfriend of Bojack’s agent; character actress Margo Martindale also makes a number of scene-stealing cameos.)
Long stuck in stereotypical bit roles and saddled with a failed sitcom in his past, Anthony Anderson shrugged off the odds and proved he can indeed helm a show of his own. Easily the best of a weak batch of network TV comedies, Black-ish is a reminder that, while diversity doesn’t need to be forced on TV audiences, it does provide a needed freshness of voice in a flagging genre. It’s the unheralded heir to Modern Family, which ends this year and, if Anderson keeps the charm dial at 10, the show may just be able to hold its Emmy-winning sceptre.
Honourary mentions: Transparent; Benched; Rick and Morty; Last Week Tonight; Silicon Valley.
Five most disappointing shows
My colleague Adrian has mentioned some of the high points of the TV year, but enjoying yourself is only part of watching television; another part is hoping to enjoy something and being bitterly disappointed.
Here are five moments of 2014 that got our expectations up, and then crushed them. They’re not the worst shows of the year—those are fun to hate, or at least hate-watch. These are shows or episodes where we expected better, and felt let down in the way that only entitled pop-culture consumers can.
‘The Newsroom’: “On Shenandoah”
Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the world’s most perfect cable news network was already a disappointment to HBO, which cancelled it after only 26 episodes. But even the ending of the series was overshadowed by the next-to-last episode, where Sorkin took on the very tricky, topical issue of campus rape. As usual with Sorkin, he tried to find a middle ground between the left and the right, resulting in a widely blasted, incoherent story where a journalist winds up saying he’s “morally obligated” to believe any man accused of rape. One of Sorkin’s staff writers even took to Twitter to claim she objected to the episode as it was being written, though Sorkin denied this. It all wound up reminding everyone why the show was cancelled in the first place.
Oh, John Mulaney. He’s a young stand-up comedian whose material is widely loved by comedy fans, so when Fox announced it was picking up his sitcom (originally turned down by NBC), people thought he might be the one to save the Seinfeld-style multi-camera comedy. Of course, a show that is expected to become the next Seinfeld is never going to be able to live up to that, especially when it makes the comparison all too obvious by having the star perform stand-up bits on the show. With a cast that included a token black guy, an annoying guy with a beard, and Canada’s own Martin Short, Mulaney flopped from its first episode, and the star was reduced to telling a reporter that, whatever the show might be, it was “not heinous.” Mulaney’s a nice guy, but no one should be asked to have the weight of the entire sitcom future on his shoulders.
It may seem strange that there’s already nostalgia for the reality shows of the 2000s, but that period, when reality ruled the airwaves and scripted programming seemed like it might die out, was one of the last eras of “appointment” television. Fox, which had some of the craziest shows of that decade, tried to revive its spirit in Utopia, where a bunch of people are gathered in one place and told to build their own society from scratch. The network had so much faith in the Survivor-y premise that it scheduled the show to run two nights a week. Then it aired, and it was cut back to one night a week. And then none. It looks like the reality boom is really not coming back, and we’re stuck with our memories and our tapes of Joe Millionaire.
‘Peter Pan Live’
Last year’s NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music Live! with Carrie Underwood was an unexpectedly huge hit, one that suggested we couldn’t get enough of classic musicals, particularly when they were done live, with the possibility of people forgetting their lines. This year’s choice, the musical version of Peter Pan, got lots of attention on Twitter—but barely half the ratings of The Sound of Music. Was it that the star, Girls‘ Allison Williams (and, totally by coincidence, daughter of powerful NBC news anchor Brian Williams), didn’t have Carrie Underwood’s red-state appeal? Was it that people are turned off by the weird Oedipal undertones of the play? Or could it just be that none of the songs is actually very popular? Whatever it was, even Christopher Walken’s Captain Hook couldn’t banish the feeling that the live musical fad may be ending when it’s barely begun.
‘How I Met Your Mother’
The series finale of this sitcom had people arguing about whether it was the worst finale since Lost, or the worst since Battlestar Galactica, or the worst since Seinfeld. But it was more disappointing than any of them. We’d spent nine years waiting for Ted (Josh Radnor) to meet his future wife (Cristin Milioti); it was right there in the title. In the finale, he finally met her, and then, minutes later, he announced that she had died of an unspecified illness years before he started telling the story. It turned out he was telling his kids the story of his entire romantic life, because he actually wanted to get their permission to start dating again—and with Robin (Cobie Smulders), the ex-wife of his friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). A romantic ending, if you don’t mind the broken relationships, betrayals and corpses it took to get there. Few works of art have the power to make millions of people feel like they’ve been played for suckers for a decade of their lives. But that’s the true miracle of series TV.
Five shows to watch in 2015
‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’
The first Tina Fey TV show since 30 Rock. A long-heralded comedic actress finally getting a shot to headline her own show in Ellie Kemper. And now—after NBC strangely punted on airing the show—the opportunity to watch it all at once as a Netflix-exclusive series, which is increasingly, it seems, the only way audiences will allow sitcoms to find their legs. Don’t bet against this totally typical tale about a woman moving to the bright lights of New York (having escaped a doomsday cult).
Based on the new trailer, this show about two troubled middle-aged couples living under one roof will go one of two ways: shlocky tripe, or resonant character study. With the pedigree involved, it’s probably going to be the latter, given that it’s a creation of the Duplass brothers (you may recognize Mark from fantasy-football bro-medy The League and The Mindy Project, and brother Jay from Transparent). It also features the return of Amanda Peet to acting, after a long break.
‘Better Call Saul’
There’s every reason to be nervous about this Breaking Bad spin-off; the gripping plot of that show about a dying teacher entering the drug trade is why we watched and couldn’t look away. So why would we watch a series about a sleazy-lawyer bit character? Ends up, we do, based on the thrilling frisson we got from the latest trailer showing Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman meeting the gruff fixer Mike Ehrmantrout. Besides, Odenkirk’s schlumpy turn on Fargo and his brilliant run on the sketch show Mr. Show makes him someone we need to watch in 2015. And, of course, the spin-off will likely double as a perfect justification to rewatch the original, with crannies and character curios filled in.
‘The Nightly Report with Larry Wilmore’
It seems like just yesterday that we felt TV was about to get too crowded with satirical late-night news shows, wondering whether or not John Oliver had the chops to separate himself from the pack on HBO. Twenty-six episodes later, there’s no question that Last Week Tonight has become just about as institutional as The Daily Show and the sadly departed Colbert Report. So we’re not about to count out Nightly Report, with the placid Wilmore taking the host’s chair, the Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent” entering the milieu at just about the perfect climate.
Jokey looks at the rap game are fraught territory—look no further than the really bad Chozen—but with hip hop increasingly a part of mainstream pop-culture’s centre, Atlanta has a lot of things going for it to make it work. For one thing, it’s the brainchild of Donald Glover, whose credits as a screenwriter for 30 Rock and as lovable doofus Troy on Community give him plenty of comic credibility; for another, Glover’s alter-ego as the now Grammy-nominated rapper Childish Gambino means his insights won’t be tired assumptions. (Nothing is confirmed, other than the fact that FX has ordered it to pilot.)