Wow… what a terrible year it’s been for TV so far. I’ve looked at Wikipedia and several TV websites just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.. and it would appear that I haven’t: there just hasn’t been a lot of quality new stuff on TV so far.
Here’s my mid-year list of the best new scripted shows on TV. After that, there’s a brief essay about new shows that tried and failed and some awards. So let’s do this thing:
The Best New Shows of 2014
#12 Turn (AMC) – Spies in Revolutionary War America? HELL YES! What’s not to love about a show like that? It’s like AMC made a show just for me. Except… “interestingly-interpreted” history aside, this show is slow, like many AMC shows are, and the premise of the show – spying – seems to be forgotten from time to time in favor of character development. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: character development is a crucial part of any good show. But, at times Turn seemed too much like AMC’s other spy show, Rubicon: you wonder what happened to the premise. However, I put this on the “best-of” list because of an interview I read with the show’s creators: it seems like they have heard our concerns, and season 2 should be a much improved show.
#11 True Detective (HBO) – Beautifully shot. Expertly acted. Carefully written. And then it all falls apart at the end. What is it with modern anthology series? ‘Cos this show TOTALLY reminds me of American Horror Story, and how AHS always starts off pretty well, but limps towards a lame finale every single time. True Detective could have been the hands-down favorite for best new show of the year… possibly even best new show of the decade. But the conventional, formulaic ending left me cold. It’s like the first 7 episodes were almost unbelievably good, but the last one… was like something out of a direct-to-DVD movie, Or like the writers quit with 10 pages left to write in the script. Or something.
#10 Silicon Valley (HBO) – This new series from Mike Judge – creator of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space – is pretty damn amusing. It’s almost like The Big Bang Theory for computer nerds like myself. While a knowledge of the IT industry and programming is helpful in understanding the laffs, it’s not required. Sadly, this is because the show, awesome though it is, seems to rely on standard stereotypes, especially the “IT nerd afraid of his own shadow”. One nerd is terrified of his possible success, Another is afraid of girls. Another – the more down to earth one – is apparently afraid of being sober. Still, this show delivers the funny more than any sitcom I’ve seen in a while. It’s definitely worth a watch!
#9 Mr. Sloane (Sky Atlantic) – I’ll admit it: I am a sucker for anything with Nick Frost of Spaced, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. In this series, Frost plays accountant Jeremy Sloane (“with an ‘e’, like Sloane Square”). Jeremy is having a terrible 1969: his wife has left him, he was fired from his accounting job, and his nosy elderly neighbor lets herself in whenever she wants, which always seems to be the wrong time. Jeremy has just about had it with life all around. But then he meets Robin (Ophelia Lovibond), a free-spirited American hippie who changes his life… but just as things start to take off with Robin, Sloane’s estranged wife Janet (Olivia Colman) returns, throwing everything up in the air. Will Jeremy move on with his new American love? Will he go back to his wife? And will he finally ditch his terrible high school friends? This show didn’t get a lot of love from British TV sites, but I really liked it. It was heartfelt and bittersweet, while being funny at the same time. Sure, Sloane’s a loser… but he’s a loser anyone can identify with.
#8 Happy Valley (BBC) – Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in an idyllic town in Yorkshire. But life isn’t as pretty as the setting would seem. Drugs are flooding the town, and Cawood has her own personal tragedy: the suicide of her daughter after being “raped” by a man named Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton; while Cawood’s daughter and Royce did have sex, it’s not entirely clear whether he actually raped her or not). Cawood finds that Royce has been released from prison, and she makes it her duty to track his every move. Little does she know that Royce is a pawn in a much bigger game. It takes the police a while to figure it all out, but in the end, many smaller crimes are part of a much larger conspiracy. Will they be able to solve the case in time? This series got rave reviews from most critics, but for one thing: it has a couple of pretty brutal scenes of violence against women. Here’s my take: while it’s true that British TV seems to have a newfound fetish for hurting women… so what? Was it OK for cop shows to show men suffering for decades, but somehow it’s a problem NOW because it’s women? Can we have female police officers in real life, but not show actual violence they might encounter on our TVs? Also, and this is just me nitpicking, but why did they use “cannabis” as the “evil drug” in this series? They could have used crack or meth to be the “evil drug turning our fair citizens into zombies”, but no… they blamed skunk instead? Ooookkkkaaayyy.
#7 W1A (BBC) – I was a big fan of Twenty Twelve, a BBC comedy about the 2012 Olympics, so I was excited when the Beeb continued the story with W1A. Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), head of the “Olympic Deliverance Commission” in Twenty Twelve, has taken a job as “Head of Values” at the BBC. Surrounded by a (mostly) new cast of characters, Fletcher has to deal with the insanity that is the BBC… which in many cases is even more ridiculous than the Olympics. I loved seeing the BBC take the piss out of themselves… especially when Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes), a “brand consultant” and Fletcher’s nemesis from Twenty Twelve shows up. The show actually hits next level funny when the press find out that the BBC’s new “values guy” is making more than the Prime Minister. Lotsa laffs in this show, and absolutely worth seeking out. Even better than the original!
#6 The Goldbergs (ABC) – OK, so this show came out last year, but I completely neglected it in my round-up. So let me fix that. Set in the 80s, the Goldberg family are a feuding bunch, not unlike the Bundys from Married With Children… only not nearly as awful. The father, Murray (Jeff Garlin), just wants to come home from a day at his furniture store, take off his trousers, and watch TV in his comfy chair. He doesn’t have to worry about parenting much, because mom Beverly (the scene stealing Wendi McLendon-Covey) is the very definition of “sMother”. The eldest child, Erica, is about to graduate high school and go off to college, while middle son Barry breakdances and raps his way through life… badly. The youngest son, Adam, tells the story (via voiceovers from Patton Oswalt). Adam has a video camera in his hand almost constantly, and records the wacky adventures of the family. And the funny thing is, many of those adventures really happened: the “stinger” at the end of every episode shows the real-life footage creator Adam F. Goldberg taped back in the 80s. It’s a funny, charming, heart warming show: most episodes end on a high note, much like Modern Family, but not nearly as saccharine, and they’re often accompanied by the perfect 80s song for the mood. Oh, and did I mention that the show is FUNNY? Since Modern Family has started to go downhill, The Goldbergs is just about the only network comedy that actually makes me laugh.
#5 Salamander (Eén) – This Belgian thriller actually dates to 2012, but didn’t air in the UK until 2014. Filip Peeters stars as Paul Gerardi, an old school cop. When a private bank named Jonkhere is broken in to, it seems like a regular robbery… but not for long. The only things stolen were the contents of 66 safe deposit boxes, boxes which were owned by the country’s elite. It comes to light that the 66 people are members of “Salamander”, a secret society which has been guarding deep, dark secrets since World War II, secrets that could topple the entire Belgian government. Gerardi is tasked with “quietly” investigating the crime, but soon becomes a target of both the criminals who committed the crime and the secret society. Will he be able to solve the crime? Or will either group be able to shut him up first? This is the first Belgian TV show I’ve ever seen… and it’s a really good one!
#4 Penny Dreadful (Showtime) – Wow… how to describe this show? Timothy Dalton stars as Sir Malcolm Murray, a “gentleman explorer” in Victorian England, His daughter, Mina, has been kidnapped by… demons? Monsters? Ancient Egyptian gods? We don’t know. Murrary is sparing no expense trying to get her back. He is assisted by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a mysterious woman with considerable spiritual powers. The two convince others to join them: Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, a gun-slinging American… literally: he was in London as part of an Old West show), Sembene (Danny Sapani, Murray’s servant and ally from one of his African adventures), Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and others. In many ways, this is like a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: many characters come from classic novels, like Dorian Gray, Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and Victor Frankenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s freaky and supernatural… but above all, it’s grown-up. There aren’t a lot of the cheap scares and needless sex scenes you so often see in horror films. It might seem a wee bit slow at first, but trust me… that’s tension they’re building. By the last couple of episodes, you’ll be totally wound up to find out what happens next!
#3 Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) – If you’re familiar with the early days of the personal computer, this show just might drive you insane. To say it’s a “fictionalized” version of history is an understatement. The show is set in the early 80s at a fictional company called “Cardiff Electric”. You’d think Cardiff is supposed to COMPAQ in disguise, but COMPAQ was a PC company that later got into the server business, while Cardiff’s main product was mainframes. So maybe it’s supposed to be EDS, Ross Perot’s company. The head cheese – John Bosworth, played by Toby Huss – even seems a bit Perot-like. But EDS never had a PC division. So who knows? In any case, Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillan, a hotshot salesman who left IBM to get a job with Cardiff. Why leave IBM? Because he has a vision of the future, of PCs that are significantly better than what IBM is selling, and for half their cost. He recruits under-appreciated Cardiff engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) as his point man, and hires the rebellious but brilliant Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to reverse-engineer the IBM PC’s BIOS (another COMPAQ reference). I wasn’t totally sold on the show at first… but there was this one moment the series premiere that just hooked me: the gang has gone ahead, in secret, with their plan to make an IBM clone, but are eventually found out by Bosworth, who immediately calls in Cardiff’s legal team. MacMillan convinces the legal eagles that the only way to salvage Cardiff’s reputation is to go ahead with the plan. This causes IBM to send a team a lawyers to Cardiff. We see MacMillan, Clark and Howe standing in a conference room waiting for IBM to arrive (see pic below). Suddenly, someone says “IBM’s here” and we see what must be at least two dozen lawyers walk through the door, mostly one at a time… just a tiny fraction of IBM’s legal might. It was such a small thing, but such a great scene. While I really like the show, can also I understand the criticism. For one thing, it doesn’t examine the actual development of the PC nearly enough. In a way, it’s like how Mad Men went from “a show about an ad agency” to a “soap opera that’s sometimes set in an ad agency”. The IT industry should have plenty of drama as-is, without having to invent it. As Cameron says, “this is a whole industry based on ripping other people off”.
#2 Old School (Australian Broadcasting Company) – Lenny Cahill (Bryan Brown) is an older safecracker who has just gotten out of prison after serving a 12 year stint for his role in an armored car heist. Ted McCabe (Sam Neill) is the recently retired cop who never solved the heist case, nor recovered the money. So when Cahill starts asking around for his share of the loot, McCabe starts trailing him. What Cahill doesn’t know is that everyone involved in the heist is dead. They didn’t all die in the same week, and some of them seemed to die of natural causes… but it’s still odd that Lenny is the only one still alive from the heist. Will the duo solve the case? Will Lenny get his $300,000… or will he do the right thing, but be able to sleep at night? This is your standard “Odd Couple meets buddy cop show”, and although the story is pretty good, that’s not what sells it. It’s the chemistry between Brown and Neill that really makes the show. Replace them with two 30-something actors and the show would be decent, but completely forgettable. I also like that, although Lennie and Ted are older, they’re not completely clueless. Sure, their advanced age is occasionally played for laughs, but they’re not caricatures, ya know? This show won’t change your life or anything, but it’s solid entertainment.
And now… the moment you’ve all been waiting for… the best new show on 2014 is…
#1 Fargo (FX) – It’s not odd to make a TV series out of a movie. After all, M*A*S*H and Friday Night Lights were based on films. But it might seem weird to make a show from this movie… after all, if you wanted to see Fargo, you could just watch the movie, yeah? Well, this wasn’t a “remake” of the movie… it was more of a proto-sequel that heavily borrowed from the atmosphere of the original, Where the film was set in 1987, this show is set in 2006. Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, a bumbling wimp of an insurance salesman (our analogue to car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, William H. Macy’s character in the film). Lester’s life is changed forever when he gets a minor injury and meets hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in a hospital waiting room. Malvo was involved in a car crash… where a terrified naked man jumps out of the trunk of the wrecked car and runs into the cold night. When Lester tells Malvo about a local bully, Sam Hess, Malvo suggests murdering him. Lester thinks Malvo is joking at first, but clearly doesn’t want Hess killed. Meanwhile, the naked man who jumped from Malvo’s car is found frozen to death by local police. This kicks off a chain of events which leads Lester to have multiple run-ins with Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, in a GREAT role). I won’t go into any more detail about the story except to say that it’s big, complex, and is deliciously ridiculous at times, There’s an incredible cast which includes Colin Hanks, Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh, Oliver Platt, It’s Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton, and comedians Key and Peele as FBI agents. This was, hands-down, the best show on TV so far this year. it is a MUST WATCH. You will be rewarded, trust me.
It’s been a bit of an off-year for miniseries, too. While it’s nearly a dead format in the United States, one can normally count on the Brits to give a few good series a year. So far, there’s only been one:
37 Days (BBC) – This miniseries tells the story of the 37 days that led up to World War I. You’re probably saying to yourself… “oh great… a bunch of old honkeys playing war with each other… BOOOOORRRRIIIIINNNGG!”. Well, you’d be wrong. The series tries to compact a whole month of high-level diplomacy into just 3 episodes. It’s incredibly fast-paced, but still has plenty of substance, almost like a Merchant-Ivory film re-cut by John Woo. It’s so much… fun (?) to watch that you’ll almost forget that you’re learning at the same time. It was really well done (as a TV series) and appears to be pretty solid, history-wise as well (before writing the script, the writer and producer put together a 175 page document that “traced every conference, every telephone call, private letter and telegram swirling around Europe” in the lead-up to the war. Gripping, compelling, and above all else, hugely entertaining.
WHERE TV FAILED
Traditionally, I would have a section called “Swing and a Miss” where I’d make a list of a bunch of shows I thought had failed on some level or another, with a paragraph or two about how each one. This year I decided to do something different… a rambling essay about those shows instead.
Let’s see… where do we even begin? You have a lot of similar shows this year: Helix (SyFy), a ridiculous show about a “zombie-type” virus, and the crew sent to an arctic lab to help come up with a cure… which is not at all similar to The Last Ship (TNT), another ridiculous drama about a US Navy vessel sent to Antarctica to retrieve a virus that, unbenownst to the ship’s crew, has killed millions of people. I guess I’d take Last Ship of the two shows, since its production values are higher, Rhona Mitra is hotter, and none of the actors annoys me as much as Helix’s Billy Campbell. Then there’s NBC’s pirate series Crossbones, which is not at all like Black Sails (Starz), both of which feature an outsider memorizing a piece of vital information as a means of keeping ruthless pirates from killing them. I cant tell which of these two shows l like more (or, honestly, dislike less). Black Sails is on cable and has nudity and swearing and lacks commercials… but Crossbones has John Malkovich… with a really odd accent. Maybe it comes down to who has the hottest actresses? Black Sails features smokin’ newcomer Hannah New, while Crossbones has the pretty Claire Foy… who knows? Either show is decent; neither is great.
And then you have ABC’s Resurrection, which is based on a American novel of the same name, and not the awesome French series Les Revenants, which is getting its own US remake courtesy of Lost’s Carlton Cuse. The show was OK, but just couldn’t hold my interest… unlike HBO’s The Leftovers, which is actively trying to make me turn it off. Talk abut unlikable characters! And what is it with HBO shows, anyway? It’s like they’re either brilliant or unwatchable… there isn’t much middle ground there. At least it’s not as bad as CBS’s Under The Dome, which is so silly that TV review sites have started mocking it without mercy: An annoying scientist character shows up and just takes charge like an unwanted activist parent at a PTA meeting? And super-scientist – just a high school teacher, mind you – says that some people will have to be killed so that everyone else can survive… despite the fact that it’s only been two weeks, and until the day before the diner was still serving up its mysterious, never-ending supply of coffee and omelettes? God, that show is terrible, That’s the funny thing about TV, though: Dome is really popular, yet Hostages, a slightly better show about a family held captive so that the heart surgeon mom can kill the president, was regarded by many as “awful”.
As I predicted, Fox’s remake of the awesome Aussie show Rake tanked, and did so badly. The show was far too raunchy for broadcast TV; it might have succeeded on basic or premium cable with a better lead… but we’ll never know. In a huge irony, CBS’s series Intelligence insulted everyone’s intelligence with plots even my 90+ grandmother would find just plain silly… not to mention technologically impossible. Speaking of, Fox brought back Jack Bauer for 24: Live Another Day, yet another installment of the 24 franchise… that was exactly the same as all the other seasons of 24, except this one was only 12 hours long and based in London (where the Feds have free rein, apparently). Only having 12 episodes was actually a pretty good idea, as it made the series much tighter than the last few full seasons. But it was still full of the standard 24 tropes: the magical ability to drive from point A to point B in a fraction of the time it takes in real life, and of course THE MOLE!
Oddly, a lot of British TV left me cold. The Crimson Field (BBC), a series about World War I and The Musketeers (BBC) weren’t bad… just just didn’t interest me enough to keep my attention. Even the second series of Line of Duty (BBC) didn’t seem as good as the first (although in this case, it seems they were trying waaayy too hard to puts twists and turns into the story). And it’s the same with miniseries: Prey (ITV), where John Simm plays a framed cop trying to prove his innocence by finding the crooked cops was good, but completely indistinguishable from any of the other similar series Brit TV airs every year. From There to Here, a BBC miniseries starring Simm’s Life on Mars castmates Philip Glenister and Liz White was… fine, I guess. Nice 90s Manchester soundtrack, but little else to recommend it. Much like the BBC’s The 7.39, which stars David Morrissey as a bored property manager who meets a woman (Sheridan Smith) on the morning train to work. The two start chatting, and… well, you can probably figure out the rest… all of the rest. Not even Olivia Colman could save this one.
Then there were shows I really, really, really tried to like, but just couldn’t. ABC had The Assets, which not only featured Jodie Whittaker’s beautiful “asset”, it was about US spy Aldrich Ames. Sounds perfect, but the execution needed help. Once again, this is a show that would have worked much better on something like FX. There probably aren’t many people out there who like Chloë Sevigny more than I do, I think she’s oddly sexy (yes, really). She seems like a cool person in real life, and she takes interesting roles. But even she couldn’t save Those Who Kill, a crime drama that started on A&E but was bumped to LMN after getting terrible ratings. Funny thing was, I thought it was a decent show, but after it moved to LMN, I noticed that it really was an LMN-quality show. It’s like the show had second or third tier writers who used a “bad guy scenario generator” to make up the plots. And then there’s poor Rachael Taylor, a beautiful Aussie actress that can’t seem to catch a break. She was the lead in last year’s 666 Park Avenue; this year she was the lead in Crisis, an NBC series that seemed like a minor-league version of 24 with the plot focusing on kidnapped children of the nation’s movers and shakers. It was bad.
But there’s hope yet. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain seems like it could be a good show if it ever stops developing characters and gets to the plot. WGN America’s Manhattan had a really good pilot (and the new network’s other series, Salem, while not my cup of tea, got pretty good reviews). FX’s new comedy, You’re the Worst, is hilarious so far, and seems to be what Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 should have been. FX also has Married, a comedy with Nat Faxon and Judy Greer which is amusing, but not nearly as edgy was Worst. Halle Berry’s new show Extant could be interesting… or it might not (personally I can’t stand Goran Visnjic). FX’s series Tyrant started off like a cheap telenovela, but has become something of a guilty pleasure for me (although I STILL want to kill Barry’s family!)
WORST TV MOMENT SO FAR
Under the Dome. It might sound like hyperbole, but it’s the dumbest show that’s ever been on TV ever. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s about a small town which is suddenly surrounded by a clear dome made from some indestructible material. “Magical” events start happening, like hordes of butterflies appearing, and “The Dome” seems to react to what the residents do, bringing disaster when they do bad or evil things, and stopping it when they’ve learned their lesson.
Problem is, the writers are using The Magical Powers of The Dome™ as a crutch for terrible writing. The Dome occasionally sets of huge magnetic waves that can make lawn furniture from miles away stick to the dome, but which leaves handguns, watches, belt buckles and glasses of people standing RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE DOME unmolested. A young girl mysteriously appears from a lake, apparently reanimated from 1988. Through a convoluted series of events, she ends up at her high school and is able to open her locker… because the combination hasn’t changed in 26 years? The town’s diner serves up endless coffee and omelettes… until one of the protagonists – a power hungry high-school science teacher? – decides that there isn’t enough food, and they’re going to have to start killing people off in order to survive (and no, the two events aren’t related – the diner just seems to have an endless supply of food until Hitler teacher shows up, then they run out). And a guy named Dale “Barbie” Barbara was trapped in Chester’s Mill when he came to town to kill a guy… and he’s now sleeping with the man’s wife… who knows full well that Barbie killed her husband??
And I haven’t even scratched the surface of this show’s stupidity. Here’s a review from TV.com (of the July 21 episode, so spoiler alert). Although the linked site has become home of scathing, hilarious reviews of Under The Dome, the sarcastic tenor of the reviews and the ferocity with which people tear apart the show is becoming a “thing” on the Internet. Go check any TV site you want, and while the reviews and message boards might not be as brutal (or funny) as TV.com, they’re all saying the same thing. And lastly… what amuses me the most about this show… is that it’s coming down to a religion vs., science thing… and the religion side actually makes more logical sense than the science side. THAT is all you need to know about the show.
BEST TV MOMENT SO FAR
OK, I’m going to cheat here. In all my other recaps, I’ve used a moment from scripted TV as the best of the year. But you know what? I never made that a hard and fast rule. So this time I’m going with sports, specifically the semifinals of the World Cup.
You know what I’m talking about: Germany’s 7-1 humiliation of host Brazil. Like millions of people – like, hundreds of millions of people – I turned on the game and saw Germany jump out to an early 1-0 lead. No big deal, though, right? Brazil could come back! Even though I was pulling for Germany, I fully expected Brazil to make it a game.
But then “it” happened. And by “it” I of course mean the four minute stretch in which the Germans scored four more goals – three of them within 76 seconds. There was this amazing feeling that I was part of something – myself and the rest of the world watching, stunned.
If you’re not a soccer fan, you can’t really appreciate how big a deal that stretch of time was. Remember the last Super Bowl, when it initially seemed like the Seahawks and the Broncos were evenly matched, and the Seahawks jumped out to a 36-0 lead by the end of the third quarter? Yeah, Imagine if the score was 36-0 midway through the first quarter, and Seattle managed to score three touchdowns in 76 seconds. It’s like THAT, only worse.
It was a huge moment for me, like seeing history made for the first time. I’ve seen “once in a lifetime” things on TV before – Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981, Diana’s funeral in 1997, several space shuttle launches. But those mostly went to plan. The semifinal wasn’t like that at all. Here was the most heralded team in world soccer history, from a country that spent nearly $12 billion to host the games. And it got its ass kicked in the worst possible way. I could imagine people all over the globe – South Korea, Japan, Russia, France, Britain – looking at TV screens and not believing what they were seeing… just like me.