Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 in Review: Television

This is part five in a series reviewing 2014. Previous entries include those on books, food, movies, and music.

2014 was a crappy year for network television, but living as we do in an age when almost every TV show ever made is available at any time to be watched on thousands of devices that aren’t even televisions, it hardly matters. There is no longer a good excuse for not devoting some of your time to quality television. Melanie and I did our part. Here are the hits and misses along the way from our 2014 television journey.

Fox's Mulaney proved a crappy piece of crap.
I’ll start with the misses so we can end on a high note—and yes, there were misses aplenty. I think this is the first year in recent memory when I didn’t become attached to any new network television programs. A couple were okay (which I’ll discuss below), but some were downright terrible. I could only tolerate one episode of Mulaney, a show I watched with some hope due to the talent involved. Well, that might be overstating things just a bit, but stars John Mulaney and Nasim Pedrad both had connections to Saturday Night Live that buoyed my interest. Pedrad was a solid performer on SNL while Mulaney was a writer. As an actor, Mulaney proved absolutely terrible, which is a key reason that Mulaney the show just was not watchable. Acting was not the problem with Selfie, an ABC sitcom that has thankfully been canceled. Don’t get me wrong, the acting wasn’t good, it’s just that the characters themselves were so unappealing. Karen Gillan starred as a self-obsessed woman who enlists the help of a marketing man (played by John Cho) to become more likable. Eh, that’s sort of an inadequate description, but the thought of devoting more of my time to the show sickens me. Let’s move on.

Neither Here Nor There
A lot of shows were fairly middle of the road. They didn’t garner enough interest to keep us watching. Red Band Society is among the best shows that we didn’t stick with. It’s a drama about critically ill children who live in a hospital. It, too, has been canceled, but we didn’t even finish the initial run. It’s good enough that I haven’t completely disregarded the idea of watching the remaining episodes if ever I find myself with a lot of time on my hands and nothing better to do—which is highly improbable. A to Z is another show we didn’t keep up with, although we also haven’t deleted it from our Hulu queue just yet. The gimmick of this sitcom is that it’s supposed to chronicle the two leads’ entire relationship over the course of the series. You don’t know if they end up together or apart at the end, which supposedly is meant to keep you in suspense. But it’s not suspenseful enough, I guess, because A to Z is yet another show that has already been canceled. For me, the problem is that the main characters aren’t fleshed out enough for us to give a rat’s ass as to whether or not they end up together.

Some of the shows we tried are rather popular but failed to win us over. We watched a few episodes of House and were adequately entertained, but Melanie and I just don’t much care for TV shows that are so darn … well, episodic. (Ironic, right?) If the main story doesn’t continue from episode to episode, we lose interest, and that was the case with House. Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, definitely has a continuing storyline, but after having it on my must-see list for years, it didn’t draw me in. It’s baffling, really. Steve Buscemi? Check. Mafia storyline? Check. Produced by HBO? Check. I don’t know why I didn’t get into it enough to continue, but maybe I’ll check it out again someday.

Melanie and I did watch the entire series The Riches, about a con-artist vagabond family who take over a classy suburban house when the legal owners (who have not yet moved in or met their neighbors) die unexpectedly. The series lasted only 20 episodes and was so-so. In the role of the main character, Eddie Izzard struggled with his American accent, which was both strange and bothersome. He was one of the show’s writers and executive producers, but he wasn’t ideal for the part, in my opinion.

And finally, Melanie and I actually have stuck with Marry Me, a new sitcom starring Casey Wilson and Ken Marino. The first episode was so much better than any other show to debut on the Fall TV schedule, but it has quickly become mediocre. The fact that we’ve stuck with it thus far isn’t saying a lot. I’m a fan of Marino, which is one reason I wanted to watch it, but even he seems to be doing very little here.

The Hits
I’ll start with some soft hits, by which I mean shows that I am giving only a tentative thumbs-up. Two political cable shows fall into this category, one serious and one comedic. The Newsroom is a critically-acclaimed drama about a controversial anchorperson, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), whose news program strives to be both no-holds-barred and non-biased. It’s a quality show, but it’s rather dry. Each hour-long episode feels very drawn out. The news stories covered in the show are actual historical events, but while this might prove educational, it’s not exactly exciting. There’s a reason nightly news programs don’t show reruns.

If you like humor with your politics, you might try Veep. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, the ambitious but ever-exasperated Vice President of the United States. Based on that description alone, you will probably imagine something a lot more lighthearted than Veep actually is. It’s rather acerbic in tone, with a documentary-like cadence and filming style that more closely approximates The Office than Seinfeld, and the humor is more naturalistic than slapstick. Admittedly, I sometimes find the show too dry and/or too caustic. Selina is not a likable character—which, of course, she isn’t meant to be—but neither are her colleagues. It makes it hard to get super excited about watching.

When it comes to the more surefire winners, we don’t escape Washington D.C. just yet. Netflix’s original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as a morally bankrupt politician, is very gripping. Meanwhile, The Americans, starring Keri Russell and Philip Jennings as Russian spies posing as a typical 1980s American family, is my very favorite television discovery of 2014, at least when it comes to shows that are still in production.

Based on our 2014 TV-watching, you’d think Melanie and I really like politics. That isn’t true. We largely eschew straight-up political drama, even when it’s of high quality (The Newsroom), we tolerate politics when the real purpose is situational comedy (Veep), and we embrace thrillers even when they are political (House of Cards, The Americans). In fact, thrillers make up a good chunk of the shows I would unhesitatingly endorse. In 2014, Melanie and I watched all eight seasons of Dexter, about a serial killer who works as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. We never got through the pilot episode when we first tried this show a couple of years earlier, but after much word-of-mouth endorsement, we decided to brave it again. We are glad we did. While the debut episode starts off very harsh and disturbingly, and while the entire show contains a fair amount of gore, it is an absorbing show. It helps immensely that Dexter, the title character, is a serial killer who preys on violent criminals. That leaves the door open for some sympathy, and at times for Dexter to be a genuine anti-hero.

Another thriller I very much enjoyed is Fargo, based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film but following a completely original storyline. 30 minutes into the debut episode, I was leery and somewhat bored. The quirkiness of the movie felt gimmicky and forced when translated to the small screen, in large part because the acting just couldn’t compare. But all of that changed by the end of the first episode, when things got so downright intense that I couldn’t wait to see more. Fargo is going to be one of those miniseries-type TV shows where each season features a completely new set of characters (à la American Horror Story). That means the season 1 storyline plays out in its entirety by episode 10. It’s a briskly paced show, but persistently riveting after those initial 30 minutes.

True Detective is another miniseries-type thriller. Season one features Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two homicide detectives on the trail of, what else, a serial killer. This show has been wildly applauded by critics and viewers alike. I wasn’t nearly as smitten with it as they were, but it is a very good show. Despite what my viewing habits suggest, I don’t like to watch things that get too dark. True Detective was almost too gritty for my tastes, and the occult elements certainly didn’t help matters.

And finally, switching gears entirely, we watched the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Masters of Sex is based on the real-life sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Michael Sheen, who plays Dr. Masters, is superb, per usual. Much to my surprise, Lizzy Caplan—whom I previously associated with lowbrow comedies such as Hot Tub Time Machine and TV’s Party Down—does a terrific job in the role of secretary turned research assistant, Johnson. It’s a shame that American culture compels me to explain that a drama revolving around sex research can appeal to more than prurient interests. Masters of Sex is character driven and features a great deal of social commentary. Looking back on what has made us uncomfortable in the past, and continues to make us uncomfortable today, can be a very eye-opening experience.

That’s it for TV. I’m surprised how boring it was to write about it. It’s probably not much more entertaining to read it. The good news is, you’re done.  As am I.

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