TV in 2013 Roundtable: Biggest Surprises

roundtable

Welcome to the TV in 2013 roundtable. Like last year, I’ve assembled a group of critics, friends, and television lovers to reflect on the year that was. Throughout December, we’ll discuss a variety of TV-related topics, covering the highs, lows, and everything in between. You can find all the entries here.

Cory Barker: Let’s start the next round of discussion. How about biggest surprises, in any direction. What came out of nowhere and slayed you this year, or what just flat-out disappointed you on every level? Was there a show that somehow did both?

Cameron White: I’m not one to talk about disappointments all that much (and I feel 99% sure I know which show is going to come up most in that category ANYWAY) so I’m going to tick the boxes of two shows that came back swinging for the fences in season two.

While I found The Mindy Project‘s first season intermittently enjoyable (and it certainly improved as a unit by the end of that season), I often had this nagging feeling that Mindy Kaling hadn’t figured out everything she wanted to do with the show yet, or how to get all the moving parts working in tandem to crank out some great half-hours of TV. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case in S2. The premiere episode promised immediate conflict with Mindy’s pastor fiancé, and the show has since delivered a series of back-to-back episodes that prove the show’s comedic worth as well as demonstrate the lessons Mindy has learned in turning the show’s voice into a vehicle for story. The season topped off its first half beautifully with a Christmas episode that featured rom-com tropes a-plenty and some Aaliyah dancing for good measure, capped with a heartbreaking final minute that has me wanting more.

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But the bigger surprise of the season has been Revolution. Again, Revolution was a show I found mildly entertaining throughout its first season, though I found myself more disappointed by it due to what I felt was a reservedness I don’t typically associate with Eric Kripke (who, in his five seasons running the WB/CW show he created Supernatural, laid out five successive season finales that were so bonkers that I had no seat left by the end of each one). With the show’s renewal, we learned that Rockne S. O’Bannon (of Cult infamy and Farscape fame) and Ben Edlund (responsible for some of Supernatural‘s all-time best hours) were joining the staff, which prompted some excitement for me as a fan of both Farscape and Edlund’s work. But to say that the second season of Revolution has delivered would be an understatement. Revolution season two is day to season one’s night. I’ve honestly never seen a show turn its creative fortunes around so quickly. Gone are the endless meanderings across the country and the meaningless thematic chatter reminiscent of the worst Lost copycats. In its place is a dynamic fireworks display of character and setting the likes of which was promised in pieces in season one, but never fully delivered. All of these people now know what they want and have some plan of getting that, but with a new antagonist etching its claws into everyone’s lives, things are no longer as simple and clear-cut as they were before the events at (movie trailer voice) THE TOWER. Last year, I was cautious about fully embracing Revolution and was perfectly okay with letting the show pile up on my DVR. This year, I’m 100% on board and eagerly flipping to the next episode to see how things could possibly get any more bat-shit insane. MORE PLEASE!

Andrew Daar: I was all set to talk about my disappointment with The Legend of Korra, but I have a piece coming out soon that is going to be devoted to that, and figured I should talk about something else here. So instead, I’ll talk about how much I loved season three of Game of Thrones. At first, this might not seem like something that would come from “out of nowhere,” because the first season was so good. The reason I’m listing it is because (1) I felt that season two was a bit weak and I wasn’t sure if/how they were going to recover, and (2) I’ve read the A Song of Ice and Fire books, so I didn’t think the show could surprise me to much. Which was a silly thing to surmise because the show often does well when it deviates from its source material (see: Tywin and Arya together at Harrenhal in season two).

This season was brimming with greatness, both original and adapted. Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech blew me away, mainly because of how well it reflected both his character and how most people in Westeros act, even if they don’t realize it. But the speech also served to remind us that no one is safe, not even characters wholly original to the series whose role has been “audience surrogate” and “exposition enabler.” Speaking of “no one being safe,” the Red Wedding episode was a veritable event, with readers making reaction videos of their friends’ screams and tears and people angrily yelling that they’d never watch again… only to eagerly tune in the next week. And in a much quieter moment, this season gave us Jaime’s backstory, in which he revealed why he killed King Aerys, the man whose life it was his job to protect. We did not learn of his story via flashback. Instead, Jaime sat in a hot tub and told the story to Brienne. This should have been boring, as it seemingly violates the core storytelling rule: show, don’t tell. Instead, watching how much pain this memory brings Jaime, to see how much it weighs on him that he is hated and dismissed for doing the right thing is what made the scene fantastic.

Les Chappell: In the realm of pleasant surprises this year, it’s hard to think of another show that turned out to be as unexpectedly good as Hannibal. All of my expectations were low for this show, for plenty of valid reasons: It was an adaptation of a property that’s already been dragged out past its prime in sequel form, it’s on a network meaning it can’t go as far as the subject matter, and that network happens to be NBC, where ill-conceived remakes and adaptations roam like restless ghosts. Only the presence of Bryan Fuller, one of my all-time favorite showrunners, was enough to keep me interested, even though I didn’t see how the aesthetic of Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies was going to match up with the writing of Thomas Harris.

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And I have never been so happy to be wrong. Hannibal was one of the best shows of 2013 for me and the best network drama (edging out Scandal by a narrow margin). It was the other side of Bryan Fuller’s coin, his gift for whimsy and fascination with death inverted into a gorgeously macabre affair. Mads Mikkelsen gave us a completely different version of Dr. Lecter, a monster hidden under the veneer of an aloof dandy, while Will Graham and Jack Crawford were more sympathetic and nuanced than they’ve been in any other version. The visuals brought to life by David Slade and fellow directors were gorgeously macabre–the bodies given angel wings of skin, the living mushroom garden, and the horrific specter of the black wendigo that haunted the entire season. And it also managed to be a show with a compelling narrative threaded through the entire 13 episodes, as Hannibal’s fascination with Will Graham led him to gradually guide the other man into insanity, for no other reason than one chilling sentence: “I wanted to see what would happen.” NBC miraculously renewed the show in the face of terrible ratings, and there’s few other programs I’m anticipating the return of as much in 2014. 

In terms of unpleasant surprises? This was a fantastic year of television without question, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some clunkers. When we convened last year I talked about looking forward to House of Cards and Ray Donovan, and I was sorely disappointed by both. House of Cards started out strong with David Fincher’s direction and the strong cast behind Kevin Spacey, but the writing failed that show at every turn, to the point that I was dubbing it “Subplots I Don’t Care About Theater” every time I started a new episode. Ray Donovan was sleek but soulless, a lot of characters who had stock motivations and couldn’t keep my attention for more than two episodes. And the less said about Low Winter Sun the better—it soured everyone immediately when AMC used it to hold the Breaking Bad audience hostage, and things only got worse from here. We may be in an era where there are more great dramas than ever before, and these three were reminders that they can’t all be winners.

Andrew Daar: Frig, I just remembered that Girls‘ “Hands and Knees” aired this year.  Talk about knocking you on your ass.

Cameron White: That’s the downside of the premium cable scheduling system—by the time we get to December, we’ve forgotten everything that aired in January. Like, fucking Spartacus: War of the Damned was this year. I FORGOT ABOUT THAT. YOU GUYS SPARTACUS IS SO GOOD AND “VICTORY” IS SUCH A GODDAMN MAGNIFICENT PIECE OF TELEVISION AND I FORGOT.

Emma Fraser: Like Les, I was very pleasantly surprised with how incredible Hannibal turned out to be. The show that gave me the biggest surprise is another adaptation and that’s Sleepy Hollow. When the trailer was released at the upfronts in May, like many I thought it looked like the most ridiculous concept and one that would end up being fun to watch because it is so terrible. Cut to now and it is ridiculous, but ridiculously good and it’s 13-episode order means that it can power through plot and still hold it all together. If you’d said this to me back in May, I would have never believed it. A lot of the success of the show can be laid at the feet of co-leads Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison who are the emotional core; they play the crazy scenarios with all sincerity and yet they are allowed to acknowledge how bonkers it all is through humor. The chemistry is excellent and it’s not surprising to see Tumblr full of gif sets and shipper proclamations. Along with other newbie show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s putting many others to shame with how diverse the cast is and it’s sad that in 2013 this is something that isn’t the norm. 

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The other surprise this year comes courtesy of a show with a terrible title and that’s Trophy Wife. Based on the promo photo and title I would have probably given it a miss, the cast includes actors I really like but as we have discussed there is just too much to watch and sometimes you need more of a push than that. This was a case where reviews gave me the impetus to give it a go, I’m so glad I did because it is such a wonderfully charming sitcom and the large cast works extremely well off each other. 

Greg Boyd: My pick for a positive surprise (in addition to Awkward., but I already talked about that back when we were looking at the 2012-13 season) would have to be Justified. I’ve always really, really liked the show, and the back half of season two seemed like a sign that it was getting ready to make the leap from very good to great. Then season three happened. It’s not that this season was bad, but convoluted plotting and a general feeling of being just a tad overstuffed brought the series back down to TV’s second tier. So while I was looking forward to season four, I really wasn’t expecting it to blow me away, which is what it proceeded to do. Justified seasons (even season two) tend to start a bit slow, but this one really brought its A game from the start. And when it kicked things up a gear during the home stretch, its spot in my top five for the year was all but secured.

I had to think for a bit to come up with that pick. Choosing a disappointment, however, was easy: The Bridge. FX had been on such a winning streak, and this one started really well, with a compelling cast of characters and superb cinematography. There were warning signs about the central case early on, but I chose to ignore them due to all the good things happening around it: chief among them the two lead performances by Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir. Episode six, “ID”, was its finest hour, featuring some remarkable scenes involving Sonya’s ongoing attempts to cope with the murder of her sister. It was at that point that I thought The Bridge could really become something special. Then, two episodes later, it all went off a cliff, with the revelation of who was committing the murders. And when I say off a cliff, I mean straight down, at terminal velocity. I’m sure there was worse TV this year, but the story arc that followed this tremendously contrived reveal was just incredibly bad, with the killer’s elaborate plot growing more and more dull, preposterous, and infuriating with each passing episode.

It’s possible the show may figure things out in season two. The two hours that closed the season—which took place after this asinine storyline had concluded—both had a lot of good stuff in them. But the season’s final scene left me incredibly wary. If they continue down that path, I don’t have much hope for The Bridge‘s future. They can’t reasonably pull a Friday Night Lights and ignore what happened completely, due to the emotional consequences it’s had on the characters. But here’s hoping they decide between seasons to leave everything but those emotional consequences in the past. We’ll see. But in the meantime, it’s hard to see this as anything other than massive letdown from a network with an otherwise tremendous recent track record. 

Heather McLendon: As Emma already highlighted my top two surprises of the year (seriously, you guys, Sleepy Hollow and Trophy Wife…so unexpectedly good) I’m going to veer a little on this one. The Good Wife has been a consistently strong series, and after its powerhouse season four finale in the spring, I was expecting tremendous things from Robert & Michelle King & Co. The Good Wife took those expectations and soared them leagues higher than I could have anticipated. We’ve all had favorite shows disappoint us, and we’ve all seen shows flounder or grow mediocre as they lengthen into later seasons .The Good Wife is still proving its muscle and willingness to take risk in its fifth season. “Hitting the Fan” may be one of the best episodes I’ve seen all year. It’s been fabulous to see all the newcomers start watching the show because of this season’s buzz. For a middle-aged series to continue to surprise, reinvent itself, gain new viewers and take risk has been a better-than-expected delight of 2013.

On the disappointment side of things, two shows are tied: Doctor Who and Scandal. I’ve been one of those fans that, despite the show’s string of missteps, have loyally stuck by Doctor Who. But this past year’s appalling underuse of Jenna-Louise Coleman and the utter lack of imagination and risk in casting the next Doctor have led me to abandon the show. I’ll return once they get a new showrunner; Moffatt is becoming quite toxic with regard to the quality and enjoyment of DW. Scandal has seemed to spiral into an identity crisis of sorts. When it had ridiculous crazypants plots, it was enjoyable because, for all the absurdity, it still rooted itself in its character ensemble and excellent writing. This season has had several instances of easy cop-outs (the revelation of Mellie’s rape) and plot directions that stretch the bounds of realism, even for Scandal (Quinn and Charlie’s tryst). Either of these things could have worked to the benefit of the show, but Scandal is burning too fast through material. Whereas the first two seasons aptly wove metanarratives in and amongst more individualized “scandals,” this season has almost exclusively focused on B613 and Olivia / Daddy Pope / Risen-From-The-Dead Mom. It’s not as exquisite as it once was, and I, for one, am about to start calling this show Scandalias. 

Andrew Rabin: My disappointment and surprise come from the same place. The first three Fox seasons of Arrested Development are on my sitcom Mount Rushmore. Depending on my mood on a given day it may be my favorite comedy, and easily the show I find funniest. When the news of the Netflix-produced fourth season I was excited, albeit cautiously optimistic. I timed my Netflix free trial perfectly to watch the new episodes prior to getting too deep into bar exam study. I set a pace for my self of three episodes a night. As the drop date approached, I ran through several questions in my head. Would the magic be back all these years later? Did the cast still have the same chemistry? Did Mitch Hurwitz still have the same ideas? What has Alia Shawkat been up to? (FYI, if you want some not disappointing Alia Shawkat entertainment from 2013, go see The To-Do List.)

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The answers were a resounding “I don’t know.” Arrested Development season four was not the same show as seasons one through three. Characters barely interacted with each other. Episodes were overlong, with some reaching past 40 minutes. Parades of guest stars, both new and from the original series, stole screen time from the Bluths. Chris Diamantopoulos decided ruining the final season of The Office was not enough, and showed up here too. The new season of Arrested Development was not bad, it had moments and even episodes that lived up to the original series, but it also was disappointing when compared to the series as a whole.

But another thing was popping up on the Netflix front page each time I signed on to watch Arrested Development. The site was running ads for its new show, an original series about a group of female prisoners starring the woman from that Nicholas Sparks movie where Robin Sparkles is a ghost (it’s possible these were actually two different Nicholas Sparks movies) and the guy from American Pie.

It would be a few months until I actually got to watch Orange is the New Black, but after hearing buzz about how good it was (and regaining my free time and Netflix access), I started watching. I found the first episode to be alright, but waited a few days to watch again. I watched a couple more episodes and enjoyed them a bit more. And then, after starting the fourth episode one afternoon, I finished the series that same night. I became totally hooked on the show. The writing, the acting, the characters, the relationships, everything. I was angry there was no more; I started watching Weeds for the first time, hoping the common creator would mean I’d love that show as much. When my sister decided she wanted to watch OITNB, I rewatched all the episodes with her. I have not written my yearly top ten list yet, but I have no doubt a Netflix original will be taking the top spot. Just not the one I would have predicted.

Whitney McIntosh: Many have already mentioned how nice a surprise Sleepy Hollow and OITNB have been over the last few months, and my opinions on those two shows mostly echo everyone else’s. I binged Orange is the New Black in three days, watching the first 3 episodes over two days and then finishing the entire thing in what amounted to an almost all-nighter because I was enjoying it so much. Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison of Sleepy Hollow have been incredible opposite each other during moments of comedy or drama, which the show switches between effortlessly in the blink of an eye. 

My main surprise from this season is broader than one show specifically, but rather the entire fall slate that the networks rolled out. We’ve come to expect pay cable to have solid new shows, therefore new must-watch hours like Masters of Sex aren’t really a surprise, but in recent years there have been more misses than hits for the networks especially as viewership falls across the board. Coming in to this season, I didn’t see any change from the past few years. Sure, there were shows I was intrigued by after seeing their sizzle reels during upfronts in the spring, but nothing that I thought would be a weekly staple. Instead, there are multiple new shows that make up a strong batch of fall television. 

Besides Sleepy Hollow, which is by far the best new show of the fall, there is the hilarious hour block of The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife on ABC, The Crazy Ones on CBS, The Blacklist on NBC, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine on FOX. Both Trophy Wife and The Goldbergs looked so far out of my interest that only their headlining stars pulled me in, but right now they are so clearly tied for first in the best new comedy race. Tied for second in my eyes are The Crazy Ones and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both of which I was only really interested in for the team behind the scenes and a few select players in front of the camera (Amanda Setton and James Wolk on TCO, Andre Braugher and Chelsea Peretti for B99). It’s unfortunate The Crazy Ones has been written off either because of Robin Williams’ presence or CBS’ reputation for cheap comedy, as it is definitely the most out-of-their-comfort-zone comedy CBS has put on the air in a long time with a solid ensemble. The Blacklist is easily the weakest of these shows, but its ratings pulled NBC out of its free fall, at least slightly, and James Spader doing his best Creepy James Spader impression has kept the audience around with a solid performance. 

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But amidst all of these pleasant surprises, there had to be a sore spot. For me, my disappointment is an easy choice, and one that is made even more frustrating because of how easy it would be to fix its myriad problems. S.H.I.E.L.D was never going to be The Avengers on the small screen, which was unavoidable from the start. I never expected it to be. I was instead prepared for something along the lines of Law & Order: Super Powers, which would require taking a charismatic cast and throwing them into a different situation every week with the future possibility of a big bad to bother them over a longer arc. Instead we got a group of incredibly bland and wooden actors (with the exception of the always reliable and electric Clark Gregg) unable to do any service to what is already iffy writing, and I’m being kind. I bailed after my standard three-episode trial period I grant new shows and that turned out to be two episodes too long. I couldn’t even tell you what happened because nothing really did. The show’s worst sin is that it is incredibly boring, made even worse due to the fact that even the presence of Joss Whedon as a producer and the usually dependable Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen monitoring the day to day. What I was hoping was going to be an exciting and creative jaunt with the people behind the heroes turned out to be a waste of time that is now hemorrhaging viewers, and if it wasn’t a multi-million dollar project based on a cash cow property owned by ABC’s parent company, it would have been pulled from the schedule a month ago. Oh, to think of what could have been had this been executed properly.

Mark Waller: I’ll go a different route, entirely out of the scripted or even unscripted realms of television and get into the launch of the latest network to go against the four-letter sports behemoth, ESPN. Fox Sports 1 debuted in August 2013 to the puzzlement of me and many others. (Especially when they added Randy Moss to their stable of NFL commentators, as his time as a Minnesota Viking prepare me for his future career as a talking head.) Regardless, when word came out that FS1 would be a more tolerable, less annoying version of ESPN, I was very skeptical. 

However, their answer to SportsCenter, the generically titled Fox Sports Live, is indeed a refreshing, tolerable, and oftentimes hilarious alternative. 90% of that is due to the banter between FS1 sportscasters Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, the Canadian imports from Canada’s answer to SportsCenter titled, charmingly, SportsCentre. Onrait and O’Toole lend the appropriate level of gravitas to the day’s sports news, which means they are oftentimes irreverent and sarcastic and don’t yell at the viewers like many of the ESPN shock jocks are wont to do. And in fact, their style of humor also gets to the truth of buzzworthy sports news quicker and more effectively than 5,000 word diatribes by columnists can ever get to. Take, for instance, their commentary on the Mike Shanahan-Robert Griffin III saga. (Plus, they actually show hockey highlights!)

FSL also has a terrific “talking head” segment hosted by the quick-witted and capable Charissa Thompson, and often moderated by a diverse group of athletes, oftentimes Donovan McNabb, Andy Roddick, and Gary Payton. I never would have guessed that I would enjoy listening to the three of those athletes talk about things like NASCAR together, but the way Thompson orchestrates these conversations is entertaining. And, to date, they have not beat a single story to death the way ESPN tends to do.

I’m hopeful that FSL gains some steam and notoriety and that we can all leave SportsCenter behind entirely. 

Kerensa Cadenas: One of the biggest disappointments to me so this year was definitely S.H.I.E.L.D. It was a show I was highly anticipating because of Whedon and loving that world but I barely made it through the pilot and never looked back, which makes me really sad. However, two shows that I ended up really loving were pretty surprising to me, one much more than the other. 

I’ve completely fallen for Trophy Wife, as Emma said previously, has a super unfortunate title. I’ve always been a fan of Sarah Haskins, a creator of the show, who did the Target Women videos for Current TV. She’s super funny, smart, and feminist, so I was pretty confident in her work. However, the title was off-putting and while I’ve seen Malin Ackerman in some things I liked, I wasn’t sure if she could carry a show. How wrong was I?! Ackerman is hilarious and the ensemble cast has gelled so well already it feels like a show I’ve been watching for years. I’m so glad someone has found a place to use the hilarious Michaela Watkins to her potential. And the kids! Bert! Albert Tsai is adorable and has great comedic timing. The show is just so funny, sweet and used Ace of Base’s “The Sign” as a plot point. There’s no complaining about that. 

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In recent years, I haven’t watched as much reality television as I used to. This is mostly because I don’t have cable regularly so I lack access to Bravo (RIP Gallery Girls). However, this Fall, I got hugely emotionally invested in Masterchef Junior. I’ve never watched any of Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows but he always seemed scary to me, so I never watched. After seeing some talk on Twitter, I was bored and decided to give it a shot. I’m a big fan of cooking shows, so to see these super talented kids from 8-13 years old blow many chefs I’ve watched on Top Chef out of the water was beyond impressive and instantly compelling. I also got super attached to many of the kids–Sarah’s feminist rants, Jack’s Hawaiian shirts, Alexander’s impressive technique. I was also so excited to see how great Gordon Ramsay was with the kids. To me, he seemed like he was always perpetually yelling at people, but he gave these kids such kind yet constructive feedback and he was fun! Of course I’m a sucker for a Real Housewife and a glass of wine in the face, but truly joyful reality television, I think rarely exists in the reality TV landscape (exception: RuPaul’s Drag Race) so when it does come around it’s such a delight to watch because I think it shows some of the unrealized potential that reality television holds.

Wesley Ambrecht: For all of our talk about how great TV is nowadays, I was disappointed by a lot of shows in 2013. The X Factor continues to be an absolute hot mess of a show saved only by the talents of Alex and SierraThe Vampire Diaries has all but lost my interest. The tail end of S8 of How I Met Your Mother soured me on a show I had once loved. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been stunningly mediocre. And, all of this is to say nothing of Bates Motel, which was my most anticipated show of 2013, and let me down hard.

Still, there have been two real surprises for me. The first is Sundance Channel’s Rectify. If we were doing a Best of 2013 category, I would likely choose Rectify, which is a gorgeous meditation on guilt, religion and family. Few shows are as thematically dense and Aden Young just about bowled me over with his performance. Seriously, if you’ve yet to watch this show, get to it over the holiday break. My second positive surprise is The Originals. While I wasn’t initially sold on the concept of spinning off The Vampire Diaries’ Klaus, a character who had worn out his welcome, the resulting series has been aces. Morgan has always been terrific in the role, but taking the Klaus away from Mystic Falls has allowed him to add shades to the vamp we had previously not seen. Add that, the dark stories they’ve been telling, and ample amounts of Phoebe Tonkin and you have me hook, line, and sinker.

Cory Barker: Can one show be both a pleasant surprise and a surprising disappointment? If so, it has to be New Girl, which turned in one of the weirdest years I can recall in 2013. The second half of season two saw the show at its creative apex, thanks primarily to the talents of Jake Johnson. His Nick Miller grew into one of the weirdest and most charming characters in comedy and the show smartly allowed us to fall in love with Nick just as Jess did. Seriously, look back at the first four episodes of New Girl in 2013: “Cabin,” “A Father’s Love,” “Pepperwood,” and “Cooler.” That’s a heck of a quartet, topped off by that Internet-melting kiss at the end of “Cooler.” The show had another solid run later in the spring once Nick and Jess started to figure it out with “Quick Hardening Caulk,” “Chicago,” and “First Date.”

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But the first half of season three this fall? Ew. Nope. New Girl has done an admirable job of exploring what happens when two roommates get together and the fallout that can occur, but the timing has been off, the stories pretty lame, and the performances just generally louder, which is never a good sign. The reintroduction of Damon Wayans Jr.’s Coach was an inspired idea, but one that as of yet, hasn’t worked. It’s probably not a good idea to introduce another main character when you barely have a handle on anyone outside of the lead duo. Schmidt’s been floundering for a while, Cece too, and god bless his heart, but Winston is little more than a cipher for the writers’ crazy ideas of the week. I don’t think Nick and Jess are New Girl’s problem, but breaking them up might give the story the shot in the arm it needs to improve in 2014. 

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