Greetings! It’s been a while. This time last year in fact. In any event, I’ve convened some of my friends to work our way through the year that was in television. I’ll be posting a few of these conversations the rest of the month, so stay on the lookout for more. Up first, we discuss the best new shows of the year.
Cory Barker: Welcome to the TV in 2014 Roundtable everyone! We’re going to kick things off with a chat about the best new shows of the year—of which there are a slew of great options to choose from. Which newbie grabbed you the most this year?
Greg Boyd: God, there are so many good ones. I’m looking at my list of the top 10 overall programs of the year, and nearly half of it consists of new shows, all of which I’m sure will come up at some point. However, I would like to very briefly mention MTV’s Faking It, since I doubt anyone else will. It’s not one of the very best comedies on TV right now, but after a bad pilot (and despite a dubious initial premise), it’s turned into quite a marvelous show. Deserves more attention than it’s gotten. Especially Rita Volk’s performance.
That said, my answer to this question is the same as it’s been since the middle of this year, when I finally caught up with Broad City. There were lots of shows this year that made me laugh a ton, but starting with the second episode (the pilot is good, but not quite as strong as what follows), this one ascended to levels of hilarity that, for me, rival any comedy that has ever aired. I’m totally serious. There’s a lengthy stretch of that second episode—basically everything from the scene in the dentist’s office onwards—that had me in tears. Tears. I can count the number of TV comedies that have affected me on that level on one hand, and there are five or six episodes from this first season that I’d argue are as funny as anything that’s been seen on TV since Fawlty Towers. (Heck, “Destination: Wedding” is every bit the equal of “The Germans.”) I fell in love with many new shows in 2014, but I was in awe of this one.
Orrin Konheim: Like Greg, it’s looking like half of my top 12 list will be new shows which isn’t to say that I tend to only seek out the new, but I can more easily test the waters with something in its first season and that has exposed me to a lot of material this year including a number of pleasant surprises such as Silicon Valley, A to Z, Selfie (ABC), Manhattan, The Knick, Bojack Horseman and the admittedly cheesy Crossbones.
For me, however, the best was Review. Starring straight-man extraordinaire Andy Daly, the premise posits the show as a distant cousin of Truman Show in the way that presenting a man’s life choices being driven entirely by the demands of a media audience leads to some very deep satire. In this case, Daly is TV show host Forrest MacNeil who will review any life experience anyone tells him to without question. The cleverest thing about Review is how it drops clues towards the genesis of this strange show-within-a-show (and the larger storyline about a somewhat overeager broadcaster being manipulated by a ruthless producer) while challenging the viewer to decipher these clues. It’s not until a very cathartic season finale that some of these blanks were filled and that really enabled the show to go out with a bang.
Josh Spiegel: Out of the many options, I’m sticking with two that weren’t just surprising successes, but hilarious ones: Review from Comedy Central and Jane the Virgin from the CW. The former is an excellent distillation of the brilliance of improv performer and actor Andy Daly. Anyone who’s listened to Daly on podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang knows his propensity for deeply wounded, pathetic, and painfully funny characters like an Irish storyteller, a failed trainer to the stars, and more. But with Review, he proved to be equally hilarious as an ostensible straight man whose stubborn determination to review any life experience suggested to him on social media or via videotaped messages sends him into a seemingly unending downward spiral. There were many truly brilliant moments in the show’s first season—”There all is aching” is my favorite—but I’m curious to see what Daly and his crew have in store for the second season.
Jane the Virgin, on the other hand, is barely a third of the way through its first season, but has quickly established itself as a savvy and shrewd parody/sincere embrace of telenovela storytelling. Its premise is goofy on its face—the title character is accidentally impregnated via artificial insemination, and the father is an old crush of hers who happens to run the hotel where she works, and the connections keep on coming—but the execution is bright, funny, honest, and just self-aware enough. From Gina Rodriguez’s delightful lead performance to the voiceover narration, utilized as well as anything since Ron Howard on Arrested Development, Jane the Virgin is, to date, a joyful experience that’s unequaled on TV.
Andrew Daar: I think I’ve seen more new shows this year than I have in the previous few years, and yet I still think I am unprepared to answer this question. Of what I have seen, I like Black-ish a lot, but it still has room to grow. BoJack Horseman is wonderful, and The Flash is fun but a little on the cheesy side for me. But I think the show I think deserves the title of Best New Series is USA’s Benched. Created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones, and starring Eliza Coupe, Benched is a legal comedy about employees in the Los Angeles County public defender’s office. Coupe’s Nina is a former corporate attorney who relocates to public defense work after getting passed over for partner. In her old world, she was paid big money to make deals on her clients’ behalf, which meant that she almost never saw a courtroom. Now, her office can barely afford office supplies and she is expected to be in court to argue cases she receives five minutes prior to court call.
While a few of Nina’s coworkers come off as incompetent lawyers who probably couldn’t get a job anywhere else, most of the characters are portrayed as good lawyers who perform a thankless job for people written off by society. As Emily L. Stephens of The A.V. Club notes, the villain of the series is the broken system that is our criminal justice system. The recurring district attorney character isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, he’s a product of the system that he’s a part of. He charges defendants too harshly, as a way to encourage plea deals, but the public defenders know that all DAs do this and that it’s just part of the way things are done. When Nina refuses to take a plea deal, a judge chastises her for wasting taxpayer money and clogging up the court system. If all of this sounds depressing, well, it kind of is. But Benched is also screamingly funny, and in the course of about six episodes, has already nailed the ability to turn from comedy to tragedy on a dime.
Stefania Marghitu: I still have so much to catch up on, but at the same time I’ve re-watched every episode of Broad City 2-3 times already. I just want to hang out with these women. There’s an unpretentious millennial consciousness that they both have that is rare to convey without seeming too self-absorbed or unaware, and it makes sense that the grounded and hilarious Amy Poehler is Abbi and Illana’s mentor of sorts. Its UK counterpart Drifters (premiered in October 2013) is also hilarious, by the way. Also, I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love Broad City yet. Lots of dude love. Parts of the show, like their shabby apartments and grimey metro rides, are so true to life, while some of the most absurd moments are both surreal and maybe something that happened to them in a stranger than fiction sort of way.
Fargo achieved something really brilliant about narrative and aesthetics in TV that blew me away. I’m also just genuinely excited about the discourse around this fall’s Blackish and How To Get Away With Murder, two shows that I’ve been watching with anticipated joy every week. The same goes for Jane the Virgin, as someone who has watched her fair share of telenovelas and the telenovela remakes such as Ugly Betty.
Transparent doesn’t seem to be getting its due, maybe because of when it came out, but Jill Soloway’s Amazon series is a standout for everyone involved: Soloway herself, Jeffrey Tambor, Gabby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, Judith Light, the list goes on. MELORA HARDIN (JAN FROM THE OFFICE) AS TAMMY, HELLO!!! Jason Mantzoukas cameo, too. As a recent Los Angeles transplant, seeing a show that is very L.A. in the same way Broad City is very New York, without just being set in LA, is great.
A to Z was the show that surprised me the most, and it even made me want to watch after the meet-cute pilot. Love that it did a cheeky shout out to the Bechdel Test too.
I’m a big fan of Teyonah Parris (Dawn on Mad Men) so I have also been watching the razor sharp Survivor’s Remorse on Starz. Speaking of the unexpected premium cable channel to do more original programming!
Outlander is still on my list of things I know I need to watch and will love. I’ve been wavering on this one due to some boring middle episodes but Sarah Treem’s The Affair on Showtime is continuing to surprise me with its narrative complexity of an affair unfolding from the perspective of the man and the woman. That is, the first 30 minutes shows Noah (played by Dominc West) and his interpretation and re-telling, then by Alison (fellow Brit Ruth Wilson and of the Idris Elba-led series Luther) (party told to a detective, I know, Treme didn’t’ know about True Detective when they were filming!) and then partly as the detective and characters rehash the past surrounding a murder investigation. Everything from what Alison is wearing to what the characters say to each other is so skewed based on the man/woman’s recollection, and those themes around trauma and memory are enough to keep me watching for now.
Whitney McIntosh: There were so many new shows that premiered this year that no matter what I end up choosing it will seem like I spurned a more worthwhile candidate. Comedy Central stepped up its game big time with Review and Broad City, FX did the same for its comedy branch with You’re the Worst and Married, and the CW took two potential (and in one case, assumed) disasters and delivered two of the best hour-long shows on television with Jane the Virgin and The Flash. Not to mention things like Black-ish, Cristela, Benched, Fargo, and The Leftovers elsewhere on the dial. Amidst all these worthy options, You’re the Worst takes the cake from me.
As the first show of its kind, one where an honest portrayal of 20-somethings “falling in like” doesn’t seem at all forced, was strong right off the bat. Aya Cash’s Gretchen and Chris Geere’s Jimmy are fully formed characters from the start; spiteful, jaded, bitter, and humorous all in one. The strength with which the show started only gave it the opportunity to grow that much more as the season went on. Jimmy and Gretchen’s romance is clearly detrimental to both of them, the exact opposite of what a healthy relationship could be defined as. But it isn’t only Cash and Geere that make this show a great freshman comedy. The gradual shading of best friends Lindasy and Edgar (Kether Donahue and Desmin Borges, respectively) transformed it midseason into a comedy about a group of friends rather than simply about one screwed up pair of people. The writing is sharp, topical, but doesn’t try to hard to be hip or funny. The pop culture references seem natural and the careers of the leads, an underrated writer trying to pretend he isn’t and an accidental publicist, are true to the LA environment in which the show is set. Nothing is so specific that a 20-something anywhere in the country couldn’t apply it to their own life and relationship experiences (who hasn’t burnt down their crappy apartment with a faulty vibrator?). Everyone has some bit of the terrible, insecure, sarcastic qualities of these characters inside of them, and You’re the Worst is great mainly because it reminds us of this without yelling it through the screen.
Les Chappell: This was another stupidly full year of television. After last year gave us Orange Is The New Black, Rectify, The Returned, The Americans, Masters Of Sex and umpteen other excellent programs, this year delivered at least as many new quality programs. Amazon finally made a mark on the original programming game, Netflix turned out another surprise, HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, FX—all delivered on at least one of their new shows and left themselves in a position to make the same qualitative leap several of 2013’s new shows did this year.
But I’m going to give my vote to a show that’s not going to get that opportunity: Fox’s Enlisted, the year’s best new network sitcom. It’s so rare that a sitcom comes to us fully formed and with every piece working together, and everything about it clicked. There was an awesome creative team of Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce, a terrific trio of actors playing the Hill brothers at the show’s core (Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, Parker Young), comedic treasure Keith David livening things up as the base commander, and an island of misfit toys as the rest of the troops. The show churned out some of my favorite half-hours of comedy all year, with top-notch installments like “Randy Get Your Gun,” “Vets,” and “The General Inspection” delivering quotable lines and iconic sequences. This show should have made Parker Young an instant star, as I defy anyone to present anything funnier this year than Randy’s attempts to recite the plot of Toy Story 3 without crying.
Yet Enlisted was also a show with tremendous resonance. It respected the service of soldiers without once politicizing them, a remarkable task in this day and age. It treated seriously the interpersonal conflicts between the brothers and the weight that serving in the Armed Forces carries, particularly in the way it approached Pete’s PTSD and survivor’s guilt. A lot of sitcoms try to carry laughs and emotional moments, but because of its military setting – a setting largely untapped on TV since the days of M*A*S*H—it was able to master both in equal measure without once feeling cheesy.
The cancellation of this one still hurts – Fox mistreated the show from day one and only made it worse as time went on with timeshifts and yanking of lead-ins, to the point that it’s a miracle we got to see all the episodes air. And we should be thankful we did, because this was the best comedy I saw all year and one I’ll regret not seeing more of in 2015.
Kerensa Cadenas: I was pretty bad at watching TV this year. But many of the shows that really captured my attention were new ones. I loved Broad City, You’re The Worst and Looking so much for capturing various parts of my twentysomething ennui. And I loved Transparent for every single component of it.
However, Broad City just really stood out because it felt so real to me. Abbi and Ilana are the stoner babe friends I surround myself with in my day-to-day life. While many of their hijinks are certainly heightened (the UPS trip) many aren’t out of the realm of possibility (Ilana’s hot improv hookup). On top of being hilarious, Broad City contains an incredible amount of heart from Abbi and Ilana’s tight-knit friendship to Ilana’s “relationship” with Lincoln who is on my dream list of future boyfriends. It’s that heart that has fueled my sharing of the show with all my close lady friends who, have unsurprisingly, loved every second of it.
Emma Fraser: I’m going to echo a lot of what has already been said as Broad City and You’re the Worst are both top 10 shows for me and both Whitney and Kerensa have articulated why these shows resonate so much. Transparent is one of the most intimate portrayals of family life I have seen and because of the way it was released all at once I struggled between savoring each episode and the urge to binge it all at once.
The show that I do want to talk about that has yet to be mentioned is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver which took a very familiar satirical news format and reinvigorated it. It’s not like The Daily Show or Colbert (which is soon to end) are old hat, we just know what to expect from these shows by now. John Oliver isn’t a surprise entity either, but it was surprising just how far Last Week Tonight went with some of its longer investigative pieces. It was still comedy and yet the searing anger and outrage actually felt like it was doing something rather than shouting at the wind. Even if the space sex geckos couldn’t be saved.
Wes Ambrecht: Gosh, just reading through everyone else’s thoughts has made me realize what a tremendous year it has been for new series and how difficult it has become to stay on top of the ever growing number of scripted offerings. I consider myself more well-versed in TV than most and, to be completely honest, I had never heard of Review, until I read the posts above. It somehow managed to evade my radar completely.
Given the proper amount of time, I could defensibly argue for any number of new series from 2014. From aforementioned series like You’re the Worst Faking It and Broad City, to those only briefly touched on like The Leftovers, Silicon Valley, Fargo, The Flash, and Black-ish, to series that have gone unmentioned like Surviving Jack, Red Band Society, Playing House, Halt and Catch Fire and True Detective, it has been a banner year for new offerings. That being said, there are two series I feel need to be singled out because they’re so great that they are redefining the very platforms on which they’re delivered: Transparent and Kingdom.
Transparent will sit close to the top of my overall list for 2014. The series, created by Jill Soloway, has such an impressive command of tone from the opening moments of the pilot that, as a writer, I couldn’t help but feel envious. With its rich family dynamics, gorgeous cinematography, and a tireless dedication to normalizing the “other,” Transparent proved that Amazon is serious about making prestige content. Likewise, Kingdom, which debuted in October to little fanfare but has already been renewed for two additional seasons, feels like the series that will help DirecTV shape Audience Network. From writer/producer Byron Balasco, Kingdom is ostensibly a family drama wrapped in the garbs of MMA. And, while I can see how that might turn some off to the show, I can’t help but be enamored by the grit of the show. Anchored by Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria, Kingdom boasts one of the most versatile casts on TV. It also makes incredible use of on-location shooting… in California, which is far more rare than it may seem.
Noel Kirkpatrick: Since it’s the highest ranked new show on my top 10 list, I guess the winner is Ping Pong: The Animation. Adapted from the manga by Taiyō Matsumoto (you may’ve seen the film version of his manga Tekkon Kinkreet?), Ping Pong, like many sports anime, it’s a story about friendships and dreams and how all that gets tied up in competitive sports. What set Ping Pong apart, and why it ended up so high on my list, was that it explored not the celebration and overcoming of obstacles—though it does do that—but the crushing weight of what it means to be friends, to have dreams, and the expectations that come with being the best at something. It’s as joyful as it melancholy, and perhaps even more so because it has both.
Apart from its tone, there’s director Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa’s direction and storyboarding of the series made it one of the most engaging-looking shows of the year, from turning a ping pong match into an epic and frenetic duel to bringing characters’ inner worlds to life. Pile on the show’s delightful cross-cutting and layering of symbols without it ever feeling over-stuffed, and I don’t know that there was a show with a better sense of aesthetics this year (except for Hannibal of course).
Cory: You know, the worst part about waiting around to go last on these is that everything I want to mention has already been called upon, but man was 2014 a good year for new shows. My top 10 list is full of newbies, and I don’t think it’s just the recency effect taking hold of me. My love for Transparent and You’re the Worst knows absolutely no bounds. No two shows spoke to me, or moved me, more this year and I’ve been counting down the days until I free time to burn through them again.
For the sake of variety, I’ll touch on a couple of others: The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire. Trying to have a conversation about The Leftovers is nearly impossible because the show sparks such a wide array of reactions in people, all of which I can understand on an abstract level but can’t understand, man, because my response to the Damon Lindelof’s writing style is ensconced for reasons that don’t necessarily involve The Leftovers itself. I’ll admit that the plotting on that show is a mess—the just-announced quasi-reboot of season two is extremely odd—but it dug into me in a way that few shows do. Justin Theroux was tremendous in the lead role, despite some bumpy characterization that the show tried too hard to pass of as psychological disorder, and Carrie Coon was of course a revelation.
Meanwhile, Halt and Catch Fire ended up just outside my top 10 for the year. It took a little bit to get going, but once Halt found more room for Kerry Bishé’s Donna and fleshed out Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron into a real human being and not a walking embodiment of nostalgic desires for a particular type of woman, it tackled gender roles and the presumptions about women and technology in a generally level-headed and compelling fashion. Lee Pace is cool and all, and Scoot McNairy is a national treasure, but Halt is the kind of show where the male characters could be entirely marginalized and you wouldn’t really care at all.
Up next: Best individual performances