Top TV for 2014: 10 more great new series
You don't see it very often these days, but once upon a time, some TV critics insisted on only including new series in their top 10 lists. This was, of course, the glory days of print journalism, when space was a precious resource and no one had room for the zillions and zillions of bonus lists (like this one) we have online, and those critics preferred to use their limited column inches to spread the gospel for new material that hadn't been lauded for years on end. I could always respect that argument, even as I would decide there was no way I could have a best of the year list that didn't include, say, "The Simpsons" on it.
I wouldn't say I ever came close to selecting 10 all-new shows for this year's top 10 list, if only because "The Americans" season 2 was always a contender for the top spot. The final list wound up being evenly split between new and returning shows, but I could imagine a list that only had "The Americans" to represent the non-rookies, or that was entirely composed of first-year shows, and it would be one I think I would have been satisfied with. That's how many great new shows we got this year, some from familiar places (HBO, FX), some from relatively new players to this game (Amazon, WGN America). Some arrived with great fanfare ("True Detective"), while others ("Review") snuck up on us, their own networks not even sure what they had. There was uproarious comedy, devastating drama, thrilling superhero action, and shows that mixed so many styles at once I'm not sure how I would try to classify them.
It was a spectacular year for new product, which is why I didn't want to just honor the five shows on the overall list — "The Leftovers," "Transparent," "Review," "Fargo" and "True Detective," in case you forgot — and instead follow up last week's list of 10 great returning shows that finished outside the top 10 with a similar list of great new shows (which may or may not stop at 10), several of which I'd have been very comfortable sliding onto the main list if my mood had been different on a given day.
Take a look and then tell me what new shows (whether these or ones I didn't mention) caught your fancy in 2014.
1. "Enlisted" (FOX)Photo Credit: FOX
It can be maddening when a network's executives don't believe in a good show, but the case of "Enlisted" was especially maddening, since by most accounts everyone at FOX loved the show save for entertainment president Kevin Reilly — who left the network only weeks after canceling the sweet, funny military comedy about three brothers trying to make the best of life in a rear detachment unit. In a fairer world, "Enlisted" would still be around (an attempt to revive the show on Yahoo fell through) so that creator Kevin Biegel, producer Mike Royce, and their wonderful cast would still be telling goofy stories about Army life that somehow always managed to have utmost respect for the Army itself. Hands on heads, everybody, and say it with me: "We are brothers." (My interview with Biegel and Royce.)
2. "Broad City" (Comedy Central)Photo Credit: Comedy Central
What a hot streak Comedy Central is on at the moment, with the likes of "Key & Peele" (grimmer and braver than ever, "Inside Amy Schumer," "Kroll Show" and "Nathan For You," not to mention "Review," which sat on a shelf for a year and then turned out to be one of the very best shows in all of television. And then there's "Broad City," one of the only shows in the roster to resemble a conventional sitcom, but filtered through the fresh, whip-smart, deadly funny voices of creator-stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson so that it feels like something wholly new. The first season featured expert slapstick (I still laugh at the mere thought of the shower curtain rod gag), smart social satire, and a vision of New York that seemed at once nightmarishly surreal and absolutely true to life. I was a half-year late in watching the full "Broad City" season, a mistake I will not be making in 2015.
3. "You're the Worst" (FX)Photo Credit: FX
New show I needed half a season to warm to, part the first: This story of two terrible people (Chris Geere's bitter novelist and Aya Cash's indifferent publicist) realizing that their no-strings-attached relationship had resulted in real feelings for one another was such an unlikely mix of black cynicism and sincere emotion that it took me a few episodes to get in sync with it. But once I did, it turned out to be something special: a romantic comedy that moved through all the genre's familiar tropes, breathing new life into each cliche because of the perspective offered by its anti-hero and anti-heroine. It treated their buried feelings as a real thing — and made their sidekicks into three-dimensional characters in bad situations, rather than cheap comic relief — and that only made the laughs feel richer whenever they came. Plus, it gave us one of the year's single funniest lines, after he finds out who her favorite James Bond is: "Daniel Craig?!?!? He looks like an upset baby!"
4. "BoJack Horseman" (Netflix)Photo Credit: Netflix
New show I needed half a season to warm to, part the second: At first glance, "BoJack" seemed like hodgepodge of different Adult Swim and Seth MacFarlane tropes, satirizing Hollywood through the eyes of its horse-man hybrid has-been hero. But no matter how weird the show got — including a nearly episode-long drug trip — it always took the emotions of BoJack and the other characters very seriously, and its predominant tone was one of melancholy. This was a show that could give us a ridiculous character like Vincent Adultman (really three little boys inside a single trench coat, Little Rascals-style) and then go for real pathos as different characters faced death, depression and suicidal thoughts. Very glad I stuck with this one after an underwhelming first few episodes.
5. "The Knick" (Cinemax)Photo Credit: Cinemax
Television is and likely will always be a writer-driven medium, but 2014 saw a handful of dramas whose entire seasons were shot by the same director, including "True Detective," "The Honorable Woman," and "The Knick," where Steven Soderbergh was clearly the most important person involved, on screen or off. Set at a Manhattan hospital in 1900, "The Knick" was littered with familiar devices from both medical dramas and cable anti-hero shows (most notably the cocaine addiction of the chief surgeon, played with verve by Clive Owen), yet the way Soderbergh shot the thing — and his choice to use the propulsive electronic score of frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez — filled every frame with so much energy that it didn't much matter if the characters and their stories felt rote. For the most part, if I had to choose between a show with great writing and unremarkable direction, and one where the opposite was true, I'd take the former, but "The Knick" makes a very persuasive case for just how much a director can add to a medium that hasn't always been as focused on his services. (All my "The Knick" reviews, and Fienberg's long interview with Soderbergh and Owen.)
6. "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" (HBO)Photo Credit: HBO
When Stephen Colbert was named as David Letterman's successor, a lot of Comedy Central fans suggested that John Oliver was kicking himself because he left "The Daily Show" not long before he would have been a lock to get the 11:30 job. Whoops. Oliver seems positively giddy in his new job, and for understandable reason. With "Last Week Tonight," he took advantage of the weekly, commercial-free format HBO had given him to go much further in-depth on his subjects than even Jon Stewart or Colbert can, spending 13-plus minutes on each episode's primary topic until every possible source of humor and outrage had been exhausted. Had "Last Week Tonight" simply been a continuation of Oliver's summer as "Daily Show" fill-in host, it still would have been a treat, but the actual version simultaneously functions as one of TV's best comedies and best sources of news.
7. "Silicon Valley" (HBO)Photo Credit: HBO
Fifteen years after "Office Space," Mike Judge returned to the tech world from an entirely new angle, looking at the way app development has turned the industry into the Wild West, where vast fortunes can be made — and lost — in an instant. Where many of HBO's recent half-hours are considered comedies only for awards purposes, "Silicon Valley" was frequently laugh-out-loud funny, mixing very smart and specific gags about technology (a video chat program far less reliable than picking up an old landline phone) with the cruder humor that was Judge's staple back in the "Beavis & Butthead" days, and sometimes — as in the amazing pornographic brainstorming scene in the season finale — doing both at once. Thomas Middleditch headlined a terrific cast filled with funny actors being used better than they have before, most notably the late Christopher Evan Welch, who left huge shoes to fill with his very strange and precise performance as corporate benefactor Peter Gregory.
8. "The Flash"/"Jane the Virgin" (CW)Photo Credit: CW
(Yes, two shows in one spot is a cheat. I tried to warn you of this a week ago when I did the returning shows list.) In an undistinguished fall for new network TV shows, it was the tiny CW that had the two best freshman series. "The Flash" is the most purely entertaining of this year's comic book drama boom, combining the lessons the creative team learned making "Arrow" with a lighter tone, a charming hero in Grant Gustin and supporting players like Jesse Martin and Tom Cavanagh who lend just enough weight to a show about a man in a red suit who can run faster than the speed of sound. (All my "The Flash" reviews.) "Jane," meanwhile, has approached its telenovela source material with equal amounts of heart, wit and self-awareness, making it into that rare creature: a primetime soap that gets by more on heart, sincerity and comedy than on contrived melodrama. (Also, in a year when too many TV shows feature unnecessary voiceover exposition, "Jane" gets enormous comic value out of its cheeky narrator.)
9. "Manhattan" (WGN America)Photo Credit: WGN America
At first, "Manhattan" — a period piece about the men and women who built the atomic bomb (and/or were stuck in the desert with the ones building it) — simply seemed a pleasant relief after WGN's first original drama had been the campy supernatural series "Salem." But it went from relief to genuine pleasure as we got to know the many complicated people working on, and in thrall to, the Manhattan Project. Created by "Masters of Sex" veteran Sam Shaw (with a big visual assist from director Thomas Schlamme), in 2014 "Manhattan" wound up being the better series about the wonder and darkness of scientific breakthroughs than the series Shaw left in order to make it.
10. "Happy Valley" (Netflix)Photo Credit: Netflix"Fargo" was one of this year's most acclaimed American series (in fact, it won the HitFix TV Critics Poll), but it wasn't the only series with a spiritual link to the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning film. Over in the UK (and then brought to our shores by Netflix), we got another tale of a small-town female cop mixed up in a complicated crime (a kidnapping that had many echoes of the plot of "Fargo" the movie). There was little novel about "Happy Valley," but the execution — the lead performance by Sarah Lancashire, the way creator Sally Wainwright made the plight of her victim horrifying without wallowing in it — was top-notch. And I still get chills thinking about the scene in the basement at the end of episode 4.
Honorable mentionPhoto Credit: Showtime
"Too Many Cooks" (Adult Swim)
"Penny Dreadful" (Showtime)
"The Affair" (Showtime)
"Kingdom" (Audience Network)