(This is part two of a two-part series. For part one, click here.)
Sometimes, it’s not the premise that’s the problem. We give low or failing grades to plenty of television here at The A.V. Club—like the terrible pilot of Dads, or the half-baked reality show I Wanna Marry “Harry.” But often, that’s as much a judgment of the idea as it is of the execution. What really rankles are those episodes, often stuck in the middle of shows that are otherwise good—or at least fine—that take our beloved characters into directions we don’t like, or mire the story in a slog that devalues everything around it. The Tournament Of Episodes crowned its winner on Friday, celebrating the best of the television season in a totally unscientific way. We couldn’t let the official television season end without a look back at the lowlights of 2013-14 in a similarly subjective way. Here are 14 more low points as chosen by some of our TV writers, in no particular order.
13. The Following, “Teacher’s Pet”
The Following is one of those shows with such a horrible reputation one must ask, “How bad could it be?” Then you watch it and realize that it’s worse than you could have ever imagined. The series followed up the episode “Unmasked”—a horrific series of misogynistic events in which people, mostly women, are stabbed, strangled, or shot in the head—with “Teacher’s Pet,” which was even worse. The latter episode shows just how easily young people in Joe’s new cult turn into bloodthirsty killers, picking up “random murder” like it’s some cool new hobby. That’s on top of Joe’s public killing of a cat that even freaks out cult members, just one example in many of how this show attempts to appeal to the lowest, basest instincts with shock and gore. There’s a compelling show in here somewhere: Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy both deserve better, and the Manson-esque cult mentality would be worth a dramatic exploration without the constant stabbings. Kevin Williamson has offered interesting takes on murderous tropes before, especially in the Scream movies. But The Following is just snuff programming. There’s plenty of gory TV to be found, but this is the only show that might make viewers physically sick, as they wait for yet another innocent victim’s throat to be slit. It’s supposed to be shocking, but what’s really shocking is how little regard The Following has for its audience, and humanity as a whole.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Nominee for worst television program in the history of the medium.
14. Once Upon A Time, “New York City Serenade”
Once Upon A Time definitely has its moments, which is what can make it frustrating to watch. For every few steps forward the show takes, a giant leap back always seems just around the bend. This TV season saw a lot of “winter finales” (when shows took off before the holidays to return a few months later, thereby eliminating the need for excessive re-running), and OUAT left on a decent dramatic note: After a drawn-out goodbye scene, Regina casts a spell to send the fairy-tale characters back to the Enchanted Forest, Storybrooke disappears, and amnesiac Emma and Henry take off for their new life together in the real world. Then at the end of the episode, happy in her new urban pad, Emma receives a visitor: It’s Hook, telling her that her family needs her help. There was some nice, almost Lost-worthy momentum inherent in those final moments: How did Hook find her? What happened to Emma’s parents? How would Emma, without her memories, ever believe Hook? But OUAT being OUAT, the show managed to squash all this lovely momentum with the very next episode a few months later. Instead of drawing out the drama it had seemingly spent so much time painstakingly building, the show has Emma drink Hook’s memory potion almost immediately, so that all her memories return. Then Hook and Henry and Emma all head back to Storybrooke, where everything is just as it was, except that Snow’s pregnant and no one can remember the past year. So what was the point of the previous wipe-out-Storybrooke spell? Talk about a giant leap backward.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Criminally egregious waste of a flying-monkey scene.
15. The Awesomes, “From Here To Paternity”
The animated series Archer is completely over the top, and that’s what makes it so funny. The Awesomes is also that, minus the funny part. Seth Meyers executive-produces this series for Hulu, and it comes off as a tepid version of Mystery Men. This would not in and of itself be enough to get The Awesomes on this list, except for Meyers-penned episodes like this one, which are downright insulting. Muscleman, due to his love for “alien pussy” (roll non-hilarious clip below) gets hit with a paternity suit on a planet that’s shaped like a boob. All its inhabitants have two boobs for eyes with a nondescript body underneath. The bit reeks of the lowest levels of humor, wherein this infantile sight gag is not only supposed to be hilarious, but hilarious enough to sustain through an entire episode. Substituting “hilarious” with “excruciating” describes this episode.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Exemplary instance of not being mad at Seth Meyers, exactly—just really disappointed.
16. True Tori, “The Fairytale Falls Apart”
Tori Spelling grew up in unimaginable privilege (her childhood home reportedly had three rooms just for gift-wrap), and her TV-producer father got her on the air while she was still a teenager. Since she’s always had a camera in front of her, it probably makes sense to her to focus her newest reality series on her life with her four children after their dad Dean gets shuttled off to rehab after cheating on her. From Tori’s perspective, she just wants to tell her side of the story, which is why True Tori’s first episode is exceptionally painful: She tells how she found out about the affair through the tabloids, shattering her completely unrealistic fairy-tale view of life, while staring at the camera for an uncomfortable length of time. Unlike most reality stars, she doesn’t look at the cameraperson or interviewer while speaking, but unsettlingly speaks directly into the camera itself, like it’s a person. Still, Tori juggling her four kids by herself almost invites some sympathy for her, as she yells at the paparazzi to not film her daughter when she throws up on her brother’s iPad in the car. But Tori has a camera in the car filming that exact thing. She says, “To me, it felt like a safe and protective environment having the cameras there,” which is sad, but it’s what she’s used to, and now her children are suffering the same fate. Then Dean shows up at the end of the first episode: scruffy, repentant, and bloated. Don’t people usually look better after rehab? Spoiler to save everyone from having to watch any of this: They’re staying together. At least until the second season.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Best evidence that getting tattoos for each other does not translate into lifetime commitment.
17. True Detective, “After You’ve Gone”
True Detective always had an uneasy relationship with the detective genre it was ostensibly a part of. Creator and sole writer Nic Pizzolatto was more interested in his two main characters than the mechanics of the crime they were trying to solve. Fortunately, this approach made for seven episodes of riveting, engrossing TV, in which Rust Cohle and Marty Hart’s relationship was intricately detailed and examined. Unfortunately, it also led to the season’s penultimate hour, “After You’ve Gone,” a dull mess of an episode that loaded much of the season’s exposition into a handful of sequences in Rust’s storage shed of crime-solving action. There may have been worse episodes on television, but this one felt all the more disappointing for being surrounded by so much good stuff.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst use of exposition, even if it was delivered by Matthew McConaughey.
18. Scandal, “The Fluffer”
“The Fluffer” epitomizes everything wrong with season three of Scandal, as it becomes clear the writers have lost sense of who Olivia Pope is and what she wants. Fitz spends the entire episode being the worst toward both Mellie and Olivia, then insists that he’s not the bad guy. Olivia’s continued attachment to Fitz is so recklessly nonsensical and meaningless that all of the drama of the episode falls flat. Fitz orders Olivia to quell Mellie’s and Andrew’s affair without realizing just how selfish and hypocritical he’s being. And yet, Olivia—who has built a very successful career on identifying and fixing problems—still can’t see the very obvious flaws in President Fitzgerald Grant, and these inconsistencies in the character make it harder and harder for viewers to care about Olivia and her actions. The episode’s one redeeming moment comes at the end, when Maya and Adnan reveal their plan to kill Fitz. And yet, Fitz is alive and well at season’s end, and Scandal never quite fully recovers from this forgettable fluff.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst President Fitzgerald Grant temper tantrum to date, and that is saying a lot.
19. Glee, “Old Dog New Tricks”
It’s an impressive feat to create an episode of television featuring not just June Squibb, but a singing June Squibb, that turns out to be pure garbage. But leave it to Chris Colfer to write one of Glee’s most incoherent and vapid episodes, in a season full of incoherence and vapidity. Colfer transparently writes an episode overly sympathetic to his character Kurt—who feels like no one cares about him anymore. So Kurt adopts some old people in a retirement home by starring in their geriatric performance of Peter Pan (“Weird, but whatever,” says guest star Melinda McGraw, and also the entire audience). Oh, and it all culminates in a rendition of “Take Me Home Tonight” in a diner, where Rachel and crew toss abandoned puppies into the laps of old people, making everyone feel like they just got their happily ever after.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Most egregious waste of June Squibb.
20. Orphan Black, “Variable And Full Of Perturbation”
The pillars of Orphan Black’s science-fiction mindfuck are Tatiana Maslany’s nuanced portrayal of the show’s so-called “Clone Club” and the deeply felt relationships between its members. “Variable And Full Of Perturbation” begins at a loss by leaving the most compelling clone—reforming fanatical assassin Helena—out of the action. It then digs the hole deeper by introducing another complete genetic match for Sarah Manning and company: Tony, a transgender man who meets his sisters following a tip from his former partner in crime. For a show that’s done such stellar work with issues of identity, sexuality, and gender, Tony is a tremendous misfire, an attempt at bringing an underrepresented minority into Orphan Black’s orbit that comes across like a hollow gimmick. It doesn’t help that Maslany didn’t have the time to delve as deeply into the character as she has with the other clones, with Tony sent packing at the end of the episode. And the Tony storyline is only the second- or third-worst part of “Variable And Full Of Perturbation,” which compartmentalizes the clones in their own episodic purgatories—at least there’s weed in Cosima’s corner of the episode, though the geneticist’s well-established recreational habits couldn’t prevent Orphan Black from turning out one of the corniest drug-trip sequences in TV history.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: The greener grass is on the other side of Orphan Black (that none of these characters should be smoking).
21. Sons Of Anarchy, “Straw”
Though The A.V. Club’s own Zack Handlen gave “Straw,” SOA’s season-six premiere, a B+, the episode’s school-shooting plotline is an example of creator Kurt Sutter’s heavy-handed need for melodrama at its absolute worst. While the image of a troubled, tow-headed tween shooting up his elementary school is bleak, to say the least, it’s hardly the only horrible example of egregious violence in the episode. Tara’s in jail; Tig’s still reliving (and seeking revenge from) the fiery death of his daughter; and the blind, tongue-less, imprisoned Otto—played by Sutter himself—is undergoing brutal anal rape after brutal anal rape at the hands of evil retired U.S. Marshall Lee Toric. And while horrible acts don’t inherently breed bad television (see: any episode of Breaking Bad, for example), “Straw” is Sons at its most sadly gratuitous. Viewers aren’t left to infer things in Charming, California are going bad; instead, it’s rammed into their eyes, ears, and other orifices by Sutter and company.
Arbitrary tournament superlative: Most disgusting and egregious use of prison rape as a plot device (and that’s saying a lot).
22. We Are Men, “Pilot”
As soon as the word “mancession” first entered the cultural lexicon, an avalanche of poorly drawn-up premises came tumbling down into the world of television, all revolving around the return of the “real man.” CBS’ short-lived (lasting only two episodes) We Are Men is the latest—and hopefully last—result of said avalanche. While the second episode, “We Are Dognappers,” lacks the memorability to be known as the worst episode of the 2013-14 season, the pilot more than makes up for that. This is an episode of television that portrays Tony Shalhoub as the ultimate ladies man, despite his troublesome stance on flirtation: “It’s a numbers game. You hit on 10 women, get slapped nine times, but one will say yes. Dare to be great.” It also—despite its rampant heterosexuality—looks for any possible reason to get Jerry O’Connell shirtless every 90 seconds or so. Every woman—besides the obvious “not like other girls” love interest—is either a tart or a shrew. They don’t allow their men to watch sports, eat burgers, or see their guy friends, or they get into extramarital affairs only to withhold sex, just like the men’s frigid wives. The episode is not better on first viewing, second viewing, or any viewing, much like showrunner Rob Greenberg’s other flop, the Eddie Murphy-led Meet Dave. Also, the cover of “I Will Survive” that plays over the credits—which feature the four male leads ogling and harassing women on the street in slow motion—is an affront to survivors of any kind, everywhere.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Honorable mention for constantly confusing misogyny, idiocy, and unoriginality for brotherhood, awesomeness, greatness.
23. Famous In 12, “Fast Cars And Fancy Fur”
“Fast Cars And Fancy Fur,” the second episode in The CW and tabloid magnate Harvey Levin’s “social experiment,” is 40-plus minutes of choreographed conflict and dead-eyed discussions. The pilot episode, “Fast Cars And Fancy Fur,” easily answers the question of whether the Artiaga family can get any more desperate with a resounding “yes.” Jameelah, the self-appointed Kim Kardashian of the family and most vapid “character,” introduces her “catchphrase.” (Think “girl, bye” only without any power or logic behind it.) It makes Paris Hilton’s “that’s hot” retroactively come across as the smartest thing anyone has ever said. Her expectations of a PETA billboard while walking into the organization’s offices half-naked (and not realizing the difference between half-naked and fully naked) is far from the most ridiculous part of the episode, because every part of the episode is the most ridiculous part of the episode. As a program that takes place practically in real-time and features a fame meter, the show never brings up the fact that only a little over half a million people even watch the series, nor does it address the very obvious fact that, even on such a large scale, all the series does is perpetuate stereotypes about lazy African Americans looking for handouts. Levin’s question of “Do you think you’re real?” to the family echoes throughout an episode that brings new meaning to a show where honest, non-robotic emotion is absent throughout and the only thing on any of these people’s minds is being famous, whatever that even means anymore.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst attempt at emotion, inflection, execution of polysyllabic words, or anything else resembling human behavior.
24. Trophy Wife, “Happy Bert Day”
Trophy Wife will live in our memory as a lighthearted comedy with potential that was struck down a little too soon. But one particular episode (and the show’s unfortunate title) marred the joyful shenanigans of Malin Akerman’s huge stepfamily, and oddly, it centered on the show’s best character, Bert. Elementary-schooler Bert, played by Albert Tsai, reads 100 books, so his parents promise him any birthday party he wants. With stepmother Kate’s not-so-subtle prodding, he chooses an Aladdin-themed party—the perfect choice for Trophy Wife’s corporate overlords, Disney. Less perfect is the execution—an Aladdin party that dresses Kate, Jackie, Bert, and the entire house in decor that can best be described as “vaguely Indian.” Granted, it’s not like Aladdin is all that ethnically tolerant or specific, but it’s also 20 years old. Surely Trophy Wife could have tried a little harder to avoid casual cultural ignorance. It would have been more tolerable if the hilariously inappropriate cultural decor (fire-breathers! Kabobs! Turbans!) were part of the joke. But no, “Happy Bert Day” is about Kate trying to get a few other soccer moms to like her. Unfortunately, that was always Trophy Wife’s problem—a cute little comedy that seemed unaware of the world outside of its own upper-class bubble.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst episode to feature television’s best character: Bert!
25. Sing Your Face Off, “Season One, Episode Two”
Touting itself as a reality singing show, Sing Your Face Off eschews both singing and any semblance of the electrifying spontaneity that is reality television’s greatest appeal. Celebrity contestants trained and costumed to impersonate world-famous singers of every genre could have been a giddy goof, but instead it becomes a rigidly formulaic excursion into fakery. Everything about Sing Your Face Off reeks of phoniness, from its obviously predetermined wheel-of-fortune selection process to its wooden banter to the performances that should be the heart of the show. The facial prosthetics (some costumes including false teeth) used in the transformations obstruct expression and movement, leaving contestants to lip-synch and gesticulate uncertainly to a backing track rather than sing. For viewers who persevered into the second episode (ABC burned off two episodes back-to-back weekly, never a good sign), the sheer futility of this labor becomes painfully clear in Sebastian Bach’s stilted, ungainly impersonation of Lady Gaga. Love her or loathe her, Gaga’s ever-shifting stage persona is all invention. Bach’s—and Sing Your Face Off’s—failure to conjure any fun from that fantasy of costume and affect demonstrates the show’s deficiencies with dreary clarity.
Arbitrary Tournament Superlative: Worst masquerade of contrived nonsense as putatively unscripted entertainment.
26. How I Met Your Mother, “Last Forever”
“Last Forever,” How I Met Your Mother’s long-awaited finale, was famously divisive among viewers. When Cristin Milioti’s engaging, bright-eyed Mother succumbed to a fatal case of Superfluous Wife Syndrome, clearing the way for Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) to partner up with Robin, the show’s emotional landscape underwent a seismic shift. It’s entertaining to watch a self-described hopeless romantic try—and fail—to cram a series of women into the straitjacket of his corny daydreams, but the conclusion validates Ted’s fantasies and caters to all his least lovable, most self-centered desires. Worse still, the hour-long finale skips over emotional realities painstakingly established over the last season to rush headlong into the heady blush of passion, Mosby-style, skipping over affecting, resonant moments in its haste to romanticize. It blows past Ted mourning his long-sought wife and past the sorrow of Robin and Barney splitting up, reducing Ted’s marriage, Tracy’s life and death, and Robin’s heartache to a series of romantic pit stops taken before Ted’s ardor wore down the woman of his dreams. It’s no wonder “Last Forever” caused a general outcry (“General Outcry!” *Salutes.*) among viewers.
Arbitrary Tournament Superlative: Most jarring mismatch of audience’s and creators’ expectations.