Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is inspired by our year-end coverage:
What was your favorite show that didn’t make The A.V. Club’s best-of list?
2014 was generous when it came to new TV comedies: We should be eternally grateful for the debut runs of Review and Broad City, and that’s just talking about what Comedy Central had to offer. Over on ABC, where sitcom development tolerates nothing less than a Modern Family-level smash, such generosity couldn’t be extended to the late, lamented Trophy Wife. Betrayed by their show’s title (you see, it’s ironic, because Malin Akerman—wait, where are you going?) the Harrison-Buckley-Fishers were television’s most natural family unit, a modern clan whose members had their squabbles but still came across as people who could stand to be around one another—or help put on elaborate, Aladdin-themed birthday parties. The cast had a Lego-like versatility, its winning configurations—Marcia Gay Harden’s cutthroat shrewdness plus an earthily loopy Michaela Watkins; honor student Bailee Madison and Ryan Lee as her earnestly clueless brother; TV sensation Albert “BERT!” Tsai and anyone else—ever ready to accept another piece, or be remixed with abandon. The show could’ve generated seasons’ worth of material just by testing which of these combinations truly clicked—but alas, we only got this one, good-to-great season. (On the plus side, its cancellation released eight excellent actors into the pilot-season wilds; casting directors, make it a priority to find a new TV home for Natalie Morales in the new year.)
I was surprised that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey didn’t make our staff list, as I consider it one of the towering TV achievements of 2014. It’s an earnest, ambitious, approachable look at the biggest questions that humanity has managed to answer—and the mysteries that remain to be solved. Like Carl Sagan in his original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Neil DeGrasse Tyson takes vast, nigh inconceivable topics like the birth of the universe and makes them resonate on an intimate level. Pop culture so often renders science with a sheen of cold sterility, but Tyson recasts the pursuit of truth as a messy and humane enterprise even as he details its great discoveries. The result is a moving 13-episode series that shows how far our knowledge has come and instills hope for a more enlightened future. And it aired on Fox, to boot!
I’m a little surprised Silicon Valley didn’t make the final cut, even as I totally understand why: It was an eight-episode first season, and spent several of those inaugural half-hours finding its footing. But just as fledgling tech company Pied Piper failed upward, smoothing out its various startup problems through trial and error, Mike Judge’s freshman HBO sitcom got better and better each week. By the time it reached its season finale, the hilarious “Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency,” the show had evolved into a rich ensemble comedy, blessed with fully formed characters—Thomas Middleditch’s frazzled “visionary,” T.J. Miller’s self-aggrandizing entrepreneur, the competing tech grunts played by Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani. No one mixes whip-smart satire and lowbrow pratfalls quite like Mike Judge, and he did profane wonders with the new freedom a premium-cable home afforded him. Also, if there was a funnier TV gag this year than a half-crazed Zach Woods desperately pitching to strangers on the street (“Which one? Which one?”), I didn’t see it.
Tim And Eric as an entity are divisive, so Tim And Eric stepping outside of their comfort zone to make a mini-series whose episodes were wildly different from each other tonally proved even more so. I didn’t love every episode of Tim And Eric’s Bedtime Stories, but I’m glad that all of them exist. For those mostly enamored of the duo’s silliest ways, there’s the amazing awkward “Roommates” and the otherworldly “Angel Boy” (in which Tim Heidecker stars as a creepy non-singer); for those with a taste for something more macabre, there’s an episode starring Bob Odenkirk as a plastic surgeon who eats toes and fends off advances from M. Emmett Walsh. Television needs more shit this weird in general. (Oh, and “Too Many Cooks” was pretty damn great, too. Does that count as TV?)
As much as I agree with most of our final list, and as aware as I am that it is by no means a “prestige” series, for the 30 minutes it was on each week, Drunk History was my favorite show. The basic premise—Derek Waters’ comedian pals get drunk and rattle off stories from the corners of Americana, while a surprisingly all-star cast acts them out via lip sync—seems like the sort of thing that should quickly get old, kind of like hanging out with your drunk friend. And yet somehow it never does, by virtue of the actors’ game performances and those delightful, unpredictable spontaneities that come with anyone getting hammered and hanging out on camera. Or maybe it helped that I was also drunk whenever I watched it. Either way, it was my most consistently enjoyed half-hour of TV this year.
Although it won’t live to see another season, I genuinely enjoyed The Carrie Diaries. Admittedly, my adoration for The CW’s prequel to HBO’s Sex And The City had much to do with the music. Set in the ’80s, it soundtracks a young Carrie Bradshaw as she begins her destined love affair with New York City, and the series’ music department didn’t miss a beat. Providing a sort of “best of pop” from the decade, staples like Talking Heads, The Cure, Yaz, ’Til Tuesday, and more all made an appearance. The second season was also notable for its casting, with the addition of Lindsey Gort as Samantha Jones. Gort was so spot-on as the cheeky sex bomb that she overshadowed any looming discrepancies between the two series. It’s a shame the show won’t make it to season three, because it has the same charm as Sex And The City and it allowed Carrie’s naiveté a realistic reason—teenagers should be that lost in love and prone to beginning or ending every written assignment with a question.
I’m going to give The Colbert Report my nod, both as a sort of memorial and because I really cannot imagine what life’s going to be like without Stephen Colbert’s lovable shitbag of a character around anymore. As an almost-daily viewer of the show since its premiere in 2005, I’ve come to feel like Colbert’s “Stephen Colbert” is almost a part of my family, the loud and somewhat racist uncle who’s still secretly exceptionally cool and far funnier than I could ever hope to be. Over the past nine years, The Colbert Report has produced consistently excellent programs night after night, building backstory, callbacks, and smart, up-to-the-minute commentary into the program. I know I’ll have Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Larry Wilmore to guide me through my lefty thoughts in the future, and that Colbert is going to a new, maybe better place over on The Late Show, but dammit, I’ll miss The Colbert Report all the same.
I sympathize with anyone who is completely exasperated by Homeland, and I too was over it for most of the third season, during which the writers made a series of ill-advised choices that were equally manipulative and unearned. But I’ve always rooted for Homeland, even when it’s overestimating the limits of the goodwill it built in its stellar first season, and I’ve been convinced it could become good again, if perhaps not “The Weekend” good. While some early moments of season four eroded my confidence (the baby bath scene), the show has since cohered into the thoughtful, mature spy thriller I knew it could be once it got over Brody (Damian Lewis). Granted, he reappeared briefly when Carrie (Claire Danes) found herself on a forced hallucinogen bender, but the polarizing scene worked for me, and I suspect it would have worked for more of the audience had the producers not undermined its trust so severely in season three. The producers are not entirely to blame, considering they had been itching to ax Brody since season one and were talked out of it by the Showtime suits. Season four acquits their original impulse.
I’d go with Starz’s The Chair. On one level, it’s a compelling 10-episode documentary about filmmaking, with two directors (Anna Martemucci and Shane Dawson) making wildly different versions of the same script—while the title “Starz Original Filmmaking Experiment” bends over backward to avoid associating the show with reality television, it represents some of the best work of the genre—entirely shut out of our best-of list—this year. On another level, though, the series became a fascinating case study in professional identity, with Dawson’s online stardom placed in contrast and in competition with Martemucci’s independent filmmaking collective. The resulting discourse on social media was occasionally ugly but always fascinating, and offers the kind of “real world” spin-off that other reality television has either abandoned or never bothered pursuing to begin with. Given how much the show and the discourse around it consumed my life, it wins out over the subtle strengths of other list absentees Mom or Please Like Me in what was a strong year for TV in general.
Emily L. Stephens
Married. Starring Judy Greer and Nat Faxon as a couple navigating their bittersweet way toward a delayed sense of adulthood, this nominal sitcom walks the line between comedy and drama. The combination of an extraordinarily able cast (including Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, and John Hodgman as their equally screwed-up friends) and the earnest affection at the heart of the marriage keeps Married from sliding into full-on cringe-comedy territory and imbues the show’s occasionally clichéd, always plausible marital tensions with poignant sweetness and humor.
It’s probably not a real shocker that my favorite show that didn’t make the best-of list also happens to be one of two shows that I review for TV Club, but even if I didn’t write about The Middle, it’d still be my favorite show. Aside from the fact that it’s a very funny program that loves to deliver callback jokes that feel like a weekly reward for diligent viewership, it’s also the series to which I most relate on an economic level. I’m a full-time freelance writer, my wife is a public-school paraprofessional who works with autistic children and other special-needs kids, so nobody in this house is getting rich anytime soon, but we’re two people who love each other very much, we’ve got a daughter who’s equal parts Brick and Sue, and although we can relate all too well to a family who gets late notices and has a malfunctioning kitchen sink (our faucet broke a year ago, and we’ve had to wash dishes with the sprayer ever since), it’s great to be able to take a half-hour out of wondering which already-late bill is getting paid this week and laugh along with the Hecks instead.
I didn’t expect much when Netflix rolled out BoJack Horseman as its first original adult animated series, and the first few episodes didn’t do much to change that impression. It seemed content to be a show on par with average Adult Swim programming, using its premise of anthropomorphic animals in show business to deliver jabs at Hollywood life and groan-worthy puns. But as the series went on, I became more and more fascinated by the level of thought that had gone into it. The level of recurring gags—a missing “D” on the Hollywood Sign, a blackmail scheme BoJack was too self-absorbed to even notice—was remarkable, making the show play at Archer-like continuity levels. The excellent cast forged wholly distinct and nuanced personalities out of showbiz tropes, particularly Will Arnett as the misanthropic alcoholic BoJack. And the writing was sharp and honest about how awful and broken these characters could be: The eighth episode, “The Telescope,” had an emotional brutality on par with moments of The Leftovers, and the penultimate “Downer Ending” was a masterful deployment of the drug-trip/vision-quest trope. It barely registered with me when it premiered, and now I’m chomping at the bit for season two.
I’m not at all surprised that Saturday Night Live didn’t make the staff list, because it pretty much never makes TV best-of lists—understandably so, because it’s by nature an erratic and sometimes frustrating experience, even for diehard fans, even during seasons with more good than bad. But as a diehard fan, I’m compelled to point out that most of SNL’s recent seasons have, in fact, been more good than bad, and that includes the growing pains the show experienced in 2014. (I guess it’s fair to ask whether it still counts as growing pains when the show has experienced them for about half of its 40 years.) Though the cast was overcrowded last season, both newcomers and veterans have shown an admirable lack of dependence on recurring characters. This may not be as inviting to the casual viewer, but 2014 saw highlights like Andy Samberg playing a confident hunchback; Anna Kendrick singing through her nose as the Little Mermaid and in praise of dongs all over the world; Come And Do A Game Show With Your Mom; Sarah Silverman doing her monologue from an audience member’s lap; Cameron Diaz, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon offering weird phone sex; pretty much everything Jim Carrey did on his most recent hosting gig; and some non-tired recurring bits like Girlfriends Talk Show and all of Kyle Mooney’s characters. There’s plenty of smarter sketch comedy on TV these days, but something about a new episode of Saturday Night Live still feels like an event to me—an unabashed, sometimes unwieldy piece of television, the likes of which my true love, the movies, can’t imitate. That said, as far as sketch comedy goes, I’d understand if someone would rather stand up for Inside Amy Schumer than good ol’ SNL.
While much prestige television airs on Sunday nights, I’m not ashamed to admit that the show I look forward to the most is Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. Hosted by the inimitable Alton Brown, the series is, yes, another syndicated reality cooking show, but more than that, it’s clever and fresh and just ridiculously malicious enough to be entertaining television while your poor brain recovers from the whatever True Detective/Bob’s Burgers/The Good Wife wringer you ran it through earlier in the evening. Contestants are forced to try to field restaurant-quality dishes while sabotaging each other with Double Dare-style obstacles all for the opportunity to win their ever dwindling reserves of cash. If watching professional chefs being forced to cook in Easy-Bake Ovens isn’t the perfect scripted-television chaser, I just don’t know what is.
I’m glad Adventure Time made it on the list, but my heart truly belongs to another Cartoon Network show that hasn’t received nearly as much critical love: Steven Universe. The show, created by former Adventure Time lieutenant Rebecca Sugar, paints just about the most attractive, enthusiastic, and warm portrait of childhood I’ve ever seen, focusing on a makeshift family composed of the alien Crystal Gems and half-human, half-Gem Steven. The show proved deceptively simple in the early going, using its genre elements and fight scenes as a way of sneaking in nuanced family stories and building the weird world of Beach City, but is currently in the process of revealing and achieving loftier ambitions as Steven learns more about both the elaborate history of the Gems and his own parents. It helps that everything else about Steven Universe is just beautiful and lovingly crafted, from the art to the voice acting to the original compositions, which evoke more gentle versions of classic video-game soundtracks, to practically every minor character. My biggest wish for 2015 in TV is that more people realize how great this show is so I can go back to reviewing it every week.
Kroll Show and Key & Peele are great, but Inside Amy Schumer should be placed alongside them on our staff list this year. Schumer’s second season has a barbed confidence that is both compelling and consistently funny, and sketches like “Hello M’Lady” and “I’m So Bad” have an explicitly feminist perspective that is still extraordinary to see on television. Inside Amy’s hybrid format combined mostly stellar stand-up with sketch and interviews, and the resulting combination feels like something rare, a true showcase for an expanding talent. This was a star-making season for Schumer.
Anyone within about five feet of me this fall has been forced to endure my all-encompassing, surely obnoxious love for The CW’s sci-fi drama The 100, but dammit, I don’t care: The show is just that good, and more people should be watching. Exciting, intense, surprising, complex, and blissfully character-based, it takes the somewhat rote story of a post-apocalyptic society returning to Earth for the first time and infuses it with a bravado that most don’t associate with its network. The 100 has many things going for it but perhaps the best is how its world is populated with numerous interesting, complicated, fully formed female characters, most of which just happen to be teenagers. This is a show not afraid to take chances, and if you hear the thumping Twitter bandwagon drumbeat for the show building, it’s because it is currently in that sweet spot where each episode is better and more propulsive than the last. Time to jump onboard.
My love of Playing House is no secret. I’ve actually written about it a few times for this site. But that love has endured. Parham and St. Clair have better chemistry than most romantic pairings, as evidenced by the penultimate episode of the season, “Let’s Have A Baby.” It left me weeping as St. Clair helped Parham through childbirth, assuring her best friend she’d be there for her, forever and always. Female friendship of this ilk is complicated and irrational, but Playing House captured it perfectly in all of its messy glory. Plus, for the love of God, I need more Bosephus in my life.
It’s great to see that, over time, Cartoon Network’s remarkable Adventure Time has become a staple of year-end lists, a noteworthy nod to the fact that meaningful television doesn’t have to be live-action or on a major cable network. Another Cartoon Network show that deserves to be on this list is Over The Garden Wall, a 10-episode series starring Elijah Wood and created by Adventure Time alum Patrick McHale, which tells the story of brothers Wirt and Greg, who are lost in a mysterious forest called the Unknown. Unlike the network’s signature hyper-colorful animation style, Over The Garden Wall is muted and classical, more an early-20th century storybook (as Kevin Johnson pointed out in his review) than a “cartoon,” an analogy made all the more apparent by the beautiful title cards and character design. That style also fortifies the decidedly mature, but also wonderfully childlike, thematic exploration at the series’ core, which poignantly muses on, among many other things, loss, regret, class, and identity. Sure, that all sounds pretty heavy, and at times Over The Garden Wall is emotionally devastating—that’s part of what makes it so resonant. But it’s also brimming with optimism, never letting us forget that while the world can be a scary place, it’s also filled with moments of joy, love, friendship, and wonder.
It’s definitely something of an acquired taste, but as someone with a soft spot for shamelessly camp High Gothic, Penny Dreadful was almost everything I wanted it to be. There are plenty of legitimate reasons it didn’t climb the list—one of which was that it had about 10 episodes of plot in an eight-episode jug, which meant a few subplots got lost in the shuffle and some characters got short shrift. But when it worked, it really worked: The atmosphere was lush and unsettling by turns (there’s a reason they return to a greenhouse of poisonous plants). It deconstructed several of its Victorian influences, which gave us some textual queerness and some surprise beheadings. Plus the cast was pretty uniformly delightful, including Josh Hartnett’s best work ever, some priceless Timothy Dalton, and Eva Green in a role that effortlessly anchors an entire series; the depth of her commitment alone could sell the first season. If you’re up for a lot of portentous chatting, extended eye contact, and long pauses just waiting to be infested with vampires, demons, and bugs, Penny Dreadful’s a pretty good time.
Was Archer’s fifth season (branded as Archer: Vice) the best Adam Reed and company have ever produced? No. The show’s fast-paced rhythms didn’t work as well with the kind of long-form storytelling that Vice dabbled in, and the spy plots (always best as background) occasionally got too convoluted to follow. But even an off season of Archer stands tall above the vast majority of TV, and any season of television that gives us Cocaine Monster Pam gobbling up white powder by the clawful is going to get my vote. As with any long-running sitcom, character beats are pushed to extremes in the service of well-worn jokes as times go on (Krieger the Hitler clone, Cherlene the country star). But even as the supporting cast gets more and more gleefully cartoonish, Archer’s fifth season managed to dial in on the humanity buried within its title character’s jackass persona. It’s not like Sterling Archer stopped goading his co-workers into lapses in judgment or causing disasters with his selfish whims, but his attitude toward Lana’s pregnancy throughout the season gave his occasional bouts of selflessness and decency more chances to shine. It culminates in the season’s stunningly effective final scene, one of the most emotionally satisfying moments of TV I experienced this year. Aisha Tyler and H. Jon Benjamin’s hushed voices give the scene a lovely intimacy (Tyler, especially, is amazing at playing a Lana too full of affection to keep up her normal Archer-facing walls), and the show’s willingness to let the moment stand (minus one nasty feint at a Dallas-style “all a dream” reboot of the entire, off-model season), free of jokes and basking in sincerity, is a testament both to the growing maturity of Archer the man, and Archer the show.
Technically, Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a 2011 show, since that’s when it was shot and aired in the U.K. But The CW did re-edit the original episodes, adding in previously unseen material. And the channel pulled in enough of an audience to commission an entirely new season. That’s great news, because Fool Us was one of my family’s “dinnertime shows” this summer: something we all watched while we ate, and then paused frequently so that my wife and I could talk with our kids about showmanship, magic acts, and pop culture history. Unlike a lot of competition series, Fool Us has a winningly positive vibe. Penn & Teller watch magicians and try to figure out how the tricks are done, but at no point do P&T try and embarrass the people onstage. Instead, even when they guess the trick—which they almost always do—they talk about the magic tradition and how well the performers are upholding it. And then each episode ends with Penn & Teller doing a trick of their own, which was always our 10-year-old’s favorite part of the show. Any TV program that can make a kid into a Penn & Teller fan is doing the Lord’s work.
I’m going to go ahead and take credit for Vikings’ popularity with the people of Portland, Maine. Working at a video store as I do (shut up), I’m beset daily with bereft people who’ve just found out that Game Of Thrones doesn’t come out on DVD until February. (This has been happening since last February, so picture the accumulated sadness I’ve have to deal with.) Anyway, I’ve steered many a grateful, mopey Game Of Thrones fanatic to this admittedly less epic but similarly stabby History Channel series with nary a complaint. Sure, there are no dragons or snow zombies, but that’s not a bad thing—this period action drama is grounded (as in earthy), with lead Travis Fimmel (as the questionably historical Ragnar Lothbrok) navigating an enigmatically magnetic course through an always-compelling series of raids, betrayals, and political games only he truly understands. There’s a true sense of time and place here, and the stellar cast (including Clive Standen, Kathryn Winnick, and the great Gustaf Skarsgård as mystic/boatbuilder/slinky madman Floki), along with Fimmel, make Vikings more than just a Game Of Thrones replacement. At its best, it’s Game Of Thrones’ equal.
IFC’s Maron is a series built upon comedian Marc Maron’s worldview and life experiences, so naturally it has niche appeal. If you’re not a fan of Maron’s podcast WTF With Marc Maron or his stand-up or his public persona—a delightful cocktail of garden-variety neuroses, self-loathing, rage, and unfettered emotional honesty—it’s understandable that you’re not chomping at the bit for a series all about Maron. But frankly, it’s a damn shame. The second season of Maron was not only funnier and more confident than its shaky debut season, but it was also one of the best depictions of loneliness and self-sabotage I’ve seen this year. “Boomer Lives” captures the digressive, disorienting feeling after heartbreak and what it means to search for something that’s not coming back; “Nostalgic Sex Buddy” illustrates the hardship that comes with emotional maturity and how it divides the stunted and the developed; and “Mouth Cancer Gig,” the best episode of the series, portrays just how easily the mind can send someone into a spiral of anxiety and panic over the tiniest disturbance of normalcy. Plus, Maron maintains a deep streak of empathy for every character that wanders through the series’ world, from a smarmy yoga instructor hiding a stalled dream and a drug habit to an aging radio DJ who’s being squeezed out by the changing times, because it understands that no matter how bad things look up on the surface, there’s a common humanity within all of us. In its second season, Maron doubled down on the interests and insecurities of its star and it produced a poignant look at what it’s like to live inside your own head, to be your best friend and your worst enemy, and the constant struggle to be better each and every day. It’s the televisual embracement of Maron’s recurring question to the guests on his podcast: “Are we good?”
Can I nominate a single episode of great TV from 2014? Because while Parks And Recreation’s sixth season was typical of any long-in-the-tooth sitcom, coasting on a formula that was quickly getting stale (Leslie gets obsessive about something, Ben talks her down, Ron says something curmudgeonly), and throwing out attention-grabbing storylines (Pregnancy! Another pregnancy! More pregnancy!) the show did manage to survive the losses of Rashida Jones, Rob Lowe, and (temporarily) Chris Pratt without missing a beat. And a season’s worth of seemingly meandering storylines all came together beautifully in “Moving Up,” a well-earned victory lap that managed to be as funny and warm as anything the show had done in ages, while wrapping up storylines for the whole ensemble, giving nods to nearly everyone in the show’s sprawling supporting cast, squeezing in a few musical guests, and wrapping it all up with a surprisingly moving sing-along that paid tribute to a dearly departed miniature horse. “Moving Up” ended up being one of the best series finales ever aired… except we get one more season to look forward to in 2015.
There was a lot of great TV this year, but few shows made me quite as reliably happy as The Flash. I’m not a huge comic-book reader, but I’ve read enough DC to be familiar with Barry Allen, and I have a certain emotional attachment to the guy; I also still remember watching television’s last attempt to adapt the character, with limited (but still fairly charming) success. But this new series is something else entirely, with great effects work, a charming cast, and solid, engaging storytelling. The writers have a clear grasp of how a little bit of corniness can actually work to pull an audience in, and it’s not really exaggerating to say I tune in each week just for the chance to feel like a kid again. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of Arrow (still working through the second season), but The Flash hits that sweet spot of pure joy that so many superhero stories seem to miss these days, with Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen nailing the gee-whiz, pure-of-heart tone throughout. I’m sure there are more emotionally complex shows out there, or ones that speak to deeper truths about the human condition, but this one has a bit where Barry runs up the side of the building, so it wins.
Those who follow reality TV competitions for the inevitable plotting and back-biting and to count how many times they can hear someone say “I’m not here to make friends” will be disappointed with my family’s favorite group-watch, Fox’s delightful MasterChef Junior. Survivor and Apprentice contestants could learn a lesson or two from these 8- to 12-year-olds, who bolster and support each other as they work their way through Gordon Ramsay’s junior cooking competition. Even the tantrum-prone Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen) is on his best behavior as he and celebrity chef judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot mentor these imaginative kids, who come up with plates that would put any adult cook to shame. On a recent chicken challenge, 9-year-old Oona created a chicken-liver pate with crème–brûlée pears that the judges dubbed restaurant-worthy. But when 12-year-old Isabella’s chicken was undercooked, effectively eliminating her from the competition, all the kids immediately crowded around her when she went back to her station. There wasn’t a dry eye in my living room.
I’m happy we got to draw attention to Please Like Me in our foreign-imports video on last year’s list, but the Australian coming-of-age comedy took such a huge step in season two that I hope anyone interested keeps following. Season one was a little cramped and thus prone to mood swings, but season two spreads across its 10 episodes with grace, the highlight being the one-two punch of a Josh-Rose duet episode followed by an unstructured one where Josh, Tom, and Claire sit around just sorting through their lives. It’s rare to see a comedy (or half-hour dramedy) with such skillful camerawork, but director Matthew Saville brings out the relationships among the characters on-screen with clean geometric blocking and camera movements. It’s one of the five or so best directed shows on TV, and one of the funniest, most romantic, and most colorful of the year to boot.
What a difference a year makes. Nickelodeon may have had trouble monetizing The Legend Of Korra, but the two seasons that were released this year—mostly online, unfortunately— have seen the series finally living up to its great premise and and its forerunner Avatar: The Last Airbender. This year, the series has recovered from a clunky second season, tightening up plotting and character dynamics so that its strengths—an interest in a variety of genres, from drama and action to comedy, and an ability to tackle adult topics such as philosophy, politics, and spirituality—have shone through. This recovery mirrors the recovery of Korra’s somewhat prickly protagonist, whose recent battle with PTSD has made her more compelling than ever. This year, Korra underwent physical and psychological rehabilitation after being poisoned by Zaheer; like Enlisted and You’re The Worst, The Legend Of Korra has produced rich material concerning PTSD and raised awareness about the condition. Nickelodeon’s decisions to relegate Korra to the web and slash its budget have been frustrating, but it’s time to celebrate the Avatar-verse as Korra’s last book draws to a close. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have stated that they’re ready to move on from this world, and while that’s a shame, I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya
MTV’s Faking It struggled, initially, to overcome the myopia of its premise. But it found its stride a few episodes into its first season and offers a very candid look at young female friendship and sexuality. Set in a satirical version of Austin, Texas, where the kids who look like your stock-type populars are ridiculed and the outsiders are the insiders, Faking It uses its exaggerated, bizarre world to shake up the standard coming-of-age teen series. It isn’t perfect, and the show would be a lot better if it could find a way to off Karma, but it deserves to be recognized as one of 2014’s more surprising offerings.
Since Kyle and Molly already covered two of my biggest and most pleasant surprises of 2014, I want to give some love to the most entertaining and reliable new sitcom of the fall season, Black-ish. Not only is the series consistently laugh-out-loud funny, it takes an idea-based approach to its storytelling, rather than plot-based, which invites discussion and reflection. Is corporal punishment acceptable in parenting? Where is the line between supporting and spoiling children? Black-ish tackles questions like these on an almost weekly basis, but always makes clear that any answers it gives are character-specific. The show knows that being a spouse, parent, or kid can be hard, and the solutions Dre and Rainbow come up with for their family are the right choice for them, but not necessarily everyone watching at home. This lack of didacticism keeps the series relatable and fun and thanks to the excellent chemistry and timing of leads Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, the meta fun of seeing Laurence Fishburne in a role so removed from his powerful work on Hannibal, and the show’s strong ensemble cast, Black-ish has quickly established itself as one of the best new comedies of a year overflowing with worthy candidates.
Based on the network it’s on and the B-level superhero it stars, CW’s Arrow seems like it’s doomed to always get a little less attention than it deserves. It will probably always be outshined by the big-screen DC heroes (and even its own spin-off, The Flash), but to ignore Arrow because its main character barely even registers as a Justice Leaguer—or because it sometimes dips into soap opera territory—would be to miss out on what is easily the most exciting superhero show on TV. Arrow is a very confident series that has never been ashamed of its comic-book roots, which means it never has to act like it’s cooler than the earthquake machines or assassin cults that might show up on any given week. Plus, the whole back half of Arrow’s last season was really solid, with a bunch of characters from the comics showing up—Amanda Waller! The Suicide Squad! Deathstroke!—but they were all handled in such a way that less-nerdy viewers could still follow along. The Flash may be more fun, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have the backing of Marvel’s hugely successful movies, but Arrow at its best is just excellent TV.