2014 in Review: How’d the Fall Newbies Do?

As we discussed in an earlier post, fall 2014 didn’t offer nearly as much innovative and exciting new programming as the summer. Nevertheless, there were a few bright spots, and the broadcast networks had decent success with dramas. (The sitcom is another, sadder story.) As we look back on the first half of the broadcast season, we celebrate the wheat and puzzle over the chaff.

Best New Fall Show: The title of Jane the Virgin may sound warning bells in your brain, conjuring up images of mean-spirited and empty-hearted high school tripe, but if you can drop your eyebrows long enough to see past the unfortunate appellation, you’ll find a smart, warm, funny, delightful show about adults. Star Gina Rodriguez is a new critical darling, and deservedly so, as she manages to ground the accidentally inseminated Jane’s goodness in her moral, relatable heart, never veering into treacly goody-goody territory. Although Jane opts to keep the baby, she refuses to be defined solely by her impending motherhood or her sexual experience, continuing her plans to become a teacher, and perhaps a romance novelist. Adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela, the series is reminiscent of Pushing Daisies in its ability to balance its fanciful flourishes with real emotion. The supporting cast avoids any easy stereotype: Andrea Navedo is brilliant as Jane’s mother, caught between her desire to put her daughter first in all things and her own hopes of vocal stardom, and Justin Baldoni both smolders and soothes as the reformed playboy father of Jane’s baby. Hopefully the show’s Golden Globe nominations will bring a boost in viewership to keep the show on the CW for a long time to come.

Runner Up: The first half-hour of Showtime’s The Affair lulls you into complacency with all the trappings of a standard prestige drama. It’s easy to expect a character-driven chamber piece as you watch married Noah (Dominic West) leave New York City for a summer in the Hamptons with his attractive yet clearly troubled family. When he meets and sparks with pretty, but also married, diner waitress, Alison (Ruth Wilson), you recognize the tune and think you’ve seen this show before. Then, a new title card pops up, you see the same events again from a new perspective, and all your assumptions are proven to be for naught. The Affair asks the viewer to grapple with issues such as the reliability of narrators, the difference between the way men and women perceive events, the effectiveness of memory, and the value of truth. You trust everyone and no one, and by the middle of the story, you’re left wondering if the reality even matters. The police investigation serving as the scaffolding for the story can sometimes hinder the show’s momentum, but the storytelling is sold by the subtle variations in West and Wilson’s performances, as well as those of Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson as their wronged spouses.

Worst New Show Still On the Air: It’s unclear if the fact that Kevin Williamson’s creepy, voyeuristic CBS drama Stalker is still on the air says worse things about viewers or him. The pilot was riddled with atrocious, in-your-face dialogue that ranged from vaguely offensive to outright disturbing. It creates an uncomfortable “stalkers – they’re just like us!” vibe by making one of the investigators, Jack Larsen (Dylan McDermott, making the skin crawl) a stalker himself – but don’t worry, he’s really only persistent and, by the midseason finale, is rewarded for it. Then, of course, the other lead detective, Beth Davis (Maggie Q, who deserves so much better) is a stalking victim who gets stalked again. Both McDermott and the show earned People’s Choice nominations, which is a compelling argument to abolish the People’s Choice Awards altogether.

Best Cancellation: Manhattan Love Story‘s entire concept rested on one of the most overused and ineffective of television crutches: the voiceover. Rather than give an interesting and insightful comedic look into the brains of pretty young things as they attempt to date, the voiceover simply repeated tired gender stereotypes. (Boobs! Purses!) ABC’s swift cancellation of this one was a network version of a mercy killing.

Worst Cancellation: Look, the Selfie pilot was terrible. Epically, staggeringly terrible. But, even in my initial review, I pointed out that the premise had promise, and Karen Gillan and John Cho indeed grew into their roles. Cho excels at repressed frustration, and Gillan revealed a gift for physical comedy. Emily Kapnick’s vision became clearer, scripts became tighter, and jokes became funnier as the personalities surrounding the two leads crystalized into a versatile group of zany supporting players. Rather than simply skewer the superficially of Gillan’s Eliza Dooley over and over, the show took aim at broader idea of artifice, from Henry’s (Cho) stifling proprietary to their boss’ chumminess. Sadly, ABC lacked the patience to see the potential. The remaining episodes are airing on Hulu, but without much hope for a last-minute pick-up, and that’s a shame.

Show to Catch Up on During the Holidays: I’ve caught the stray episode of black-ish here and there since the pilot. The repartee and the chemistry between the family members is reminiscent of early Modern Family, before it was at its peak, which suggests that black-ish may still be on its way up. In that case, I’d want to be there for the ride, so this is the one to watch as you wait for new episodes to return in January.

Best Scene in an Otherwise “Meh” Show: Viola Davis is a talented, multifaceted actress with an impressive range, more than capable of carrying her own show. Unfortunately, How to Get Away with Murder doesn’t give her the best material with which to craft a magnetic center, surrounding her with archetypes rather than characters and presenting oddly unengaging cases of the week. However, the scene in which Davis’ Annalise Keating sits at her vanity, devastating from a shocking revelation, and strips her wig and skin-darkening make-up is powerful statement on the toll that must be paid for black women to achieve power.

Least Understandable Popularity: Was the world really crying out for a CopMom/MomCop? Do people really adore the repeated fake-outs where a description of a potential horrific crime ends up just being Laura dealing with her bratty kids’ mischief? The Mysteries of Laura titular detective is just another variation on the stock female lead who rocks her professional life but is terrible at her personal one without adding anything new to the interpretation except a new level of strained humor. And frankly, Debra Messing’s Detective Laura Diamond isn’t even that good at her job. Most of the dialogue is actually meaningless, contributing nothing to either plot or character development, with one-liners that even David Caruso would refuse to say. Still, it remains a ratings success for NBC (leveling out at respectable levels after a steep drop from its stellar premiere numbers) and received a swift full-season pickup.

Best New Surprise: Bravo, a network famous for reality television featuring fashion-based competitions and bitchy, backstabbing trophy wives, entered the scripted drama game this fall with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. One could be forgiven for expecting the same sniping and broadness in the new show, but pleasantly, it turns out one would be wrong. Although only two episodes have aired to date, Girlfriends’ is surprisingly subtle and filled with strong, complicated performances. The show is not without an overdose of the network’s forced sunny glamour, but the show never goes for the easy characterization, eschewing laziness in favor of emotion. There’s promise in the diversity of pairings and the show’s commitment to showcasing strong friendships and flawed adults negotiating the painful realities of separation.

Best New Show That Isn’t a Scripted Drama or Comedy: We lived in a world that already has The Daily Show and The Colbert Report – how many more satirical news shows with a center-left bent did we really need? One, as it turns out, and that show is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Oliver’s stint hosting The Daily Show while Jon Stewart was off filming his directorial debut proved that the Brit’s cheeky and chummy sense of humor was plenty to buoy his own show. He and HBO wisely chose to air once-a-week and to embrace a television version of a longform article, focusing less on ripping content from the headlines and more on deep dives into less discussed but still incredibly timely and pertinent topics. Oliver approaches his investigations with a blend of cynical outrage and clever takedowns that sound exactly like you wish you did when arguing politics with your friends. The descent into what he presents as the logical absurd conclusion of each scenario is a a brand of humor entirely Oliver’s own.

Best Network Gambit: ABC decided to commit full-on to representing a more diverse slice of the American population, and it paid off. Cristela and black-ish, while not blowing away the ratings, managed to secure full season pick-ups in a season where the half-hour sitcom seemed DOA. How to Get Away with Murder, nestled into Shondaland’s Thursday lineup, was a natural fit for the network and gave them the success everyone expected. For midseason, the Alphabet Network still has single camera comedy Fresh Off the Boat, featuring a Taiwanese family in Orlando (showrunner Nahnatchka Kahn excels at crafting humor with an edge where one expects tired stereotypes, and this show is no exception), and American Crime, about the aftermath of a terrible double murder from 12 Years a Slave writer and producer John Ridley (which, in the pilot, teeters on the edge of emphasizing racial tensions in a simplistic way, but has potential to become more nuanced).

Most Improved Network: The CW, who doesn’t program the 10pm hour and had a rather full slate of returning shows, only had a spot for two new dramas this fall. Fortunately for them, they nailed their selection. As I’ve already said above, Jane the Virgin is one of the best new shows not only of fall, but of the entire year. The Flash may not be a novelty – another show based in the DC comics universe, check – but it backs up its familiar premise with extreme self-assurance. A spin off of the networks’s best show (Arrow), it manages to share a universe with its older sibling while developing a lighter, more energetic tone in the place of Arrow‘s dark menacing tension. Both shows are helped by the network’s talent at casting charismatic, talented (not to mention attractive) leads. Midseason entries iZombie and The Messengers seem less like a slam dunk, but come with strong pedigrees. The CW, like its actors, is starting to prove it’s more than just a pretty face.

Worst Luck: Oh, FOX. I have a hard time stirring up much sympathy for the network that seems to find sport in canceling potentially good shows too soon, but even I cringe at their luck this season. Mulaney proved quickly why NBC passed on it last season: it’s shrill and unfunny. It turns out sick kids are not the draw the network thought they were, and Red Band Society will quietly end production after 13 episodes. Gracepoint was less an American reimagining and more a pale imitation of the UK’s Broadchurch, lacking the suspense and characterization of the original and earning unsurprisingly anemic ratings. The less said of the odious cast and inane premise of reality show Utopia, the better. Even Gotham, the network’s best new performer, struggles to find a consistent tone and flounders under the weight of the enormous cast of villains made invincible by their pre-ordained futures. Fortunately for FOX, it has a deep bench ready to go for midseason, including Rainn Wilson’s Backstrom and the hip-hop family epic Empire.

Worst New Show Laugh Track: The McCarthys. Fire the sound mixer or teach him/her where the volume switch is located, and perhaps CBS should learn the meaning of the word “restraint”. I’m not crazy about the show, but I would enjoy it 60% more if the laugh track stopped trying to convince me the show is being funny every time someone breathes.

Best New Miniseries: HBO is the reigning king in this genre, although a number of cable networks are trying to shove it off its gilded hill. None quite succeeded this year, as the network’s four-part adaptation of Olive Kitteridge was a bittersweet, melancholy, yet still uplifting adaptation of a book many thought unfilmable. A passion project of star Frances McDormand, the show rests on the actress’ prodigious talent and emotive face as the abrasive yet deeply emotional Olive, and there isn’t a wrong chord among the rest of the cast (featuring brilliant turns by Bill Murray, Richard Jenkins, and Cory Michael Smith, among others). As a meditation on small-town life and generations of family strife, the show lacks bombast, going for the quiet truth instead of dynamic outbursts even in the most dramatic moments. (Full disclosure: I have not yet seen The Missing, currently airing on Starz, and the project most likely to have the quality to upend my above pick).

There you have it: it wasn’t the best of fall, but it wasn’t the worst of falls either. What new shows are you watching and enjoying that I overlooked? Is the network comedy as dead as it seems? Watch for our joint take on the overall fall schedule, including both new and returning shows, next week.