2014 in Review: Summer TV Edition

A funny thing happened this year: summer, historically the doldrums for television viewers, turned out a more invigorating, more engaging selection of programming than most of what fall 2014 ended up offering. The leap in quality and quantity between the summers of 2013 and 2014 was startling. The proverbial “shift to year round programming” hyped by executives at press tours crystalized into reality with a slate of limited run series tailored to a multitude of tastes.

Here’s a look at some of what stood out, for better or worse.

The Show Everyone Was Talking About (But Not Always Nicely): HBO doesn’t shy away from controversy, and The Leftovers certainly generated a lot of internet ink as critics debated the merits and missteps of the freshman drama. Some thought it a poignant, haunting examination of grief and loss rich with metaphor and meaning. Some (cough, cough – me) found it a pretentious, overwrought meditation on a small group of generally uninteresting people, nevertheless anchored by a few outstanding performances, such as those by Ann Dowd and Carrie Coon. And some (that would be Kristin Marie) despised it for being unnecessarily bleak and obtuse, with an over-reliance on shock for shock’s sake. At least we can all agree that this is the worst statue in all of history.

The Best Sex Scene in Recent Memory: Outlander was a lot of things: a well-crafted female-led historical drama, a critical and ratings hit for its parent network Starz, and the best travel brochure for Scotland that the country could ever want. But it was in the series’ seventh episode, “The Wedding,” where reluctant newlyweds Claire and Jaime consummated their union with an impeccably shot, beautifully lit series of trysts, that the show hit its peak. The scenes of the actual, um, deed were surrounded with narrative flashbacks to the preceding days that added depth of meaning to an already sultry encounter, acted out by the talented (and impossibly attractive) leads Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan.

I Just. Don’t. Get it: I will admit that I watched all of the first season of Under the Dome in 2013, out of desperation during a particularly weak period for television. However, it boggles my mind that the second season continued to be a success story for CBS, despite its muddled storytelling, inconsistent characterization, inattention to world-building, and complete disdain for logical timelines. Although the show is loosely based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, its generic location and stable of tired stock characters are a far cry from King’s down-home Maine specificity and talent for crafting believable small-town folk. The end of the season featured people throwing themselves down a pit to escape the titular dome, and I can’t help but see it as a metaphor. And yet, enough people watched to earn the show a third season. Please, folks – Dean Norris deserves better.

I Do Not Think “Retired” Means What You Think It Means: Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from directing films only to shift over to producing and directing all ten episodes of The Knick, a series that manages to be entirely accessible but wildly innovative all at the same time. The show’s visual sensibility – embracing natural light, long takes, and off-screen dialogue – is unlike anything else on television, and the use of an electronic score by Cliff Martinez feels urgent rather than anachronistic in the show’s 1900 New York setting. Featuring a collection of fantastic actors, led by Clive Owen’s fierce intensity as brilliant but drug-addicted surgeon John Thackery, the series (renewed for a second season) helped put HBO’s little-brother network Cinemax back on the critical map.

The Changing of the Gothic Guard: True Blood, a southern gothic vampire serial that once brimmed with a sexy, campy creative energy and was vital to the HBO brand, suffered a marked decline in quality as it aged. The seventh and final season aired this summer, and didn’t disappoint critics who anticipated it would be the show’s worst (the final episode “Thank You” has a dismal 5.1 rating on IMDb). Fortunately, where HBO failed, Showtime picked up the slack with Penny Dreadful, set in a 19th century London where all the terrors of Gothic literature emerge from nightmares to roam the streets seeking their victims. Like True Blood, sex features prominently, but it’s a dark, dangerous, omnivorous sexuality designed to horrify as much as titillate. Anchored by film stars Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, and Josh Hartnett, London proves to be quite the upgrade from Bon Temps.

Finally, A Low-Rated Single Camera Comedy That I Didn’t Curse: I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I don’t have a mainstream sense of humor, and generally, I find humor underwritten by pathos and social commentary more compelling than broader, sitcom style jesting. But at long last, the renewal gods heeded my pleas and granted You’re the Worst a second season (albeit not on its original network, FX, but on its offshoot FXX). On the surface, You’re the Worst appears to be about terrible people doing terrible things in service of an ill-fated relationship. In lesser hands it could be unbearable, but as Gretchen and Jimmy, leads Aya Cash and Chris Geere have a strong handle on the insecurities and failures that have made these two broken people what they are, lending their misanthropy a very human edge. Wisely, the show chose to increase the screen time of Kether Donohue as Gretchen’s bestie Lindsay and Desmin Borges as Jimmy’s roommate Edgar, shifting the show from a rom-com conceit to more of a hang-out one.

The Network That Got Its Groove Back: All three of TNT’s new summer shows ended up as success stories. The Last Ship, which pulled some of the highest ratings this summer, earned a renewal early in its run, with Murder in the First not far behind. News broke this week that Legends, the spy drama starring Sean Bean that Kristin Marie did not enjoy, also will get a second season in 2015, possibly with some supporting cast changes. TNT may usurp USA as the go-to place for escapist summer dramas.

Stay tuned later in the week for our look at fall TV’s new and returning shows. Meanwhile, did you enjoy (or despise) something on television this summer? Let us know in the comments.