Grantland’s Holiday TV Cleanse: The Lowlights of the Small Screen in 2014HBO
’Tis the season, amirite? Soon enough your browser will be swollen like a stocking, full of lists and charts documenting the very best of the year that was. We here at Grantland are not immune to this enthusiastic eggnog: We’ll be ladling it out ourselves next week. But ahead of the generous gift-giving, it’s time to consider some coal.
So, for today’s column, I’ve chosen to embark on a complete detox. Consider the below an attempt to purge an entire year’s worth of television disappointment. I’m sharing both out of a sense of fellowship — we were all watching together! — and self-preservation: These are the sorts of highly personal kvetches and complaints I’d rather not allow to fester over the holidays. It’s been an incredible 12 months of TV, and even greater things are ahead in 2015. But before we pop corks, it’s always good to pour out a little bile.
My thoughts are well known. Rather than revisit, let me instead distill my disappointment: I wish the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson — strong and chewy, like beef jerky — and the show-offy visual delirium of director Cary Joji Fukunaga had been used in the service of a more worthwhile story. To put it in terms McConaughey himself might appreciate: True Detective was all hat and no cattle. Actually, let me put it another way: There was plenty of evidence the cattle had been there. But what they left behind wasn’t all that rewarding.
Look, I appreciate writer Nic Pizzolatto’s appetite for the occult. It’s just that the bite he took out of that great cosmic branzino was too big for him to chew — particularly with just eight scant hours to do the masticating. There was much to admire in True Detective: the ambition, the temporal scope, the wigs. But as the series went on, there was also a creeping realization that Pizzolatto was stuck in a flat circle of his own, one in which his swagger and bibliography got him close enough to profundity to smell its beer breath — but not close enough to actually achieve it.
As the first season recedes into the rearview of history and the intriguing second approaches (though not nearly fast enough for some — including drama-starved HBO), it’s worth noting that True Detective’s lasting legacy doesn’t have anything to do with its convoluted plot. Instead, what lingers long after Rust Cohle’s starry-eyed final speech fades from memory is the intensity with which True Detective burned. For nearly two months, it was all any TV fan could talk about. Ever since, the entire industry has been trying to capture the same lightning in a Lone Star bottle. Expect to see a lot more movie stars making the leap to TV and a huge number of limited series being put into production to catch them. The Yellow King’s reign was short-lived. But the good news is, everybody is gunning for his throne.
So much smoking, so little fire! Still, I’m heartened to see that someone up there agrees with me — provided “up there” is the HBO executive suite. The news that the show is undergoing a fairly radical rework for Season 2 — with a new supporting cast and, perhaps, a new setting — is extremely encouraging.
AMC’s Scheduling Shenanigans
There are those who say that liquor is always good, simply because it gets you drunk. Then there are those who have come to appreciate the finesse and balance of an expertly made cocktail. I suppose I’d align myself with the latter camp, especially after seeing the mess AMC made this year of its most top-shelf product. The seven episodes of Mad Men that aired this spring were unlike any that had aired before. Sure, the frequent moments of beauty and inspiration were as dazzling as ever. (The patty melt! The moon landing!) But the show also suffered from uncharacteristic periods of clumsiness. Worthy plots were ignored or sped up into abstraction. The narrative lurched and swayed like Don Draper after his fifth old-fashioned. Worse, there were times when an indisputable Mount Rushmore show appeared … ordinary. For the first time, Mad Men didn’t feel like a carousel to me. I could hear the clicks.
I don’t blame Matt Weiner for this. I blame AMC. Breaking Bad, with its destination-driven plot, was uniquely suited to a split-season structure. Mad Men, with its elliptical poise, was assuredly not. The attempt to wring one last thimbleful of rye out of an aging stone was cynical and wrongheaded. I’m as eager for the final episodes as I am for anything else in 2015; I have a lot of confidence they will be terrific. I only wish Mad Men could have gone out with the impeccable timing and control with which it arrived. Greatness, like alcohol, is often better in moderation.
The First Half of Homeland
I wrote about the miracle resurrection on Monday, so I won’t get too into it here. But this entire situation was crazier than Carrie Mathison on the streets of Islamabad. For seven episodes, Homeland was spinning its wheels: playing for shocks, recycling scenarios, and generally behaving as if its Emmy-winning peaks were a long-ago fluke. And then, suddenly, it found the right prescription. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the particulars of that bumpy beginning. In fact, it only makes it appear stranger: Almost nothing of what went on has any real relevance to what is unfolding now. The question isn’t: Do you even remember Aayan, the orphaned, Carrie-deflowered medical student? It’s: Why would you ever want to? The fourth season of Homeland is proof you can never truly give up on a TV show. But it’s also a reminder of why it’s often so tempting to try.
The Second Half of Masters of Sex
What is it with Showtime and consistency? The first few weeks of Masters’s sophomore season were marvelous, as deep and pleasurable as what had come before. Actually, they were better: “Fight,” the third episode, was downright astonishing, an earned climax of intimate vulnerability. But what followed was surprisingly limp. The empathy of the writing and complexity of the performances didn’t waver, but the series itself certainly did — with ungainly time jumps, uneven lurches into civil rights, and, in Caitlin FitzGerald’s suffering Libby, the unpleasant dissection of a once-promising character.
The many decades of notoriety ahead of Masters and Johnson that once suggested promise now loom like a trap: How much drama can really be mined from a preexisting hole? It’s tough to say what will happen next. Was the second half of Season 2 a temporary slip? Bad sex is like bad pizza, sure. But bad Masters of Sex is less satisfying than them both.
The Pain of Cancellations
Enlisted was a smart, warm military comedy that was delightful from the moment it deployed. That Fox treated it with the kindness and care of a drill sergeant — and with exactly none of the discipline or focus — was thoughtless and cruel. It was burned off before most of America had a chance to fall in love with it. But some of us are still saluting its charms. (I’m still ticked about Trophy Wife and The Bridge, too. More on those in a moment.)
The Scourge of Precancellations
Look, I’ll be straight with you: If broadcast networks ever got their act together, it’d be good for the medium but terrible for columnists and critics like me. We’d be left adrift, in creative and professional limbo. What is a knife thrower without a target to hit? What is a Nelson without a nerd to mock?
These are the sort of grim queries that flashed through my mind this year as the broadcast networks experienced a worrying spasm of good sense. It began over the summer, when Fox eighty-sixed Hieroglyph, a “sexy historical-fantasy thriller” about pharaohs and vampires or something — seriously, you watch this and tell me what’s going on — that had been set to premiere in 2015. NBC followed suit by wisely dropping a house on Emerald City, its insane-sounding “dramatic and modern reimagining” of The Wizard of Oz. (Alternate title: Cynical Profit Opportunities in the Public Domain.) More recently, NBC1 euthanized Mission Control, a zany space race comedy that inspired less confidence than these chuckleheads in Denmark. (And, in so doing, freed up Krysten Ritter to star in Netflix’s take on Marvel’s Jessica Jones — a role she’s perfect for.) Also, ABC mercy-killed Members Only, an “upstairs/downstairs” country club drama that existed only because David O. Russell was attached to write and direct. When he left in February, the project lurched on, zombie-like, until finally being dispatched just before Thanksgiving.
I’m not saying the broadcast networks are getting smarter — one look at the upcoming slurry of uninspired remakes and reboots can attest to that. But maybe, just maybe, they’re getting a little wiser.
The Frustration of Non-Cancellations
I never root for someone to lose his or her job. And I do believe that 90 percent of creative work is begun with the very best of artistic intentions. But is it still possible to hold on to these cherished core values and wish like hell for the fiery end of certain TV series? Mixology and Manhattan Love Story were perhaps the most phony and loathsome broadcast shows in recent memory, and both were rewarded for their awfulness with termination. For that, I am grateful. But how can I rest knowing that CBS’s vile Stalker not only continues, but even thrives? And what to make of a world that greets NBC’s inane The Mysteries of Laura not with mockery but with an audience of close to 10 million? My goal in this job is always to celebrate the good. But man, sometimes it would be nice to take a few days to hunt down and eliminate the very, very bad, like some kind of fiber-optic vampire hunter. Speaking of which …
The Strain Should Have Been Better
There’s no reason AMC should have all the undead fun. There are plenty of stories — not to mention beaucoup ratings — to be exhumed from other moldering crypts. So I tried to see the bright side in FX’s The Strain; really, I did. But it’s tough to find sunlight in a show so dedicated to the things that go bump in the night. Especially one that can’t keep stumbling over its own feet.
As I wrote at season’s end, The Strain was desperately, perhaps fatally stupid. Its characters were paper thin, its villains latex phony, and its sense of geography totally screwy. There’s a fine line between this sort of clumsiness and the relative charms of camp, and it’s one I wish The Strain could navigate. The show’s best moments were its broadest: Kevin Durand’s Moscow-by-way-of-Transylvania accent; the time a Marilyn Manson–esque rocker flushed his, uh, mic stand down the toilet. Occasionally, there were glimpses of the swashbuckling, high-test nuttiness The Strain is capable of — Corey Stoll is certainly up for it, ridiculous wig and all. But instead, the show is trapped in the uncanny, unwatchable valley between tongue-in-cheek thrills and self-serious chills. Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse are smart guys; there’s every chance they’ll figure it out. (And FX is a smart network. Pre-limiting the series to five seasons might help sharpen the blades and curb the excess.) But it was extremely disheartening to see the way the bloodsuckers on The Strain were promoted, especially when it came at the expense of the flesh-and-blood humans on the far superior The Bridge. Because …
The Bridge Shouldn’t Have Been Canceled
You guys knew I was going to say this. And, sure, everyone involved deserves some of the blame for prioritizing an inherited serial-killer plot in the uneven first season, driving away scores of viewers and confusing those who might have appreciated the show’s more distinctive original voice. The ratings of the second season were what they were, and what they were was awful — the sort of minuscule numbers that had even a traditional-ratings-agnostic outfit like FX bashing its collective head against a Nielsen box. Cancellation wasn’t a surprise. You could say it was a sad, Old Yeller–y bullet to the head.
That thinking is hard to argue with. But in its second season, The Bridge emerged as the most human contemporary drama on television. It was concerned with the here and now — specifically, the ever-expanding web of criminality, mistrust, and lies that have come to define U.S.-Mexico relations in the 21st century — and also the whys and why nots of daily life. With a killer cast and a rich sense of possibility and place, The Bridge could have helped straddle the divide between TV’s now-ended golden age and the money-driven, cord-cutting uncertainty ahead. But instead it’s dead. And I’m not sure what has the pulse to take its place.
The ABC2 Comedy Department
Who is the blinkered development VP who keeps signing off on these awful show titles? Not even a year after the excellent Trophy Wife was sacrificed on the altar of its lame, zeitgeist-flailing name, the same fate befell the promising Selfie. Both shows had wonderful casts, tender hearts, and the kind of cleverness and chemistry that have fueled long-running hits since time immemorial. And, as such, both were ridiculously misrepresented by their titles. In today’s hyper-stratified media environment, you can’t just assume people will watch your new show. But you can do everything in your power to make sure they won’t go out of their way to avoid it.
The NBC Comedy Brand
Last week NBC announced the airdates for the final season of its cultishly beloved Parks and Recreation, not with a bang but with a sigh. The last 13 episodes would get a send-off fit for a leper: two episodes burned off every week for less than two months. This provoked more resigned frustration than fury. When Parks breathes its last in February, it will extinguish a bright flame of smart, bighearted comedies that has burned on NBC for more than 30 years. Since Cheers threw open its doors in 1982 as the place where everybody knew your name, the one thing everyone knew for certain about TV was where to find quality sitcoms: on NBC and on Thursday nights. NBC may be on top for now, thanks to strength in other categories and the unstoppable appeal of chairs. But it’s a serious problem that the funniest thing currently on its air is the idea of Katherine Heigl as a CIA agent.
Horrible Crime Shows (Ahem. Gracepoint.)
It’s the oldest trick in the Hollywood book: When you see something you envy, you don’t try to improve upon it. You just try to buy it.
That was more or less the thinking of then-Fox boss Kevin Reilly when he made the perverse decision to purchase the rights to the British sensation Broadchurch for the express purposes of making a watery, domestic version of it. That the result was a wan, uninspiring copy of the original doesn’t even bear repeating — and the ratings have been so dreadful (an anemic 0.9 in the key demo) that to mention it further just wouldn’t be cricket. What really crumbles my scone is the fact that we, as a country, could do so much better. The U.K. certainly has a proud tradition of crime fiction and a considerable head start in the business of turning that fiction into taut, generally devastating limited series. But the U.S. has dozens of equally talented storytellers who, if given the chance, would happily bring their tales of small-town murder and mayhem to television — particularly if they were allowed to tell an entire story, from beginning to end. (And some of them aren’t named Nic Pizzolatto!) Give me 10 episodes about an unsolved Washington, D.C. homicide written by George Pelecanos. Take me to the Baton Rouge bayou in the capable hands of James Lee Burke. What about Dennis Lehane’s Boston? Or Gillian Flynn’s Kansas City? Any of these places would be far better than a made-up California town that feels as authentic as Tomorrowland. Plot isn’t what made Broadchurch a sensation. It was specificity. And it’s a lesson American networks seem loath to learn.
Christopher Polk/Fox/Fox Collection/Getty Images
I don’t even know what to say about this anymore. John Mulaney remains one of the funniest stand-ups in the business. The talent assembled for his eponymous, throwback sitcom is obscene. The results are confounding and sad. Mulaney will be gone soon, freeing him to try his hand at other, better projects. Sometimes a good driver simply chooses the wrong vehicle. And sometimes the person telling the joke accidentally becomes the punch line.
Ryan Murphy As Stephen J. Cannell
I’m very up-front about my allergy to Ryan Murphy’s work. When he goes broad, as in Glee, I break out in hives. When he goes bold, as in American Horror Story, I break out of the room as fast as possible. That I don’t like his stuff is fine. Many people — many smart people! — do.
But I must protest when I see someone so divisive being handed the keys to multiple kingdoms. Murphy isn’t like other TV empire builders. He’s not skilled at sprinkling hot pepper on popcorn like Shonda Rhimes. He’s not a reasonable caretaker like Carlton Cuse or a lowbrow generalist like Chuck Lorre. He’s a provocateur — which, don’t get me wrong, is something TV needs. But it’s not something TV needs this much of. In a few months, in addition to the never-ending American Horror Story franchise, Murphy will have American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. on FX (starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson!) and Scream Queens on Fox, and he very nearly had Open, described as a “provocative exploration of human sexuality and relationships” before HBO passed on it. At a time when TV is in desperate need of considered, fleshed-out characters, the overinvestment in Murphy’s brand of flash seems unfortunate, if not unwise.
Myself. Again and Again.
What better time than the holidays to gobble up some humble pie? To that end: I’m disappointed it took me so long to notice and appreciate the fantastic Jane the Virgin. I’m sorry I missed the boat on Outlander (next season!) and continue to sleep on The Good Wife (next lifetime!). I feel bad that I never once checked out Sons of Anarchy. I wish I had more time to consider all the insanity Adult Swim has to offer, as well as all the dependable sanity on USA. I hope you’ll forgive me for not liking your favorite show as much as you do. (It’s not for lack of trying!) No matter the way it may sometimes seem, seeing greatness and spreading joy actually is the best part about this job. Here’s hoping I get to play Santa a lot more than Scrooge in the promising TV year ahead.
Filed Under: TV, true detective, HBO, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Nic Pizzolatto, the leftovers, Homeland, Showtime, masters of sex, FX, Trophy Wife, Enlisted, Fox, the bridge, Krysten Ritter, NBC, CBS, ABC, Tina Fey, Netflix, David O. Russell, mixology, stalker, Manhattan Love Story, The Mysteries of Laura, the strain, guillermo del toro, Selfie, Parks and Recreation, Mulaney, john Mulaney, Glee, American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy, usa, Adult swim, Branzino, Carlton Cuse