2014, the year of unexpectedly earnest TV
It wouldn’t have immediately occurred to me to call 2014 a brilliant year in television, but there have been significantly more shows I’m excited about than I have time to watch, which speaks rather well of current TV quality.
To begin by mourning the shows that were tragically cancelled, I’m saddest about The Carrie Diaries. The 80s-set Sex and the City prequel was charming in its earnestness. Actually, unexpected earnestness might be a theme in the TV I’ve enjoyed this year, as in the also sadly cancelled Star-Crossed, which started off as kind of Twilight-except-he’s-an-alien-not-a-vampire, but ended up being an exploration of the terrorism as a response to fascist movements which was willing to at least consider why the terrorists might rationally think they had a point. Imagine the CW making a sci-fi version of The Battle of Algiers and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Dracula, on the other hand, wasn’t earnest at all, it was goofy as hell, re-imagining Dracula as an inventor attempting to electrify London in order to undermine the power of the oil interests who were responsible for turning him into a vampire in the first place. It at least ran with that goofiness in a way that made it pretty fun (particularly in changing Lucy Westenra from a drip to a fabulous society lesbian). The same can’t be said for Penny Dreadful, which so stupid and boring even the presence of Eva Green and Billie Piper couldn’t save it; I would have predicted that if I’d noticed in advance it was exec produced by the team of terrible hacks responsible for Skyfall, John Logan (also screenwriter of Hugo) and Sam Mendes (whose terrible films are too many to mention).
Selfie was another show that attempted to skate by on its charm; I thought it just about succeeded, but that didn’t save it from cancellation. Obviously it started with the disadvantage of an awful title and a pretty bad premise, both slightly-out-of-date and so desperate-looking attempts at trend chasing. I wouldn’t have watched it, except that I have almost infinite good feeling towards John Cho because of his excellent work in the Harold and Kumar films. The show’s basic mode of operation was for the writing to be just about good enough to allow Cho and Karen Gillan’s enormous charisma to make the show engaging.
Jane the Virgin was another show hampered by a terrible title (and pretty bad ratings), although hopefully the positive critical reception and Emmy nominations will gain it a bigger audience and it won’t get cancelled. It probably also fits in the “unexpectedly earnest” category, because although it’s often silly, and very funny, with its ludicrous plots and telenovela pastiches, it takes all this silliness seriously, in that it respects why Jane and her grandmother are invested in telenovelas, and it respects all its characters, no matter how silly they are (Rogelio) or might have been, as in the case of Jane. Jane is a virgin, but she’s not a naïf, quite the contrary, she’s a thoughtful and confident woman in a position that is as difficult as it is ridiculous, and I think what makes the show so good is that it has the confidence to set up this silly scenario and then treat its characters as real people within that (the GIFs above are from boniferhasty’s tumblr).
Reign is perhaps doing something similar in trying to earnestly portray a ludicrous situation (in this case, a kind of silly fantasy of early modern France), although it’s less successful, partly because the characters aren’t as well developed, and partly because it is less confident about owning the silliness of its set-up. It’s basically Game of Thrones but with pretty dresses instead of unrelenting grimness, and also with a slightly more sophisticated understanding of politics. I’m still watching GoT, mostly for Cersei scowling, but it is fundamentally quite a stupid show, its stupidity that of the cynicism which imagines itself to be clever. The problem is that its response to bad fantasy books is too direct: just inverting stupid fantasy cliches doesn’t give you something significantly less stupid. So, in GoT, with monotonous regularity something “bad” happens to someone who did “the right thing,” somebody we thought was “good” turns out to actually be “bad,” etc. Reign is more sophisticated because it’s less cynical. It’s prepared to take seriously people’s desire to think of themselves as good people, and it goes some way to thinking about the costs involved in that. I’m just sad it has terrible ratings, and will almost certainly not survive for the ten seasons it would need to get to the point in Mary Queen of Scots’ life when she was assassinating lovers by blowing up their houses.
There are also perhaps elements of a similar critique of cynicism in Elementary, which is in many ways the end point of the “asshole genius” trend started by House. I think quite a few of the people behind Elementary were also involved in House, and the newer show in many way serves as an immanent critique of the genre the earlier show helped spawn. The other crime procedural I’m enjoying is How to Get Away with Murder, the darker, grittier, Hellcats reboot. The flip of the mystery-of-the-week format to a format where the protagonists have to find arbitrary procedural defense strategies is interesting, and there’s, of course, Viola Davis’s fantastic performance, carefully balancing presence, decisiveness, and weakness (the show also features one of the actors from The Carrie Diaries, and its nice to see at least one of them finding some more work). The flash-forward structure they were using to advance the season arc was drawing diminishing returns, but they seem to have dropped that now.
Finally, some more comedies. Broad City and Looking were both compared to Girls, but I liked them both more, perhaps because they’re slightly more formally conventional, in that Broad City is a comedy that is actually funny, and Looking has reasonably likeable characters and actual plots. And I liked Black Jesus a lot, although I’m slightly unsure about it. It was funny and, I think, theologically sound, in that if Jesus were to return today, African-Americans in the inner cities are surely indeed among the people he would choose to spend time with. However, in representing this, the show also represents a number of stereotypes of Black people in America, and I don’t feel confident in my ability to judge how much those representations serve as an effective comedy shorthand, and how much they entrench harmful stereotypes (if any of you have thoughts on this, I’d be interested to hear them).