10) “The Strain”
Guillermo del Toro’s “Blade II” is maybe one of the more under-appreciated modern vampire movies ever — full of gory imagination and dry wit. So an entire vampire series created by del Toro? We were excited, for sure. Unfortunately, what we got was muddied and unengaging, due largely to squandering star Corey Stoll’s charms on a bland cliche of a protagonist. (Seriously, if we never see another divorced white male in his late 30s obsessed with his work but also trying to reconnect with his son and balance a complicated relationship with his younger female co-worker, we’ll be happy, happy TV nerds.) It might be worth re-examining this show before the premiere of Season 2, because “The Strain” wasn’t necessarily bad — and disappointment can be conquered.
9) “How to Get Away With Murder”
Before you get all up in arms about how critics don’t know how to “have fun” when watching TV, know this: “The O.C.” is one of my favorite shows. I, Ben Travers, watched “Grey’s Anatomy” for more than five years. I’ve shared secrets with “Gossip Girl,” drank Manhattans during “Sex and the City,” and there’s nothing I like more than kicking back with a cold one in my hand and “Friends,” “New Girl,” “The Office,” or any other romance-based sitcom on the TV in front of me. The point is, I love me some soapy TV, assuming it’s performed well and written properly. “How to Get Away With Murder” has neither. Outside of the magnificent VIola Davis — who’s mercifully playing down to her competition here — the acting on this show makes any attempt at scandal (or “Scandal”) impossible to appreciate. Of course, if the story wasn’t told at such a haphazard speed, perhaps I’d be able to overlook the pretty-but-empty heads in front me, but the horrifically-abbreviated “HTGAWM” is told with in lurches, shooting you forward one second before stalling in neutral the next. Take me back to Seattle Grace any day before you make me attend this class.
8) “The Knick”
When it was first announced Steven Soderbergh would be coming out of his pseudo-retirement to helm episodes of the new Cinemax series “The Knick,” you better believe everyone on the TV side of things sat up to take note. Think pieces were written about the allures of television over film and how the small screen was a big deal for indie storytellers. It felt like everyone in the entertainment community was on edge when we first received screeners of Soderbergh’s second foray into the medium (after “K Street”), and the reactions was… mixed. While some were swept up in the sweeping visuals, lavish colors, and detailed architecture, most critics agreed the story itself was lacking and even the great Steven Soderbergh couldn’t make up for its cliched characters.
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Some highlights outside of the topical emerged. Clive Owen earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in the lead role of Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon at The Knickerbocker Hospital, and Andre Holland certainly deserved one as his underground second-in-command. Episode 7, “Get the Rope,” even seemed to tie all of the many plot lines together, but it only lasted briefly before “The Knick” collapsed again into a heap of predictable mishmash by season’s end. Hope springs eternal with these talents involved, but Season 1 will always be remembered as a disappointment in 2014.
All the pieces were in place for a potentially great political thriller: A proven creator in Rand Ravich, great actors like Dermot Mulroney and Gillian Anderson and a premise which… Okay, maybe the premise came off as a bit absurd — the sons and daughters of America’s most powerful people are kidnapped! “How far would you go to save your child?” But that’s not the weirdest premise we’ve ever heard, and “Crisis” could have either taken that concept to crazytown (the “24” path) or realism-town (the “Homeland” path). Unfortunately, it did neither of those things, aiming for a middle ground that was, ultimately, boring-town. Maybe in an alternate universe, “Crisis” might have worked. But in this one, it might not even be remembered.
6) “One Child”
All in all, SundanceTV had another stellar year. In only its second year of airing its own original scripted series, the AMC-owned network presented the second season of “Rectify,” one of the best dramas on TV, and added another A-level miniseries to its roster in “The Honorable Woman.” Yet there was a blemish on the otherwise outstanding 2014, and that ugly mark came with “One Child,” a two-night event series that first aired earlier this month. Focusing on an adopted woman’s return home to help her paternal brother out of a jam, the China-set series carried all the subtlety of a gong. Star Katie Leung could never find a groove, nor could the character actors surrounding her, though I doubt it was their fault. “One Child” stretched believability so thin it had to use overt exposition repeatedly in order to make you believe anything the characters said or did. While bearable for the first two hours, Part II takes a notably dark turn down a path no one needs to take. Here’s hoping this network abnormality is a one-time mistake.
Sean Bean? Great actor. Strong supporting cast? Also in place. Premise with real potential? Definitely. But this story of an undercover agent whose grasp on his own identity is fragile got bogged down in cliches early in its pilot, including one of our least favorite cliches ever — female character forced to go undercover as a stripper for only the flimsiest of plot reasons. Bean’s a fun actor, and it’s always great to see Tina Majorino (who was so great on “Veronica Mars”) get some work. But “Legends” felt completely unessential.
4) “Marco Polo”
There are elements of “Marco Polo” that could develop into compelling storytelling, including the throne room drama surrounding Kublai Khan (a stellar Benedict Wong), but by framing the show through the eyes of an outsider, and also indulging too often in kung fu movie cliches, the show lacked any real authenticity or emotional engagement. There’s a chance that it might be worth watching the second half of Netflix’s big-budgeted period drama, but we’re not making it a priority at this point.
3) “Welcome to Sweden”
Perhaps I should mention now how I believe “Parks and Recreation” to be one of the greatest comedies ever made, and Amy Poehler deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for her hand in creating the inspirational Leslie Knope, a beacon of integrity in a morally dark TV landscape. Now, I didn’t imagine “Welcome to Sweden” would live up to such lofty ideals in its first season, if ever. Sure, Poehler is an executive producer and guest star. Yes, her brother is the creator and star. Heck, even Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza made guest appearances on the freshman comedy. But clearly taking the trip to “Sweden” wasn’t going to be anything like visiting Pawnee, IN.
Little did I know just how different the two would be. Not only is “Welcome to Sweden” a brazenly unfunny half-hour comedy, it makes a mockery of what the Poehler family had built before. The characters on “Welcome to Sweden,” primarily the central couple played by Greg Poehler and Josephine Bornebusch, are completely devoid of good-natured intent. They’re unlikable protagonists who barely know each other and don’t seem to care that deeply for one another, despite their efforts to move across oceans to start a life together. That would all be well and good if the show was striving to make a point about jumping into relationships too quickly or the difficulty of intercontinental communication. It’s not. “Welcome to Sweden” thinks it’s sweet and charming, which only makes it all the more ugly. Perhaps it’s best if, between the Poehler siblings, we stick to Amy’s comedy from now on.
2) “Marry Me”
After spending three brilliant seasons with both Casey Wilson and creator David Caspe on “Happy Endings,” it seemed impossible the real-life couple’s latest sitcom would be anything less than satisfactory. Would it be as good? Maybe. Better? Probably not. But it certainly couldn’t be “bad.” The first eight episodes argue otherwise. “Marry Me” has been wildly uneven on almost every level, from its characters — who bounce between charming and grating at rapid speeds — plotting —an entire episode was spent with one character living in her car and another at an all-you-eat buffet, in the same episode — and even tonally, with random asides being overwhelmed by lingering reaction shots and physical humor being all but ignored. NBC has placed the 30-minute sitcom on hold until later in the season. Hopefully the extra time off will give Caspe and Wilson enough time to retool.
When we reviewed Fox’s adaptation of the UK series “Broadchurch” earlier this fall, one of us had seen the original British show and one of us hadn’t. But it didn’t end up making a difference — we were both extremely disappointed by the waste of a great cast on what could have been a compelling prestige drama. Relying too heavily on a somber tone to communicate quality, what “Gracepoint” lost in translation was everything that made the original even a little bit compelling. While “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season in 2015, Fox has decided not to renew “Gracepoint.” Maybe that’s for the best.
Indiewire’s Year-End TV Coverage: