Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What’s the most disappointing show of 2018?
(This is based on some anticipation of a show being good or promising, and then not living up to that standard. Both new and returning shows apply.)
The first season of “Westworld” felt like a wonderful extension of the themes showrunner Jonathan Nolan has been almost single-mindedly preoccupied with since “Person of Interest” — taking an old ‘70s classic sci-fi Western and infusing it with complex discussions of artificial intelligence, personhood, and the inherent problems underlying our images of the Old West. For the most part, Season 1 was a rousing success, culminating in a beautifully dark puzzle-box ending that set up a delicious revolution for the “hosts” of the park. Then Season 2 happened, and much of the show’s promise quickly disappeared up its own robotic ass.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some standout moments, and some episodes actually felt like solid standalones (the samurai homages of “Akane No Mai,” the high-concept elegance of “Kiksuya”). But sandwiched between those installments is a wagon train’s worth of changed motivations (see: Dolores turning into a single-minded villain) and fractured timelines made intentionally inscrutable. It feels as if Nolan & Co. heard the positive response to the Jimmi Simpson/Men in Black reveal and decided to turn that into the show’s primary storytelling device, resulting in 10 episodes of structural overkill. Eventually, all of “Westworld’s” puzzle-box mysteries stacked themselves too high, collapsing under their own weight in an overlong season finale that raises far more questions than it cares to answer. Sure, the show wants us to wonder whether Ed Harris is a robot; but when few of the mysteries to date have gotten satisfying answers (if any), why should we care?
Given the show’s incredible craftsmanship and its knockout cast (Thandie Newton continued to be the show’s MVP), It’s frustrating to see so many of HBO’s resources dedicated to a show that confuses opaqueness for sophistication. Maybe in Season 3, Nolan and the rest can get down to basics, stripping the show down to its essentials and playing to its many considerable strengths. As it is, Season 2 was quite the disappointment.
It has to be “The Romanoffs,” right? There were certainly worst shows that aired this year, but for Matthew Weiner to go from one of the 10 best shows in American history to this bloated, aimless mess was a huge comedown. And the fifth episode — a confused, self-aggrandizing tale of a man accused of sexual misconduct, written by a man accused of sexual misconduct — should have never seen the light of day. Every now and then, “The Romanoffs” would offer a moment reminiscent of the genius and artistry of “Mad Men,” but they were too few and far between because Weiner had the power to not have to listen to anyone say “no” to him about anything.
Disappointing me tremendously was “The Romanoffs.” I just expected so much more given showrunner Matt Weiner’s pedigree and his masterpiece “Mad Men.” But the narratives, execution and cast chemistry just were not there pulling me in, despite watching five of them. I really wanted to love it. The exception being for one episode, the third titled “The House of Special Purpose,” which starred Christina Hendricks, who was electric in a modern, twisty haunted tale that was both chilling and incredibly fun to watch. Hendricks is a freaking mondo talent, and everything she does, from her “Mad Men” days to “Hap & Leonard” and “Good Girls,” are all terrific.
I thought Hulu’s “The First” was going to be about the first humans to go to Mars. And it was, it just wasn’t about them on Mars, or even going to Mars. It was about a group of astronauts preparing to go to Mars. Actually, it was about a group of astronauts emotionally preparing themselves to go to Mars. You know what? It wasn’t even about that. It was about a jerk dad trying to repair his relationship with his typical TV teen daughter. It was also about a company going through a PR nightmare after a crew of astronauts blew up trying to go to Mars. It was not about space travel. There is more science in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” than in the entire first season of “The First.” I felt bamboozled. It wasn’t even good at being what it was. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
The easiest answer to this question is “The Romanoffs” because it truly is astonishing that with all the money and stars in the world, Matthew Weiner couldn’t make a compelling show. Still, the disappointment that stung me far worse was “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars 3,” which took a game cast and squashed their charisma with senseless rule changes and forced melodrama. I usually don’t get too put out by reality show winners not being my personal choice, but Shangela losing the crown thanks to the last-minute stunt of putting the power in the hands of the eliminated contestants sums up everything that went wrong with this confusing season. Hopefully, Season 4 (premiering at the end of the week!) will take a step back and remember that the best parts of “Drag Race” aren’t the twists, but the queens themselves.
I am still really mad about the fact that I watched every episode of “Insatiable” Season 1, willing to give it the benefit of the doubt based on previously enjoying Andrew Fleming’s work (his 1990s trio of “Threesome,” “The Craft,” and “Dick” is a pretty impressive run of unusual comedies) — and also, my initial reaction to the first fifteen minutes of the series was relatively positive. However, it’s a show that just got worse and worse and worse for me (especially after I made it to Episode 11, only to find out that the interview I was hoping to do, aka the primary reason I had been pushing forward with the series, wasn’t going to happen). There was just so much that went wrong here, and Netflix granting it a Season 2 was one of the weirder business decisions of the year. Though I guess Netflix doing so proves that I wasn’t the only one who watched the whole thing.
Like many, I watched Busy Philipps’ Instagram stories religiously, so I was thrilled when she was getting her own talk show, “Busy Tonight,” on E! It was probably my most anticipated new show of the fall. But, guys, it’s not great. Honestly, I don’t even know what I was really expecting, just that I wanted to see her on TV four times a week. It’s probably nerves and/or that they’re still ironing out the kinks, but the same disarming personality that’s in her stories is not quite there, except when she’s chatting with guests who are her friends. A lot of the bits fall flat, the writing is uninspired, and her nightly closing song in Mr. Nightgown is more weird than charming (I’m not even going to explain if you haven’t seen this). I want this to work, so I’ll hold out hope. And look, it’s not all tragic: She booked Olivia the dog!
We all define disappointment in different ways. Probably at the top of the pyramid would be shows created by people who I love that fell well short of expectations, so that could include Jason Katims’ “Rise” and Matthew Weiner’s “The Romanoffs” for sure. Neither “Rise,” which had a couple good episodes in its back-half, nor “The Romanoffs,” which initially amused me in its messiness, was awful, but I want better from and for Katims and Weiner.
Another way to do it, though, is to say that disappointment is measured in the gap between hopes/expectations and reality. People think some critics love to hate things, because pans are fun and easy to write. Nah. If I’m going to dedicate 10 hours to watching something, I don’t want it to be crap. I want it to be the best version of itself. I was mixed on the first season of “Ozark,” but with that cast I always had in my mind what a GOOD version of the show would be. For me, the second season of “Ozark” was basically a worst-case scenario, all mumbling, grumbling, and aesthetic monotony, wasting some of TV’s best actors on repetitive plotting, flimsy characterization and hollow twists. Throw in the embarrassing episodic lengths allowed by a disinterested Netflix and you had a show that I wanted to like and instead hated and that, to me, is the most disappointing feeling of all.
I really did think “Westworld” was going to pull it all together in Season 2. I really liked the last few episodes of Season 1, after finding it to be a slow starter, and when HBO sent out the first five episodes of Season 2 to critics, I watched with steadily growing investment. The show was settling down and just telling an interesting story about the coming battle between humans and artificial intelligences. But then it went out of its way to obfuscate whatever narrative it had, dug in deep on a bunch of pointless mysteries, and never quite found a way to keep its momentum going. The season’s eighth episode, “Kiksuya,” was one of the year’s best TV episodes. But outside of that, the back half of the season was a long list of false starts, stutter steps, and complete meltdowns. The finale was… fine, I guess, but mostly a confused mishmash of teases for other, better stories the show might tell at some point. I’ll always want to like “Westworld,” but so far, it hasn’t done much to make me feel like that desire is based in something real.
I was bummed out that “Camping” was so unpleasant and not in the “Jennifer Garner’s character was awful” way. Yeah, she was. But the whole thing was less then the sum of its fabulous parts. Felt the same way about “The Romanoffs.” Great cast, great performances, and yet nothing really moved me. But the biggest disappointment this year was “13 Reasons Why.” Instead of using the second season to course correct the missteps of Season 1 and shine a light on the need for mental-health advocacy among teens, the return of Clay (Dylan Minnette) and company ran right into every Afterschool Special cliche by throwing every endless high-school ill into the conversation while recasting the late Hannah (the still great Katherine Langford) into a boy-crazy liar whose suicide was the inevitable endgame of her own misbehavior. The court case against the school that failed this girl, as well as so many of her classmates, should have been a scathing indictment of complacency, and instead it became How to Get Away with Character Assassination. And don’t even get me started on the season finale’s horrifyingly irresponsible decision to have Clay confront a potential school shooter and help him escape arrest. WTF kind of message is that?!!
I’m not sure why I expected anything out of “Titans,” but the flagship show of DC Universe wasn’t afraid to punish me for it. The idea of DC having a smaller, more distilled version of its film universe’s dark and gritty aesthetic seemed like a smart move. You give the more intense version of your product to the more intensely dedicated audience. And for its part, when it came to the action, “Titans” went hard. There’s some genuinely gruesome and exciting combat in the show that probably wouldn’t fly in the world of lucrative PG-13 cinema. But its storytelling (and stilted dialogue) still felt shackled to its ineffective big screen brethren, languishing over an origin story that’s definitely unnecessary to subscribers of the DC-only service. Knowing your aesthetic is one thing – and I respect DC’s dedication to its seriousness if nothing else – but respecting your audience is something that the company continues to have trouble with.
Every show that aired this year was disappointing because it wasn’t “Justified.” Kidding. Sort of. I do think most current shows are disappointing in comparison to the electricity of Raylan and Boyd, but I do have an actual answer to this question, and it’s “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” I had such high hopes and expectations for the show’s sophomore outing after that stellar first season and its nuanced storytelling, but between the deterioration of the Jessica/Trish friendship, Trish’s laser-focused quest to become powered, and everything to do with Alisa, I came out the other side of Season 2 feeling like I’d taken a beating from Jessica. I always knew the show was going to struggle in the wake of Kilgrave and the powerful story that came out of that particular storyline, but I never expected the show to fail so miserably. Maybe this is why I’ve been rewatching so much TV comfort food this year.
Read More: The Best TV Shows of 2018
As a devoted “Mad Men” fan (I’ve rewatched the series many times,) I was looking forward to Matthew Weiner’s new show “The Romanoffs” for Amazon Prime Video. When it premiered, it was surprising to find that all the installments were movie-length. Instead of feeling leisurely, the pacing felt slow and sometimes tedious. Additionally, top-tier talent like Jack Huston, Corey Stoll, Radha Mitchell, Christina Hendricks, Diane Lane, Andrew Rannells, and John Slattery needed stronger material than what they got. While Weiner commented on issues like sexual harassment and marital infidelity, the messaging came across half-hearted at best. Finally, the running thread of characters who were allegedly related to the Romanoff family didn’t seem purposeful or effective in a storytelling sense. I watched all the episodes but it left me cold.
This award will have to be shared. Because, thanks to the deluge of TV we all waded through this year, there was a lot of disappointment to go around. First on my list was Showtime’s “Who Is America?” – a show I’ve called one of TV’s biggest head fakes. We were seduced by the promo ads featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney signing a “waterboarding bottle” and the headlines from a suddenly semi-relevant Sarah Palin complaining about being hoodwinked by the guy who created Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen. Instead, we got a muddled mess of a show that didn’t even air its interview with Palin. Most of the headlines it generated came from host Cohen disguising himself as characters to convince already unstable people to do crazy things, like outgoing Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer, who ran around with his pants down screaming the n-word in a segment that led to his resignation five months before he was already scheduled to leave office. What did this say about “Who Is America?” Damned if I – or Cohen – ever found out.
My second choice is CBS’ “Happy Together.” That’s because the show’s star, Damon Wayans, Jr., was the subject of a pretty extensive bidding war as the networks were lining up their fall programming. Everyone wanted to be in business with a guy who seemed on the cusp of sitcom stardom after well-regarded co-starring roles on ABC’s “Happy Endings” and Fox’s “New Girl.” But the show that has resulted – which cast Wayans as an accountant for a really famous star client who winds up living in his guest house – has been as uninspired as its title. Wayans, the biggest star in the cast, plays the least interesting character in a show with a plot like an old Nickelodeon sitcom pilot. For me, this show was Exhibit A proving that the broadcast networks just gave up on trying to create innovative new series for this TV season.
I don’t like cheating — not at board games, and not on Critic’s Polls — but there were two shows that deeply disappointed me in 2018: First, “Yellowstone” failed to live up to the standards I’ve come to expect from Kevin Costner riding a horse on television (so take your “Postman” jokes elsewhere). The “Hatfields & McCoys” star fell prey to yet another filmmaker whose ruthless efficiency flew out the window when he heard the words “10-hour movie,” as Taylor Sheridan grossly inflates his modern western — about a wealthy ranching family trying to hold onto their legacy, even if that means screwing over a few Native Americans again — into a crass, ugly, and very, very confused tale of greed. Give me 10 more hours of “Succession” before one more moment in “Yellowstone.”
And yet, that disaster did little to prepare me for a once-great TV creator whose undying (and one-sided) love affair with movies proved to be his small screen undoing. I’m talking about, of course, Matthew Weiner and “The Romanoffs,” the “Mad Men” creator’s anthology series constructed of eight loosely connected “episodes” that each run feature-length for no other reason than the perceived air of importance. Long, predictable, and often painfully oblivious to common decency, this scattered attempt to discuss identity and legacy through the frame of an “elite” bloodline looks grand but feels empty. Don’t think of it as a follow-up to “Mad Men”; think of it as a sequel to “Are You Here.”
As to not needlessly shit on two TV shows that have already seen their fair share of ire, let the memory of these two series — one likely dead, the other sadly thriving — haunt any creator who thinks making movies is the same as making television, or, worse still, that one is better than other. Each medium has its own specific demands, and one should not think because they’re great at one they can fake their way through other. Stretching out a two-hour story to 10 hours isn’t how great TV is made, just as doubling a 45-minute story by stuffing it with money isn’t the secret to making movies. Respect the story, and craft one right for your medium.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: ”Counterpart,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Superstore” (two votes each), “All-American,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” and “My Brilliant Friend” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.