Monday Morning Critic: Unsung Heroes of the Fall 2014 TV Season
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: looking ahead to year-end lists, and some unsung heroes of the Fall 2014 TV season.
It’s nearing Thanksgiving, which means that we’re almost in year-end “Best Of” mode here at ScreenCrush. It’s a fun opportunity to look back at the year that was, but inevitably devolves into a series of reactions akin to, “I can’t believe you ranked [insert piece of pop culture here] over [insert another piece of pop culture here]!” or “How could you leave off [insert a third piece of pop culture here]!”
Year-end lists are like taxes: Everyone does them, and almost no one I know actually enjoys doing them. They are expected pieces of content, not unlike the barrage of fall pilot reviews that takes place every September, the subsequent coverage of winter pilots in January, and the coverage of various events such as Comic-Con throughout the year. Nearly everyone laments the fact that they have to do these pieces, but no one wants to be left out of the mix, and so everyone does them even if their hearts, minds, or souls are invested in them.
That’s all well and fine. I’m not suggesting anyone that gets to cover entertainment for a living should earn sympathy. And there’s total value in all coverage I just mentioned! What I would suggest in terms of year-end summaries is that no single list will validate or eradicate any shows you yourself enjoyed over the past season. In fact, in this age of “too much good television” (which is a feature, not a bug, of TV in 2014) means that more than ever, there will not be a general consensus when it comes to year-end lists celebrating the best of the small screen in the past 12 months.
These lists are not meant to be conversation enders, but conversation starters. Moreover, the sheer amount of good television means that you might learn about shows for the very first time when they appear on a critic’s list. So rather than decry those critics whose tastes and/or viewing habits don’t completely align with your own, think about the upcoming lists as a way to expand your existing palette. If you like eight of my ten shows, but never watched the other two, there’s a good chance you will like those as well! If you hate those eight, you need not bother with the two that won’t ring a bell. No two lists will look alike, which reflects the diversity of programming offered this year and the not-so-secret fact that there is no such thing as an objective critic.
Each person that does this for a living (or hobby) brings his or her personal sensibilities to the table. As such, calling any show the “best” is inherently silly and reductive. Last year, I had two shows that stood out amongst the pack: ‘Orange Is The New Black’ and ‘Enlightened.’ I could easily define why those shows worked best for me in 2013…which is, really, all a year-end “Best Of” list really is. It’s easy traffic-bait to come up with “definitive rankings” of things, but that’s just not how any critics worth their salt think about these types of lists. As with anything else related to television criticism, these year-end lists are opportunities to present informed opinions that combine analysis, theory, and yes, personal biases into a clear summary of what worked and didn’t within a particular show. But to me, it’s not a time to finally decide if Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ was somehow better than Comedy Central’s ‘Review.’ Maybe someone smarter than me can make that call. All I can do is tell you in the clearest possible way why both achieved their individual goals with equal aplomb, and perhaps unveil what those two shows may actually have in common that isn’t readily apparent.
Yes, I’ve just given away two shows on my personal year-end list. But I don’t have a clue how they rank (other than alphabetically) within the rest of my list. I won’t assign numbers when I present my list here in December, primarily because I want to celebrate the shows as a group rather than pit them against one another. I won’t disparage any outlet that does it the old-fashioned way, nor would I suggest that no one can have a show that holds a special place in their hearts. But I would suggest using the word “favorite” rather than “best,” since the latter is a word that creates unnecessary conflict. I don’t know why more outlets don’t use “Favorite Shows Of The Year” rather than “Best Shows Of The Year,” other than habit and some search-engine optimization. “Favorite Shows” is a much more accurate title, and it’s not the dirty one some might assume. The best part of being a critic isn’t reinforcing what readers already know, but rather introducing people to something with which they weren’t previously familiar. If my year-end list can do that for a few people, then for that reason alone it’s worth doing every single year.
I want to point out a few great performances this Fall that have gone somewhat under the radar. This is a short and by no means complete list. These performers have certainly received some attention, but more overt recognition of their work is needed.
Guillermo Díaz, ‘Scandal’: The plotline involving Huck’s son has done wonders for focusing this character’s energy, and given Díaz’s performance more poignancy as a result. Last week’s episode featured a heartbreaking moment involving Huck, his son, and an ice cream cone that was more terrifying than any assassination attempt.
Kenan Thompson, ‘Saturday Night Live’: ‘SNL’ might not have a break-out star this season, but Thompson is definitely the glue holding this cast together. A seasoned veteran, Thompson makes everything look effortless, which may be why so many viewers continually overlook his contributions.
Melissa Fumero, ‘Brooklyn-99’: There are much showier performances on this show, but Fumero’s turn as the workaholic Amy Santiago pushes her past mere romantic interest for Andy Samberg’s character and into a fully realized character for whom the audience cannot help but root.
Tom Cavanagh, ‘The Flash’: Cavanagh has grown into his face, if that makes sense: There’s something about the lines etched into his jawline that helps sell all that Harrison Wells has gone through, and Cavanagh laces words of wisdom with enough menace to make fans continually question his motives even as they root for him to not be the Big Bad he appears to be at present moment.
Pharrell Williams, ‘The Voice’: Yes, this show is more about the coaches than the contestants. But when one of the coaches is one of the premiere producers in modern pop music, then maybe that’s OK. Williams’ contributions have been instructive for both audience as well as his team. I could watch a two-hour episode that consisted only of him working with the bands to help shape the performances of his team.
Sean Giambrone, ‘The Goldbergs’: In season two, Giambrone continues to prove that he’s one of the best child actors on primetime television as the onscreen representation of series creator Adam Goldberg. Just watch him stand toe-to-toe with Wendi McClendon-Covey in ‘Family Takes Care Of Beverly’ as the two discuss Adam’s hypothetical future living situation to see not just a great child actor, but a straight-up comedic genius at work.
Andrea Navedo, ‘Jane The Virgin’: Navedo takes what could have been a two-dimensional character (the sassy mom that doesn’t know her age) and injects Xiomara (“Xo”) with an amazing amount of heart and intelligence. She doesn’t get the attention of Gina Rodriguez or even Ivonne Coll, who plays Jane’s scene-stealing abuela Alba. But inn a show full of happy surprises, Navedo just might be the happiest.
Who else is an unsung hero of this Fall’s TV season? Let me know in the comments below!