Television continued its march into the new golden age in 2014. Albeit with a few bumps along the way.
The year opened with the stunning crime drama True Detective in January and ended with the December series finale of Sons of Anarchy in a year that saw a plethora of quality dramatic series debut even as some of the old guard were given a rousing send off. And that included a few talk show hosts along the way. Here are the top 10 TV shows and events of 2014.
1. Networks embrace diversity
Well, they always said they would. But this season they paid more than lip service. The fall shows hit a tipping point in truly diverse productions that portrayed Alfre Woodard as a black female president, Viola Davis as a law professor and Maggie Q as a detective in prime-time roles. Then there were high quality, unabashedly culturally specific shows such as black-ish, Cristela and Jane the Virgin. Just as importantly, the executives behind the shows have also become increasingly diverse, with major appointments this year in drama and comedy from the big networks. Black-ish producer Larry Wilmore may have said it best: “We’re not in the Negro Leagues anymore.”
2. Netflix gets some Canadian competition
Worried that the online streaming network would be the Walmart to their Zellers (and we know how that ended up), Canadian TV executives formed their own online pay subscription services. It’s about survival as TV moves increasingly toward digital. Rogers and Shaw teamed up to create Shomi and Bell launched Crave TV. Will history show these were the right first steps? The gloves are off, but Netflix continues to make inroads into the Canadian market. At the end of the day, viewers will have a lot more choice: if they can just be convinced to pay for something new in an already oversaturated media market.
3. The shakeup in late night
The year started out with Jimmy Fallon inheriting the Tonight Show mantle from Jay Leno. Seth Meyers took over his late night spot. It ended with Stephen Colbert leaving The Colbert Report to replace David Letterman next May. Meanwhile, Craig Ferguson leaves the Late Late Show slot after a decade, to be replaced by English comic James Corden. Got that?
4. Turmoil at the CBC
First the CBC struggled with massive budget cuts and produced a grim five-year plan that promised to rid the broadcaster of staff and resources on an unprecedented scale. Then came the loss of their hockey franchise to Rogers. Could it get any worse this year? How about a host that allegedly choked, hit or sexually harassed women? The last thing they needed was a scandal the size of Jian Ghomeshi.
5. TV stars saying bad things
You would have thought people would have learned the lessons of Duck Dynasty about foot-in-mouth disease and making anti-gay comments. But the trend continued in 2014. First up was The Bachelor’s Juan Pablo Galavis whom the Star interviewed at a Pasadena cocktail party with the online blog TV Page. Galavis said having a gay Bachelor would not be a good example and be “more pervert.” After stories were published by the Toronto Star and TV Page, the Twitterverse lit up and led to apologies from the producers of The Bachelor and ABC.
Next was CTV’s Spun Out sitcom creator Brent Piaskoski who tweeted some truly offensive remarks about Asians while waiting at the airport. He subsequently apologized after a Star story. Piaskoski’s remarks were perhaps the more surprising, since he has major cultural influence: responsible for hiring and writing characters on TV shows that reflect Canada’s diversity. It showed we still have some ways to go.
6. Thursday Nights are owned by Shonda Rhimes
How did one person end up owning Thursday prime time? Executive producer Shonda Rhimes started the ball rolling with that little medical show called Grey’s Anatomy. She then added the political potboiler Scandal and then put the nail in the coffin for the competition with the legal thriller How to Get Away With Murder, one of the top 10 hits of the season. For her efforts, Rhimes will be inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in April. And her bosses at ABC are understandably overjoyed. Now they have to figure out what to do with the other six days of the week.
7. The Naked Entrepreneur
Can Ryerson University media students produce a show worthy of the Oprah Winfrey Network? Heck yeah. Despite an average budget of $3,000 per show (take that Shark Tank) and a set that looked like it was cobbled together from backyard garden furniture and duct tape, Ryerson students managed to put together a revealing series on Canadian entrepreneurs. Clothier Harry Rosen, design maven Debbie Travis and beer magnate John Sleeman were some of the luminaries profiled. The student-produced show airs on OWN in January.
Television critics were first introduced to Gotham in a Los Angeles theatre. Darkly cinematic, it held up well on the big screen. On the small screen, it also happens to be the best police procedural on TV today. The prequel to Batman has been a critical and commercial success. But it’s not for everyone. It is bleak and unrelentingly violent. But it is also completely arresting: a remarkable feat considering that this is a superhero movie without superheroes.
9. The Affair
The Affair is one of the most intriguing new series this year. That included Clive Owen playing a flawed doctor in the period drama The Knick, the TV remake of Fargo, the brilliant transgender story Transparent and the insightful comic-drama Silicon Valley. The Affair tells the story from a male and female perspective and it’s up to the viewer to determine what’s real while being guided by unreliable and self-serving narrators. What starts off as a standard pot boiler becomes something far more disturbing. The bravura attempt at creating a fractured reality and pushing the envelope of conventional narrative makes for immensely challenging, but ultimately rewarding viewing.
10. True Detective and Sons of Anarchy
The first season of the detective drama premiered in January and what a way to kick off the year. It had a stellar cast and bravura performances that included Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, with directing by Jane Eyre’s Cary Joji Fukunaga. As in The Affair it used multiple points of view and time lines to tell an intricate, nuanced tale. The haunting cinematography made Louisiana look otherworldly. But it was the dance between Harrelson and McConaughey that made the story. The two heavyweights at work made you appreciate why this truly is the golden age of television. While True Detective started the year, it was capped off by the grisly series finale in December of brilliant biker drama Sons of Anarchy. As Canadian Kim Coates (Tig) says: “It’s a brutal Shakespearean epic,” that was a true original.
Most overrated shows
Utopia: Fox’s Utopia was the most ambitious and overhyped reality show ever launched. Endowed with a blockbuster $50-million budget, it was supposed to combine the rawness of Survivor with the 24-7 surveillance of Big Brother. The plan was to follow 15 men and women in isolation as they tried to build a society for one year. Subscribers who wanted to see live streaming feeds would be charged another $5 per month in a pay per view. The show lasted two months, making it the biggest loser in the history of reality TV.
The Flash: It’s one of the biggest fall hits of 2014. It’s also the highest rated series launch on CW in five years since The Vampire Diaries. But despite the big numbers, and some impressive special effects, it’s a pedestrian, entirely formulaic take on a comic-book franchise. Given that Arrow executive producer Greg Berlanti is also behind The Flash, hopes were high. But it has none of the darker back story of Arrow and seems squarely aimed at a more juvenile audience.
Most Underrated Show
Selfie: Karen Gillan and John Cho starred in this social media remake of Pygmalion that was cancelled by ABC due to low ratings. It’s a pity because Gillan made a fine modern-day Eliza Doolittle to Cho’s Henry Higgins. The sitcom still needed time to find its legs and sometimes fell too easily into camp. But it was also one of the few prime-time shows that presented a diverse cast, breaking prime-time ground with an Asian male in a romantic lead.