2014 in TV (Part One)
2014 was an even finer year for television than 2013. It featured another wave of intelligent TV with highlights including a newly-reformed Doctor Who, E4 mystery series Glue and BBC dramas like Happy Valley, The Missing and The Musketeers adorning the schedules. Furthermore, American TV continued to improve with the acclaimed return of Arrow, Agents of SHIELD and Hannibal as well as brand new shows, The Flash, Fargo and True Detective. Sexy period dramas like Penny Dreadful and The Musketeers wowed viewers as did Netflix imports House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.
Suffice to say, 2014 did good in terms of TV so allow a number of Cult Fix’s (wonderfully talented) writers to explain why…
Agents of SHIELD / Arrow
One of the reasons I’ve been so effusive about both Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this year is that, as shows which can be broadly labelled as ‘comic book shows’, but also ones that have to cater to a wider demographic, they have both been more explicit about embracing their comic book origins. While in previous years the shows have both catered to comic book fans through the medium of easter eggs and occasional references (for example, Dr Ivo’s ship in Arrow being named the Amazo after his comic book counterpart’s robotic creation, and the Bus in Agents being designated ‘616’, the numbering of the mainstream Marvel universe in the comic books), this year they have both been unafraid to go deeper: in particular, the swiftly unfolding Inhumans arc on Agents has been a nerdy little comic book dream. The downside of all of this, however, is that I’m finding Agents quite difficult to review, mostly because the recent episodes have been so exciting and enjoyable for me that I can barely find fault with it as a show.
Arrow, on the other hand, is going a touch slower this year than last, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but did create a slightly aimless feel to a few episodes. But, the crossover with The Flash and one hell of a midseason finale indicate that the second half of the season is going to be a much bigger, badder and darker affair altogether.
Overall, it’s been a great year for comic book fans and I can’t wait for more superhero goodness in 2015.
It’s hard to think that back in August people had their doubts over the new series of Doctor Who. An alarming amount of ‘fans’ felt the series would be a non-starter with the supposedly too old Capaldi at the helm. There were grumblings about Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald being carried over from Matt Smith’s era, too. But by God, weren’t they proved wrong?
Series eight of Doctor Who was, perhaps, the most consistent we’ve had since Smith’s debut run with each episode a continuation of the underlying ‘is the Doctor a good man?’ question. As the Doctor puts it in Flatline, goodness had nothing to do with it – it’s about getting the job done angry Scots Doctor or not. It’s testament to the kindliness of Doctor Who fans, too, that we suspended our judgement for a few weeks as Peter Capaldi found his feet in the role before embracing him as our new Doctor. A large slab of the praise must also be landed on the respective doorsteps of the writers this series, ranging from seasoned scribe Mark Gatiss to award-winning children’s writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose divisive episode, In the Forest of the Night is hugely underappreciated). Each screenwriter poured their passion and love of the show into their scripts and it shows with nary a dud episode nor a creative misstep.
As well as Capaldi, Jenna Coleman finally found the perfect portrayal of sidekick Clara Oswald, balancing shrewdness and integrity and general playfulness. Coleman really shone for this correspondent in Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express and Dark Water: three episodes where she was really asked a lot of, the latter more so than the rest. Clara was also partnered to Danny Pink (played by Samuel Anderson) and, personally, this was the weakest part of series eight. Pink struck me as dull, unimaginative and someone light-years from Clara’s way of thinking so their relationship defeated me from the off. Nonetheless the Clara/Danny subplot was still strong compared to past ventures into a companion’s love life but still, by far, the least interesting thread in Steven Moffat’s narrative web this series.
One of the bigger surprises of the year. Few thought FX’s TV series could live up to the Coen brothers’ film classic of the same name, but it more than did. Equally surprisingly was Martin Freeman’s turn as main character Lester Nygaard. Once you’d adjusted your ear to Freeman’s quirky accent, Lester was an utterly captivating watch. Better known for playing more mild-mannered roles like Watson in Sherlock, or Bilbo from The Hobbit, Freeman extended his range dramatically as the series charted the decent of a man who went to increasingly desperate measures to stay out of the eyes of the law and the criminals after him. Watching his transformation from a feeble insurance salesman to someone even more reprehensible and morally bankrupt was both a shock and a treat. Billy Bob Thornton also puts in an utterly fantastic performance as Lorne Malvo, one of the best TV villains captured on screen. If you missed this gem, watch it asap.
2014 has been the year of superhero TV shows, following in the footsteps of older shows like the wildly successful Arrow and Agents of SHIELD (the early bird catches the worm, as they say). From Gotham to Constantine, not all have been hits but then came The Flash with a purposefully light, breezy tone, an abundance of charm and some terrific character development, and blew everything else out of the water.
At first glance Grant Gustin might not seem like leading man material but put the man in front of a camera and he truly shines. As Barry Allen, alias The Flash, Gustin has the puppyish cockiness and powerful intensity of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, a winning performance to channel. The best part is that Gustin doesn’t simply walk on set and mimic Garfield; Gustin adds serious likeability, cheekiness and a sense that you really are rooting for the underdog and not a hipster type (no offence to Garfield’s Spider-Man, whom, for the record, I adore). Gustin’s electric performance coupled with some superbly thoughtful scripts and a meaty effects budget means that The Flash is probably the most successful superhero show of the year – and quite rightly, too. The development of Barry and his childhood friend Iris West’s friendship has been beautiful to watch; kudos to Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin as Iris and her father – as well as the evolution of the team at S.T.A.R Labs. I was introduced to The Flash just before Christmas and I’m thrilled I was – if you’ve yet to see it then binge it and call it a New Year resolution.
Game of Thrones
Personally, the swords and sorcery genre that Game of Thrones occupies would not normally interest me but George RR Martin’s hit HBO series has been so widely acclaimed, I really felt I was missing out. And, blimey, was I missing out. Series four of Game of Thrones might not have been the show’s best (following the especially brutal third run), it was still another splendid addition to the rich tapestry Martin – and the showrunners – have weaved.
Many people I know take to bingeing shows like Game of Thrones but with this fantasy drama, I simply can’t. Game of Thrones is too narratively complex and detailed to be devoured; it’s like an intricate painting – something that you have to observe for a long time to fully appreciate.
Series four began with a lot of questions and not all of them were answered by the end with even more being asked, whetting the audience’s appetite for the next series. What Game of Thrones excels most at is the ability to dip into all kinds of situations from a dramatic politically fuelled wedding to a ferocious battle. Two episodes in particular featured these examples, both occurring in, more or less, the one location with both everything and nothing happening. Game of Thrones can have an episode where there’s oodles of development and then another, far more slow-burning episode where very little happens. It’s an aesthetically sumptuous show, too, with exorbitant production values and a pleasingly large cast. Furthermore, there’s no denying that the foreign shoots don’t pay dividends for the show.
Standout stars for series four were, undoubtedly, Maisie Williams again as fiery Stark offspring, Arya and Sophie Turner as her browbeaten sister. Emilia Clarke was also smashing (albeit she did very little in series four) as Khaleesi (and mother of dragons) Daenerys Targaryen, as was Jack Gleeson as the odious upstart Joffrey.
Game of Thrones is like any good drama, something to be enjoyed slowly, and if you’re intending on getting into it then bingeing it is not what I would advise. By blitzing Game of Thrones, you won’t be able to appreciate the stunning visuals, incredible acting and knife-edge tension underpinning the whole series.
Glue crept into the schedules in early September and, tragically, did not make much of an impression on the viewing public. First and foremast a whodunit, Glue explored how depressingly confining the open countryside is particularly for its young cast of Brits with one half of Rizzle Kicks, Jordan Stephens making his acting debut (the verdict: drop the day job) and ex-The Sarah Jane Adventures cast members Yasmin Paige and Tommy Lawrence Knight popping up.
Glue saw the death of local Romani boy Caleb Bray (Lawrence Knight) rock the isolated country community of Overton. Glue focused more on the impact Caleb’s death had on the younger members of the town and while it started to forget the mystery at its core as the series went on, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable series. Writer Jack Thorne, known for his spookily true-to-life understanding of young people, did a marvellous job of rounding his characters, helping to understand their motives good and bad. On that note, Thorne perfectly encapsulated the bitterness of teenage cattiness and rose-coloured love, making Glue generally unmissable TV. Unfortunately, a lot of people did miss it so if you’re looking for a series recommendation then I’d suggest Glue – one of the best dramas this year.