The 10 Best TV Surprises of 2014

Emmy Nominees Movie and Miniseries

Critics should avoid bringing too many expectations to projects, trying to view each with a fresh set of eyes. But inevitably, returning programs, the occasional new show and even entire networks/services foster certain preconceived notions, based on what’s come before, the premise or the creative auspices.

From that perspective, 2014 produced a number of pleasant surprises, in part from existing programs that received a creative makeover, as well as projects or providers that proved more appealing than anticipated. (The following is in alphabetical order, and as always, beware of spoilers.)

Almost Royal. BBC America’s unscripted spoof — about two sprightly youths, several dozen places down on the list of succession to the British throne, visiting unsuspecting Americans — looked like just another “Borat” knockoff. But it turned out to be great fun, thanks in large part to the heroics of Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart in those roles.

Amazon. Seemingly everyone wants to get into the programming game, but a service best known for “Free shipping” didn’t inspire much confidence. Nevertheless, Amazon has delivered a surprisingly clunker-free array of original programs — without a “Hemlock Grove” in the bunch — topped by “Transparent,” but surrounded by quality shows like “Alpha House,” the new “Mozart in the Jungle” and even the live-action children’s series “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.”

The Americans. Serious dramas have experienced what’s become a rather nagging curse when they detour into subplots about the lead characters’ pouty teenage kids, and this FX series looked like it was veering in that direction. But then its season-ending cliffhanger saw the central couple of Russian spies’ young daughter being recruited to join them in the program, which opened up a host of dramatic possibilities for the third season that begins in January.

CNN Documentary Films. Given the sometimes-teeth-gnashing aspects of CNN’s news coverage, its expansion into longform documentaries — both commissioned and acquired — was cause for some trepidation. Yet the network’s output has been a welcome addition to a field dominated by HBO and PBS, maintaining a level of ambition and quality promised by the controversy-inducing “Blackfish” in 2013.

Fargo. Before the limited series made its debut, there was ample reason for skepticism about how the tone and style of the Coen brothers’ classic could be adapted to episodic TV; many wondered whether this was just another instance of MGM raiding its vaults for recognizable titles. Did series creator Noah Hawley and company overcome those concerns? You betcha.

The Flash/Gotham. The frequent knock on superhero-oriented TV shows is that it’s possible to front-load them with expensive pilots, and then witness the action and special effects dwindle as production schedules move into crunch time. But both of this fall’s new DC Comics-derived dramas have bucked that trend, with the CW crimson hero continuing to colorfully race into new adventures and Fox’s brooding drama powering past the hurdle of never being able to actually include Batman in a series that derives its kick from the Dark Knight’s long shadow.

Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Based on Bravo’s reality-TV niche, the channel’s expansion into scripted drama was by no means a slam dunk. But this clever soap starring Lisa Edelstein managed to stay within the wheelhouse of the Bravo brand and provide a sly look at life in L.A. without simply becoming a slightly-more-scripted version of its “Real Housewives” franchise.

Homeland. After at least a season-and-a-half in the creative wilderness, and with the death of one of its co-leads casting doubt over its future, “Homeland” looked like a show whose best days were behind it. Yet with Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Rupert Friend occupying expanded roles, the producers successively morphed the Showtime series into an eminently watchable thriller, albeit by essentially turning it into the pay-cable version of “24.”

Once Upon a Time. Having drifted into a dizzying creative malaise, the show’s decision to incorporate “Frozen” characters felt like an act of desperation — and an ill-advised one at that, given how much Disney has invested in that animated property. But the addition was inventive and gave the series a bracing blast of adrenaline — and a few warm hugs — that propelled it through the first half of the season.

Survivor’s Remorse. This Starz comedy about an NBA superstar — produced by, among others, real-life NBA superstar LeBron James and his manager — sounded like the ultimate vanity project. But the series proved disarmingly funny as a sort-of “Entourage” update set against a basketball backdrop, one where the protagonist’s challenges as a public figure take precedence over plying his trade on the court.

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  1. Michael W says:

    This current Marvel Superhero madness may be making Marvel Studios and Stan Lee boatloads of money, but they have to know the public’s interest in these films and TV shows masquerading as “entertainment” has to wear off sooner or later and probably sooner. Yet they’re still planning future projects that extend well in 2020! I’m an adult and am frankly getting a bit weary of watching fantasy and superhero crap being palmed off on a public that needs a lift from fiscal distress and real-life woes as entertainment. Trouble is, the public is complicit in this mess because they keep shelling out for tickets and adding their TVs to the count. I do have to give Messrs. Kitsis and Horowitz kudos for the delightful and imaginative “Once Upon A Time” just because of the way they bend classic fairy tales into surprising combinations and relationships, much as the current Sondheim/Marshall film “Into The Woods” does. They do lift you out of the funk we call life, but the superhero onslaught is getting very tired already. If you want INTELLIGENT escapism, try watching “Elementary” and “Sherlock” instead…they exercise both your mind and your well-being. I’ve also been finding “Sleepy Hollow” intriguing because of the way it takes a classic novel and bends it to its will, and I appreciate the creativity of it.

  2. crookedmindframe says:

    Yep Almost Royal was a big surprise. Great series

  3. Lisa says:

    LOVE BBC America, but please no more Star Trek. I want to watch British comedy shows.

  4. Clive Tulloh says:

    We love Almost Royal !!!

  5. Melanie says:

    I disagree on the inclusion of “Gotham”. Really uninteresting and frustrating in its insistence on including every single character to have ever appeared in a Batman storyline. The actor who plays Penguin, however, is fantastic.

  6. Mike says:

    Gotta disagree with the inclusion of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which after a so-so pilot has only gotten worse with each episode. Lisa Edelstein deserves better.

    One of the finest surprises of the year was The Knick, which elevated Cinemax from the guilty pleasures of Banshee to a whole new level of quality and ambition.

  7. DSykes says:

    The only thing surprising about Gotham is that it hasn’t been cancelled yet. Seriously, one of the most poorly written shows of not just this year, but in a number of years. Flash is fun, as is Constantine. I’d also mention that Agents of SHEILD has certainly stepped up from last year, maybe it’ll be similar to Star Trek: TNG; A mess in it’s infant seasons that developed in a good series by its third/fourth season.

    Seriously, a top 10 best surprises and Silicon Valley, Cosmos: A Space/Time Odyssey, The Knick (absolutely love that score), Halt and Catch Fire and Sonic Highways aren’t mentioned?!

  8. Jacques Strappe says:

    Gotham is a pretentious bore procedural masquerading as a DC comic book inspired series. The Flash is fine for a CW teen friendly superhero series with silly superhero costumes. Once Upon A Time probably has at least a decade or so more of fairy tale and children’s book fantasy character mash-ups stories to inventively tell. It’s really the only truly family friendly drama on network television so ABC/Disney should be commended for such as quality series.

  9. cadavra says:

    The pleasant surprise for me is THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA, which successfully mashes up police procedural and family sitcom with flair, humor and some deftly-written plots.

  10. Jay says:

    OUAT did add Frozen in desperation. Just take a look at the ratings. Season 4 premiere was good but ratings are still dropping. Below 7m consistently now, which isn’t surprising considering the type of messages the writers send every episode.

  11. nevagiveup says:

    where is The Leftovers, that one was surprising!

  12. Till says:

    Frozen in Once Upon A Time is one of the best surprise of the year? You meant the worst, it was ridiculous and embarassing in all the half season.

  13. Andrew says:

    You’re the Worst?

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