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.