by Jess Lynde
So, in the spirit of the season, I decided to instead focus this year’s look back on the shows that I most want to share with others. The ones I watched in 2014 that I really want to encourage you to seek out, whether they’ve come and gone or are still going strong. There are many other shows among my favorites from the year --- The Walking Dead remains my unhealthiest obsession --- but these are the shows that, at the end of the day, most inspired me to proselytize.
The Americans. Still one of the very best shows on television. With riveting performances and challenging characters and themes, Season 2 of The Americans was just as good, if not better than Season 1. I can’t say enough great things about Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. Equally convincing as terrifying badasses and as broken, vulnerable spies, they are the heart and soul of this show and they bring it every single week. And Annet Mahendru is absolutely transfixing as the beautiful, compromised, and tough-as-steel Nina. All the characters on this show are tremendously complex and layered, leaving both themselves and the audience wondering how far they can and should go in service of an ideal, and just where the line is between human and monster.
Continuum. Once again, Continuum was my very favorite science fiction series of the year. Smart, character-focused, twisty, and action-packed, the show continued to spool out the consequences of messing with the timeline while playing with familiar tropes in fun and engaging ways. Even better, it continued to shed new light on the disturbing future-past and the future-maybe, forcing our warring factions to confront the fallout from their choices and methods, question their allegiances and dedication to the cause, and to reevaluate the true enemy. Great, great stuff. And now that we know we’ll be getting that fourth and final season in 2015, it’s the perfect time to jump in and see how things come to a conclusion.
Spartacus. In my “New to Me” entry for last year, I noted that I had recently started watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand and was finding it highly engaging. Well, I finished the whole Spartacus series this year, and I can now firmly say: I loved this show. It starts out pretty rough, and there are some weaker elements along the way, but once it picked up steam in the fourth or fifth episode and I started really investing in the characters --- protagonists and villains, alike --- it never let me go. Plus, it has the distinction of being one of the few series I’ve loved that managed to deliver a completely satisfying, if heartrending, finale.
I’m not gonna lie: it’s a gory show. Often, graphically, insanely gory. (When even the hardened characters on the show pause and gape in horror, you know the grue has reached a new level of extreme.) It also has incredibly graphic and frequently quite disturbing sexual content. (Sometimes it even combines the two elements in grotesquely operatic fashion!) But for all its over-the-top sex, gore, and language, Spartacus is a series very much based in character and the essence of being human and living freely. It has things to say that are very much worth saying and exploring, and it is surprisingly progressive in its treatment of sexuality and in its use of both the male and female gaze. Men and women are equally objectified and abused, and equally capable of being powerful or vile in a variety of ways. Moreover, homosexual couples are prominent and generally respected (even if homosexual sex scenes are rather more tame than their heterosexual counterparts).
Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, and John Hannah give standout, indelible performances, and I greatly enjoyed Manu Bennet, Peter Mensah, and Viva Bianca. Jamie Murray is also a delight in the prequel (as always). And Liam McIntyre really comes into his own as Spartacus. He is a pale shade of Andy Whitfield when first introduced, but by the end, he absolutely brings that beautiful balance of strength, rage, and deep sadness. His performance moved me to tears several times in the last episodes, and made the impact of the finale all the more powerful.
So, again: gruesome, oversexed, and operatic, but incredibly engaging, thematically rich, and full of characters my husband (notoriously gore-averse) and I came to care about deeply. I know it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I can’t recommend this one more highly. Spartacus!
Rectify. One of my “Intriguing Newcomers” last year, Sundance’s Rectify continued to entrance with its slow-paced, haunting reflection on how one man’s demons can affect an entire family. Season 1 primarily focused on Daniel’s and the community’s reaction following his release from death row on a technicality, but Season 2 dived much deeper into the effects of his absence and return on his mother, his sister, and the rest of his extended family. Introspective and powerfully moving, Rectify embraces the pain, joy, and grace this world has to offer, while fully recognizing the lingering and often irreversible effects of choices made long ago. A true standout.
The Middleman. I highlighted this show as a “New to Me” entry for 2012, but I’m currently re-watching it with my husband as he gets to experience it for the first time, and it has been a joy to dive in all over again. The Middleman remains hugely entertaining, with that wonderful blend of humor and heart that I adore. It is chock full of rapid-fire, witty dialogue and silly campiness, and has tremendous fun balancing real emotional stakes for its characters with ridiculous, potentially world-destroying threats. As the Middleman and Wendy Watson, Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales are an incredibly charismatic and funny duo, and a lovely example of a man and a woman having a great “brothers in arms” partnership, with no whiff of romance (it can be done!). As noted back in 2012, the episode titles alone are delightful (e.g., ‘The Flying Fish Zombification’ and ‘The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome’) and the “ridiculously non-profane profanity” never fails to make me laugh. Plus, the endless stream of pop culture riffs and callbacks are hilarious. As before, I remain sad that the series only got 12 episodes, but the few we got are a real treat.
Enlisted. Another show that sadly only got a precious few episodes to shine, but that brief run is well worth your time. Quirky, goofy, and wonderfully heartfelt, Enlisted focuses on three brothers assigned to a rear detachment Army unit in Florida. “Yes, we’re soldiers!” It managed to be both outlandish and entirely respectful of those who serve, as it touched on everything from the value of serving on the homefront, to the difficulties women face advancing through the military ranks, to the trauma experienced by those who serve on the frontlines. Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young have absolutely fantastic chemistry as the Hill brothers, and Angelique Cabral and Keith David are hilarious as both allies and friendly antagonists for the Hills. Plus, the crazy collection of misfits in the Hills’ unit are a hoot. Even though the show only got a short run, the last episode functions as a decent, emotionally satisfying finale. Sure, you’ll wish you could have more time with the folks in Rear D, but you’ll still be able to walk away knowing you left them in a good resting place.
So, when you’ve got a spare hour or twenty, I encourage you to seek out all of the above. From challenging and complex, to twisty and action-packed, to intense and the over-the-top, to moving and haunting, to fun and hilarious, there’s something here to suit a wide range of tastes and moods. Please, enjoy!
Happy Holidays, all!
Image credit: FX Networks
Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.