Jess's 2014 Year in Review

When I initially started my standard “Year in Review” piece, I ended up with this huge list of categories and shows, covering everything from those I loved unabashedly, to those that let me down, to those I finally let go. It was just too much to wade through, no matter how much fun it is coming up with category titles. (New contenders for this year: Things that Make you Go Hmmm …, Adventures in Non-Fiction, and Darkness Falls.)

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.


mazephoenix said...

Oh my god..someone besides me has seen Rectify..It's a great, underrated show.
I love it so much.

Billie Doux said...

Great read, Jess.

I of course completely agree with your opinion of Continuum and encourage anyone who isn't watching it to give it a try. And I'm one of those people who tried Spartacus and just couldn't handle the gore level. Oh, well.

It's amazing that we have a television site and yet, the landscape has become so full that I don't even recognize some of the show names you mentioned.

Jess Lynde said...

Thanks, Billie! I think a lot of folks haven't heard of some of these shows --- Rectify, in particular, tends to fly under the radar --- or missed out on them when they were around before. That's why I wanted to give them a little extra love. :)

Mazephoenix, you are not alone in your love for Rectify! I think it may be considered too slow for a lot of folks, but I really like a good, introspective piece. For anyone who's interested, you can stream Season 1 on Netflix right now. I imagine S2 will become available closer to the S3 premiere.

ChrisB said...

Fabulous, Jess!

Rectify has been on my list forever. Now that I know it has the JL stamp of approval, I will move it further towards the top.

Mark Greig said...

The world would be a much better place if more people watch The Middleman.

Lamounier said...

Agreed on Continuum. It’s a great watch.

About Spartacus, I went through season one a few years ago, but, oh my god, it was too violent. Yes, there’s some really good character material (I loved Lucy Lawless’ character), but it was hard watching so much graphic violence. I remember there were two scenes that traumatized me when I watched them (one, because of the gore, the other, because of the brutality). I’m happy Steven S. DeKnight has become a successful showrunner, but his series is just not for me.

Now I’m going to give The Americans a try. “…how far they can and should go in service of an ideal, and just where the line is between human and monster” This sounds really, really good. :)

Juliette said...

Great piece and glad you enjoyed Spartacus Jess! It always amazes me that 10 years ago I use to avoid anything overly violent, but have slowly become more and more hardened... though I think I can take more violence on TV than in the cinema. There's no escape in the cinema.

Laure Mack said...

Awesome read, Jess!

So many shows to add to my Netflixing list!

drnanamom said...

Thanks Jess for the lovely overview of many shows I haven't seen yet. I plan on some binge watching over the holidays and now I know what to watch!

Jess Lynde said...

Thanks again for reading and commenting, all! I hope that you enjoy the shows you decide to check out.

And I do completely understand that the content of Spartacus is a tough hurdle for many to clear. It is a lot to take in and process. But, my husband typically can't stand anything gory --- he hates even listening to The Walking Dead and Hannibal from the other room --- and he managed to watch and even love this show anyway, so I figured it was worth a shot trying to sell it! :)

TJ said...

I totally agree about Spartacus. I think it's one of the best shows I've ever seen...and I really don't like gory stuff! The actors and their characters are all brilliant. (Who doesn't love Manu Bennett??)

Advice to Arrow-producers:
You've picked up a couple of Spartacusians. Don't stop. I'd love to see Peter Mensah, Dan Feuerriegel and, why not, Lucy Lawless on Arrow. To just name a few...

Heather said...

I love your style of writing so much. Very detailed and with a level of precision that makes me geek out with joy. So thank you for your thoughts on 2014 TV.
Rectify. Yes. This show is so rich. I constantly tell people to watch it.

CH said...

Finally watched some of Spartacus, after reading this, Jess. I finished the first season yesterday, and all I can say is that I couldn't stop watching after Whore, and then Party Favors took it up to even another level.

Wow. Sex and violence doesn't usually bother me, and in this show it bothers me even less because it seems like a message about the slaves' humanity rather than just gratiutious sex and violence (for the most part).

Thanks for the recommendation!!! I'm onto the Prequel series today.

Jess Lynde said...

CH, I was so tickled to read your comment! I'm really delighted to know someone else has connected with this series. I definitely agree that a lot of the sex and violence are deployed not for titillation, but to emphasize how horrifying and inhumane the whole system is. We're meant to flinch away, and be haunted by much of what transpires. I hope the rest of the series continues to engage you!

CH said...

I rang in the new year with the flu, so I watched Gods of the Arena on Jan 1 in a fever haze and just now finished Vengeance and am onto the first episode of the final season.

I loved the ending of the Vengeance (Wrath of the Gods). A little bit horror with Lucretia and very Lord of the Rings with the battle sequences.

Then, I just watched Enemies at the Gate, and I was yelling at my TV, "No, I like Crassus!!!" Definitely a multi-faceted villain, more so than Glaber and Batiatus. Interesting how this will play out. Knowing the actual history, I am happy to hear that you found the finale satisfying, Jesse.

Sorry to hijack your post, but there is no other place on this site to discuss Spartacus :) :) Happy New Year to all.

Billie Doux said...

CH, this isn't thread-hijacking so much, since Jess did write about Spartacus. Comment away!

And fyi, our contributor Juliette, who reviews The West Wing and Star Trek: Voyager for us, has her own site where she talks about "Greek and Roman things in stuff". She has covered Spartacus in depth.

Jess Lynde said...

CH, I'm happy to hear that Spartacus continues to chug along at an entertaining clip for you! I agree that the later villains/opponents challenged the audience in different ways than some of the enemies that came earlier. Crassus and Caesar were very interesting foes. Although I think the writers managed to bring some shading to the early guys, too.

As for the finale, I knew the history going in, too. But I found the last couple hours satisfying in the sense that they brought the story and the characters to conclusions that felt fitting, emotionally and thematically. And it managed to bring a number of things "full circle," as it were. It was tremendously engaging, with some great battle and fight sequences, and there was just a ton of emotional catharsis in the way things transpired. When it was done, I felt incredibly drained, but satisfied. It worked for me.

I hope the last season and the finale work as well for you. Make sure you stay for the final credits sequence!

Juliette said...

Thanks for posting the link Billie :) I liked all of Spartacus, but I thought the final season and Gods of the Arena were particularly good.