Following Part 1 of my annual Alternate Ten Best list in yesterday’s column, here are five more shows that stood out in 2014 but likely won’t show up on many (if any) best-of year-end lists. (Actually there are ten shows mentioned below, carefully cobbled together into five positions.) Good news: They will all be with us in 2015 (at least for a while)!
“Face Off” (Syfy) and “Project Runway” (Lifetime) – Syfy’s make-up challenge “Face Off” and Lifetime’s fashionable “Project Runway” turn up on this list every year because they continue to champion and celebrate hard work and creative talent. It doesn’t hurt that they both remain exciting to watch, more so than the many other similarly structured competition series that come and go on basic cable channels. (I would also reference Bravo’s “Top Chef” here, but it just doesn’t do much for me, maybe because the food that the contestants prepare never looks all that appetizing. But if anyone else wants to call it one of TV’s best reality efforts I won’t argue.) I wish “Face-Off” would follow the lead of “Project Runway” and expand to 90 minute episodes, at least during the first half of each season when there are so many contestants, because it often feels quite rushed. Similarly, I think “Project Runway” could give us shorter episodes once the first few contestants are voted out, because it often feels padded. Beyond those suggestions, they’re all good.
“The Waltons” (Hallmark Channel) and “Father Knows Best” (Antenna TV) – We are undeniably in some sort of New Golden Age of television, with more high quality scripted programming and reality fare coming at us from every direction all of the time. It’s more than anyone can hope to keep up with or fully process. Sometimes there is nothing better than turning away from it all and enjoying popular television shows from the past on such retro networks as Me-TV, This TV and Cozi TV. This year I found two vintage series to be particularly soothing at the end of the day: “The Waltons” (on Hallmark Channel) and “Father Knows Best” (on Antenna TV). Forty years after the legendary run of “The Waltons” on CBS (and 80 years after the time period in which it is set, give or take a few) the daily details of life as it was lived by John and Olivia Walton, oldest son John-Boy and the rest of their family seem almost impossible to comprehend. But Richard Thomas’ deeply moving performance (especially in the first two seasons) as the smart, sensitive and sincere John-Boy is, in hindsight, a revelation. Also, the family’s dysfunction-free dynamics remain as powerful as ever, even if they seem somewhat alien in today’s world. The same is true of “Father Knows Best” (pictured below), a genuine, black and white golden oldie that ran on CBS from 1954-60 (after a successful run on radio from 1949-54). It’s not particularly funny (although some of the scrapes young Bud Anderson gets himself into are amusing), and it is so dated as to feel utterly (and unfortunately) unreal. But it captivates as pure, innocent nostalgia. This show came and went before my time, and I don’t recall ever watching it in reruns as a kid, so it’s been a totally new and distinctive treat for me and one of the most welcome diversions any medium has offered this year.
“Watch What Happens Live!” (Bravo) and “Talking Dead” (AMC) – Produced for relatively little money by basic cable networks, these highly distinctive live talk shows stand out from the rest because they each create a club-like atmosphere that makes the audience feel like it is part of something. The aggressive phone, e-mail and social media interaction between the hosts and their viewers during each show doesn’t hurt, either. “WWHL” is the more impressive of the two simply because it runs five nights a week most weeks of the year and attracts big-name guests more commonly seen on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and CBS’ “Late Night with David Letterman.” Host Andy Cohen (pictured at top), who has become a star in his own right, can seemingly put anyone at ease with his wicked wit and on-set cocktail service. (Come to think of it, Cohen may be American television’s answer to Graham Norton.) But Chris Hardwick is pretty great too, keeping the single-topic “Talking Dead” crackling along after each new episode of “The Walking Dead.” If you think what he does is easy, consider some of the other live talk shows tied to popular programs that other networks have whipped up -- and which have proven consistently airless -- including FX’s “After Anarchy” and Discovery’s “Shark After Dark” and “Naked After Dark.”
“The Five” (Fox News) and “Ronan Farrow Daily” (MSNBC) – Fox News’ daily afternoon talk show “The Five,” in which a quintet of Fox News personalities (most often Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Eric Bolling and Ben Beckle) talk through the day’s news from both conservative and liberal points of view, remained the most stimulating and thought-provoking news and opinion series on television. People snarl at me when I defend this show. I reply by asserting that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and we don’t all have to agree about everything. I also appreciate extended conversation about any issue, as happens on this show, versus the tsunami of context-free sound-bites that have washed over most media reporting. Meanwhile, MSNBC tried something different this year by turning one hour of its weekday afternoon schedule over to Ronan Farrow, a smart, articulate and social media-savvy young man who has proven capable of anchoring a show devoted to in-depth news reporting. I hope he remains in the news and information business for many years to come.
“The Talk” (CBS) – No, I haven’t lost my mind. CBS’ live afternoon gabfest has brought the kind of reliable energy to daytime television that ABC used to deliver throughout the morning and afternoon. (Remember when “The View” charged up the day and didn’t take itself so darn seriously? Me neither.) “The Talk” gets extra credit for leaving its home base in Los Angeles twice a year to originate from New York City. It took a few years (after stumbling badly at the start with its almost singular focus on motherhood as experienced by women fortunate enough to be able to afford nannies and personal assistants), but “The Talk” is finally on top and daytime television is better for it.
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