(This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will publish Tuesday at midnight.)
Sometimes, it’s not the premise that’s the problem. We give low or failing grades to plenty of television here at The A.V. Club—like the terrible pilot of Dads, or the half-baked reality show I Wanna Marry “Harry.” But often, that’s as much a judgment of the idea as it is of the execution. What really rankles are those episodes, often stuck in the middle of shows that are otherwise good—or at least fine—that take our beloved characters into directions we don’t like, or mire the story in a slog that devalues everything around it. The Tournament Of Episodes crowned its winner on Friday, celebrating the best of the television season in a totally unscientific way. We couldn’t let the official television season end without a look back at the lowlights of 2013-14 in a similarly subjective way. Here are 26 low points as chosen by some of our TV writers, in no particular order.
1. Sherlock, “The Empty Hearse”
“The Empty Hearse,” Sherlock’s third-season premiere, is the weakest episode the show has ever done—and comes on the heels of the biggest cliff-hanger the show attempted, the shocking non-death at the end of season two in “The Reichenbach Fall.” Fans of the show waited 18 months for Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Martin Freeman’s shooting schedules to open up, so the third season could go to production—and then that premiere was a sloppy, thudding mess, mishandling the emotional fallout of “Fall” with bad accents, slapstick, and mean-spirited fake-outs. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss often want to have their cake and eat it too with the twists and turns of Sherlock’s story: They want the emotional resonance and the cerebral plotting. “The Empty Hearse” is a catastrophic failure of both. There’s nothing even remotely plausible about Sherlock’s faked death—and nothing remotely moving about the numerous imagined torrid kisses that go into the plotting. In all likelihood, this disappointing episode will be the turning point of Sherlock from “silly but interesting character drama” to “extremely well-produced schlock.”
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst best friend ever.
2. True Blood, “Radioactive”
The excuse “because it’s True Blood” has gotten HBO’s vampire show through a lot of weird and frustrating story decisions. But “Radioactive” elevates “because it’s True Blood” to new and even more horrific levels, taking what was a semi-decent season and essentially throwing it in the garbage in service of a big, shocking twist. Halfway through the episode, “Radioactive” fades to black on the current day and rejoins the characters six months later, introducing a gaggle of arbitrary changes just to illustrate how brave and shocking its twist was: Sam is now the mayor, Arlene owns Merlotte’s, Bill is a best-selling author, and Sookie is dating Alcide (because all of Sookie’s big plotlines involve who she’s dating—at least that didn’t change). All of these arbitrary changes have nothing to do with character and everything to do with plot, and are nonsense things forced upon the characters in the guise of being clever. Also, it gets Eric naked and then sets him on fire! Uncool, True Blood. Uncool.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Most flagrant use of introducing a random time jump just to get out of having to write a conclusion.
3. Workaholics, “Best Buds”
As crude, destructive, and gross as Adam, Ders, and Blake can be, it’s hard not to like them. For all their calamitous irresponsibility, the guys, as a rule, aren’t out to hurt anyone—they just don’t want to do anything resembling work, ever. Tapping into that universal human trait infuses their stoner layabout shenanigans with a relatable spirit of kinship, a rambunctiousness of the soul that roots for the three friends to, if not triumph, then at least undercut the stifling responsibilities of dead-end jobs, bills, and all the other nonsense involved in adulthood. (It also helps that the guys are rarely able to achieve the heights/depths of their stunted, adolescent ambitions.) Season four, however, saw Workaholics’ humor rely more heavily on escalating grossness (Anders receives a mouthful of shit at least twice) and a concurrent cruelty creeping into the guys’ schemes, both elements coming together to dispiriting, disgusting effect in this episode. The guys not only find a dead, maggot-riddled skunk in the gutter—but Adam and Blake smirkingly force Ders to eat the thing. A stoned Mexican food-mascot fight between Blake and Adam ends up bloodily knocking out the teeth of a pretty rollerblader, and no one cares. “Best Buds” exemplifies the mission statement Workaholics keeps forgetting: The guys can be idiots—as long as they’re not complete dicks.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Most disgusting (and second most disgusting) comedic use of roadkill.
4. Doctor Who, “The Time Of The Doctor”
Expectations were sky high for Doctor Who’s Christmas special, which doubled as a farewell to Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. For better or for worse, showrunner Steven Moffat delivered an episode brimming with the excesses of his tenure. “The Time Of The Doctor” features a frustratingly complicated plot, unnecessary retcons for past inconsistencies, and a painfully unfunny nudity joke, leaving little time to explore its characters’ emotional arcs. A new antagonist slots neatly into Moffat’s oft-used “flirty and aggressive woman” archetype while the main female character maintains an unwavering faith in the Doctor even after he betrays her trust and strips away her agency—twice. The 11th Doctor finally dies of old age after spending hundreds of years of his life defending a random planet—hardly a fitting end for Smith’s exuberant, active Doctor. Moffat fans were happy with the send-off, but everyone else was left hoping for something better from Peter Capaldi’s run as the 12th Doctor.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Winner of the Steven Moffat Memorial “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” Award.
5. Betrayal, “Pilot”
In a year when ABC turned out a lot of mediocre product—The Assets, Killer Women, Mind Games—Betrayal earns a special honor for being the worst of the bunch, and being the worst right from the start. Created to follow up on the success of Scandal and Revenge, Betrayal completely missed what made either of those shows compelling and just threw a bunch of fancy stuff at a wall to see what stuck. The central performances by Hannah Ware and Stuart Townsend were astoundingly dull, the plot was a mess of affairs and corporate intrigue that wasn’t compelling or interesting for an instant, and whatever interesting visual choices Patty Jenkins made as a director were undercut by some astonishingly bad CGI balcony work and pointless cross-cut shots between the narratives. It was a vapid pilot that suffered from having not a single thing to care about or take pleasure in—a soap opera where the soap was made entirely of those exfoliating micro beads that scrape the skin.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Tie: most egregious squandering of James Cromwell on a broadcast drama (edging out Do No Harm) and worst depiction of a mentally disabled man by a Steven Spielberg alum.
6. Dexter, “Remember The Monsters?”
Dexter spent the majority of its run going up and down in quality, so the idea that it wouldn’t stick the landing couldn’t have been far from viewers’ minds. But the degree to which the show cratered in its series finale was remarkable. It steered violently away from even approaching an answer to the question of who and what Dexter was, opting to let him continue to murder with no sense of consequences. It completely botched the resolution of the Dexter/Deb relationship, removing any sense of connection or empathy between the show’s central characters. It defied narrative logic by just turning into a bunch of stuff happening around a hurricane, leaving the season’s arc to stutter to a finish. And to add insult to injury, the last scene revealed Dexter had survived everything and gone off to be a lumberjack. This show, ostensibly about the life and mind of a serial killer, ended with a twist that could be easily summarized by a Monty Python song, a move that’s not just insulting but also liberally applies napalm to the entire Dexter legacy.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst finale for a serialized cable drama—ever.
7. Justified, “A Murder Of Crowes”
In recent years, when a once-proud show totally loses control of its tone and theme, it’s usually because its showrunner took off (Community, Awkward., The Boondocks). If that had happened to Justified, then at least we’d have an excuse for what happened in its fifth season. Justified’s fourth season was one of our favorites—a restrained, tragic meditation on the impossibility of escaping the sins of the past punctured by powerful acts of rare, shocking violence. But its fifth season starts with murder after murder, a hyper-violent caricature of itself punctuated only occasionally by concepts like “story” and “characters.” Even worse than the pile of random people it massacres, it also commits atrocities against its second lead character, Boyd Crowder. The charming, tortured antihero becomes a casual mass murderer. The season never fully recovered from the mistakes of its premiere, although it did at least sneak a few great episodes in. Here’s hoping Justified’s upcoming final season remembers what made it great.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Most shocking collapse of a much-loved show.
8. Hostages, “Off The Record”
When CBS started pushing its new series Hostages, the promos included a shot of Toni Collette kissing her kidnapper Dylan McDermott. “Huh,” the viewer may have pondered, “I wonder how that comes about.” In this episode, the Toni Collette-kisses-her-kidnapper episode, it comes about in as stupid a way as can be imagined. (So stupid, in fact, that Sonia Saraiya wisely wound up giving the episode the long-heralded but rarely seen ironic “A.”) By this mid-season point, Hostages’ nonsensical plots clearly had been pulled from a battered Choose Your Own Assassination Plot paperback, and Tate Donovan had cornered the hapless-husband market (started in The O.C., continuing in this show, now cemented in the new version of 24). But nothing was worse than the convoluted “We can’t kill the president on the street, we have to kill him on the operating table” logic, in which Collette helps McDermott and company stop an assassination. She weasels access codes from her husband’s mistress—who somehow sneaks out of the office with three giant books of plans—and Collette is able to find the information McDermott needs in these massive volumes in a mere moment. McDermott is then so grateful for Collette helping the president not be killed (so that they can kill him later) that they kiss, even though he’s supposedly in this whole messed-up plot to save his wife. The lifelessness of the kiss was magnified by what might be the show’s cruelest function: turning the magnificent Toni Collette into a pouty Mary Hartman clone, hiding from the world behind a sad-girl fringe of bangs. Fortunately CBS eventually came to its senses and canceled Hostages after this one pathetic season, so that we never need speak of this mess again.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Least effective argument for the sexiness of Stockholm syndrome.
9. Low Winter Sun, “Revelations”
The death of the antihero era this year arrived not with the end of Breaking Bad, but the AMC show that tried to leapfrog off of it: Low Winter Sun. LWS managed to kill off any momentum left from the superior show that preceded it in a few nanoseconds, thanks to the show’s insistence that a “gritty” look at Detroit’s crime network meant the same thing as “dismal” and “depressing.” Mark Strong as Frank Agnew gamely tried his best, but while audiences might have embraced more sympathetic characters like family men Tony Soprano and Don Draper, they did not have any reason to root for a cop who helped his partner off somebody in the very first episode, and was fond of activities like home dentistry, beating up houses with baseball bats, and using urine as an interrogation device. AMC pulled out all the promo stops for “Revelations,” as it aired after Breaking Bad’s long-awaited finale, offering dramatic, game-changing developments. Those unfortunate enough to tune in discovered more of the same old, beaten-down developments: inconsequential testimony at a court case, some standoffs in crime lord posturing, Frank pulling out Sean’s tooth with a pliers. The episode ends with both Frank and Joe going after Katia—Frank’s dead-then-not-dead sex-worker girlfriend—in Chicago. Unfortunately for her, Joe reaches her first, and after some polite chit-chat, tosses her off a balcony, in a twist that made reviewer Dennis Perkins burst out laughing—probably not the writers’ intent. The episode ends with a sort of halo around Katia’s now permanently lifeless head on the pavement, with all of Low Winter Sun’s usual subtlety. AMC put it and everyone else out of their misery by axing it after its initial 10 episodes.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst commercial for the Detroit tourism board.
10. The Simpsons, “Days Of Future Future”
Even the most die-hard Simpsons fan has to admit the show should have thrown in the towel years ago. This year’s Simpsons season 25 was primarily painful. Sure, it gave us the Lego episode, an absolute high spot, but it also offered dreck like “Days Of Future Future,” a nasty, mean-spirited look at America’s former favorite family without an ounce of the compassion that marks the show’s best episodes. Homer dies and is reborn innumerable times until he’s eventually downloaded onto a thumb drive 30 years in the grim future, where Lisa is unhappily married to Milhouse, who turns into a zombie; Bart is miserable and divorced; and Marge finally kicks her downloaded spouse out of the house. This depressing future offers the viewer not the slightest hint of a smile, much less a laugh; even the dinosaurs at the prehistoric show where Bart works are crying. When The Simpsons was in its glory seasons (check out TV Club Classic’s current run of season seven for some prime examples), the show’s absurdity worked because of the juxtaposition between the multitude of jokes and the empathetic humanity inherent in these beloved yellow characters. “Days Of Future Future” only shows a giant, gaping black hole where The Simpsons’ heart used to be.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Best evidence against making season 26 (which is still happening anyway)
11. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, “Beast’s Obsession”
Rape, torture, and general depravity are par for the course in almost every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but the 20th episode of the latest season, the show’s 15th, was especially bleak. In “Beast’s Obsession,” William Lewis, a sadistic rapist who was jailed for torturing Sergeant Olivia Benson, escapes from prison and proceeds to go on both a killing spree and a “fucking with Olivia” spree that culminates in the kidnapping and torture of a 12-year-old girl and an either attempted or accomplished rape of Benson in front of the aforementioned preteen. Ultimately, Lewis gets what’s coming to him, with the episode ending as he bloodily blows his brains out all over Benson’s stunned face. It’s torture porn at its absolute worst, and the episode’s use of abuse as entertainment is especially heavy-handed, even for the never-coy SVU.
Arbitrary tournament superlative: Yuckiest episode of an already pretty yucky show.
12. Under The Dome, “Curtains”
From the moment the dome sliced that unlucky cow in half, Under The Dome has had its problems. While the initial dome premise was certainly intriguing, the lack of logic in the town of Chester’s Mill remained troubling: For example, male lead Barbie buys cigarettes at a fully stocked convenience store in episode two, when by all rights everyone should have been stockpiling and divvying up all available food by then. By the season finale, the necessities of survivalist life had been tossed to make way for a mysterious mini-dome, an all-important monarch butterfly, some “rising” pink stars, a public hanging, and a magical, powerful egg. The finale unfortunately muddies the entire season by raising more questions than it answers, although the forces behind the dome are fortunately cleared up: Aliens, personified by the form of poor resurrected Samantha Mathis. But all these nonsensical elements are woven together by incredibly clunky expository dialogue, mostly directed at hapless, psychotic Junior: “The monarch is dying, Junior. We need Angie!” and “Things are happening, Junior!” Linda doesn’t fare well, either, as she makes the mistake of following evil Big Jim around, “Calling all units,” now consisting only of Big Jim, Junior, and herself, and being flummoxed by the mini-dome and its ramifications: “I found another dome. And some sort of… egg.” Samantha Mathis maintains that the dome appeared to protect Chester’s Mill (by cutting off the town’s access to air and food?), not harm it, although why this town should be offered such special treatment remains to be seen, as the residents seem pretty dense so far. Although Barbie is able to break out of jail just using his feet—so maybe that explains it.
Arbitrary Tournament superlative: Worst endorsement for the pleasures of small-town life.