Hey there, ho there, TV fanatics! Welcome back to Don’t Touch That Dial, a seasonal column where I, your trusty reviewer, slog through all the premieres then tell you what to watch. Because I can. And because I have no life. Seriously. It’s pretty depressing, actually. Anyway...this post covers period dramas and the hot new subgenre this midseason, serial killer thrillers. Justified is also in there because there’s absolutely no way in Hades I’m not covering it. So there.
Now for the requisite SPOILER warning. There’s nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
The Road So Far: The Americans (FX, Wed 10p - new show) is set in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan has just been elected, and the Soviet Union is freaking out over the “mad man” now running the most powerful nation in the world. In public, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings are the perfect American family, but they’re Soviet spies living deep undercover—16 years, two kids, and a house in the ‘burbs deep. One botched mission to capture a spy-turned-defector and a nosy new neighbor sets in motion a chain of events that threaten their espionage and their lives. And their shaky and rapidly unraveling marriage isn’t helping matters any.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: This show has more in common with Justified than you might think. More than Graham Yost at the helm and Margo Martindale (last season’s chilling villain Mags Bennett) unnerving the leads, The Americans is about a very specific group of people in very specific circumstances; in this case, 1980s KGB spies. But both shows are also about more universal themes. Justified is really about family, just as The Americans is really about marriage. Elizabeth and Phillip were shoved together by the Powers That Be. Phillip gave up the woman he loved, and Elizabeth gave up the chance to find her own true love. Phillip loves his wife more than he’s willing to admit, and Elizabeth wants to love him more than she’s willing to admit. Ultimately, they’re like any other couple who have stayed together for the kids and professional reasons. They have to decide whether to give love a chance or to accept that their marriage is a failure and learn to deal with it. The hard part is dealing with all those personal issues while staying on the good side of the Soviet government—not an easy thing to do, as Joyce found out in episode 3.
That being said, the spy stuff is pretty entertaining in and of itself. The action is tense and vicious, and the fight scenes are surprisingly realistic. There’s no flair or fancy footwork here, just hard, cold violence, most of which is up close and personal and extremely physical. They’ve managed to handle the period details well. These are very much characters living in the 1980s. There’s no modern meta-commentary or anachronisms here. Story-wise, the writers are obviously struggling. Several of the most important story milestones are also glaring plot contrivances. (The FBI agent in charge of investigating undercover KGB operatives just so happens to move in across the street. Granted, this leads to a closing scene in the Jennings’ garage, one of my favorite scenes of any show this season. But still.) The only other thing that seriously bothers me about this show was how pilot established Elizabeth as a character. Her first scene was a blowjob, and the first major bit of character development stems from her rape. It’s 2013. Surely by now we’ve learned to create female characters who aren’t defined by their sexuality.
TL;DR: Between this and Justified, FX is kicking serious cable ass. HBO and Showtime have some heavy competition.
The Road So Far: Cult (CW, Tues 9p - new show) is a show and a show within a show. FBI agents Kelly and Paz (yeah, I don’t know either) investigate the disappearance of Kelly’s sister and nephew. She believes the villain behind the kidnappings is Billy Grimm, a charismatic cult leader—think Hannibal Lecter if he had a Facebook account. But all that’s on the TV show Cult, which airs on the TV show Cult. Bear with me a little longer. Failed reporter Jeff and Skye, a “researcher” for Cult, go looking for Jeff’s younger brother Nate. Nate—and apparently a huge online community of super-fans—believes there are secret messages within the show, and people get together to LARP out those coded messages because that’s what people do in Cult’s world. Two bodies turn up, a corrupt cop sets up a plan to blame Jeff, and Skye, whose job it is to research this crap, thinks the phrase is “blood splatter” instead of “blood spatter.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Honestly, I don’t know what happened this season. Between Cult, Do No Harm, The Following, and Zero Hour, it’s like network execs lost their damn minds. Do No Harm was bad in a “I don’t know what’s happening, someone please make it stop” kinda way, while Zero Hour was almost compelling in its sheer terribleness, as in “how is it even possible that a show that bad ever made it to air” bad. The Following I’ll get to in a tick, but Cult, Jesus H. Particular Christ, it’s such a crappy show. I watched the pilot twice trying to figure out if what makes it so bad was intentional or simply the result of a bad script, bad acting, and bad directing. I’m leaning hard to the latter.
In the show, fans don’t take to Tumblr or Twitter to talk about how much they love the show. Instead they create secret hidden websites you have to “follow links” to find and go to underground clubs to sit on bulky desktops and communicate via AOL-in-1996-esque chat rooms. Cops willingly ignore evidence like a lack of gun residue and signs of struggle and just throw out random accusations, or just leave stacks of possible evidence at the crime scene because why bother carting all that stuff back to the station when Jeff will just have to go through it anyway in the next scene so he can find the clue his brother had time to hide in between stabbings. None of the actors, producers, or the mysterious showrunner ever go to cons, do interviews, or even AMAs. The creator has never been seen and writes every script himself entirely alone and without any assistance from a writing staff (which “begs the question” as to why they even need a “researcher” on staff in the first place), despite the fact that such a situation means disregarding everything about how the television industry actually works. Between the stilted acting, ridiculous dialogue, and ludicrous concept, there’s no way this show could ever be anything other than terrible.
TL;DR: Zero Hour is spectacularly bad. It’s so bad that it’s actually transcended the meaning of the word “bad” and become mesmerizing, like watching a car crash in slow motion. Perhaps if Cult had demon babies and Nazi clocks, it might also reach similar lows, but all it has is stupidity. Piles and piles of stupidity. Do No Harm levels of stupidity.
The Road So Far: The Following (FOX, Mon 9p - new show), um, follows ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy, a hot-headed drunk suffering the ill effects of a bad breakup, a dicky heart, and probably PTSD, gets sucked back into the force when serial killer Joe Carroll escapes from prison. He surrenders at the end of the first episode, but it soon becomes clear it was all part of some vast, Machiavellian plot to tear Ryan’s world apart. Part revenge for sleeping with his wife, part sadistic desire to watch the world burn, Carroll turns his followers’ cultish devotion into a cruel megaphone for his message of beauty through death in this blood-soaked thriller.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The day after this show’s premiere, I found myself embroiled in a heated debate with a man in his seventies about violence in entertainment. It was just over a month from Sandy Hook, making the conversation particularly intense. His premise was that all the blood and gore in media was to blame, that we celebrate deviancy and are reaping what we sow. My argument has always been that there is an important and necessary place for debauchery, perversion, and violence in entertainment, and that it is misleading, wrong-headed, and ultimately more toxic to the cultural atmosphere to pretend the world is Leave It to Beaver and ignore the destructive side of life. From a creative standpoint, violence—when not overused or misused—can be a vital storytelling tool.
But I never got to say any of that because the man started talking about some horrible show he had watched the night before, where 20 minutes into it a woman stripped naked at a police station and shoved an icepick in her eye. He and his wife were so upset by it that they turned to TV Land and watched Happy Days for the rest of the night. We need Fight Club and Pulp Fiction as much as Norman Rockwell and Shirley Temple, but The Following is not the show to prove that case. It does the exact opposite. The Following is hollow, gratuitous, and gruesome, and lacks the depth or philosophy have any meaning.
I like a lot of the people working on this show. Kevin Williamson (and Joss Whedon) were a major part of my formative years; Dawson’s Creek pretty much defined my entire existence as a teenager. Kevin Bacon is awesome, even when he isn’t. James Purefoy, Shawn Ashmore, and Natalie Zea are great actors who always pique my interest. But the whole show is like Criminal Minds cranked to 11. It’s violent for the sake of being violent, and shock has no value when there isn’t anything to support it. The characters are just so...stock. Ryan is a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, Carroll is the discount bin cross between John Doe from Se7en and Hannibal Lecter, Weston the excitable geek fawning all over his mentor, Claire the gorgeous victim with the hots for Ryan, blah blah blah. And don’t even get me started on Carroll’s acolytes. They aren’t nearly charismatic enough to sustain full episodes, which looks like where the show is headed. Look, I know my deep obsession with Criminal Minds makes me sound like a hypocrite, but the characters and their interpersonal relationships are what draw me in again and again. I care about what happens to Reid and Penelope. The characters in The Following spout out paint-by-numbers dialogue to such an extent that personalities and quirks are overrun.
TL;DR: Clichés only serve to make the pointless horror-porn tropes stand out even worse. There’s a teensy kernel of good-ness here (if you can stand all the wrong-ness of the Poe nonsense), but they’re going to have to shed a ton of excess baggage to get to it. If the ratings continue to be strong, they’ll either keep the drudgery going or use it as an excuse to live up to higher standards.
The Road So Far: Season 4 of Justified (FX, Tues 10p) digs deeper into Detroit mafia kingpin Theo Tonin, introduced last season via his psychotic wannabe lieutenant Robert Quarles. Decades earlier, Arlo Givens and Bo Crowder were involved in hiding a drug runner named Drew Thompson—as well as his massive stash of cocaine—from Tonin. Now Raylan, Boyd, several US law enforcement agencies, and Tonin are on the hunt for Thompson, and it’s only a matter of time before they all spectacularly and violently collide. And all this with a baby on the way.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Justified stars the awesome Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens, the fantastic Walton Goggins as crime boss Boyd Crowder, and about a dozen of television’s best “not nearly famous enough” actors. A pleasant side effect of this is the unofficial Deadwood reunion going on: so far W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority—also in Bates Motel), Jim Beaver (Ellsworth), Gerald McRaney (George Hearst). If they can convince Brad Dourif, Garret Dillahunt, and Kim Dickens to do guest stints, my life will be complete. Fortunately, this season is also addressing the previous seasons’ biggest failure, that of not managing to adequately flesh out the secondary and tertiary characters. Raylan isn’t just an anti-hero, he’s also a mountain of dicks with a Stetson fetish, while Boyd is more than just a villain, he’s also romantic and funny and out of his gorram mind. But in a good way.
Like The Americans, this isn’t a perfect show, but even it’s B-grade stories are miles above most of the dreck on TV. It’s one of the wittiest, cleverest, darkly comic shows on air. But the best thing about this show? The hilarious and terrifying chaos that is Raylan and Boyd’s tempestuous relationship. The writers have very wisely kept Raylan and Boyd apart for much of this season, for as great as it is watching them spark off each other, their scenes pack an even higher punch when they’ve circled each other for several episodes. The higher the stakes, the more built up tension boiling between the lines, the more trouble they get into and the more troublesome they become, the more explosive their inevitable collisions become. It ain’t SFF, but if you were annoyed that Firefly wasn’t Western enough, then you definitely need to pick up Justified.
TL;DR: Raylan: “The S.S. Quarles is going under. You best swim like hell to get clear or the whirlpool will take you down with it.” Wynn: “I believe they disproved that on Mythbusters.”
Raylan: “I got mad ninja skills, buddy.” Tim: “Yeah, you know karate?” Raylan: “And two other Japanese words.”
Bates Motel (A&E, Mon 10p - series premiere Mar 18): On one hand, Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates. On the other hand, it’s a serialized prequel of Psycho where the characters solve a bunch of mysteries. Anyone wanna take bets on how long this show lasts?
Call the Midwife (PBS, Sun 8p - season 2 premiere Mar 31): Honestly, I have no idea what this show is about. Is it a drama about beekeeping in ancient Greece or a sitcom about a cop who doesn’t play by the rules going undercover at The Gap? Who knows. With a title that vague and unspecific, the show could be about anything.
Downton Abbey (PBS, Wed 9p - season 3 premiere Jan 6): Here are two reasons to watch this show: 1) It’s a historical soap opera. Think Dynasty but with more tweed and bowler caps. 2) Maggie Smith is the world’s greatest everything, and her character is endlessly quotable. When I get old, I want to be her. Still seems silly to me that PBS waits so long between the UK and US airdates, but given how high the ratings for the US premiere was, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll adopt the Doctor Who model.
Hannibal (NBC, Thurs 10p - series premiere Feb 14): Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, The Munsters reboot) is the tasty brains behind this prequel. Like Bates Motel, there are a lot of great talents off and on camera (hello, Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Laurence Fishburne, and Scott Thompson), but the whole concept fills me with an overwhelming sense of “Ugh.”
Mad Men (AMC, Sun 10p - season 6 premiere Apr 7): Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes! Out of all the shows returning this year, this is the one I’m most excited for. Mad Men will go down in history as one of the greatest shows ever created, and the sooner everyone realizes that the better off we’ll all be. Pick a weekend and marathon the heck out of it. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Creator/showrunner Matthew Weiner is a master wordsmith. He is to television what Neil Gaiman is to literature.
Ripper Street (BBC America, Sat 10p - series premiere Jan 19): Do you like procedurals? Do you like Victorian London? Do you like Matthew Macfadyen? Then welcome to your new favorite show.
Zero Hour (ABC, Thurs 8p - series premiere Feb 14): Nazi clocks? Nazi clocks. NAZI FRAKKING CLOCKS. Seriously? How the hell did that ever make it past the treatment stage? How did no one—crew, actors, producers, extras, caterers, security guards, ANYONE AT ALL—stop this abomination from hitting the airwaves? Sweet zombie Jesus. And I thought Beauty and the Beast was bad.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.