This year, one of the shows that generated critical buzz was Fox’s Red Band Society, which is about a children’s ward for children with serious-terminal illnesses. The result was a Breakfast Club for disease, narrated by a kid in a coma with a penchant for platitudes. I bailed during the second lecture by Coma Boy.
Of course, I had a clue how dreary the fall could be when this was the list of “anticipated” new shows on broadcast TV this year according to USA Today’s estimable critic, Robert Bianco.
Then it struck me. I went to my DVR and counted 16 shows I enjoyed on cable this SUMMER, and one genial network offering. Summer? Superior original TV? Since when?
So let me offer anyone with cable that offers a good On Demand, a personalized TV schedule for the fall. Add these to the few network shows worth your time: The Good Wife, Modern Family, The Middle, and Elementary; and the two new network shows with promise: Gotham and Black-ish, (and, of course, Showtime’s thoroughly revived and gripping Homeland) and you will actually have a TV schedule worthy of the Golden Age (actually better).
This should at least last you until January, when we get the return of Justified, The Americans, and the rest of the first season of Amazon Prime’s nearly perfect adaptation of Michael Connelly’s great noirish cop novels, Bosch.
17. You Say You Want a Revolution? Turn (AMC)
The summer began with Turn, AMC’s latest attempt at historical series television, and while it ain’t Mad Men in its prime or Breaking Bad (nothing is), it’s solid storytelling set in a time that is woefully under-utilized on screens both large and small—the American Revolution.
Set on Long Island during the Revolution in the town of Sawtucket, which is occupied by British troops and evenly split between Loyalists and Patriots, Turn is (very) loosely based on the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose.
If only the romantic leads were a little more personally appealing than the pinched Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Abraham Woodhull and Heather Lind as Anna Strong, but the show is stolen by Samuel Roukin as the most hateful (if a bit stereotypical) British twit villain ever, and Angus MadFadden as a boozy, gone-to-seed but still wily Robert Rogers, the creator of unconventional warfare.
Smart scripts and a real historical setting make Turn a welcome addition, even if it’s not quite revolutionary.
16. Once Upon a Future Time in the West: Defiance (SYFY)
Other than Game of Thrones, there is a real dearth of sci-fi and fantasy (at least that doesn’t involve vampires) on TV these days, so maybe that’s why I enjoy Defiance a lot more than the critics say I should. Or maybe it’s the dearth of Westerns… or maybe it’s because I’ve always thought the two should be combined– and I really really still mourn the way Firefly was wasted by stupid Fox execs.
An attractive cast helps, including a winningly rugged heroic turn by Grant Bowler as Joshua Nolan, the former special forces soldier turned frontier marshal and adoptive father of an alien teenage girl with strange powers, Graham Greene as the owner of the town’s mine, the always welcome Julie Benz as the town’s mayor, and Jamie Murray as the scheming alien wife of the town’s chief gangster.
The setting is the frontier mining town of Defiance (an unrecognizably terra-formed St. Louis), after an alien invasion. Unique to this story is that Earth was basically a side front in a war between other alien races. Rather than the familiar alien occupations story, Earth is now home to several of them, but civilization was destroyed by the war, and the Earth is a vast frontier in which everyone is rebuilding and various factions fight for control.
Defiance is more Deadwood than Gunsmoke, and while it isn’t great TV, it’s energetic, fun and very enjoyable, if this is your kind of thing.
(Language alert on the trailer, this is from the Swedish TV version, not NBC)
15. Meet the Socialist Parents: Welcome to Sweden (NBC)
This genial sitcom is the only show produced by a traditional broadcast network in this list. Greg Pohler (brother of Amy) plays Bruce, an accountant to the stars who gives up his practice of helping self-centered actors get around paying taxes and heads off to Sweden to live with his Swedish fiancé, Emma, who has gotten a big promotion back home.
Emma’s hippie-esque parents aren’t sure what to make of Greg, particularly her droll mother played by the great Leno Olin; and Bruce’s attempts to make something of himself in a society where all incentive for ambition have been virtually removed makes for good fish-out-of-water comedy.
Even the least of the episodes are mildly amusing, the best recall Meet the Parents. (This is also a good place to plug Netflix’s great Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt of The Sopranos as a New York mobster in Witness Protection trying to get along in socialist, politically correct Norway. Watch it.)
In one memorable episode Bruce tries to help Björn Ulvaeus from Abba make money, and the concept is completely foreign to him. Bjorn also wears his Abba costume everywhere, hoping to be recognized; but when called on it always insists he “is on the way to a photo shoot.”
14. Putting the F Back in Scott Fitzgerald: Power (Starz)
Produced by 50 Cent, Power is supposed to be a hip-hop Gatsby about a black drug dealer who has worked his way up from the streets to own one of New York’s hottest nightclubs.
Well, not much Fitzgerald is left, and if you hadn’t told me, I would never have made the connection. I mean maybe, if the original Daisy had been secretly working for Elliot Ness…
Omari Hardwick plays James St. Patrick, nicknamed Ghost. He’s a major heroin supplier and also the flashy owner of New York City’s hottest new nightclub. He longs to go straight and make his nightclub business his actual livelihood.
The two closest people to him however, are threatened by the change. Tommy, his Irish thug boyhood friend, who knows he’s better suited as a street enforcer than an upscale restaurateur; and his wife, (Naturi Naughton) who holds to their criminal activity as something intimate that they share.
Enter Angela Valdez (a very appealing Lela Loren) St. Patrick’s high school girlfriend, who visits the club one night, clueless that he is the owner. She is also clueless that he is Ghost, the mysterious drug lord that the secretive federal task force she is in charge of has been pursuing. Angela just says she’s a lawyer, and the two rekindle their relationship.
This is hardly The Wire. Power got medium reviews, and it’s not nearly as groundbreaking as it might think it is, but if you just focus on what it is instead of what it isn’t this is compelling storytelling. And it’s multicultural in the best sense. People are what they are, but it’s their actions that determine their destiny, not a hierarchy of victimhood.
13. Longmire: A Cowboy and an Indian Walk into a Bar…
Probably the best standard procedural on television, this modern Western, based on the books by Craig Johnson, was still A&E’s all-time best-rated scripted show when it was inexplicably cancelled after its very strong 3rd season.
Robert Taylor (who looks disconcertingly like a grizzled George W. Bush) plays Walt Longmire, the widowed Sheriff of a Wyoming County, assisted by Deputy Victoria Moretti (Battlestar Galactica’s Katie Sackhoff). His best friend is an Indian bar owner played by Lou Diamond Phillips, and one of the two of them may—or may not—have killed the murderer of Longmire’s wife.
Small town and tribal Indian politics play a big role in the series, giving it a compelling and unique edge. The show is tough minded and fair, never lapsing into PC victim politics—and those who play that card usually have less than admirable motives. The plots are smart, and the characters each have a prickly edge that leads to conflicts that seem far less contrived than the average TV series.
Longmire has been picked up by Netflix for Season 4, showing once again that streaming video is the future. TNT, USA and CBS all missed a big opportunity here.
12. America’s Navy is All That it Can Be: The Last Ship
Yet another apocalyptic virus show, The Last Ship couldn’t be more different than The Strain or The Walking Dead, but it’s still TNT’s best show since it picked up Southland after NBC’s fumble, and best original show for the network since The Closer.
Based on the novel of the same name by William Brinkley, this Michael Bay-produced love letter to the United States Navy plays like a traditional disaster movie, but it’s also first-rate entertainment, handsomely produced and surprisingly compelling.
The crew of the guided missile destroyer USS Nathan James finds itself at sea as a virus ravages civilization, with the scientist who holds the key to the cure onboard (Brit Rhonda Mitra, last seen as the flawed unit commander in Strike Back).
The ship’s commander, Tom Chandler (an almost unrecognizably grayer and bulked up Eric Dane of Grey’s Anatomy) and his XO, Mike Slattery (the always welcome Adam Baldwin) are now forced to make their own decisions that will affect not only the fate of their crew, but of the whole world.
Dogging them is a Russian admiral aboard a nuclear armed heavy cruiser, who is determined to have the scientist and her research for himself.
The ship’s crew can, at times, be as interchangeable as the various cannon-fodder security teams on the original Star Trek, but the trio of Dane, Baldwin and Mitra are very good; and the command decisions and weekly situations are tense and ring true.
And when was the last time a prime time television show presented the US military as the natural last best hope of mankind?
Parts 2 and 3 coming later this week…