To paraphrase TV lawyer Alan Shore of “Boston Legal,” the best work on television today is being done on cable. Sure, there are the addictive, juicy shows like “Gossip Girl” making waves on the CW, and the somewhat transgressive comedy of network shows like “Dirty Sexy Money” or “30 Rock,” (not to knock the always dependable “Rock”) but cable shows these days are routinely snagging film actors who would have once stayed away from TV roles. Additionally, many cable shows are being shot in ways that are barely (if at all) distinguishable from some of the best Hollywood cinematography, continuing to bring prestige and respect to a medium that for so long was regarded as inferior and a waste of time. Without further ado, Artsweek presents to you a run-down of the upcoming season’s best and worst new and returning shows.
One of HBO’s most eagerly awaited new shows comes from Alan Ball, the man behind past network hits like “Six Feet Under” and stars the always dependable Anna Paquin. Ball’s hour-long vampire series, “True Blood,” might at first seem to hit on all the same morbid undertones, but believe it or not, “True Blood” aims more for dark — if often broad and stereotypical — humor than “Six Feet Under.” Based on the popular Sookie Stackhouse novels, “Blood” tells the story of a world in which vampires have come out of their coffins, after a synthetic blood replacement has seemingly satiated their appetite for human blood. The show’s unique universe is absorbing, but its insistence on hitting the viewer over the head with the whole vampires-as-a-metaphor-for-homosexuality thing gets to be more than a bit overbearing. Given a chance, though, the series may prove to be infectious, assuming it manages to find the tone of the novels it’s based on.
I’m also willing to allow JJ Abrams’ new show, “Fringe,” a chance to grow on me. I never got into “Lost,” but I’m still looking for that perfect action/mystery/adventure show to fill the void that the absence of “Alias” left in my TV-addicted heart a couple years ago. I wouldn’t mind if it’s as close to “The X-Files” as its two-hour pilot may have viewers believe, but with Abrams, there’s probably more than meets the eye. “Fringe,” starring Joshua Jackson and newcomer ___??, airs on Fox on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” loosely based on “Hamlet,” looks to be an interesting and stylish replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct drama, “The Shield,” one of the cable network’s most daring scripted shows. “Anarchy,” which has already become a critics’ darling, revolves around a gang of motorcycle-riding outlaws and their control of their Northern Californian community, the fictional town of Charming, and features excellently nuanced characters and deliciously dark plot twists. “Anarchy” premiered on Sept. 3, airs Wednesdays at 10.
Network hopes are high for the new “90210,” which looks to recreate the success of the indie-rock filled, beautiful-people-filled, angsty “The O.C.” phenomenon. The show’s producers even brought back stars from the original series, Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth, in hopes of stirring up ratings among old fans who are probably beyond tuning into the CW at this point. Only time will tell if this new series will be as shamefully addicting as the show’s teen soap predecessor or Fox’s mega-hit.
With such a notable cast, led by Peter Krause from “Six Feet Under” and Donald Sutherland, you can see why NBC would be willing to take a risk on this hour-long comedy about a scheming wealthy family and their reluctant lawyer. I’m still not convinced that “Dirty Sexy Money” is “the next Arrested Development.” This might have something to do with the show’s flow being interrupted by last season’s writers’ strike: in the end, only 10 episodes were produced for season one, though there were some glimpses of TV greatness, especially in the story about the politician, played by Billy Baldwin, and his transvestite lover.
Another promising show from last season that really seemed to catch on with viewers was the saccharinely sweet “Pushing Daisies,” based around the gimmick that everything living that piemaker Ned, played by Lee Pace, touches dies. I’m not sure how long Fox can stretch out the tortured romance between Ned and his untouchable girlfriend, but the show’s witty — and sometimes overdone — writing makes the show worth watching for awhile, anyhow. “Daisies” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
Somehow, NBC’s “30 Rock” hasn’t quite managed to grab a hold of the viewership that its fellow Thursday night comedies have attained. However, the show’s immensely talented cast — featuring a never-better Alec Baldwin as an egotistical and conscience-less studio exec and Tracy Morgan’s outrageous performance basically playing himself — make the show one of the funniest comedies on TV, even when the show’s writing seems a bit too in awe of itself or the show’s gimmicky guest stars prove distracting.
What once served as a fairly decent half-hour of televised escapism now seems on the verge of sucking itself inward by the power of its own vacuity. The season four premiere of “Entourage” (which aired last Sunday on HBO 10 p.m.) lost my interest long before Ari and Eric managed to wrangle Vince and Turtle back from their wild times in Mexico. It’s hard to care about characters who have no arc, and it’s hard to laugh at the same one-note jokes all the way through a fourth season.
“How I Met Your Mother” is another series back for its fourth season. At first, I dismissed the show because its premise seemed so… sitcom-y (and because I find Ted to be almost insufferably obnoxious), but the show’s weekly play on the conventions of storytelling — and its inclusion of Neil Patrick Harris as the slimy womanizer, Barney — made me reconsider. The show’s jokes can be very obvious, making it a bit hit-or-miss, but I’ll still be tuning in Monday at 8:30 p.m. to see how Stella, played by Sarah Chalke, responds to Ted’s proposal.
I don’t know what to say about “Californication,” at this point; I’m sure Jay Leno has managed to crack a joke or two about the similarities between David Duchovny and his alter-ego in the last couple of weeks. I wanted to like this show, but the first episode of season two dishes up more of the same, even if it does set up a few twists: smug one-liners, “wild” sex that’s become so expected that it’s boring, and some studio exec’s idea of what constitutes a wild, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. If you’ve got more uh, stamina than I do, you can catch “Californication” on Showtime Sundays at 10 p.m.
P.S.: AMC’s “Mad Men” season two is already through eight episodes, but it’s not too late to catch up on that stylish and impeccably scripted series; season one is out on DVD now.
And the Painfully Awful…
Laugh track? Check. “Attractive” divorced father? Check. Laughs? Uh… Somebody out there must be a fan of “Two and a Half Men.” I’m going to have to go ahead and blame them for the appearance of the dismally titled — and even more dismally conceived — half-hour sitcom, “Gary Unmarried.” Replace Charlie Sheen with Jay Mohr, and you’re looking at an almost carbon-copy. While the more adventurous pilots this year will probably be cancelled after a couple episodes, the network (CBS, also responsible for “Men”) will likely order a full season of “Gary,” ensuring the show will haunt you in syndication for years to come.
Also painful: gleefully raunchy comedian Bob Saget returning to more family-friendly fare playing a nice-guy father to a houseful of kids. No, it’s not 1995 all over again: Saget is set to star in the dully titled “Surviving Suburbia,” which revolves around the done-to-death plotline of comedically at-odds suburban neighbors. Call me an optimist, but I don’t see this one “surviving” long after its Nov. 2 premiere on the CW. Saget must not be making enough money as the narrator of “How I Met Your Mother.”
I can’t believe Jason Bateman is behind “Do Not Disturb,” the completely bland-looking, DOA sitcom that’s sure to be one of the network’s first casualties of the season. From all reports, the show has been re-casted, re-scripted and re-worked multiple times; if there was ever an original and fresh (not to mention even marginally funny) concept behind this show, it’s been lost in the network’s bid to create something to appeal to the widest demographic possible with the broadest comedy possible, featuring scenarios that have been played to death throughout the history of sitcoms.