EXTREME TV?

Taking a look at the good, bad and the train wrecks of midseason TV shows

For Weekly SurgeFebruary 6, 2013 

We know you’re foaming at the mouth for the return of “The Walking Dead” on Sunday after an agonizing midseason hiatus, but the increasingly popular zombie apocalypse/survivor tale isn’t the only TV (network and cable) series aiming to take the second half of the traditional programming season and turn it on its ear.

2013’s midseason TV shows take viewers to extremes. Instead of garden-variety criminals, we get fanciful serial killers obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. Instead of garden-variety conspiracies, we get demons threatening to end life on Earth. Even the more realistic dramas have a weakness for behavior that’s beyond the pale.

Speaking of extremes, many of the midseason shows fall into the category of Very, Very Good or Very, Very Bad. Then there’s my favorite category: Shows that are So Bad They’re Irresistible.

We know your time is valuable, so we’ve sorted through the vast array of programming for you, to construct a sampling of the notable new and returning series. Word to the wise: Fasten your seatbelts.

THE GOOD

“Girls”

Sundays, 9 p.m. (HBO)

Part of me would love to be 26-year-old Lena Dunham: widely hailed as a comic genius when her series “ Girls” premiered on HBO last year. Another part of me wouldn’t want to be Dunham at all: forced to show that season one wasn’t a fluke by delivering an equally brilliant season two. But the new episodes prove that Dunham has plenty more up her sleeve. The tattooed writer-director-star continues to find fresh laughs, fresh poignancy and fresh idiocy in the lives of her four young characters, who struggle with post-college life in New York City.

“The Biggest Loser”

Sundays, 9 p.m. (NBC-WMBF)

The returning weight-loss competition is appealing to us Americans, given our Emersonian tradition of self-reliance. A new group of overeaters earnestly vow to reinvent themselves, with help from “ The Biggest Loser’s” strict trainers. The big news is that the strictest of them all, Jillian Michaels, has returned after a childbearing hiatus.

Did I say “strict”? “Sadistic” would be more accurate. Michaels seems happiest when her charges fall off their treadmills or beg for mercy, because then she gets to yell at them even louder. “Take your sorry ass out of my gym!” she shouts at one poor man who can’t handle her relentless workout. “I don’t have time for your pathology!”

Such scenes make it hard not to contemplate one’s own sorry ass, of which Michaels would certainly disapprove.

“Enlightened”

Sundays, 9:30 pm (HBO)

Amy is a dim bulb who thirsts for enlightenment. In season one of HBO’s excellent series – created, produced by and starring Laura Dern – Amy set off on a New Age quest for higher consciousness after a mental breakdown. In season two, she commits herself to a new quest: bringing down the corporation that has reduced her to a data-processing drone.

Dern does a skillful job of establishing Amy as one hot mess. For all her interest in serenity, this woman could explode at any minute, taking out innocent bystanders like her mother (Diane Ladd) and ex-partner (Luke Wilson). The genius of “ Enlightened” is that it creates sympathy for Amy’s crazy stabs at transcendence. Here’s how she justifies stealing confidential documents to expose her company’s corruption:

“For two minutes there I felt worth something. Like I was doing something – something real. And I was alive. It felt good to feel alive for once, and not just dead and plastic and numb.”

Enemies of the dead and plastic and numb would be well advised to tune in to “ Enlightened.”

“Continuum”

Mondays, 8 p.m. (Syfy)

A beautiful cop arrives from the future with a skintight gold jumpsuit and an arsenal of cool hologram weapons. Keira Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is accidentally swept back to 2012 while pursuing terrorists, a few of whom are swept back with her. In this new fantasy series (imported from Canada), Keira must tangle with them while negotiating an unfamiliar world.

The pilot is fascinating in the early scenes set in the future. Unfortunately, it soon turns routine as Keira hooks up with a detective (Victor Webster) and a teenage computer genius (Erik Knudsen) from the present. Cue familiar chase scenes and banter.

To be honest, though, I plan to keep watching. “ Continuum” had me hooked at “a beautiful cop arrives from the future with a skintight gold jumpsuit and an arsenal of cool hologram weapons.”

“Deception”

Mondays, 10 p.m. (NBC-WMBF)

When a troubled socialite turns up dead, her onetime friend – a cop named Joanna (Meagan Good) – goes undercover in the family mansion to figure out whodunit. Joanna grew up in the mansion herself, as the maid’s daughter, so she has a history with this creepy clan. “ Deception” skillfully establishes her perilous circumstances, and Good makes you feel her mounting distress.

The series keeps piling on complications: drug abuse, sexual misbehavior, corporate shenanigans, marital trouble, paternity issues, assassination. “This thing is huge!” Joanna exclaims.

I’d have to agree. I can’t wait to see her get to the bottom of it all in 2013.

“Cult”

Tuesdays, 9 p.m. (CW-WWMB), premiering Feb. 19

“Cult” offers one of the midseason’s most intriguing concepts. It’s about a TV series, itself named “Cult.” The show-within-the-show portrays a creepy cult run by a psycho who kidnaps and brainwashes his followers. “Cult” has inspired a legion of fans, some of whom go off the deep end in their obsession with clues and code words they detect in each episode.

Is the cult depicted in “Cult” the real deal, finding new members among the show’s fans? It sounds crazy to a reporter named Jeff (Matt Davis) until his brother – one of those obsessed fans – disappears after becoming a raging paranoiac. Jeff sets out to investigate along with a “Cult” crew member (Jessica Lucas), who wonders why the show’s producer is a mystery man never seen in public.

“Cult” is an eerie creation, from the script to the score to the acting. To its credit, it gets under your skin with ideas and atmosphere rather than with shock effects and gore.

“Justified”

Tuesdays, 10 p.m. (FX)

In its fourth season, “ Justified” remains a droll portrait of a deputy U.S. marshal chasing the bad guys in Harlan, Ky. In the latest installments, low-key Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) digs into a cold case with connections to his childhood and his criminal father. Raylan goes about his business with a deadpan sense of humor, befitting the series’ source in Elmore Leonard’s writing. The Dixie-fried dialogue has the ring of authenticity, as does the portrait of small-town Southern life. The colorful characters are all lovingly detailed.

When you find yourself enjoying time spent with murderers, thieves, drug addicts and snake charmers, you know you’re in the presence of master filmmakers.

“Golden Boy”

Tuesdays, 10 p.m. (CBS-WBTW), premiering Feb. 26

This new cop drama takes an original approach to protagonist Walter Clark (Theo James). Walter is not only a smart, capable police officer with a vulnerable streak (nothing new there), but an opportunist. He has a lean, hungry look, watching for the main chance at all times. That’s not necessarily an attractive quality.

Indeed, “ Golden Boy” has the guts to make Walter a complicated young man. He grew up as a street kid, and he’s still not shy about cutting corners to get what he wants. His partner (Chi McBride) and fellow officers are unsettled by the showboat in their midst, and they take pains to put him in his place. That gives “ Golden Boy” a chance to explore police-office politics rather than just cracking cases.

“Inside every man there are two dogs fighting,” Walter’s partner tells him. “One’s good, one’s evil. You know who wins? The one you feed the most.”

To “ Golden Boy’s” credit, the pilot doesn’t indicate which of Walter’s dogs will win.

“The Americans”

Wednesdays, 10 p.m. (FX)

We’ve seen many dramas about married couples living a lie in the suburbs, with tensions cracking the cheery façade. The lie in “ The Americans”, however, is bigger than most. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are KGB agents passing as a normal American couple during the Reagan era, with two normal kids. The kids, in fact, really are normal, having been born in the U.S. and knowing nothing about their parents’ real identities. Elizabeth is troubled that they’re growing up without socialist values, but she would never blow her cover by telling them the truth. Philip, on the other hand, is beginning to wonder why the two of them don’t just flip to the American side and live happily ever after, sans murder and kidnapping.

The Americans” dares us to sympathize with the most unsympathetic of protagonists as they try to undermine our way of life. Sympathy is possible only because Philip and Elizabeth emerge as believable human beings, with doubts and fears and back stories.

“Do No Harm”

Thursdays, 10 pm (NBC-WMBF)

Dr. Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale) is an eminent surgeon and a solid citizen – at least for 12 hours a day. At night, his alter ego comes out to indulge in 12 hours of gleeful mayhem. Jason is all too aware of his nightmarish doppelganger and tries to keep him bottled up via experimental drugs. That just makes the bad Jason mad, so he sets out to ruin the good Jason’s life.

Do No Harm” is an effective variation on “ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The new series makes you feel the good Jason’s pain, thanks to Pasquale’s brilliant performance. Actually, make that two brilliant performances. Pasquale is just as convincing as the bad Jason, scaring you to death with the prospect of pure id on the loose. The most frightening moments are when the good Jason wakes up with only a vague sense that “he” has done something horrible.

“You will not see that side of me again!” he tells a freaked-out colleague who has been sexually victimized by his alter ego. “I promise!”

Those of use who’ve read “ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”– or who’ve labored to bottle up our own bad selves – can sense the futility of that promise.

“Archer”

Thursdays, 10 p.m. (FX)

A whole generation of people were raised on earnest cartoons like “ Jonny Quest” and “ Super Friends,” featuring crudely drawn heroes with square jaws, no inner life and a clear-cut sense of good and evil. For them (OK, us), “ Archer” is the cartoon series to enjoy in adulthood. The crudely drawn spy hero has the squarest of jaws, but his pursuit of the bad guys is freighted with adult baggage. Despite his rugged physique and manly voice, Archer has all sorts of human foibles. And despite the cartoon’s innocently retro look and score, it’s loaded with sex, drugs, profanity and violence. Oh, and most important of all: irony.

At the start of season four, Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin) was plagued by amnesia. How to cure him? “This isn’t The Flintstones,” said the resident scientist at spy headquarters. “We can’t just wang him over the head with a frying pan!”

Oh, but they can, and they will. That (((WANG!!!))) is music to my ears.

“King of the Nerds”

Thursdays, 10 p.m. (TBS)

This reality series - almost already at its midpoint - pits nerd against nerd: videogame experts, comic book lovers, science geeks, heavy-metal enthusiasts and others likely to begin speaking Orc at the drop of a hat. They’re eliminated in geeky competitions until the ultimate nerd is left standing. In the words of one contestant: “You can cut the tension with a light saber!”

You might expect “ King of the Nerds” to condescend to these socially challenged folks, but it actually sets out to valorize them. True, there’s irony aplenty in putting the nerds on a pedestal, but it’s all done with a good-natured tone. I proclaim the series a success – and believe me, as a TV blurb writer, I know a little something about nerds.

THE BAD

“Red Widow”

Sundays, 9 p.m. (ABC-WPDE), premiering March 3

This new melodrama asks us to hang out with scuzzy people involved in unpleasant activities. Marta (Radha Mitchell) is a Russian gangster’s daughter married to a drug smuggler who gets killed for crossing an underworld kingpin. Now Marta must do the kingpin’s bidding to keep her three kids safe. In other words, don’t expect her to change that grim expression for the remainder of season one.

Red Widow” features the muddled storytelling you’d expect from creator Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the “ Twilight” scripts. I think Rosenberg wants us to sympathize with Marta, but it’s hard to warm up to a humorless woman with a penchant for threatening FBI agents. The series is recommended only for aficionados of stringy hair and stagy Russian accents.

“The Following”

Mondays, 9 p.m. (Fox - WFXB)

I’ve always argued that a Kevin Bacon performance is never without merit, no matter the production. But I’ve finally lost the argument with the premiere of “ The Following,” a horror series from Kevin Williamson of “ Scream” fame. It’s written so badly that even Bacon bombs as a detective with a permanent Joe Friday scowl.

Williamson strained his brain to come up with the most brilliantly sick scenario ever seen on TV. He achieved “sick,” all right, but not “brilliant.” Even with one gruesome murder scene after another, it’s hard not to laugh at the idea of a diabolical English professor on an ornate killing spree inspired by Edgar Allan Poe works like “The Raven.” Would you believe that this evildoer can command his legion of cult followers to tattoo Poe quotations on their bodies and stab themselves in the eye? Or that Bacon’s character sleeps with the psychokiller’s wife while trying to crack the case? Didn’t think so.

Will Williamson still be a Hollywood player after “ The Following” flops? Quoth the raven: Nevermore.

“Dallas”

Mondays, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Larry Hagman was the only reason to watch the old “ Dallas” – that bland 1970s-90s soap opera set in Texas oil country. He’s also been the only reason to watch the reboot, in which he reprises his role as the villainous J.R. Ewing. Sadly, Hagman died during filming last fall, and “ Dallas” deserves to die with him. The series’ junior villain – John Ross (Josh Henderson), J.R.’s conniving son – has none of Hagman’s screen presence. He’s a lightweight pretty boy who just looks pathetic in the role of the heavy.

Hagman appears in the season’s early episodes, and it’s worth braving the labored melodrama just to hear his insinuating line readings one more time.

“Monday Mornings”

Mondays, 10 pm (TNT)

Critics have always accused David E. Kelley of having too much fun with his doctor and lawyer series (“ Ally McBeal,” “Chicago Hope,” “Harry’s Law”), to the point of rendering them absurd. Kelley’s latest doctor series goes the opposite direction: no fun at all. Co-produced with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “ Monday Mornings” is as generic as they come. Doctors (Ving Rhames, Alfred Molina, Jennifer Finnigan) roam a hospital’s corridors to deal with traumatized patients and anxious parents, not to mention their own personal melodramas. We get the usual tears, blood, arrogance, heartwarming music, medical jargon and soul searching. Lots and lots of soul searching.

David E. Kelley, all is forgiven. Please bring back the fun.

“Smash”

Tuesdays, 9 p.m. (NBC-WMBF)

I want “ Smash” to be good. I’d love to watch a weekly backstage musical with solid songs, grand performances and intriguing drama. But the second season is a reminder that the songs are banal, the performances are bland, and the drama is preposterous. As the starlet who plays Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical, Katharine McPhee has all the luster of an “ American Idol” runner-up.

“1600 Penn”

Thursdays, 9:30 pm (NBC-WMBF)

This new sitcom offers a hapless U.S. president (Bill Pullman) with an out-of-control family. In place of wit and subtlety, the series goes for broad gags involving the president’s trophy wife (Jenna Elfman) and goony son (Josh Gad).

Then there’s the leaden dialogue. A visiting dignitary tells the president, “Your trade deal will crumble like your nation’s aging infrastructure!”

Sorry, NBC, but so will your sitcom.

“Ripper Street”

Saturdays, 9 p.m. (BBC America)

I admit that I’ve rolled my eyes more than once at the relentlessly elegant portrayal of England’s past on PBS’s “ Masterpiece,” where every country estate is lit by a glistening chandelier. “ Ripper Street,” from BBC America, presents an alternative portrait. The series is set in London’s gritty East End in 1889, during Jack the Ripper’s murder spree. As detectives try to solve the case, we’re treated to some of the most brutal images ever seen on TV, including the bodies of the Ripper’s prostitute victims.

I’m suddenly growing nostalgic for glistening chandeliers.

SO BAD THEY’RE GOOD

“The Carrie Diaries”

Mondays, 8 pm (CW-WWMB)

“The Carrie Diaries” is a prequel to “ Sex and the City,” featuring a 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb) in place of Sarah Jessica Parker’s adult version. In 1984, Carrie obsesses on “finding her voice as a writer” as she discovers makeup, boys and haute couture in her first Manhattan job. The new series trades the naughty brilliance of HBO’s classic comedy for earnest teen-drama clichés, and I was just about to leave it to the 13-year-old demographic when it hooked me with worse-than-usual missteps. In other words, “ The Carrie Diaries” is that rarest of TV pleasures: a show that’s so bad it’s good.

Start with the wild swings from ultra-wholesome to ultra-raunchy, as if the filmmakers couldn’t get a handle on their tone. Then there’s the ridiculous evocation of hip Manhattan life, along with the equally ridiculous evocation of square suburban life. Best of all, there’s Carrie’s flowery narration. Even the simple act of getting into a cab spurs overheated poetry: “I wondered where this golden chariot would take me!”

Don’t try to stop me – I’m boarding this golden chariot myself, for as long as “ The Carrie Diaries” lasts.

“Zero Hour”

Thursdays, 8 p.m. (ABC-WPDE), premiering Feb. 14

I’m an aficionado of TV series that take their own mystical mumbo-jumbo seriously. “ Zero Hour” is a classic of the genre, throwing in Rosicrucians, Nazis, the devil, ancient Christian symbols, and treasure maps in a deliriously misguided attempt to be profound. Hank (Anthony Edwards) publishes a magazine that debunks supernatural phenomena, but wouldn’t you know that he’s plunged into the supernatural himself after his wife is kidnapped from her clock-repair shop by an evildoer seeking to end mankind. And what better way to set off the apocalypse than by stealing a clock created for one of Jesus’ apostles by an old Bavarian dude?

Zero Hour” provides so much wonderful nonsense that I barely know where to start. Hank, his two scruffy young assistants, and an FBI agent with supermodel cheekbones engage in jaunty banter even with Hank’s wife missing and the Earth in peril. At the drop of a hat, the Bavarian clockmaker spills shocking secrets to the scruffy young assistants, making you wonder how this stuff stayed under wraps for 2,000 years. “These are matters you don’t vant to be involved vith!” he exclaims.

Speak for yourself, old man. I vant to be involved vith these matters as long as “ Zero Hour” sticks around. But I’m guessing its end will come well before mankind’s.

“Spartacus: War of the Damned”

Fridays, 9 p.m. (Starz)

Those who enjoy TV series about half-naked Roman slaves wreaking gory vengeance on their toga-clad masters while reciting faux-Shakespearean dialogue with perfect elocution – well, you guys are kind of a weird demographic. But you clearly exist, to judge from the third season of “ Spartacus.” Here you will find all the slow-motion beheadings, graphic sex, rearing horses and oily muscles you’ve become accustomed to.

The fascinating thing about “ Spartacus” is that, for all the pulpy action, the script labors to sound high-toned. Thus, no slave would ever just ask, “Is she still alive?” He would ask, “She yet draws breath?” And no mother would ever just say that her son is “too excited to go to sleep.” She would say, “The battle rages in his head, vanquishing slumber.”

Whatever else you can say about “ Spartacus: War of the Damned,” you have to admit that it does vanquish slumber.

Dean Robbins is editor of Isthmus, an alt-weekly newspaper in Madison, Wisc., and writes a weekly syndicated TV column.

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