"The highbrow AMC" may seem like a strange identity for a cable network looking to make a splash. But for Sundance Channel it makes sense. The unprecedented ratings success of The Walking Dead has gobbled up everything in its wake, leaving little room for the sort of idiosyncratic, brainy (as opposed to brain-devouring) fare that elevated AMC out of the minor leagues to begin with. (That Breaking Bad is over and Mad Men is nearly there hasn't helped much, either.) And so, over the past year, Sundance Channel — itself a corporate cousin of AMC — has picked up the slack, carving out a niche for itself with the sort of high-minded fare blood-and-ratings-obsessed AMC has left behind. In this analogy, Sundance's brilliant Top of the Lake could be seen as its Mad Men (self-abusive people with secrets in a faraway land; Elisabeth Moss) and the slow and sticky Rectify the photo negative of Breaking Bad (it's about what happens to a family after the crime and punishment). Now, just in time for Halloween, comes Sundance's attempt at a horror show.
During American Horror Story: Asylum, the second season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's epic and award-winning horror saga — I personally would give it all the Emmys, because it's daddy's favorite show — there were moments when we viewers were so assaulted by the over-the-top violence and totally bizarre twists that we simply had to laugh. Between the Nazis, evil breast-feeding fetishists, nun-rapists, and aliens, we had to figure the co-creators were kind of testing our mettle while having a bit of a laugh over their shared sadism. Unbelievably, it all worked.
The show's third season, American Horror Story: Coven, which premieres tonight on FX, already seems like a tropical vacation by comparison. The jokes — which include hat tips to Hogwarts, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Shirley MacLaine (Jessica Lange's supreme witch briefly reports on a spiritual retreat taken with MacLaine in Sedona) — are more plentiful than in seasons past, though there's no shortage of scenes that require trigger warnings for the tenderhearted. Coven also can't help but play with self-referential dynamics, because so much of the cast has appeared in one or both of the prior seasons. (Plus there's the fact that real-life couple Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, who divide their time together between fang-baring fights and sharing "a pot of ice cream," co-star.)
It took me a few episodes to acclimate to Showtime's new Masters of Sex, premiering this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (For Breaking Bad fans, this is about the time you'll be prostrate on the floor, covered in tears and the accumulated dust of crushed Xanax pills.) The series is a period piece, set in 1956, and concerns the real-life research of Dr. Bill Masters (played with stern decorum by Michael Sheen), a brilliant, chilly ob-gyn, and his secretary turned partner in all senses Virginia Johnson (played by the delightful Lizzy Caplan). The pilot, as directed by Shakespeare in Love helmer John Madden, is a breezy and efficient affair, introducing our protagonists, thrusting them together amid a great deal of thrusting. But something still seemed off.
Partly, it was a question of structure. As fascinating as Masters and Johnson were and as titillating as their subject matter could be — the pilot gives equal screen time to Beau Bridges, as Masters's boss, and Ulysses, a glowing, baguette-sized electric dildo — I couldn't quite imagine how Masters of Sex could be a TV show. There's a difference between an intriguing story and compelling, ongoing storytelling. And, as Boardwalk Empire has proven, dramatizing real people can often lead to a creative cul-de-sac, one in which fresh ideas are curtailed by history books and Wikipedia becomes the biggest spoiler site in the world.
"I'm not a bad person," Detective Frank Agnew bellows in the opening minutes of Low Winter Sun, just before downing a bottle of whiskey and drowning a fellow cop in a filthy restaurant sink. "There are lines."
There certainly are, and among those trickiest to navigate are the ones that fall between mood and mawkishness, between sincerity and parody. Low Winter Sun, which, despite all evidence to the contrary, is not meant to be funny, tramples over every single one of them before the first commercial break. Debuting after the return of Breaking Bad this Sunday on AMC, the police drama works best when viewed as a sharp and cutting satire of television's recent dark, antiheroic age. It's a swaggering, snarling mess so rife with clichés that one has to believe the majority of them are intentional. Like that poor, doomed cop from the opening, Low Winter Sun plunges us face-first into murky, warmed-over waters where good guys are sometimes bad (and vice versa), women are to be seen and screwed (but never heard), and men, real men, wear hats. Perhaps a coma victim or a dedicated Luddite might be shocked by Low Winter Sun’s cavalier attitude toward violence, the way Agnew — played here, as he was in the 2006 British miniseries from which this was adapted, by the fine British actor Mark Strong — soberly regards himself the next morning in a streaky mirror and the way another cop explains morality as "a damn strobe light flashing back and forth all the time." The rest of us will most likely be giggling.
It's been nearly 30 years since Christopher Guest — along with director Rob Reiner (kids, you know him as Jess's dad on New Girl) — strapped on the spandex and more or less invented the mockumentary format with the seminal-in-all-senses This Is Spinal Tap. And, over the ensuing decades, Guest came close to perfecting it with a series of increasingly precious improv comedies, the best of which, Waiting for Guffman, remains as flawless and coveted as a Remains of the Day lunchbox. Still, it was the doofs at Dunder Mifflin who truly cranked the format up to eleven. The success of The Office and, later, the even larger cultural footprint of Modern Family helped establish the Guest-ian tradition of oblivious yobs venting directly into the camera as the go-to style of high-class comedy on television. He may not get residuals for it and he may not even find it funny — he's notoriously prickly when not in character — but Guest is as responsible as anyone for a sea change in sitcoms, one that saw the quiet raising of an eyebrow replace the canned howl of a studio audience.
I hate the sight of blood. Not in real life, where I tend to order my steaks the way Lil B prefers his swag, but on television, where arterial splatter has become dispiritedly commonplace. On dramas both good (Boardwalk Empire) and bad (The Following), crimson is the chosen color for a crude, paint-by-numbers approach to adult storytelling. I hate the way these shows mistake the harvesting of hearts for the exploration of them and conflate horror with maturity. Just because something's shocking doesn't necessarily make it interesting.
So why, then, do I find myself transfixed by Hannibal? The serial-killer series (premiering tonight at 10 ET on NBC), doesn't just tick all the boxes I tend to deplore, it gleefully impales them on a sharpened deer antler. For every character introduced in tonight's pilot, another is brutally murdered. Throats are cut like sides of beef, livers and lungs are palpated, salted, and peppered. And running through it all like a vein is the blood: pooling beneath bodies in thick puddles of dark vermilion and misting through nearly every frame, a sticky pink miasma of gore that stains all it touches. And it touches a lot.
People die on television every day. They die of old age or cancer on tear-jerking dramas; occasionally they tumble down elevator shafts. On cable, they're bitten to death by vampires and zombies or gunned down by mooks and molls. Even high school shows reach for the reaper, with teens dying from bullets, boats, or embarrassment. On a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, a character very nearly expired from a vicious fart attack. The body count of the Law & Order franchise alone rivals that of most land wars in Asia. Death is as much a part of life on the small screen as it is off it.
But I'm not sure if death's ever been portrayed with such despicable glee as it is on The Following, Fox's loathsome stab at gritty relevance that premieres tonight at 9 EST. The story of a charismatic serial killer and the murderous cult he inspires, The Following traffics in the sort of explicit gore usually reserved for midnight airings of assorted Texas chainsaw massacres. But Fox is after more than the grindhouse crowd: With its high-profile stars (Rome's James Purefoy; everything's Kevin Bacon), and drippy gloss of psychological insight, The Following represents the suddenly struggling network's attempt to reclaim a generation of eyeballs recently lost to the prestige licentiousness of cable. That this attempt involves the onscreen fetishizing of violent eyeball removal should tell you all you need to know. The Following is a toddler playing Halloween dress-up with a jug of karo syrup and a used copy of the DSM; calling it intelligent or adult does a disservice to those who happen to be both. It turns out pushing the envelope solely to shock doesn't make something edgy; it makes it quite dull.
Thirteen years ago this summer, The New Yorker published its debut Debut Fiction issue. Among the fictional first-timers contained within was David Schickler, a then 31-year-old not making a living scribbling stories from his parents' basement in upstate New York. Schickler's contribution, "The Smoker," about the curious relationship between a loner private school teacher and his precocious English student able to write the first page of Moby-Dick from memory, was a stunner, a perfectly calibrated twee-bomb of oddball specificity (a toilet-flushing cat named John Stapleton; a 14-year-old barber named Chiapas) and heartrending romance. Within a week of the magazine hitting newsstands, Schickler's life went from failure to fairy tale and he packed up the basement with both book and movie deals in hand. (Owen Wilson and Natalie Portman were attached with Richard Linklater directing, because that's the sort of thing that would happen in 2000.)
The next few years followed the literary golden-boy script to a tee: a move to New York City; a debut novel, Kissing in Manhattan, constructed, in true turn-of-the-century MFA fashion, as a collection of loosely linked stories. An elevator named Otis played a primary role; "The Smoker" was the best thing in it. A few years after that came a tougher book called Sweet & Vicious, about runaway jewel thieves; on the first page a hawk flies through the windshield of a Buick. A few years after that came nothing, including no movie. Schickler's voice remained an idiosyncratic wonder, able to make a stomach-punch read as tender as a kiss, but the book business is a tough one, especially for novelists. There tend to be more one-hit wonders in the remainder bins at Barnes & Noble than on the pop charts. The New Yorker doesn't run a second-chance fiction issue.
A few months ago, the White House hosted a special screening of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The event drew little attention and even less criticism because people from both sides of the aisle probably thought it a pretty good idea: a prestige film about one of the greatest Americans? Not even Glenn Beck could shed a tear over that one.
This week it was revealed that the executive screening room would be fired up again, this time for a showing of NBC's new political sitcom, 1600 Penn, and all decent, patriotic Americans ought to be horrified. The public spin on this shameful situation is that Jon Lovett, President Obama's former head speechwriter and one of the show's writers, set it up. But I have to believe there was some Oval Office oversight and someone accidentally gave Vice President Biden — the shirtless, hosing-down-the–Trans Am–and-pounding-a-longneck Biden — access to the executive Evite account. Because a presidential endorsement of this turkey would be the worst thing to happen to the White House since the last time Bill Pullman called it home.
Bad ideas in Hollywood tend to escalate more quickly than an anchorman brawl. One minute you’re sipping tepid bottled water and talking story lines in a casual network pitch meeting, and the next thing you know, Brick’s killed a guy. Or, if you’re Bryan Fuller, even worse: How else to explain how the twee maximalist responsible for lovely failures like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls suddenly found himself tasked with remaking The Munsters, a nearly 50-year-old sitcom that’s become more of a punchline in its afterlife than it ever had in its scripts? I suppose it’s possible to credit the horror boomlet caused by the Twilight phenomenon or the easy intoxication of corporate encouragement. But more likely it came down to the same reason as anything senseless in Hollywood: dollars. After all, if money talks, its voice must get exponentially louder as it climbs into the millions, a resigned, cynical voice whispering “What the hell!”
Habitués of Cinemax's Friday-night programming are no strangers to gauzy Eurozone settings, wooden actors of unknown Slavic provenance, and loving, lingering shots of blondes submerged in bathtubs. So the network is definitely onto something with Hunted, its second original scripted series (after the charmingly steroidal Strike Back), debuting tonight at 10 p.m. EST. Those hoping to fast-forward to the naughty bits will be sorely disappointed, however. Other than a perfunctory vertical coupling in the opening seconds, the only banging on display in the pilot involves the skulls of tight-T-shirted goons colliding with the unforgiving fists of Melissa George.
All great artists have their signature tools. For Picasso it was the paintbrush. For E.L. James, it’s the riding crop. And for Connie Britton, it’s “y’all.” Without it, the Boston-born Britton is a fine actress, plain-spoken and sharp. But when handed the simple syllable, she is transformed: Her voice softens even as her face toughens, her luminous eyes go wide, caught crinkling somewhere between wonder and bemusement. As Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights — perennially patient wife to Kyle Chandler’s Coach and adoptive mother to everyone in West Texas — Britton was a revelation: sweet as tea and stronger than a linebacker; a dab of butter on a mountain of grit. For many actors, the demands of an unfamiliar accent can be restrictive as a latex bodysuit, but Britton comes alive the further South she travels. Before she could run, she had to learn to drawl.
Picture a show set in the New York of another century, a gritty drama where overburdened, ethnically accented police patrol a nearly unrecognizable city and are prone to foul language, shocking bursts of violence, and dubious definitions of morality. That show is called NYPD Blue, and it takes place in the long-ago year of 1994. It’s also, give or take a few horses, Copper, the first original series from BBC America, debuting this Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST.