I’ll tackle that subject in my next column. Today I'm all about cable.
The Walking Dead
Thank goodness for AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which remains in top form and knows how to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Every episode this season has played like a movie – a little cinematic gem so much more exciting, dramatic, thrilling, emotional and/or exasperating than anything at the multi-plex or anyplace else on television.
If I have a gripe here, it’s that AMC now is just plain playing with its audience, delivering the mother of all cliffhangers at the end of “TWD’s” October 25 episode and then, on November 1, dropping an extended 90-minute flashback episode that offered much new information about a character not at all involved in said cliffhanger! This was either very smart or very dumb. Everyone tuning in last week (myself included) wanted to know something – anything – about the fearsome fates of Glenn and Rick. Instead we got way too much Morgan.
Before viewers engage in a full-on revolt, here’s a little context: Back in 1980 fans of “Dallas” had to wait a punishing eight months to find out who shot J.R. That remains the most famous TV cliffhanger of all time, and also the longest.
So is Glenn dead or what? The plot thickens: The name of the actor who portrays him did not appear in the opening credits of last week’s episode. No matter the outcome, and despite the giddy frustration of it all, it’s nice to see a scripted television series pack so strong a punch at a time when audience fragmentation is the hot topic of the day, even if some of its moves feel like little more than a big tease.
The second season of FX’s “Fargo” this fall is widely and correctly regarded as the current best show on television. Congratulations to former NBC top executive Warren Littlefield, who oversees “Fargo” as an executive producer, on a stunning “second act.” Congrats also to everyone involved for coming up with a second season as riveting as the first; one that is connected in many ways to its freshman narrative yet feels very distinctive and fresh. The entire cast is outstanding – especially Jean Smart as the quietly lethal matrirach of a crime family – but for me the standouts are Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons (pictured below) as very ordinary folks unknowingly drawn into a world of violence and madness. Plemons -- unforgettable as the sweet but dim Landry on “Friday Night Lights” and as the dangerous but dim Todd on “Breaking Bad” -- certainly deserves some kind of reward recognition.
With all due respect to “Fargo,” the fifth season of Showtime’s “Homeland” should also sit atop the very short list of TV’s very best this fall. It’s as strong a season as any other in this show’s uneven history -- with episode-ending cliffhangers as riveting as any on “The Walking Dead” or anywhere else -- and Claire Danes (pictured at top) is delivering a performance as powerful and potent as her award-winning work in seasons one and two. If Danes is as good as she ever was, co-star Mandy Patinkin is better than he has ever been.
American Horror Story: Hotel
FX’s “American Horror Story: Hotel” remains oddly watchable, simply because of its dazzling cast. I already envision all kinds of nominations for franchise regulars Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Denis O’Hare (pictured below), plus newcomer Wes Bentley. But, as is annoyingly common for this franchise, the storytelling is all over the place and rarely any good. In fact, some of it has been thoughtlessly offensive. The dinner with real-life serial killers in last week’s episode had to be difficult for the families and friends of victims of Aileen Wuornos, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and the Zodiac Killer, just as the grade school slaughter in this week’s episode, though grounded in the supernatural, had to be upsetting for anyone touched by the many school shootings that have devastated so many communities during the last 20 years. The thing is, as weird as it is, “Hotel” didn’t need that dinner sequence or the school sequence to effectively continue the bizarre stories it is telling.
Until it sharpens its narrative focus, I’m downgrading “Hotel” from a hot mess to a cold one.
The first episode of the second season of SundanceTV's "The Returned" held my attention, but likely for the wrong reasons: I was trying to figure out who was who and what the heck was going on. Maybe two years was too long a gap between seasons. Maybe too many new characters were introduced too soon and too many recognizable characters were tucked away off screen. Regardless, there was no palpable sense of menace or mourning in the episode – the two defining characteristics that made every moment of season one so profoundly hypnotic. Fingers crossed that the rest of season two will be more satisfying.
On the upside, and as noted in a recent column, Comedy Central’s “South Park” is having one of its most consistently entertaining and insightful seasons in years. Every episode this fall has been a laugh-out-loud, thought-provoking winner. The addition of a new boss at South Park Elementary (the fearsome and bullying Politically Correct Principal), the building in the title town of a prefabricated hip new neighborhood, the invasion of the Yelpers and the addition of a Whole Foods to the town’s busy Main Street have kept the show and everything it has to say about contemporary life squarely in the moment. I don’t know how series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to do what they do after a remarkable 18 years and counting. I only hope they keep it going for many more.
You’re the Worst
Lastly, “You’re the Worst” in its second season remains one of the smartest, funniest and sexiest comedies on television. I still think it was wrong of FX Networks to move it from FX over to FXX so early in its life. It’s too good a show not to be seen by the largest audience possible as soon as possible. The same is true of FXX's disarmingly imaginative and often quite funny “Man Seeking Woman,” which will return for a second season early next year. Both shows deserve prime positions on the mother network for their first runs.
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