2011 NEW FALL GENRE TV SERIES
By T.K. Dehn
For fans of genre tv series, the fall of 2011 has brought good news.
First, there are a wide variety of genre shows that span the spectrum from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Second, even the shows that aren’t wonderful are at least watchable. Third, none of the new ones seem in danger of immediate cancellation – indeed, ONCE UPON A TIME has already received an order for its back nine episodes (to bring the season to twenty-two episodes total) and AMERICAN HORROR STORY has been renewed for a second season.
In listing the fall genre series, there’s a question of order: quality, alphabetical by title, premiere date? We’ll go with when the shows air within the week, starting with Mondays.
TERRA NOVA, Mondays, Fox at 8 PM: This science fiction series, set primarily in Earth’s past 85 million years ago, with some side trips to a dystopian future in 2149, comes from producer Steven Spielberg and show runners/STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION veterans Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria. The title of the show refers to a colony formed in the distant past by time-traveling settlers, who have left their polluted lives behind to start afresh in a lush jungle inhabited by dinosaurs (and some uncooperative fellow time travelers). The main characters are the Shannons, policeman dad Jim (Jason O’Mara), doctor mom Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), their two teenagers and their five-year-old, plus the camp’s commander, Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang). The dinosaurs look as terrific as we’ve come to expect from Spielberg, who brought us JURASSIC PARK, and the Australian locations look persuasively prehistoric. Furthermore, O’Mara is charming and has good rapport with Conn, and Lang is suitably both intimidating and avuncular. However, there is something flat and predictable about the situations and the characters. Jim is a hothead, but he’s a very good guy, while Elisabeth seems irreproachable. Sure, they may make a few blunders, but the odds of them doing anything that might really challenge our sympathies appear remote. There’s nothing wrong with characters who remain in a comfort zone (there’s room in the universe for moral scales other than those of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and GAME OF THRONES), but once the well-done escape from the future sequence in the pilot ends, we don’t feel much emotional or intellectual tug from the story. Seeing dinosaurs chasing after humans has its entertainment value, and it’s pleasant to see good acting, but the show doesn’t cry out to be watched every week.
UNFORGETTABLE, Tuesdays, CBS at 10 PM: UNFORGETTABLE doesn’t strictly qualify as genre, as heroine Carrie Wells’ (Poppy Montgomery) condition, Superior Autobiographical Memory, occurs to individuals in real life, albeit rarely. Carrie can remember in detail everything she’s ever seen and heard, except – due to emotional trauma – the events surrounding the murder of her sister when both were young. Carrie was once a police detective, but quit both the force and her relationship with another officer (Dylan Walsh) years back. However, when their paths cross in another city, Carrie’s former lover persuades her to help solve cases. Despite the medical bona fides that come with the show, none of it feels particularly new. Moreover, the series relies a little more on coincidence than is wise for a dramatic (versus comedic) crime procedural. Montgomery is likable, so whether or not this is for you depends on the extent of your appetite for this sort of weekly detective yarn.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Wednesdays, FX at 10 PM: All hail creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk for going where absolutely no American episodic series (as opposed to an anthology) has gone before. Yes, David Lynch created some real creepiness with TWIN PEAKS, and AMERICAN HORROR STORY certainly has an eccentricity factor that’s right up there, but it is steadily concerned with being actually scary rather than just generating weird ambience. It is often over the top, especially with the regal Tennessee Williams-style mad Southern royalty performance given by the fearless Jessica Lange as a pushy neighbor, but that’s part of its glory. Another part is in the combative marriage between leads Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), who have been in emotional hell since Vivien had a miscarriage and Ben retreated into an affair with one of his students. The cross-country move to Los Angeles with teenaged daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) was supposed to heal the family, but their new house seems to be an outpost of actual Hell. It has ghosts, demons, a history of homicide, awful things that appear and disappear in the basement and all manner of other supernatural nastiness. One of the most malevolent forces in the house seems to be the Rubber Man (you’ll understand when you see him), who has impregnated Vivien. Vivien and Ben think the child is his, but we know better. AMERICAN HORROR STORY seems like THE SHINING on steroids, with large helpings of ROSEMARY’S BABY, Southern and L.A. Gothic and a firm conviction that more is more. An added bonus is the presence of Denis O’Hare (TRUE BLOOD‘s Russell Edgington) as a would-be actor with a burned face and a mad mind. Horror lovers and horror avoiders should both take note: this is as horrific as TV gets, a loud, bloody and truly wild ride.
PERSON OF INTEREST, Thursdays, CBS at 9 PM: This creation of writer Jonathan Nolan (co-author of the DARK KNIGHT films with brother Christopher) starts with a premise so plausible that some will assume it’s real, namely that the government has software dedicated to picking up on terrorist “chatter.” From this, the show posits that the software’s developer, who calls himself Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), originally came up with a much more elaborate program that can detect all sorts of suspicious activity, but the alerts about ordinary – i.e., non-national threat – crimes has been officially abandoned. Mr. Finch, however, has felt a need to use this program, and enlists a borderline suicidal former CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) to be the muscle in trying to prevent the crimes the program predicts. There’s a dash of MINORITY REPORT along with the righting wrongs spirit of LEVERAGE here. The premise is intriguing, but what really sells it is Emerson, one of those actors who really could make the proverbial reading of the phone book an engrossing event. For fans of Emerson from his days as LOST’s Benjamin Linus, there’s a feeling of continuity here, as Finch is also trying to ease a guilty conscience through helping others. Caviezel works well with him and with the requirements of his role. The entire enterprise is so far very interesting, with every indication of developing an even more distinct personality as it continues.
THE SECRET CIRCLE, Thursdays, CW at 9 PM: Brought to us by the same folks behind THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (executive producer Kevin Williamson adapting L.J. Smith’s novels for series TV), this in fact feels sort of like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES JR., with good and bad magic users, instead of good and bad vampires, trying to outsmart each other. The CIRCLE characters are supposed to be the same age as those in DIARIES, but this cast seems a little younger, which may or may not make them more relatable to a teen audience, but which definitely makes them seem less likely to come up with interesting schemes. Australian actress Phoebe Tonkin has a scene-stealing way about her as the bossy bad girl and Gale Harold is guilelessly evil as a homicidal warlock, but ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. THE SECRET CIRCLE seems aimed at those who crave more in the way of VAMPIRE DIARIES, but at a less fevered pitch. Since the craziness on the older show is much of the fun, SECRET CIRCLE seems to suffer by comparison, as it doesn’t have something special of its own to compensate for its relative sanity.
A GIFTED MAN, Fridays, CBS at 8 PM: For those who’ve seen INSIDIOUS earlier this year, there’s something a little amusing about seeing Patrick Wilson, the leading man in both that film and this TV series, contending with yet another ghost. For those who didn’t see INSIDIOUS, it’s very scary and different in tone than A GIFTED MAN, but it still has Wilson contending with spirits. Here Wilson plays brilliant but deeply insensitive New York surgeon Michael Holt, who thaws when he encounters his ex-wife Anna (Jennifer Ehle). Anna clearly makes Michael a better person – but she also makes him a freaked-out person when he discovers that Anna died two weeks before their visit. Anna persists in appearing to Michael. She has some unfinished business that largely involves the free clinic where she worked in life. Getting Michael to use his skills to help sick people who normally can’t afford his services will help humanize him, and this seems to be the thrust of the series. With health care such a loaded subject these days, it’s refreshing to see a show that takes a definitive stand on the matter. Wilson is certainly good in his role and the fabulous Margo Martindale, who justly won the Dramatic Supporting Actress Emmy for her work on JUSTIFIED, is also a regular as Michael’s assistant. (Let’s hope she gets a lot more to do here soon.) Julie Benz, another performer of presence and charm, has a recurring role as Michael’s open-minded sister. However, while there certainly is no shortage of shows with supernatural elements, it does seem a waste of a good ghost to have her around primarily to prod Michael into behaving better. Since A GIFTED MAN seems to want to leave the possibility open that Anna is simply a hallucination rather than a paranormal manifestation, Anna doesn’t get an afterlife of her own, which in turn means that she can’t function as an independent character in the present. (There are flashbacks to her alive in the past.) This feels a bit limiting.
GRIMM, Fridays, NBC at 9 PM: If one can get over the exasperating timeslot of GRIMM – did it really have to go opposite both SUPERNATURAL and FRINGE? – this blend of fairytales, horror and police procedural has a fun approach to what it does. The opening episode turned “Little Red Riding Hood” into a werewolf story that also worked as a freaky cop show. Subsequent installments let us play “Guess the Folktale” and then try to puzzle out how it will unfold along both mythical and investigative tracks. David Giuntoli plays a cop who finds out from his dying aunt (Kate Burton) that he’s actually a Grimm, someone born with the power to see the true faces of supernatural entities hiding amongst ordinary humans, and also with the ability to fight said entities. It turns out the supernatural community knows about Grimms as well. If all of this sounds a little like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, the two shows share some DNA. Show runner David Greenwalt worked on BUFFY and co-created ANGEL with Joss Whedon; Greenwalt’s fellow GRIMM show runner Jim Kouf worked on ANGEL also. Where GRIMM shows most promise is not in its similarities to BUFFY – any comparisons favor the older series – but in its differences. The new takes on well-known legends are fun and the look of GRIMM favors its dual nature. Even places that look “normal” to our hero’s uninitiated partner have an appearance that fit in our world, but could also fit into a storybook, like foot bridges and the werewolf’s cabin. A helpful if scaredy-dog werewolf played by Silas Weir Mitchell is a good supporting character and Sasha Roiz of CAPRICA turns up as an enigmatic official. GRIMM isn’t must-see TV – not yet, anyway – but if it can be worked into one’s viewing schedule, it’s enjoyable.
Love it, hate it or feel any sentiments in between, nobody is going to moan about this show, “Oh, not another one of those.” In this fantasy created by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, both of whom worked on LOST for its full run, the inhabitants of Fairytale Land, including Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), et al, have been afflicted by a terrible curse that has sent them from their world to the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where time has stood still for almost thirty years and none of them can remember their real identities. Snow White is now a nun, Prince
ONCE UPON A TIME, Sundays, ABC at 8 PM: Of all the broadcast networks, ABC has proven itself the most likely to do shows that defy easy categorization. Its towering success in this area over the last decade has been LOST, but ABC has also given us the less long-lived but equally original original delights ELI STONE and PUSHING DAISIES. The network has now brought forth ONCE UPON A TIME. Love it, hate it or feel any sentiments in between, nobody is going to moan about this show, “Oh, not another one of those.” In this fantasy created by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, both of whom worked on LOST for its full run, the inhabitants of Fairytale Land, including Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), et al, have been afflicted by a terrible curse that has sent them from their world to the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where time has stood still for almost thirty years and none of them can remember their real identities. Snow White is now a nun, Prince Charming is a coma patient, the wicked queen (Lana Parrilla) is the mayor. Only adopted little boy Henry (Jared Gilmore) has some notion of what’s going on here, thanks to a book of fairytales he lugs around with him (it’s a big book). Henry’s birth mother Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), unbeknownst to herself, is the key to unlocking the curse on Storybrooke’s inhabitants. Emma of course doesn’t believe any of this – until Henry gets her to Storybrooke and she realizes something is seriously strange here. ONCE UPON A TIME is refreshingly original. There are mild comparisons to be drawn with other TV shows, books, comics, etc., but nothing that suggests where this may all be going. This is a rare instance where we’re intrigued by what we’re watching and also by what may happen next. The storytelling doesn’t tip its hand, so not only are we unable to predict specific narrative twists, we don’t even feel limited to options A, B or C. Thanks to the fact that ABC and Disney are the same company, and tht Disny has made the most recognizable versions of most of the fairytales we know, ONCE UPON A TIME is free to use the archetypes from animated Disney features. There’s a true spirit of adventure here, both in what’s on the screen and the thought process behind it. Added bonuses are the always splendid Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin, or Mr. Gold as he’s known in Storybrooke, and prolific writer Jane Espenson (lately of the online hit HUSBANDS THE SERIES) on the series’ staff.
Although the two shows could scarcely be more different in tone, AMERICAN HORROR STORY and ONCE UPON A TIME are the top picks of the 2011 new fall TV crop.
To quickly review returning genre series that are currently on air:
VAMPIRE DIARIES, Thursdays, the CW at 8 PM: Now in its third season, the show keeps up its dependably soapy ways, with blood, tragic romance and plot developments that careen forward at breakneck pace.
CHUCK, Fridays, NBC at 8 PM: Now on its fifth and reportedly final season, CHUCK has reinvented itself a little bit each year. Chuck no longer has/is the Intersect, and Morgan, who had it at least for awhile, isn’t the same kind of nerd Chuck was, so the dynamic is different, but there’s still an underlying sense of, wouldn’t it be cool to be a spy if being spy was like this? The show engenders a lot of goodwill toward its characters, and it’s still a pleasure to hang out with them.
SUPERNATURAL, Fridays, the CW at 9 PM: Now in its seventh season, the show is trying to get away from the thick arcs that propelled the last few years, but the enterprise works better when there’s a balance between comedy and drama. Lots of genre shows cite THE NIGHT STALKER (the one with Darren McGavin, not the remake, you heretics!) as inspiration, but SUPERNATURAL is getting a little too campy with its situation of the week stories. It’s nothing a few good scares can’t fix.
FRINGE, Fridays, Fox at 9 PM: Now in its fourth season, the show has finally brought back Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop after a long tease. This show is the best heir on the air right now to the X-FILES mantle, keeping its story arcs in motion while able to do weird and engrossing cases of the week at the same time. Also, X-FILES didn’t have the excellent, hilarious, heartbreaking John Noble as a series regular, which FRINGE does. Jackson is charming and Anna Torv may not be channeling Leonard Nimoy this year (as she did for several episodes previously), but she’s still swell.
SANCTUARY, Fridays, Syfy at 10 PM: Now in its fourth season, SANCTUARY has the optimism of the original STAR TREK, without the ’60s series need to put everything back in its place at the end of each episode. The show about a sanctuary for rare, non-human beings has a likable group of regulars and a heart that celebrates life and diversity. It also stars STARGATE‘s Amanda Tapping, one of the show’s producers, and has a lot of great guest actors. Best of all, although the series is arced, it’s easy to drop in at any time and pick up the tale. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s fun; if you haven’t caught it yet, try it.
DEXTER, Showtime, Sundays at 9 PM: Now in its sixth season, DEXTER isn’t a genre show in strict terms – there isn’t anything supernatural occurring here – but its serial killer hero puts it on the edge of this category. Michael C. Hall has been justly acclaimed as the title character, giving a performance as complex and nuanced as any to be seen on the tube, and this year is giving him some of his best scenes yet, even if the villains this time around are a little mundane in terms of motivation. Bonus points for Jennifer Carpenter’s delightfully profane Deb, a dedicated police detective who is flummoxed by her promotion to lieutenant.
THE WALKING DEAD, AMC, Sundays at 9 PM: Now in its second season, THE WALKING DEAD is faithful to the tone set in its debut season, despite the removal of original show runner Frank Darabont, who adapted Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels for the small screen, and the advent of staff writer/producer Glen Mazzara as the new show runner. Despite the milieu of a world overrun by the living dead, the tone of DEAD is more survival drama than horror story, though a nighttime sequence at a high school delivered on the zombie front, capped by an unexpected plot development. The show is quieter and steadier than its title suggests, though it is not afraid to get very, very bloody. Those who liked Season 1 won’t be disappointed; those who didn’t probably won’t be any happier. The uninitiated should tune in if they are fans of drama and gore in approximately equal measure.
By T.K. Dehn
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