TV in 2016: January to April (Part 1: New Series)

Though 2015 brought an absurd bounty of great television, not to mention the proclamation that we had entered the era of #PeakTV, there’s absolutely no reason to think that 2016 will let up. At all. In the first few months of the year alone, there are a whole host of great returning series gearing back up, as well as a wide variety of new ones. There are so many, in fact, that it took some difficulty to narrow them down to under 30. But here we are.

So please note that this is by no means a comprehensive list – for those so inclined, by all means, get excited for Legends of Tomorrow, American Crime Story, The Magicians, Lucifer, and, sure, why not, Fuller House. The list below are just a few that seemed, for one reason or another, to be especially noteworthy. (In at least one instance, “noteworthy” is not necessarily a compliment.)

The list of returning series for the same period is over here.

Sunday, Jan. 17

The Circus (Showtime)

When Showtime greenlit The Circus, its new doc series exploring th behind-the-scenes machinations of the current American electoral cycle, it couldn’t have possibly known just how fortuitous its choice of title would be. Indeed, with record numbers of viewers tuning in to each GOP debate to hear their barely-distinguishable demagogues (and Donald Trump) tear into each other and throw vicious barbs at the establishment, this year’s race is taking on even more of a sensationalistic air than usual. Apparently still shooting despite its imminent premiere date, The Circus promises to do for the modern political machine what classic docs like The War Room did for campaigns past: peel back the rhetoric to examine the everyday decisionmaking that goes into electoral campaigning.

Billions (Showtime)

It’s a can’t-miss…you’d think. Take two dramatic heavyweights, each more than capable of anchoring their own series (Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis), cast them as opposing forces in the high-stakes world of white-collar crime, and bring in a ream of supporting-cast ringers (Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, David Costabile, and Jeffrey DeMunn, for a start) just to be on the safe side. The problem, at least as of the pilot, is that Billions suffers from a serious case of what can only be called Terminal Showtime-itis. It’s laughably self-serious, “edgy” only in the safest, corniest fashion possible, and sledgehammer-subtle in its exploration of greed, integrity, and hypocrisy. Like Ray Donovan, House of Lies and, at its worst, Masters of Sex, Billions’ pilot mistakes sex, bland “antiheroes,” and salty language as an automatic passport to respectability. Billions feels like a relic from the early ‘00s of would-be “prestige” drama – complete with its astoundingly, uniformly white cast.

Thursday, Jan. 21

Baskets (FX)

With Louie on a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style indefinite hiatus, Louis C.K.’s had time to pursue work as a producer and writer on other people’s projects. One of those – Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, whose Amazon pilot debuted last month – has already proven intriguing. Sometime later this year, his Louie and Lucky Louie co-star and collaborator Pamela Adlon gets her own FX vehicle in Better Things. In between is the strangest one of all: Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis as an aspiring clown who takes a job at a decrepit rodeo. The trailer promises a surreal, dingy take on the pursuit of the American dream, evoking Carroll Ballard’s remarkable ’69 doc Rodeo and the pitch-black comedies of Rick Alverson. Or it could be an unfunny, shrill disaster best left abandoned as a whimsical short-form idea taken way too far; at any rate, it’s high-risk projects like Baskets that hav given FX its rep, so it’s heartening to see they can still swing for the weirdo fences.

Sunday, Jan. 24

The X-Files (Fox)

OK, not technically a new series, but since it’s not being formally billed as Season 10 of the sci-fi institution, it seemed odd to place it on the list of returning series. At any rate, these six new episodes reunite series creator Chris Carter with his most successful creation, and he’s brought some of the original run’s very best writer-directors (James Wong, Darin Morgan and Glen Morgan) to help him out. With Carter promising a mix of standalone stories and “mythology” episodes and the benefit of its short episode order, it seems likely that they’ll be able to evoke at least some of the series’ former glory. With network TV hurting for the sort of dark genre-based storytelling that The X-Files mastered in its best episodes, that can only be a good thing, no matter how leery the prospect of its return

Tuesday, Jan. 26

Outsiders (WGN)

Are you ready for even more content providers to watch out for? WGN started to branch out into original programming in less-than-stellar fashion with 2014’s Salem, but from the looks of it, it may have found an outright winner in Outsiders. Evoking the regional/cultural/class warfare that percolated throughout some of the most compelling arcs of the now-departed Justified, Outsiders has the potential to shine a light on a too-often-caricatured corner of American society. It could, of course, also be a sensationalistic macho trifle, but based on the trailer, it should at least be damned entertaining. The presence of David Morse, Kyle Gallner, and the best reason to put up with Sons of Anarchy (Ryan Hurst) doesn’t hurt either.

Monday, February 8

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)

Too many dicks on the late-night dancefloor: it’s been a problem for as long as the format itself has existed. While Comedy Central’s efforts to diversify late-night with its Daily and Nightly Show hosts Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore (who are both doing fine work, it should be said), there’s still a pretty obvious vacuum to be filled. Enter former Daily Show juggernaut Samantha Bee. Her segments from the Jon Stewart era were reliably hilarious, with Bee regularly deploying one of the most killer deadpans in fake-news history. As we enter one of the most cartoonishly outrageous political seasons in recent memory, it certainly can’t hurt to have another sharp satirical voice in late night, especially one with Bee’s remarkable talents.

Sunday, Feb. 14

Vinyl (HBO)

Here’s the thing: based on its premise and promotional materials, there’s no reason to think Vinyl will be appointment television. Its story of ‘70s rock and roll excess – partially penned by Mick Jagger – seems to be extremely well-trod ground. There are already hundreds, if not thousands, of memoirs, tell-alls, and fictional sagas set in and around the so-called golden age of rock and roll. We can reliably expect coke-fueled freakouts, the supposed invention of androgyny, hit singles composed at someone’s lowest moment, and (oh no!) the twin villains of disco and sequencers around Season Four. So yes, it looks very much to be Rockism: The Series. For fans of aesthetic indulgence, though, this ought to at least be more than watchable; it comes to us from Boardwalk Empire’s Terrence Winter, once again teaming with Martin Scorsese, who again directs the pilot. Scorsese and Winter’s obsessive eye for period detail and cinematic sweep should at least make their openly nostalgic enterprise easy to swallow. Just beware the hangover.

Monday, Feb. 15

11/22/63 (Hulu)

Stephen King might be the single most-adapted author in American pop culture, with some of his books and stories already having been tackled more than once, so it’s not surprising that some efforts (The Mist, Stand By Me, Misery, The Shining) have been more compelling than others (Thinner, Under the Dome, Dreamcatcher, that other The Shining). Still, 11/22/63 feels pretty damned close to a sure thing. Based on one of King’s best-received recent novels and produced by Hollywood overlord J.J. Abrams, the eight-part miniseries stars James Franco (playing a straightforward dramatic lead for the first time in what feels like ages) as a modern-day teacher who finds himself in 1958 America and makes it his mission to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With that deliciously thorny premise, what appear to be pretty sumptuous production values, and, in Hulu, a content provider that must be extremely eager to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded field, there’s reason to think this might actually earn the too-frequently-used title of “event.”

Friday, Feb. 19

Love (Netflix)

Netflix obviously sees something special in Love, its first venture with comedy-bro magnate Judd Apatow; it’s already ordered two seasons, the first of which lands just after Valentine’s Day. Judging solely from the (very funny) short trailers they’ve released so far, Love seems to be much more of a straight-up comedy than the most recent series Apatow has lent his pen to, HBO’s Girls. That makes sense, since this is the first time since Undeclared that he’s actually been credited as a creator. Hopefully, the short form (and the built-in presence of collaborators) will keep the series safe from both the bloat and the tiresome, if occasionally cloaked, conservatism of Apatow’s last few film projects.

Tuesday, March 8

Of Kings & Prophets (ABC)

Historically, network TV and period fare generally haven’t been a great mix, but there are a few reasons to be (cautiously!) optimistic about Of Kings and Prophets, ABC’s ambitious – and, apparently, troubled – take on Kings Saul and David of Isreal. Well, OK, there are two. First is the presence of Ray “Gravitas” Winstone, who never fails to make even the most dismal pap watchable through sheer force of will. Second is Reza Aslan, the religious scholar who recently acted as a supervising producer on the incredible second season of The Leftovers, and acts as an executive producer here. Aslan brought specificity and depth to The Leftovers’.take on spirituality and religious conflict, so hopefully he’ll do the same on what could very easily turn into a cartoonish broad-stroke take on very familiar stories. The recent announcement that ABC will be airing more titillating, broadcast-unfriendly edits on their website reeks of crass opportunism, and the production delays (due to that old standby “creative differences”) aren’t terribly encouraging, either, but a small leap of faith seems only right in this instance.

Wednesday, March 9

Underground (WGN)

Yes, there are not one, but two WGN series that made the cut. It’s been a while since a TV series credibly explored the era of American slavery (screw off, Point of Honor), and Underground might be the most ambitious effort to do so since the landmark miniseries Roots. Boasting a killer cast, including Friday Night Lights’ Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mykelti Williamson, and diversity hire Christopher Meloni, Underground should benefit from the focus and urgency offered by the subject matter, the development and operation of the Underground Railroad. Assuming it can steer clear of the clunky expository writing that too often mars period dramas (the presence of Heroes writer Joe Pokaski as co-creator is not altogether encouraging in this regard), Underground might act as a satisfyingly weighty counterpart to Outsiders’ pulpier, contemporary approach.

Wednesday, March 30

The Path (Hulu)

11/22/63 might have the hookier conceit, but The Path is Hulu’s most exciting new original series purely on the strength of its cast and creatives. For starters, co-exec producer Jason Katims has a (mostly) incredible track record, and the prospect of having him working on a full-on drama again is a tantalizing one. (It should be clarified, though, that the series was created by playwright Jessica Goldberg, who will handle much of the writing duties.) Add in Hannibal’s Hugh Dancy (as a powerful cult leader, no less), Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and the too-long-absent Rockmond Dunbar (Terriers, Sons of Anarchy), and it’s tough not to get your expectations up. The recently-released trailer, which is replete with striking imagery (and a whole lot of Michelle Monaghan sex scenes, which might prompt troubling flashbacks to her thankless True Detective role), suggests it’ll be every bit as emotionally draining and intense as the combination of personnel and premise would suggest.

Sunday, April 10

The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)

Possibly the single most exciting new series confirmed for 2016 so far, The Girlfriend Experience follows Steven Soderbergh’s film of the same name (he’s onboard as an executive producer), chronicling the experiences of women who work as high-class escorts. The concept is certainly ripe for a longer-form exploration than a film allows, but what’s really striking is the behind-the-scenes talent; the whole season will be co-written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven; Keane) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine). While they’re both formidable creative forces in their own right, the notion of these two working with a stylistic framework informed by Soderbergh’s film is very exciting. After all, when other people get to play in Soderbergh’s playground, we get lovely things like Magic Mike XXL.

Wednesday, April 13

The Last Panthers (SundanceTV)

This sleek-looking Euro heist thriller has already aired in the UK to mostly favorable reviews, but the main reason to get excited is a pretty obscure one: series creator Jack Thorne also brought us the one-season wonder The Fades, a memorably cataclysmic supernatural drama that basically no one watched. If he can bring an ounce of that propulsive energy to this fairly standard-looking story of diamonds, violence, and betrayal, that alone will make it worth a watch. Oh, that and the presence of Samatha Morton, Taher Rahim, and John Hurt. On a sad note, The Last Panthers inspired the title track to David Bowie’s final album, and it serves as the theme song, so you’ll be forced to counter the weepies every, damn, time.

Tuesday, April 19

The Night Manager (AMC/BBC)

While AMC struggles to recapture the just-passed glory days of when it had both Mad Men and Breaking Bad in their stable, it’s heartening to see them diversify and try new things. Case in point: The Night Manager, a sort of bigger-budget version of the sort of international, short-run co-production you’d normally see an outlet like SundanceTV take on. Directed by Suzanne Bier (After the Wedding) and adapted from John le Carré’s novel of the same name, The Night Manager boasts not only le Carré’s comfortable pedigree but also a frankly insane cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, and jack-of-all-trades Olivia Colman. With relatively traditional spy stories in short supply, it’s difficult to imagine that The Night Manager won’t be a refreshingly chilly throwback; if nothing else, it’s unlikely to outstay its welcome.

Part Two (Returning Series)

 

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