A guide to the very best of one of TV’s most definitive genre series.
For fans of Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle will have undoubtedly already been on their radar for quite some time. Dick’s fiction has been adapted into several acclaimed films, including Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. In this recent batch of Amazon pilots, Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) adapts The Man in the High Castle with the vision of turning the source material into a full television series. Those unfamiliar with Dick’s written work need only know that his interest is in science-fiction and that the worlds he creates are generally immersive, vast, and intricately planned-out.
Of all the recent pilots released by Amazon, The New Yorker Presents is easily the most interesting. A half hour smorgasbord of content, this first episode is completely fascinating in terms of its form and what that could mean for both Amazon’s original series and television in general going forward.
The conceit of The New Yorker Presents is simple: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This first episode contains a short film, a conversation/interview with an artist, a short documentary and a recorded performance of a poem. The ultimate success of a series like this is similar to that of a sketch comedy in that episodes and individual segments will be hit or miss week-to-week. Obviously, the goal becomes bringing together a collection of talent that is of a high quality and that mesh well within any given episode.
If Togetherness was only about Amanda Peet’s Tina being dishonest with herself about how her behavior around men and friends affects the rest of her life, it could be a great show. Peet is performing far out of her normal lane with this zany, insecure women who either cannot or refuses to acknowledge social cues from men she dates. Long the straight woman in her television and film roles (except for Bent- RIP Bent!), Peet is impossible to look away from here, constantly the most entertaining yet cringe-worthy of the four main characters introduced in the pilot. Her misguided attempts to force a relationship out of what is so obviously a brief hookup with a perfectly cast Ken Marino is only the tip of the iceberg for Tina, as she sets all her hopes on one guy only to see them dashed when he “breaks up with her” via text message.
We live in a burgeoning era of horror television. American Horror Story will begin its fourth season in the fall, and The Walking Dead will start its fifth. Penny Dreadful just finished an excellent debut season, and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove just put up its second season. True Blood, Supernatural, Bates Motel, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm. And of course, the most horrifying show currently on television, Hannibal. Horror is all over our TV screens, but if there’s one person who deserves their shot at it (presuming David Lynch isn’t interested), it’s Guillermo del Toro.
Last fall, AMC tried to launch a new show in the hour after Breaking Bad, hoping that the millions of viewers watching and tweeting about Walter White would keep tuning in. But Low Winter Sun was a bonafide flop, a critical and ratings fiasco, and the name itself became a sort of punchline to certain snotty TV viewers. Rather than helping launch the new show, its proximity to Breaking Bad only magnified Low Winter Sun’s shortcomings. It became the poster child for poor quality “quality” television, the skeleton of a dark cable drama with none of the skill or soul needed to sustain itself. The network is taking a different tactic with its new drama, Halt and Catch Fire. By debuting in Mad Men’s timeslot after the veteran show wraps up its truncated demi-season, the newbie can live or die on its own merits rather than forced comparisons to one of the greatest shows of all time. That being said, the fact that this is a period piece and a workplace drama is no accident, and I think Halt and Catch Fire’s superficial similarities to Mad Men might entice viewers hungry for more Don Draper but resigned to the fact that they won’t get him for another year.
There’s nothing like a show confident in what it’s doing. Of the dozens of pilots I watch a year, an overwhelming majority of them feel the need to explain themselves, over and over again: who their characters are, what matters to them, why the exist – and most annoyingly, why this particular story is the most epic, most original, best thing we’ve ever seen: in a world full of short attention spans, supremely critical audiences, and short-lived bombs with anemic audience draw, most pilots have to convince us that we need to be watching their show.
Our introduction to Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers-produced adaptation of their 1996 cinematic classic, begins with a very goofy looking Billy Bob Thornton, driving down a long, desolate Minnesotan road (sound familiar?) with someone in the trunk. Bathed in the red of his brake lights, our first look at Lorne Malvo (small spoiler here since we don’t learn his name in the pilot; you’ll survive) is littered with homages to its source material and symbolism, drawing ties to the original (a briefcase! snowy roads! People running through snow!) and silently introducing Lorne as the Devil incarnate – not only is he surrounded by the color red in the opening sequence, he also hits and kills a deer, a beacon of innocence and purity that Malvo eventually stuffs in the trunk of his broken down car.
As far as sitcoms go, Newsradio is a diamond in the rough. Despite a not-so-unique workplace setting, the show successfully combines wit and physical comedy, without ever feeling dull or predictable. It has the kind of quick, self-sustaining energy that we love about sitcoms, and it all began with the pilot episode.
Robert Rodriquez’s 1996 cult classic From Dusk till Dawn is a flawed but ultimately surprising, fun, and witty gore-fest sendup of vampire movies. Surprisingly the TV adaptation, for Rodriquez’s channel the El Rey Network, is just as much fun as its source material.
From Dusk till Dawn: The Series, much like the movie, knows exactly what it is. This is not highbrow entertainment. This is pulpy cult gore at its best. One of the most enjoyable things about the movie was the surprising genre changeup halfway through the film. The show makes up for this lack of surprise by expanding on what we didn’t see in the movie, such as the Gecko brothers’ botched bank robbery, which we see flashes of here. All that being said, half the fun of the pilot comes from the execution. It’s an incredibly confident and tightly wound series opener.
Nothing about Life on Mars should have worked. Its premise sounded ridiculous- an English cop gets hit by a car and ends up in the 1970s trying to figure out if he’s crazy or if he really did travel through time. But with “Episode 1”, its pilot, the series hit the ground running, with immediately defined characters, an enthralling plot, witty dialogue, and an intriguing mix of sci-fi and character study.
Dracula is one of literature’s most enduring and adapted characters. What often sets each production apart is their ability to put a new (and believable) twist on the classic character. Expectations may be low going into any new version but the most surprising aspect of NBC’s take on Dracula is that it’s actually very good.
After a fairly unimaginative season finale, the premiere for season seven explores how the characters have adapted without Leonard once again. Despite the slight decline in comedy throughout season six, last season wrapped up well enough. The only problem was the repetition of a familiar storyline: Leonard going away. This time round a number of things have changed for the characters, making for a highly anticipated season seven premiere. Unfortunately the two parter is a little disappointing. The first episode is the better of the two, as we see what the characters have been up to since Leonard’s departure.