Year over year, midseason is becoming more and more my favourite time of the TV calendar. I guess networks figure that fall is the time to hit their biggest audience with new sitcoms or dramas, they save the sci-fi and genre stuff for midseason. That’s exciting for TV geeks like myself who love shows that are a little off-beat.
It’s a good time for fans of British TV as two of its hottest exports come on the air at midseason. Downton Abbey returned with a decidedly sombre and darker season four. Mary is still coping with the loss of Matthew and having to move on (good thing there are plenty of suitors to be had). As the season goes on, unpleasant things happen to other characters as well, including Anna (so those who thought her pristine and untouchable got a big surprise). Also, it’s the Roaring 20s now, so that spirit has come to Downton in the form of young cousin Rose moving in (and getting into all kinds of youthful indiscretions). I realize that they had to move away from everything being about witty dinner table rejoinders, but I’m not sure I’m big on the more soapy turn that season 4 has taken. Nevertheless, soapy never looked so well-dressed and elegant!
Sherlock also makes its long-awaited return after the surprising apparent-suicide of Holmes himself. We know that he’s not dead, but while it’s intriguing the way they reveal how Sherlock pulled it off (it’s pretty cleverly-told) the real focus is on the relationship between Watson and Sherlock. Martin Freeman gives a great performance as the hurt and betrayed friend. As usual there are only three double-length episodes to the season, but they are real doozies: Watson has a fiancee and one episode is devoted to their wedding day (Take some notes, How I Met Your Mother! One episode!) and the third episode is (as the Brits say) brilliant with some jaw-dropping twists and excellent character moments.
The only other returning show of note (so far) is Community, which comes back minus Chevy Chase as Pierce (and soon to be minus Donald Glover as Troy, also). Nevertheless, all the other cast members are back (even after graduating) and bring with them Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and shockingly-dismissed show-runner. So far they seem to have the original spirit of the show back (I enjoyed the gritty homicide-procedural spoof episode) however, it seems a bit contrived that they’re all still here (back in school after their attempts at making lives outside of Greendale kind of tanked) and that Jeff is now a teacher (thus proving how low the school’s standards are). Still, after last season’s incredible lack of lustre, this season shows definite signs of improvement.
Most of the new shows debuting in midseason are genre-related (unfortunately, a lot of them are disappointing as well). Even new sitcom Enlisted is set in a military context. Three brothers reunite when their oldest, a hothead war hero, is sent down to the minors after an altercation with his superior. The rest of the squad is a bunch of misfit losers, so this show has a definite Animal House vibe to it. Even after only one episode, this show appears to be more than just a collection of broad jokes in camo. It’s got some heart and a kind of ensemble humour reminiscent of The Office or Parks and Recreation.
Helix is a new series from Battlestar Galactica (the later series) creator Ron Moore. Set in an arctic science facility, Billy Campbell stars as Dr. Alan Farragut, the lead scientist from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sent to investigate a viral outbreak. What they find is not exactly what they expected as Farragut’s brother Peter is infected and at the centre of the problem. It doesn’t help that everyone seems to be keeping secrets (including station administrator Dr. Hatake — played by Hiroyuki Saneda from Lost) and the virus is like nothing they have ever seen. Unfortunately it’s not anything we the audience have never seen. A contagion that causes the body to ooze black goo was a huge story arc on The X-Files; and this kind of hazmat-anxiety and close-quarter tension is the trademark of every kind of biological sci-fi. I was such a huge fan of BSG that I still have hope for this show, but so far (after three episodes) I’m not particularly intrigued by it.
Bitten has been another disappointment so far. A soap opera about werewolves trying to make a go at life in the big city (my home town of Toronto, no less) while trouble’s a brewin’ back home in the small town where the rest of their pack resides, is not a bad premise. Unfortunately, the focus seems too much on the soapy parts. I get that the show is following the lead of any number of CW-commissioned, supernatural-romance-based dramas, but I was hoping that this one was going to attempt to distinguish itself a bit more. Laura Vandervoort (Supergirl from the CW’s Smallville) looks great as she deals with her boyfriend’s family and tries on dresses with her BFF, but if her only werewolf problem is that she can’t control when she changes or needs to feed, then that’s the kind of ho-hum thing we’ve seen a million times over. (I wonder if they might try to explain why all werewolves have such hot looking human forms — at least True Blood threw in one or two lycanthropic uggos).
Exciting as it may be to have Lost‘s Sawyer back on TV, Intelligence is vying for the most ironically-named show of the season. Josh Holloway plays Gabriel, a CIA agent who has a microchip in his brain. Unlike its precursor-with-a-similar-premise, Chuck, this show is not at all funny. However, it is a bit laughable how they have assigned a secret service agent (played by Once Upon a Time‘s Meghan Ory) to protect this valuable asset, which they use to look things up mere seconds quicker than the other normal agents would at their computers. There’s also a kind of cheesy visualization thing that Gabriel does (which is done much cooler on TV series Hannibal without the benefit of an implanted microchip) where his mind conjures a virtual 3D rendering of a scene for him to mentally deconstruct (Yawn! At least Chuck got to learn kung-fu from his implanted storage of intelligence data.) As if that weren’t lame enough, Gabriel is totally preoccupied with finding out what happened to his missing wife, who was also an agent and possibly a traitor. This should have been something they brought into the show gradually. Now it’s two episodes in and we’ve already had the big confrontation scene with her. Remember Sydney’s mom on Alias? That was done so much better!
Last but not least, is a pirate show — one of two this year, actually — called Black Sails, which not only has an awesome poster (where they turned a man’s arms and face in shadow into a skull and cross-bones) it actually does a pretty good job of realistically depicting pirates (and we’re talking about the original 18th century ones here). There is not a peg-leg, plank-walk, or comical parrot anywhere in sight. This show is serious about its pirate stories and the political maneuvering and power-plays have a Game of Thrones kind of timbre to them. Of course, similar to GoT, there is much drinking and whores galore. The plot has Captain Flint (played by Toby Stephens — who happens to be son of Downton‘s Maggie Smith) forcing his crew on a quest for the biggest score ever while other individuals and forces are all vying for power and riches in the Caribbean. Like its network-mate, Da Vinci’s Demons, this series has a big-budget feel to it and takes an interesting historical period and genre and makes a go of an interesting, fun, dramatic series.
As midseason is kind of stretched out, there are more shows to come. Let’s hope the others make up for the slow start that some of these are having.