Thursday, August 14, 2014

TV on Those "Other" Channels

I confess to being old enough to remember when there were only three television networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC), and ABC really didn't begin to take hold until I was nine.  The entertainment world has changed at an exponentially faster pace since then, and now, you can watch original programming through hundreds of viewing options including:
  • Broadcast networks like Fox and the CW.
  • Pay stations like HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Starz, Encore, and Epix.
  • Cable stations including TBS, TNT, USA, AMC, FX, Disney, ESPN, A&E, Nickelodeon, BBC America, and Comedy Central.
  • Streaming video providers like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Still, most Americans watch a majority of their weekly shows on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox.  HBO's shows have been the most critically acclaimed, and every year win a majority of the Emmy Awards, and Showtime's original programming has also been quite successful.  But I believe that many of the shows on the "other" channels are on par with or better than their more commercially successful counterparts.  I won't include some very good shows that have concluded their run or have been on the air for several years like Breaking Bad (AMC), Mad Men (AMC), Covert Affairs (USA), Suits (USA), Falling Skies (TNT), The Daily Show (Comedy Central), or Justified (FX). 

Instead, I'll focus on shows that premiered in 2012 or later.  Most of these shows are available on demand and/or through streaming video, and they are all on non-broadcast networks/stations other than HBO.  They include (alphabetically):

  • Graceland (USA): Starring a pair of actors who have also been successful on Broadway (Daniel Sunjata and Aaron Tveit), this is a very good but dark show about a group of undercover agents from different federal agencies who all share a beach house in Southern California.  The acting is good, the writing is generally crisp, and they tackle difficult topics like addiction and human trafficking.  The show is about to finish its second season.
  • House of Cards (Netflix): Yikes!  Kevin Spacey's character begins the series as an ambitious and ruthless US Congressman married to an equally ambitious woman played by Robin Wright.  What happens from there is a mostly believable examination of what goes on behind the scenes of American politics.  This is scarily good, and because it's from Netflix, they release each season (13 episodes) all at once.  You can't be blamed for locking yourself in a room for two days and watching them all in succession.  Of course, you're likely to emerge looking over your shoulder.
  • The Knick (Cinemax): The first three episodes have all been directed by Steven Soderbergh, and they star Clive Owen and Andre Holland as New York surgeons in 1900 dealing with pre-modern operating conditions,  Owen's character is a very complex addict, and Holland's is an African American doctor at a time when such people rarely existed.  If you don't mind watching surgery performed with the most basic instruments, this series is quite engrossing, and deals head-on with racism and sexism.
  • The Last Ship (TNT): This show takes place after most of the world's population has died from a virus.  The captain (played by Eric Dane), XO (played by Adam Baldwin), and crew of a battleship have not been infected, and they have in their company the doctor (played by Rhona Mitra) who may be able to find a vaccine.  Although occasionally a tad too military, this is a generally taut, involving, action series.  It is about to conclude its first season.
  • Legends (TNT): This is a brand new show (I'm writing this after the first episode) that looks very promising.  It stars actors from other successful TV series: Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), Ali Larter (Heroes), and Tina Majorino (Veronica Mars).  In it, Bean plays an undercover, FBI agent who is caused to question himself and his sanity.
  • Masters of Sex (Showtime):  About to complete its second season, this show documents (and Hollywoodizes) the story of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they developed their groundbreaking research into human sexuality.  Although it occasionally borders on soft porn, this series features excellent supporting performances by Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Teddy Sears, Annaleigh Ashford, and Julianne Nicholson.
  • Murder in the First (TNT): Created by Stephen Bochco (remember him?) and Eric Lodal, this crime drama focuses on one, season-long investigation/trial.  The first season, which just ended, stars Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson (also outstanding in "Boss"), Richard Schiff, Steven Webber, Tom Felton, James Cromwell, and others.  It is well-written and very engrossing, as the lead detectives  struggle with their own demons while attempting to nail a killer.
  • Orange is the New Black (Netflix): Set in a women's prison, this show, created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), stars Taylor Shilling as a middle class, white woman who got mixed up in a crime and lands in prison.  But the interesting aspect of this show is how each episode tells the backstory of one of the inmates.  As such, some episodes are better than others.  So far, two seasons have been released by Netflix.
  • Orphan Black (BBC America):  Count me as one of those people who is addicted to this Canadian-made, scifi-action series, if for no other reason than to watch the amazing Tatiana Maslany playing multiple roles--clones all learning about themselves, each other, and the circumstances that led them to be.  With outstanding, supporting performances by Jordan Gavaris, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Dylan Bruce, this show has concluded two seasons, and is as entertaining as it is interesting.
  • Outlander (Starz): They have so far only shown the first episode of the series about  a married English combat nurse from 1945 (played by Caitriona Balfe) who suddenly finds herself in 1743.  I love these time-travel series, and this one seems smart and exciting.  It's set to record on my DVR.
  • Perception (TNT): In this show, Eric McCormack plays a schizophrenic professor of neuropsychiatry who is enlisted by an FBI agent (played by Rachel Leigh Cook) to use his skills and knowledge to help solve crimes.  While the crime drama part is interesting, what works best about this show is McCormack's ability to put a human face on mental illness and the difficulties faced by people with such illnesses.  It is about to conclude its third season.
  • The Strain (FX): Anyone familiar with Guillermo del Toro's work knows that he is comfortable with making his audience uncomfortable.  This show, which he co-created, is no exception, as a CDC investigator (played by Corey Stoll, who is also in the first season of House of Cards) teams up with a Holocaust survivor (played by David Bradley) to rid New York of a scourge that is part virus and part supernatural being.  Still in its first season, it is riveting, albeit very graphic.
  • Tyrant (FX): This show is about a California-based doctor (played by Adam Rayner), the son of a middle eastern dictator, who returns to his home country, with his family, to attend his nephew's wedding.  Upon arriving, he is thrown into family turmoil and government upheaval and decides to stay to help work things out.  Rather than treating all Muslims as terrorists, this show intelligently illustrates all sides of an internal conflict.  It is about to finish its first season.
Well, those are the shows I'll include right now, but if you have others you think are good, please let me know.  In the meantime, let me leave you with this; if you haven't seen the last appearance of Robert Morse in Mad Men, please do so (you can see it on YouTube at  I remember him as a younger man in Broadway musicals like "How to Succeed in Business," and this is a heartwarming revisit to those ageless talents.

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