Matt Smith, Doctor Who
Even for a busy summer, this is one hectic TV weekend. (And that's true even if you're not at Comic-Con.) It kicks off with Starz's The Pillars of the Earth (see review here), a throwback to the classic historical-epic miniseries, and continues Saturday as the latest reboot of BBC America's Doctor Who comes to a spectacular season finish while making room for a new season of the offbeat Being Human. And the jewel in the crown: AMC's Mad Men, returning Sunday for a fourth season in sensational form.
Some thoughts follow.
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First: The Good Doctor. And Matt Smith has been a very good Doctor indeed this season, infusing the ever-changing Timelord with a gloriously quirky panache that's a perfect fit for this anything-anywhere-anytime-goes franchise. His first tour of duty ends Saturday with a thrilling and emotionally satisfying episode, "The Big Bang," that picks up from last week's time-tripping cliffhanger.
So much head-spinning chaos! Last we saw the Doctor, he was trapped in a device called the Pandorica box back in 102 AD while River Song is trapped in the exploding TARDIS in present time, threatening the entire universe. Meanwhile, back in the ancient past, Amy Pond apparently lies dead in her resurrected (as a robotic Roman centurion) fiancé Rory's arms. So why does the episode start back where the season began, back with Little Amy ("the girl who waited," as the Doctor likes to think of her) dreaming about stars in a curiously empty sky?
"I could do with a ridiculous miracle about now," says Rory, and happy to say, the episode delivers. With twists as inexplicable as they are entertaining, this daffy and unexpectedly romantic episode by current series caretaker Steven Moffat is like the Doctor's bow tie. (And, for a time, the fez he proudly sports.) It's "cool."
Also exceedingly cool: Being Human, which Syfy is currently Americanizing for its own audience. Good luck living up to the BBC original, which effortlessly blends humor and grisly horror as it goes down some very dark paths in its second season. For the uninitiated (who should get their hands on the first season pronto or watch Friday's day-long marathon), this is the story of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost who share a home — and the dream of being accepted as human if not exactly normal.
Easier scared than done, given that these supernatural friends are being stalked by some spooky mad-scientist types who are performing ungodly experiments on beings they consider ungodly. Our heroes are generally too busy to notice right away. Annie (Lenora Crichlow), the winsome ghost who has taken on a more corporeal presence, decides to get out in the world and take a job as a neighborhood barmaid, because (as broody vamp Russell puts it) "The disembodied spirit of a dead woman is getting a job in the service industry. What could possibly go wrong?"
George, the reluctant werewolf so touchingly played by Russell Tovey, chides Russell for his lack of purpose, calling him "a piece of deadly furniture." Poor George. He has yet to discover that at the last full moon, when he killed the evil vampire leader Herrick — and there's plenty of fallout from that this season — he may also have infected his headstrong girlfriend Nina. True Blood's sexy werewolves notwithstanding, nothing challenges a relationship more than putting the curse on your mate.
If the trendy (but currently scattershot) True Blood has bite, Being Human boasts something just as essential for a great supernatural drama: soul. This show is shocking in all the right ways. It's monstrously entertaining.
Shifting gears to the real world, or at least Matthew Weiner's glossy version of the mid-'60s, Mad Men makes most of the rest of this bloated TV summer pale by comparison. It's so rich, so smartly and darkly compelling as it thrusts us into a very changed series, thanks to the daring gambits of last season, when Don Draper, whose marriage had irreparably collapsed, led the revolution against his old ad agency to start a new firm: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Don (the always terrific Jon Hamm) is still very much the BMOC, albeit on a smaller campus — lacking even a conference table — and much of the first episode, penned by Weiner, once again deals with the Draper mystique: how he deals with an annoyingly prudish client, how he arrogantly comes off in a trade-paper interview, how he compartmentalizes his public and private personas, where his workplace swagger is deflated any time we glimpse his increasingly bleak personal life. The episode's title, "Public Relations," also factors into a publicity stunt engineered by Peggy (a world removed from the mousy girl of yesteryear) that doesn't go exactly as planned.
Some seasons of Mad Men have been known to get off to a slow and even ponderous start. Not this one. Besides the usual new-season thrill of catching up with where the characters are now — and no spoilers here — this season opener has a vitality that comes with engineering a fresh start. Yes, Betty is still a tragically horrible mother, Pete is still a boorish creep ("I can use my expense account if I say they're whores," he says with absolute seriousness at one point), Joan is still the embodiment of fabulous and Roger Sterling still drips with martini-dry wit.
But there's a new, scrappy energy afoot. As Don says, challenging all who dare enter, "You were wondering what a creative agency looks like. ... I hope you enjoyed looking in the window."
Just try to look away.
Doctor Who airs Saturday, 9/8c, on BBC America
Being Human airs Saturday, 10/9c, on BBC America
Mad Men airs Sunday, 10/9c, on AMC
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