It's no accident if, while watching Defiance — the first new Syfy drama in eons that has a scope you could actually describe as fantastic — you sometimes feel you're trapped inside an elaborate video game. After all, this new series (Monday, 9/8c) was developed alongside a new video game that inhabits the same fictional universe.
Two battered, tragic warriors meet face to face before their climactic skirmish, and there's at least one thing they can agree upon (besides the desire to kill each other): "There is no justice. Not in this world." What, you were expecting a happy ending to Starz' bloody breakout hit Spartacus? (Apologies if that's a spoiler.)
The series finale (Friday, 9/8c) justifies this last season's subtitle, War of the Damned, with a truly epic clash of historic titans. It's up to its bared knees in graphic gore as usual, but the finale is steeped even further in stirring demonstrations and declarations of honor, sacrifice and a willingness to die for the cause of freedom. "Whatever happens ... we decide our fates, not you," proclaims Spartacus (Liam McIntyre), leader of the outnumbered slave army, during his secret meeting with Roman "Imperator" Crassus (Simon Merrells). Unlike past seasons, when the Roman antagonists were mostly craven dupes, neither Crassus nor his second-in-command Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) are fools — but neither is Spartacus, who still has some bold and unexpected maneuvers up his shield during this primal and visceral encounter of fire, blood and literal and metaphorical guts.
There's more tearful soul-searching than singing in Fox's Glee (Thursday, 8/7c) as the show tackles an issue that couldn't be more timely and topical, on Capitol Hill and in any community that worries about its children's safety in the wake of recent (and not-so-recent) tragedies. The episode is titled "Shooting Star," which should give you an indication of just what triggers such intense emotional anxiety in the halls of McKinley High. Some would argue that the way the story ultimately plays out trivializes the issue, and maybe they're right, but as unpleasant realities seep into what is usually a musical-comedy fantasy, the glee club won't be the only ones left shaken and perhaps even a little more awakened.
Here's a fearless (and rather obvious) prediction for what could be a pivotal week on Fox's American Idol. Regardless of what happens on the next performance show (Wednesday, 8/7c), if America's vote endangers any of the girls — none of whom have been sent home yet (sorry, guys, especially Burnell) — the judges will almost certainly use their season's one "save."
The curtain comes down on the best part of TV's hottest singing competition, as the "blind auditions" portion of NBC's The Voice reaches its final act (Tuesday, 8/7c) with the selection of the last members of the four coaches' teams. Any fears that the show would lose its oomph this season with new bodies in the hot seats were quickly put to rest when Usher eased onto his swiveling throne with charismatic grace, adopting a signature "one leg up" posture that was parodied last weekend on Saturday Night Live, while Shakira proved a worthy adversary to the boys' club with her feisty attitude, passion and humor.
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Question: This TV mid-season has brought us three dramas about serial killers: The Following, Hannibal and Bates Motel. Why do competing networks often program similar TV shows? Remember the recent explosion of shows set in the 1960s (The Playboy Club, Pan Am, The Hour)? Last year we had the more successful slate of fantasy universe-meets-modern universe shows (Grimm, Once Upon a Time). What gives? Are the networks just waiting around for word of what their rivals are doing so that they can make a duplicate? Or is it all just coincidence? — Sam
It's only natural for AMC's Mad Men to be consumed with thoughts of mortality as it heads further into the turbulent late '60s in its sixth and reportedly next-to-last season of existence. A year ago, the central set piece in the premiere was a surprise birthday party. This time, it's a similarly eventful wake. And that's not the only way in which Sunday's two-hour opener (9/8c), written by series creator Matthew Weiner, drives the death-comes-to-us-all theme home with such sledgehammer relentlessness and obviousness that for the first time, I began to think maybe it is time for this beautifully crafted series to start thinking about giving up the ghost. There's no denying the importance of a show that manages to win four well-deserved best-drama Emmys in its first four times at bat — I didn't hesitate to include Mad Men among the Top 10 in a recent "60 Greatest Dramas of All Time" package in TV Guide Magazine. But does it have to be this self-important?
Jake Johnson, Zooey Deschanel
You can't help but get a deliciously squirmy tingle when the infamous (to the viewer, anyway) Hannibal Lecter quips, "It's nice to have an old friend for dinner" while serving tongue to his guests, including an unctuous and chatty shrink whom Lecter sizes up by coolly noting, "Your tongue is very feisty."
This scenario takes place several episodes into the midseason run of NBC's feverishly twisted, fascinatingly macabre and visually remarkable procedural-with-a-twist Hannibal (Thursday, 10:01/9:01c), by which time I was completely creeped out and thoroughly hooked. In much the same way A&E's Bates Motel introduces a younger version of Norman Bates before he had his crazy mama mummified in the cellar, Bryan Fuller's Hannibal presents the mad Dr. Lecter before his secret identity as a cannibalistic serial killer is known to anyone but his victims. He is caginess personified, taking on the role of advisor and therapist to tormented FBI profiler/consultant Will Graham (from Thomas Harris' Red Dragon). Will has an ability to project "pure empathy" and see grisly crimes from the killer's POV, which Lecter describes quite accurately as "an uncomfortable gift."
In the spy game, intelligence is the most precious commodity. And in the world of fictional espionage, few authors of historical suspense deliver thrills with the crisp and unsparing intelligence of Alan Furst. BBC America's Spies of Warsaw, a two-part miniseries adaptation (concluding Tuesday, April 10) of his 2008 novel, loses none of its twisty allure and passionate urgency in the translation from page to screen (9/8c). Tension comes with the territory of late-'30s Poland, a country harboring refugees and dissidents in a murky culture of political intrigue, as everyone nervously waits for the jackboot to drop as rumors spread of Nazi aggression.
Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells
Too soon. We always feel that way when a season of FX's marvelously entertaining Justified comes to a close. It can't be easy sustaining that high-wire act of violent tension and wry bourbon-smooth humor, while staying true to the voice and tone of Elmore Leonard's creation of the laconic yet steely U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, but they sure make it go down easy. The fourth-season finale (Tuesday, 10/9c) is titled "Ghosts," and it's a haunted hour, all right — haunted by what-ifs, by dreams deferred and hopes crushed by the weight of bad acts and Harlan County's history of bad people — but it's also a truly badass episode when it needs to be, with fateful confrontations and crazy twists, some satisfying and others troubling.