NBC will surely miss the Olympics ratings bump once the Games are over, with closing ceremony set for Sunday, but the rest of TV is more than ready to get back to business. Even as the torch is being snuffed on NBC, the lights are going on elsewhere.
Including on AMC, which airs one of the most gripping episodes to date — and that's saying something — of its dark masterpiece Breaking Bad (10/9c), in conjunction with the return of the drearily dour Western Hell on Wheels (9/8c) for its second season.
Both hours revolve around train robberies, which on Hell on Wheels (a would-be Deadwood) couldn't feel more tired a device, whereas on Breaking Bad, the latest caper ensnaring Walt, Jesse and Mike is an absolute nail-biter, one of the best this ever-intense drama has yet devised. When a new henchman (Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons) tells the gang of thieves, "You guys thought of everything," you wonder in dread how he might be proved wrong. All throughout, you may also find yourself questioning just why it is we keep rooting for these increasingly demonic rascals — especially Walt, who in Bryan Cranston's increasingly chilling portrayal has become just as menacing on the home front. His latest showdown with emotionally numbed wife Skyler (the tremendous Anna Gunn) is almost as harrowing as last week's, when she confessed she's just waiting for his cancer to come back.
We've known for some time that the cancer has metastasized in his soul. The shocking end of this week's unbearably suspenseful episode just reinforces how that corruption has infected everyone in his wake.
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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Hell on Wheels, which imagines a melting pot of desperate and debauched characters living alongside the work-in-progress transcontinental railroad in the post-Civil War untamed West. Dramatically, the show feels as stalled as the trains, which have nowhere to go. Studiously gritty but rarely convincing in its clichéd characterizations and pretentious posturing, Wheels is hell on one's endurance.
Anson Mount, as the more-or-less hero Cullen Bohannon, goes beyond stoic in his near-biblical suffering, mistaking mumbling for soul-weary profundity. He begins the second season as a high-minded bandit aiming for a fresh start in Mexico — "Another brick on his road to hell," sighs the British widow who kind-of fancied him last season — but before long, he's dragged back to the mud and blood of Hell on Wheels and is none too happy about it. I know how he feels.
By comparison, the battle-weary travelers of TNT's much-improved sci-fi thriller Falling Skies (Sunday, 9/8c) approach the new government seat in Charleston as an Eden of plenty. But as we've come to expect on this tough-minded melodrama, no paradise is without its peril. Lost's Terry O'Quinn guests as a former mentor of history professor-turned-war hero Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), and it doesn't take long before his warm welcome for the 2nd Mass unit takes a darker turn as a debate rages between those who'd rather hunker down and play dead and those who yearn to keep fighting, especially if an alliance can be formed with the Skitter rebels. The parallels with the Revolutionary War (appeasement vs. rebellion) get a bit heavy-handed, but this season has built such dramatic tension that we're now on the edge of our seat for next Sunday's season finale.
MONKEYING AROUND: NBC's last big move to extend the Olympic halo to its new prime-time lineup takes place after the final curtain comes down on the closing ceremony. At roughly 10:38/9:38c on Sunday, viewers tempted by all those promos of Crystal the Monkey will finally get a sneak-peek look at Animal Practice, where I'm sorry to report the animals don't talk, but the people do.
Crystal (previously seen in the Night at the Museum movies, the second Hangover film and a memorable cameo on Community) steals what little show there is here, which when it isn't featuring animal antics (a Bengal tiger, a penguin and a boa constrictor in the pilot alone) focuses on the relationship of misanthropic veterinarian Justin Kirk (Weeds) and his perky ex (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), who has inherited the animal hospital where Kirk is the snarly top dog. The caricatured supporting cast includes a mewling Asian stereotype, a grotesque nurse and perennial TV sidekick Tyler Labine as a lovesick bumbler of a, well, sidekick. Yes, Animal Practice is just that inspired. But if you're content to watch a monkey in a doctor's coat wreaking havoc, welcome to the zoo.
SHARKS AND SNARK: Just when the Olympic divers and swimmers (synchronized or not) let you think it was safe to go back into the water, Discovery launches its milestone 25th anniversary Shark Week on Sunday (continuing through Thursday), feasting on the best of the world's shark photography, with the focus on South Africa with two inaugural specials: Air Jaws Apocalypse (9/8c) and Shark Week's Impossible Shot (10/9c). The real highlight comes Monday, with Sharkzilla (9/8c) — how has Syfy not appropriated that title yet for one of its Saturday night schlockfests? — in which several MythBusters veterans help recreate the fabled prehistoric Megalodon, said to weigh 100,000 pounds, with 250 serrated teeth, 6 inches long, in jaws measuring 6 feet wide and 8 feet tall. (Thanks, Discovery, for those stats — and the nightmares.)
They're also circling for blood, of the comic variety, on the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne (Sunday, 10/9c), taped last weekend, with the caustic comedienne mercilessly grilled by a dais including roastmaster Jane Lynch, Carrie Fisher, Ellen Barkin, Seth Green, Katey Sagal and the notorious Jeff Ross — who will be spotlighted the night before in a stand-up special Jeff Ross Roasts America (Saturday, 11/10c), in which the "Roastmaster General" takes no prisoners on his tour of cities across the USA. (It's a big week for Ross, who gets his own topical half-hour series, The Burn With Jeff Ross, starting next Tuesday at 10:30/9:30c.)
What Roseanne event would be complete without a "surprise" appearance by ex Tom Arnold? (I guess we'll never know.) Also on hand: some of her TV kids, apparently by all accounts both Beckys. If you don't like your comedy tainted a white-trashy shade of blue, steer clear.