Not since the fall TV onslaught has there been a weekend this cluttered with high-profile new premieres, including network and cable (though mostly cable), running the gamut from lavish costume drama to spy spoof to haunting mystery. And there's a really lousy, old-school Kennedy miniseries in the mix you might have heard about. Something for everyone, you might say.
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In descending order, starting with my favorite, here's a rundown of the weekend's new offerings:
The Killing(Sunday, 9/8c, AMC; regular time period: Sundays at 10/9c)
The return of Mad Men may be months away — boo! — but with the spellbinding The Killing, AMC reconfirms its reputation as a place where serious and emotionally compelling drama thrives. This moody season-long murder mystery, adapted from a Danish TV hit, wastes no time going for the jugular. In an era of wall-to-wall by-the-books crime procedurals, The Killing reminds us that in the real world (here, a constantly raining Seattle), violent death is devastating, anything but routine.
In one of the midseason's plum roles, Mireille Enos (Big Love) gives the series its quiet, broodingly empathetic center as inscrutable veteran detective Sarah Linden, confronted with the tragic case of a murdered teenage girl from a working-class family. As she surveys and processes the grim crime scene and the sordid revelations that follow, Sarah often looks as if her very soul is bruised. She doesn't know whether to be amused or irritated by the irreverent new partner she's been saddled with: Joel Kinnaman as ex-narc Stephen Holder, a shaggy, shambling iconoclast with reckless instincts and methods that could complicate an already sensitive case.
There are intriguing political undertones involving the mayoral campaign of a tragedy-haunted city councilman (Billy Campbell, walking a fine tightrope between pathos and quiet arrogance), but The Killing earns its most visceral impact from the latest powerhouse performance by Michelle Forbes (True Blood) as the victim's grieving mother, dazed with pain and anguished confusion. Her scenes with Brent Sexton as her blue-collar husband, trying to hold his family together while she falls apart, are incredibly wrenching. The Killing is deliberately paced, but creepily engrossing in a way that may take the audience by surprise. The glut of formulaic TV crime drama tends to desensitize us, stressing order over disorientation. The Killing takes us to a place where nothing is certain, everyone is suspicious and each twist is like a sucker punch to the gut.
The only strained note in the first episodes is a subplot asking us to believe Sarah is always one foot out the door, about to leave soggy Seattle to follow her guy (Battlestar Galactica's Callum Keith Rennie) to sunny California. We know that won't happen. She can't turn away from this darkly compelling horror. And neither can we.
The Borgias(Sunday, 9/8c, Showtime; regular time period, Sundays at 10/9c)
The assassin has the right idea: "No subtlety needed tonight," he growls, preparing to get his hands dirty on behalf of those treacherous Renaissance villains collectively remembered as the Borgias.
Who in the world of premium cable would want The Borgias, Showtime's opulently lurid follow-up to The Tudors, to be subtle? Like the notorious family that bribed its way into the Vatican's papal chamber while sullying many a Roman bedchamber, we want our money's worth. And The Borgias wickedly delivers, serving up an operatic feast of delicious malice and unbridled lust: for power and wealth, for carnal pleasure and vulgar theatrics. Embodying this lavish series' dark heart and desiccated soul is the marvelous Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo "Pope Alexander VI" Borgia, presiding with ghoulish and unsparing cunning over his embattled empire and unruly offspring, which includes borderline incestuous siblings.
"I will not forgive failure," declares Irons in that sinister foghorn of a voice. And when he later obliquely orders a rival's murder, explaining, "What the Holy Church needs at this juncture is someone who can ensure its survival... by whatever means necessary," it's chilling and perversely compelling. This is the sort of guilty pleasure that could send you to confession.
While the new Pope uses his family as political pawns, including marrying off the naïve beauty Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) to an influential but repulsive brute, he juggles the demands of a new mistress (Lotte Verbeek) and the neglected mother of his children (Joanne Whalley). Watching these scandalous shenanigans in repulsed horror is the family's nemesis, the pious Cardinal Della Rovere (an intense Colm Feore), whose attempts at rallying powerful enemies to bring the Borgias down could cost him his own soul.
Whether you accept The Borgias as dubious history, at least it never commits the deadliest sin of all: boredom. Which brings us to Starz' cheesy new spin on the even more enduring Camelot legend.
Camelot(Friday, 10/9c, Starz)
No two versions of the King Arthur myth are exactly alike, and significant liberties have been taken here, including a fresh twist to the sword in the stone (here a waterfall) incident. But rarely has the story been rendered so dreary and insipid.
Starz seems to believe that gratuitous nudity — look, it's a dream vision of Guinevere, naked on the beach! — are enough to provide an "adult" pay-cable edge. Actual flesh and blood characters would be more appreciated.
Instead, we get a pallid Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower, Caius in the Twilight movies) played as a randy, earnest adolescent, an accidental king whose heart is in the right place but who keeps sticking his sword in all the wrong ones. He takes marching orders from a muddled Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) who's all glower and no power. As usual, the villain gets the juiciest moments, and while Eva Green does little more than flash her eyes as Arthur's sorceress half-sister Morgan, she at least seems to be enjoying herself.
You begin to wonder if they decided not to name Arthur's sword Excalibur this time (at least not in the first three episodes) because it might remind us of John Boorman's dazzling 1981 movie — which introduced me as a college undergrad to the delights of Helen Mirren as an alluring Morgana. This Camelot only tends to make me yawn a lot. Doubt that was the intention.
Chaos (Friday, 8/7c, CBS)
The title of this muddled "comedic drama" (CBS's words) refers to the Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services division of the CIA, where a rogue team known as the Office of Disruptive Services (ODS) operates. Never mind the alphabet soup. The real chaos here is a collision of tones. Chaos looks like The Unit — a solid action drama CBS canceled too soon, in part because it wasn't produced in-house — but it feels more like a Chuck wannabe in its focus on Rick Martinez, a frantic, haplessly naïve newbie (Six Feet Under's Freddy Rodriguez) who's in over his head as he confronts the absurdities within an agency where, quoting a veteran agent, "Inaction has become the battle cry."
I give any CBS show credit that tries to be a bit different, that aims a little higher or more off-kilter than Criminal Minds: Disgusting Behavior. But this one pushes the zany aspects too hard, trivializing the missions while neglecting such elements as grit, wit and heart. The cast is appealing enough, starting with the eternally boyish Rodriguez, whose first meeting with the gruff penny-pinching boss (a typecast Kurtwood Smith) turns him into an unwilling mole forced to spy on his fellow agents: Without a Trace's Eric Close as a cynical drone, James Murray as a cocky Scot and Tim Blake Nelson as a seemingly milquetoast veteran who, when pressed, can unleash "human weapon" qualities. (Is he their Intersect?)
The Chaos pilot is a bit overstuffed with predictable reversals, in which every time Rick tries to see his new team in a positive light — "You're not bad for the sake of being bad; you're bad for the sake of doing good!" — he's obviously headed for a fall. Once they get to know each other, and we get to know them, maybe the show will become as funny as it thinks it is or as exciting as we might like it to be. Right now, it only makes me miss The Unit.
The Kennedys(Premieres Sunday, 8/7c, on ReelzChannel; airs through Sunday, April 10)
For a while, the eight-hour The Kennedys (which feels much longer) had a reputation as The Miniseries No One Dared to Air. Dropped by History, which developed and produced this project before decided it didn't fit the brand — so why even go the docudrama route in the first place? — it was shopped around with no takers until the relatively obscure ReelzChannel stepped in, hoping to raise its own profile.
Turns out The Kennedys wasn't rejected for being too hot to handle, though family sensitivities may have played some role in its fate. The real reason: It's a dinosaur, a hokey throwback to an out-of-fashion genre and a too-familiar subject. There are as many Kennedy miniseries as there are Kennedys, and this may be the most unnecessary one yet. It's ploddingly earnest when it isn't crudely scurrilous — the assassination episode is framed with tacky flashbacks of an unstable Marilyn Monroe, and the Kennedy White House at times seems a combination illegal pharmacy/brothel for the philandering Jack.
There is some fine acting: Greg Kinnear is a credible JFK, in chronic pain as he juggles political and family crises, Tom Wilkinson scores as the conniving Papa Joe, and Barry Pepper steals the show as combative brother Bobby. Whereas Katie Holmes merely pouts and preens as a simpering kewpie-doll Jackie.
"This family is not going to disappear," promises Joe early on. (Tell us something we don't know) But it might have been a blessing if The Kennedys had.