Only a week into the new year, and already the volume of new TV is overwhelming. Case in point: this Sunday's logjam of new titles on network and cable, ranging from the truly sublime to the hopelessly ridiculous and instantly forgettable. Here's a rundown from best to worst.
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DOWNTON ABBEY (PBS, 9/8c in most markets)
Masterpiece Classic kicks off its landmark 40th season with a delightful four-part miniseries in the grand tradition, with echoes of Dickens, Jane Austen and legendary Masterpiece breakthrough Upstairs Downstairs (which is being revived later this season) in the scintillating script by Julian Fellowes (of Gosford Park fame). Watching Downton Abbey is like curling up with a really satisfying book, and I can't think of a better way to get through one of the crueler months of winter. This is one of those shows that after finishing it, I immediately began to envy those who had yet to experience the pleasure.
Set at a glorious country estate beset by inheritance intrigues after the Titanic sinks with male heirs aboard — "It's worse than a shame, it's a complication" — Abbey weaves its stories between the embattled family and the manor's colorful staff. The primary conflict arises because the sympathetic Earl (Hugh Bonneville) and his devoted American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) have three grown daughters, and British inheritance law of the times do not allow women to inherit. Which means the legacy will fall to a distant cousin unaccustomed to the rigid class proprieties that come with this territory. Downton Abbey, which spans the years from the Titanic disaster to the start of WWI, is suffused with a subtext of sentimental regard for an endangered way of genteel life.
Much of that sentiment is embodied in the hilarious protestations of scene-stealer Maggie Smith as the family's indignant dowager aunt, who flinches at electricity ("It is as if I were onstage at the Gaiety"), sneers at the prospect of a working-class Earl ("What is a weekend?" she huffs) and laments the high road the current Earl is attempting to take ("Why do you always have to pretend to nicer than the rest of us?"). Factor in sibling rivalries among the Earl's spirited daughters, and conflicts in the servants' quarters when a new valet with a curious past joins the staff, and you've got the makings of one seriously addictive and fabulously enjoyable saga. Dig in.
EPISODES (Showtime, 9:30/8:30c)
In a season, and mid-season, when so much of what's thrown on TV leaves you wondering, "What were they thinking?" along comes this painfully funny TV comedy about the making of a painfully unfunny TV comedy. There's savage satirical delight to be enjoyed in this broad, unsparing farce, as two celebrated British husband-wife comedy writers (the deliciously droll Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are wooed to bring their smart little prize-winning U.K. show to L.A. Mistake! Almost instantly, even as they are simultaneously entranced and appalled by the phony glamour of Hollywood, their pet project is mutated and dumbed down. It starts with the lead character, who morphs from a wise old headmaster (Richard Griffiths, whose audition scene is poignantly funny) to a wisecracking hockey coach in a stinker titled Pucks!, designed by a coterie of smarmy network "yes"-suits as a comeback vehicle for Matt LeBlanc.
The former Friends icon has never been better as he plays a disarmingly sheepish and self-absorbed version of himself: cocky yet insecure, desperately desiring a hit that would put the Joey debacle behind him, and blind to the misery being visited upon the writers as they are patronized, lied to and overruled in every collision with bad taste. At times, this is like watching a particularly vile sausage being made. Characters like the obnoxious network boss played by John Pankow (Mad About You) might seem preposterous — to anyone who never met Ben Silverman. The writing in Episodes, by sitcom vets David Crane (Friends, The Class) and Jeffrey Klarik (The Class), is sharp and merciless, and, except for a trite jealousy subplot, on point. It's never what you would call subtle, but why should it be? TV is a brutal business, and deserves a snarky slap in the face once in a while.
SHAMELESS (Showtime, 10/9c)
Remaking British originals, more slavishly than what happens on Episodes, is one of the midseason's more notable, and often lamentable, trends (on the horizon: carbon copies of Being Human on Syfy and Skins on MTV). Showtime weighs in with this provocative and often overindulgent redo of an outrageous family drama about a rowdy and rudderless Chicago family of unsupervised waifs and scrappy delinquents. They scrape by, by hook and often crook, in a house of chaos, with little help from their drunk and degenerate dad (William H. Macy, who when not in an alcoholic coma spends most of his time in a state of overwritten rant).
Stealing this show at every turn is the brilliant, beautiful Emmy Rossum as eldest daughter Fiona. A natural head-turner even when her sad eyes reveal a frazzled and exhausted soul, Fiona is den mother, protector and defender of her clan, and even of her impossible dad. Her sibs get occasional moments to shine amid the madness, especially brainiac brother Lip and hard-working Ian, who has issues of his own that are revealed in surprising (and, for this show, surprisingly non-exploitive) ways.
Shameless is what you might expect of a no-holds-barred family drama on pay cable: reckless, raw and always a bit much — especially when it comes to a preposterous character like Joan Cusack as a neurotic, agoraphobic, psycho/nympho housewife who we first meet when Lip tutors her daughter in sessions that go predictably ribald. Moments and characters like these take us out of the reality that Shameless otherwise aims to portray, falling victim to the pay-cable impulse to push the shock envelope just because it can. Which ultimately is less shocking than irritating. A shame, really.
THE CAPE (Sunday, 9/8c; moves to regular time Monday at 9/8c)
I get why NBC would go back to the superhero well, to try to fill the void that was Heroes (and temporarily replace the void that The Event became) with an earnest, straightforward comic-book story like The Cape. But it's devoid of new ideas. This isn't a catastrophe, mind you. It's not Knight Rider-Bionic Woman awful. It's merely forgettable. Which is just sad.
This is the familiar story of a noble cop, family man and ex-soldier (the regrettably bland David Lyons) who is framed by corrupt forces in mythical Palm City and left for dead. With the help of a larcenous circus troupe, led by the terrific Keith David as Max the magical mentor, our hero assumes the identity of his son's favorite comic-book figure, a hooded do-gooder who whips around a magical weaponized cape with a panache that Liberace might envy. While the rest of us giggle. "The Cape" (a name that makes most of the locals scoff when they come in contact with him) is also aided by a foxy blogger named Orwell (fan-boy fave Summer Glau), and they face villains with names like Scales, Cain and Chess (a lizard-eyed James Frain).
It could all be ridiculous fun if it weren't played so laughably seriously. "Doesn't anyone value showmanship anymore? Max barks to a gang of meanies. We do, but in The Cape, it's as sorely lacking as originality.
BOB'S BURGERS (Fox, 8:30/7:30c)
Fox's menu of animated comedies takes a blow to the gut with this rancid new toon about a sad-sack family operating a bad-luck fast-food joint. "My crotch is itchy," peeps the daughter running the grill cook as the episode begins, setting the tone for a show that's about as appetizing as a salmonella outbreak. The voice of put-upon propriety Bob is supplied by H. Jon Benjamin, whose deadpan snark is better suited to the heightened antics of FX's Archer, which returns later this month. This crudely mean-spirited cringe of a show isn't even medium well-done, and here's this customer's tip: Avoid at all costs.