Made you jump. It's about time a Syfy show had that effect on us again.
Syfy's Helix (Friday, 10/9c) is a chiller in every sense of the word, a welcome return to gripping sci-fi form for a network that has lately ceded bragging rights to AMC (The Walking Dead), FX (American Horror Story) and even The CW (The Vampire Diaries) in the competitive arena of hardcore genre buzz. The spirit of Michael Crichton permeates this claustrophobic exercise in suspenseful paranoia, from Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore and series creator Cameron Porsandeh, who sets the first season almost entirely at an icy Arctic research compound that's actually a hothouse for mysteriously grisly medical experiments.
Billy Campbell puts his leading-man earnestness to good use as Dr. Alan Farragut, the leader of a CDC team of scientists (including his ex-wife) sent to investigate a possible viral outbreak within the enigmatic Arctic Biosystems, where a personal connection gives Farragut urgent incentive to find the source and concoct a cure. Not so easy in this underground warren, where secret agendas and gross-out shocks lurk in every spooky lab. Warning: The test monkeys are a real scream.
You may be reminded of The Andromeda Strain, Alien, The Thing and other iconic sources of inspiration — or is that derivation? — as our heroes crawl through vents to chase down renegade mutants in hopes of limiting the contagion, which is exhibited by oozing black blood, bulging veins and a disturbing oral fixation. Ewww. It may not be not the most original premise, and the supporting cast leaves much to be desired (with the exception of droll Catherine Lemieux as a feisty veterinary pathologist), but Helix creates an intense atmosphere of dread and fear in which a fade to snowy white can be as scary as the deepest black. And kudos for using a perky Burt Bacharach melody as an ironic counterpoint to all the horrific mayhem. I wouldn't walk on by this one.
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GUNG HO: It will be 50 years ago (!) this fall since CBS launched a giant hit on Friday nights with Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Times have changed, and Fridays now tend to be where sitcoms go to die — or at least live under the radar — especially on Fox, which has given the new military comedy Enlisted (9:30/8:30) the scheduling equivalent of a suicide mission. Too bad, because while the show is uniformly silly and slight, it becomes rather endearing the more we get to know this band of knucklehead brothers within a Bad News Platoon.
With an emphasis on goofy charm over brawn, Enlisted introduces us first to Super Soldier Pete Hill (The Finder's raffish Geoff Stults), under fire in Afghanistan, who's reassigned stateside after decking an officer ("Suddenly, I'm thinking consequences"). His new home base, a placid Florida "rear detachment" compound where the hapless grunts wash instead of drive tanks, would be a total wash-out if it weren't for the presence of Pete's younger brothers-in-arms: middle brother/wiseguy slacker Derrick (Chris Lowell of Private Practice) and dim-bulb baby of the family Randy (Suburgatory's Parker Young, a potential breakout), who idolizes Pete but can't help being a bumbling, emotionally vulnerable soldier of misfortune.
The trappings couldn't be more conventional: war-game slapstick, a gruff boss (Keith David), a rival female sergeant (Angelique Cabral) to provide some combatively amorous distraction for Stults. And yet these Hill brothers have tangible chemistry and charisma, and Enlisted earns its modest Stripes (a clear influence here) with unexpected sweetness amid the wacky shenanigans. Will it recruit enough viewers to survive on this tough night? Even Patton probably couldn't win this battle.
TRULY DISTINCTIVE: What, you were expecting HBO to deliver a conventional crime drama? The hypnotic, unsettling and sensationally acted True Detective (Sunday, 9/8) is less a whodunit — though there is a serial killer afoot whose way with a macabre crime scene is befitting of Hannibal — then it is a wide-ranging character study that gives two gifted actors an opportunity to burrow deep within the psyches of Louisiana detectives who probably never should have been put in a car together.
Writer Nic Pizzolatto penned all eight episodes (with Cary Joji Fukunaga evocatively directing) in the first season of what is intended to be a novelistic anthology — next season: new story, new setting (most likely Los Angeles), new movie stars, though good luck topping what Woody Harrelson and especially Matthew McConaughey do with these juicy roles. As the aptly named Rust Cohle, a haunted and driven lawman given to weird visions and existential ramblings — the show is not without its pretentions — McConaughey is mesmerizing in two separate time frames: in 1995, shortly after he's been partnered with bad-old/good-old-boy Martin Hart (Harrelson), and flashing forward to 2012, when he's a ragged remnant of his former self, being grilled about the case by two new detectives (whose agenda is not immediately clear). Hart, whose own personal life derails while working this grisly ritual murder, is being questioned separately, and it soon becomes clear he didn't get out of this 17-year ordeal unscathed, either.
There are times when the brooding banter becomes self-consciously writerly: "We are creatures that should not exist by natural law," muses Cohle to the easily exasperated Hart, who's probably not alone in wishing this weird, lanky outlier would sometimes just shut up. And the crime they're investigating often takes such a back seat to the show's tricky structure and the all-pervasive angst you may once again wonder what exactly HBO has against the notion of narrative urgency. But be patient with this slow-burner of a disturbing, demanding drama. These detectives are truly fascinating.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Some quick thoughts on another jam-packed lineup of weekend premieres and returns ... "You've taken this sheriff thing about as far as it should have gone," someone tells faux lawman Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) as a second season of Cinemax's no-holds-barred guilty pleasure Banshee (Friday, 10/9c) revs up. Don't believe it. With the arrival of a cadaverous Zeljko Ivanek as an FBI agent trying to sort through the various sordid messes, the fun is just getting started. ... Amazon's biting political satire Alpha House ends its first season (Friday) with some promising real-life cameos including the notorious Anthony Weiner and legendary NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. ... Those seeking a cozier respite may be drawn to Hallmark Channel's new period drama, When Calls the Heart (Saturday, 9/8c). Think Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie as a frontier teacher (Erin Krakow) finds herself drawn to Coal Valley's new constable (Daniel Lissing). ... HBO's trendy hipster comedy Girls (Sunday, 10/9c) is back for a third season of raw provocation, with Hannah (Lena Dunham) thankfully back on her meds — no more Q-Tips, ever, we beg you! — and clinging to her volatile boyfriend Adam (the great Adam Driver) like a life raft. Her sort-of pals Jessa (Jemima Kirke), alienating everyone in rehab, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), alienating anyone with ears, feel less and less like human beings, while Allison Williams' knocked-flat knockout Marnie wallows in pathos. And all of a sudden I'm missing Friends' Central Perk all over again. ... Showtime's edgy Sunday lineup includes new seasons of Shameless (9/8c), House of Lies (10/9c) and a personal favorite, the inside-TV satire Episodes (10:30/9:30c), which picks up the morning after last season's eventful finale, with careers in transition and some relationships renewed, others broken, with dirty laundry everywhere. Sailing blissfully through it all: an endearingly immature Matt LeBlanc, who remarks upon seeing the drab office where his sitcom writers toil: "How could anybody be funny in a place like this? No wonder." ... A Bruce Springsteen soundtrack, from his new "High Hopes" album, livens up an episode of my favorite Sunday series: CBS's The Good Wife (9/8c), in which Alicia and Will represent a drug-smuggling couple but insist on separate juries for each defendant. ... Meanwhile, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will spend the night entertaining well-lubricated TV and movie stars at the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards (8/7c, 5 PT). You'd think the other networks would go dark opposite such a really big show. You'd think wrong.