Next Friday, it will all be over for fans of Fox's super-freaky but deeply heartfelt sci-fi extravaganza Fringe. And quite a ride it's been, through parallel universes and surreal head trips and baffling time leaps, landing its heroes into a climactic war for humanity's survival against the invading Observers, oppressive Mean Baldies from the future who favor intellect over pesky emotion.
Tender moments abound amid the manhunt tension in Friday's penultimate episode (9/8c), which explores several pertinent and profound father-son bonds as Walter (the great John Noble) immerses himself, Altered States-style, in the sensory-deprivation tank in hopes of forging a psychic connection with the mysterious "Donald," who was revealed last week to be the sympathetic Observer known as September (Michael Cerveris, and what a shock it is to see him with a shock of hair). The delightful explanation of how "Donald" got his name is just one of many reveals in this hour, including the significance of silent and solemn Observer child "Michael" — the episode is titled "The Boy Must Live," a throwback to past events and future peril — and finally we get details of the much-discussed "plan" that could vanquish the Observers. (One of the weakest and silliest elements of this final season was the endless quest to retrieve bits and pieces of Walter's plan on scattered VHS tapes — why not just record it on 8-tracks? — frozen in amber.)
In the future, whether on tape or disc or computer stream or whatever cloud our TV archives will exist within, Fringe will shine as a rare example of unfettered imagination given free rein to do its own thing, tell its wild story in its own fashion, reinventing itself season to season (some more successfully than others) while always taking us to unexpected places. Though never a pop-culture sensation on the level of The X-Files, Fox kept it going longer than most of us could have hoped, and for those loyal few who still care, we can't wait for the payoff.
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LAW AND DISORDER: The unruly cousin to highfalutin HBO, Cinemax has come to specialize in unpretentious pulp fictions (Strike Back, Hunted) where the hard-core mayhem is occasionally interrupted by soft-core hanky panky. It doesn't come much grittier than the new Banshee (Friday, 10/9c), a backwoods noir that might as well be called Unjustified.
Despite Alan Ball's involvement as an executive producer, the title doesn't refer to some sort of True Blood-like supernatural spirit. It's the setting: Banshee, Pennsylvania, a rural cesspool in Amish country where an ex-con (New Zealand's Antony Starr, affecting a Steve McQueen swagger and looking like Scott Speedman's black-sheep brother) shows up newly freed from prison. In a luridly violent out-of-nowhere twist of fate, he assumes the identity of the town's ill-fated new sheriff. Taking the unlucky lawman's name, Lucas Hood, this combative hood of few words seeks out his sexy former partner in crime (Ivana Milicevic) while pretending to keep law and order. You might call this stoic but deadly stud an homme fatal.
It's a twisted premise played fairly straight. If you don't count his Asian transsexual computer-whiz accomplice, keeping tabs on him from afar. Or the Ukranian hitmen on the faux Hood's trail, acting on orders of a vengeful mobster named Rabbit (Ben Cross). Or the graphic sexual interludes to remind you what channel you're watching. Banshee is a mangy mutt of a TV show and doesn't care if you know it.
GIRLS WILL BE ... Exasperating but fascinating. Not a bad way to describe the urban hipsters who populate Lena Dunham's buzz-worthy and Golden Globe-nominated Girls, an often bleak and even more frequently gamy comedy-drama that starts its second season on HBO (Sunday, 9/8c), with its characters still clueless about what they want from life, love or career. They're forever disappointing one another and occasionally themselves, none more than the insecure Hannah (Dunham, who also writes and directs many episodes). Break-ups, even among platonic friends, are a near-weekly occurrence in this unnervingly perceptive and fearlessly raw chronicle of an adrift yet judgmental generational.
As sad and weird and messy as Girls gets, we trust Dunham to lead us through this world of downsized expectations with a firm command of absurdist humor and unflinching (sometimes literally naked, and rarely pretty) truth.
GLOBE-TROTTING: What will tickle the fancy of those mysterious voters of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association? Hard to say. They have a reputation of embracing the hot, hip and new, sometimes to a fault. (It took them three years to get over their infatuation with Glee and finally give the top TV comedy prize to Modern Family last year.) All we can say with certainly is that when the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards airs Sunday on NBC (8/7c), we will be waiting eagerly to see what former "Weekend Update" co-anchors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will do as co-hosts. Both are nominated for TV comedy actress (although their shows were passed over), a mock rivalry that could add to the fun.
While handicappers will try to make something out of this year's increasingly random movie race, here are a few thoughts on the top TV categories:
Drama: Two of last year's champs — Homeland and Downton Abbey (which won for miniseries in 2012) — face off, with the edge going to Showtime's thriller. But it's Breaking Bad's first time in the category, so don't rule it out. In acting, Homeland's Claire Danes seems a lock for a repeat win, but co-star Damian Lewis has stiff competition from Bad's Bryan Cranston and Newsroom's Jeff Daniels.
Comedy: Nominees range from megahit (The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family) to ultra-niche (Girls, Episodes), with Smash the odd musical out. Anything but a Modern repeat would be a surprise, but giving Girls' auteur Dunham the comedy actress prize would give the Globes a chance to go cutting-edge. For comedy actor, there are plenty of past winners (Alec Baldwin, Jim Parsons, Episodes' Matt LeBlanc), but the gruff humanity of Louie's Louis C.K. would be an inspired choice.
Supporting Actor/Actress: A bizarre category combining talents from dramas, comedies and movies/minis, where Downton Abbey's droll dowager Maggie Smith is favored. Homeland's superb Mandy Patinkin deserves to ride that show's momentum, but I have a soft spot as well for Max Greenfield as New Girl's scene-stealing Schmidt.
Movie/Miniseries: HBO's Game Change and Julianne Moore's dazzling impersonation of Sarah Palin are logical picks, but don't count out Kevin Costner and History's highly rated blockbuster Hatfields & McCoys.
ANOTHER BUSY SUNDAY: Given what a big draw the Golden Globes tends to be every year, you'd think the competition would take the night off. You'd be wrong.
HBO and Showtime are each launching their new comedy lineups directly opposite the awards show. (With On Demand, apps and multiple airings during the week, the initial Sunday airing isn't that critical for these channels.) On HBO, airing alongside the afore-mentioned Girls is the miracle second season of the peculiar and little-watched Enlightened (9:30/8:30c), starring Golden Globe-winning Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a corporate crackpot turned strident whistle-blower. Even if you sympathize with her efforts to take down the Evil Company by leaking data to a hot-shot reporter (an appealing Dermot Mulroney), Amy's aggressively tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing way of dealing with people — most notably her mousy co-worker, played by series writer/co-creator Mike White — makes her one of the least appealing protagonists I dread spending time with any given week. At least this season there's a story. But as usual, I find myself siding with Amy's dour mom (Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd), who responds to Amy's "Do you believe in fate?" screeching with a terse "No."
As part of a free Showtime weekend that includes Saturday's premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 (8/7c), Sunday brings new seasons of the raucously dysfunctional family dramedy Shameless (9/8c), the over-the-hill Californication (10:30/9:30c) starting its sixth year, and one of my favorites, big-business satire House of Lies (10/9c), starring the blistering Don Cheadle as a corporate consultant who as the second season begins is trying to remember just what happened with co-worker Jeannie (Kristen Bell, fetchingly feisty as ever) on a drunken night out. A brassy new boss (Bess Armstrong) is cracking the whip, which makes the stakes even higher when a new client (Kevin Dobson) arrives for a meeting and none of the team even knows who he is.
On the network front on Sunday, CBS' The Good Wife (9/8c) welcomes back one of its best recurring characters, Carrie Preston as cannier-than-she-looks lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni, whose arrest spurs Alicia, Will and Diane to action. Maura Tierney also returns as Peter's political rival, along with T.R. Knight, who got under Eli's skin most amusingly last week. ... Lisbon's vendetta against shady millionaire Tommy Volker (Henry Ian Cusick) continues on CBS' The Mentalist (10/9c). ... And after a smashingly successful opening installment, PBS' Downton Abbey (check tvguide.com listings) returns with the promise of wedding bells for Lady Edith, though the Dowager Countess can't keep from lamenting how the mousy middle daughter is "starting her life as an old man's drudge." Plenty of downstairs intrigue as well, with Thomas plotting against O'Brien while Carson begins to worry about Mrs. Hughes' "condition."
WHAT ELSE IS ON: There's a Home Improvement vibe on ABC's Last Man Standing (Friday, 8/7c), as Tim Allen's former sidekick Richard Karn guests as Outdoor Man's longtime (but possibly for not much longer) architect. ... From the "that's still on?" department: Chris Harrison and Brooke Burke-Charvet preside over the 86th Miss America Competition from Las Vegas on ABC (Saturday, 9/8c), preceded by a "Pageant Confidential" edition of 20/20 (8/7c). Think of it as a breeding ground for future seasons of The Bachelorette and, depending on the talent, Dancing With the Stars. ... One of Comedy Central's brightest, and certainly handsomest, stars gets a stand-up showcase in Anthony Jeselnik: Caligula (Sunday, 10/9c), where in front of an appreciative Chicago audience he milks the disconnect between his choirboy looks and his gasp-inducingly vicious material with sly expert timing.