Remember the old X-Files mantra "Trust No One?" One of its producers surely does, and in creating the new Cinemax spy thriller Hunted, Frank Spotnitz makes it clear from the first scenes that you can't always trust your eyes, either.
"At least when you don't talk, I know you're not lying," says one spy to another, a former bedmate. This is Cinemax, after all, although the under-the-covers shenanigans in this eight-part drama are relatively discreet, as the premium channel continues to evolve from the soft-core nights of Skin-emax to a more high-octane model of entertainment you could call Cinemax-tion.
Hunted (Friday, 10/9c) isn't as extreme in its body count or its exposed bodies as Cinemax's guilty-pleasure breakout shoot-em-up Strike Back (just renewed for a third season of deranged derring-do), and it's also not as much fun. In its gloomy web of deceit and rabbit-hole conspiracies, this lies somewhere on the spectrum between the cerebral inertia of AMC's short-lived Rubicon and the giddy escapist antics of ABC's Alias, with all of the romantic intrigue, bone-crunching mayhem and all-around mystification that implies. (Cinemax just announced that a month after Hunted ends its run, it will launch a third potboiler, Banshee, on Jan. 11, from a production team including True Blood's Alan Ball and House's Greg Yaitanes. Sounds like a horror show, but it's actually about a con-man/master thief pretending to be sheriff of a Pennsylvania town named Banshee. )
In Hunted, the butt-kicking heroine is an enigmatic mercenary operative named Sam Hunter, played by Melissa George, formerly one of Alias' bad apples. Seen to much better effect here as an alluring package of pouty beauty and bruised psyche, Sam works for a shadowy private-security firm called Byzantium, whose clients are so secret that even the agents don't know whether to wear white or black hats on their deadly missions. Sam thinks one of her team may have set her up to be killed a year earlier (in the series' prologue), and that's just the start of her problems.
Byzantine nicely describes Hunted's labyrinthine plotting, as Sam acquires an elaborate alias to infiltrate a criminal family (led by Game of Thrones' malevolent Patrick Malahide) involved in international wrangling over a Pakistani dam. As she gets close to the villain's son and grandson, affecting a nanny's demeanor in between violent capers, Sam wonders if anyone has her back, including her ex-lover (Adam Rayner) and her chilly and unreadable Byzantium boss (Stephen Dillane, another Thrones veteran). The twists are solid, if never as electrifying as on Showtime's Homeland, while George clearly learned her lessons well at the feet of Sydney Bristow. This is the sort of damsel who's very good at causing distress.
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NOT FOR THE BIRDS: We all have our obsessions. Among mine: the films of the suspense master Alfred Hitchcock (with a bookshelf and video library to prove it), especially his masterpieces from the mid-'50s to early '60s. Which makes the HBO movie The Girl (Saturday, 9/8c) especially fascinating to me, as it turns Hitch's movie-star transformation of glamour girl Tippi Hedren during the filming of his landmark The Birds into a psychological horror story of sexual delusion and directorial abuse.
Toby Jones is pitch-perfect and eerily nuanced in revealing the self-loathing underbelly of the corpulent Hitch, whose proudly shocking vulgarity, as he recites naughty limericks on set, foreshadows his mutation from supportive mentor to sadistic tormentor. His pathetic longing for the latest "Hitchcock blonde" — he never got over Grace Kelly leaving Hollywood (and him) for Monaco — is seemingly enabled by his neglected wife Alma (a sly Imelda Staunton), and yes, it's as creepy as any of his movies. Also disturbing, as he ultimately cracks the brittle shell of Sienna Miller's insecure, repulsed Tippi, who's shattered after being subjected to five days of filmed torture in the notorious attic bird-attack scene (using live birds).
Visual echoes of Hitchcock classics like Vertigo and Psycho permeate this claustrophobic and impressionistic fable of the dark side of Hollywood. At just 90 minutes, The Girl can feel rushed and only occasionally convinces us that an actual movie is being made — this is so focused on Hitch-and-Tippi you'd think The Birds was a one-woman show. But at the very least, it whets a Hitch fan's appetite for the big-screen Hitchcock (starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Hitch and Alma) coming next month, which goes behind the scenes of Psycho — with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh — and despite that movie's subject matter (and shower murder) appears to be much lighter in tone.
Although what a shame if Hopkins' Hitch were to eclipse the impressive accomplishment of Jones, whose own impersonation of Truman Capote in the 2006 movie Infamous was overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning work in Capote. Really, though, what were the odds that two movies about Hitchcock would be released in such a short window? I must be dreaming. Or obsessing.
SUNDAY'S KILLER COMBO: No show is firing on as many electrifying creative cylinders as Showtime's Homeland (Sunday, 10/9c), which advances the cat-and-mole game between a vindicated Carrie (Claire Danes) and an unsuspecting Brody (Damian Lewis) in yet another outstanding episode. The plot finally manages to bring the unstable CIA consultant and her prey back together, while the bosses at Langley anxiously watch without being able to control the outcome. The final twist is once again so audacious and potentially game-changing it's hard to believe this is only the fourth episode of an amazing second season. ... The dance between the serial-killer vigilante and his law-enforcing adoptive sister also takes a major leap forward in the fourth episode of Dexter (9/8c, Showtime), as Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) go after an especially loathsome and dangerous criminal in their own very different but equally relentless ways. Can Deb ever accept Dex for who and what he is? "Are you even capable of love?" she wonders. Truth is: He'd kill for her, but if he does, will she just keep running away from him? What a great story.
COMINGS AND GOINGS: A third season, a third incarnation of The CW's Nikita (Friday, 9/8c), with our action heroine (Maggie Q) back at Division, the shadow agency now being run by good-guy Ryan (Noah Bean) in the wake of master-villain Percy's death. The new season puts Nikita and Michael (Shane West) on the trail of "The Dirty Thirty" — love it! — a list of rogue agents who chose not to return to the fold when the new regime took over. ... Meanwhile, it could be curtains for the mentally deteriorating Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) as Starz' grim Boss ends its second season (Friday, 9/8c) with a breaking newspaper story that could ruin Kane once and for all. The bigger headline, though, is the low-rated show's precarious fate, with its chances for renewal slim at best. ... The outlook is brighter for BBC America's Civil War-era period-piece mystery Copper (Sunday, 10/9c), though the tone remains awfully gritty and dark, as the first season ends with Detective Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) trying to stop a terrorist attack on New York City instigated by a vengeful Confederate soldier.
COMEDY TONIGHT: Bruno Mars does double duty as host and musical guest of NBC's Saturday Night Live (Saturday, 11:30/10:30c), but the main event is likely to be this week's debate sketch. Expect "binders of women" to be mentioned in the throwdown between this year's Obama (Jay Pharoah) and Romney (Jason Sudeikis). ... Reprising his celebrity-driven charity special that proves laughter (with donations) is the best medicine, Jon Stewart hosts Comedy Central's Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together For Autism Programs (Sunday, 8/7c), featuring highlights from a Beacon Theater concert and wrap-arounds from the set of The Daily Show. Guests, many of whom will be manning a live phone bank, include future Golden Globe co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and among the stunts being teased to boost donations: Conan O'Brien receiving a spray tan and Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman performing a striptease.