Happy New TV Year! With the Winter Olympics only a little more than a month away, the networks are wasting no time premiering new and returning shows through January, making this almost as busy a month for programming as the heights of September. Let the winter midseason begin.
BACK TO SCHOOL: Some underdogs adopt a never-say-die mentality. In the fringe world of wackiness known as NBC's Community, it's more like never say graduate, as the cult comedy returns for an against-the-odds fifth season with back-to-back episodes (Thursday, 8/7c) once again under the warped tutelage of mercurial series creator Dan Harmon. (For more on his and the show's comeback, go here.)
Bizarre circumstances — are there any other kind on this show? — compel the cynical Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and his misfit tribe of followers to return to the Greendale campus, where the syllabus is heavy on surreal silliness. "It's insane, and I'm Abed," declares the meta master (Danny Pudi). Whether riffing on the show's past, unruly present ("re-piloting" as an act of reinvention) or unpredictable future, Abed is always hilariously self-aware of the TV and sitcom clichés Community excels in upending.
There's a fair amount of hand-wringing over whether Greendale has been good or bad for these lovably damaged characters: "We went in one end as human beings and came out the other end mixed-up cartoons," grouses Jeff. Which, of course, is the genius of Community, celebrating an endearing humanity within the most ridiculously cartoonish situations. By the time the student body revolts against the faculty's abuse of grading with minuses, I find myself giving Community an A-plus for inspired effort.
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I SPY A DUD:It's not a mystery why ABC is giving its Thursday hits Grey's Anatomy and Scandal a two-month break in the New Year: to avoid competing against the Olympics next month, and also to ensure an uninterrupted run of new episodes in the back half of the season once they return on Feb. 27. But couldn't the network have tried harder to find an enjoyable replacement series? The eight-part miniseries The Assets (10/9c) is anything but.
This plodding docudrama, inspired by the CIA's real-life search for in-house traitor Aldrich Ames, asks the "who cares" question: Can CIA counterintelligence agent Sandy Grimes discover the mole in the agency's midst without neglecting her duties as a wife and mother? A bigger puzzle is why the show has cast so many British actors (who've done better work elsewhere) to impersonate Americans in this drab spy game? Grimes, the story's blah center, is blandly played by Jodie Whittaker, so compelling as the grieving mother in last summer's Broadchurch; as her adoring and supportive husband, Julian Ovenden displays little of the charisma he exerts as one of Lady Mary's suitors on Downton Abbey this season. The only time The Assets comes alive is when the focus falls on the soon-to-be-notorious turncoat Ames, a compellingly twitchy Paul Rhys. It's all set in the Reagan '80s, which only makes us pine more ardently for the return next month (the same week Scandal is back) of FX's The Americans.
The Assets reduces the complex world of espionage to laughably simplistic terms: "We are both spies, and I caught you spying!" bellows a KGB brute to a captured agent. Nyet thanks.
ALL IN THE FAMILY:The Bravermans of NBC's Parenthood aren't so different from most families. Even when they grate on you, it's hard to give up on them. This season hasn't made it easy. First there was Kristina's (thankfully) unsuccessful, and dramatically middling, run for mayor, and then the show broke up Amber and Ryan yet again, after another violently contrived meltdown for the troubled Afghan War vet (who re-enlisted rather than work through his relationship issues with his emotionally shattered fiancée). While things aren't all well — what fun would that be? — for my favorite tear-jerking TV family as the show returns with its first new episode of 2014 (10/9c), things seem a bit more on track this week.
Zeek's (Craig T. Nelson) surprisingly poignant lonely bachelorhood, while Camille enjoys her artistic freedom in Italy, finally gets some company as he makes the acquaintance of a similarly curmudgeonly old coot at a diner (a nice guest turn by Paul Dooley). More comic relief of sorts as college freshman Drew (Miles Heizer, one of the ensemble's less celebrated secret weapons) finds himself at the center of an awkward triangle. And Sarah (Lauren Graham) learns not to judge a cad by his stripes when she accepts her neighbor Carl's (Josh Stamberg) invite to a posh event.
The sudsy low point arrives in the tiresomely angsty travails of Julia (Erika Christensen), whose friendship with single-dad Ed (David Denman) has crossed the line into unpleasant stalkerdom, causing further strife with her short-fused worker-bee husband Joel (Sam Jaeger). Still, this being Parenthood, a scene where she finally unloads her burden to brother Adam (Peter Krause) carries significant, and overdue, emotional weight. But the highlight of the episode involves Sarah's gruff ex-lover/boss Hank (Ray Romano), who begins to see himself reflected in his protégé Max (Max Burkholder), not always in flattering ways.
It's moments like these when you want to give these characters a hug — not that Hank, or Max, would ever let you.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: The lineups are all new on CBS, ABC and NBC. Some highlights: On Thursday's biggest hit, CBS's The Big Bang Theory, Penny drops a bombshell relationship question on Leonard after her NCIS guest gig goes south, while Sheldon (in his android Data mode) seeks to learn how to be funny. Maybe he could quiz his alter ego, Jim Parsons, on that one. ... Odette Annnable, who's showing some killer moves on the new season of Cinemax's Banshee (returning next Friday), guests on CBS's Two and a Half Men (9:31/8:31c) as Walden's former employee, who entices him with a new venture. ... Moriarty (Natalie Dormer) returns to CBS's Elementary (10:01/9:01c) to help Sherlock and Watson with a kidnapping case. Can she be trusted? ... Mike throws a party for Harris (Wendell Pierce) while wife Annie stages a slumber party at home on NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show (9:30/830c). ... ABC revives the cooking competition The Taste in a two-hour format (8/7c) — because the problem with these reality shows is they're just not long enough — with chef Marcus Samuelsson joining the panel of taste-making judge/mentors. ... From the online world, Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee vehicle starts a new season on Crackle (launches at noon/11c), with Louis C.K. as his first guest.