Winter TV Roundup, Week 3

The weather outside remains frightful, but the options on the small screen are delightful, and plentiful. In these weekly posts I look at new scripted series this winter, reviewing the pilot and second episode. Don't see a new show listed below? Check previous weeks.

Tuesday Nights:
Taboo, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX (Debuted January 10)
About: This latest FX drama stars Tom Hardy, who also serves as a producer. It's set in 1814 in England, and surrounds the son of a deceased shipping merchant who inherits a piece of land to go along with the flailing family business. This piece of land is in high demand from the United States and England, particularly the East India Trading Company, who want to use it to gain control over Vancouver. That all sounds a little more straightforward than the show is. The show is moody, creepy and, at times, weird. And of course Hardy plays right into that, having helped craft the story with his father, Chips Hardy. At first I didn't know what to make of it. And while I won't claim to love the show, the pilot hooked me about half way through and had me pretty drawn into the story and characters by the ending. It's even hinting at something between Hardy's character and his half sister, played by Oona Chaplin. Jonathan Pryce also fills out the cast. It wasn't incredible, but it was engaging and different. I'm curious to see where "Taboo" is headed.
Pilot Grade: B

Wednesday Nights:
Jeff and Some Aliens, Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central (Premiered January 11)
About: This is the latest series from Comedy Central, and animated farce about an extremely average guy who becomes the focus of an alien landing party, and all they try to understand about earth. It was, in a word, awful. I didn't think it was funny or interesting, and it was certainly odd and gross. There's probably an audience for this, but I'm certainly not it.
Pilot Grade: D-

Sunday Nights:
Victoria, Sundays at 8 p.m. on PBS (Premiered January 15)
About: This new PBS series debuted on Sunday in America, but had a fall run in England. It stars Jenna Coleman — most famous for her role on "Dr. Who" — as the titular Queen Victoria, and follows her early rule and its pitfalls and successes. Since this was previously released in England, I was able to see the first two episodes already though only the pilot has aired. Stories of the British monarchy are always interesting to Americans and the British alike, and a similar style story debuted on Netflix this fall in "The Crown," which chronicles the early days of Queen Elizabeth II. While that show was incredibly well done (and one of my picks for best series in 2016), "Victoria" is a bit more stodgy and formal. And, to this point, I don't like the characters as well. I still like it, and it has enough Upstairs/Downstairs intrigue to fill the "Downton Abbey" size hole in our hearts, but it's not as good as that show, either. It's got interesting characters, follows an interesting time in history and is well done. It feels like the perfect addition to the PBS cannon.
Pilot Grade: C+
Second Episode: C+

The Young Pope, Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO (Premiered January 15)
About: This is another series that's a European co-production that has already aired elsewhere. HBO is billing the series — which stars Jude Law as a 47-year-old American who ascends to the role of Pope — as an event series. It's airing new episodes on both Sundays and Mondays, and consequently the first two episodes aired over the long weekend. The series comes from famed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, and is meant to be provocative. And it is. The series co-stars Diane Keaton as a nun who has some kind of deeper connection to the young Pope, and soon becomes his right-hand woman, which is a break with tradition. Through two episodes, though, it's a bit hard to see what the Pope's motivations and true plans are. He seems like a schemer. The show also has a hard time with theology and the depiction of the people of the Catholic Church. Though not Catholic myself, I'd imagine if I was one of the faithful I'd be disappointed with the way the Vatican and higher offices of the church are portrayed. In fact, the second episode closes with the Pope's first public address, which is dour to say the least. There's some potential here, and it's got a good cast, but I just couldn't get into this series, which is often weird and a bit hard to follow.
Pilot Grade: C
Second Episode: C-

Streaming Series:
A Series of Unfortunate Events, Now Streaming on Netflix (Debuted January 13)
About: This latest Netflix series has been incredibly hyped. It's based on the children's books from Lemony Snicket, and was once a theatrical film starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. In the televised version, Neil Patrick Harris takes the role in this eight-episode first season. The story follows the Baudelaire children who are orphaned when their parents perish in a fire and are sent to live with Count Olaf. He's a terrible guardian who just wants to find a way to steal their fortune. And, of course, there's more going on here than meets the eye. Patrick Warburton stars as Snicket, who is narrating the tale, and the cast includes veteran performers like Joan Cusack as well. It was developed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Wild Wild West," "Men In Black"), who directed four of the eight episodes. Sonnenfeld gives it a cartoon vibe, and really works on sets and colors to help the series pop. It reminded me of a show I loved, "Pushing Daisies," though geared more for families than that series. There's a dry humor here, and there's plenty of inside jokes for adults as well as stories that younger viewers will latch onto. This is a big swing and hit for Netflix, which may have found a different kind of signature series for its brand.
Pilot Grade: B-
Second Episode: B-

Sneaky Pete, Now Streaming on Amazon Prime (Debuted January 13)
About: "Sneaky Pete" was created by Bryan Cranston and David Shore, originally aimed at being a series for CBS. When CBS passed, Amazon was only too happy to jump on board, and the full first season dropped Friday. The series stars Giovanni Ribisi as a con-man who steals the narrative of his cell mate and slips into his life when he gets out. He "re-unites" with his family, who his cell mate hadn't seen in more than 20 years, and quickly slips into the family Bail Bond business. The family includes Margo Martindale and Marin Ireland. But the thing is, Ribisi can't quite escape his old life, and the $100,000 debt he owes to a gangster named Vince (Cranston). The pilot — which was originally shot for CBS — lays out the characters and world, but had a bit of formulaic vibe. The second episode, written by new show runner Graham Yost ("Justified") felt a bit weirded, and a lot more fun. This is a show that's blessed with a great cast and a lot of possibilities. It will be fun to see where it goes. After two episodes, I like the idea quite a bit.
Pilot Grade: B
Second Episode: B+


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