Spring TV Roundup, Week 6

May is here, Spring is leaving, and Summer TV is coming. It's a time when networks are wrapping up the season, preparing to launch the hype train for the fall, and rolling out tons of game shows and reality series. But there are still new scripted series debuting as well. In these weekly posts I look at the pilot and second episode of new scripted series this Spring. Don't see a new show listed below? Check previous weeks.

Tuesday Nights:
Genius, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel (Premiered April 25)
About: This docudrama about Albert Einstien , portrayed both as the famed professor (Geoffrey Rush) and a young man trying to make a name for himself (Johnny Flynn), has been hyped for a while. A number of ads aired during the Super Bowl, despite the fact the show didn't premier until Tuesday. This continues the foray into scripted fare for the NatGeo channel, and this is probably one of their most high profile projects. In addition to Rush, the cast includes Emily Watson and TV vets T.R. Knight and Seth Gabel. But I thought the first episode was dry and hard to ease into. The characters weren't well defined, nor was the narrative focus. Perhaps that will improve, but the pilot didn't pull me into the world.
Pilot Grade: C-

Great News, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Premiered April 25)
About: NBC has been dumping its mid-season comedies in rapid-fire chunks this Spring. In March, they dropped "Trial & Error," which has already completed its 13-episode run. Now, NBC is releasing "Great News," which debuted with back-to-back new episodes on April 25 and will continue to do that throughout its run. The show comes from Tracey Wigfield, who worked on "30 Rock" and "The Mindy Project," and the show is produced by Tina Fey. I wanted to like it. The series follows a neurotic news producer (Briga Heelan) whose mother (Andrea Martin) becomes a station intern. Plus there's plenty of wacky co-workers, played by John Michael Higgins, Nicole Ritchie and Horatio Sanz. The pilot was terminally awkward, and the second episode wasn't any better. This wants to be "30 Rock," but it's not nearly at that level. I like the cast, but the writing and production feels forced. This feels like a comedy a network might regret picking up and would unceremoniously burn off during the Spring doldrums.
Pilot Grade: D
Second Episode: D

Wednesday Nights:
Fargo, Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on F/X (Premiered April 19)
About: This anthology series is in its third season. Each season features a new crime story with a new set of characters and new cast. This installment is headlined by Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ewan McGreggor, in a dual role. It takes place in Minnesota in 2010, and the first episode outlined the characters and the crimes that set things in motion. I liked the pilot a lot. I thought it was nearly pitch perfect. The second episode, by contrast, was a bit slower. I didn't enjoy the characters or beats as much, though I think it's still a very good season. The second episode didn't live up to the pilot quite as well, but this is still one of the better shows on TV.
Pilot Grade: A
Second Episode: B

Sunday Nights:
American Gods, Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz (Premiered April 30)
This long gestating series from creator Bryan Fuller and based on the novel by Neil Gaiman finally debuted on Starz on Sunday night. Those familiar with the source material were probably curious to see how the world would be created. I'll admit, I have no background with the book. But as a fan of Fuller and his unique style, I wanted to see the show. If you weren't familiar with the story, watching the pilot would feel a lot like being dropped in the middle of the ocean. There's a lot happening here, and not a lot of it is explicitly explained. I'm sure more of that comes later. But for now, viewers are dropped into the strange, sad saga of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a convict released from prison, dealing with the death of his wife, who is pulled in to work for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). If you're a fan of Fuller's previous work, specifically the stylized violence from "Hannibal," you'll see some familiar hallmarks here. Even among pay cable networks Starz has been known for its extreme scenes of sex and violence, and that's certainly the case here. The pilot episode featured plenty of both, and that could be the template moving forward. I read one review that suggested that the plot for the show might have been a mystery, but it was beautiful to watch. That's certainly true. I love Fuller's unique visual style, and there were some good performances here, but it was a weird hour to watch. Still, I'm curious to see how it evolves, and if it becomes another signature series for Starz as it looks to compete with the likes of HBO, Showtime, AMC and F/X among premium cable sites.
Pilot Grade: C

Mary Kills People, Sundays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime (Premiered April 23)
About: This Canadian co-production is now a third of the way through its six-episode first season. Caroline Dhavernas plays the lead, a doctor who moonlights as an angel of mercy to help pay the bills. This is an important topic, and one that's been oft debated in our culture. The show doesn't seem so much interested in that as in creating a hybrid soap opera/procedural where Mary has "cases" of the week while trying to get her personal life together and stay one step ahead of the police who are investigating her. I thought the pilot had some compelling moments, but the second episode was less interesting and spent less time developing characters. This is an interesting idea, and I like Dhavernas, but the show is pretty plain.
Pilot Grade: C
Second Episode: C

Streaming Series:
Dear White People, Now Streaming on Netflix (Premiered April 28)
About: In 2014, writer/director Justin Simien delivered a cultural satire called "Dear White People." The film became a cult hit and developed a following. Now, three years later, Simien is expanding that story, world, and characters with a series of the same name for Netflix. This is a series that deals with racial identity, racism, cultural identity, sexual identity, and a variety of other topics, taking each episode from the point-of-view of a different character and who they intersect with a key event, a "blackface" Halloween party on a college campus. This is a perfect example of the greatness of the peak TV era we find ourselves in, which allows people with different voices to craft niche entertainment and have a platform to get that out to people. I thought the first two episodes I watched were well made with defined character, but it didn't appeal to my personal tastes. That won't be true of everyone, as some might be more drawn to the provocative and engaging themes here. And that's great. This is the kind of show that finds home when we have more than 500 original scripted series in 2017. If you liked the film, or have a passion for these issues and this perspective, this is worth checking out.
Pilot Grade: B-
Second Episode: C+

The Handmaid's Tale, Now Streaming on Hulu (Premiered April 26)
About: Based on the novel from Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale" is a dystopic tale about a world very different from our own. A religious, male-dominated totalitarian regime has taken over the United States, and oppression and bondage run rampant. At the same time, fertility issues on a massive scale have left those able to give birth in high demand. But they're not free. The "Handmaids," whose title is drawn from a Bible reference in Genesis, are women capable of giving birth that are essentially slaves. They're assigned to the houses of the community leaders, serving simply as birthing slaves who are there just to provide children for these leaders barren wives. That's the case with Offred (Elizabeth Moss), who can't help but remember the time before when she had a partner, a daughter, and a life she loved. Now she's a slave for The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). He one duty is to produce a child and not to ask questions. The first three episodes were made available last Wednesday, with new episodes dropping subsequent Wednesdays the next seven weeks. The cast is strong, and includes Alexis Bledel, Max Minghella and Ann Dowd. I will say a couple things about this show. First, I don't think it paints a very favorable depiction of religion, especially Christianity. It feels like a story that means to condemn certain tenets of faith and to preach equality, issues that were probably more timely when the novel was originally written. That will be a turn off to many. It's a show that implies devote Christians are hatemongers who don't hold women in high regard. I feel like that is espousing a certain kind of prejudice as well, but, again, that's a matter of personal taste and belief. So this show isn't for everyone. Second, I would say this show is a profound bummer to this point. The story and material are dark and unsettling. The first three episodes have been dour, to say the least, and not being familiar with the source material, it's hard to see this lightening up any time soon. So be prepared. Aside from that, this is a well-made series. But, again, it certainly isn't for everyone.
Pilot Grade: C
Second Episode: C+


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