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Five New Shows Premiere Sunday, Ranging from Excellent to Excrement
January 7, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

TV's traditional start-of-the-year dormant period is officially over. This Sunday, five new shows premiere -- two that are excellent, one that is very good, one that is not very good, and one that is horrid. On the high end of the spectrum, there's the fabulous Downton Abbey on PBS's Masterpiece Classic and the surprisingly clever Episodes, starring Matt LeBlanc, on Showtime.

On the other end, there's the new Fox animated series Bob's Burgers, which is completely indigestible...

On today's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR, I preview three of the shows -- Downton Abbey, Episodes, and Showtime's Shameless, a dark comedy starring William H. Macy -- and play clips from the first two. You can listen to the show today (I'm guest hosting), or catch it online after about 3 p.m. today by clicking HERE.

But here, for TV WORTH WATCHING, is a rundown of all five Sunday shows, in descending order of quality.

Downton Abbey -- (PBS, 9 p.m. ET, on Masterpiece Classic; check local listings). This imported miniseries, running Sundays in January, is both a throwback and an advance, with both a nod and a wink to the opulent miniseries of yore, like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs, Downstairs.


Like those classic old miniseries, Downton Abbey revels in its sense of place. The Abbey itself is a major character, with its gorgeous interiors and sensually photographed exteriors feeling some some sort of architectural porn. The lushness of its setting (and this miniseries), with its fox hunts and butlered breakfasts, seems even more remotely lavish than when British TV used to make these sorts of dramas all the time. And the twist, this time, is that the lords of the manor are in financial difficulties themselves, and struggling to maintain the lifetstyle to which they have become accustomed -- and which, in British society, defines them completely.

Hugh Bonneville plays the Earl of the manor, who decades ago married a wealthy American (Elizabeth McGovern) in a sort of title-for-cash deal. A generation later, with three grown daughters of varying eligibiity, the Earl is in danger of losing everything. Meanwhile, the service staff -- the downstairs half of this upstairs/downstairs equation -- has troubles of its own, ranging from hidden pasts to ambitious futures.

Characters are intelligently and craftily delineated and fleshed out. The teleplay is by Julian Fellowes, who gave us the movie Gosford Park -- and the cast includes some reliable British treasures, such as Maggie Smith and Jim Carter. And the plot twists, in Downton Abbey, are often startlingly twisted. Set in the early 20th century, this miniseries is both delightfully old-fashioned and delectably fresh.

Episodes -- (Showtime, 9:30 p.m. ET). Here's the biggest surprise of the bunch. This new comedy, starring Matt LeBlanc of Friends as an exaggerated version of himself, isn't just passably amusing. Every episode, it's laugh-out-loud funny and "no-they-didn't" surprising. A week into 2011, it's the best new series of the year -- and when the year ends, that praise may well hold up.


Episodes is co-created by David Crane (of Friends fame, putting LeBlanc in very trusted hands) and Jeffrey Klarik, and imagines that a married British TV writing duo is wooed by an American network executive to come to America and adapt their award-winning sitcom for the U.S. The original series is about a middle-aged British headmaster -- but as the American suits begin meddling, it becomes another animal entirely, with TV's former Joey attached as the lead.

The imported British TV writers -- Stephen Mangan as Sean, and especially Tamsin Grieg as Beverly -- are the true stars of Episodes. She's hilarious, which comes as a huge shock if you know her only, say, as Edith Frank from TV's recent remake of The Diary of Anne Frank. But everything that happens in Episodes is a hoot. It's as smart as Modern Family, as sly as Curb Your Enthusiasm -- and, for LeBlanc, not only a career resurgence, but a career high. He's fabulous in this.


Shameless -- (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET). This sitcom really IS based on a British series -- one starring David Threlfall, who astonished me almost 30 years ago as poor Smike in TV's brilliant staging of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. For the States, the actor starring as the alcoholic, brutally unreliable single father of six kids is William H. Macy, who has enough residual good will and bold acting moves to carry it off.

But it's Emmy Rossum, as his eldest daughter, who not only steals the early shows, but dominates them. Shameless is like Dickens writ modern, with all the kids scrambling like 21st-century urchins to con everyone around them and raise enough money to survive, somehow. It's a very dark show, and creator Paul Abbott -- who wrote the original British version as well, and also wrote the brilliant U.K. television versions of Cracker and State of Play -- likes it that way. Chances are you will, too.


The Cape -- (NBC, 9 p.m. ET). Now we're on the not-very-good side of the ledger. I have a fondness for caped crimefighter shows, but this one starts out so slowly, murkily and unexcitedly, I just about gave up.

The only high point in Sunday's two-hour premiere is a brief scene in which Summer Glau, as the high-tech assistant to David Lyons' newly masked Cape, goes undercover as a food critic. And maybe that's just me projecting. (Or maybe it's the black wig.)

Bob's Burgers -- (Fox, 8:30 p.m. ET). Just as Episodes may still be the best new series of 2011 when the year is through, this Fox animated comedy may stand, after 51 more weeks, as the year's worst.


"There's a line between entertaining and annoying," Bob tells his son at one point in Sunday's premiere. "No ," the son replies. "That's a myth."

No, it's not. But Bob's Burgers definitely IS a show to myth. Its jokes are so crude, they make Andrew Dice Clay seem like Noel Coward. To repeat them would only give them more weight than they're worth. If Bob's Burger's were an actual fast-food product, the FDA would ban it.

Meanwhile, I will.


1 Comment


Nathan said:

This is just nit picking, but Downton Abbey isn't a miniseries, its a series, with more seasons on their way (the last episode has some cliff hanger elements that would be pretty unsatisfying if you thought it was the absolute end of the story). It's also the best new show of 2010, in my opinion, even if it isn't airing in the US until 2011.

Comment posted on January 9, 2011 5:19 PM
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I searched your site for any Bob's Burgers references. (I hear this site mentioned on fresh air, but I don't have cable - mostly, it seems, you like cable - so I never bothered dropping by)
Have you given that show another chance? My question, I guess, is answered by the fact that this is the only post I found. I find it funny.
May 19, 2013   |  Reply
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