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First, And Second, Impressions of Some New, and Returning, Fall Series
October 1, 2011  | By Theresa Corigliano
 
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This fall TV season has been particularly disillusioning. Could every single show I watched be as bad as it seemed? Was I tired? Cranky? Distracted? Second viewings of almost everything told the sad truth. Other than a few shows, there was nothing that was must-see, must-follow -- and that's the equivalent of a Red Sox 0-and-10 start. It's just not right.

Which is why it was a happy accident that I recently watched previews of American Horror Story, Homeland, Bedlam, Luther, and 24 Hours in the ER all in one sitting -- and not because everything was a home run. More because I was reminded of what works, and what doesn't. Watching these shows helped me to rack focus, and remind me of what I love about television, even with a bad start to the season...

Leading off is American Horror Story (premiering Wed., Oct 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX), from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk of Glee. The same thing that's been wrong with that singing show lately is what's wrong with this family-buys-a-haunted-house-they-shouldn't series. It's a mess.

A riveting new vision that redefines a genre? Despite the FX promo promises, not exactly true. There's a beckoning basement (what's new about that?), a little girl offering an "everyone who goes into this house dies there" mantra (which brings to mind the infinitely more creepy "Someone's at the door" refrain from the truly original CBS series American Gothic).

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Pluses: the wonderful Connie Britton; Dylan McDermott, more underdressed than the bunnies on NBC's Playboy Club; the talented and underrated Taissa Farmiga (Up in the Air actress Vera Farmiga's younger sister), who plays their daughter; and an over-the-top creepy Jessica Lange, who seems to be out of sync with the rest of the cast.

Even though the first two episodes are intermittently shivery and, at worst, violently pornographic, I want to give American Horror Story another shot to scare me the right way. My Rx? Murphy and Falchuk, please revisit two black-and-white, honest to goodness terror fests: The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, and The Haunting, starring Julie Harris. Modulate accordingly.

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Modulation is also at the heart, or the lack thereof, of NBC's Prime Suspect (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET), starring Mario Bello (at right). To get what I mean, simply watch or re-watch Helen Mirren in the British miniseries of the same name, and you will see precisely what American TV does not get about British drama.

The creative team that gave life to Mirren's Jane Tennison was not afraid to make her unattractive and cold. They wrote about misogyny at the workplace with dialogue that was sneaky, like a shiv to the gut. There was no need to yell. Points were made, in the dismissive flick of a look, or a nasty, cowardly aside.

The creases at her tight mouth from chain-smoking, heavy drinking and the sheer effort of holding her head above water is what made Tennison indelible -- not, as in the American version, the decision to wear a silly hat on her head to show how mavericky she is.

The truth is, Maria Bello is a fine actress who needs no tricks to be believable as a NYC detective. She just needs the producers to believe in her.

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Homeland (premiering Sunday, Oct. 2, at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime) is, simply put, the best new show of the season. Period. It's too good to TiVo, because you will not want to wait to watch it.

Executive producer Howard Gordon, of 24 and The X Files, is a storyteller. He knows that in good drama, less is often more, and makes your heart pound all the harder. A look often says what a page of bad dialogue cannot, and Gordon's team has chosen the actors who know how to communicate in any way the taut scripts ask.

Damian Lewis, the accomplished British actor who gave life to Major Dick Winters in HBO's indelible Band of Brothers, is the POW returned home after eight years of isolation and torture.

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His family thought he was dead; the CIA agent played by the high wire act that is Clare Danes thinks he's been turned, and is determined to prove it, at any cost.

Her mentor and handler at the agency is Mandy Patinkin, who has taken a page from the David Caruso acting book. Patinkin has left his trademark histrionics behind to go way under with this character. I like the choice, but here's hoping it's not going to be "small ball" every week. Quiet can indeed be scary, but from the looks of Danes' issues in the first three episodes, we will forgive Mandy an explosion here and there.

Another plus: David Marciano, who never got enough credit for the balance he provided in Paul Haggis' Due South. For a time, Marciano left the acting business, but I'm glad to see him back, even in a smaller supporting role as Danes' right hand.

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And then there is the second season of Luther (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET, BBC America).

Idris Alba is mesmerizing as the detective who does nothing by the book, and he is what makes this is a superb cop drama. Okay, sometimes he seems like some kind of crime-fighting savant, but don't we all want to believe that's what sets the good coppers apart? They just know. The most interesting thing about the first two episodes of this season's Luther, featuring a truly horrific and sadistic murderer, is how many times I gasped out loud in fear -- a reaction American Horror Story wanted to elicit, but didn't.

You might remember Alba for his searing performance as drug lord Stringer Bell in HBO's The Wire. Technically, Luther is not a new show, but it might be new to you. You need not have seen Season 1 to dive into this year's episodes, but even more good news: Season 1 can be, and should be, downloaded or rented. Or you can buy it HERE.

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Bedlam, BBC America's newest spookfest (premiering Saturday, Oct. 1, at 10 p.m. ET) does not come close to trumping its other superlative vampire/werewolf/ghost drama, Being Human. I used the latter as the yardstick for the former, and Bedlam simply does not deliver, no matter how pretty and broody the cast, how whoo-whoo the effects. It takes place in a haunted condo complex, and by the time I got to the third episode, I was yelling at the screen: Move out already!

Finally, I cannot thank BBC America enough for their documentary series 24 Hours in the ER (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET). This program is moving beyond words.

I was a devoted viewer of the ABC docs that ran a while back, two set at Johns Hopkins, and most recently, Boston Med. These were reality shows that triumphed, and they didn't get the coverage or credit they earned, being light on housewives in the storytelling area, I guess.

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This new imported series covers any given day in London's King's College Hospital's Accident and Emergency Room, one of the busiest in the UK. The POVs of the patients, doctors, and nurses are honest, revelatory, insightful and life-affirming. The ER is, as the opening voice-over puts it, a place where love, life and death unfold every day.

Adds a nurse: "Everyone should walk through an emergency room once in their lives, because it makes you realize what your priorities are... It's the people you love, and the fact that one minute they might be there and one minute they might be gone."

The damaged citizens who are brought in after the red trauma phone rings in the ER will break your heart. The ones who survive will surprise you, and the ones who do not will remain in your thoughts for days after. My guess is you will hug your nearest loved one after watching -- and there aren't many shows that will inspire that kind of wake-up call.

 
 
 
 
 
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