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Television

As the seasons change, so does television (for the better)

Elizabeth Debicki and Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager. Photo: Mitch Jenkins / AMC / © 2016 AMC Network Entertainment

When I was a kid, there were only two TV seasons: one in the fall and one in the summer. After our favorite shows ran for 20-plus new episodes from September to May, we had nothing to divert us for four months other than reruns and summer replacement series — the latter being weak sauce indeed, except for rare exceptions that went on to unlikely ratings success and received fall renewals the following year. Yeah, we had it tough. How things have changed.

The proliferation of cable TV channels in all their varied genres and the recent rise of streaming services have dictated that new programming is being produced and released all year long. Shows are launched in the winter or spring, and some are better than what’s being shoveled at viewers in September. Thus, we had the February premiere of Fox’s comic book-inspired Lucifer — a jaunty, tongue-in-cheek cop show with a few differences: The partners on the beat are Chloe, a sexy single mother and former B-movie actress turned detective, and Lucifer Morningstar, the Devil himself, a horn-dog fallen angel and lord of hell who moved to Los Angeles for fun and decided to work as a police consultant because he has the hots for Chloe. It’s pulpy, off-the-wall and extremely diverting.

And BBC America’s addictive sci-fi drama Orphan Black came back a few weeks ago for a fourth set of episodes with its intricate story of clones under siege and more chances to marvel at the phenomenal skill of Tatiana Maslany, whose performances of around a dozen different characters (so far) are each distinct and believable.

But those are just two of the viewing options that aren’t adhering to the old model.

CABLE TAKES THE LEAD

Following cable’s lead, American broadcast networks are now trying the European model of short-run serialized shows that are not strictly miniseries, rather they are open-ended with cliff-hanging season finales. The days of padding out an annual slate of two-dozen episodes with filler are still with us on popular procedurals and sitcoms. But leaner higher-quality offerings are being given deserved airtime. So are a few guilty pleasures such as these:

The Catch, ABC’s recently introduced blend of romance and cat-and-mouse criminal hijinks from Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers;

Legends of Tomorrow, the CW’s latest spinoff from the DC Comics universe that spawned the channel’s mainstays, Arrow and The Flash; and

Wayward Pines, last year’s M. Night Shyamalan-produced adaptation of a mystery-laden, dystopian sci-fi book series, which will return for a second round of 10 episodes starting May 25 on Fox.

Pure entertainment aside, the new multiplatform paradigm allows for many more prestige projects to be aired. For instance, summer notwithstanding, winter is coming. At least that’s what we’ve been told if we’re fans of the most cinematic, spectacular television series to ever bounce off the satellites: Game of Thrones, based on author George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series. The sixth run of episodes in the big-budget fantasy epic premiered April 24, and will run for 10 episodes, ending June 26.

‘NIGHT’ RISES TO GREAT HEIGHTS

That brings me to one of the finest televised dramas I’ve seen in at least a decade: The Night Manager, a six-part miniseries based on the 1993 best seller by consummate spy novelist John le Carré, and artfully directed by the accomplished Danish director Susanne Bier (the foreign film Oscar winner In a Better World).

Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Avengers, I Saw the Light) stars as a former military man turned Cairo hotel concierge who finds himself embroiled in the unsavory doings of a vile arms dealer played, against jocular type, by Hugh Laurie (House, Jeeves & Wooster). Meanwhile, a marginalized, blue-collar case officer at a division of Britain’s MI-6 secret service recruits the concierge to try and bring down the arms dealer.

The Night Manager is a co-production of the BBC in the U.K., where it was shown a couple of months ago, and AMC in the U.S., where it debuted on April 19. How good is it? The script is eloquent and politically astute, befitting a le Carré tale. The actors, including the versatile Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Peep Show) as the beleaguered MI-6 officer and the sylph-like Elizabeth Debicki as the arms dealer’s mistress, are uniformly wonderful. The international settings from Egypt to the Alps to Spain and beyond are exquisite and beautifully filmed, and the tension is ongoing. Once you start watching it, it’s hard to stop: As soon as an episode is over, you may be desperate for the next one. If you didn’t get on board when the series started on AMC, it’s recommended that you catch it on a streaming service or DVD, where there will be no commercials slowing down the action.

STREAMING ON

Speaking of streaming services, Netflix already released the second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey’s wry, occasionally silly, pleasantly upbeat sitcom about a guileless young woman (Ellie Kemper) who moves to Manhattan after being imprisoned by a loony cult leader for years. And September will bring Luke Cage, the next Netflix entry in Marvel’s gritty, interlocked assortment of more realistic superhero shows.

I could wax on about other favorites:

  • Archer, the edgy, witty animated half-hour about a self-destructive super spy-turned-P.I., its seventh season currently in progress on FX;
  • Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s elegant, literary-minded Goth-horror excursion heading into a third go-round starting May 1; and
  • Ray Donovan, the dark crime drama starring Liev Schreiber as a morally conflicted Hollywood fixer, husband, and father who can’t escape his rough Boston upbringing, returning to Showtime for Season 3 at the end of June.

I could also lament that the last 10 episodes of the brilliant, prescient cyber-thriller Person of Interest will begin May 3 on CBS with no chance of renewal after they’re done. Or I can just turn on the HD monitor, the DVR, or the laptop and be grateful that television is no longer a vast wasteland from May to September.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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