It’s fair to assume that most wired-in people have at least one or two favorite primetime television shows that demand a weekly watch. I’ve heard the phrase “appointment TV” applied to those programs, most of which are serialized on high-end elective cable outlets, such as Game of Thrones on HBO. But a few of my must-sees are defying that convention and are actually on regular old network television or basic cable. And this is in an era when the opportunity to binge a series on streaming sites has changed video viewing habits.
The television landscape continues to evolve with more and more broadcast and cable channels getting into short-run narratives — many with feature film quality cinematography and art direction reflecting the standards of the upper-echelon pay-per-view outlets that have long dealt in what’s now labeled “prestige TV.” Throw in quality actors, screenwriters, and directors, and the result is a mini-revolution that dispenses with the longtime American series television conventions of 20-plus episode seasons.
THE SPREAD OF PRESTIGE
Behold the miracle of The Good Place — an unexpectedly canny, reliably funny, occasionally sweet, and constantly surprising investigation of the afterlife via the postmortem escapades of four wildly flawed people. The fact that it’s been on NBC in a carefully constructed and limited 13-episode-per-season run with an endgame in sight seriously expands the notion of the primetime sitcom.
On the drama side, no one had ever seen an ongoing TV series as complex and reflective of the economic, political, and psychological damage wrought on modern society by digital technology until Mr. Robot debuted on USA Network.
Prestige-wise, it would be hard to top AMC’s two superb co-productions with the BBC that adapted the John le Carré espionage best sellers The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
These shows are all serialized. In other words, if you’re interested in watching any of them, you need to start at the beginning. That’s certainly the case with two of my current pet programs. One is The Passage, an addictive mix of science-fiction and horror running Monday nights on Fox with a handful of episodes to go before it wraps up its maiden season. The other series that has captured my undivided attention on a weekly basis is I Am the Night, a film noir-ish dramatization of a troubled young woman’s life in mid-1960s Los Angeles as she searches for information about her family. And it’s on basic TNT, best-known for its pro basketball coverage.
A PASSAGE TO HORROR
Like a number of movie franchises and contemporary television offerings, The Passage is based on a best-selling novel. To be more precise, it’s dramatizing the first part of a trilogy about the repercussions of a worldwide pandemic when experiments by U.S. government-sanctioned doctors and scientists in a secret facility inadvertently infect a handful of people with a sort of vampire virus. Humanity’s only hope seems to be a girl named Amy who might be immune to the monstrous effects of the virus.
Amy, played with a great deal of maturity by 12-year-old Saniyya Sidney, falls in with Brad Wolgast — a noble FBI agent willing to disobey orders to protect the girl and try to stop the contagion. The role of Wolgast is well handled by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, decades removed from his boyhood years as Zack on the kid-com Saved by the Bell, and the ever-likable actor’s wonderful chemistry with young Sidney is the heart of The Passage. The rest of a sizeable ensemble does right by the unsettling premise. For the record, the show is executive executive-produced by Ridley Scott who, as the director of Alien and Blade Runner, knows a few things about sci-fi.
NIGHT FALLS AND RISES
I Am the Night is another adaptation and also one with an impressive pedigree. Here, the source material is Fauna Hodel’s memoir. Her adoptive single mother, an African-American, always told her she was biracial, but the teenage Fauna discovers there’s much more to her ancestry than she was led to believe. In the process of finding her wealthy white grandfather, Hodel crosses paths with Jay Singletary, a down-on-his-luck newspaper journalist whose abortive investigation into the notorious Black Dahlia murder derailed his career a few years earlier. The possible connections between Hodel and the Black Dahlia make for some juicy storytelling that should reach a crescendo with the sixth and final episode of this limited series on Monday, March 4.
Blockbuster star Chris Pine (Star Trek, Wonder Woman) is cast against type yet right on the money as the seedy Singletary; and dewy-eyed India Eisley is quite affecting as the tormented Hodel. Plus, the project was overseen by Patty Jenkins during a break between directing the box-office smash Wonder Woman and its upcoming sequel. The success of Jenkins’ superhero movie just may have expedited the making of this dark, memorable excursion into the sordid underbelly of postwar Los Angeles. As a film noir buff, I’ve looked forward to each installment of I Am the Night, but to be honest, it will be a great show to binge for those who missed it the first time around.