In 1929, the first experimental television station went on the air. Known by the catchy call letters W2XBS (subsequently dumbed down by the marketing swine to WNBC), it initially aired nothing but a daily two-hour telecast of a Felix the Cat doll spinning on a phonograph turntable.
I mention this because that W2XBS rollout was superior in every way to the first week of the 2013-14 fall season, which is now mercifully behind us. But as the second week gets under way, there are finally some shows worth watching. From pathos to paranoia, hilarity to Hannibal Lecter Lite, Monday night’s three premieres have something for everybody.
The best of the bunch — one of the best two or three shows of the new season — is CBS’ Mom, from the production team of Chuck Lorre, the guy behind Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Like them, Mom — which stars Anna Faris as a beleaguered and nearly broken single mother — is a veritable free-fire zone of lethally funny one-liners. But beneath the armor plating of punch lines beats a wounded and affecting heart.
Faris, best known to television audiences for her role as the space-cadet unwed mother who gave up her baby to Monica and Chandler in the final season of Friends, plays Christy, a kind of flesh-and-blood instructional book on how young women can ruin their lives: a recovering alcoholic who got pregnant in high school and now is barely keeping a roof over her head, stuck in a dead-end affair with her married boss in a job she hates. Reallllly hates. To a customer who orders pounded capon with lemon grass and thyme, she whispers, “You know that’s a castrated chicken they beat with a hammer?”
Frenetic, wisecracking single moms are not exactly a new TV genre; if One Day at a Time did a reunion show, Bonnie Franklin’s whiny kids would be grandmothers. But what sets Mom apart is its aching recognition that family dysfunction often follows a multigenerational template. Christy’s passive-aggressive mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), was also a teenage casualty of life in the fast lane, and her sullenly rebellious daughter, Violet (Sadie Calvan, ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey), is setting off the same alarms.
Though June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson left the building long ago, Mom is still a radical departure from the standard broadcast network approach to family sitcoms. It is acidly funny even its most painful moments (Christy: “I’ve watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet!” Bonnie: “It’s not a sin to be thrifty, dear.”) But the comedy is dark, often agonized and sometimes even tinged with self-loathing, as Christy recognizes that her worst fear has come true twice: Another daughter has turned into her mother.
The characters in CBS’ Hostages and NBC’s The Black List have concerns less sociological and more immediately pragmatic, like, are those terrorists shooting at me? Both shows feature John Q. Public protagonists who find themselves, suddenly and unwittingly, pawns of power players in grand political conspiracies.
In Hostages, the unlucky centerpiece is Washington, D.C., surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), scheduled to perform a relatively routine operation on the president. The night before, however, her family is taken hostage by gunmen led by rogue FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott), who orders Sanders to kill the president during the surgery.
The confrontation between the steely Sanders and the ruthless Carlisle is rivetingly taut. But the background intrigue ratchets up Hostages to a truly fierce intensity. Both the FBI conspiracy and the Sanders family are riven with secrets that start unraveling as the pressure builds. Lean and mean, Hostages is an exquisitely heart-pounding piece of work. The only possible criticism is: How do you sustain this over 18 episodes, much less future seasons?
The Blacklist isn’t short on tension, by any means, but its fascination lies in its two quirky lead characters, novice FBI profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone , Law & Order: Los Angeles) and turncoat criminal mastermind Red Reddington (James Spader).
Reddington was a top government official before switching sides, selling classified information to terrorists and brokering deals for organized crime. Now he has returned, walking into FBI headquarters and offering to help catch a notorious terrorist. The catch: He’ll deal only with Keen, a rookie literally on her first day at work, even though the two have no known connection.
If this sounds more than mildly reminiscent of the cannibal madman Hannibal Lecter and his less-than-willing FBI protégé Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, that’s because it is. But as rip-offs (or, more politely, homages) go, The Black List is pretty good — much better than NBC’s own Lecter prequel series, Hannibal.
The delectably weird relationship between the by-the-book loner Keen (“My colleagues call me sir. They think I am, uh, a bitch.”) and the avuncular (in an Uncle Fester sort of way) Reddington develops in fits and starts in a post-9/11 world filled with savage terrorists and remorseless cops.
Keen reluctantly accepts the coaching of the criminal wise man who assures her that “everything about me is a lie.” But she also keeps looking for clues in her own troubled past that might explain his interest. That may not be wise. As one of Clarice Starling’s bosses warned her, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.