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Ed Martin

Ed Martin

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Spring Thaw 2011: Television Finally Comes to Life

Posted: 03/17/11 12:49 PM ET

Is April the new September?

To date, the 2010-11 television season has been a disappointing one, with the broadcasters failing to deliver a single new hit and the cable networks creatively under-performing, as well. The bright spots have been few and far between: FX's smart but sadly short-lived detective series Terriers; HBO's interesting but somewhat over-praised Prohibition-era mob drama Boardwalk Empire; AMC's gripping horror smash The Walking Dead; PBS' grandly entertaining period piece Downton Abbey; Starz' savage stunner Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, and Syfy's addictive Face Off (a formulaic but fun reality competition series that belongs alongside genre standouts Project Runway and Top Chef). In terms of raw numbers, the only new broadcast success has been NBC's legal drama Harry's Law, though most of its viewers are beyond the 18-49-year-olds over whom networks and advertisers salivate. Thank goodness CBS' irresistible The Good Wife and ABC's priceless Modern Family and recently revitalized Grey's Anatomy continue to prove that broadcast can deliver the same smart, sophisticated, and sometimes sizzling grown-up fare that basic cable does so well.

The official season may have been an only sporadically satisfying slog so far, but suddenly, with just over two months to go until expectations slide and the summer season begins, a host of uncommonly ambitious programs are about to make spring the new fall, or April the new September, as far as the television business goes. The best of the bunch is AMC's searing, gut-wrenching new crime drama, The Killing (premiering April 3). Just like Modern Family, a situation comedy about a family that is so fantastically fresh it seems to be the first of its kind, rather than the umpteen thousandth addition to its genre, The Killing soars way above the dozens of procedural crime dramas that have crowded network schedules in recent years. It's a season-long story about the devastating investigation into the brutal murder of a teenage girl and how her death impacts everyone involved. Mireille Enos, as the lead detective on the case, and Michelle Forbes, as the victim's grief-ravaged mother, deliver two of the best performances that will be seen on any screen this year.

Also worth getting excited about: Starz' Camelot (April 1), a surprisingly absorbing re-imagining of the tirelessly retold tale of Britain's legendary young king Arthur and the crafty sorcerer Merlin that manages to be both intimate and epic in its storytelling; HBO's Mildred Pierce (March 27), a mini-series adaptation of the James M. Cain novel (and 1945 movie melodrama) featuring a captivating performance by Academy Award-winner (and six-time Oscar nominee) Kate Winslet; Showtime's violent and sexy historical drama The Borgias (April 3), about the ruthless and powerful family that was at the forefront of the Italian Renaissance, starring Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons, and a tantalizing treat from PBS, Upstairs Downstairs (April 10), a multi-part sequel to the cherished early seventies saga, again starring Jean Marsh. Another spring stand-out is HBO's Cinema Verite, a scripted drama about the making of the first true observational reality series, PBS' 1973 phenomenon An American Family. (If HBO or PBS could acquire the original series, its rebroadcast would likely be one of the television events of this decade.)

The spring season will also bring NBC's telecast of the final season of Friday Night Lights (April 15), a deeply satisfying conclusion to one of the best drama series in television history, and the boldly timed launch (smack in the middle of the American Idol frenzy) of its ambitious new singing competition series The Voice (April 26); the return of Showtime's highly addictive Nurse Jackie (March 28), which picks up right where last season's shocking cliffhanger left off without skipping a beat, and the same network's always fascinating United States of Tara (also March 28); the sixth season of BBC America's superb science-fiction spectacle Doctor Who (April 23); and continued new episodes of two of basic cable's finest, both on FX -- the crime drama Justified, which remains as compelling as ever in its third season, and the wildly funny, unapologetically adult spy caper Archer, a clever cartoon that goes to a place this week and next where no animated series has gone before, as handsome, vainglorious, seemingly unstoppable secret agent Sterling Archer learns that he has breast cancer. In a striking display of smart writing, these episodes manage not to offend despite their sensitive subject matter, even as they maintain the series' signature giddy rude humor.

Lastly, ABC's Dancing with the Stars makes its welcome return next Monday and Tuesday (March 21 and 22). In tandem with Fox's nicely refreshed (if a little too sweet) American Idol, that will give us four nights a week of high profile live primetime entertainment programming until the end of the May sweeps period, which will do much to bring this sleepy season around.

 

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