Television networks have always used Sunday nights for their “quality” programs – movies-of-the-week, mini-series, The Wonderful World of Disney, Hallmark specials, 60 Minutes, etc. So, it’s unsurprising that Sunday is the preferred night for cable channels to premiere their prestige shows.
The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lost, Dexter, Weeds, Party Down, etc…. many of the best shows of the past decade were aired (mostly on cable) on Sunday nights. And as more and more cable networks have followed HBO into original programming, Sunday has turned into a night rich with high quality shows.
Right now, the best Sunday night shows are AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad (although I would argue that both, after four seasons, have passed their peak). Nipping at their heels is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which really is “a crossover hit. It’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts. They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world” (I Heart You, Adam Scott.)
Of course, none of those shows are on right now. Part of the fun of Sunday nights is that the cable shows follow a modified British schedule (12ish-and-done), so the lineup is forever changing. Right now, four fairly new shows represent their channels’ hopes for the future. Are any of them built to last?
The Networks: Sunday is a pretty good illustration of why audiences have moved to cable. NBC has football. FOX has an animation block, anchored by The Simpsons (23rd season) and Family Guy (10th season). CBS has the 10th season of CSI:Miami and ABC has the 8th season of Desperate Housewives. Both are “trying” with The Good Wife and Pan Am, respectively, but that kind of effort vs., say, Breaking Bad… come on. I wonder why networks would even bother with high-priced dramas anymore.
Boss – Starz (season one, episode one)
A bit of a cheat, because Boss really premieres on Friday nights (the first episode, at least, was released online first). But it also plays on Sunday night, so let’s count it in. Starz has done other shows in the past (Crash, Spartacus, Torchwood), but none of them have ever hit beyond their niche core audience. Given that they paid the big bucks for Kelsey Grammer, Boss seems like an obvious play for more respect. It’s super early to tell… judging a show on its pilot is ridiculous. But, for what it’s worth, there’s potential here. Grammar plays the mayor of the great City of Chicago, with an estranged daughter and a distant wife. In the opening minutes, he’s diagnosed with an incurable brain disease (basically, Alzheimer’s crossed with Parkinson’s). The tone, writing, and characters all show potential, and Grammer seems to have a solid take on the flawed anti-hero. Plus, it marks the return of the great Kathleen Robertson (Clare Arnold from Beverly Hills, 90210). As long as Boss leans strongly toward politics instead of family melodrama, it could prove to be the step forward Starz is looking for.
Created By: Farhad Safinia, who’s Iranian and co-wrote Apocalypto. That’s literally all the Interweb has about him.
Homeland – Showtime (season one, episode three)
Showtime has a decent pedigree, with the comedy Episodes being a recent success. But their biggest hits, Dexter (6 seasons) and Weeds (7 seasons), are more than showing their age. Homeland is by far the most traditional of the Sunday night entries, having a particularly strong similarity to 24. Claire Danes plays a CIA agent, a troubled loose cannon that was told by an illegal source that Al-Qaeda has converted a P.O.W. Damian Lewis plays a hero P.O.W. who was released soon after. Obviously, Danes is determined to prove that Lewis is a Manchurian Candidate, aided by anti-psychotic medication and her mentor, played by Mandy Patankin (great Yoda casting, btw). Homeland makes up for in quality what it lacks in originality. Both Danes and Lewis nail their roles (it’s good to have Angela Chase back). The look at the internal politics of the C.I.A. is interesting. And the psychological thriller element is gripping, while being more cohesive and logical than, say, The Killing. It may not be the best show on Sunday night, but it’s the first download I watch on Monday.
Created By: Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa. They have a long-running TV writing background (they met on Spencer:For Hire.) Good or bad, their experience with network shows, including stints with 24, The X-Files, Buffy, and Beauty and the Beast, are apparent in the show.
Boardwalk Empire – HBO (season two, episode four)
HBO is the network that made Sunday night synonymous with high-quality dramas. After a lull of a few years (after the heyday of The Sopranos and The Wire), they seem to be back on track. People who love True Blood really love True Blood. Treme continues to be one of the most unusual television shows ever, a Cheever short story in a plot-driven art form. Game Of Thrones transcends its genre by a mile. But its highest-profile show, Boardwalk Empire, is still trying to live up to its billing. Set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, it follows Steve Buscemi as the county treasurer/underworld boss, as he navigates the political and criminal worlds. Beautifully shot, it has strong performances (especially by Michael Pitt and Kelly McDonald), interesting story lines, and well-done ties to history (Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Lucciano, and Arnold Rothstein are all regular characters). There’s just something missing. It’s like a Ken Burns documentary… all the pieces are in place, but there’s no spark. The hope is still that it will turn into something compelling, instead of just admirable.
Created By: Terence Winter. A long-time TV writer, he was essentially David Chase’s right-hand man on The Sopranos.
The Walking Dead – AMC (season two, episode one)
Mad Men and Breaking Bad may bring home good reviews and awards, but The Walking Dead brings home the bacon for AMC. Mad Men’s last season premiere: 2.92 million viewers; Breaking Bad: 2.58 million; The Walking Dead: 7.30 million. And those numbers aren’t a fluke – The Walking Dead is one of the biggest hits on cable. While I would strongly argue that it isn’t as good as its AMC brethren (except for the hateful The Killing), it’s much better than it probably has a right to be. Basically a horror version of Lost, it’s about how a group interacts when thrown together under stressful circumstances. In the role of the Smoke Monster is a mysterious virus that turns people into zombies. There’s the blameless love triangle, the bad-guy-who-it-turns-out-you-really-want-on-your-side, the other groups of ambiguous evilness, with the constant threat of zombies lurking. But, regardless of how derivative or cliched it may be, The Walking Dead is masterfully done. It sucks you in, and the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Created By: Frank Darabont. The Shawshank director was fired a few episodes into season two.