With Christmas now just a distant memory and summer a faint dot on the horizon, it’s that time of year when both new and returning series flood on to our TV screens to see us through the long winter nights. This year it’s a double delight for UK viewers (or at least those of us with Sky subscriptions), boosted by the launch of the new Sky Atlantic channel, which opens the doors to the latest programming from HBO and Showtime, as well as re-running classics such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica from the very beginning.
I have picked out eight shows – four comedies, four dramas – which have launched their new seasons in the past couple of weeks or so. They represent a mix of the familiar and the brand new, with all but one of the eight being US imports. I’ll come to the drama series in a separate post, but for now let’s start with the rib-ticklers – all of which feature strong but flawed female leads.
30 Rock, season 5 (Comedy Central)
As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) announces to camera at the end of the teaser, season five is go. The madness which surrounds the lives of the cast and crew of the Saturday Night Live-alike show TGS continues unabated. The show’s star Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and fired page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) are struggling to cope with their separation. Jenna (Jane Krakowski) gains a producer credit and discovers she is really good at it. Jack (Alec Baldwin) is dealing with his girlfriend Avery’s interior decorating demands by retreating from every suggestion she makes (the ‘Fabian strategy’). And Liz tries to work out how to move forward in her relationship with her overly emotional pilot boyfriend Carol (a wonderfully hammy Matt Damon).
Just your average week in the high-rise mad-house that is 30 Rock, in other words.
After a slightly uneven fourth season in which the show sometimes slipped from its own high standards, the season’s opening episodes fizz off the page with a non-stop barrage of jokes carrying Fey’s trademark whiplash satire. As ever, Alec Baldwin’s Jack gets all the best lines:
The Harry Potter theme park is a huge hit with both Anglophiles and paedophiles.
It’s just a vanity credit, Lemon – a low cost way to make someone feel more important. Like Executive Producer Ashton Kutcher, or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It’s a welcome return to form for the funniest out-and-out comedy on television.
The Big C, season 1 (More4)
The latest darkly comedic offering from Showtime (the network responsible for both Nurse Jackie and Weeds) is a beautifully pitched and unflinching examination of the absurdity of modern life through the eyes of a dying school teacher, whose cancer diagnosis lifts all the usual constraints and filters we walk around with in normal life.
In the UK, we have only seen the first two episodes so far, but the series shows immense potential, providing a combination of wry and sometimes painfully blunt observations with more than its quota of genuine laugh-out-loud moments:
You heard me. If you’re gonna dish it out, you’ve got to be able to lick it up. Fat people are jolly for a reason. Fat repels people, but joy attracts them. Now, I know everyone’s laughing at your cruel jokes, but nobody’s inviting you to the prom. So you can either be fat and jolly or a skinny bitch. It’s up to you.
Anybody ever seen The Patriot? Its depiction of the American Revolution is about 20 percent accurate at best. But if you understood this version as truth, you’d still know more about that time in history than 99 percent of Americans. And Mel Gibson is medium good. Enjoy.
The show is worth watching for Linney’s bravura performances alone, as she is able to simultaneously evoke both pathos and laughter from viewers within the same scene. It is a role fully deserving of her recent Golden Globe win.
Nurse Jackie, season 2 (BBC2)
Edie Falco is back to reprise her Emmy-winning performance as Jackie Peyton, an ER nurse who manages to juggle being a mother with being married to her job thanks to a regular intake of prescription painkillers.
Jackie herself is a wonderful, conflicted and above all human character. She is brilliant at her job but does make mistakes, and does not suffer fools – particularly the hopelessly vain Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli) – gladly. But the real beauty of the show is a perfectly sketched-out set of supporting characters, from Jackie’s best friend, the wealthy doctor Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best) and cheerily optimistic junior nurse Zoey Barkow (the fantastic Merritt Wever) to the gay gentle giant Thor (Stephen Wallem) and Jackie’s bitter and creepy ex-boyfriend Eddie (Paul Schulze).
There are laughs aplenty here, but always with the grit of reality never far away.
Zoey: Since you’re asking, I don’t do drugs either. Although when I go to Great Adventure, I do take Dramamine ‘cos once on Rolling Thunder I yakked. It was a huge bummer.
Eleanor O’Hara: Oh my God. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat.
Gloria Akalitus: I like to hide my humanity, Dr. O’Hara. Or at least keep it to a minimum.
This second season got off to a slow start as it reset a few of the characters and their relationships, but is back in its stride now, once again proving that laughter really is the best medicine.
Weeds, season 4 (Sky Atlantic)
Weeds has been missing from UK screens for a couple of years, so we are only just getting to see season four – season six finished in the US before Christmas. Nonetheless, it is a welcome return for everyone’s favourite suburban pot-dealing widow, Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker), her family and her, er, business associates.
When we last left the Botwins, they were fleeing Majestic after Nancy’s Mexican supplier Guillermo torched the town and Nancy set fire to her house to destroy any incriminating evidence of her drug-related activities. Now we see them moving in with her brother-in-law Andy‘s (Justin Kirk) bed-ridden grandmother in Ren Mar, as Guillermo sets up Nancy to start working for him either side of the Mexican border.
The comedy in Weeds remains as dark and anarchic as ever, as Nancy continues to balance the need to support her family with the dubious morality of what she does (“I won’t do heroin”). If anyone was going to deal marijuana to your kids, you would want it to be Nancy Botwin – the ‘tart with a heart’ of the drug-dealing world. Four years in, and the series remains a masterful exercise in consistently poking fun at middle-class social mores with a darkness which Desperate Housewives lost years ago.
Andy: It’s totally freaking me out. Shane’s sleeping on my old Star Wars sheets. Silas found one of Judah’s Playboys from 1979 under the mattress. Candy Loving on the cover, Dorothy Stratten centerfold. It’s beautiful. I’m having jerk-off flashbacks. My old stains are still on the wall.
Nancy: My children are sleeping next to their unborn cousins. I’m thrilled.