Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Stars: David Strathairn, Malik Yoba, Warren Christie, Azita Ghazidada, Ryan Cartwright and Lauren Mennel
The Big Idea: What if “one in every million people are born to be extraordinary”? Syfy’s newest scripted series leaps confidently off that premise and delivers an entertaining, compelling series premiere. An Alpha is an otherwise normal human being who, because of a quirk in brain chemistry, has one extraordinary gift, ranging from old favorites like super strength to a Singularity-style talent to visually intercept, decrypt and trace any electronic transmissions. In this first of twelve episodes, we learn of a loosely affiliated group of five Alphas, who, under the protection and leadership of Strathairn’s Dr. Lee Rosen (envision Mr. Rogers with an M.D./Ph.D in neurophysiology), use their abilities to find and stop other Alphas with criminal intent.
To Watch or Not to Watch: Watch it … it’s what Syfy does best. As with Eureka (what would living in a town of scientific geniuses be like?), or Warehouse 13 (what if Raiders of the Lost Ark and The X Files had a baby?), it all starts with A Big Question, and with an equally Big Commitment: to build layered characters, and ensure that answers are gradually revealed through coherent storylines and intelligent dialogue. Alphas’ substantial pilot exposition is handled deftly throughout (Yoba’s Bill Harken’s endeavors are neatly summed up through a Beastie Boys tune), and the characters interact with a naturalness that most shows take years to achieve. And there are hints of twists to come; we’re told every Alpha ability has a downside, there are dark hints that Dr. Rosen’s sponsorship by the Department of Defense has some hidden price tags and, in the final scene of the premiere, Rosen’s kindly façade cracks in an interesting way. In short, it’s Heroes, with more heart, uncanned dialog and, thank you, Syfy, a sustainable storyline.
TV Screener Tidbit: Oscar nominee David Strathairn attended the elite Williams College, and has a son, Ebberly, who graduated from the well-known boot camp for geniuses, MIT. Maybe the Alpha doesn’t fall far from the tree?
Alphas premieres Monday, July 11, at 10PM ET on Syfy.
— JE Maher
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Stars: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, J.B. Smoove, Susie Essman, Cheryl Hines, Bob Einstein and guest stars Paul F. Tompkins and Gary Cole
The Big Idea: The season premiere is titled “The Divorce,” and to elaborate on the title specifically would be too big a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there is at least one divorce happening in the episode (and as many as three eventually), and that fact leads Larry to be at odds with a Jewish attorney who turns out not to be Jewish (Tompkins), a Major League Baseball team owner (Cole), a whole troop of cookie-selling Girl Scouts and Marty Funkhouser (Einstein).
There’s also a cringe-inducing encounter involving Larry and a teenage girl who’s gotten her first period (Justified scene stealer Kaitlyn Dever), while Leon (Smoove) continues to be Larry’s seemingly permanent houseguest and source of frank wisdom about women.
To Watch or Not to Watch: Yes, and DVR it, because you’re going to want to watch it more than once. It’s not an exaggeration at all to say that this promises to be the best Curb season ever – no small thing for a show in its eighth season – and there’s one simple reason why. In the past, Larry has always gone about life in his Larry way, but often with an apologetic air. But no more. He’s full-on Larry this season, butting heads with anyone who dares to go against the societal rules by which Lar thinks we all should operate. Girl Scouts, Susie Greene, Susie and Jeff’s teenage daughter, the owner of the Dodgers and a New York mechanic (the inspiration for Brad Garrett‘s overzealous mechanic Tony on Seinfeld?) are but a few of Larry’s nemesis this season, and it’s with pure glee that he tangles with them.
TV Screener Tidbit: Both Ricky Gervais and Michael J. Fox guest star as themselves later in the season (and, yes, will have issues with Larry), but stay tuned for the Sept. 4 episode, “Mister Softee.” Not only does it give us a hilarious glimpse at the teenage Larry, but it also reveals an encounter from his past that really explains a lot about why Larry is so, well, Larry. For more scoop on the new season, check out my Curb preview feature at AOL TV.
Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s 8th season premieres Sunday, July 10, at 10PM ET on HBO
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Stars: Matt Oberg, Natasha Leggero, Kurt Metzger and Randy Pearlstein
The Big Idea: Ugly Americans is back with an entertaining hat tip to cult classic flick Wet Hot American Summer (just in time for Summer‘s ten year anniversary). Here, the earnest, clueless Mark Lilly becomes a pawn in a chess game he’s unaware is in play, courtesy of his half-demon succubus supervisor/booty call Callie Maggotbone, her father (The Devil) and his plans for world domination, and the terminal sloth of coworker/wizard Leonard Powers.
Leonard is retiring, and has joined with his fellow wizards and their replacements at the “Magic Mountain” fortress for the succession ceremony. The Devil senses an opportunity for demons to strike hard at their mortal wizard enemies, providing they can get inside the mountain. Their way in is Mark, who is initially resistant at a trip to see Leonard, until it’s bundled with an offer to be head counselor at the non-existent Camp Friendship.
Cue 1980s-style road trip – van, assembled losers (Lt. Grimes, Koala Man, Fish Man, Eric the Robot) and some deft comedy jabs. Sex obsessed zombie Randall is in the driver’s seat, figuratively and literally, because, as he says, “If ’80s cinema has taught us anything, it’s that summer camp counselors are horny teen girls up for anything.” The pace of the premiere quickens significantly here, with homage paid to the quintessential ’80s teen movie scene and Wet Hot American Summer‘s battle versus a rival camp, and then comes to a satisfying conclusion with Leonard earning the “eggnancy” wages of sloth.
To Watch or Not to Watch: A parody of a parody of a self-parodying genre is ambitious, and. it turns out here, too much fun to miss.
TV Screener Tidbit: Funny guys John Mulaney and Nick Kroll helped shepherd Ugly Americans through its hilarious first season … as producers, not writers or voice artists.
Ugly Americans, season two, premieres Thursday, June 30, at 10:30PM ET on Comedy Central
— JE Maher
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Stars: Katey Sagal, Billy West and John DiMaggio
The Big Idea: Futurama returns for season six’s second half with a double-barreled blast of fun via back-to-back episodes.
The first ep, “Neutopia,” finds the Planet Express staff brainstorming ways to raise funds and avert bankruptcy (“free delivery” turns out to have been a bad promotional strategy for a delivery company). Plan A: a girlie calendar of the Planet Express lovelies, which pits Leela, Amy and office temp/Hermes wife LaBarbara against the “walking beer commercial” of Fry, Bender and the boys.
Plan B: transforming Planet Express into a space airline. That idea shows more promise, until “Goofus and Ganja,” a.k.a. Fry and Hermes, crash the maiden flight. Then, the battle of the sexes that began as a hairline fracture becomes a full-on, it’s-your-faultline between the women and the dudes, and it’s settled only when a powerful, but somewhat disaffected, asexual rock creature (hat tips to Star Trek and Galaxy Quest) intervenes with tests to determine the superior sex. Unsatisfied with the outcome, Rocky solves the issue by … well, a spoiler lies in the title of the episode.
Tonight’s second episode is “Benderama,” which revolves around the idea that there can definitely be too much of a – well, good is too strong a word – thing. It opens with a shoutout to The Twilight Zone that sparks a new life approach for Bender. Taking exactly the wrong lesson from the Zone, Bender marries the Professor’s latest invention with his own defining characteristic (sloth) to create a series of mini-Benders … just to avoid folding some clothing. Each successive Bender produces two more mini-Benders, each 60 percent of the size of its parent, but just as lazy and obnoxious as Bender Prime. And, oh, they’re hungry.
The Planet Express crew attempts mass extermination of the Benders to prevent them from consuming the earth, but fails. And thank goodness they do, as the Benders prove critical in preventing a really ugly situation from spinning out of control. High points of the episode are the “grey goo” hat tips to nanotechnology (it’s not just a funny show … it’s a smart funny show), and Patton Oswalt‘s guest-voicing of the gentle giant struggling with self-esteem, anger management and mommy issues. Big Bender to the Rescue!
To Watch or Not to Watch: Yes, but only if you want the context behind lines like: “In your face, decumbent urinators”; “Womanhood also takes some getting used to: for example, did you know there are more than two feelings?”; “Thank God most of our fans are such huge perverts!”; “Ah marriage – it combines the contentedness of being neutered, with the occasional sex of being not”; “Oh God, shield your eyes – it’s like Edward James Olmos on IMAX!”; “They’ll reproduce without limit, consuming all the matter in the world. Like the Kardashians“; and “It’s like fine cognac, with a hint of aged scrotum.”
The midseason premiere presents two very strong episodes of a show that consistently delivers, and a marked contrast to some of the other animated shows that (cough, cough, Book of Mormons took all our time) seem to have lost a step this recently-aired season.
TV Screener Tidbit: Don’t miss the end credits of “Neutopia” … the “girls” of Planet Express are on full display, for better or worse. Much, much worse.
Futurama‘s new episodes premiere Thursday, June 23, at 10PM ET on Comedy Central
Star Rating: 5 out of 5
Stars: Elijah Wood, Jason Gann and Fiona Gubelmann
The Big Idea: Ryan (Wood) is a depressed lawyer who, facing the impending first day at a job his pushy sister arranged for him (a job he desperately does not want), types a little leave-behind note (actually titled “Suicide Note – Third Revised”), whips up a frothy suicide shake and attempts to check out. The pills, happily, don’t work, and Ryan’s subsequent suicide plans are interrupted by his neighbor Jenna (Gubelmann), who asks him to babysit her pooch. That’s when we meet Wilfred (Gann).
In short, Wilfred is a dog. A talking dog. Or a man in a cheap dog suit. That’s how Ryan sees him anyway, as they begin an uneasy friendship that includes sharing a bong and discussing souring milk, humans’ bathroom hygiene and Wilfred’s love of Matt Damon movies.
In between further discussions on the joys of eating possum rectum and the obnoxious behavior of a local motorcycle-riding menace, Wilfred begins to point out how Ryan’s timidity isn’t serving him well and the two embark on the first of many gleeful adventures (most fueled by Wilfred’s bong).
Is Ryan going crazy? Can his new pal really talk? Or has he actually died and gone to an afterlife that includes a talking dog (a talking dog with an Australian accent, since Gann is the Australian star and co-creator of the series, which is adapted from an Australian series of the same name)? The answer actually doesn’t matter so much, because, in the subversive, but sweet and shrewd Wilfred, the skittish Ryan has found his new man’s best friend.
To Watch or Not to Watch: FX president John Landgraf, in a recent Wall Street Journal article on quirky cable comedies, described Wilfred as “Fight Club meets Calvin and Hobbes,” and if that isn’t enough to make you tune in, I’m not sure anything I could say will convince you the show is worth planting yourself on your couch for some summer fun. So, I’ll just say that I haven’t been this completely tickled by a comedy since I discovered the equally irreverent hilarity of Wilfred‘s network brethren It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer.
TV Screener Tidbit: Guest stars throughout the season will include Ethan Suplee, Ed Helms, Rashida Jones, Peter Stormare, the so underrated Nestor Carbonell and Chris Klein.
Wilfred premieres Thursday, June 23, at 10PM ET on FX
Charlie Sheen, Russell Brand and Louis C.K. are getting most of the attention, but I’m most excited that one of the best new shows of last TV season — Wilfred — returns for its second season on FX tonight (10PM ET). Season one of the series ended with a cliffhanger — had Ryan (Elijah Wood) […]