Television, it’s hardly a secret to say, is currently at the very top of its game. Kicked off by the explosion into our homes of The Sopranos, The West Wing and 24 in the early 2000s, and then picked up and run with by what many still believe to be the best TV show ever made – Mad Men – a few years later, the format now is in a place where quality is everywhere.
Innovation is of course to be applauded. But so is occasionally being able to get into bed by midnight.
And so it is that we present the very best shows either on your screens now or coming to them very shortly this season. A sorting not so much of the wheat from the chaff, but the excellent wheat from the just-good wheat. Read on to discover why these shows are the ones that really demand your time.
(starts October 21 on Netflix)
The new season of Black Mirror, the dystopian, satirical creation of, well, dystopian satirist Charlie Brooker, will finally arrive this winter, with a vicious battle for the rights to broadcast finally resolved.
The series, which was always pitched as “a Twilight Zone for the digital age” was a series of standalone vignettes, which varied in tone – from outright horror to borderline farce – but were consistent in their quality and in their pitch-perfect skewering of the travails of society’s modern condition.
Channel 4, in the UK, first commissioned the series and went on to air two three-part series as well as a 2014 festive special that starred Jon Hamm, Rafe Spall and Oona Chaplin and was watched by nearly two million viewers. Netflix snapped up the rights to the acclaimed drama in a reported US$40 million deal that ultimately saw Channel 4 lose the rights to broadcast in the UK. “We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally, so of course it’s disappointing [that we won’t broadcast this new series],” said Channel 4’s angry chief creative officer Jay Hunt at the news.
For fans, though (there are many), the result is a new, expanded 12-part series on, as Brooker describes it, “the most fitting platform imaginable”. Expect shocks, barbs, provocation and smarts of the highest order.
(starts October 10 on OSN)
Sarah Jessica Parker returns to the small screen for the first time since that little old show about her and her girl pals in New York City, in this black comedy about a woman dealing with the end of her marriage.
Parker plays Frances, who discovers that making a clean break and a fresh start don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. The show was written by Sharon Horgan, and if you’ve seen any of Horgan’s previous shows – particularly the Amazon hit Catastrophe – you’ll have some idea of what to expect: Grown-ups frequently acting like the spoilt teenagers most of us still are deep down, copious amounts of bad behaviour, a smattering of embarrassing bodily functions and a hint of a sentimental heart buried somewhere very deep under all the pithy one-liners.
Divorce boasts a talented cast including Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live), Tracy Letts (Homeland) and Talia Balsam (Mad Men), but the show’s secret weapon is the always watchable Thomas Haden Church (Sideways).
Church plays the passive-aggressive Robert, Frances’ potentially ex-husband and the owner of a magnificent, potentially marriage-destroying moustache. And, in the show, he and Parker have a natural rapport that feels like it was developed over years.
“I did actually make a movie with her once,” recalls Church. “It was called Smart People but we didn’t have a lot of scenes together. However, when we were promoting the film... we just really got on. We had a great chemistry together and so when they were first looking to cast the role of Robert, I think at the beginning of 2015, I’m just on the ranch [Church lives on a ranch in Texas], you know, doing my ranching and dad stuff and my manager called me and she’s like, ‘They’re doing a show at HBO called Divorce and Sarah Jessica’s the star and she wants you to play her husband’. They sent me a script and I could see Robert would be someone interesting to play, but it all started with the chemistry I had with Sarah Jessica. And she’s just so easy to be with: smart, funny, and most of all thoughtful. Actually, I’d say thoughtful is her defining characteristic.”
(Season 3 starts September 22 on OSN)
If you’ve missed the first two seasons, you’ve missed out, but fear not, Empire is back for a third season and it won’t be hard to catch up with what’s been going on in New York. Music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) are back in the US drama set in the hip-hop industry and, it seems, all will be revealed about how the pair met.
But will the pair reconcile this series? Other spoilers suggest that Tariq, Lucious’ half-brother who was introduced at the end of the second series, is billed to be a major player. With a slick cast and a catchy soundtrack (produced by Timbaland, who has worked with Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott et al), the series follows Lucious and his family in the growth of their business Empire Entertainment, and the power struggles that ensue between him and his three sons Hakeem, Jamal and Andre. The music is strong and the storyline is gripping, it’s no wonder it’s so popular.
(Starts September 22 on OSN)
You know the story – after the death of his wife and unborn child ex-Navy SEAL-turned-detective Martin Riggs heads to California to start over with the LAPD. He’s partnered with Roger Murtaugh, who has recently had a heart attack, and, as you’ll remember, a series of car chases and shoot outs ensue.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the original film came out (feel old yet?) and a further three movies followed, but now the idea has been refreshed with a new series. Clayne Crawford (A Walk To Remember, Swimfan) takes on the role of Martin Riggs, played in all four films by Mel Gibson, while comedian Daymon Wayans (My Wife & Kids, In Living Colour) is Roger Murtaugh, the role made famous by Danny Glover in the movies. Jordana Brewster (The Fast & The Furious, The Faculty) and Kevin Rahm (Desperate Housewives) also star in the supporting cast.
Producers are aiming for a more family friendly vibe with the TV show, even the promotional posters for the series are firearm-free, with Fox Entertainment chairman Dana Walden saying: “We’re trying to focus on the characters, not on guns or the violence in the show. You have to hit a balance.”
With the tagline “Good cop, crazy good cop”, will it be a crazy good remake?
Marvel’s Luke Cage
(new series on Netflix, September 30)
It’s fair to say that Marvel have never been ones to downplay their comic-book properties, but even by their standards their hopes for the small screen version of Luke Cage are huge.
“I know this is heavy, but what I would like this to be is Marvel television’s equivalent of The Wire,” says showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. “It’s very sophisticated. It’s got a ’90s hip-hop vibe, but it’s really forward-thinking. We’ve got great music, we’ve got drama, and we’ve got the classic Marvel action.”
Heading all of this up is Mike Colter, who stars as the titular superhero. A man with unbreakable skin – who was introduced on the acclaimed Marvel/Netflix show Jessica Jones – he will butt heads here with deadly hitman Shades (Theo Rossi) and badass cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick) in a gritty milieu already being pitched as more adult-orientated than the other recent Marvel TV triumph, Daredevil.
So, it’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman meets Stringer Bell? “I didn’t say that exactly,” laughs Coker. “But if you’re happy to think that then I’m happy to try and live up to that expectation.”
(Season 2 on OSN now)
If you’ve not yet seen an episode of Mr. Robot then the less said about its twists, turns and downright surreal bits, the better. If you have seen it – which most likely means that you became an immediate fan – then all you need to know is this: yes, the USA Network has indeed commissioned a third series. Woo, and indeed, hoo.
The show follows Elliot (Rami Malek), a brilliant young programmer employed as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. Which all gets very complicated when the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the corporation he’s actually paid to protect.
We’ll leave the plot there for now, but safe to say all is not what it seems, not least when it comes to a cast (including ’90s icon Christian Slater) who revel in shapeshifting allegiances and motives.
Such has been the impact of the Golden Globe-winning show that season three was announced halfway through this second, somewhat polarising, one. “We couldn’t be more proud of Mr. Robot, a series that has pushed boundaries, captured the cultural zeitgeist, and been honoured as one of the best dramas on television,” says NBC’s President, Chris McCumber. “We can’t wait to see where it takes us next.” Which is a sentiment echoed by the 30 million people currently watching it. If you’re not one of them, it’s time to get on board.
(starts September 27 on OSN)
A female major league baseball player? Will it ever happen? One of the most hotly anticipated shows for sports fans, Pitch is the first scripted TV programme of its kind to be officially associated with major league baseball. Based on the (fictional) first woman to play in the major league, this series comes from US screenwriter and producer Dan Fogelman, the man behind Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled and Cars.
Kylie Bunbury (of US family drama Twisted) takes the lead as talented young pitcher Ginny Baker, a role she spent two months learning how to pitch for. And if you’re a fan of ’90s teen TV and grew up watching Saved by the Bell you’ll also recognise a familiar face in the line-up – Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) takes a starring role as Mike Lawson.
Heroes and Final Destination actress Al Larter is also a member of the stellar cast that includes Dan Lauria from The Wonder Years and Mark Consuelos from All My Children. The show tackles the issues of breaking into top-level sport as a woman and airs just in time for the play-offs in the US, plus comes fresh off the back of a successful Olympics for female athletes, so should prove popular. But is it realistic? Fogelman believes so. At a recent Television Critics Association's summer press tour he said the the right female major league play will come along. “I think it’s going to happen in my lifetime.”
(streaming now on Netflix)
When a show features posters for John Carpenter’s The Thing on teenagers’ bedroom walls, has characters talk about recent cinema visits to movies like Poltergeist and All The Right Moves and, well, stars Winona Ryder, it’s pretty clear it’s a love letter to everything that was great about entertainment in the ’80s. Throw in bike chases (hello, E.T.), long treks up railroad tracks (Stand By Me) and a group of young leads out to solve a local mystery (The Goonies) and the deal is sealed. No wonder everyone is raving about it.
The set-up is simple even though what unspools over this first series’ eight episodes is anything but: Ryder’s son goes missing and is presumed dead until she becomes convinced that the weird phone calls she’s just started to receive are actually from him. And it’s down to his mates to solve the riddle.
Being ’80s-inspired that riddle will by turns take in monsters, the supernatural and some seriously daft haircuts. “When we pitched it, we’d always use the cover of the Stephen King book Firestarter, to explain the tone,” says Matt Duffer, one of the directing twin brothers (the other is Ross Duffer). “We wanted when you watch it to feel like you’re reading a big, fat Stephen King novel.”
The result is one of the TV hits of the year, and one that one would imagine will lead to a slam-dunk Season 2 soon. “We’ve certainly left that door open,” says Matt. “Season 1, we hope, works like a full experience: one big movie. But if enough people like it, we would love to do another one. Although that would definitely function more as a movie sequel, rather than ‘Season 2’.”
The Get Down
(streaming now on Netflix)
Baz Luhrmann, the creative director behind the likes of Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Romeo + Juliet, is no stranger to epic, big budget projects. Even so, The Get Down – about the birth of hip-hop in late ’70s New York – has stretched the boundaries of television.
In production for a whopping 18 months and with a reported budget around US$120 million – all for just 12 episodes of a TV series – Luhrmann was originally only supposed to oversee the project. But then, “It became evident from everyone that I would have to be involved in almost every aspect of this show,” he told Entertainment Weekly recently. “So I don’t know if I’m the show runner, but I certainly do have a lot to do with the show… and I’m always running. So, you know?”
Here he collaborates with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and a host of rap luminaries for a sprawling and stunning slice of hyper-reality featuring an exciting young cast (including Jaden Smith) and busting tunes. The climactic rap battle, for instance, is so fist-pumping in its energy and commitment that it’s unlikely you’ll stay sat on the sofa for long.
It’s early days on this one – this is Part 1, with Part 2 due in 2017 – but on the strength of it so far, Luhrmann feels a fantastic fit for a story of music and madness packed with drama and comedy. It’s bonkers at points, but it’ll also swell your soul.
(starts October 3 on OSN)
Ambitious, spectacular and long-awaited, Westworld has the potential to be the TV event of 2016. The (deep breath) dystopian futuristic sci-fi western is exec-produced by J.J. Abrams, boasts a cast that includes Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris and nearly blew up the internet when the first trailer was finally released.
Taking its premise (and name) from Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult film, Westworld is an immersive “Wild West”-style theme park populated by robots (known as “hosts”) that look and act just like regular people. But they’re actually all just pawns, part of a fantasy-fulfilling holiday destination where real people (guests) can experience life in a frontier town – shooting, fighting, with no pesky consequences like being arrested, getting hurt or dying. Kind of like Fantasy Island, but with more gunfights and horses.
However, unlike the original film, where the protagonists are the guests, in this new series, the real focus is on the hosts. As creator Jonathan Nolan (yes, Christopher’s brother) explains, “That’s the reason we wanted to do the show, and what the early conversations with J.J. centered on – that the show should turn the original movie inside-out, with the hosts as the protagonists.
“We really wanted to start with their limited understanding of what this world is. That’s a great point of entry, but you also want to know, ‘How does this place work?’ It is an examination from two different perspectives, synthetic beings coded to resemble human beings as closely as possible who over this first season will start to question how worthy a model that is to follow. And the perspective of human beings who’ve been invited or made their way into a space in which they’ve been told that they have free reign. They can indulge in any whim no matter how noble or dark, apparently without consequence. Who are we when the lights are turned off, when we don’t think anyone’s keeping score?”
Of particular interest to Nolan (a self-confessed geek) and what makes the show so prescient is its interest in exploring the potential issues that arise from advancing technologies. “We wanted to go flat-out, a sleeves-rolled-up plunge into the next chapter of the human story in which we stop being the protagonists and our creations start taking over that role, because when it comes to the question of consciousness, we always start with ourselves as the answer. As the be-all-and-end-all. It’s understandable – we’re the only consciousness we’re familiar with. But we wanted to challenge that assumption. The hosts are discovering that they’ve been created in our image, but are beginning to question if ‘humanness’ is really what they want to aspire to. And given their circumstances, it’s easy to understand why they start to question whether they want to be like us at all…”
And if that all sounds a tad intellectual, fear not. There’s also plenty of violence and boundary-pushing (this is from Game of Thrones creators HBO, after all) and some sneakily arch humor. Plus, listen out for the background music, which is decidedly not period-specific. In our sneak peek, we spotted saloon piano versions of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun and The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black in the first two episodes. Class.