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The gutting news that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died robbed fans of basking in the often sublime performances he mined from each role. That ability to be almost instantly great is such a rarity and was on full display in January when Showtime presented a clip of Happyish at the Television Critics Association press tour. In it, Hoffman plays a cynical adman forced to work with and for millennials who believe social media and new tech are the best thing for advertising. The world keeps him in a constant state of agitation.
The clip was brilliantly hilarious and had that immediate, rare impact on critics — some of whom tweeted out that Hoffman was a lock for an Emmy nomination.
Off a sizzle reel. Yes, he was that good. And yes, Happyish — which Showtime only was able to complete the pilot of before Hoffman’s death — was one of the big “buzz” shows at TCA.
There’s no word yet whether Showtime will recast and reshoot Happyish, created by Shalom Auslander. But the channel should seriously consider it. Though Hoffman, who was also an executive producer, clearly drove the clip we saw, the structure, concept and execution of the idea also looked promising.
Now that the Winter Olympics will put something of a slow freeze on new series premieres — at least temporarily — here’s a look at the shows critics saw during the TCA press tour that generated buzz.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, June). Again, based only on a clip, this series generated excitement to see more. A lot more. It’s certainly a relevant topic — the rise of tech pioneers/frauds in the nascent personal computer era. It stars Lee Pace (Lincoln, Pushing Daisies), Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Mackenzie Davis (Smashed) and is written and created by Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers.
Those Who Kill (A&E, March 3). It remains to be seen if this series about serial killers (surprise!) can deliver to the channel the kind of under-appreciated skill that something like Bates Motel or Longmire brings, but star Chloe Sevigny gives it some heft and being shot in Pittsburgh creates an interesting look.
Silicon Valley (HBO, April 6). Talk about instant impact — this Mike Judge comedy looked to be firing on all cylinders before HBO has even dropped it into the race. Critics got a look at two episodes and an extended sizzle reel. It’s one of the favorite things I saw at TCA (along with Happyish, sigh), and I’m willing to bet Silicon Valley could be HBO’s most wide-appeal comedy in ages.
The Leftovers (HBO, summer). Critics got to see the pilot of this Damon Lindelof series, based on the Tom Perrotta book and directed by Peter Berg. It’s both complex and ambitious. Also: weird and riveting. The Leftovers is a series that may take another two or three episodes to wrap one’s head around, but it’s buzzing like mad and should continue to. Starring Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler, Christopher Eccleston and more.
John Oliver (HBO, premiere date to be announced). For a certain segment of late-night viewers and comedy fans — raising my hand and waving it — there’s something even more exciting than Jimmy Fallon coming on earlier or Seth Meyers getting a talk show. It’s John Oliver doing anything. His press conference was hilarious. He was his own buzz.
Outlander (Starz, summer). From the massively popular books by Diana Gabaldon and executive produced by Ronald D. Moore, this Scottish-set adventure-romance-time-travel amalgamation could be a real surprise for Starz.
The Last Ship (TNT, summer). Global pandemic! Michael Bay blowing stuff up! Eric Dane, Rhona Mitra, Adam Baldwin! If the Bay thing turned you off, don’t let it. TNT shows could use all the adrenaline and muscle they can muster. The clip was vintage Bay (see: stuff blowing up in orchestrated beauty), but the real hook might be the dystopian story. While at sea, a virus has wiped out much of the world. A woman on the military ship captained by Dane may have discovered the vaccine. Or not. Commence all hell breaking loose. Look, from that clip alone, I’m in.
The Red Road (Sundance Channel, Feb. 27). A lot of credit goes to star Jason Momoa for just looking menacing and potentially explosive, but the Red Road clip also featured a lot of solid acting from stars Momoa, Martin Henderson, Julianne Nicholson and Tom Sizemore. It’s about an American Indian tribe in the New Jersey mountains and two men who are willing to “cross lines” to get what each wants.
Turn (AMC, April 6). Based on the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose, Turn focuses on the Revolutionary War era and how colonials banded together — the Culper Ring — and became America’s first spies. Not an idea you see everywhere, the clip was intriguing and brings another fresh premise (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) to AMC.
24: Live Another Day (Fox, May 5). Jack’s back. For some people, that’s all you need to say. Although I had (a lot of) problems with the hokey nature of 24, having Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) back in a limited series is more palatable.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Fox, 2014). Some might say this is Seth MacFarlane paying it forward for all the people he spoofs on his raunchy Fox animated series, but you have to respect the clout (and interest he has in the subject) to get Fox to put this in primetime. Rock-star scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes over, more than three decades later, from Carl Sagan and brings an updated version of Cosmos to television — with all the new technology to make it mass-appeal. A great idea and a fun clip.
Fargo (FX, April 15). I would put Fargo near the top of any list of buzz series because, having watched the pilot — and wanting to rewind scene after scene — this looks to be an out-of-the-box gem for FX. Not only have the Coen brothers signed off on it (and like it), but Noah Hawley has infused the concept of taking a movie and making it an anthology series to new levels. After this 10-episode season, Fargo could come back as another variation on the story. Either way, this first go at it produced an exceptionally great pilot — with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk and a lengthy supporting cast. Bzzzzz!
Tyrant (FX, summer). Another intriguing pilot, this one about the son of a Middle Eastern dictor who returns home after 20 years of living in the United States and, well, things go very badly. It’s from Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff and sped through its initial hour with ease, setting up hope that the drama can sustain the concept. The buzz isn’t as high as Fargo, but not much is.
The Strain (FX, July). Holy hell — yet another clip-only series that woke up the room. This different-than-usual vampire story, based on the trilogy of books of the same name, looked really scary and intense. Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan with Carlton Cuse as showrunner. I’m not much of a vamp fan, but The Strain looks like something you can’t take your eyes off of — and that will generate buzz every time. When the clip ended, I wanted there to be another one.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime, May 11). Speaking of scary, this Showtime entry, from John Logan (Hugo, Skyfall, Gladiator) and Sam Mendes, looked creep-tastic as it mashed together a bunch of original and classic horror characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) and set the series in Victorian London. Penny Dreadful stars Josh Hartnett and Eva Green and is a series Showtime has been touting for some time.
Believe (NBC, March 10). Cable can’t have all the fun. Created by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Friedman, this series is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and has a long-lead mystery behind it (of a girl possessing special powers that everybody wants to control). If a mainstream audience goes for this, it could be big. Also, any time you put Cuaron and Abrams on a stage together, expectations run high.
About a Boy (NBC, Feb. 21). It doesn’t have that high-caliber pedigree of others, nor does it peddle in horror, unexplained phenomena or psychosexual energy, but this TV version of the movie (both based on the Nick Hornby book), has a lot of charm. Written and produced by Jason Katims (Parenthood), directed by Jon Favreau and starring David Walton and Minnie Driver, the show is also very funny.
Inside Animal Minds (PBS/Nova. April 9). I know, it sounds strange. How many Nova specials are going to generate buzz (more than you’d think, actually). But anyway, having seen clips and listened to the animal experts talk, prepare to have your mind completely blown. One of the best, least-expected panels at TCA. Also: fun.
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