Fresh Episodes, New Series: A Weekend-TV Sampler
DAVE DAVIES, host:
"Friday Night Lights" returns to broadcast television tonight, and a lot's going on this Sunday on cable. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, explains it all.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Consider this today's pop quiz: How can "Friday Night Lights," which begins its third season tonight on NBC, be one of the best things to happen to TV right now and a little disappointing at the same time? Here's how - "Friday Night Lights" is one of the best things to happen because it's such a beautifully written, artfully directed, fabulously acted drama series. It's about real people in a small Texas town dealing with actual, everyday problems. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, as the show's high school football coach and his wife, who's now the principal, are amazing. And so are half a dozen of the young actors who play their students. It's a great show, and I could spend a whole review raving about the first episodes of this third season. Except that I already have - last fall, when season three of "Friday Night Lights" began being shown exclusively on the satellite service Direct TV.
The show only made it to a third season because NBC and Direct TV cut a deal to share production costs, in exchange for Direct TV getting rights to show it first. So, now that it's over on Direct TV, it's starting on NBC. I guess I'm supposed to give credit to NBC for finding a way to save "Friday Night Lights," but I don't. The network is saving enough money by making horrible reality shows and scheduling Jay Leno in primetime. It could've paid for "Friday Night Lights" all by itself, if supporting quality TV were a priority, or it could've not made "Knight Rider."
To add insult to injury, it's promoting the show with slow-motion shots of semi-nude body parts, as though "Friday Night Lights" were some sort of MTV beach party. Over on cable, meanwhile, the problem is more like too much quality, rather than too little. This Sunday, there's an unprecedented head-to-head showdown between HBO and Showtime. HBO has the season premieres of "Big Love" and "Flight of the Concords," while at the same time, Showtime presents the season premieres of "The L-Word" and "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," which serve as bookends to a new Showtime series, "The United States of Tara." That's a dizzying amount of quality TV, and none of it has anything to do with the commercial broadcast networks.
About the returning shows, I'll say this - "Big Love" and "The L-Word" offer their best season openers in years, "Call Girl" gets off to a strong second-season start and "Conchords," while it's a little flat, is still fun. As for "Tara," which is written by "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody and created by Steven Spielberg, I've seen the first four episodes. And the more you watch, the better it gets. Toni Collette stars as a wife and mother with a mental disorder - what used to be called multiple personalities. And after making the decision to stop taking her medication, the stresses of everyday life begin fracturing her into different personalities.
There's a macho-jock guy, a Donna Reid-type housewife and a 15-year-old sexpot, nicknamed T(ph). What makes the show interesting, especially as it goes along, is how her husband, sister and two teen children relate to their mom's different alter egos and to their mom. As in this scene, when Tara returns after having just spent hours as the wild teenager T, and visits the bedroom of her son, Marshall, to kiss him good night.
(Soundbite of TV show "The United States of Tara")
Ms. TONI COLLETTE: (As Tara) Hi, marshmallow.
Mr. KEIR GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) Hey, mom.
Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Listen, I'm sorry about tonight. It's pretty wacky, huh?
Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) It was no big whoop.
Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) How was she? T, I mean.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) She wasn't that bad. I mean, she was only here for a couple hours. Do you know she's a vegetarian now?
Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Am I high?
Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) Maybe a little. Yeah.
Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Listen, I want to thank you for being such a strong, supportive kid. I'm really lucky.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) We're lucky, Mom. I mean, because of you, we get to be interesting.
Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) You like being interesting?
Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) I love it!
BIANCULLI: Actually, he doesn't love it. But, like his sister and dad, he's trying to handle it, and all the personalities his mom throws at him. "The United States of Tara" isn't played just for laughs, and that's what makes it so interesting. And, yes, Toni Collette has a blast playing all these parts but finds the cracks, as well as the fun, in each.
In terms of viewership, this weekend's battle between HBO and Showtime is no battle at all. HBO is a much bigger operation and will win. But regarding bragging rights for the best TV, Showtime has an even more impressive lineup than HBO. Maybe that's why HBO is playing a very hefty trump card Sunday. It will get lots of attention, and viewers, by televising that day's Barack Obama inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
It'll be shown live that afternoon and repeated at 7 p.m. Eastern, as the perfect lead-in to its primetime series programming. And while you have to pay to watch HBO's returning shows, the inaugural coverage is being cleared and presented free to all cable and satellite viewers. But if you're only watching broadcast TV, you'll get it later or not at all. Sadly, that's getting to be a very familiar pattern.
DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for TVworthwatching.com and teaches television at Rowan University. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Notorious." This is Fresh Air.