DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The New Year brings with it new TV programming, and this Sunday is an especially busy one for television. Two new series premiere, and one miniseries and several other series return.
Because it's a new year, let's start with the new shows. First up is NBC's "The Firm," a spinoff continuation of the John Grisham book - the one that, in the 1993 movie adaptation, starred Tom Cruise as a lawyer on the run from sinister forces within his own corrupt law firm. This new version, starring Josh Lucas in the role of Mitch McDeere, starts out hitting the same notes - literally.
The soundtrack aims, at least at first, to evoke Dave Grusin's dramatic piano music from the original movie. And this new Mitch, like the old one, is first seen running for his life in broad daylight, this time on the Washington Mall.
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BIANCULLI: After this high-energy opening, the TV show flashes back to six weeks earlier - borrowing a trick from "Damages," where the plot will slowly, but surely work its way back to the present. But first, it regresses again, a full decade, to explain how Mitch came out of hiding, and started his own law practice, assisted by saucy Tammy and brother Roy.
In the movie, that trio was played by Tom Cruise, Holly Hunter and David Strathairn. Now they're played by Lucas, Juliette Lewis and Callum Keith Rennie. Only Molly Parker from "Deadwood," playing Mitch's wife, is a step up from the original movie, where Abby was played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Otherwise, however you compare this TV version to the movie or the book - even with Grisham's blessing and involvement - it comes up wanting, and, at times, even boring.
That's not the case with Showtime's "House of Lies," another new series that launches Sunday. This one stars Don Cheadle as Marty Kahn, a high-priced management consultant who leads a team of fast-talkers and faster thinkers, including one played by Kristen Bell. Cheadle first impressed me playing the district attorney on "Picket Fences" where every time he stood and spoke, you couldn't help but lean in and take notice.
It's the same way here, except that effect is enhanced through technology. Every so often, the action around Marty will stop - literally stop, like in a still photo - so he can step forward, look into the camera and address the audience directly to explain a particular term or tactic.
It's a gimmick, sure, but it works here, and with an impressive injection of high-octane energy - as in this scene when Marty stops talking to his colleagues, who freeze like statues, so he can talk to us instead.
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DON CHEADLE: (As Marty) Consulting's like dissing a really pretty girl so that she'll want you more. We need them to think they're almost perfect, so we can book that after-work. After-work: After-work really is the goal of all consulting. Get them on the tit, thinking that their business is going to fail without you. They hire you week-in and week-out. That's millions and millions in billable hours. That's what we want, baby.
BIANCULLI: "House of Lies," based on a nonfiction book, is adapted and produced by Matthew Carnahan, whose last TV series, the Courteney Cox comedy-drama "Dirt," was nowhere near this sharp. "House of Lies," to its credit, is a lot more complex than it might have been. Marty wins battles each week as he goes into the field to consult, but he's still losing the war at his own firm.
His boss Skip, played by Richard Schiff from "The West Wing," is supporting a merger with a giant company, even though someone at that company has it in for Marty. And while Skip supports the merger, he explains in a future episode why he doesn't support Marty.
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RICHARD SCHIFF: (As Skip) It's a relationship business. You know, we're pollinators. All right, we go from flower to flower. We are very sweet. We gorge on the royal jelly, and then we quietly buzz off. We do not use our stingers. We are all about relationships. Other people do what you do without leaving a swath of destruction behind them.
Yeah, your numbers are amazing, but then I - I am the one left behind spending half my life making nice with all the people whose lives you've carved up and gutted. I like my garden peaceful and quiet with big, beautiful blooming buds. Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz.
CHEADLE: (As Marty) Okay, Skip. Listen, maybe my style points leave something to be desired. Yeah, granted. I'll try to do better. I'm sorry.
SCHIFF: (As Skip) Do you realize how long I've known you, and you've never once invited me over here?
CHEADLE: (As Marty) Skip, I have personally put about $100 million in your pocket, let alone what I've done for your company. All right? It's not about us ever being friends here.
SCHIFF: (As Skip) It is to me. It's personal. To me. And that's kind of what matters now, isn't it?
BIANCULLI: "House of Lies" definitely, is a show to add to your weekly viewing list. Other shows on TV this Sunday may be on that list already. Showtime presents the season premieres of the David Duchovny series "Californication," which jumps ahead two years in its narrative, and the William H. Macy series "Shameless," which picks up right where it left off last season.
"Californication" is reinvigorated by the time jump, and in "Shameless," while the writing isn't that outstanding, the acting certainly is. And on BBC America, there's a 20th-anniversary reunion special of "Absolutely Fabulous." If you loved "AbFab" before, as I did, chances are good you'll love it again.
And that's true, as well, of Season 2 of "Downton Abbey," the hit costume drama presented by Masterpiece Classic on PBS. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries last year, and became such a surprise hit that writer-creator Julian Fellowes instantly was asked for more.
Frankly, I don't know why its popularity should be considered surprising at all. "Downton Abbey" is "Upstairs, Downstairs" for a new generation, and has the exact same appeal. It's like watching the 1 percent living under the same roof as the 99 percent - only with completely different accommodations. Season two jumps forward two years in its story line, just as "Californication" does.
This puts us to 1916 and the Great War - and before episode one is over, we're in the trenches as well as in the kitchen. Some of the subplots this season are more predictable, and thus a bit less delectable. But the actors, led by Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Jim Carter, still enhance every scene in which they appear. As with last season, I still enjoy spending time at "Downton Abbey," whether it's upstairs or down.