'Torchwood' And 'Curb': Two Summer TV Treats A new version of the British sci-fi series and a new season of the Larry David comedy begin this weekend on Starz and HBO, respectively. TV critic David Bianculli says while the broadcast networks are taking it easy, these competitors are serving up excellent, unusual television.
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'Torchwood' And 'Curb': Two Summer TV Treats

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'Torchwood' And 'Curb': Two Summer TV Treats

'Torchwood' And 'Curb': Two Summer TV Treats

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

This month, while the broadcast networks are taking it easy, some cable competitors are serving up lots of excellent, unusual television. The action starts this weekend with a new version of the British sci-fi series "Torchwood" and the Larry David comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

"Torchwood" is a show that may not even be on many people's radar. It's a British show, which ran for three seasons and was imported and shown here by BBC America. It's a sci-fi series about a sort of overseas "X-Files" unit, run by a cocky hero who is not only irreverent and American, but immortal. And a time traveler. And bisexual.

It's a spinoff character and series from "Doctor Who," the long-running British fantasy show that is still around - and has been around so long, it launched the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It started as a kids show, but in the hands of writer-producer Russell T. Davies, "Doctor Who" became more for adults - and Davies also is the man behind "Torchwood."

So if you're sneering at the idea of sci-fi and fantasy, you shouldn't -not if it's in the right hands. In the past, I've had to try to persuade people to watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Walking Dead" as genre shows that had something to say and said it cleverly. The same goes for "Torchwood," which begins its new incarnation Friday on the Starz cable network.

In this new version, John Barrowman remains in place as the star of "Torchwood," and he soon meets up with one of his most feisty and dependable team members, Gwen Cooper, played by Eve Myles. But the rest of the "Torchwood" team died at the end of last season, so for this year, the survivors come out of hiding and move to America, the center of a new global threat that sounds harmless but is just the opposite.

All of a sudden, all across the planet, people stop dying - starting with death row prisoner Oswald Danes, played by Bill Pullman, who survives his own execution. In a montage of channel-surfing that's disturbingly credible, the media instantly come up with a catchy name for this inexplicable new phenomenon.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Torchwood") (Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as reporter) The survival of Oswald Danes turns out to be the first incident in a much bigger story breaking live this morning.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as reporter) When the Kentucky medical authority made a chance comment that it hadn't recorded a single death over 24 hours...

Unidentified Actor #3: (as reporter) Seventeen more authorities reported the same thing. The story exploded on social network sites.

Unidentified Actor #4: (as reporter) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Actor #5: (as reporter) Miracle trending as the number one topic.

Unidentified Actor #6: (as reporter) Maine to California, the story's the same.

Unidentified Actor #7: (as reporter) For the past 36 hours no fatalities has been reported.

Unidentified Actor #8: (as reporter) No fatalities has been reported.

Unidentified Actor #9: (as reporter) No one has died.

Unidentified Actor #10: (as reporter) Not one person in the United States of America...

Unidentified Actor #11: (as reporter) Not a simple death.

Unidentified Actor #12: (as reporter) Miracle day.

Unidentified Actor #13: (as reporter) Miracle day.

Unidentified Actor #14: (as reporter) Miracle day, that's what it's being called.

Unidentified Actor #15: (as reporter) Miracle day.

BIANCULLI: As usual, the media are missing the real story. When no one dies, what does that do to population growth? To the spread of infectious but now nonlethal diseases? To war and terrorism and thrill-seeking and so many other things? "Torchwood" - the task force and the TV series - takes all of this very, very seriously and doesn't presume it's some sort of natural phenomenon. So if someone engineered this so-called miracle, the big questions soon become: Who and why?

The acting, as well as the writing, is really strong here. Barrowman, as Jack Harkness, is an old-school swashbuckler with new-school sass, kind of like a bisexual Bruce Willis. Bill Pullman, who usually plays the likable hero in films like "Independence Day," portrays a creepy, odious, pedophile murderer here yet, one who, thanks to the media, finds both a voice and a mission. And Lauren Ambrose, who was so wonderful in "Six Feet Under" as teenager Claire Fisher, gets a meaty adult role here as an opportunistic agent who offers to represent the executed, but not dead, killer.

I've previewed the first three episodes of "Torchwood," and they left me hanging and eager to see more. So give it a chance, please. And if you want to catch up, BBC Home Video is releasing the entire three-season British version of "Torchwood" on DVD and Blu-Ray July 19th.

And now for something completely different. On Sunday, HBO presents the eighth-season premiere of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," one of the funniest and daringly different shows ever made for television. It's been a long time since we've seen the exaggerated TV version of Larry David in action - the last time was in November 2009, when he taped the "Seinfeld" reunion show and lost his chance to reconnect successfully with his estranged wife Cheryl, played by Cheryl Hines.

The new season begins with an episode called "The Divorce," echoing the comedian's real-life divorce from his wife, Laurie, four years ago. But I haven't seen that episode. HBO and Larry David are holding their cards close to the vest and instead have sent out three random, nonsequential episodes from the new season.

The story arc this season takes Larry to New York, and one of the three episodes I've seen explains why but I won't spoil it. It's enough to say that if you missed Larry David as the self-appointed policeman of all things that irritate him - one of the new episodes calls him a social assassin - get ready for a lot more moments of outrage and a few that may make you uncomfortable.

When his friend Marty Funkhouser, played by Bob Einstein, reaffirms his Jewish faith and leads Larry and his friends in prayer at dinner, Larry, who's also Jewish, quickly reaches his limit of religious tolerance. Others at the table include Susie Essman, Jeff Garlin and Larry Miller.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm")

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Amen.

Ms. SUSIE ESSMAN (Actor): (as Susie Greene) Amen.

Mr. BOB EINSTEIN (Actor): (as Marty Funkhouser) Now the wine.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (as self) What?

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Okay.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. DAVID: (as self) No way. No way. That's enough. Come on. No. I'm hungry.

Mr. EINSTEIN: (as Marty Funkhouser) Well, you can't drink the wine without the prayer.

Mr. DAVID: (as self) Oh, you can't? Really? Watch this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actor: (as character) I'm with Larry on this.

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Yeah. Here's to the drinking.

Mr. DAVID: (as self) To the five-man club championship. Here. Here. here.

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Here, here.

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Now you're thinking. No doubt.

(Soundbite of glasses clinking)

Mr. EINSTEIN: (as Marty Funkhouser) Cheers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Everybody eat up. Come on.

Mr. DAVID: (as self) Oh. Did you guys hear about this? You know, the, that, what's the chicken place in Westwood, the Palestinian one. Al...

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Oh, Al Abass(ph).

Mr. DAVID: (as self) Al Abass. That's original chicken. They're opening up a second location. Right next door to Goldblatt's deli.

Ms. ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Over my dead body.

Mr. EINSTEIN: (as Marty Funkhouser) I'm sure that wouldn't bother them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Even if you agree with Larry David's TV alter ego on principle, he always ends up going too far. For me, his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" character ranks up there with John Cleese's Basil Fawlty in "Fawlty Towers." They're both guys whose ability to embarrass themselves while persisting in venting their outrage against the world ranks them among television's most original and entertaining comedy characters.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at npr/freshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at, freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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