Want Good TV? Try These Three Shows TV critic David Bianculli says most shows on TV this fall are a big disappointment. But three offerings this upcoming Sunday night — Prohibition, Dexter and Homeland — are all excellent, invigorating and exceptionally intelligent.

Want Good TV? Try These Three Shows

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140815526/140920073" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The 2011 fall TV series has gotten off to a disappointing start, but that's all about to change, beginning this Sunday with a new documentary series, the premiere of a new drama series, and the season premiere of another drama series. All three are excellent, invigorating, and exceptionally intelligent.

The documentary is the latest PBS multi-part presentation by Ken Burns, a three night examination of "Prohibition," which also is the program's title. Burns and his filmmaking partner, Lynn Novick, aren't just riding the "Boardwalk Empire" train here their story begins a full hundred years before Prohibition began in the 1920s. In fact, they spend the entire first installment explaining how alcohol became a wedge issue, and how religious conservatives, woman suffragists and other groups all used it to gain political power.

This background is fascinating, not dry - and it touches on many subjects Burns has explored before. "Prohibition" opens with a quote by Mark Twain, spends the bulk of its time during the Jazz Age, and, in a segment on the anti-alcohol movement of the 1840s, even finds a link to slavery. And in the same segment, narrator Peter Coyote finds time to reveal the origin of the term teetotaller.


PETER COYOTE: (as Narrator) The same reformers who were leading the crusade to abolish slavery saw drinking at the damage it did to individuals, families and communities as no less sinful, no less corrupting.

(as Narrator) They called their movement Temperance. At first, advocates preached mere moderation, only ardent spirits like rum and whiskey were off-limits. But soon they began demanding total abstinence from all forms of alcohol, insisting on capital T, Total abstinence.

BIANCULLI: "Prohibition" is another impressive entry in the Ken Burns canon - and yes, it's another history lesson with almost creepy parallels to today's headlines. These include illegal phone taps, political gamesmanship and government programs branded as socialism.

The three segments of "Prohibition" are shown Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights on PBS - with the opening night bumping right up against "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO. That's unfortunate.

And even more unfortunate is that night one, on Sunday, also bumps up against the sixth-season return of "Dexter" on Showtime. That series stars Michael C. Hall as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami police department, who's also a serial killer who tracks and kills other serial killers. It's one of my favorite shows on TV. It's also one that seems to get fans who are not caught up, angry whenever I talk about it, even though I'm discussing plot points that happened more than a season before - so this time, I'll stay out of trouble.

This time, I'll say only that season six begins very strongly, and is highly recommended. But even though I won't reveal anything about the shows I've previewed, I will predict the long-time future of this show, just to get it on the record. I believe "Dexter" ultimately will end the same way I believe AMC's "Breaking Bad" will end, with the protagonist ultimately uncovered, and confronted, by a loving relative. In "Breaking Bad," I predict it'll be Walter White's DEA brother-in-law, Hank, who closes in on him. In "Dexter," it'll be Dexter's own sister Debra, who's a cop in the same Miami police department. Both of those characters have strong investigative instincts and even stronger stubborn streaks - so both shows, I'm guessing, are on the same narrative path.

One new show premiering Sunday, following "Dexter" on Showtime, has a narrative path all its own, one I've never seen before in a weekly TV series, and that's saying something.

It's called "Homeland," and stars Claire Danes as Carrie Matheson, a CIA agent who becomes obsessed with Sgt. Nick Brody, an American POW located and rescued after years of brutal captivity in Iraq. Nick, played by Damian Lewis from "Band of Brothers" and NBC's "Life," is about to return home to a hero's welcome. But Carrie, acting on a scrap of vague information, suspects Nick may have been turned while held prisoner, and is now a double agent for al-Qaida. Carrie takes her suspicions to one of her bosses - played by Mandy Patinkin, in a very welcome return to TV - but he's not buying it.


MANDY PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) You're suggesting that Abu Nazir planted intelligence on his own safe house, just so we could recover Sgt. Brody?

CLAIRE DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) I realize it sounds like a reach.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) To say the least. Why not just drop him here at checkpoint make it look like he escaped. Why would you sacrifice 13 trained fighters?

DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) See what's happening here, he's play the long game. At least and know the suspect's the same.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Except you.

DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) Yeah. Except me. And Sgt. Brody is due home from Germany tomorrow morning, which gives us just under 22 hours.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) To do what?

DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) To authorize a surveillance package, to tap his phones, wire his house, follow him where ever he goes.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) (Unintelligible) would never sign off on that, you know it.

DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) Well, of course, he won't. That way he'll be the poster boy for the war and they will just serve them up on a platter. That's why I'm coming to you.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I'm not going over his head. Not on a hunch.

DANES: (as Carrie Anderson) But if I'm right, if he is a terrorist, we need eyes and ears on Brody from the minute he steps off that plane.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Never happen.

BIANCULLI: If Carrie is right, she's the real hero of this story. If not, Nick's not only the victim - he's the hero, too. For the first few episodes of "Homeland," our loyalties are split, and we don't know which character to root for, only that they're both played by incredibly likable and sympathetic performers. And watching Carrie pursue Brody, without being certain of his true motives, puts a fascinating new twist on an otherwise familiar tale.

Eventually, we will discover the truth, and the series, and the drama, will continue from there. But for right now, "Homeland" is offering something unique to television. And when you're talking about television, that's a phrase you don't hear very often. Just in time, thanks to "Homeland" and "Dexter" and "Prohibition," the 2011 TV season is looking up - and looking good.


BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, C. Peter Wagner, a leading apostle in the New Apostolic Reformation. Its missions include dominion, taking leadership positions in government, education, business and the media, and evangelizing cities by conducting spiritual warfare against demons. Several apostles affiliated with the movement helped organize or spoke at Rick Perry's prayer rally. Join us.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.