Ask anybody who writes about television about the future of programming and he will let you know the best shows aren't on broadcast anymore. Increasingly, they're not necessarily on TV. Netflix, AMC and others have demonstrated incontrovertibly that there's a robust market for challenging, niche-market material that engages adults—and the production world has responded accordingly. The trouble is, there's so much of it that your average couch potato isn't necessarily going to find all the great new shows without a little help. "You have streaming services, on-the-go apps—you have so many services for consumers that there are too many people watching too much programming," says Darcy Bowe, vp, media director at Starcom. "Frequently, there's not enough sampling for each person to create a viable audience." That's where we come in. Here, our picks for the best new shows across the whole media spectrum. You're welcome.
Sept. 23, HBO
A lot of the shows on this list explore deep thematic questions. With Hello Ladies, creator/star Stephen Merchant (who frequently teams up with Ricky Gervais) goes existential: Is it possible to laugh hysterically and want to gouge your eyes out at the same time? Just listening to the dialogue, the show is almost unbearable. Merchant plays a swingin’ single Angeleno who tries but fails miserably in love. But Merchant himself is such a wide-eyed, goofy innocent (not to mention a 6-foot-7-inch human giraffe) that you can’t help but be charmed by the sight of him. So will it hit? “HBO has done very well with cringe humor over the years,” says Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for HitFix and author of The Revolution Was Televised.
The Witches of East End
Oct. 6, Lifetime
Lifetime’s new show is a clear bid to shore up viewership among younger demos—the program would almost be at home on ABC Family were it not for some surprisingly scary horror trappings. “I think good supernatural shows work on multiple levels,” says showrunner Maggie Friedman. “Everything here is a metaphor.” Julia Ormond plays a small-town mom whose daughters have inherited her superpowers but don’t know it. From there, the show tackles the young heroines’ coming of age, while the older characters deal with letting go. Part True Blood, part tween drama, it’s soapy and you might not admit to watching it. But you also might not turn it off, either.
The Birthday Boys
Oct. 18, IFC
Not everyone knows that Bob Odenkirk is a genius, which is why it’s a little weird his is the big name attached to this new sketch show starring Upright Citizens Brigade regulars. This one is a bit less Portlandia, a bit more Kids in the Hall. The pilot features a gang of thugs who go to buy eggs, shaving cream and toilet paper so that they can … cook eggs, shave and hit the head. The title of a homemade, ’90s-MTV-style video about their offbeat exploits? “Christian Mischief.” More, please.
sometime Q4, Amazon
Garry Trudeau’s pilot has been dinged by a few critics for taking cheap shots. But if you’re a D.C. wonk, you’re going to see plenty to laugh about—mostly because Trudeau isn’t making things up. The senator who sings his way through a filibuster? Al D’Amato did it first. Republican legislators who share a creepy frat house? Check out Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family. The closeted anti-gay senator? Throw a dart. But will a show about politics from the Doonesbury creator hit with a young-skewing streaming audience? “Hey, Amazon crowdsourced the decision on which of their pilots to pick up,” Sepinwall says. “If their audience wanted more Alpha House, then they have to give that a shot.”
Oct. 9, DirecTV
Like Netflix and Amazon, DirecTV is trying its hand at original content to complement its distribution business. Can it do the job well? If Full Circle is any indication, the answer is yes. It’s a high-concept HBO-style drama with familiar actors from Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) to David Boreanaz. It’s also laden with artistic cred: a riff on Arthur Schnitzler’s late 19th century play La Ronde, scripted by playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute. Across 10 episodes, 11 characters engage in heart-to-hearts about love, lust, crime, divorce. Improbably, it’s riveting. DirecTV has co-produced programs, but it claims full ownership of this one. Starcom’s Bowe points out: “They want to make themselves unique as a [content] provider.”
Masters of Sex
Sept. 29, Showtime
Expect to hear a lot about this one. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan play Masters and Johnson, the respected doctor and his liberated assistant who shake up the conservative ’50s with their very graphic—and very funny—research into human sexuality. The whole project oozes prestige (among other things). But does the world need another fashion-centric period drama? No, says Showtime entertainment president David Nevins. “The last thing the world needs is another show to fetishize mid-century furniture and costumes,” he says. “I feel like this show is intensely contemporary; so much about our attitude toward sex and sexuality has barely changed since the show.” Sepinwall’s already a convert. “Even though it’s pretty close in time to Mad Men, and even closer to [BBC America’s] The Hour, it didn’t feel like a show I’d seen dozens of times before,” he says.
Dec. 4, TNT
How is this a TNT show? It doesn’t have an ampersand in the title! “This is very dark—it’s a complete departure for them,” notes Bowe. “I think it’s something they couldn’t pass up, and there are such big names attached to [it].” It may help the network shore up soft ratings, too. Those names include Walking Dead developer Frank Darabont. It’s adapted from John Buntin’s true-crime chronicle L.A. Noir—basically a blow-by-blow of all the corruption, racketeering and gangsterism that’s made Hollywood a pile of money. “This has been done recently on film and it wasn’t very successful,” Bowe says. Then again, Oscar-winner L.A. Confidential proved that the genre has legs. Since it hasn’t been tried on TV in recent memory, perhaps the time has come.