New shows for a new year

The West Wing

★★★★½

Netflix, full series recently added

Netflix gave TV lovers an extra Christmas present this year by adding every season of Aaron Sorkin’s best show to its streaming selection. The West Wing (NBC, 1999–2005) found the perfect setting to turn Sorkin’s few writing weaknesses (dialogue that’s too clever by half and a tendency for moral monologging) into strengths by following fictional president Jed Bartlett, whose tendency to moralize and sound like the smartest person on Earth seems more like a job description than a writing tic. The series falters somewhat once Sorkin leaves at the end of the fourth season, but its fantastic cast—headed up by Martin Sheen with other great actors like Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney playing his staff—keep the show from ever being less than good.

Falling Skies

★★★

Amazon Prime, seasons 1 and 2 recently added

The last few years have seen a number of shows with great high-concept premises that can’t quite afford to spend every week fighting aliens or zombies or dinosaurs or whatever. Falling Skies (TNT, 2011-Present) is maybe the most pure example of this mini-genre. Like most of these shows Falling Skies often pushes aside its premise (aliens attacked, we already lost) in favor of stories about the lead, in this case Noah Wiley as a doctor turned freedom fighter, and his strained relationship with his family. This wouldn’t be a problem if these domestic plots were compelling, but they usually aren’t. Unlike The Walking Dead, which has largely turned those plots into a strength, or Terra Nova, which fell on its face ignoring anything outside the family plot lines, Falling Skies continually walks the line between compelling and frustrating. There’s enough alien fighting here to create television worth watching and the interpersonal drama starts to be more compelling than distracting toward the end of the first season. But Falling Skies is still a show that falls apart just short of greatness.

Red Dwarf

★★★½

Netflix, coming 1/1

Netflix usually adds a number of new movies and TV series at the start of each year, and this year a pair of great British comedies are coming your way. Like a lot of British shows Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-Present) has a strange and sporadic airing history, with several revivals of varying quality that make it hard to rate the series as a whole. When its at its best, however, Red Dwarf is one of the greatest sci-fi comedies of all time. The show follows Dave Listler, the last human in the universe, trapped on a ship three million years in the future with a hologram of his least favorite former crewmate. The show’s fairly thin premise has really served as a way to use various science-fictional concepts as plot devices, creating a sitcom that can center episodes around a parody of Westworld or just time travel in general as it pleases them.

Coupling

★★★★

Netflix, coming 1/1

The second British comedy that should be returning to Netflix in 2013, Coupling (BBC, 2000–2004) has a more traditional airing history, running for four seasons at the start of the previous decade. At the time, Coupling was often thought of as a British version of Friends, since it concerned the romantic and personal misadventures of a group of six attractive middle-class people in their mid-twenties. That label never really fit the show well, however. It now seems more like a precursor to sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Community that care more about the consequences of relationships among friends and have fun playing with the structure of sitcoms. While Coupling’s structural games have translated well to comedy here in America, they’ve taken a slightly different path in England. Coupling creator Steven Moffat now plays with all kinds of timey-wimey structural nonsense as the show-runner on Doctor Who.

That Mitchell and Webb Look

★★★★½

Netflix, expiring 1/1

Unfortunately, the start of the year also means a number of great shows will be leaving Netflix, including That Mitchell and Webb Look (BBC, 2006–2010), which I consider the best British sketch show of the 21st century. Like most sketch shows, it’s hard to sum up Mitchell and Webb quickly, but their sketches tend to center on parodies of popular culture, like an absurdly complicated gameshow called Numberwang and a pair of lazy writers who create an underdog sports movie about Cricket while knowing nothing about the sport. If you’re looking to catch up quickly, the entire series is just 24 half-hour episodes so you can probably watch the entire series in a single day if you’re committed.

Farscape

★★★★

Netflix, expiring 1/1

It’ll be much more difficult to catch up with our last series before it expires, but Farscape (Syndicated, 1999–2004) is worth the effort. Farscape, like a lot of interesting sci-fi shows, was critically lauded but never particularly popular. The show has a fairly typical sci-fi premise, with an American astronaut falling through a wormhole into a galaxy of adventure on the other side of the universe. The show managed to create a compelling story and cast from that beginning, but its main claim to fame was its many alien prosthetics and characters created by the Jim Henson company, which gave the show’s aliens a very different feel from the typical Star Trek approach of gluing ridges onto everyone’s forehead.

What’s new

  • Wallander (BBC) Seasons 1–3: Netflix
  • Skins (BBC) Seasons 3–5: Netflix

Expiring soon

  • Metajets (Syndicated) Season 1: Netflix (12/31)
  • The Planet’s Funniest Animals (Animal Planet): Netflix (1/9)
  • Voltron (Syndicated) Full Series: Netflix (1/1)

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