The many profound series that filled all those recent year-end best-of lists made clear that the new golden age of television drama that began with the turn of the millennium shows no sign of fading. In fact, the surge of new dramas set to debut in the early months of this year suggests the opposite. They’ll join such impressive returning efforts as PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” USA Network’s “Suits,” Showtime’s “Shameless,” Syfy’s “Being Human,” Starz’ “Spartacus,” FX’s “Justified” and TNT’s “Dallas.” Early episodes of these shows suggest that they are all continuing to improve with age (especially “Suits”).
The most unashamedly entertaining of the many new dramatic entries in this burgeoning midseason looks to be on Cinemax. “Banshee,” a funky new effort from “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” executive producer Alan Ball, is best described as a weekly dose of drive-in movie-style escapism, with a little bit of contemporary Tarantino tossed in for good measure. It’s about a master thief fresh out of prison who takes on the identity of a small town sheriff after the lawman is brutally killed in a violent barroom altercation, and who then returns to his criminal ways while becoming increasingly involved with the often dangerous locals in the area, not to mention lethal acquaintances from his past. There are wildly eccentric characters and sinister subplots galore that make the first two episodes as much fun as anything else on television. “Banshee” is so well done I found myself wondering why it isn’t on HBO. It debuts Jan. 11.
BBC America will follow the success of its first original series, “Copper,” with another intense period piece, “Ripper Street,” starting Jan. 19. It’s a gritty thriller about detectives solving violent crimes in Victorian London in the immediate aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s historic 1888 killing spree, burdened all the while by private and public fears that each new murder could mark the return of the Ripper himself. The pilot indicates that “Ripper” will push content boundaries even farther than “Copper.”
Making its debut on Jan. 21, Fox’s “The Following” -- about a tormented ex-FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) facing down his own demons while tracking down a scary-smart serial killer (James Purefoy) who escapes from death row -- is one of those rare broadcast dramas that feels more like a fearlessly adult basic cable program than a cautiously controlled network effort. The pilot for this show, which establishes that the killer used the Internet to amass a wide-ranging cult of twisted individuals eager to follow his lead and slaughter innocent people, has been making noise since it was first circulated back in May. Last fall I said it looked to be the finest new broadcast series of the 2012-13 season. That’s still the case, but I have to wonder if the timing is right for a series like this one given the real-life horrors of recent months, from the widespread devastation of Hurricane Sandy to the unthinkable mass murder in Newtown. “The Following” is extremely well done, but is it too extreme?
Another immediately intriguing new drama is FX’s “The Americans,” about married KGB spies named Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings who are posing as suburbanites in Washington, D.C. at the start of the Reagan era. The multi-layered tension that runs throughout the narrative is palpable, from the Jennings’ efforts to conceal their true identities from their two children and their new neighbor (a suspicious FBI agent), to the demands of their often dangerous missions, to the rift that begins to separate them when Philip entertains ideas of defecting and embracing the American way of life. The overarching storyline is quite compelling, and it’s great fun watching Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) play roles that are so widely removed from those for which they are best known. If there’s a problem here, it’s that there aren’t any characters to root for or believe in. In that respect “The Americans” sometimes resembles “The Riches,” a previous FX series that was equally interesting but similarly challenged. It begins Jan. 30.
TNT has a potential winner in “Monday Mornings,” a new medical drama from David E. Kelley and Bill D’Elia that is sometimes as quirky and often as powerful as their previous efforts, which include “Boston Legal” and “Harry’s Law.” As with those shows, Kelley and D’Elia don’t hold back in working important contemporary issues and concerns into their storytelling. The impressive cast includes Alfred Molina, Ving Rhames, Jamie Bamber and Jennifer Finnegan. “Monday Mornings” is based on the novel of the same name by CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who serves as an executive producer. It will premiere on Feb. 4.
Last, but by no means least, are two bold new shows set to debut in April: Syfy’s “Defiance,” which will simultaneously unfold as a weekly action-adventure series and as a massively multi-player video game, and Sundance Channel’s “Rectify,” about a man trying to enter modern society after spending almost 20 years in complete isolation on death row for a murder he apparently did not commit and the impact his release has on family, friends and everyone involved in his case. “Rectify” is Sundance Channel’s first wholly owned original scripted series.