Aside from HBO’s “Girls,” there hasn’t been significant talk lately about current original series on the pay-cable networks. That has a lot to do with the absence of such showcase franchises as HBO’s “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Newsroom” and Showtime’s “Homeland,” “Dexter” and “Nurse Jackie.” But there is still much to get excited about in the pay universe.
“Girls” certainly deserves all the praise it has been getting, especially because it seems to spur more stimulating conversation than just about anything else on television at the moment. Are the four 20-something girls around whom the show revolves the product of extreme parental enabling and entitlement, utterly unable to effectively function on their own in the real world? Or are they really no different than clueless young adults in the generations before them?
That debate won’t be settled anytime soon, here or elsewhere. But “Girls” is a gem, if only because it reflects contemporary life with a stark, messy realism that is rarely detectable in popular entertainment. This really hit home in the recent episode titled “Boys,” which devoted much of its narrative to a memorable afternoon sojourn to Staten Island by two guys in the girls’ lives, slacker Adam and sad-sack Ray. Their goal was to return a dog Adam had stupidly taken from its owner, but Ray’s endless complaining about Staten Island and other matters drove Adam away, leaving well-meaning 30-something Ray alone in his wasted day.
At episode’s end, Ray sat on a bench, the dog by his side, staring across the Hudson at the Manhattan skyline, and dissolved into tears as the full weight of his utterly unremarkable life settled onto his shoulders. This is the kind of profound emotional clarity that used to periodically percolate in certain Norman Lear sitcoms, but there hasn’t been much of it since -- until “Girls,” which is positively powered by it. I hope series creator Lena Dunham has several more comedies in her, and I hope they’re not all on HBO, because broadcast television needs her today even more than it needed Norman Lear in the ‘70s.
One could argue that, when it comes to uncompromised realism, Showtime’s icky, sticky, often revolting “Shameless” actually eclipses “Girls” -- at least in the way it depicts struggling, financially desperate and broken people who still take some joy in life even at their lowest ebb. Week after week I can’t believe what the writers of this show put their regular, recurring and guest cast members through. As rough as it gets, I can’t stop watching, and it occurs to me on occasion that the actors may be having the times of their lives shedding their inhibitions. The cast is uniformly fearless, not simply because so many of them often remove their clothing and engage in uncommonly explicit sex scenes of every stripe, but because the emotional vulnerability of their characters is so painfully raw. Also, nobody ever looks clean. Emmy Rossum, as tireless eldest daughter Fiona, the touchstone of the Gallagher family, excels in one of the most demanding roles on television, but everyone in the cast, from William H. Macy and Joan Cusack to the youngsters who portray the messed-up Gallagher children, is simply terrific. “Shameless” may be television’s most challenging show, but it is also one of its most rewarding.
Fans of History’s “Vikings” and Fox’s “The Following” may disagree, but I think the most exciting new series of the year is the bone-crunching “Banshee” on Cinemax, which would deserve some kind of distinction as the most violent program on television were it not for Starz’ soon-to-conclude “Spartacus.”
Indeed, if “Spartacus” were to continue, “Banshee” star Antony Starr would be an excellent addition to the cast, given his uncommon skill at stunt fighting, which is used to full effect in this show. He plays Lucas Hood, a master thief fresh out of prison masquerading as the new sheriff in a small town while indulging on the side in a return to his life of crime. (Actually, that description only touches on the full scope of the complex “Banshee” narrative.) Lucas has ended up in an epic fight of some kind in almost every episode, and each of those brawls has been cinematic in scale. The sex, skin and ultra-violence on frequent display make “Banshee” the equivalent of R-rated socko entertainment -- or a big-fun drive-in movie -- which is exactly the kind of adult diversion people expect from pay cable in general and Cinemax in particular.
As for “Spartacus,” it continues in its final season to live up the promise Starz made even before its 2010 debut: That it would be ground-breaking in its depiction of brutal violence, graphic nudity (of both the male and female varieties) and explicit sex (of all kinds). Remarkably, it still has the power to shock, as evidenced during the jaw-dropping final moments of the March 22 episode, “Separate Paths.” There’s no telling which characters will be left standing at the close of the series’ April 12 finale, but two new ones -- Caesar (played by Todd Lasance) and Tiberius (Christian Antidormi) -- would be excellent protagonists should those rumors about Starz’ interest in a “Spartacus” spin-off prove true.