Asking the TV critic to predict the new year is risky. We know the players, know their strengths and flaws, but so much is yet to be determined, so much is out of the hands of the players and the predictors.
In television, an auteur's show on premium cable might sink in self-indulgence. A strong new network show might get an awful time slot and be defeated by a competing series, same time, different network.
Mind you, some patterns are clearly emerging, even as we look at mere lists of shows, the synopses, and their creators and stars. If we corral cable and network content together, what we see coming is a ton of toxic variations on the American nightmare of guns, killing and craziness.
Banshee, from the HBO-owned Cinemax (starts Jan. 11, HBO Canada) is set in a hallucinatory hell of corruption, crime, guns, death and sex. The fact that its producer is Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) gave it advance notoriety, and it does deliver. It stars Antony Starr as Lucas Hood, an ex-con who assumes the identity of the sheriff of Banshee, Pa. Naturally, he becomes the king of the local criminals, while enemies from his distant past move in on him (and his ex, now a local married mom, played by former Bond girl Ivana Milicevic). "How can one town have so many scumbags?" is the line to remember from the first episode. Everything nasty happens in a heightened setting that is by turns cartoonish and menacingly real.
The new, as-yet-unnamed Phil Spector biopic (HBO, date TBA) is obviously a big deal. David Mamet wrote it and Al Pacino stars as Spector, the legendary music producer and songwriter who was convicted of murder in 2009. It is mainly about that murder and the trial, and Spector's relationship with his lawyer, played by Helen Mirren.
Bates Motel (A&E, date TBA) is promoted as both a prequel to the events in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and a "reimagining" of the characters. Certainly it's about the young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his relationship with his mom (Vera Farmiga, adding movie-star power to the series). At the same time, it appears to be set in a contemporary small town, not the era just before the story told in Psycho. What's available to see in advance is nicely creepy. All one has to hear is Norman saying "I love you, Mom" for the shivers to start.
Behind the Candelabra (HBO, date TBA) promises to be a blunt, adults-only treatment of the tempestuous relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it has compelled Damon to warn Liberace fans that the production will surely shock then.
Parade's End (HBO, date TBA) is an HBO/BBC production derived from the quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford. A bittersweet, sometimes achingly painful story, it's really about a love triangle. A conservative English aristocrat (Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as Holmes on PBS's Sherlock) is torn between his brittle wife and a young suffragette.
Da Vinci's Demons (Starz, a Canadian channel TBA, spring 2013) is "the secret history of Leonardo da Vinci's tantalizing life." We're told as well that da Vinci "throws himself into his genius and emerges as an unstoppable force that lifts an entire era out of darkness and propels it into light." The show comes from David S. Goyer, co-writer of the Dark Knight Rises trilogy. Da Vinci the superhero is played by English actor Tom Riley and the series looks like The Borgias with less sex and more mysticism. Note that in its short life, Starz has already given us the great Boss and the very good Magic City series.
Among returning series, Girls starts its second season Jan. 13 (HBO Canada). Season 2 of HBO's Enlightened – starring Laura Dern in her Golden Globe-winning role as a corporate exec who breaks down, only to become a guru of goodness – returns the same night.
NEW AND NOTABLE ON NETWORKS
The Following (Jan. 21, 9 p.m. Fox and CTV) is the hottest of the hot midseason series. Created by Kevin Williamson (The Scream movies, Dawson's Creek) it also has the potential to be the most controversial. A grim, gory psychological thriller, it stars Kevin Bacon as a deeply damaged ex-FBI agent in a battle of wills with a charismatic serial killer (James Purefoy) who, it turns out, has legions of disciples who follow his orders. For network TV, it's unusually disturbing, graphic and bleak. Thematically, it's linked to Banshee and Bates Motel as part of an operatic obsession with violence and a barbarous undertow in U.S. culture.
Do No Harm (Jan. 31, NBC) is a twist on the Jekyll-and-Hyde story. The main character, a neurosurgeon named Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale) suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and the drug that suppresses his dark side is wearing off. His alter ego, Ian, is a nasty, unrepentant jerk. The theme of underlying, violent craziness continues here.
Hannibal (NBC, date TBA) goes back to Thomas Harris's novels about serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played here by Mads Mikkelsen) to finesse the drama of the killer's mind and methods. An FBI criminal profiler (Hugh Dancy) feels he can learn from Lecter, who is also screwing with the mind of a therapist (Gillian Anderson from X-Files). Thematically: ditto.
Cracked (Jan. 8, CBC) stars David Sutcliffe (Gilmore Girls, Private Practice) as Detective Aidan Black, a tough Toronto cop dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, often poorly, while assigned to a unit dealing mainly with mental illnesses. He's got a psychiatrist/cop (Stefanie von Pfetten) as a partner. On the early evidence, Cracked is so deeply conventional and well-meaning, its only perversity is its blandness.
Motive (Feb. 3, CTV) is the other Canadian crime drama, but this one has buzz. Set in Vancouver, it promises a twist on the conventional procedural, with the viewer knowing way more than the characters. The lead cop – described by CTV as "a feisty female Vancouver homicide detective" – is played by Kristin Lehman.