In our weekly roundup of what's worth seeing (and what isn't), Broadway musicals, searing documentaries and a beloved comedy returns. Also, we attempt to binge on Netflix's first original series.
Season premiere Tuesday at 8 p.m. on NBC
Oh, Smash. What was supposed to be NBC’s saving grace, its first true prestige drama in years, was an unmitigated exercise in schlock-value Hate Watching. Over the course of its first season, the show, about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical for Broadway, typified the unfortunate qualifier so bad it’s good.
And after reportedly unruly behind-the-scenes drama that resulted in a casting purge (so long, devious assistant Ellis!) and the removal of the show’s creator and showrunner, Theresa Rebeck, the show has been revamped and stabilized by former Gossip Girl executive producer Joshua Safran.
Smash 2.0, at least the season’s first few episodes, are marked by the kind of playful pattering that made GG fun — at least when it wasn’t being derailed by loony bin plot developments, the groundwork for which is laid out in Tuesday’s premiere.
But maybe some craziness would do the show good, which for all its newfound solidness, still focuses too much time on Katherine McPhee’s aspiring singer-star Karen; McPhee has undoubted singing talent, just paper doll-caliber acting.
She comes across especially undercooked when pitted against Jennifer Hudson, who recurs this season as Veronica Moore, a Broadway superstar who, naturally, kills it singing. If only Smash had more moments like Hudson’s. B- — Aleksander Chan
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO
If you're looking for some lighthearted Monday night viewing this week, don't look to HBO. Alex Gibney's new documentary, which documents the Catholic Church's systematic cover-up of priestly pedophilia and sexual abuse is devastating, depressing and important.
At the heart of Gibney's film are four deaf men — Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski — who were abused as children by Father Lawrence Murphy, a teacher at Milwaukee's St. John's School for the Deaf from from 1950-1974.
From their shocking, heartbreaking first-person accounts of abuse, confusion, guilt and terror (featuring the voices of Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, John Slattery and Ethan Hawke, who narrate the men's signed tales), Gibney then expands his scope, examining the church's widespread, decades-long neglect of its deeply rooted abuse issues.
The doc expertly weaves the men's raw personal stories with a a broader, institutional indictment of the entire Catholic power structure and its systematic protection of perpetrator priests, featuring testimonials from human rights lawyers, ex-clergymen, psychologists and journalists involved in the sex scandal. The film is undoubtedly a tough watch, but it's one which effectively portrays the devastation of such deep corruption and the urgency necessary to dismantle it. B+ — Katie Stroh
Season premiere Thursday at 7 p.m. on NBC
It’s uncertain how much longer Dan Harmon’s ambitious, rambunctious comedy about the friendships borne out of a community college study group will be sticking around — especially since creator Harmon was fired and the show’s initial fall premiere was delayed until now. (Chevy Chase was also fired toward the end of the season’s shooting.)
Revel then, in what could possibly be the show’s final hours. Its new showrunners don’t quite capture the manic, rapid-fire of pop culture and neologisms of episodes past (though a few bits involving Abed in the premiere are inspired), but the show's tender heart (and Jeff's sweeping monologues) are still intact. B+ — AC
House of Cards
Season one available on Netflix
House of Cards marks Netflix's first foray into HBO-style prestige TV drama, and it hits all the usual marks: a powerful, megalomaniacal male anti-hero lead, slick, expensive production values, an impressive pedigree, and a thoroughly cynical worldview. The David Fincher-produced series follows Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless, scheming South Carolina Congressman and his icy wife and partner-in-deviance, Claire (Robin Wright).
When Underwood is snubbed for a spot as the new president's secretary of state, he and Claire embark on a rampage of sabotage and blackmail to bring down his political enemies. Underwood undertakes a symbiotic relationship with headstrong political cub reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), feeding her carefully manipulated media tip-offs that strategically destroy his nemeses.
Although the series oozes quality and is undeniably watchable (it holds up to the binge-watching model Netflix is clearly playing into by releasing all 13 episodes at once), it's never transcendent in the way shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men are — at least, not within the first five episodes (the binge-watching model doesn't work quite so well for reviewers on a deadline).
The series also suffers from its fourth-wall-breaking monologues — Spacey often soliloquies directly to viewers, often in mid-conversation with other characters or even in the middle of his own rousing eulogy of a teenage girl from his constituency.
The stylistic tic is almost immediately wearisome. It can also be painfully condescending — Underwood often uses his cliche-packed asides to explain things that viewers could easily grasp on their own. Nevertheless, House of Cards is an otherwise solid, compelling watch that rests on the strength of its performances and crispness of its direction. A- — KS
Also on this week:
Rules of Engagement
Returns Monday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS. The resilient sitcom kicks off its seventh season of harmless, middlebrow David Spade-led antics.
Premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on TNT. David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) and Dr. Sanjay Gupta (yes, that one) made a medical drama starring Alfred Molina.
The Jenny McCarthy Show
Premieres Friday at 9:30 p.m. on VH1. The former Playmate and Singled Out host has a new late night talk show.
The 55th Annual Grammy Awards
Airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on CBS. LL Cool J hosts. Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Frank Ocean and Rihanna perform.
The Walking Dead
Returns Sunday at 8 p.m. on AMC. The zombies rise again.