We've approached that tricky lull of midseason where we're between blitzes of new series premiering and new episodes of most shows aren't airing every week. So in this down week without any significant new premieres, we're checking in on the shows we've been following (and mostly enjoying) all season and making our case for binge-viewing marathons.
Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC
14 episodes into its first season, the tuneful, twangy country soap Nashville is perhaps now the most fun, addictive drama on TV — move over, Downton Abbey, you're past your prime.
The show, which started strong last fall with a premiere stuffed with catfights, backroom political deals, meaningful glances and ridiculously catchy country songs, continues to be a consistently entertaining hour of television.
In an extremely surprising turn of events, Hayden Panettiere, an actress previously easily dismissed as that chirpy, no-talent blonde from Heroes and the blasphemous Bring It On sequels, has become one of the most compelling and charismatic presence on TV.
As the massive crossover singer Juliette Barnes, Panettiere alternately charms and rampages her way through her scenes, embodying that sweet spot between Taylor Swift's girl-next-door country-pop appeal and a seasoned diva's steely-eyed sass.
Nashville also seems to be slowly siphoning off some of its more snoozy plots — especially that of struggling, egotistical Avery Barkley (ex-boyfriend to the gratingly sweet up-and-comer Scarlett O'Connor) and his sleazy, careerist ways.
However, the show still struggles with the fact that nearly half of its characters are supremely uninteresting, including (but not limited to) Rayna's soon-to-be ex-husband and mayor of Nashville Teddy, and the harmonious duo Gunnar and Scarlett, who show very little chemistry together — when they're not on stage performing some of the show's best tunes, that is.
All this is forgiven, however, when Nashville pulls off scenes like every electric (but too rare) instance of clashing divadom between Panettiere and Connie Britton's Rayna James. The more Nashville stays true to its musical roots and shies away from political intrigue and uninspiring love stories, the better. — Katie Stroh
Catch up on Hulu and on ABC.com.
Airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox
It’s reasonable to think that in this Golden Age of Television, the rules for the forlorn, requited love interests, that Sam and Diane kind of relationship, can be rewritten.
They may have been already, because in the second season of Liz Meriwether’s screwball comedy, the Kiss has happened between Zooey Deschanel’s ditzy Jess and Jake Johnson’s daffy Nick — and not only did it not crater the cast’s impeccable dynamic and rapport, it feels like it makes complete sense.
What’s making it work is that the show has stayed true to itself and its characters; of course Nick freaked and, of course Jess would spazz. Their coming to terms of what their brief embrace means to each of them is a way for a show that cherishes the oddball idiosyncrasies formed in close friendships to find a naturalistic romantic thread.
Because even though the show is in the prime of its youth as it rounds out its second season, the relationship between the core roommates feels lived in and genuine — marked by the playful ribbing, loving sarcasm and unfettered affection of people who have been close for much longer than the 40 odd episodes they actually have been.
That said, the show knows how to play to its strengths: Nick, Jess and the rapscallion Schmidt (Max Greenfield, who possesses perhaps TV’s best, reactionary browline) have come to the forefront of too many plotlines. Poor Winston (Lamorne Morris) and CeCe (Hannah Simone) are like the show’s unfortunate second bananas.
Better together than alone, New Girl has reached a tricky creative crest: How does it mine its ensemble’s chemistry without tiring it out? Nick and Jess’ pseudo-romantic entanglement, and how the show has staged its development as a slapstick-heavy unraveling, is a promising indication of its second act. — Aleksander Chan
Catch up on Hulu and on Fox.com.
The Mindy Project
Airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox
The thing about first seasons of new comedies is that they spend a lot their time, especially the ones that turn out to be great, figuring out what kind of show they want to be and what kind of show they can be.
For The Mindy Project, that meant figuring out just how much of creator and star Mindy Kaling’s penchant for waxing ‘90s romantic comedy was charmingly retro, and what was just plainly derivative — finding the fine line between veneration and duplication.
Last week’s episode, where Seth Rogen guest starred as an old flame of Mindy’s from summer camp, is a step in the right direction, striking the right balance between playful banter and goofiness, taking a key lesson from the Nora Ephron films it celebrates by resisting the temptation to fuss with what’s already working.
But even as it moves forward with promise, Mindy’s background world is largely inert: the workplace in this supposed workplace comedy loses almost all its comedic air whenever its star isn’t around. And despite casting changes and creative retouches, it doesn't all quite gel together and tightly as it could.
A gold star, though, to Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano, clearly devised as Mindy’s eventual love interest. This doctor at Mindy’s practice has a defiant, occasionally displaced sense of machismo swagger that is a great foil to Mindy’s bright hues and sparkling enthusiasm — an odd couple that truly evens each other out. If there’s any reason to hold out for this comedy, it’s for those two and their crackling, sharp-witted back-and-forth. — AC
Catch up on Hulu and on Fox.com.
Airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on FX
A couple of days off its fifth-season renewal, Archer seems to be on an unstoppable roll. It's not unusual for comedies as neck-breakingly fast-paced and densely packed with jokes like Archer to run out of steam fairly quickly — remember that even the hallowed Arrested Development began to falter in its third season.
Archer, however, shows no signs of slowing down its unrelenting barrage of obscure references, inside jokes and character callbacks only the most dedicated viewers could catch.
The animated comedy also makes clever use of celebrity guest stars, as displayed in its most recent episode, "Live and Let Dine," featuring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as Lance Casteau, a.k.a. "The Bastard Chef," a Gordon Ramsay-esque jackass who has hired the ISIS team to provide security for a group of Albanian diplomats coming to dine at his restaurant.
Casteau and Archer (undercover as his sous chef Randy Randerson) of course get on swimmingly, Casteau schooling Archer in the ways of his ABBAB technique: "Always Be Belittling And Berating.”
Although the "reality cooking show" trope isn't one of Archer's most subtle instances of satire, it provides a rich environment for the ISIS agents to do things like weep while mutilating sheep heads in a walk-in fridge and constantly drop the kitchen's "slippery-ass bowls."
Meanwhile, back at the ISIS offices, Mallory desperately tries to get a table at Casteau's restaurant while holding Pam's fighting beta fish hostage and Cheryl imitates a Kennedy-esque blue blood a lot, which is basically all you could ask for in terms of a B-plot.
As long as Archer stays out of that later-season rut, keeps finding new ways to deepen its completely bonkers characters and keeps its callbacks fresh, it should stay on course as TV's most indomitable comedy. — KS
Catch up on Amazon Instant Video.
Other potential binge viewing:
The Americans. On Amazon Instant Video. Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) play undercover KGB agents in 1980s America. One of the best new shows of the year.
Justified. On Amazon Instant Video. Timothy Olyphant is as quick as a draw as a U.S. Marshal as his hair is slick. Pulpy good fun.
Mad Men. On Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. Hurry up! The most curated historical drama on TV is back next month.
Scandal. On Hulu and ABC.com. Shonda Rhimes’ (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice) insane power soap opera about a Washington “fixer” (Kerry Washington) is the definition of so-crazy-it-might-work.