Not so long ago, if you weren’t home to catch a TV episode when it aired and forgot to stick a tape in your impossible-to-program VCR, you’d have to wait until it came out on video to watch it. One of the great things about being a television fan in 2011 is that we’re no longer slaves to primetime. Now, every week seems to bring a new way to see our favorite shows, from DVR to on-demand to Netflix to Hulu to HBO Go to iTunes — if only we had the time to take it all in. Thankfully, the holiday break brings us a much-needed opportunity to catch up: Between the extra days off, the tedium of traveling and/or visiting family, and most shows’ seasonal hiatus, we’re in a good place to start watching the programs that have eluded us. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up a few of the fall’s best new series for your marathon-viewing pleasure.
Although some critics are chafing over the season finale, most would agree that Homeland is one of the very best shows of this fall’s bunch. In a series about national security that George W. Bush haters will actually be able to stomach (you know, unlike 24), Claire Danes stars as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative who pops anti-psychotics and obsessively tracks a rescued prisoner of war who she believes is working for al-Qaida. Both Carrie and the POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), are fantastically complex characters, making Homeland something very rare indeed: a psychological thriller with heart.
If Homeland is the show you brag to your friends about watching (but seriously, don’t do that), then Revenge is the one you probably can’t admit you’re addicted to. Well, we’re giving you permission to enjoy this pleasure guilt-free, because you should never feel bad about liking something so fun. Set in the high-society Hamptons, Revenge follows Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a young woman with a troubled past, on her single-minded quest to destroy the family who brought down her late father. Of course, this entails lots of sex and intrigue and poor people who can’t be trusted because they want your money — but the pace is so fast and the plot so twisted that it’s the perfect confection for, say, killing time on a five-hour train ride.
Up All Night (NBC)
After a pilot that had us worrying that Up All Night would be one “Babies, how do they work?” joke after another, with occasional appearances by an irritating Maya Rudolph character, the show found its footing. Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, who didn’t seem to have much chemistry at first, found a groove and convinced us that they were a lovable 30-something couple who weren’t going to make too big a deal about Dad staying home instead of Mom. Rudolph’s Ava calmed down, too, becoming not only a narcissistic talk-show host but a loyal friend who, at the very least, means well. Up All Night isn’t as experimental or pop culture-obsessed as most of NBC’s other beloved comedies, but it’s a nice change of pace that’s been slowly winning us over with its sweetness.
American Horror Story (FX)
Meanwhile, if sweetness is what you’re looking for, time to click past American Horror Story. The inscrutable Ryan Murphy’s latest venture places talented actors (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga, and — above all — Jessica Lange) in an endless haunted-house horror movie. Season 1, which ends Wednesday, is bananas from beginning to end, featuring everything from truly scary slasher sequences to mindfucks unlike any we’ve seen on primetime. Not only is American Horror Story over-the-top ridiculous (and sharp-eyed viewers are sure to catch some plot inconsistencies), but it’s also, in its own way, as misanthropic as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. We wouldn’t recommend the show to the faint of heart; for those who appreciate B-movie camp, though, it’s a lot of nasty fun.
To a certain kind of person, Enlightened sounds terrible: a show about a middle-aged lady who has a nervous breakdown, spends some time in anger rehab, and comes back vowing to “make a difference”? Rest assured that series creators Mike White and Laura Dern, who plays the recovering executive in question, know that there’s something inherently yucky about this kind of character, and that’s why the show is a (sometimes achingly depressing) comedy. What’s really miraculous about Enlightened is that you’ll start out hating Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, only to wind up pinning all of your desperate dreams of good triumphing over evil — or, at least, meaningful work and relationships triumphing over office drudgery and general jerkwaddery — on her.
Mad Fashion (Bravo)
Did you even know this show existed? Well, it does, and we believe the word for it is “fabulous.” Mad Fashion follows Project Runway favorite Chris March — yes, the sometime drag queen who put human hair on everything — and his staff as they create delightful and often extreme one-of-a-kind ensembles for celebrities, competitions, and other special cases. March is hilarious, and the fashion is fun and weird. What else do you need in a show?
It may have topped our list of most-anticipated new fall shows, but we actually think that just about every entry on this list is better than Ringer. Things that bugged us included low-budget effects, not-so-great dialogue, and a plot that can be hard to swallow. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, though, Ringer can be fun to watch — there’s suspense and mystery, and it’s still the only show on TV that stars Sarah Michelle Gellar.
We’re going to be honest: We haven’t seen Boss. We hear it’s great, and we even stuck by Kelsey Grammer through all 58 seasons of Frasier, so we’re pretty sure we’ll buy into this one. But even pop-culture bloggers have a TV limit, and we exceeded ours before we got the chance to tune in to this Starz series. (Also, who gets Starz?) So, readers, this is the Golden Globe-nominated series we’ll be catching up on over the holidays. In the mean time, take Salon critic Matt Zoller Seitz‘s word for it: “Boss radiates intelligence and toughness, and an appreciation of politics as a nonstop performance in an unscripted drama. A colleague has compared it to a tougher, localized answer to The West Wing, but I don’t think that’s right, because The West Wing, for all its eloquence and idealism, was set in a world that Aaron Sorkin wished existed. Boss is set in this world. It’s sometimes opulent but never glamorous or reassuring.”