TV tends wind down in December, as the holidays approach and series begin their mid-season breaks. Still, there’s plenty to look forward to this month: Comedian Pete Holmes’s first HBO hour-long, the return of two Amazon originals, and a promising new Netflix docu-series. But the December TV calendar is mostly filled with one-off specials and live events, like NBC’s heavily promoted Hairspray Live!, holiday variety shows from Fox and IFC, and the resurrection of a long-running tradition, Showtime at the Apollo. Plus, Lee Daniels premieres his new musical drama, Star, which will return for a full season in January. Happy watching!
12/3: Pete Holmes: Faces and Sounds (HBO)
New York-based comedian Pete Holmes debuts his first HBO stand-up special this month — a trial run of sorts for his upcoming HBO series, Crashing, created by and starring Holmes, with Judd Apatow serving as an executive producer. Holmes has an appealing nice-guy vibe — “I’m not a cool person,” he admits — and whip-smart observational material; he’s a mainstream comic with wide appeal and genuine wit, a combination that’s tricky to pull off. (Louis C.K. has made a pretty good career out of it.) He’s probably best known for his podcast, You Made it Weird, and his TBS talk show, The Pete Holmes Show, which ran from 2013-2014.
12/5: Showtime at the Apollo (Fox)
This two-hour special will be the first installment of the long-running Showtime at the Apollo series since 2008. The syndicated series began in 1987; each episode featured live music performances, with a variety of comedians, including Whoopi Goldberg, Anthony Anderson, Mo’Nique, and Martin Lawrence, serving as host. Steve Harvey is, perhaps inevitably, hosting Fox’s December special — he hosted the series from 1993 to 2000 — and will feature the show’s famed Amateur Night competition, a weekly contest that Harlem’s Apollo Theater has hosted for over 80 years. Don’t worry — plenty of pros are also slated to perform, including comedians Tracy Morgan, Mike Epps, and Gabriel Iglesias, rappers Doug E. Fresh and Rakim, and throwback acts En Vogue and Bell Biv DeVoe.
12/7: Hairspray Live! (NBC)
The latest musical to get the live-broadcast treatment is the John Waters classic Hairspray, which NBC has rebranded as Hairspray Live! The 1988 cult film-turned-2002 Broadway musical takes place in 1960s Baltimore, where teenager Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on the American Bandstand-like Corny Collins Show. The live musical follows in the tradition of the 2007 film reboot, which cast the unknown Nikki Blonsky in the lead role — NBC’s version stars 20-year-old Maddie Baillio in her first major TV gig. Hairspray Live! also features Harvey Fierstein as Tracy’s mom, Edna, in a role he originated on Broadway, as well as Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Billy Eichner, Andrea Martin, Derek Hough, and more.
12/7: Shut Eye (Hulu)
Hulu’s latest original drama unfortunately follows in the footsteps of its last original drama, Chance, another show starring a familiar middle-aged white TV actor that takes itself a little too seriously. Chance had Hugh Laurie; Shut Eye has Jeffrey Donovan, fresh off a seven-season stint as the lead on USA’s Burn Notice, which went off the air in 2013. In Shut Eye, Donovan plays a failed-magician-turned-phony-psychic — until he gets knocked in the head and finds he actually is psychic! It’s as silly as it sounds, but based on the first episode, it appears no one told the show’s writers that this premise is better suited to comedy than melodrama. Shut Eye isn’t supposed to be funny, but its unintentional humor is the best thing it has going for it.
12/8: Taraji’s White Hot Holidays (Fox)
Last year, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard teamed up to spread cheer and capitalize on the success of Empire for a Fox special called Taraji and Terrence’s White Hot Holidays. Henson goes solo for this year’s variety show, which will include guests galore — including Henson’s Empire co-star Jussie Smollett, Pharrell Williams, Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, and TLC. Tyler Perry and Terry Crews are expected to make cameos, and keep your eye out for surprise guests throughout the hour-long special.
12/9: Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon)
The third season of this delightful comedy about a group of classical musicians and their brilliant, irascible conductor lands on Amazon this month. Season 3 finds Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) abandoning his New York City orchestra for Italy, working with the acclaimed opera star Alessandra (Monica Bellucci). Hailey (Lola Kirke) is traveling Europe with Andrew Walsh’s (Dermot Mulroney) ensemble, and she’s beginning to take an interest in conducting. Since the musicians were locked out of the theater at the end of Season 2, tensions between the orchestra and the institution — particularly between Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) and Gloria (Bernadette Peters) — are high. The new season arrives at just the right moment: Mozart in the Jungle is the perfect holiday binge, funny and light and with cross-generational appeal.
12/9: Captive (Netflix)
Over eight episodes, this new Netflix docu-series examines eight real-life hostage situations, from the 1993 prison riot in Lucasville, Ohio to the 1991 kidnapping of the director of five Coca-Cola plants in Brazil. Executive producer Doug Liman is known for his feature films — he directed The Bourne Identity and, more recently, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. Captive examines each hostage situation from multiple points of view — we hear from the victims, their families, the authorities, and even the kidnappers themselves — and digs up fascinating archival footage to give viewers a truly behind-the-scenes glimpse into the shadowy, volatile world of hostage negotiations.
12/14: Star (Fox)
Lee Daniels is quickly turning into Fox’s answer to Shonda Rhimes, who’s built an empire (ha-ha, get it?) over at ABC with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. Daniels, who co-created the very successful Empire for Fox, with Danny Strong, is behind the network’s latest musical drama. Daniels and playwright Tom Donaghy created Star, which follows three rising singers as they attempt to navigate Atlanta’s music industry. Newcomer Jude Demorest plays the title character, an 18-year-old hood rat who’s spent her adolescent years in foster care. Queen Latifah plays the owner of a beauty salon who becomes a de facto mother to Star, her younger sister (Brittany O’Grady), and the wealthy Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), who leaves her cosseted, trust-fund life behind to join the sisters on their journey to stardom. There will be original music; there will be dream sequences. The show will return for a full season on January 4, 2017.
12/16: The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)
Given the current state of American politics, you’d be forgiven if you’re not in the mood for another season of The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. The series presents an alternate history of the world: What if the Allied forces had lost World War II? In this world, the United States is split into three units: A Japanese puppet state, a Nazi puppet state, and a neutral buffer zone in between. You may remember last year’s outcry caused by the show’s ill-fated marketing campaign, which thought it was a good idea to wrap an entire New York City subway car in Nazi and Imperial Japanese iconography. The Season 2 DVD screeners include an image of the Statue of Liberty giving the Nazi salute. I haven’t been able to watch them yet. I’ll keep you posted.
12/21: Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special (IFC)
Ready for another holiday special? You got it! Not content to let the big broadcast networks have all the fun, IFC has planned its own music-and-comedy variety show, which incidentally is taping tonight at the Public Theater in New York City. Tony Hale hosts, and judging from the guest list, it’ll be a much funkier version of the networks’ hour-long specials. Comedians Bridget Everett, Jo Firestone, and Jen Kirkman are slated to perform, and the Dap Kings will serve as the house band (minus, of course, Sharon Jones, the powerhouse singer who succumbed to cancer in mid-November). The lineup, plus the fact that this is IFC’s first holiday special, promises a loose, eclectic hour.