Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The week in I Screen: "Wheels" wraps its first season; "Justified" returns

OK, so, I've fallen behind again. But no fears -- I'm back with some thoughts on the new season of "Justified," and the first season of "Hell on Wheels" and the new show "House of Lies" (yes, it debuted two weeks ago, but stick with me).
And away we go!

'Justified' returns: FX's "Justified" returns tonight at 10 for its third season and, if the first three episodes I've seen so far aren't as good as last season, well, that's probably due to the loss of Margo Martindale's formidable villain Mags Bennett.The good news is, the show is still plenty of fun, with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins still throwing off considerable sparks as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and his friend-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder. There's a fun season near the beginning of the premiere where the two get into a rowdy brawl that's both ridiculous and very funny.
This season also introduces a lot of new villains, including Neal McDonough as a shadowy underworld figure and Mykelti Williamson as an old friend of Mags Bennett who's harboring some secrets. What I've seen so far isn't great, but it is very, very good. Plus, who doesn't want to spend some time in sun-scorched Harlan County at this chilly time of year?
War is "Hell" ... and so are railroads and vigilante justice:
So, AMC's "Hell on Wheels" debuted this winter to some fairly lukewarm reviews. And yes, it wasn't a barnburner out of the gate. But, over the course of its short first season, the historical series grew into a solid -- if not terribly remarkable -- TV Western. Sure, it still feels like "Deadwood" warmed over at times, but it was shot beautifully and featured an excellent lead performance from Anson Mount (who, as a matter of full disclosure, I must admit has one of my all-time favorite names) as emotionally damaged tough guy Cullen Bohannon. With his penetrating gaze and deadly snarl, Mount made his Civil War era vigilante character compelling, even when all the script had him do was stand there and glower. There were also some excellent performances by Common as a freed slave who becomes Bohannon's sidekick, Tom Noonan as a disturbed preacher and Christopher Heyerdahl, as the Swede, the oft-foiled head of security for railroad magnate Durant (Colm Meaney, who was serviceable, if not remarkable). The finale was OK -- I loved the Swede's story about his former wife ("She did not rip out my heart, but she did take my cuckoo clock") and Noonan's speech about embracing hate (though his story of a vengeful God sounded a lot like Wesley from "The Princess Bride" threatening to fight Prince Humperdink to the pain).
The anti-climactic killing of Sgt. Harper -- who turned out not to have been involved in Bohannon's family's murder -- and Bohannon's flight from town felt like plot devices to set up season two, but at least they were less frustrating than the season finale of "The Killing."
All in all, I put "Hell" squarely in the middle of the pack of AMC shows, I enjoyed the first season much more than I liked the recent half-season of "The Walking Dead." You?
A few quick thoughts on "House of Lies": So, I didn't watch my screeners of the new Showtime series "House of Lies" until last night. I was actually looking forward to this show, as it stars the excellent Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda,"  "Traffic") and Kristen Bell, whom I've loved since "Veronica Mars." Now that I've seen  three episodes of this comedy about a group of management consultants, I'm not sure I need to see anymore. It breaks a cardinal TV rule -- characters don't have to be likable as long as they're interesting. But, with the possible exception of the Cheadle character, I don't really care about any of these people. I don't really understand what they do and, even though the show keeps telling us how good they are at their jobs, we don't see a ton of evidence of that. It's not an awful show or anything, but it doesn't make good use of its excellent cast. What do you think?

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