BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The best bets in cable TV programming this fall can be found on HBO, IFC, BBC America and National Geographic's channels.
At least that's the way it looked Friday and Saturday as 19 cable channels presented 38 of their upcoming series, specials and documentaries to North America's TV critics.
Comedy-wise, the best of the lot appears to be The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (Oct. 1, IFC), starring David Cross as an American salesman transferred to England to market a Korean energy drink that may not be entirely safe. Cross gets an assistant (Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners) who's fairly useless and a would-be romantic interest. The six-episode series seems to get its energy from "comedy by embarrassment," which means Todd Margaret will be as uncomfortable as it is funny.
Asked to compare the show to other comedies, Cross told critics it isn't exactly like an American sitcom — or a British one. "It's certainly not Benny Hill," he said. "Except for the use of 'Yakety Sax' to close every show."
IFC also presents Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town (Aug. 20), an eight-episode series that finds the comedy troupe in a small town where Death gets off the bus. Lots of cross-dressing, use of prosthetics and hilarity ensues. Or so they said.
HBO will debut Boardwalk Empire (Sept. 19), a drama set in 1920s New Jersey at the start of prohibition. Lots of organized crime, corruption, violence and sex. Steve Buscemi stars, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and Terence Winter, who wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos, is the executive producer.
A critic asked Winter if he'd thought about how to end the series, given the controversial cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos.
"I'm sure there's a clever response to that that I'll think of in the lobby," he said, "but I haven't."
On Aug. 23 and 24, HBO will air If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, Spike Lee's look at New Orleans after Katrina and the BP oil spill. The four-hour film serves as the follow up to his 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke. I've seen the first hour and it's excellent, although Colts fans should note that it starts with the Saints winning the Super Bowl.
"We knew the Saints were going to win," Lee told critics. "There's very few times in sports when this happens, but the Saints weren't trying to win a game. They had a cause. And no matter what Peyton Manning was going to do, it was not going to help. The Saints were going to win that game. We knew it. The Saints knew it. Coach Payton knew it."
In November, HBO will show a Tracy Morgan standup special, Black and Blue, which he's scheduled to tape next month at New York's Apollo Theatre, and the premium network will air Carrie Fisher's autobiographical stage show Wishful Drinking in December. HBO executives also announced — but did not show — an Oct. 7 debut for a documentary on the making of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Coming to BBC America is Luther (Oct. 24), a thriller in which Idris Elba (Stringer from The Wire, Charles Miner on the American version of The Office) plays a detective trying to find the evidence to convict a cold-blooded killer. Ruth Wilson, who plays the killer, Alice Morgan, described it as Silence of the Lambs in reverse, and the clips do look chilling. Beginning Dec. 5, BBC America also will show a series of documentaries in which Louis Theroux (The Daily Show) visits San Quentin Prison, watches American hunters who pay as much as $70,000 to bag a lion or an elephant in Africa, and travels to Johannesburg to see the police crack down on crime.
Nat Geo Wild will give us a number of exceptional nature shows. Great Migrations (November) will track the movements of animals as small as army ants and as big as sperm whales as they move from place to place. The network showed critics a clip of 50 million red crabs moving across Christmas Island; it's one of the most extraordinary sites I've ever seen. Also on the schedule is Big Cat Week in December, Nat Geo's answer to Discovery's Shark Week.
And in case you miss it at the movie theater, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's acclaimed documentary Restrepo will air on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 29. The harrowing film shows soldiers fighting in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
Two of the soldiers in the film, Staff Sgt. Aron Hijar and Major Dan Kearney, were on hand to talk to the critics. I asked whether they think the war is still worth fighting.
Hijar: "Yes. There's got to be somebody who does what we do. As simply as I can put it. Without us, you know, there is pretty much chaos, and we've got to do it. We don't really understand why, but it's there, the need is there. So yes."
Kearney: "I don't make policy, I just execute it, is kind of like my understanding of what it is I do. Do I see that I'm making an impact? Yes, sir."
As I told Kearney, I hope he's right, but I fear he's wrong.
It's not all good on cable, of course. In the upcoming months, you can expect plenty of freak shows, including (but certainly not limited to):
--Sister Wives (TLC, no premiere date given). Big Love comes to life in this reality show in which we'll see the real-life polygamist marriage of a Utah man and his four wives. Sure, it's illegal, but ...
--Teach: Tony Danza (A&E, no premiere date given), in which the actor/singer/talk-show host teaches sophomore English at a Philadelphia high school. Yes, but who will teach Danza?
--Mad Genius (Fuse, sometime this fall) will attempt to explain the "mad genius" of people such as Ozzy Osbourne, Lil Wayne and Britney Spears. Days later, I still can't wrap my mind around the idea that anyone is calling Britney Spears a genius for anything other than being able to separate a lot of people from their money.
--Harry Loves Lisa (TV Land, Oct. 6), about the marriage of Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna. Who? And who cares?
--Downsized (WE tv, November), in which we see an Arizona family struggle through the recession. Actually, this isn't so much a freak show — the family seems quite nice and normal — as it is voyeurism. The dad, a man named Todd Bruce, said he hopes viewers will see that losing your job and your money isn't the worst thing in the world if you have a family you love. Nice sentiment. We'll see how that translates to TV.
Investigation Discovery, the channel that features Indianapolis homicide detectives on the show The Shift, will premiere a new series, Hardcover Mysteries, which will look at the real-life crimes that inspired fiction by bestselling authors such as Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben and Sara Paretsky. The show begins Oct. 11.
Paretsky shared a great story about trying to get her first book published. She said New York-based publishers were wary of a story set in Chicago. "They would say, 'Oh,
Chicago. You know, not enough people read in the Midwest to merit publishing a book that's set in Chicago,' which is of regional interest only," she said.
The local angle
Growing up in Martinsville and Indianapolis, and then working at WXIN (Channel 59), Catt Sadler would sit in her living room watching the E! channel and Oscar coverage and think, "That should be me."
"When you're an Indiana girl, born and raised, Hollywood doesn't seem like the most likely of options," she said.
But she asked her agent to look into it, and 4½ years ago E! hired her to host The Daily 10 (7:30 p.m. weeknights).
"It's been great," she said when I caught up with her at a party where the guests included Spice Girl Melanie "Mel B" Brown and several Kardashians. "I've interviewed some of my idols, A-list movie stars, and met a lot of people I really respect. Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler. Day after day, I'm like, 'Pinch me. I'm just a little farm girl from Indiana.' But look at where I am tonight. Mel B. — we're friends now. The Kardashians — we have the same stylist. We hang out. I didn't foresee that as being my life, but it's really, really great."