Film

Cure Your Winter Blues With This Season’s New Shows

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The winter TV season takes viewers to 18th-century Canada, 19th-century England, Jazz Age New York, and a little place called Oz.

Z: The Beginning of Everything

Premieres Friday, January 27, streaming, Amazon

Capturing the reality behind the myth of Zelda Fitzgerald is about as elusive as Daisy Buchanan, but Z: The Beginning of Everything sure does try. Don’t get turned off by the show’s wordy title (cribbed from an F. Scott Fitzgerald letter): This bio-show is as delicious as it gets for lit lovers, following the title character as she flees the South for illicit, booze-soaked nights in New York City and beyond. Christina Ricci shines as Zelda, both charming and plucky, an Alabaman accent rolling off her tongue. At home, she squares off with her doting, traditional family and spends her free time reading and honing her writing chops. She’s also headstrong and luminous, the belle of every ball in town, with a taste for gin and cigarettes and a habit of calling the local boys bland “three-minute eggs.” At one fateful party, she catches the eye of the man with whom she’ll be inextricably tied: F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s immediately smitten with her, a sugarplum vision on the dance floor, and asks another partygoer who she is. The answer: “That’s Zelda Sayre, and she’s no saint.” The show wants to be as gutsy as its subject, but Z errs toward the hagiographic, painting Zelda’s short life as both beautiful and damned — but all you can think of is the beauty. — Tatiana Craine

Taboo

Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX

James Delaney (Tom Hardy) is your typical half-breed savior: Just pale enough to be played by a popular white star, while conveniently provided with a dead Native American mother for street cred. (This apparently also gives him license to chant in African tongues. Seriously.) In TV’s latest blood-soaked historical grime drama, Delaney returns from Africa to his native England in 1814 to claim his recently deceased father’s merchant business — as well as a strategic slice of North America that the East India Company would literally kill for. Think of it as a period version of Mr. Robot: An unpredictable mumbler with daddy issues fights corporate powers for social justice. (Just swap in indigenous mysticism for cyber espionage.) Haunted by images of chained black bodies and specters of screaming native women, and called “nigger” so many times you will lose count, Delaney seeks to avenge his mother’s tragic life. For a show critical of the slave trade and colonialism, Taboo recapitulates too many stereotypes itself, from its whitewashed casting to its barrage of clichés of racialized magic, savagery, and victimization. — Robyn Bahr

Masterpiece: Victoria

Sundays, 9 p.m., PBS

Balancing a British royalty drama with the daily trials of the servants, relatives, and government aides who helped keep the country running throughout the mid-1800s, Victoria begins with its eponymous queen (Doctor Who starlet Jenna Coleman) assuming the throne at age eighteen after the death of her uncle King William IV. The eight-episode first season follows her initial years as England’s monarch, as she learns to be a good boss to her skeptical staff and fends off challenges from ambitious schemers who expect her to be their pawn in the larger game of forging European alliances. Rufus Sewell has the scene-stealing role of Lord Melbourne, the scandal-plagued prime minister who offers earnest, useful advice while dealing with his own palace intrigue. Creator Daisy Goodwin aims for some of the period soap opera feel of Downton Abbey, with characters struggling with their roles in a changing society. But there are also echoes here of the movie Marie Antoinette, as Coleman’s queen discovers the need to answer to her subjects for her youthful whims and inexperience, whether she’s spending too much, flirting with the wrong man, or failing to show proper respect to the military. Victoria starts out her reign worrying about how best to wear her hair, but soon enough realizes that her new job comes with real responsibilities. — Noel Murray

Legion

Premieres Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m., FX

Writer Noah Hawley already aced a seemingly impossible test by turning the Coen brothers’ beloved Fargo into an acclaimed original TV series. Now he’s set himself another lofty challenge: doing something fresh with a Marvel character. The relatively obscure X-Man David “Legion” Haller (Dan Stevens) begins Hawley’s new show in a mental institution, tormented by telekinetic powers that make him feel like he’s hearing voices. (In the comic, Legion earns his name from an accident that bestows him with multiple personalities; the episode previews provided by FX don’t indicate whether this will be incorporated into the show as well.) As the mutant gets back out into the world — taken under the wing of one shadowy organization while fleeing another — Legion tells his story kaleidoscopically, with memories, hallucinations, psychic communications, and real life all blending together in a way that makes it tough to tell what’s actually happening and what’s all in the hero’s head. Don’t expect much in the way of superhero thrills: In the early going, at least, this show is more an exercise in eye-catching style, in service of a heavy character study about a man imprisoned by his own remarkable mind. Like Fargo, Legion sports a ridiculously accomplished supporting cast, including Aubrey Plaza as David’s best friend and fellow mental patient, Hamish Linklater as a mysterious government agent, Jean Smart and Bill Irwin as unorthodox doctors who try to help our hero, and Rachel Keller as a troubled mutant named Syd Barrett. The Pink Floyd homage is apropos: The way it plunges viewers inside the hero’s madness is like listening to The Dark Side of the Moon on repeat. — Noel Murray

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am

Streaming, Seeso

The first two minutes of Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am introduce us to “Amazon, Feline, and Scarlet Assassin,” tasked with foiling an Aryan supervillain’s plot to destroy the Earth. Unfortunately, these superheroes are too glam for their own good: Catwoman’s doppelgänger breaks her stiletto heel running, the Xena-styled avenger’s leather suit is so impractical that she can hardly swing her sword, and the Wonder Woman wannabe takes off shrieking when her bustier falls off. Then the world explodes. Welcome to Skit Box, an all-woman comedy team from Sydney with smart ideas, a clear voice, and a strong point of view…even if that point of view is, “We’re Australian, we’re a tad cliché, and our videos are waaaay too long.” It’s ironic that a show named for a quickie suffers from the SNL-esque problem of never quite knowing when to end a bit. “I’ve Got That Flow,” a fun feminist music video/middle finger to menstrual squeamishness, showcases a solid core joke and a bathtub’s worth of fake blood — but, like many of Sarah Bishop, Greta Lee Jackson, and Adele Vuko’s sketches, could’ve benefited from an editor. Shorter sketches pack more punch, like a recurring bit about a woman who uses smoke bombs to flee awkward workplace moments, or a mock ad titled “Show Her It’s a Man’s World” where the subservient wife turns out not to be so compliant after all. — Jennifer L. Pozner

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Streaming, Netflix

Despite the narrator’s repeated claims of an inevitable unhappy ending, this faithful adaptation of Daniel Handler’s bestselling absurdist children’s novels proves that a neo-gothic noir can still be cloying and candy-coated enough to rot a tooth. Netflix spared no expense in cultivating the books’ retro, baroque overtones with Sonnenfeldian expressionism worthy of the Addams family — if only its convoluted capers matched its art direction. (Not helping: the dialogue’s screwball rhythms rely heavily on plot rehashing, eccentric personal tics, and repetitive verbal gymnastics that leave the hour-long episodes feeling bloated.) Yet its droll charm, musical flare, and self-aware storytelling devices keep up the fun, and Neil Patrick Harris, clearly delighted to be there, is joyous as the nefarious Count Olaf, a rubber-faced chameleon hell-bent on stealing the fortune of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, three one-dimensionally precocious orphans. Perhaps the show would have been better served by a snappier half-hour structure, as the blithering stupidity of the adult characters will make you itchy after about twenty minutes of lightning-fast wordplay. Come for the visuals, stay for the performances, especially Patrick Warburton’s deadpan narration. — Robyn Bahr

Tattoo Girls

Premieres Tuesday, January 24, 10 p.m., TLC

Set in all-female shop Ink Ink in Springfield, Missouri, Tattoo Girls is light on ink and heavy-handed in its thirst for girl fights. “We value being friends and being a team more than anything,” bubbly 26-year-old owner Kelsey says in the pilot— but since women crying, yelling, and competing for male attention are the primary storytelling elements many reality producers understand, they immediately undermine the team’s camaraderie, framing one 22-year-old artist as The Slut, and deploying ominous background music to introduce another staffer as The Bitch. This is Reality TV 101, full of fake drama and casual misogyny. The shop’s normal clientele is “moms, families, and college girls” seeking hearts, stars, and infinity signs, Kelsey explains, “but because this is a male dominated industry we have to be prepared to handle anything that comes through that door.” That’s TLC’s cue to send in a smirking dude to drop trou and demand a penis tattoo, so producers can then frame a young single mom’s objections to having to manhandle random dick at her job (“I didn’t sign up to touch wieners today!”) as unprofessional “squeamishness” because she’s “scared of boys,” belittling the reality of sexual harassment and cementing the character’s role as naïve and lovelorn. The only saving grace, if you must tune in, is the schadenfreude in watching Midwestern white men make irrevocable fools of themselves — like the bald dude who wants his entire face and skull done up like a Day of the Dead tableau, or the old guy who asks for a permanent homage to Lionel Richie dressed as Where’s Waldo — then trying to guess which ones voted for Trump.  — Jennifer L. Pozner

Emerald City

Fridays, 9 p.m., NBC

For all of Emerald City‘s production value — gorgeous costume design, expansive sets and locations, a cast peppered with talent — NBC’s take on L. Frank Baum feels like a shined-up bauble. This is Oz by way of Westeros, where the Witch of the East meets the wrong end of a gun, her sister from the West is an addict and brothel owner, flying monkeys are drone spies, and the scarecrow is crucified all Christlike. Kansas-based nurse Dorothy (Adria Arjona doing the best with what she’s given) gets sucked into Oz via police cruiser after trying to visit her birth mom during a tornado. Upon her arrival, she provokes the ire of the free folk (not-quite Munchkins) before embarking on her quest via a Yellow Brick Road paved with poppy pollen. The inherent challenge with a beloved story is that it’s hard to make an old tale feel fresh in yet another adaptation, and really, who’s looking to NBC for their next dark TV fix? The network appears to be piggybacking off the success of Grimm (now in its final season) and other semi-sinister contemporaries like Once Upon a Time and Sleepy Hollow. While it’s hard not to commend the showrunners for populating Oz with a diverse cast, ultimately Emerald City feels like it’s teetering on the edge of the haunted forest, unable to step too far off that sunshine-hued path. Tatiana Craine

Frontier

Premieres Friday, January 20, Netflix

There have been plenty of comparisons between Game of Thrones and Frontier, Netflix’s new historical drama: Both feature Jason Momoa, lots of blood, and ultra-gritty olden times. In Frontier, Momoa stars as Declan Harp, a half-Irish, half–Native American trapper who used to work for the fur trading behemoth Hudson’s Bay Company. Now the company wants revenge for his betrayal, and they’re willing to shed as much blood as Harp during a hunt, enlisting Michael (Landon Liboiron), an Irish stowaway, to infiltrate the trappers’ ranks as a double agent. There’s less gore in the initial episodes than you’d expect, though Harp proves himself a gruesome, take-no-prisoners type early on. But for all that GOT talk, Frontier more closely resembles a different HBO show: Deadwood. There are plenty of dynamic women (a scrappy thief, a resourceful bar owner who wears breeches, and a henchwoman for Harp) who command more screen time than the usual breast-baring cable hotties. Christian McKay, as the least God-fearing priest this side of the Atlantic, and Zoe Boyle’s no-nonsense barkeep stand out among the sea of redcoats and fur coats that fill the screen. This is the perfect show for binge-watchers missing Deadwood or waiting for this season’s bloodbath-to-come in Westeros. — Tatiana Craine

David Brent: Life on the Road

Airs Friday, February 10, streaming, Netflix

For his long-awaited return to his most famous character, Ricky Gervais has created a movie that’s about revisiting past glories. David Brent: Life on the Road (which received a limited theatrical release last year before being snapped up by Netflix) catches up with the abrasive boss from the original U.K. version of The Office, fifteen years after he earned minor celebrity thanks to the documentary about his life as a paper company manager. Now working as a salesman for a public lavatory supplier, Brent steps back in front of the (mock) cameras to share his last-ditch attempt to make it as a rock star, via a comically pathetic self-funded tour with a hired backing band. Gervais knows this is essentially a greatest-hits special — and one without his Office collaborator Stephen Merchant or any of his former cast, no less — and steers into the curve a bit, painting his Brent as more desperate and clueless than ever, while ultimately defending his good heart. This movie mostly rehashes old jokes and themes, but fans of The Office and Extras will still find a lot to like, especially if they enjoy wincing at Brent’s painfully awkward social-protest songs. (It’s hard to say which is more cringeworthy, the condescending anti-racism reggae number “Equality Street” or the tender ballad “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds.”) — Noel Murray

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