It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Dark skies by 4:00 p.m., temperatures below 30 degrees, and — best of all — crazed shoppers at every turn. Fortunately, there is no shortage of quality television to watch over the holidays, so to go with your December shopping list, Rotten Tomatoes has prepared your December bingeing list — a mix of new shows, returning shows, and what’s fresh on DVD and Blu-ray — some naughty, some nice!
What it is: The most recent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Jessica Jones, about a broken superhero (Krysten Ritter) who runs her own P.I. business. Battling PTSD, our anti-hero finds herself struggling to defeat Kilgrave (David Tennant), a super-villain who has inflicted unconscionable harm upon countless innocents.
Why you should watch it: Marvel’s Jessica Jones is a dark, psychologically complex, and thoughtful meditation on what it means to be a hero. It is also engrossing, action-packed, compassionate, and visceral. Jones is binge-worthy for a number of reasons, but what elevates this well-executed comic adaptation is having a powerful female centered alliance at its core.
Where to watch: Netflix
Commitment: About 11 hours.
What it is: Jeffrey Tambor plays a father who wants to live his life as a woman and needs to tell his adult children.
Why you should watch it: Tambor’s turn as Maura is award-worthy, but what is most surprising is how it’s just one facet of this family dramedy. All the members of the Pfefferman clan are struggling with their own demons and each storyline is full and fascinating to follow. It’s a study of faith, family, and dysfunction that is well worth the day or two it takes to binge-watch it.
Where to watch: The complete first season is streaming on Amazon Prime now, with season two scheduled to drop on Dec. 11.
Commitment: 10 hours for both seasons.
What it is: A prequel to the AMC hit The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead begins in Los Angeles at the dawn of the zombie outbreak as the government employs survival tactics that fuel the apocalyptic fire.
Why you should watch it: Even though fans know what’s coming, somehow the prequel is even scarier than The Walking Dead. All of the shortcomings of the human race — fear, abuse of power, false trust — become factors in the death of society, as one already-dysfunctional family must stick together to survive. It’s not just zombies they must battle, though, but also the failing system that was designed to protect them.
Commitment: Five hours.
What it is: A group of five slacker friends — known collectively as “The Gang” — run an Irish pub in South Philadelphia and get into all sorts of predicaments because they lack both common sense and social graces.
Why you should watch it: Sunny isn’t a sitcom for everyone; its characters are self-centered, misanthropic, and frequently obnoxious. That said, their resilience in the face of countless defeats is strangely endearing, and their adventures are so outrageous and hilarious that it’s almost therapeutic to watch them scramble through each half hour. With season 11 set to premiere in early January, now’s the perfect time to catch up with the Gang’s insane antics.
Where to watch: The first nine seasons are available to stream on subscription services Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, and you can rent or purchase episodes from all 10 seasons on Google Play, iTunes, PlayStation Video, Vudu, and Xbox Video.
Commitment:About 42 hours.
What it is: This BBC drama follows a brilliant Detective Chief Inspector (Idris Elba) who finds it difficult to strike a work-life balance as he struggles to toe the line between genius and madness.
Why you should watch it: Elba won a Golden Globe for his performance as DCI Luther, a sexy cross between Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, in this gritty character study that adds a new dimension to the cop show genre. Plus, fans of The Affair will enjoy Ruth Wilson in her role as the seductive serial killer Alice Morgan. Catch up in time for season four, which starts on Dec. 17.
Commitment: 16 hours.
What it is: Based on Blair Tindal’s tell-all book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, this lighthearted comedy from Amazon Studios shows the inner workings of the contemporary fictitious New York Symphony, led by a young upstart conductor (Gael García Bernal).
Why you should watch it: What makes Roman Coppola’s adaptation of Mozart such a spritely binge is the commanding and hilarious performance by Bernal as Rodrigo (based on the Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel), along with memorable turns by Bernadette Peters as the elegant Symphony manager, Lola Kirke as the oboe-playing ingénue, and Malcolm McDowell as the ousted old-guard maestro.
Where to watch: Season one is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Season two premieres Dec. 30.
Commitment: Five hours.
What it is: Criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) assists the FBI in apprehending serial killers, but as the job begins to eat away at his mental health, he starts meeting with therapist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a cannibal who murders rude people and serves them at fancy dinner parties.
Why you should watch it: The third (and likely final) season of the critically acclaimed show comes to Blu-ray December 8. There really isn’t anything quite like Hannibal; it’s a crime procedural and a psychological thriller, filled with horror and just the right dash of romance and comedy.
Commitment: 27.5 hours.
What it is: Based on the award-winning BBC series of the same name, Showtime’s hit dramedy stars Oscar winner William H. Macy and tells the story of the scrappy Gallagher kids as they struggle to keep body and soul together despite the constant burden of a dysfunctional alcoholic father.
Why you should watch it: Shameless features a great cast, including a stellar Emmy-award winning performance by the ever-adorable Joan Cusack. Holidays have always been a time for dysfunctional family fun, and nobody does it better than the Gallaghers. Shameless comes back for a sixth season on Jan. 10 so now is the perfect time to binge.
Commitment: 60 hours.
What it is: In this western-sci-fi mash-up, humans, aliens, and hybrids all fight for their rights and acceptance, while a human lawkeeper bonds with his adopted Votan (alien) daughter in 2046 Defiance (formerly St. Louis, MO).
Why you should watch it: Defiance’s backstory is wonderfully complex and reads like a lesson in mythology. The humor is addictive and the scenery and creature designs are breathtaking. The show’s inter-species tension is a clear commentary on cultural struggles, but not presented as a lecture on contemporary acceptance. Rather, it throws intense action, soapy character interaction, and some sexy stuff at you. And Grant Bowler (Nolan) is still one hot leading man.
Commitment: 26 hours.
What it is: The residents and domestic staff of a grand English country estate deal with household intrigue and societal upheaval in the first decades of the 20th Century.
Why you should watch it: With its lavish setting and British accents, this might look like your typical PBS prestige show at first glance. But Downton Abbey gives equal dramatic weight to the household staff and the Crawley family. Indeed, what makes the show so compulsively watchable is its richly nuanced characters, each of whom are bound by societal conventions but occasionally finds a way to expand their limits.
Commitment: 43 hours.
Every television season sees the arrival of some fun (some might even say great) shows that go unnoticed by regular television audiences. One show that is off mainstream radar and is worth a look is the sci-fi/fantasy show Defiance. Holy “shtako,” season two starts tomorrow, June 19! Here’s why we think you’ll dig it.
What’s the premise? In 2046 Defiance (a city-state formerly known as St. Louis, MO), humans, aliens, hybrids, and mutated species of Earth all fight for their species’ rights and acceptance, while a human lawkeeper, Nolan (Grant Bowler of True Blood, Liz and Dick, Ugly Betty), discovers and bonds with his adopted Votan (alien) daughter.
What’s it like? It’s like a western/sci-fi hybrid, with lots of brilliantly designed aliens, intense action, soapy character interaction, and some sexy stuff too. The show’s inter-species tension is clear commentary on cultural struggles of the here-and-now, but it’s not presented as a lecture on contemporary acceptance. Rather, it’s a faux documentation of where we might find ourselves if Votans joined us here on Earth and said, “Hi, we’re here to share your planet; please have some delicious river otter.”
Where can I see it? Season one is available to stream on Amazon, Vudu, iTunes and for members of Amazon Prime (the first two episodes of season one are free!). It’s also available on DVD. Season two begins on 6/19 at 8/7c on the SyFy Channel.
How long will it take? There are only twelve episodes in season one, each running under an hour (without commercial interruptions). So you could speed through it in about nine hours. That’s barely enough time for a Sensoth to ask you for the remote!
What do the critics think? The reviews were mixed upon Defiance‘s premiere last summer, largely due to what some critics felt was a lack of originality. Mark A. Perigard of the Boston Globe said, “SyFy’s Defiance is the Frankenstein of TV series — built from the parts of other shows.” But its weakness, then, was also part of its success: Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post said, “Defiance is not just a smart, well-crafted TV show with a good cast and an adventurous flavor, it’s also indisputably science fiction, which is a relief.” Ethan Alter of Television Without Pity called it “solid meat-and-potatoes sci-fi that has the potential to get better the longer it remains on the air.” Its appeal extended beyond just sci-fi enthusiasts, too: “I am engaged by the show’s lively metaphor for a polyglot culture fractured by tribalism and Otherness,” said Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. Currently, Defiance sits just above Fresh on the Tomatometer at 61 percent.
Why should I watch this? Defiance has something for everyone; it stands on its own as an action/adventure, a drama, even a romance. All of it just happens to exist in this fictional version of our future world. You don’t need to understand the history of this world to enjoy the show, but its backstory is wonderfully complex and reads like a lesson in history or mythology. As a result of a mysterious explosion known as the “Ark Fall,” several spaceships hovering in orbit were destroyed, and the terraforming technology they carried has transformed Earth and its inhabitants. Governments have fallen and risen again, allowing many humans and Votans to test the boundaries each day. Some of the plots are soapy, but deliciously so, equipped with heroes to root for and villains to love-hate, while unlikely alliances help to drive its unusual narratives. The humor is addictive, especially regarding the Castithan species’ strikingly amorous nature (bathing alone is considered “weird”). The scenic landscapes and thrilling creature designs also deserve props, and you gotta love another SyFy show that invents its own vulgar slang; Battlestar Galactica had “frakking” cuss words, but we think Defiance is the “shtako!”
What’s my next step? If you currently enjoy Defiance, other SyFy Channel shows like the now defunct Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, and the more recently Certified Fresh Helix might interest you. In 1983, the miniseries V was a pop-culture hit about an alien invasion on Earth, leading to a follow-up miniseries (V: The Final Battle) and a full season as a TV show (1984/85). The franchise had a similar theme to Defiance, but it was set in contemporary times. The 2009 re-imagining of V lasted two years, the premiere season of which earned a fresh Tomatometer score of 71 percent. On the film scope, John Carpenter’s They Live is a great aliens-on-earth movie, and Alien Nation, while not as critically acclaimed, was popular enough to result in a television series of its own. The Alien film series is always a good choice as, of course, are the Star Wars and Star Trek films. Since Defiance was the first TV show to premiere simultaneously with a coinciding video game, you may want to try your hand at that, especially now that users are able to play for free. There is also a web series of minisodes at Defiance.com.
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Fresh off the modest success that was "Coach Carter," director Thomas Carter (no relation) has been tapped by WB to direct "Freedom House." According to Variety, the story focuses on "the story of Freedom House Enterprises, an organization that trained residents of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhood to become the first modern-day paramedics." First-timer Stephen David wrote the screenplay after successfully pitching the idea; "Barbershop" screenwriter Don D. Scott contributed a rewrite on the project. This will be Thomas Carter’s fifth time behind the camera on a feature film; his previous movies include "Swing Kids," "Metro," "Save the Last Dance," and the aforementioned "Coach Carter."