Mid-season TV preview: Mad Men, The Americans, House of Cards and The Walking Dead

A sampling of old favorites and new groundbreakers.

Let’s start with the two new shows that will be debuting this week: FX’s The Americans and NetFlix’s House of Cards. FX has a reputation for producing excellent dramatic series, producing commercial hits such as The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck and Justified while even less popular shows like Damages and Terriers received great critical acclaim.


Their latest entry, debuting tonight, is The Americans. A Cold War drama set in early-’80s Washington, it follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) posing as Americans in the D.C suburbs. The pair was placed in an arranged marriage and have been in the country long enough to have two children, ages 13 and 10. Ronald Reagan is president, the USSR is “the Evil Empire,” and they’re trying to defend their homeland against the threat of America.


Series creator Joe Weisberg has a unique perspective on this topic; he worked for the CIA before trying his hand in television. Keeping watch as an executive producer is Graham Yost, whose previous work with Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Justified attests to a pedigree that promises a top-quality series. That, combined with FX’s stellar track record, should make for an excellent series.


Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in David Finchers House of Cards
  • PUBLICITY PHOTO
  • Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in David Fincher's House of Cards
The most ambitious show of the year comes from a newbie in the world of television: Netflix. House of Cards is a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and produced by David Fincher (The Social Network, Se7en) that will be featured via the company’s streaming service. The show is not ambitious in its content — it’s developed from a BBC miniseries of the same name — but in its delivery. Unlike the traditional television model of airing one episode of a series per week, Netflix has decided to release all 13 episodes at one time.


While I understand the concerns about this — mainly the spoiler potential from those who are episodes ahead of you and the lack of “event” viewing you can talk about with people the next day — I’m in love with the idea. I’m a television binge-watcher. I’ve watched the entire series of Lost, Friday Night Lights and Parks and Recreation like this. Netflix is cutting out the middle-man and giving me what I want (the show) when I want it (now). If I watch an episode I really enjoy I usually want to see more as soon as possible, the waiting time kills me. Thanks to Netflix I can now do that. America is an impatient, now-now-now culture and Netflix is smartly playing into that. Fincher and Spacey are two of the best at what they do and I don’t expect House of Cards to be any different.


Don Draper is the most interesting character on television, a competition that’s really just a two man race between he and Walter White of Breaking Bad. That’s why I was so giddy to learn that season six of Mad Men will premiere April 7th. When we last left Don he was drinking in a smoke filled bar, unsatisfied with the young, ambitious wife he thought he wanted. He’s then approached by a beautiful blonde who asks the perfect question, “Are you alone?” There’s little doubt Don, who has been faithful all season but has grown frustrated at what his life has become, will heed the woman’s advances. The question also takes on a deeper sense — yes, Don is alone in the world. Sure, he has a wife and two children, but no one truly understands what goes on inside the former Dick Whitman. This penultimate season has a big burden to carry as season five ranks among the series best after a major shakeup at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, Joan doing the unthinkable to keep the business alive, Peggy leaving for a competitor, and Roger entertaining us all by tripping on LSD.


Don Draper is tested at a bar during the final moments of last seasons finale. Will he go back to his old womanizing ways?
  • AMC
  • Don Draper is tested at a bar during the final moments of last season's finale. Will he go back to his old womanizing ways?
In usual Matt Weiner fashion, the show’s creator failed to give any specifics on what this season will hold. He did reveal that the season premiere will be a two hour movie, telling the New York Times “It has some cliffhanger elements to it, it does propel you into the rest of the season — it does foreshadow a lot what the season is about.” That, sadly, remains a mystery until April 7th.


Walking Deads Michonne.
  • AMC
  • Walking Dead's Michonne, played by Danai Gurira.
The Walking Dead’s second season was dreadful, and its continued existence on television depended on a substantial shift in the program’s tone. Producers came up with a simple, yet brilliant, solution: Make the zombies a secondary focus. Yes, it’s still a show based in a world overrun with the beasts (and plenty of people still tune in to see a head or two get blown off) but the human element was at the forefront. Carl putting down his mother was one of the most brutal yet beautiful scenes on television last season, far better than anything involving a zombie. The biggest threat to Rick’s group of survivors is no longer a stray walker, it’s other people, as the camp of Woodbury and the Governor represent. When we return Feb. 10 for the mid-season premiere it’s that human element that will grab our attention far more than the zombies, as Merle and Darryl were left facing certain doom.


The show isn’t perfect, it still needs to give Michonne (Danai Gurira) a personality beyond “brooding" — but in just half a season has greatly improved from the lifeless corpse it was this time last year.

click to enlarge Americans is a Cold War drama set in early-’80s D.C. and follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. - PUBLICITY PHOTO
PUBLICITY PHOTO
Americans is a Cold War drama set in early-’80s D.C. and follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

click to enlarge Americans is a Cold War drama set in early-’80s D.C. and follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. - PUBLICITY PHOTO
PUBLICITY PHOTO
Americans is a Cold War drama set in early-’80s D.C. and follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.
  • PUBLICITY PHOTO
  • Americans is a Cold War drama set in early-’80s D.C. and follows KGB spies Phillip and Elizabeth, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

The coming weeks are an exciting time for the avid TV viewer. Top shows such as Justified, Girls, Parks and Recreation and New Girl are in full swing, longtime favorites The Office and 30 Rock are nearing their series finales, and exciting programs both old and new are hitting the airwaves. It’s the latter that we’ll be discussing today.

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