DVR Essentials and Potentials: Play-by-play
Posted November 13, 2012
The time has come to clean out your DVR.
Entranced by the you-can-see-it-all possibilities the technology offers, most of us end up with a DVR stuffed to the electronic gills with shows we're never actually going to watch. (Not to mention that a lot of those recorded shows are loaded with ads from the election, and even at fast-forward, who wants to go through those again?) If that weren't reason enough to go through a cleanse, remember that a host of favorites — from Justified, Episodes and Downton Abbey to Mad Men, Breaking Bad and American Idol — will eventually be coming your way and clamoring for space.
What to keep? Here are 10 Essential DVR picks from the programs currently on the air — including the best of them all, Homeland — along with a dozen Potentials to add or substitute. Erase, replace, and enjoy.
The Good Wife (CBS, 9 ET/PT): If you're going to survive Sundays, you'd better have a DVR, because no night is more crowded with top choices — so many that we're skipping such worthy long-running series as 60 Minutes, The Amazing Race, The Simpsons and The Mentalist. Whatever you do, however, don't skip broadcast TV's best drama, which is in the middle of two great running stories, one following Peter's campaign for governor, the other, the firm's efforts to pull itself out of bankruptcy (a story boosted by a great guest run from Nathan Lane). True, there is Nick, but the writers have felt your pain, and this much-loathed character is headed for the exit.
The Walking Dead (AMC, 9 ET/PT): There's no question Dead is one of the season's best series: It's a tightly plotted, constantly surprising show that does precisely what it's designed to do -- scare you senseless. Whether it merits a spot on your DVR, however, depends on your tolerance for violence and gore, your desire to be scared senseless, and your certainty that no small child in your house is going to hit the "play" button while you're out. If you're on the fence, keep in mind another DVR advantage: You can save these zombies for a Saturday afternoon, when they're less likely to keep you up at night.
Homeland (Showtime, 10 ET/PT): You're so pressed you only have time for one drama a week? It has to be Homeland, a brilliantly acted series that jettisoned its central mystery — everyone now knows Brody was turned by the terrorists — without losing any of its complexity or ambiguity. It may seem more plot-driven this season, but those who think it's morphed into 24 are focusing solely on the similarity in plot mechanics and ignoring the vast differences in tone, intent and depth. 24 was a great series, but last week's "romantic" encounter between Brody and Carrie, that scene that left you wondering whether even the characters themselves knew if they were being honest? That was Homeland and Homeland alone.
Treme (HBO, 10 ET/PT): This is not by any stretch of the imagination an entertaining series in the conventional sense, in large part because it seems more interested in its characters than its stories, and in its setting than its characters. Yet taken together, Treme's episodes weave a rare, complete portrait of a great American city and cultural hub fighting to recover from its worst crisis. At any rate, if you're paying to subscribe to HBO, you might as well watch something, and Treme is your best choice.
Bones (Fox, 8 ET/PT): If you really want your DVR to replace live viewing, then you need to throw in a few extra shows for those days when you don't feel like an intense drama or you've already watched your favorite comedies. And it helps to include a series like this still-solid procedural in the mix, a show you like but that you don't feel compelled to watch every week. Because let's face it, there are only so many weekly demands we can take.
Castle (ABC, 10 ET/PT): Like Bones, this mystery-comedy leaned too heavily on its relationship story at the start of the season, but it's recovered over the past few weeks and now seems set to reclaim its standing as TV's most enjoyable procedural. The writers were right to unite Nathan Fillion's Castle and Stana Katic's Beckett (two of TV's most appealing actors and characters), but now that they're working as a couple, the show needs to return its attention to their weekly murder-solving work.
House Hunters (HGTV, 10 ET/PT): There's a place on every TV list for at least one mindless diversion, that show you turn to as a time-waster when all else fails, and you can find few more addictive picks than this one. It was easier to embrace before we knew it was mostly fake, but at least it's harmlessly phony. In today's reality world, that's close to the best you can hope for.
NCIS (CBS, 8 ET/PT): There's a natural tendency among all of us to focus on the new and the young, and on shows that appeal to the young. So it's worth pausing to remember that the most-watched program on TV this season is NCIS. It may not draw as many ad dollars as shows that pull in a greater number of younger viewers, but pleasing some 20 million people a week is no mean achievement. The silliness of its banter can be suffocating for some, but if you've never tried it, you should at least find out what your neighbors are fussing about.
Raising Hope (Fox, 8 ET/PT): Thanks to Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt as the funniest bad parents this side of Marge and Homer, Raising Hope was always worth watching. But this season the show's appeal has expanded, in large part because it's granted Cloris Leachman's sometimes too-grotesque Maw Maw a bit more dignity. Not a lot more, grant you, but that little bit helps.
New Girl (Fox, 9 ET/PT): A breakout performance from Max Greenfield as Schmidt — which, aside from being a gift in its own right, allowed star Zooey Deschanel to take her daffiness down a step — has helped this steadily improving sitcom move closer to Essential status. It just needs to strengthen the stories for its other supporting characters.
The New Normal (NBC, 9:30 ET/PT): Most every complaint you've heard about this struggling freshman sitcom is true: It's too preachy by half, its characters and situations are often completely unbelievable, and its tone wobbles uncomfortably between sweet and nasty. Yet there's something incredibly charming about its four central characters, and if it's trying too hard to make a social statement, it's also willing to address issues most network shows are too frightened to tackle. It's a mess, but so far, the parts that work compensate for those that don't.
Don't Trust the B (ABC, 9:30 ET/PT): It's not easy to pull off heart, snark and absurdity at the same time, and B doesn't always get the mix right. But when it does, it ranks with the funniest, cleverest shows on TV. And as that girl in the title, Krysten Ritter is giving a grand, theatrical comic turn that is something to behold.
Vegas (CBS, 10 ET/PT): This '60s-set series continues to rank as one of the fall's most promising. But it might come closer to living up to that promise if star Dennis Quaid acted a bit younger — more mischievous, less grim — and if the set looked a bit older — more lived-in and authentic, less "look-what-we-built" ersatz.
Covert Affairs (USA, 10 ET/PT): Current events being what they are, it's hard for a fictional version of the CIA to compete with the real thing. Still, this USA drama remains one of TV's best action adventures. It's a busy night and we're busy people, so if you only have time for an occasional episode, hold out for the ones that team star Piper Perabo's Annie with Christopher Gorham's Auggie.
The Middle (ABC, 8 ET/PT): TV's best traditional family comedy has only gotten better this season, as an injury that endangered the oldest son's football scholarship has forced his parents to confront the horrors of college tuition. It's another example of the show's ability to confront economic realities head-on without losing a comic step. The day may never come when Emmy voters notice, but viewers have. For this superb cast and crew, that may have to be recognition enough.
Modern Family (ABC, 9 ET/PT): There isn't anything "traditional" about TV's best sitcom, unless you count great acting, perfect casting, hilarious dialogue, lovable characters, heartfelt stories and intricate plotting as a TV tradition. Where other sitcoms are merely clever, Modern Family is smart; where others are glib, Modern Family is sincere; where others are vulgar, Modern Family is witty, and where others are content to be absurd, Modern Family stays rooted in the real world. No series produces perfection every week; there are always going to be some stories that work better than others, and some characters you like better than others. But week to week, moment to moment, no sitcom comes closer to the ideal.
Nashville (ABC, 10 ET/PT): I haven't given up on Nashville yet, but patience is waning. If it's going to be a soap, so be it, but it has to stop being a boring soap. And that means giving the women back some of the spunk they had in the pilot, because we can't spend many more weeks watching wealthy country stars whine about their problems.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 8 ET/PT): The challenge for every long-running TV series is to grow and change without changing so much that you lose what attracted viewers in the first place. Few sitcoms have handled that process better than Bang, which has added a rom-com overlay while staying true to its nerd-genius core. Like all CBS comedies, the show can sometimes push its sex jokes a bit too far — but unlike the worst of those shows, sex isn't all it has to offer. If flat-out funny is what you want, Bang is as reliable a provider as TV has to offer.
Grey's Anatomy (ABC, 9 ET/PT): People who mock Anatomy's fondness for grand melodramatic "special" events miss how often the show uses these events to reset itself, as it did this season in the aftermath of its cliffhanger plane crash. By jettisoning a few characters whose stories had run their course and sending a few others off in new directions, Grey's has reinvigorated its plots and re-established itself as one of TV's fastest-moving hours.
Elementary (CBS, 10 ET/PT): Don't watch for the plots, though by weekly mystery standards, they're solid. And don't watch expecting this Sherlock Holmes to be markedly different from every other intuitive TV detective, not when they've all stolen so freely from the original. For the moment at least, watch for Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock and his relationship with Lucy Liu's Watson, one of TV most intriguing and best realized male/female partnerships.
Parks & Recreation (NBC, 9:30 ET/PT): If you were a fan of 30 Rock or The Office when they were the standard-bearers for NBC's house style of ironic, absurd comedies, then you should try out the genre's best current representative, Parks, if for no other reason than to watch Amy Poehler's intensely likable star turn at the center. And, to be fair, there are people who think Parks is the best sitcom on TV, so you might as well find out whether you happen to be one of them.
Fringe (Fox, 9 ET/PT): If you're not watching Fringe, you're probably not going to jump in now, not when the show is on its last legs. And if you are watching, you're not going to stop, even though this final stretch has been a bit grimmer than those of us who like happy endings may have wished. (I'm clinging to the "always darkest before the dawn" hopes.) But here's the good news: Next Tuesday (8 ET/PT), this wildly complex sci-fi show begins its off-network run on Discovery Science channel, which allows those who never tried it to come in on the ground floor. Let your DVR join in the fun.
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