David Zurawik

From halls of 'Downton Abbey,' to 'House of Cards,' a great midseason

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in 'House of Cards' on Netflix, one of the midseason's highlights. The entire first season available to subscribers Feb. 1 in new business model for TV.

Midseason used to be a time for networks to put on series that weren't good enough to make the fall lineup. The thinking was: The money has been spent to make these episodes, so let's try to get something out of them by plugging them for shows that have bombed.

But thanks to cable and huge changes in the way that people access and watch TV, midseason is in many ways now the best season for TV viewing. This is especially true when it comes to drama, the genre that network television has by and large abandoned to cable, PBS and now Web operations like Netflix because it has been deemed too expensive and risky for efficient (read: cheap) programming.

The wave of winter shows that arrives this week bears prime examples of this TV truth. From the traditional, big-budget, Brit-cum-PBS halls of "Downton Abbey," which starts Season 3 tonight, to the edgy, Baltimore-made remake of "House of Cards," debuting Feb. 1 in one instant-access online swoop at Netflix, here are 10 midseason productions worth paying attention to.

'Downton Abbey' PBS, 9 Sunday. As if the first two seasons weren't successful enough, the producers have upped the star power with Shirley MacLaine and Tim Pigott-Smith. I might be the only critic in America thinking this way, but I am more eager to see Pigott-Smith than MacLaine.

The American actress does, however, have the larger role as Martha Levinson, a widowed American heiress and the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), Countess of Grantham. Martha arrives for the wedding of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

A wedding, a fortune lost, Downton Abbey again in jeopardy of succumbing to the changing times, more conflict for Lady Mary (that's how she rolls — just ask Mr. Pamuk), a couple of deaths: The quotient of melodrama is through the roof.

But smart people, who otherwise have nothing but contempt for TV, lap it up.


I believe it's all about social class and the kind of fairy-tale fantasy of privilege it offers in these uncertain economic times for weary and worried Brit and American viewers.

Me, I'm the Irish chauffeur with an attitude or the disgruntled third assistant footman who despises all the toffee-nosed, high-and-mighty people living the life of Riley upstairs while I slave away.

But I'll be watching.

'The Staircase' Sundance, 10 p.m. Monday. This eight-part documentary that debuted in 2005 is one of the finest works of nonfiction ever done on American TV. It shows that a great storyteller doesn't have to trick out the truth with invented actions and dialogue.

Oscar-winning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade went inside the North Carolina murder trial of author Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found dead on the stairway of their Durham home. Did Peterson kill her — or did she accidentally fall down the stairs, as he claimed?

The dance Peterson plays with de Lestrade's camera is mesmerizing. Guess who wins. Sundance replays the documentary series starting Monday and then offers two new episodes March 7 and 14 that update the story. I cannot wait.

'1600 Penn' NBC, 9:30 p.m. Thursday. This family comedy, set in the White House, comes from Baltimore native Jason Winer ("Modern Family"), Josh Gad ("Book of Mormon") and Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

In writing about a sneak preview that aired in December, I said how much I liked the idea of TV dealing with the generational phenomenon of "children" in their 20s returning home after college. Gad plays the screwed-up, but sweet and emotionally wise adult-child with gusto. (See Winer interview below.)

'Banshee' Cinemax, 10 p.m. Friday. A master thief assumes the identity of the sheriff of Banshee, Pa., so that he can continue his criminal ways. Before you say no way, you should know that Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under" and "True Blood") is executive producer of this series by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler.

There is no shortage of sex and violence. But there also promises to be some very keen insights into post-modern identity, memory and small-town American history and life. I am going to give this series a few weeks before making a call.

'Girls' Season 2. HBO, 9 p.m. Jan. 13. I think it is brilliant that commercial American TV found an author in her 20s in Lena Dunham and gave her full voice to speak for people in their 20s. Not all of them, of course, just some of the more interesting ones.

With this series, HBO almost single-handedly redeems all the vapid depictions of 20-something female identity that dominate network sitcoms.

I really liked Season 1 from the moment in the pilot when Hannah's parents essentially cut her off on so many levels — and told her to grow up. What a great pilot. Season 2 starts off just as strong.

'The Following' Fox, 9 p.m. Jan. 21. It's a network drama, but it has a cable feel with Kevin Bacon in the lead as a heavy-drinking, burned-out ex-FBI agent called back to action when a serial killer escapes from prison. It is hard to tell whether Bacon is delivering a minimalist performance or simply not that excited about working for Fox.

Baltimore viewers, take note: The killer is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, and there are wall-to-wall Poe references and trivia in this series.

All viewers, take special note: This is a particularly graphic and grisly series for network TV. If the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has truly affected the national psyche, it could be a problem for this series in terms of finding an audience.

'The Americans' FX. 10 p.m. Jan. 30. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as KGB sleeper agents living in suburban America, outside Washington, in Ronald Reagan's 1980s as a married couple with two children. This is my favorite concept of the TV season. Oh yeah, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) lives next door.

'House of Cards' Netflix, Feb. 1. The listing does not give an airtime because this big-budget remake of the BBC thriller is not going to be airing on TV. The entire first season will be available from Netflix starting Feb. 1. That is an exciting and possibly transformative business model that will be watched closely throughout the entertainment industry.

I wrote a lot about the series as it was being filmed last year and will be writing more in coming weeks. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star, with David Fincher directing the first episode and producing with Spacey. From what I have seen during production, it looks as good as the original, which I loved.

'Top of the Lake' Sundance, 9 p.m. March 18. A seven-part, murder-mystery miniseries from Jane Campion ("The Piano") about the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. Elizabeth Moss stars as the investigating detective. It's on my dance card Monday nights in March, I'll tell you that.

'Mr. Selfridge' PBS, 9 p.m. March 31. Jeremy Piven stars in this miniseries as the American founder of the famed British department store, Selfridges. I have not seen anything but a trailer from ITV, where it premiered in the U.K., but I'm going out on a limb on the strength of Piven and the fact that Andrew Davies, who wrote the original "House of Cards" for the BBC in 1990, is the writer. Davies also wrote TV's "Pride and Prejudice" and "Little Dorrit." I'll give it a look on the strength of that.