Spring TV’s sophomore class
Three TV shows return after a triumphant first season.
The Kansas City Star
Prime-time schedules are thawing out some established hits in the next few weeks, as well as planting seeds to see what takes root.
But these three shows, following up triumphant first seasons with even better episodes, offer the best cure for cabin fever.
10 p.m. Wednesday on FX
Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Soviet agents posing as everyday travel agents in “The Americans,” are fine with their kids watching “WKRP.” It’s when their daughter starts going to church that they get worried.
FX’s retro spy drama still allows fans to root for whatever team is on screen at the time: the Soviet bureaucrats, the FBI blowhards and especially Phillip (Matthew Rhys), even as he executes innocent bystanders for the cause.
His Moscow-arranged marriage is more real than facade these days, so much so that Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is having trouble seducing other men as part of the job. After another embedded spy family is targeted, they take matters into their own hands with the help of their former handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), who’s mostly over Elizabeth beating her to a bloody pulp last season.
Somehow, “The Americans” makes all its elements work: the doomed romances, office politics, coming-of-age tales, breathless action sequences and low-tech James Bond intrigue, peppered with all-too-familiar suburban angst. And instead of acting as a history lesson, the series demands a sharp, engaged audience.
When a character signs up for a Werner Erhard “est” seminar, there’s no clunky, hand-holding explanation (I had to look it up). The Red team doesn’t conspire in heavily accented English, either: Inside the Rezidentura, it’s all subtitled Russian and Cyrillic typewriters.
Each episode delightfully exploits its Cold War setting, dropping cultural breadcrumbs that go beyond an excellent retro soundtrack. A nagging phone call from the Columbia Record Club is really a signal for Elizabeth to rescue a Sandinista ally, but first she drops the kids off to go see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
In another theater, FBI good guy Stan (Noah Emmerich) is realizing “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” wasn’t the best movie to show his mistress, KGB secretary Nina (Annet Mahendru). Now a double agent, she gets something else to worry about with the arrival of a politically connected troublemaker at work. Oleg (Costa Ronin) asks Nina to a hockey game, but he wants to get into her personnel file more than her panties.
“I’m a feminist,” Oleg declares. “I work only for Mother Russia.”
10 p.m. Friday on NBC
The season begins with an artfully composed shot of Jack Crawford’s face appearing in the carving knife Hannibal Lecter is holding. The ensuing brawl escalates into murderous madness. And this battle to the death is no dream sequence. Instead of explaining why the FBI’s lead profiler was trying to kill his star consultant, the season rewinds itself to events 12 weeks before the fight.
Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is making one of his ornate meals for Crawford, a traditional Japanese kaiseki feast, beautifully presented.
“I almost feel guilty eating it,” says Crawford (Laurence Fishburne).
“I never feel guilty eating anything,” Lecter replies.
Meanwhile, their friend Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is fly-fishing inside his mind from his cell at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He knows Lecter has framed him for a series of murders, but he can’t remember how. No one believes him, because it looks bad when you vomit up a victim’s ear in your sink.
“I am not the intelligent psychopath you’re looking for,” he insists. “You may not believe me now, but you will.”
“Hannibal’s” twists on the Lecter mythology are a tasty treat for Thomas Harris fans, but anyone who doesn’t mind a side of gore and symbolism with their cerebral psychodrama should take a bite, too.
9 p.m. Monday on A&E
The sleepy hamlet of White Pine Bay is still a very dangerous place to live, and it’s not just because Norma and Norman Bates have made a success of their motel. A basic cable prequel to the “Psycho” story set in the present day sounded like the worst idea ever, but last season was a surprisingly deft study of evil in a secretive small town.
It’s still unclear which Bates, if any, killed Norman’s favorite teacher last season. As Norma listens to the message from the high-school’s emergency phone, Vera Farmiga’s face transports the show back inside her character’s magnetic moral ambiguity.
It doesn’t help that her son would rather hunker down in the basement perfecting his taxidermy skills. When Norman (Freddie Highmore) finally emerges for a driving lesson, he goes straight for Miss Watson’s gravesite. Norma can’t keep quiet.
“You spend your days equally mooning over a dead teacher and taking apart dead animals,” she says. “It makes me feel like a bad mother.”
She can’t keep quiet about the new highway, either.
“This is the road that’s going to ruin our lives!” she cries, planning her plea to powers-that-be. Every city council meeting should include an angry outburst from Norma Bates. She’s still crazy, and she’s still hilarious.