The Americans: A wonderfully complex creation.
2013's new midseason TV shows take viewers to extremes. Some are very, very good, and others are very, very bad. Then there's my favorite category: Shows that are so bad they're irresistible. Here's a sampling from across the spectrum.
Wednesdays, 9 p.m. (FX), beginning Jan. 30
Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are KGB agents passing as a normal American couple during the Reagan era, with two normal kids. The kids, in fact, really are normal, having been born in the U.S. and knowing nothing about their parents' real identities. Elizabeth is troubled that they're growing up without socialist values, but she would never blow her cover by telling them the truth. Philip, on the other hand, is beginning to wonder why the two of them don't just flip to the American side and live happily ever after, sans murder and kidnapping.
The Americans is a wonderfully complex creation. It dares us to sympathize with the most unsympathetic of protagonists as they try to undermine our way of life.
Thursdays, 9 p.m. (NBC), beginning Jan. 31
Dr. Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale) is an eminent surgeon and a solid citizen -- at least for 12 hours a day. At night, his alter ego comes out to indulge in 12 hours of gleeful mayhem. Jason is all too aware of his nightmarish doppelganger and tries to keep him bottled up via experimental drugs. That just makes the bad Jason mad, so he sets out to ruin the good Jason's life.
Do No Harm is an effective variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The series makes you feel the good Jason's distress, thanks to Pasquale's brilliant performance. Actually, make that two brilliant performances. Pasquale is just as convincing as the bad Jason, scaring you to death with the prospect of pure id on the loose.
Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (CW), beginning Feb. 19
Cult is about a TV series, itself named "Cult." The show-within-the-show portrays a creepy cult run by a psycho who kidnaps and brainwashes his followers. "Cult" has inspired a legion of fans, some of whom go off the deep end in their obsession with clues and code words they detect in each episode. Is the cult depicted in "Cult" the real deal, finding new members among the show's fans? It sounds crazy to a reporter named Jeff (Matt Davis) until his brother -- one of those obsessed fans -- disappears after becoming a raging paranoiac.
Cult is an eerie production that gets under your skin with ideas and atmosphere rather than with shock effects and gore.
Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. (NBC), beginning Jan. 10
This new sitcom is about a hapless fictional president (Bill Pullman) with an out-of-control family. In place of wit and subtlety, the series goes for broad gags involving the president's trophy wife (Jenna Elfman) and goony son (Josh Gad).
Mondays, 8 p.m. (Fox), beginning Jan. 21
Kevin Williamson's new horror series stars Kevin Bacon as a detective with a permanent Joe Friday scowl. Williamson strained his brain to come up with the most brilliantly sick scenario ever seen on TV. He achieved "sick," all right, but not "brilliant." Even with one gruesome murder scene after another, it's hard not to laugh at the idea of a diabolical English professor on an ornate killing spree inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.
So bad they're good
Mondays, 7 p.m. (CW), beginning Jan. 14
Set in 1984, this prequel to Sex and the City features a 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb) obsessing on "finding her voice as a writer" as she discovers makeup, boys and haute couture in her first Manhattan job. The series trades the naughty brilliance of HBO's classic comedy for earnest teen-drama clichés, and I was just about to leave it to the 13-year-old demographic when it hooked me with worse-than-usual missteps. Start with the wild swings from ultra-wholesome to ultra-raunchy, as if the filmmakers couldn't get a handle on their tone. Then there's the preposterous evocation of hip Manhattan life, along with the equally preposterous evocation of square suburban life.
In other words, The Carrie Diaries will be pure pleasure as long as it lasts. Which probably won't be long.
Thursdays, 7 p.m. (ABC), beginning Feb. 14
I'm an aficionado of TV series that take their own mystical mumbo-jumbo seriously. Zero Hour is a classic of the genre, throwing in Rosicrucians, Nazis, the devil, ancient Christian symbols, and treasure maps in a deliriously misguided attempt to be profound.
Hank (Anthony Edwards) publishes a magazine that debunks supernatural phenomena, but wouldn't you know that he's plunged into the supernatural himself after his wife is kidnapped from her clock-repair shop by an evildoer seeking to end mankind. And what better way to set off the apocalypse than by stealing a clock created for one of Jesus' apostles by an old Bavarian dude with a stagy accent?