It's a busy time in television, so here are condensed reviews of three new shows:
"Babylon," 10 p.m. ET, Thursday, Sundance Channel: This U.K. drama, which lists director Danny Boyle as an executive producer and premiered Jan. 8, has a few things to recommend it, notably James Nesbitt as the tough, charismatic head of London's embattled police force and a brisk, nimble energy (but fair warning -- some of the accents can be tough going). "Babylon" appears to want to take on very timely issues, including the ways in which the police interact (sometimes disastrously) with people in custody or members of the public on the streets. But the main focus of the drama keeps returning to the personal and professional life of an American PR woman (Brit Marling) advising the top cops. She attempts to steer coverage of the London police force in ways that will enhance its image (and that of her boss), but various media crises and political grudges keep throwing her plans off track. Despite the show's energy and good cast, there's a slightly anticlimactic feel to the whole enterprise: It won't come as a surprise to anyone that back-room dealmaking goes on between police brass and politicians in a big city, or that, for powerful people, concerns about image often trump more pressing priorities. Though "Babylon" is pleasant and reasonably well executed, there's not too much to grab on to at the center of the drama; it makes moves toward engagement of knotty issues, only to ultimately skate along their surface. But Nesbitt is typically excellent and the show's depiction of London, its cops and its cynical politics can be diverting.
"Man Seeking Woman," 10:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, FXX: The great thing about television's current wave of expansion is that all kinds of ideas are getting tested out. Not all of those approaches work, of course, and this new comedy is a prime example of a set of ideas that might have seemed OK in a pitch meeting or on the page but don't really cohere as a television program. The premise is that of a million other TV shows (many of which have aired on FXX's older cousin, FX): In "Man Seeking Woman," a middle-class dude muddles through life, confused by women and unable to get it together romantically or professionally. "Man Seeking Woman" takes that very common premise and tosses in huge chunks of surreal humor, but without grounding that choice in anything thoughtful, amusing or interesting. The lead character played by Jay Baruchel is about as bland and by-the-numbers as they come, the characterization and scenarios are often predictable, and the main guy's best friend -- a grating devotee of pickup-artist dating advice, of course -- sinks many scenes that might have just about worked had they not been so soaked in douche-tastic attitudes. The main problem is, "Man Seeking Woman" tries for the kind of weird, imaginative wit you find on "Archer" or "Louie" but the new show doesn't have the craft, ideas or skills to back it up. "Archer" works in part because its characters are animated and thus can get away with extreme behaviors and pronouncements. If they said and did the things they say and do in a live-action setting, the entire show would be unbearable. "Louie" often makes fantastical fare work in live-action settings because he has interesting questions and assumptions he wants to explore. That's not what happens here. If there were at least a few fresh ideas or characters worth following at the core of "Man Seeking Woman," it might work, but instead of taking flight, the more high-concept scenes usually end up feeling strained, derivative or unfunny, or some combination of all three. In the first three episodes, only one scene, which arrives in Episode 2, is solidly good from start to finish (and it gives prime screen time the great Michael Hogan, aka Saul Tigh on "Battlestar Galactica"). But the screechiness of the third episode was rather unpleasant.
"Grantchester," 9 p.m. ET, Sunday, PBS/Masterpiece: I dinged "Babylon" for being superficial, but, in all honesty, U.K. import "Grantchester" is not especially deep either. Yet I enjoyed it, and having seen three of its six episodes, I will happily finish watching Season 1 knowing exactly what I'm going to get. As is the case with "Man Seeking Woman," this show is going to appeal strongly to a particular sensibility and leave cold folks who don't enjoy that point of view, and that's fine. TV supports just about every kind of taste these days, which is as it should be. In any event, you either really want to see a gentle Masterpiece drama about a good-looking vicar solving crimes or you really don't. Given my love of well-executed detective stories and well-appointed period fare, I fall squarely into the "yes, please!" camp. James Norton, who was terrifying in "Happy Valley" and dashing in "Death Comes to Pemberley," gives pleasing layers of texture to his character, a World War II veteran who has settled into the quiet life of a vicar in a rural village. A local detective (Robson Green) ends up needing his help with crime among the gentry, and one of the chief pleasures of "Grantchester," which is set in the early '50s, is the amusing camaraderie between Green and Norton's characters. The solving on the weekly murder isn't overly taxing, but that's partly why "Grantchester" can be such a welcome escape: It's light and diverting yet respectful of its characters and their histories, thus it can serve as a pleasant, earnest counterbalance to some of TV's darker dramas.