We all love the movies, but it’s worth pointing out that 10 of the 25 Golden Globes Awards go to television shows. Standout episodic series introduced in summer and fall can take home trophies in January, a full six months before Emmy nominations are even announced, which makes Globe voters the first to anoint front-runners in the freshman class. New titles, such as “Manhattan,” “Madam Secretary,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “black-ish,” should not be overlooked as top contenders, but a few other recent arrivals seem to stand out in originality, audacity and creative verve.
In a series that streams exclusively on Amazon, the divorced patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) of a Los Angeles family reveals to his self-absorbed grown children that he intends to start living openly as the woman he has always believed himself to be. Everyone’s secrets then spill out in this boundary-pushing comedy from creator-writer Jill Soloway.
Thumbs up/thumbs down: “The only great series of the new fall season,” says Slate’s Willa Paskin. “Astonishing to watch,” says Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara, describing Tambor’s performance as “a slow and quiet miracle.” But the New York Daily News’ David Hinckley complains that the show “too often finds neither the comedy nor the pathos in these tortured lives.”
Inside look: Portraying the transition from Mort to Maura has been “life-changing,” says Tambor, who is 70. “Maura requires that you move outside of yourself but also deeper into yourself.” For the actor, there’s a built-in fail-safe: “Maura is very early in her transition. She doesn’t know how to put makeup on yet. She doesn’t have the walking down. I love that aspect of the role — it’s so beautifully human.” Of doing the scene in which Maura comes out to her daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), Tambor says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous. I said to myself, ‘My hands are shaking.’ But that was OK, because Maura’s hands were shaking too.”
“The Affair” (Showtime)
The steamy liaison between a married writer (Dominic West) and a grief-stricken married waitress (Ruth Wilson) during a summer idyll in New York’s Montauk looks entirely different when expressed from opposing points of view — first his, then hers. Deft, persuasive writing (by creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi) and sterling performances help illuminate our own biases as to which version we’re inclined to believe, while an unfolding criminal investigation suggests that things went very, very wrong.
Thumbs up/thumbs down: “A terrific idea, lyrically written and perfectly cast,” says The Times’ McNamara. The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever calls it “compulsively intriguing.” On the other hand, “Neither Noah or Alison is particularly appealing,” says the Wrap’s Diane Garrett, adding: “Unless things improve markedly, this is one affair I don’t want to spend too much time pursuing.”
Inside look: “Telling it from my side is much easier because I have a three-dimensional character to go with in my head,” says Wilson, the British actress who plays the American waitress, Alison. “She’s seeing everything through the prism of her grief and that numbness. In the version you get from Noah, I take away the grief [in the performance], because he doesn’t know about that yet. So she seems bolder, more sexy and impulsive. It’s more like his impression, the spirit of Alison as he sees her.” The challenge? “You have to believe everything you’re acting, so sometimes it’s difficult doing the other person’s point of view.”
“The Knick” (Cinemax)
A riveting and grimly realistic drama set in New York City in 1900, when surgical procedures were little more than a bloody crapshoot. Clive Owen stars as an abrasive, cocaine-addicted doctor pushing tirelessly for a breakthrough. Steven Soderbergh directs each episode with innovation and verve.
Thumbs up/thumbs down: The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert praised the series as “an astonishing new medical drama that has the potential to be one of the year’s best and most talked-about shows.” But Emily Nussbaum, writing in the New Yorker, complains, “Rather than innovate, the series leans hard on cable drama’s hoariest antiheroic formulas, diluting potentially powerful themes.”
Inside look: Not even the blatant bigotry expressed by his character toward a gifted African American doctor perturbs Owen as he anchors his first cable series: “We have to show that this is how things were.” Besides, he adds, “I like to push things. This character is not going to lead you by the hand and tell you what to think of him. He’s unpredictable, and you’re going to have to watch and see how things develop.”
“Jane the Virgin” (The CW)
A student teacher (Gina Rodriguez) who has determinedly kept her virginity becomes pregnant when, due to a mixed-up medical procedure, she’s artificially inseminated. Head-spinning complications ensue in this briskly paced Miami-set comedy, adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela and delivered with a remarkably successful mix of charm, melodrama and farce.
Thumbs up/thumbs down: “One of the best things to come out of the fall season,” says Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd, singling out Rodriguez as “the sun at its center.” “She doesn’t just play the several attitudes the show asks of her, but compounds them into a person.” Kate Kulzick of the A.V. Club praises the show as “self-aware but not self-parodying,” but the Daily News’ Hinckley says that “the insemination isn’t the only thing that feels artificial.” Even by telenovela standards, he laments, it’s all “a bit much.”
Inside look: “There’s nothing about Jane’s situation that seems farcical or funny to her, so I play it as very real,” says Rodriguez, who grew up in Chicago in a second-generation Puerto Rican household. She says she loves the platform the role gives her “to tell young girls that they are enough — they don’t have to be from a certain economic background to make their dreams come true.”