John Byrne looks at several new and returning shows including a revamped Revenge and Scandal, some new drama from at home and abroad, and a retro comeback for Harry Hill.
Reviewed: Girls (Monday, Sky Atlantic; Togetherness (Monday, Sky Atlantic); Benched (Tuesday, RTÉ2); Revenge (Tuesday, RTÉ2); Red Rock (Wednesday/Thursday, TV3); Scandal (Thursday, Sky Living): Harry Hill's Stars in Their Eyes (Saturday, UTV Ireland)
Telly traffic is always extremely busy at this time of year. The Christmas/New Year thing is done and dusted, so it's time for some new and returning shows to get viewers back into a routine and give them something regular to talk about in work. It was a hectic week but things are certainly taking shape, with some impressive newcomers and some surprises from a couple of old favourites. First up, the most manic show on TV.
Since it reared its neurotic head three seasons ago, Scandal (Thursday, Sky Living) has been a biggie in our house. Shonda Rhimes's fourth show was also her first away from the medical world (of Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Off the Map), while this political problem-solver has turned into one of the cattiest shows in TV history. Everyone is so angry and they all. Talk. Like. This. To. Each. Oth-er. It's just like Christmas Day with your family.
Season four begins several months after the events that closed the third run, and everything has changed for the key characters. Olivia (the always impeccably-dressed Kerry Washington) has been spending the last while high-lifing on an island off Zanzibar with Jake, but she returns to Washington when she hears Harrison is dead. Olivia Pope & Associates is all but gone, with only Quinn still in situ. Abby is the White House Press Secretary, while Huck is working as a retail zombie.
At the White House, Fitz and Mellie are both struggling to cope with the death last season of their son, with the former attempting suicide and then sacking most his cabinet while promoting an equal pay bill, while Millie aimlessly flops around. It's a variation on a theme, really.
Anyway, it looks like they've decided to completely revamp this show, which is both brave and necessary. Portia DeRossi is among the new faces, and plays a rather unpleasant Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Good casting.
This season opener basically laid down the table cloth, put out some bread and got the cutlery ready. Regulars can expect the main courses to follow pretty quickly, but this opener was very promising. I'm just waiting for the whine list.
Another show back for a fourth run is Revenge (Tuesday, RTÉ2), the mad-as-bats soap about the awful kind of people who live horrendously shallow lives in New York's Hamptons, led by Emily VanCamp as the revenge-seeking Emily Thorne and her ice queen nemesis, Victoria Grayson, played by a wonderfully withering Madeline Stowe.
Judging by this double opener, the fun and games are clearly going to continue here. It doesn't even matter if you've never seen Revenge before, or are unaware of its ever-changing plotlines, you can jump in any time to enjoy the different characters seeking to deceive/kill/tempt each other. It's great fun, a complete reality buffer and about as unrealistic as TV can be without getting Noel Fielding involved.
I haven't been a regular soap watcher for many years (football's much more fun), but Red Rock (Wednesday/Thursday, TV3) just couldn't be ignored. And do you know what? It was quite enjoyable. Some of the camera angles showed that this show could be considered more of a drama than a run-of-the-mill 'frame it, shoot it' soap style you'd see elsewhere, plus some of the acting was very impressive – hardly surprising with the likes of Cathy Belton on show.
Overall it was an impressive start, the mullarky between the two rival families offers plenty of possibilities, but the trick with any show such as this is being able to deliver week after week after week.
US cable networks such as HBO shun that treadmill and favour fewer episodes in order to focus on quality rather than quantity, which is why so many of its shows are regarded with great reverence.
Two of their latest, the returning Girls and new comedy Togetherness (Monday, Sky Atlantic) began this week, with the former now in its fourth season.
At this stage Lena Dunham and mentor Judd Apatow have it down pat, and this season opener reintroduced the gang, with Adam Driver once again excellent as Hannah's intense actor boyfriend. Things have moved on in terms of the girls doing new stuff, but what we've got here is more of the same, a bunch of self-obsessed frenemies in various stages of arrested development, although Jessa is worryingly showing signs of progress.
Marnie's embarrassing Jazz Brunch moment was a nice touch, and show that cruelty is a human trait that cannot be ignored. In the end, Hannah finally heads off to graduate school. They've opened a door here; let's see where it leads ...
Togetherness is quite similar to Girls, only this time for a quartet of people on the cusp of 40, which – going by this opening episode – is the new 16. Set in Los Angeles and dealing with the fact that people facing middle age are often less than happy with their lives, it's not quite New Girl and all the better for it.
It's got some good moments, while Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis work really well together as the uptight Tina and the apparently doomed, self-effacing Alex. Like a lot of really good American shows of recent years – the brilliant Men of a Certain Age springs to mind – this looks like being a fascinating slowburner. Give it a go, especially if you prefer bicycles to ice cream. (WARNING: the trailer contains adult language.)
Far more mainstream, but also worth a look is Benched (Tuesday, RTÉ2), a new sitcom starring Eliza Coupe, who was most recently a hoot in the criminally ignored Happy Endings. Here she plays Nina Whitley, a career-driven corporate attorney who has a nervous breakdown after being dumped by her boyfriend and passed over for promotion, and becomes a public defender for Los Angeles County.
It's quite old-fashioned and will probably stand or fall on the strength of its supporting cast and characters. Fingers crossed, Benched could be the new Brooklyn Nine Nine.
Finally, there are certain shows none of us would like to ever see again, and one of my pet hates was Stars in Your Eyes. It would be an understatement to say I was worried when I saw that one of my favourite TV personalities, Harry Hill, was going to host a reboot of this clunky karaoke show. I was filled with dread.
Still, I sat down on to watch Harry Hill's Stars in Their Eyes (Saturday, UTV Ireland) and within an hour I was convinced of one thing: if you put the right person in front of a TV show, the biggest load of tosh can be transformed into decent telly.
Hill doesn't just host this show, he is the show. Sure, there were chunks of 'I'll put the kettle on' moments as civilians enthusiastically posed as cardboard versions of Kylie, The Everly Brothers, Rihanna, Eminem and Christina Aguilera, but Harry Hill remains a fantastic presenter full of fun and energy.
Record, watch later and skip the boring, non-Harry bits. You could save yourself a lot of time over the next few years.