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29 Apr 2015

True TV: 'Happyish' and 'Penny Dreadful' Creep Out on Sunday; 'Montage of Heck; Is a Shocker

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This season on Penny Dreadful: Witches! This season on Penny Dreadful: Witches!

Happyish (Sundays, Showtime), new series: Showtime’s current Sunday lineup is no match for the hype steamroller of HBO’s Game of Thrones/Silicon Valley/Veep trifecta, which makes it the perfect-ish place for a throwback midlife-crisis comedy—even if it is sandwiched between a running-out-the-clock dramedy (Nurse Jackie) and a steampunk creepshow (Penny Dreadful). Happyish, starring British comedy MVP Steve Coogan (taking over for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), does what he can with a done-to-death setup: A 40-something guy hates his job—advertising, of course; it’s always advertising—as well as the annoying younger crowd moving up to force him out, but where else can he go? He’s hit his “joy ceiling.” There are plenty of funny moments from Coogan, as well as co-stars Kathryn Hahn and Bradley Whitford, but Happyish feels like a circa-1999 take on “edgy.” How about just bringing back Beggars and Choosers, Showtime?

Penny Dreadful (Sunday, May 3, Showtime), season premiere: Season 1 of Penny Dreadful crammed a lot of story into a mere eight episodes—so much so that you have to wonder who/what’s left for Vanessa (Eva Green), Ethan (Josh Hartnett), Dr. Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and the rest of the Victorian X-Filers to battle. The answer: Witches, of course; it’s always witches. They’re out to get Vanessa, and there are a handful of scenes in Season 2 opener “Fresh Hell” that are as creepy the entire Coven run of American Horror Story. But, unlike that and WGN’s visceral period horror-show Salem, Penny Dreadful relies on atmospherics that tend to meander; there’s a satisfying story here, but it requires patience. And more candles—19th-century London is ridiculously dark.

Family Guy (Sunday, May 3, Fox), 250th Episode: Yes, only 250—it seems like Family Guy has produced at least twice that many episodes, and even more jokes about how it’s “not as good as it used to be.” Thing is, Family Guy is as good as it’s ever been, but we’ve become so numb to the delivery system (setup, cutaway scene, commentary on random modern inconvenience, etc.) that it makes the traditionally linear storytelling of cartoons like Bob’s Burgers more appealing. It could also be that Bob’s Burgers is a far, far, far better show than Family Guy. Let’s go with that—happy 250th, Griffins!

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Monday, May 4, HBO), documentary: Brett Morgen’s doc Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck arrives long enough after Cobain’s 1994 suicide (sorry, no cover-up conspiracy theories here) that it seems fresh—more importantly, this deconstruction of The Man, The Myth, The Grunge Superstar is fresh, like nothing that’s come before it. Beyond the usual Behind the Music mix of childhood home movies, Nirvana concert footage and talking-head testimonials, Morgen uses stylized animation to illustrate the journal passages of a young Aberdeen, Wash., weirdo who didn’t fit in anywhere, as well as Cobain’s own artwork and appropriated pop-cultural imagery, all mashed up into a narrative almost as dizzying as the mixtape after which the documentary is named. The kitchen-sink visual technique Morgen used for 2012’s expansive Rolling Stones doc Crossfire Hurricane, surprisingly, works just as well in the intimate inverse, shattering the decades-fostered grunge-cartoon image of Cobain and replacing it with a real human being. Courtney Love-haters will be glad to see that she, however, doesn’t come off nearly as well—and Montage of Heck has a stamp of approval from her (and daughter Frances Bean Cobain). Just as curious: Present-day Dave Grohl is absent, making this the only rock-doc in recent memory minus his participation.

David Letterman: A Life on Television (Monday, May 4, CBS), special: A 90-minute special marking Dave’s 30-year TV career and upcoming retirement, and there’s no space to include that one time he read my letter in the Viewer Mail segment on NBC’s Late Night? Fine, what-ever.

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