Terry Hazlett

Later beter than never when discovering great cable shows

Later better than never when discovering great cable shows

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I’ve never been accused of being ahead of the television curve.


I stuck with “Happy Days” long after it jumped the shark. I still watch “American Idol.” And with the exception of frequent forays to Root Sports for Penguins and Pirates games, I’ve been perfectly content to spend most of my prime time with the four networks.


Until now.


While I’ve occassionally ventured up the dial to check out “Mad Men,” “Justified,” “Walking Dead” and a few other series for review purposes, no non-network show has ever been on my appointment television list. It used to be quite lengthy, populated with can’t-miss-an-episode series such as “Hill Street Blues,” St. Elsewhere,” “NYPD Blue” and “Frasier,” among others. But when “Lost” left the air, I mostly lost interest in network television, primarily because I became weary of investing time in new series only to see them abruptly yanked from the schedule.


This season, I latched on to just two new series, “Revolution” and “Chicago Fire,” and only after I was confident the shows would last the season. (After their premieres, I abandoned them for a few weeks until their ratings jelled, then did some quick catch-up on the storylines). And, yes, a little part of me picked those shows because they’re on NBC, the ultimate TV underdog.


But when “Revolution” went on a lengthy hiatus and “Chicago Hope” began looping into repeats, I began searching for something new.


Light years after the rest of the country, I discovered cable – notably “Vikings” and “Homeland.”


I sailed into “Vikings” mostly out of curiosity. Why, I wondered, hadn’t anyone attempted a series about “Vikings” until now? Their history is notoriously sketchy, so the plotlines would only be as limited as the head writer’s creativity.


A half-dozen episodes into the History Channel series, one can surmise that the writers are, indeed, very creative. I would expect that “Vikings” will be awash with Emmy nominations this year, as Emmy voters are usually very adept at identifying quality new shows (although they tend to reward them long after their prime).


To say “Vikings” is a series about family would at the outset seem to be a bit of a stretch. “Vikings” appeared to be, especially during the first few episodes, about swordplay, violence, murder, violence, backstabbing and violence. Did I mention violence? The lead character, Ragnar, played with post-caveman finesse by Travis Fimmel, is right in there, plundering and plunging swords into doomed opponents before and after every commercial. But when that ornery onion begins to peel back, fragile layers of fatherly instincts become exposed. It is also apparent that Ragnar cares for his wife – she obviously is much more than the traditional “taken” woman.  Then, on the first raid at Lindisfarne, Ragnar takes a priest captive as a slave while his comrades butcher  most of the others for sheer sport. While that is merely a small step toward civility, a few episodes later, it becomes obvious that the priest has evolved from a curiosity to a friend of Ragnar.


While each episode is entertaining (if a bit bloody), “Vikings” also has as a subtext,  a story of man’s evolution, even if it’s going to be an extremely long, slow story. That’s OK – I think I’m in for the long haul.


There’s no place like ‘Homeland’

If “Vikings” becomes the Emmy darling this season, it will be snatching the statuettes from “Homeland,” a Showtime series that was deserving of all of its awards the past two seasons.


I didn’t know how deserving until last week, when Xfinity offered free episodes of dozens of pay cable series. Knowing that the free days (and my time) were numbered, I opted for “Homeland.” It was an excellent choice.


“Homeland” is as entertaining as “Lincoln,” as tense as “Argo” and as spellbinding as “Skyfall.” It’s comparable to these movies because it is of movie quality. Damian Lewis and Claire Danes are terrific in the lead roles, if only because neither lets you completely into their thought process. Danes, as a bipolar CIA agent, suspects Lewis, a Marine freed from enemy imprisonment, was purposely released to become a spy for the other side. What makes the show work is that the audience is never certain which character to believe. Like “Lincoln,” “Homeland” is heavy on dialogue and light on action; as with “Argo,”  “Homeland’s” action is of the edge-of-the-seat variety, and similar to “Skyfall,” there is the fear that if you take your eyes off the screen you will miss an important component of the mystery.


“Homeland” is almost good enough to convince me to buy into the pay cable level. Almost. But a DVD package of seasons one and two will be at the top of my Christmas list.


And to no one’s surprise ...

The men are all but gone from “American Idol.” As predicted here – and just about everywhere else – “Idol” seemed to be committed to crowning a female champion this year. The judges have successfully convinced the public to pile on votes for the ladies, and judges twice rejected a “save” of a male contestant when it seemed to be warranted. There’s just one guy left, and he’s certainly no match for any of the five female contestants. (A cynic might even suggest he’s a plant, as he never would have even made the final cut in past years). I suspect “Idol” might get its wish for a female win this year, but it’s certainly losing its credibility with each passing week.


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