For a while there, boob tube aficionados were enjoying what some have dubbed the "Golden Age of Television." Beginning in 1999 with HBO's The Sopranos, TV — or at least the basic/pay cable segment of it — entered a period of unprecedented high quality, highlighted by shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Deadwood. Hell, the networks even (briefly) got in on the action with quality offerings like Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development.
Of course, none of those programs are on air anymore, and subtler, "prestige programming" has been slowly replaced by full-blown genre spectacles (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) or pale echoes of former greatness (The Making of the Mob, The Leftovers). Don't get me wrong; there's still plenty of stuff to watch on TV, but in the desperate rush to fill the chasm left by the departure of so many great shows, AMC, HBO and the like went a little overboard.
Take the case of True Detective. While I didn't think the second season was *that* bad (Colin Farrell was in a class all his own, Rachel McAdams was solid and I loved every song Lera Lynn sang), the perceived letdown from season one (itself somewhat overly hyped and marred by a dumb ending) and creator Nick Pizzolatto's season-long slapfight with critics created a perfect storm of negative feedback. And while you have to give it to the guy for refusing to apologize for the ponderous dialogue, nonsensical plot and BLUE BALLS IN YOUR HEART, don't be surprised if HBO's third-season cast announcements include Skeet Ulrich, Jessica Simpson and Lyle Waggoner.
Besides, there are plenty of honestly "bad" shows to avoid (or hate-watch; be honest). Note that when I talk about "bad TV" here, I'm referring exclusively to basic/pay cable shows. Otherwise, the list would be nothing but Kardashians, Real Housewives and The Big Bang Theory. Incidentally, I have a hypothesis 19 Kids and Counting was actually canceled because Chuck Lorre didn't need any more kids to sacrifice to Satan. But that's for another time.
Da Vinci's Demons (Starz)
This one's in the spirit of Showtime's The Tudors in that it takes a historical figure and crafts a bullshit speculative fiction series around him. Da Vinci's Demons also adds those conspiratorial/supernatural elements modern audiences crave. Starz announced the coming season would be its last, so be on the lookout for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - the Series coming soon.
The Strain (FX)
I generally like my apocalypse horror series to be more, I dunno, apocalyptic. New York City is two seasons into what's supposed to be a vampire plague and — with the exception of our dauntless protagonists — most residents of the Five Boroughs appear oblivious. Possibly they're as ignorant of the encroaching horror as Dr. Goodweather (yep) and his colleagues are of basic quarantine procedures.
There is some good news: They finally let Corey Stoll ditch that Trump-esque rug.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Although I hear the second season improves on the meandering first, I still recommend you stick with Silicon Valley, which — in addition to being genuinely engaging and not boring — doesn't have a stupid name.
The Leftovers (HBO)
Jesus, these people are morose. Why doesn't anyone ever point out the benefits of 140 million people disappearing? Traffic's got to be better, there's less bidding competition on eBay and the possibility of another spontaneous mass disappearance probably results in Cuban Missile Crisis levels of desperation sex. Unfortunately, the show feels like another one of those excruciating exercises in navel gazing where nothing ever gets satisfactorily resolved. Now where would I possibly be getting that impression?
You must admit, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is a damned engaging fellow. And at times it feels like there's a show with something to say here. Luckily, any possibility of our viewing football players as actual human beings and not armored meat sacks who concuss themselves for our amusement gets drowned out in Entourage-style boobs 'n' bling overflow.
Black Sails (Starz)
It's the eternal conundrum: Pirates are interesting, and TV *can* be interesting, yet no pirate TV shows are interesting (Pirates of Dark Water being the exception). I somehow also doubt actual pirates spent as much time sitting around discussing the finer points of high-seas mayhem like some kind of Jacobite-era McLaughlin Group. Also, not enough scurvy.
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Ray Donovan (Showtime)
A show featuring the exploits of a world-weary Hollywood fixer? That sounds pretty cool, and he's played by Liev "Ross the Boss" Schreiber? I'm in. And I was, until Ray Donovan got bogged down in family angst (don't care about his brothers) and way too damn many daddy issues. A little Jon Voight goes a long way, people.
This is an admitted guilty pleasure of mine, but I cannot in good conscience defend its quality. I will, however, defend its utility as three- or four-beer Friday night decompression viewing after a long week spent in a cube farm and not karate fighting Amish gangsters, Native American terrorists and white supremacists.