To be specific, there’s one show you need to avoid like the plague.
Be excited: The Deuce
HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. (In progress.)
The Deuce begins in 1971 and follows a group of sex workers and their pimps in Times Square, as well as assorted other characters buzzing around the grossest place on Earth, especially then. (Now, too, though, in its cleaned-up corporate incarnation!) The show was co-created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Treme for HBO, and novelist George Pelecanos (who also wrote on Simon's previous shows). Its atmospheric pilot, directed by Michelle MacLaren — who was behind some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad — expertly evokes '70s New York City at its scuzziest, as seen in classic films by Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. The acting on The Deuce is naturalistic and savvy: James Franco plays twins Vincent and Frankie Martino, and he is in scenes with himself seamlessly (less mind-blowing in the post–Orphan Black era, but still a feat). Vincent is the (mostly) responsible brother who aspires to get out of Brooklyn, and soon ends up running a successful Times Square bar; Frankie is the charming fuckup, who leaves his messes for Vincent to deal with — which he always does. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen (street name: Candy), a prostitute insistent on living without a pimp, who is tired of her job and yearns to break into the burgeoning world of legal pornography.
Though Franco and Gyllenhaal are the two recognizable leads, it wouldn't be a David Simon show without a huge cast — and there are a lot of Wire alumni here doing great work, including Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (who played D'Angelo Barksdale on The Wire), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow), Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka), Anwan Glover (Slim Charles), and Method Man (Cheese Wagstaff). (I'm sure I missed a few, so don't @ me.) The Deuce is most interested in morally compromised strivers, but there's also some heart — prostitute Darlene (Dominique Fishback, who was in Simon's Show Me a Hero) has a regular client who pays her to watch old movies with him rather than have sex, and Eileen has a young son who lives with her mother and has no idea what she does for a living. As with most of Simon's television work, The Deuce is a slow burn, more intent on creating a world than speeding through plot — this eight-episode first season sets the table potentially for two more that Simon and Pelecanos have planned, which would eventually lead the characters into the still-debauched sex industry of the '80s. —Kate Aurthur
Give it a chance: The Orville
Fox, Thursdays at 9 p.m. (In progress. The second of its premiere episodes airs Sept. 17 after football, before moving to its regular time period on Thursday, Sept. 21.)
Never a Seth MacFarlane fan, I approached The Orville with dread. Yet I came away from the first three episodes with…puzzlement. MacFarlane — the show's creator, executive producer, and star — plays Ed Mercer, a spaceship captain living 400 years in the future who's been fucking up since he caught his wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), cheating on him. Despite his problems, he gets a promotion to command a ship, which is called the Orville, and he decides to step up. There's a motley crew of crew members, some human, some alien, and Kelly, who is there to be a foil for sexual tension and ex-wife jokes. The tone of this MacFarlane dramedy, which is clearly a labor of love, is not what he's known for: Yes, The Orville can be crass — there are dick jokes and barf — but there's an earnestness about it that I was truly confused by. I guess this is the MacFarlane who was an executive producer of Cosmos and loves space?
The third episode takes a truly bizarre turn when Bortus (Peter Macon), one of the crew from an all-male alien species, has a baby who is female and wants her to have have sex reassignment surgery until he watches Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and changes his mind (but his mate doesn't, and they go to court). There's no way to write that sentence without feeling insane. And it's not particularly played for laughs. This is all to reiterate that The Orville flummoxed me. There aren't that many jokes; the sci-fi drama is, so far, not compelling; and MacFarlane isn't much of a leading man. So who is it for? Is it for Star Trek geeks who…I don't even know how to finish that sentence. But I will be curious to see how this show performs, and whether it finds a consistent voice. Oh, and Jon Favreau directed the pilot, which is clearly expensive and a vote of confidence on Fox's part. —K.A.
Be excited: The Vietnam War
PBS (This 10-part documentary will premiere on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m., airing nightly through Sept. 21. Skipping Saturday, it will then resume Sunday, Sept. 24 through Sept. 28.)
The war itself was a muddle, but this 10-part, 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is clear as a bell. The Vietnam War fits in neatly with Burns' other major works, which began in 1990 with The Civil War, about another war that tore the United States apart (that one literally). Following their usual directorial style, Burns and Novick take an exhaustive look at the Vietnam War, which began to brew soon after the end of World War II as the fever dream of communist boogeymen infected US foreign policy. As US involvement in Vietnam progresses from “advisers” under the Kennedy administration to a full-scale war, The Vietnam War tells the story through American veterans, press, protesters, and more — and Vietnamese witnesses and ex-soldiers as well. All of the interviewees give insightful, heartbreaking, sometimes infuriating testimony over compelling (and often gorgeous, if disturbing) archival footage. Make no mistake, The Vietnam War, which was written with clarity and depth by Geoffrey C. Ward, is a major cultural event. If you've ever been curious about this decades-long morass, the effects of which are still felt today, do watch this epic, sprawling docuseries. —K.A.
Courtesy of AP/Horst Faas
Be excited: Neo Yokio
Netflix (Starts Sept. 22.)
The hipster quotient is high in Ezra Koenig's new anime show, Neo Yokio. The story follows Kaz Kaan (voiced by Jaden Smith), a wealthy young socialite in this New York City–ish environment who carries on the family legacy of demon hunting. (Susan Sarandon plays Aunt Agatha, Kaz's taskmaster and a fellow “magistocrat” who always has her eye on lucrative opportunities for the family.) Kaz is obsessed with clothes, his ex-girlfriend, and his place on the so-called “bachelor board,” the rankings of the eligible single men in the city — there's a fun Gossip Girl vibe to all of this. Smith, whose real-life persona has always confused me, is appealing and charming as the shallow, put-upon, yet good-at-heart Kaz.
As far as the show's plotting goes, the stakes are relatively low: No one blinks at demons or terrorism, and downtown is underwater (it's referred to as the “sea below 14th Street” and seems posh). I thoroughly enjoyed the world created by Neo Yokio. The animation — by the anime studios Production I.G and Studio Deen, and MOI, the South Korean animation studio — looks gorgeous. And the casting is clever: Jude Law plays Charles, Kaz's mecha-butler; The Kid Mero and Desus Nice voice Kaz's best friends, Lexy and Gottlieb; and Tavi Gevinson is Helena St. Tessero, a disillusioned fashion blogger who goes from indulging in the upscale world of Neo Yokio to trying to convince Kaz of its bourgeois evils after she is possessed by a demon. Other notable names — Jason Schwartzman, Willow Smith, and Amandla Stenberg, among others — dot the voice credits too. Episodes of Neo Yokio run around 20 to 22 minutes long, so you can knock out the whole six-episode season, should you so choose, in one amusing night. —K.A.