Must-See TV

‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Mad Men’ & More Shows to Watch This Spring (PHOTOS)

From ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Bates Motel’ and ‘Top of the Lake,’ Jace Lacob on what’s worth watching.

ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE; Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Showtime; Helen Sloan/HBO

ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE; Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Showtime; Helen Sloan/HBO

With the promise of warmer weather just around the corner, a slew of new and returning television shows are hitting the airwaves. HBO welcomes back Game of Thrones on March 31, AMC travels back in time for another season of Mad Men on April 7, and Sundance Channel offers two spellbinding new original dramas: Top of the Lake, a mystery series from co-creator Jane Campion, and Rectify, a searing drama that looks at what life is like after being released from prison after 19 years. But it’s not all heavy drama: two serial killer thrillers are on tap, with A&E’s Bates Motel squaring off against NBC’s Hannibal (as in Lecter), the Doctor returns with a new companion in Doctor Who, and HBO’s Veep returns for another season of vice-presidential comedy. Jace Lacob rounds up 15 new and returning television shows that are worth checking out this spring.

Jane Campion/See-Saw Films

‘Top of the Lake’ (Sundance Channel)

The Piano writer-director Jane Campion and the film’s Academy Award-winning star Holly Hunter reunite in the seven-part Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake, which stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan (War Horse), David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings), and Lucy Lawless. Set in the breathtaking wilderness of New Zealand, the miniseries charts the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old local girl and the journey of a detective (Moss), returned home to care for her ailing mother, as she struggles to discover what happened. What Moss’s Robin Griffin discovers is a world of savagery and wonder, as she is forced to trace both the girl and her own dark history. Gorgeous, provocative, and mythical, Top of the Lake is not to be missed. (Launches March 18 at 10 p.m.)

Joe Lederer/A&E

Bates Motel (A&E)

Norman. Mother. Bates Motel. These names are deeply ingrained in our collective memory, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho (and a host of subpar sequels). But what led Norman to kill? What twisted his mind until it snapped? With Bates Motel—from executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights)—viewers will get to see Norman Bates in his formative years. Despite the 1950s trappings, Bates Motel is an unexpectedly contemporary examination of a teenage Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his overbearing mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). What follows is a grisly, creepy, and altogether eerie look at the seedy underbelly of a seemingly perfect town and the darkness that lies within this mother-son bond. (Launches March 18 at 10 p.m.)

Phillip Caruso/HBO

‘Phil Spector’ (HBO)

David Mamet’s Phil Spector, which recounts the lead-up to Spector’s trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, is far from perfect, but Al Pacino’s performance as the eccentric, legendary, wig-wearing music producer is absolutely riveting. One can’t help but wonder what the film—a confection rather than a full meal—would have been like had Bette Midler (originally cast) played defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden rather than Helen Mirren. While Mirren is game, there’s something intensely icy about their rapport, and the film drags on, even though it clocks in at 90 minutes. Odder still is the on-screen card that flashes at the beginning of the film: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor comment upon the trial or its outcome.” Huh? (Airs March 24 at 9 p.m.)

Adrian Rogers/BBC

‘Doctor Who’ (BBC America)

Long-running British sci-fi drama Doctor Who returns for the back half of its seventh season. The Ponds may be gone, but the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) has a new companion in the TARDIS, Clara Oswald, played by 26-year-old British actress Jenna-Louise Coleman, who has played two other similarly named (and doomed) characters who once crossed paths with the Doctor. On tap for the next eight episodes: a Neil Gaiman-scripted episode featuring the Cybermen, the return of the Ice Warriors, a new nemesis for the Doctor called “the Spoonheads,” guest turns by Dame Diana Rigg, and the mystery of Clara herself. (Returns March 30 at 8 p.m.)

Laurence Cendrowicz/Neal Street Productions

‘Call the Midwife’ (PBS)

The stellar British import Call the Midwife returns for a second season that brings back Jenny (Jessica Raine), Chummy (Miranda Hart), Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), Trixie (Helen George), and the sisters of Nonnatus House for more midwifery drama in the 1950s East End of London. If the show’s fantastic Christmas special was any indicator, viewers can expect a second season of sorrow and hope as babies are delivered into the world. But more important, Season 2 offers more of Hart’s amazing Chummy, whose marriage to P.C. Noakes (Ben Caplan) is a perfect study in character advancement. (Returns March 31 at 8 p.m.; check local listings for details.)

Helen Sloan/HBO

‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)

HBO’s stunning fantasy drama returns for a third season of backstabbing, betrayals, and blood, as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss dramatize the third book—A Storm of Swords, or the first half or so, anyway—in George R.R. Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. That adaptation is no easy feat, given just how insanely involved and lengthy A Storm of Swords is and just how much occurs within its pages. New faces this season include Diana Rigg, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Sangster, Paul Kaye, Tara Fitzgerald, Mackenzie Crook, Richard Dormer, and a cast of hundreds. For fans of the books, the real question is: will we get to the Red Wedding? (Returns March 31 at 9 p.m.)

ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE

‘Mr. Selfridge’ (PBS)

Former Entourage star Jeremy Piven stars in this Andrew Davies-created Edwardian period drama—yes, you read that right—about Harry Gordon Selfridge, the flamboyant and eccentric real-life American founder of the British department store Selfridges. Selfridge promoted shopping as a pleasurable activity to Edwardian-era women, rather than a necessity. He also is widely credited with popularizing “Only _____ Shopping Days Until Christmas,” and may have coined the phrase “The customer is always right.” In Mr. Selfridge, Piven’s department-store magnate is surrounded by a sprawling cast of characters, resulting in a sort of Upstairs Downstairs drama where shop girls and department overseers attempt to find love and success in the carefully ordered universe of 1909 London. (Launches March 31 at 9 p.m.; check local listings for details.)

Robert Palka/Fresh Pictures

‘The Spies of Warsaw’ (BBC America)

Former Doctor Who star David Tennant stars in this four-part espionage thriller, based on the novel by Alan Furst, which will air over two consecutive Wednesday evenings in April. Set in Paris, London, and Warsaw between 1933 and 1943, The Spies of Warsaw revolves around Tennant’s Colonel Jean-François Mercier, a military attaché and war hero. He is drawn into a web of conspiracy and intrigue when European nations begin to fall to Germany, and a romantic affair with a lawyer for the League of Nations, played by Janet Montgomery (of the blink-and-you-missed-it CBS legal drama Made in Jersey). What follows is a portrait of a world on the brink of destruction and of the spirit of resistance in the face of unbeatable odds. (Airs April 3 and April 10 at 9 p.m.)

Robert Trachtenberg/NBC

‘Hannibal’ (NBC)

Not the elephant-riding conqueror, but rather Hannibal Lecter, here portrayed by former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the cannibalistic doctor as a younger man filled with some rather twisted appetites. Hannibal, from the mind of Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies), revolves not only around Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter but also Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the FBI special investigator with whom Lecter is meant to consult on a series of inexplicable serial killings. Graham has his own secrets: he can empathize with the killers he’s chasing, rewinding crime scenes to see through their eyes, but his dark gift comes at a painful price. Dancy and Mikkelsen are joined by Laurence Fishburne and former Wonderfalls star Caroline Dhavernas in this alternately beautiful, grotesque, and terrifying thriller. As for the exquisite food on display: renowned chef Jose Andres serves as Hannibal’s “culinary consultant.” (Launches April 4 at 10 p.m.)

Frank Ockenfels/AMC

‘Mad Men’ (AMC)

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is finally back, as is the rest of the staff at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Season 6 will be the penultimate season for the Matthew Weiner-created drama, which will wrap up its run in 2014. While AMC is being strict about spoilers, here’s what we know about this season: Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy is back, but not at SCDP; the last 10 minutes of Season 5 are incredibly important and informative; there is a time jump between seasons; Hawaii features in the season opener; and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) isn’t going to commit suicide any time soon. Beyond that, pour yourself a Scotch and watch. (Returns April 7 at 10 p.m.)

Showtime

‘Nurse Jackie’ (Showtime)

Edie Falco’s Jackie Peyton returns in the fifth season of Showtime’s dark comedy Nurse Jackie. Faced with the one-year anniversary of her sobriety and the end of her marriage, Jackie ends up as a patient at All Saints Hospital after an accident, and an encounter with a policeman (Adam Ferrera) may push her into a new arena altogether: the dating world. Elsewhere, Morris Chestnut joins the cast as an ex-Army medic turned trauma doctor, and Betty Gilpin plays a new female resident whose M.O. is decidedly different than Jackie’s. With a host of new pressures, whether Jackie can control her inner demons remains to be seen. (Returns April 14 at 9 p.m.)

Bill Gray/HBO

‘Veep’ (HBO)

Armando Iannucci’s mordant political comedy returns for a second season that finds Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) still attempting to grab onto whatever tiny amount of power she can in Washington, despite the fact that the veep is little more than a glorified figurehead. In Season 2, returning cast members include Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Wash, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, and Sufe Bradshaw, while Gary Cole and Kevin Dunn are expected to make guest appearances. Will Selina once again manage to put her foot in it? You betcha. (Returns April 14 at 10 p.m.)

Laurence Cendrowicz/World Productions

‘The Bletchley Circle’ (PBS)

In this gripping three-part thriller, four women—who worked together as code breakers at Bletchley Park, the U.K.’s top secret center for decryption, during World War II—reunite to solve a grisly murder spree involving the kidnap and post-mortem rape of women in 1952 London. As Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), Millie (Rachael Stirling), Lucy (Sophie Rundle), and Jean (Julie Graham)—who have fallen out of contact after the war—attempt to track a killer before he strikes again, they must overcome not only danger and fear, but also the social conventions of the time. As they try to decode the pattern that the killer is leaving, he too becomes aware of their existence. (Launches April 21 at 10 p.m.; check local listings for details)

Sundance Channel

‘Rectify’ (Sundance Channel)

From Sundance Channel and creator Ray McKinnon comes this extraordinary and heartbreaking new drama about a man released after 19 years on death row for the murder and rape of his girlfriend—which new DNA evidence proved he did not commit. Returned home to his family, Daniel (Aden Young, who delivers a dazzling performance here) discovers that time has slipped by and that the world he left is very different from the one he remembers. As he begins the difficult task of readjusting to life after prison, Daniel finds himself adrift, an alien in his own life. However, Daniel’s release triggers a host of uneasy questions for the small Georgia town still reeling from the murder two decades later: if he didn’t do it, who did? And why were the sheriff and the prosecutor, now a state senator, so convinced of Daniel’s guilt? (Launches April 22 at 10 p.m.)

Katrina Marcinowski/IFC

‘Maron’ (IFC)

Marc Maron is a comedian’s comedian. The host of the highly successful WTF podcast, he’s behind IFC’s scripted comedy Maron, which revolves around a semi-fictionalized version of Maron. Within the confines of the show—which features guest appearances by Mark Duplass, Illeana Douglas, Dave Foley, Jeff Garlin, Judd Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Denis Leary, Aubrey Plaza, and Adam Scott, to name a few—Maron plays a curmudgeonly comedian and podcast host who struggles to get through the day. The first episode features him angrily confronting his pregnant ex-wife, dealing with a cat with bowel issues, and confronting a Twitter heckler. (Launches May 3 at 10 p.m.)