Midseason TV

‘Justified,’ ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Shameless’: What to Watch on TV This Winter

With the return of Justified, Downton Abbey, and Shameless, and the launch of Touch, Luck, and others, Jace Lacob looks at what’s coming to your TV.

With the return of Justified, Downton Abbey, and Shameless, and the launch of Touch, Luck, and others, Jace Lacob looks at what’s coming to your TV.

Chris Hornbecker / IFC

Portlandia (IFC)

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s deliciously absurd comedy Portlandia returns for a second season of Portland, Ore.–based sketches and recurring characters. In the hands of Armisen and Brownstein, Portland becomes the portal to another reality, one where hide-and-seek leagues, put-a-bird-on-everything artists, boyish mayors, down-and-out rockers-turned-domestic help, and fleece-wearing locals all rub elbows together in a place where the “dream of the ‘90s” is still very much alive. Season 2 will feature guest stars Kyle MacLachlan (reprising his role as The Mayor), Penny Marshall, Jack McBrayer, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tim Robbins, Amber Tamblyn, Kristen Wiig, and a slew of indie rockers including Eddie Vedder and Johnny Marr. (Returns Jan. 6 at 10 p.m.)

Frank Ockenfels / NBC

The Firm (NBC)

NBC's new thriller, based on the 1991 John Grisham novel (itself turned into the 1993 Tom Cruise film), isn't likely to take over popular culture (except, perhaps, for Grisham fans or legal procedural addicts), but here's what we know: (1) The Firm stars Josh Lucas, Juliette Lewis, Molly Parker, and Battlestar Galactica’s Callum Keith Rennie, as well as BSG’s Tricia Helfer, who will turn up in a recurring role. (2) It’s set 10 years after the events depicted in the Grisham novel and its filmic adaptation. (3) Lucas plays Mitch McDeere, the lawyer who successfully brought down the Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which was a front for organized crime, and who is now emerging from hiding with his family. Whether this thriller—an international coproduction—will prove to be as big a hit as the novel or the film remains to be seen, but there is at least significant brand awareness going into the launch. (Premieres Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. before moving to its regular time slot on Jan. 12 at 10 p.m.)

Nick Briggs / ITV

Downton Abbey (PBS)

Julian Fellowes’s beloved Emmy Award–winning costume drama Downton Abbey returns for a second season on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, but the stakes have been irrevocably raised both for the masters and servants of the country house as the action moves into the thick of World War I. While Season 1 of Downton focused on missing snuffboxes, dead diplomats, and secret dalliances, the new season finds the beloved characters in the trenches of France and transforming the estate into a military hospital. Plots develop and dissipate quickly here, as they often do in times of war, and the full weight of trench warfare is keenly felt, particularly in the characters of Matthew (Dan Stevens), Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and William (Thomas Howes). Familiar faces return, along with some new characters (such as Zoe Boyle’s Lavinia and Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Vera Bates) who provide conflict both upstairs and down, and Dame Maggie Smith once again steals nearly every scene with a casually tossed-off verbal grenade. The ever-expanding legions of the Downton faithful will be tuning in with an obsessive zeal come Sunday evenings this January. (Returns Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. Check local listings for details.)

Showtime

Shameless (Showtime)

Showtime’s arch and bittersweet drama Shameless—based on Paul Abbott’s Channel 4 drama—returns for a second season of booze, drugs, and bad behavior, as the Gallaghers spend the summer trying to raise money for their “squirrel fund” to get them through the long, cold Chicago winter. With Steve (Justin Chatwin) out of the picture—for now, anyway—Fiona (Emmy Rossum) has seemingly moved on, but she’s falling into old patterns and breaking some cardinal rules that she set for herself. In its second season, Shameless manages to feel even fresher and more compelling than its fantastic freshman year, with the cast of characters expanding outward to bring to life an entire neighborhood of thugs, hoods, drunks, and thieves, the worst of which is the irresponsible and morally bankrupt Gallagher pater familias, Frank (William H. Macy), who pulls some monumentally shocking and disturbing behavior this season. The result is a family drama that’s at once cozy and chaotic, heartbreaking and sidesplitting. (Returns Jan. 8 at 9 p.m.)

Showtime

House of Lies (Showtime)

Ever wonder how management consultants live with themselves? Look no further than Showtime’s mordant black comedy House of Lies, which stars Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, a self-loathing and cutthroat management consultant who juggles a crazy ex-wife (Dawn Oliveri), a precocious kid (Donis Leonard Jr.), his psychiatrist father (Glynn Turman), and a workday that seemingly never ends. Fortunately, Marty knows how to party, what bars to drink in, and what hotels to stay at, and so do his young team known as The Pod, played by Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, and Josh Lawson. Inspired by Martin Kihn’s bestselling nonfiction book, House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Tell You the Time, this show finds a team of talented, ruthless, and smart operators scamming the system at its own game. (Launches Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.)

Patrick Ecclesine / FOX

The Finder (Fox)

With Fox’s Bones taking a hiatus (in order to accommodate star Emily Deschanel’s maternity leave), spinoff show The Finder is stepping in to offer its quirky take on procedural crime solving. Set in Florida, the show, created by Hart Hanson, centers on Walter Sherman (Geoff Stults), an Iraq war veteran whose brain damage—the result of an IED explosion—granted him a seemingly preternatural ability to, well, find anything. He’s joined by Michael Clarke Duncan’s lawyer/muscle Leo Knox, Mercedes Masohn’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Isabel Zambada, and Maddie Hasson’s unruly teen criminal Willa Monday, as this unlikely group helps clients find things, or even people, that they’ve lost. (Launches Jan. 12 at 8 p.m.)

Justin Stephens / FOX

Alcatraz (Fox)

Whether Alcatraz has improved from the lackluster original pilot remains to be seen, but audience expectations for this trippy serialized science-fiction show—from creators J. J. Abrams and Elizabeth Sarnoff—are extremely high. The plot—which revolves around a mystery surrounding the missing inmates and guards of San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison, who vanished without a trace in 1963 and are now turning up, without having aged, in the present day—seems like catnip for an audience looking to immerse themselves in Lost-esque theorizing, but it also smacks of similarities to USA’s short-lived sci-fi drama The 4400. Not helping matters: behind-the-scenes drama, with co-creator Sarnoff stepping down as showrunner (she was replaced by Cold Case’s Jennifer Johnson and Miami Vice writer Daniel Pyne) and segueing to the new role of “executive consultant,” and an 8 p.m. time slot on Mondays. Alcatraz stars Sarah Jones (Big Love), Jorge Garcia (Lost), Parminder Nagra (ER), Jeffrey Pierce (Knight Rider), Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), and Sam Neill (The Tudors). (Launches Jan. 16 at 8 p.m.)

Frank Ockenfels III / FX

Justified (FX)

After a critically acclaimed second season, FX’s Justified returns with a fast-paced and gripping third season of Elmore Leonard’s U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he attempts to keep law and order in Harlan County, Kentucky. Picking up where Season 2 ended, we find Raylan recovering from his wounds while dealing with the realization that he’s going to be a father now that his ex-wife—and current girlfriend—Winona (Natalie Zea) is pregnant. But any chance of peace and quiet is quickly shot to hell, thanks to Raylan’s former best friend Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), plotting another scheme that could get him and Ava (Joelle Carter) killed. Throw in quirky-but-deadly villains (including a scene-stealing Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse), winningly witty dialogue from writer Graham Yost and his staff, some familiar faces, and a woodshed’s worth of tension and you have the makings of another fantastic season of Justified. (Returns Jan. 17 at 10 p.m.)

FX

Archer (FX)

Following this fall’s three-part mini-series Heart of Archness, Adam Reed’s gleefully subversive and refreshingly vulgar animated comedy Archer returns for a third season of debonair debauchery, edge-of-your-seat espionage, and raunchy double-entendres among ISIS agents, who will once again use every high-stakes mission to betray, enrage, and sabotage one another. (That is, when they’re not hopping into bed or out of airplanes.) This winter, Archer—which features the voices of Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, and Chris Parnell, among others—will be joined by newcomer Unsupervised in a one-hour animated programming block on Thursday nights. (Returns Jan. 19 at 10 p.m.)

Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO

Luck (HBO)

The eagerly anticipated Luck, which aired a sneak peek of its pilot episode in December, returns for a nine-episode run later this month. From the minds of David Milch (Deadwood) and Michael Mann (Miami Vice) comes this horse-racing drama, set in and around a California race track. The show—which stars Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Jason Gedrick, Nick Nolte, and a cast of dozens—depicts the owners, jockeys, lowlifes, and employees whose lives intersect in the backrooms and betting grounds of the racetrack, while Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein, newly released from prison after taking the fall and serving a three-year stretch for a mysterious crime, plots an intricate revenge. Luck features a typically Milch-ian patois among the characters, as well as staggering shots of beauty, capturing the speed and grace of the racehorses as well as depicting the culture of greed, loss, and luck around them. (Premieres Jan. 29 at 9 p.m.)

Mark Seliger / NBC

Smash (NBC)

There’s a lot on the line for NBC’s musical-drama Smash. For one, it’s launching the evening after the Super Bowl, which means that the Broadway-centric show will be getting a lot of ad time. For another, it’s a passion project from newly installed NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, who brought the project over when he left Showtime. And, given the musical setting, it's bound to be compared with Fox’s Glee. Smash depicts the rocky road from concept to opening night of a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, focusing on the talents whose blood, sweat, and alcohol-fueled tears go into mounting a huge production, and the competition between two young ingénues both hoping to land the role of Marilyn herself. Smash’s sprawling cast includes such noteworthy actors as Debra Messing, Katharine McPhee, Anjelica Huston, Megan Hilty, and Jack Davenport, and original music from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The result is one of the most anticipated new shows of the year, already a critical darling. (Launches Feb. 6 at 10 p.m.)

Bob D'Amico / ABC

The River (ABC)

ABC gets into the horror game with The River, set in the wilderness of the Amazon and from the creators of Paranormal Activity. Bruce Greenwood plays Dr. Emmett Cole, an explorer and television personality who goes missing while filming his latest series. While the world believes him to be dead, his estranged son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), and his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), launch a rescue mission to bring him home, heading out with a makeshift team of cameramen, producers, mechanics, and security men while they film their unfolding adventure. What they don’t expect is to encounter the thing that may have killed Cole … which now has its sights set on them. Magic, mystery, and adventure await, as well as more than a few hair-raising scares. With eight episodes on tap, it will be interesting to see whether ABC has a genre hit on its hands with The River, and just how long it can keep the serialized plot going. (Premieres Feb. 7 at 10 p.m.)

Gene Page / AMC

The Walking Dead (AMC)

Following a brief hiatus for the holidays, AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead returns for the back half of its second season. After the events at Herschel’s Farm, how can this group—rapidly disintegrating before our eyes—stay together? What hope is there for the future? And, after the slaughter at the farm and the nascent pregnancy of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), where will they go next? Find out next month as The Walking Dead returns with six brand-new episodes, before what’s likely to be an explosive season finale in March. (Returns Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.)

BBC

Life’s Too Short (HBO)

After the success of The Office and Extras, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant deliver another scathing mockumentary, Life’s Too Short, this time revolving around vertically challenged actor Warwick Davis (Leprechaun), who plays a fictionalized version of himself. Narcissistic, arrogant, and clueless, Warwick is willing to do whatever it takes—no matter how sleazy or conniving—to climb to the top and into the spotlight. The six-episode season, which tonally feels like a sibling to such squirm-inducing comedies as HBO’s Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm, features guest-starring turns from Gervais and Merchant, Johnny Depp, Sting, Helena Bonham Carter, Sandra Bullock, Cat Deeley, Steve Carell, and Liam Neeson as themselves.  (Launches Feb. 19 at 10:30 p.m.)

Bob D'Amico / ABC

GCB (ABC)

Formerly known by the far-more-descriptive-moniker Good Christian Bitches (and for a while as Good Christian Belles), the illicit narcotic-sounding GCB is a comedic soap revolving around a group of backstabbing and cunning well-heeled Southern ladies who pounce when Amanda (Leslie Bibb), the high-school mean girl gone good, returns to her hometown in disgrace after her husband bilked his investors in a Ponzi scheme and drove off a cliff with another woman. The show—based on a book by Kim Gatlin—was adapted by Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias), is executive produced by Darren Star (Sex and the City), and also stars Kristin Chenoweth, Annie Potts, Jennifer Aspen, Miriam Shor, Marisol Nichols, Brad Beyer, Zack Peacham, Mark Deklin, and David James Elliott. Whether this will be an addictive if more lighthearted rendition of Desperate Housewives set in the South or just a loopy and over-the-top soap remains to be seen. (Premieres March 4 at 10 p.m.)

Brian Bowen Smith / FOX

Touch (Fox)

Heroes creator Tim Kring is behind Touch, better known as the show that is bringing 24’s Kiefer Sutherland back to Fox’s primetime lineup. Sutherland stars as widower Martin Bohm, who is unable to connect with his mute 11-year-old son, Jake (David Mazouz), who has a staggering intellect as well as the ability to see the hidden patterns and connections in everyday life. As the action races around the globe, from Los Angeles to New York and Japan, Jake’s able to bring together disparate individuals and point toward something invisible and large that binds us all together. Whether Kring can escape the Heroes curse remains to be seen, but early buzz has pegged Touch as one to keep an eye on this spring. (Sneak peek on Jan. 25 at 9 p.m.; premieres March 19 at 9 p.m.)

Bill Gray / HBO

Veep (HBO)

The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci, turns his attention to the American political system with HBO’s half-hour satirical comedy Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Old Christine) stars as Selina Meyer, a former senator turned United States vice president. Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, Sufe Bradshaw, and Timothy Simons play the VP’s lackeys, rivals, and friends. (Or all three at once, in some cases.) As such weighty national issues as whether having biodegradable cutlery in the congressional canteen will affect the corn lobbyists surface, Selina attempts to wield her somewhat-considerable power to become popular and well loved. Will Selina sink or swim, or make a fool of herself in the process? And why didn’t she listen to people who warned her against taking this job? Veep manages to provide both deft satire and cringe-worthy comedy, and Louis-Dreyfus is at the top of her game. (April)

Richard Koek / HBO

Girls (HBO)

Lena Dunham’s hysterical comedy Girls charts the highs and lows of a group of four young Manhattanites, but these girls are far less flashy than their Sex and the City counterparts. For one, they’re not sipping Cosmos at fabulous bars or indulging in mind-blowing sex; instead, they’re begging for handouts from their parents, drinking opium-pod tea, engaging in truly terrible sex, and going for STD tests. Dunham, who stars as well as writes and directs many of the episodes, is a standout as aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, and captures the rhythm and pulse of a generation of 20-somethings. Funny, depressing, and shocking, Girls is the antidote to the slick stylishness of SATC, presenting a squalor and hopelessness that reflects the economic realities of 2011 and a sense of arrested development embodied by the characters played to perfection by Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet. Miss it at your peril. (April)