Midseason TV Preview

What to Watch on TV This Winter: ‘Downton Abbey’ & More (PHOTOS)

Jace Lacob offers a look at 18 new and returning TV shows, from ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Carrie Diaries.’

(clockwise) Masterpiece/IFC/Jane Campion

(clockwise) Masterpiece/IFC/Jane Campion

Yes, Downton Abbey is back: the beloved British period drama returns to PBS’s Masterpiece for a third season beginning on Jan. 6, but it’s not the only new or noteworthy show heading to television this winter.

Indeed, some of the most intriguing, dynamic, or plain interesting shows are launching in midseason this year, from Fox’s serial killer drama The Following and Sundance Channel’s Jane Campion-created murder mystery Top of the Lake to FX’s Soviet spy period drama The Americans (starring Keri Russell!), Netflix's American remake of political potboiler House of Cards, and the return of both NBC’s subversive comedy Community and HBO’s Girls.

Jace Lacob rounds up 18 new and returning television shows that will help keep you warm during these chilly winter months, from the intriguing to the sensational.

Christopher Hornbecker/IFC

‘Portlandia’ (IFC)

Carrie Brownstein and Fred’s Armisen’s gleefully bizarre sketch comedy show Portlandia returns for a third season of PDX-based plots. In Season 3, Brownstein and Armisen’s menagerie of characters will be joined by Chloë Sevigny, who turns up in multiple episodes as Carrie and Fred’s roommate Alexandra, as well as Roseanne Barr, Rose Byrne, Bill Hader, Juliette Lewis, Jim Gaffigan, Matt Lucas, Bobby Moynihan, Martina Navratilova, Patton Oswalt, and George Wendt. So twirl your hipster mustache, pour yourself an artisanal libation, put a bird on it, and tune in. (Returns Jan. 4 at 10 p.m.)

Carnival Film and Television Limited 2012/Masterpiece

‘Downton Abbey’ (PBS)

The long wait is over: Downton Abbey returns to PBS’s Masterpiece on Sunday with its much-anticipated third season. Without spoiling, I’ll say that this is a return to form for the mighty period drama, recalling the dizzying heights of Season 1 while returning to the domestic-based stories that define this upstairs/downstairs drama. What follows is uplifting, heartbreaking, and humorous, as the Crawley family and their servants deal with Bates’s wrongful imprisonment, new faces, and losses both financial and personal. Prepare for a magnificent season that is utterly unforgettable. (Returns Jan. 6 at 9 p.m.; check your local listings for details.)

FX

‘Justified’ (FX)

Elmore Leonard’s modern gunslinger returns as Justified’s fourth season kicks off this month, setting Timothy Olyphant’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on a journey that finds him investigating a decades-old cold case that involves his larcenous father (Raymond J. Barry), a hidden bag, and the Dixie Mafia, a mystery that is rooted in Raylan’s childhood. Elsewhere, Boyd (Walton Goggins) finds himself grappling with a new rival, a preacher (Joe Mazzello) with a penchant for manipulation. Plus, look for Patton Oswalt, Ron Eldard, Lindsay Pulsipher, and a slew of others to make their Harlan County debuts in a season that’s overloaded with double-crosses, con men, and silver-tongued preachers. (Returns Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.)

NBC

‘1600 Penn’ (NBC)

The White House gets its own first-family comedy in this single-camera sitcom from creators Jon Lovett (a former White House speechwriter) and Josh Gad, and director Jason Winer (Modern Family). Bill Pullman once again offers his gruff take on the POTUS, and Jenna Elfman is game as his trophy wife, who is far more intelligent than she appears, but it’s former Book of Mormon star Gad who steals the show as the family’s ne’er-do-well son Skip Gilchrist, who has a knack for creating chaos wherever he turns. (Launches Jan. 10 at 9:31 p.m.)

Jessica Miglio/FX

‘Girls’ (HBO)

Season 2 of the biting HBO comedy—one of the 10 best shows of 2012—finds Hannah (Lena Dunham, who also writes/directs/executive produces) and her friends continuing to grapple with adulthood. That means a coke-fueled night through the demimonde of the NYC club scene for Hannah and her gay ex-boyfriend-turned-roommate Elijah (Andrew Rannells), Marnie (Allison Williams) losing everything she’s worked for, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) coming to terms with her impulsive marriage, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) discovering life post-virginity. Savage—two guys, operating under the nom de guerre of “Andrew Andrew,” are described as “brand consultants and iPad DJs”—and emotionally resonant, Girls is back and better than ever. (Returns Jan. 13 at 9 p.m.)

Showtime

‘Shameless’ (Showtime)

The hardscrabble Gallagher clan is back for a third season that promises to outdo the previous two in drama, heartache, and humor. Fiona (Emmy Rossum) and Jimmy (Justin Chatwin) are back together and living together in the Gallagher house, where Jimmy (formerly “Steve”) has taken to being Mr. Mom. But issues—and people—from Steve’s past have a nasty habit of showing up to wreck the delicate happiness he and Fiona have achieved… with bloody consequences. Meanwhile, Frank (William H. Macy) has disappeared, and he turns up in Mexico with no passport and no idea how he got there. Sheila (Joan Cusack), for her part, attempts to raise her daughter’s abandoned Asian baby, who has Down syndrome. (Don’t ask.) It’s impossible not to fall in love with Fiona, or to watch her struggles without cringing and crying. (Returns Jan. 13 at 9 p.m.)

Craig Blankenhorn/The CW

‘The Carrie Diaries’ (CW)

Before the XOXOs of Gossip Girl were the narrative musings of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Nome Carrie is back, albeit in the 1980s, for this prequel series starring AnnaSophia Robb as the teenage incarnation of the fabulous Ms. Bradshaw. Watch as Carrie discovers the fashions of Century 21, cruises through the nightlife of Manhattan, and makes her first steps toward sex and love. The music alone is worth the price of entry. (Launches Jan. 14 at 8 p.m.)

FX

‘Archer’ (FX)

Danger zone! FX’s madcap Archer returns for a fourth season of espionage, sexpionage, and the most ribald zingers possibly ever to air on television. Among the gems this season: an insanely meta Archer/Bob’s Burgers crossover in which series star H. Jon Benjamin will provide the voices of ladykiller Sterling Archer and grillmaster Bob Belcher, when Archer develops amnesia and must defend himself, Jason Bourne-style. Yes, you read that correctly. Now go and watch this deliciously twisted comedy. (Returns Jan. 17 at 10 p.m.)

Michael Lavine/Fox

‘The Following’ (Fox)

Kevin Williamson—who created Scream, Dawson’s Creek, and The CW’s The Vampire Diaries—turns his attention to the violent world of serial killers with the truly terrifying psychological thriller The Following, which stars Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. Bacon’s disgraced former FBI agent Ryan Hardy and Purefoy’s sadistic serial killer Joe Carroll become enmeshed in a game of manipulation and murder, as a gruesome killing spree unfolds across America, with Carroll’s network of adherents operating with methodical precision. One big question about The Following, however, is how this ultra-violent show—which tests the boundaries of broadcast network standards and practices—will play to viewers following tragedies in Newtown and elsewhere. (Launches Jan. 21 at 9 p.m.)

Jeff Neira/FX

‘The Americans’ (FX)

Ex-Felicity star Keri Russell kicks ass! In The Americans, Russell and Matthew Rhys play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an average couple in painfully average 1980s suburbia. Except that the Jenningses—with their Oldsmobile and mom jeans—are anything but ordinary: they’re Soviet sleeper agents during the most frigid part of the Cold War. In 1980s Fall Church, Va,, these two grapple with their loyalties to the motherland and each other, focusing on their mission while being subtly changed by their exposure to capitalism and the West. What follows is a provocative and gripping thriller about paranoia, identity, and patriotism, as the Jenningses try to keep the truth about their true nature from their kids. They also must allay the suspicions of their new neighbor, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who quickly realizes that this all-American family is hiding something, and avoid the attentions of U.S. counterintelligence agents. Miss The Americans at your own peril. (Launches Jan. 30 at 10 p.m.)

Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix

'House of Cards' (Netflix)

How much did I love political drama House of Cards? To borrow from the show's parlance, I couldn't possibly comment. Netflix jumps headlong into the original series game with this ambitious and intelligent American remake of the seminal 1990s British miniseries trilogy, itself based on a novel by Michael Dobbs. Written by Beau Willimon (Farragut North) and executive produced by David Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Rep. Frank Underwood, a deeply amoral politico whose ruthlessness is second to none, save maybe for that of his icy wife, Claire (Robin Wright). When Frank crosses paths with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an ambitious young reporter, the two form an alliance that threatens to topple everyone in the government who has ever done Frank wrong. Provocative and stirringly addictive, House of Cards loudly announces Netflix's arrival in the original programming arena, along with a status quo-shaking scheduling format: all 13 episodes of the show's first season will be available for streaming on premiere day. (Launches Feb. 1.)

NBC

‘Community’ (NBC)

Remember when Community, NBC’s wildly inventive comedy, was on the air? Fans have been counting the days until the gonzo show’s return, and that day is almost here, though creator Dan Harmon, as well as showrunners Garrett Donovan and Neil Goldman, didn’t return for the show’s fourth season. What is certain is that Community—which focuses on a diverse study group at a community college and their absurdist adventures—will be under intense scrutiny, as fans analyze just how well the show works with new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port at the helm. Still angling for six seasons and a movie? Find out in February. (Returns Feb. 7 at 8 p.m.)

Mark Selinger/NBC

‘Smash’ (NBC)

I know, I know: Season 1 of Smash was largely an unmitigated disaster, unless you were hate-watching, in which case it made for addictive, hysterical viewing. The good news: several of the most irritating characters won’t be returning for the sophomore season, and creator Theresa Rebeck has been replaced by Josh Safran, who appears to want to fix the creative on the show. Among his promises: no more scarves for Debra Messing’s Julia! Can Safran succeed where Rebeck floundered? (Returns Feb. 12 at 10 p.m.)

Courtesy of Sundance Channel

‘The Staircase’ (Sundance Channel)

One of the most exciting winter launches is Sundance’s The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s insanely gripping 2004 documentary miniseries charting the trial of novelist Michael Peterson, which returns with two new installments in March. Peterson was accused of murdering his second wife, Kathleen, by pushing her down the stairs of their shared home, but claimed he was innocent and invited cameras to document every moment leading up to the verdict. However, during the course the documentary’s filming, frightening aspects of Peterson’s private life and his past—including a similar incident involving a family friend years earlier—slowly emerged, as rifts began to form in his seemingly perfect family. Now out of prison, pending a retrial, Peterson is once again documented by de Lestrade’s cameras. If you missed the original eight-episode documentary when it aired nearly 10 years ago, you’re in luck, as Sundance will be re-airing The Staircase weekly, beginning Jan. 7. For those of us who were addicted the first time around, the chance to go back inside the Peterson family remains a tantalizing lure. (New episodes air on March 4 and March 11.)

Jane Campion

‘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, as well as Peter Mullan (War Horse), David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings), and Lucy Lawless. Set in the remote wilderness of New Zealand, the miniseries charts the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, the daughter of a local crime lord, and the search to locate her and unmask who fathered her unborn child. As Detective Robin Griffin (Moss), newly returned home to care for her dying mother, struggles to discover what happened to the girl, she encounters a world of savagery and wonder unlike anything she has encountered. Gorgeous, provocative, and mythical, Top of the Lake is not one to be missed. (Launches March 18 at 9 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 more 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 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, well, the first half or so, anyway—in George R.R. Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire novel series. This 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’s also widely credited with popularizing the phrase “Only _____ Shopping Days Until Christmas” among retailers in other markets 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.)