After three weeks of interminable re-runs, Christmas specials, and dead air, the winter television season often has a way of sneaking up on us. It begins in earnest tonight, and lest you get caught off guard with new and returning shows, here's a handy guide on what to keep an eye on and what you should avoid in the month of January.
Seek Out: "Justified" (January 17th) -- Margo Martindale elevated a great show into an exceptional one in season two. It'll be interesting to see how they attempt to fill her shoes. Neal McDonough will show up as an out-of-town mobster and Mykelti Williamson will star as a backwoods crime lord. However, I think season three will turn its focus back on Walton Goggins, featuring him once again as the show's major villain.
Seek Out: "Luck" (January 29th) -- Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon, and Joan Allen star in this horse-track drama directed by Michael Mann. It comes from David Milch ("Deadwood"), who knows his way around the race track. He owns and races Thoroughbreds; in fact, his horses have won two Breeder's Cup races. He's also a huge gambling enthusiast.
Seek Out: "30 Rock" (January 12th) -- Because of Tina Fey's pregnancy, the show has been on hiatus since last Spring. Most the kids are high on "Community" and "Park and Recreation," for good reason, but the last season of "30 Rock" was one of its best. The big question will be how the show addresses Tracy Jordan's homophobic tirade last summer.
Seek Out: "Shameless" (January 8th) -- I quit on Showtime's "Shameless" two episodes into the season last year because it tracked too closely to the British series upon which it was based and felt pale by comparison. I gave it another shot over the break, and while the plotlines we're still too similar to the British series for my taste, I grew to appreciate the Showtime cast even more than the original, thanks in large part to the brilliant Emmy Rossum (and her frequent nudity). However, Justin Chatwin is still a poor replacement for James McAvoy, who originated the role of Steve.
Seek Out: "House of Lies" (January 8th) -- The new half hour comedy from Showtime is about a group of management consultants who hustle large corporations. It's very 99% vs. 1%, but it also stars Kristen Bell in the small screen format she's more suited to and the always fantastic Don Cheadle. The downside: It also stars Ben Schwartz, "Parks and Recreation's" Jean-Ralphio, which suggests that his already limited "P&R" screen time may decrease even more.
Seek Out: "Southland" (January 17th) -- After its cancellation on NBC, TNT picked up this cop drama starring Benjamin McKenzie, Regina King, and Shawn Hatosy. It has quietly become the best cop drama on TV, eschewing procedural murder-of-the-week stories for long-burning season and series' long plotlines.
Seek Out: "Archer" (January 19th) -- After a brief three episode run in September, the remaining 13 episodes of the best animated sitcom on television return with special guest star Burt F**king Reynolds.
Avoid: "Rob" (January 12th) -- Having run the despicable Deuce Bigelow franchise into the ground, and apparently unable to collect any more of Adam Sandler's big-screen scraps, Rob Schneider returns to television with a show about a solitary guy who marries into a huge Mexican-American family. Don't let the pink bra draw you in. This show is poison.
Avoid: "Work It" (January 3rd) -- GLAAD and the transgender community has been up in arms about this cross-dressing comedy, although I'm not sure why. Cross-dressing comedy dates back centuries. The people who should be offended are those with ears and eyes, as it looks far more offensive to human decency. I haven't seen the pilot yet, but Alan Sepinwall delivered a harsh review: " Everyone is blind or a fool and every situation exists only to set up something vaguely resembling a joke. It's hard to tell whether the show is most contemptuous of men, women or anyone dumb enough to watch it."
Avoid: "Are You There, Chelsea" (January 11th) -- Early reviews have not been kind to Chelsea Handler's comedy, comparing it unfavorably to "Whitney." The good news is, the inevitable failure of "Are You There, Chelsea" along with "Whitney" without its "The Office" lead-in will make room for the return of "Community" by no later than March. The bad news: It's a perfectly good waste of Laura Prepon.
Avoid: "Jersey Shore" (January 5th): The gang has returned from Florence and ... you know what? Who cares. "Jersey Shore" is the most popular show on cable. Either you're watching it, or you have more than 11 brain cells.
Avoid: "Napoleon Dynamite" (January 15th) -- Nobody wanted a "Napoleon Dynamite" cartoon; the movie was stale six months after it was released. And yet, here we are with an animated show based on the movie starring all of the original cast because, why not? What else does Jon Heder have to do?
Avoid: "Alcatraz" (January 16th) -- J.J. Abrams' last two television efforts ("Undercovers" and "Person of Interest") have been a mixed bag. He's returning with a prison drama with shades of "Lost." For some reason, the show has been previewing on on flights for the last several months and this critic was not impressed, although word is that the pilot episode has been reformulated. That's almost never a good sign. However, the allure of Hurley may be too hard to resist.
Avoid: "Dance Moms" (January 10th) -- Lifetime is trying to capitalize on the popularity of TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" by focusing its new show on more of America's abusive moms and their victimized daughters. I never thought any network would aspire to be worse than TLC.