Sunday's Overstuffed TV Dinner Buffet: What's a DVR to Do?

Matt Roush
Roush Review - Sunday fall shows

Much has been made lately about the issue of "peak TV," also known as the "too much TV" crisis, and if there's any night of the week that illustrates this dilemma for viewers wondering how they possibly can consume it all, it's Sundays. And that's not even counting the juggernaut of NBC's Sunday Night Football!

Here's a quick critical rundown of TV's busiest and traditionally most-watched night, with this weekend as an especially vibrant snapshot in time, highlighted by several high-profile premieres. (And let's not forget that with Sunday's finales of Fear the Walking Dead on AMC and The Strain on FX, this opens the door for the Halloween season's ghoulish main event: the return Oct. 11 of The Walking Dead.)

On Sundays, the traditional broadcast networks tend to front-load the primetime schedule with enduring audience favorites: The NFL on NBC, The Simpsons on Fox, 60 Minutes on CBS, America's Funniest Home Videos and Once Upon a Time on ABC. Recent successful tweaks to the lineups include CBS swapping The Amazing Race with Madam Secretary, and Fox adding live-action comedy to its animated perennials, with the sophisticated quirkiness of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Last Man on Earth. ABC has a potentially powerful new player in the twisty FBI thriller Quantico. First among dramatic equals, as ever, is CBS's The Good Wife, which is off to a very strong start in its seventh season. (And it's about to get much sexier with the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a new investigator in next week's second episode.)

Even PBS is seriously in the game this fall with a full night of British drama. The exotic, enthralling Indian Summers premiered a week ago (here's my rave review), and Masterpiece is doubling down by pairing it with a more warmly nostalgic period piece, the six-part Home Fires (premieres Oct. 4, 8/7c, check local listings at pbs.org). Set in 1939, with the winds of an impending World War II challenging the resolve of a British village still recovering from the last "Great War," Home Fires focuses on the women of rural Great Paxford and their membership in the Women's Institute social and service organization, giving them purpose during a time of fearful change.

Emotions run high as mothers and spouses try to do the patriotic thing while worrying about the personal tragedies another military conflict might bring. The satisfyingly soapy drama should appeal to devotees of Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey, who'll likely recognize Fires' outspoken breakout character of Frances Barden as Samantha Bond, who plays Downton's Lady Rosamund. (For those who prefer a little mystery in their British imports, PBS will follow Indian Summers the next three weeks with the macabre The Widower, the fact-based account of a man who marries and attempts to dispose of his wives for their insurance policies. The Good Wife's Archie Panjabi plays one of his intended victims.)

It's Showtime (and HBO) for Premium Drama

Because there's just not enough going on, three of TV's most provocative dramas return this Sunday for new seasons. Top of my list is Showtime's Homeland (premieres Oct. 4, 9/8c), which has been a roller coaster of creatively erratic fits and starts in recent years but which roars back with an unusually topical and tremendously suspenseful hook for its top-notch fifth season. (Here's my take on Carrie's latest gripping adventures in espionage. I've seen three episodes so far and would gladly have binged on more.)

Homeland's moody companion piece, The Affair (premieres Oct. 4, 10/9c), expands its murky focus in its second season, going beyond the shifting and usually contradictory perspectives of extramarital lovers Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), whose stormy tryst cost each their marriage. Now we also see things unfold from the points of view of their wronged spouses, Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson), enriching the drama by showing the pain of dissolution, betrayal and estrangement from all sides. Jackson is especially powerful as the sleepless, wrecked and abandoned Cole, but each of these terrific actors scores in the difficult task of earning our empathy when the story is told from their angle, then changing their performances (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) and often becoming entirely different people when the same scene is flipped.

This gimmick can be fascinating but also distracting, as in a mediation scene between Noah and Helen in which the mediator (gifted stage actor Jeremy Shamos) is an upbeat, chirpy "easy peasy" irritant in Noah's eyes, and a dour cynical drone in Helen's. What's the real story here? Maybe the point is there's no middle ground of objective truth when lives have been so grievously and emotionally disrupted. But as sensitively acted and thoughtfully written as The Affair can be, you may wonder if this particular mind game is worth the long-term effort. I'm not saying I'm divorcing this show just yet, but considering all the options on Sundays, I may end up cheating on it.

And then there's HBO's peculiar, oddly affecting The Leftovers (premieres Oct. 4, 9/8c), which also broadens its scope in the second season, very much to its advantage. The show leaves behind (at least initially) the bleak, broken and dramatically dispiriting town of Mapleton, which like the rest of the world was shattered by a Rapture-like event in which 2% of the Earth's humanity, roughly 140 million people, suddenly vanished without a trace.

Correction: most of the rest of the world. Turns out there's a small Texas town—founded as Jarden, rebranded as "Miracle"—where everyone was spared. Now a tourist-trap Mecca for survivors and desperate want-to-believers, it's also the destination for last season's most compelling characters: disillusioned police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (the electrifying Carrie Coon), who lost her entire family on that fateful "departure" day. With Kevin's daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) along for the ride, they relocate to this blessed burg. They arrive midway through the season opener, which introduces us to their neighbors, the Murphys (including American Crime Emmy winner Regina King), and a town right out of The Twilight Zone, where not everything's as charmed as it seems.

Even after watching three episodes, each so different in focus, it's difficult to get a handle on where this season of The Leftovers is going. The season opener is all about Jarden/Miracle, a town with sinister cracks beneath its holier-than-thou surface. The second episode follows Kevin and his newly formed family's journey from Mapleton to Texas, in which we realize just how haunted—literally, in one heavy-handed twist of the plot—Kevin is by past events. The third episode takes up back to Mapleton, where Kevin's ex-wife Laurie (an intense Amy Brenneman) has thankfully quit the Guilty Remnant—that all-smoking, no-talking, inexplicable cult­—and with son Tom (Chris Zylka) is trying to destroy it from within, with grueling consequences.

Mysterious and at times ponderous, often gripping in its suggestion of supernatural forces forever lurking to upend the natural order of things, The Leftovers is an ambitious meditation on faith, loss and community. Whether it's the stuff of an open-ended series is less clear.

Although given the state of Sundays on TV, a Rapture-style winnowing of this ballooning plethora of choices might help all of us sleep easier.