The Unfettered Critic – August 2016

It was lunchtime. The café was jumping. We stood near the entrance, enjoying the air-conditioning while quietly awaiting an available table. Across the room, a gentleman stood to leave. As he approached the door, he glanced at our faces and smiled in apparent recognition. “Mr. Robot is coming back,” he said.

Our confused silence must have expressed the facial equivalent of “Huh?” because after a slightly painful pause he added, “I saw a commercial for it.”

Oh! We realized that he was talking about the USA Network’s drama about a young, semi-delusional computer hacker named Elliot Alderson, whose task—at the apparent behest of a man he refers to as Mr. Robot—is to bring down “corrupt” corporate America. It was one of our favorite shows last year, fast-paced and devilishly devious, the perfect antidote to witless summer action movies. We’d mentioned it in one of our columns, and while we didn’t recognize this diner, he clearly was one of our readers. So we nodded amiably and concurred, “Yup.”

“Can’t wait,” said the man said. “Is that other show coming back?”

Just like that, we were again at the Huh? stage, until we registered that he meant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a fantastical mini-series that had aired last summer. “No, that one’s not coming back,” we explained. “It was based on a novel, and the story ended. Sorry.”

The man shrugged. “Well,” he said as he exited, “let us know if there’s anything else worth watching.” We rushed to the table, and for a while were consumed with consuming our lunch. But eventually we began to think about the diner’s request. What else is worth watching this summer in addition to Mr. Robot (USA, Wednesday nights at 10 p.m.)?

Sadly, there’s not much to excite us. We had hopes for the political satire BrainDead, from the creators of The Good Wife, but the show’s writers sacrificed any and all opportunity for suspense by revealing, right from the first episode, that it’s insects from outer space that are causing the current dysfunction in Congress. And with that, we lost all interest. (CBS, Mondays at 10 p.m.).

We cast our eyes across the pond to offerings from Great Britain (courtesy of PBS), and joyfully discovered that two favorite shows are returning to these shores this summer. To wit:

Inspector Lewis returns for a final season on Masterpiece Mystery, starting Sunday August 7 at 9 p.m. This low-key, cleverly plotted police procedural, set in Oxford, England, is a spin-off of the well-loved Inspector Morse series that aired between 1987 and 2000. Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, once was Morse’s underling sergeant; these days, he’s the clever chief inspector. We’re happy the show is back for one last run.

But our favorite British import—at least until Sherlock returns in 2017—is The Great British Baking Show (PBS, Fridays at 9 p.m.). This charming 10-week series follows a dozen amateur bakers on a quest to be named “the best.” Each week, they tackle a different baking skill as the difficulty increases and the competition unfolds. Every culinary challenge—there are three per episode—makes us gloriously hungry. The cakes, breads, and pastries that the bakers prepare tantalize us—even their failed attempts. Oddly, you’d think this show would be simple to clone on American TV, but two recent attempts—The American Baking Competition on CBS and The Great Holiday Baking Show on ABC—prove that it’s not. They were such crass misinterpretations of the premise that we decided to take a Brexit from such competitions until the original’s return.

Accept no imitations!