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3 new TV dramas worth trying: Counterpart, The Alienist, and Waco

Your guide to January’s glut of new TV dramas.

Counterpart, The Alienist, Waco
Starz’s Counterpart, TNT’s The Alienist, and Paramount Network’s Waco are just three of a spate of new dramas to premiere in recent weeks.
Starz/TNT/Paramount Network
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

January has become such a pivotal month in the TV landscape that keeping up with the many premieres, across essentially every major network, is all but impossible, even for a TV critic. In terms of sheer volume of new and returning series, January is the new September: a time when the glut of new productions creates a kind of Darwinian struggle for survival.

The month is particularly full of cable drama premieres, the sorts of adult-skewing shows that blend high-concept, serialized stories with well-known actors and high-class production values. These are shows meant to grab a small but loyal audience, which will then convert their love for the show into word of mouth, which might lead you to hear about these series on social media, which might cause you to eventually check them out on a streaming service in a few years. Increasingly, these sorts of shows are advertisements for their future selves.

So here are three major new cable dramas — Starz’s Counterpart, TNT’s The Alienist, and Paramount Network’s Waco — that are at least worth having on your radar, even if none of them is completely there just yet. Let’s look at them one by one.

Counterpart is a surprisingly existential, light sci-fi tale of parallel universes and spies flitting between them

The engaging Counterpart imagines a spy thriller taking place across parallel universes.

Starz’s Counterpart is such a slow burn, so deliberately constructed, that saying anything about it — like “there are parallel universes” or “J.K. Simmons plays two versions of the same character” — feels like a spoiler, even when it isn’t. The best description I can offer is that it feels as if somebody took the existential trappings and philosophy of a play by 20th-century playwright Eugène Ionesco and added a bunch of spy business to it in hopes of jazzing it up.

This is to say that Counterpart’s tale of a parallel universe — which actually split off from ours around 30 years ago — is less about the science fiction conceit and more about the questions of what makes any one person who they are. When Howard, the mild-mannered low-level operative Simmons plays, meets his much more ruthless counterpart (hey, that’s the name of the show!) from the other universe, the question is less, “Why does this other universe exist?” and more, “How could the same man become such different people?”

There are other characters in the series, to be sure, like Olivia Williams as a woman with a connection to Howard in both universes, and Nazanin Boniadi as a woman whose mysterious actions in both versions of her identity look to drive much of the first season’s back half. (I’ve seen just the first five episodes of 10 total.) But this is very much the J.K. Simmons Show, and he’s stupendous. All it takes is a quick raise of an eyebrow or furrow of his brow to tell which version of Howard you’re dealing with, and his skill at making both characters very different but fundamentally the same is the only reason any of this works.

The direction nods toward the series’ opening credits (which feature a Go board), turning the city of Berlin into a series of intersecting lines and elaborate games played out by the show’s many spies. The series’ writing — from a team featuring creator Justin Marks and longtime TV hand Amy Berg — is similarly smart. It doles out pieces of world building stingily, but it seems to make sense that nobody involved in this project would be incredibly open about the universe next door. (This also moves it into different enough territory from the very similar parallel universe storyline in the 2008-2013 Fox drama Fringe.)

This means that the show isn’t about its premise in any conventional sense. It’s interested in parallel universes, but only insofar as it can use them to examine deeper issues of identity, the many masks we wear in different situations to portray ourselves as the people we wish we were. It’s a slower burn than you might expect, but it also grows a little more rewarding with every episode. It’s one to keep an eye on.

Counterpart airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Starz. You can watch previous episodes on Starz’s streaming app.

The Alienist is gorgeous — but maybe too late to the party

The Alienist
The Alienist team is here to save the day.

Caleb Carr’s 1994 crime novel The Alienist — about the titular character, an early psychologist, and his pals attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders in 1890s New York — is one of those books that prompts almost immediate fan casting of the big-screen adaptation once it’s over. And, indeed, Hollywood has been trying to turn it into a movie almost since publication. It just took this long (and a shift to TV) for the adaptation to finally happen.

This TNT limited series version — which will almost certainly be followed somewhere along the line by limited series versions of the book’s sequels if it can maintain the debut’s record ratings — might not have the very top of the A-list in its cast. But the enigmatic German actor Daniel Brühl (as Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist himself), Beauty and the Beast brute Luke Evans (as newspaper illustrator John Moore), and former child star Dakota Fanning (as Sara Howard, a young woman chafing under the restrictions of 1890s society) make for an engaging trio at the story’s center, and other actors — including Brian Geraghty as young Teddy Roosevelt himself! — are similarly well-chosen.

This is good because The Alienist is much more successful as a period drama about unconventional people trying to navigate a society that insists on conventionality than it is as a serial killer thriller. Carr’s book has taken so long to make it to any size screen that its eerie, gory murders (mostly of young prostitutes, whom we might better understand as trans women in modern terms) have just the faintest hint of repetitiveness. Even in the 1890s, a killer who targets prostitutes is such well-worn territory that it’s tempting to turn off the series after its premiere, writing it off as an exercise in macabre, exploitative style and little else.

But the second episode (I’ve only seen the two out of 10) is much better, as Laszlo, John, and Sara begin their investigation in earnest and start to realize that these brutal murders are a symptom of a society that pretends there’s only one way to lead a happy life. (At one point, somebody tries to blame the murders on wild animals, rather than admit a human might have done something like this.) Fanning and Brühl, in particular, craft characters who are more than they might be assumed to be, and the series is at its smartest when it draws parallels between them and the victims whose murders they long to solve.

If nothing else, The Alienist looks like a million bucks (or, to be more accurate, the $5 million TNT spent on every episode). Director Jakob Verbruggen turns New York into a teeming rats’ nest, a maze without end, filled with people whose heads contain mazes of their own. And the production design and costumes are appropriately sumptuous.

The Alienist might go very, very wrong in future episodes, and it’s already clear how the series might be more interesting if it took the plot of the novel as a suggestion instead of a road map. But there are enough pleasures around its edges to keep me watching.

The Alienist airs Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on TNT. Previous episodes are available on demand or on TNT’s website.

Waco is a queasy deep dive into a cult that has more sympathy than you’d expect for that cult’s leader

Somehow Michael Shannon is not playing the cult leader in Waco.
Paramount Network

As an exercise in style, Waco, a six-episode miniseries that serves as the signature debut drama for the brand new Paramount Network (a rechristening of Spike, which used to be the National Network, which used to be TNN, which used to be the Nashville Network, etc., etc.), is deeply compelling. Filmmaker John Erick Dowdle (who also wrote the episodes with brother Drew Dowdle) uses the wide open spaces of New Mexico to suggest the looming threat of an unchecked US government, about to intrude on the Branch Davidian cult members holed up outside of Waco, Texas.

But this perspective shift, which pushes viewers inside the cult’s compound more than other viewpoints, leads to a queasily confused miniseries. At its best, it’s tremendous. At other opportunities, it takes a scene where a young woman yells at her older sister for not stopping her husband, David Koresh, from taking the young woman as a bride at the age of 13 and flips it around so the focus of the scene becomes about the older sister having to “share” her husband.

To be clear, the Dowdles have some idea what they’re doing here, and the filmmaking works overtime to convey the monstrousness of some of what Koresh did. But it can never overcome the simple fact that Taylor Kitsch’s performance as Koresh is so raw and deeply felt that it’s impossible to look away from him.

You’re left thinking not that Koresh did horrible things but probably didn’t deserve to be brutally killed in a government raid (as I think the miniseries is trying to argue), but instead that you might like to join a cult that had Taylor Kitsch as a leader. Waco wants to leave you morally conflicted, but through the three episodes I’ve seen, it hasn’t quite managed the complicated balancing act.

Some of this may be due to the folks outside the compound’s walls. Among the FBI and ATF, only Michael Shannon (as genius FBI negotiator Gary Noesner) manages to bring a real spark to the proceedings. And it’s in the interactions between the Branch Davidians and the federal government that the Dowdles best capture the sense of an easily avoidable yet nonetheless inevitable catastrophe.

Where they struggle is in conveying how it would feel to live a life so tightly entombed in cataclysm that manipulation and abuse become simple facts of life, not dark horrors to overcome.

Waco airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on the Paramount Network. Previous episodes are available at the network’s website.