Ask James Franco why a movie star might want to work in TV, and he won't mention a television show. He'll talk about a book.
Turns out, like a lot of TV nerds, Franco geeked out over the book Difficult Men, a detailed look at how the creators and showrunners of classic "quality TV" series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire shaped the shows that built the foundation for modern TV drama.
"You can get a great character in a film or a movie, but there are a limited number of scenes you can do with that character in a movie," said Franco, who talked to me about his role as a time-traveling teacher trying to stop John F. Kennedy's assassination in Hulu's version of the Stephen King novel 11.22.63. "In a series like this, you get to explore so much more. I was really turned on by that idea."
Hulu let critics see episodes from Franco's series in advance, and he's right. It's a slow-building show that combines suspense and time travel, executive produced by King and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. It tells a story too long for a film, with the kind of period detail and explicit language that would push the envelope even on basic cable.
This is the shape of television in early 2016. It's not just that there are more TV shows than ever. The best television these days goes deeper, like a great movie split into eight, 10 or 13 binge-worthy chunks of entertainment.
Last year, the TV industry was dominated by change. Streaming services like Sling TV and HBO Now turned the business upside down, and a huge swath of the late-night TV landscape got redefined when David Letterman and Jon Stewart left their long-running shows.
But the early months of 2016 mostly offer a boatload of original material from TV platforms new and old. And that means there's an awful lot of great stuff coming our way in the New Year.
Here are four of the most interesting new shows:
Sesame Street, debuts Saturday on HBO
It sounds like the setup to an awful joke: one of TV's most beloved children's shows moving to the channel of The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But HBO's Sesame Street does an admirable job bringing the world of Big Bird and Ernie to premium cable, subtly reinventing the show's longtime theme song and providing upgraded visuals to touching stories on how to go to bed and count to 10 (I particularly love how they display the Muppets' feet, convincing me that Grover and Count von Count aren't just puppets).
There's even an appearance from Mr. Noodle, played by Michael Jeter — who died in 2003 after performing as the character for years — just to assure us that they won't forget the great Sesame Street stuff still in the vault. Best of all, the new episodes will eventually appear on PBS — after nine months — showing that the move to save the cash-strapped show by aligning with HBO just might work after all.
Billions, debuts Sunday on Showtime
On the surface, it's a story of two titans who just can't resist taking each other on. Former Homeland co-star Damian Lewis is the billionaire owner of a hedge fund with a shady side; character actor extraordinaire Paul Giamatti is the U.S. attorney looking to bring him down. But this story is less about the mechanisms of the prosecution and more about ego, power, money and machismo. At every turn, these guys are trying to prove they're the biggest dog in the yard; even the purchase of a luxury home can be seen as an in-your-face challenge. And because they are, essentially, the people who hold the levers of power in our world, their grudge match brings a lot of collateral damage.
Developed with New York Times financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin as a producer, this show imagines the framework of family, friendships, business connections and history underpinning the world of high finance. It's a little tough to follow some of the intricacies of Wall Street, but this is easily one of the best new series of early 2016.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow, debuts Jan. 21 on The CW
For a comic book nerd, this may be the TV version of nirvana: a series featuring characters like The Atom, Firestorm, Captain Cold, Hawkman and Hawkgirl traveling through time to stop an immortal villain. Oh, yeah — and it's created by the guy who gave us Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl. I call executive producer Greg Berlanti the David E. Kelley of superhero TV; like the guy behind Ally McBeal and The Practice, Berlanti has perfected a style of TV that's entertaining and compelling, keeping a menagerie of shows going at the same time in one of the industry's most ambitious juggling acts.
You can't think too much about the logic on this series — tell me again why a villain like Captain Cold cares at all about the welfare of the distant future? But the ride is fun, spinning off characters from The Flash and Arrow into a wonderful showcase for superheroes not quite glamorous enough to hold down a series on their own.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, debuting Feb. 2 on FX
People may think they know the story of Simpson's trial for killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, perhaps because constant media coverage of the prosecution gave rise to the modern industry of criminal justice TV. But this incisive, compelling anthology series, based on a well-researched book by legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, will present lots of details that were forgotten or overlooked. Courtney B. Vance is mesmerizing as Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, and John Travolta is appropriately creepy as Simpson's original lead attorney, publicity-conscious Robert Shapiro.
Some details are fudged or re-imagined. A lawyer is shown collapsing in court from a heart ailment, but Toobin's book says that problem surfaced outside the court. Still, in showing how Simpson's lawyers used suspicion about the police in the wake of the Rodney King beating to undermine the prosecution, executive producer Ryan Murphy and his colleagues make a vital, important point about today. If police cross the line in one case and lose the public trust, their actions can undermine justice everywhere. Murphy, the mind behind FX's American Horror Story, has hit on another impressive, timely anthology series idea.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. You know, I'm hosting this week from here at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. And that means seeing many great colleagues who are out here. And it includes NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, who is in town for the TV Critic Association's Winter Press Tour in LA. And he's with me in the studio here. Hey, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey, Dave.
GREENE: So you and I were just talking about some of the stuff we should expect in 2016 when it comes to television. I figured maybe we should just not keep this to ourselves (laughter).
DEGGANS: I know.
GREENE: We should let our listeners in on your advice.
DEGGANS: There's so much great stuff out there.
DEGGANS: Let's talk about it.
GREENE: Well, a big moment for "Sesame Street," - right? - I mean, decades that show on PBS and a show so important to so many kids. The show is moving and debuting on HBO. And I wonder, are we going to see a difference?
DEGGANS: I think we'll see a difference. I saw a difference in quality. It feels like the production is sharper. It feels as if the technology is sharper. The special effects are better. We see the legs of Muppets (laughter).
DEGGANS: In the way that - we used to see it before, maybe it was a little, you know, less advanced.
GREENE: Wow, that's a nice tease. We see some legs of the Muppets.
DEGGANS: (Laughter) We see the legs of Muppets.
GREENE: Puppets showing a little leg.
DEGGANS: And what's also great is the people who had been making "Sesame Street" for PBS had always struggled with budgeting issues and funding. And now there's a sense that they have the kind of money to do the kind of show that you'd want to see for "Sesame Street." There's a sense that they're pulling out the stops. And these episodes will eventually make their way to PBS so that people can see them if they don't have HBO.
GREENE: OK, so based on the preview you've done, parents can rest assured that the sensibility of the show and sort of the culture of the show is still there.
DEGGANS: Yeah, I think parents and kids will really like it.
GREENE: Another HBO series we were talking about - it's new. It's "Vinyl." That's what it's called. Just looking at the executive producers - Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger - I mean, that's a combination.
DEGGANS: You've got to love it. I mean, you know, Scorsese's known for using classic rock in a lot of his films very effectively. So it makes sense that these two guys would team up to tell this story about the record industry in the '70s, when the record industry was really at its height.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VINYL")
BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) I started this company from nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Right, and now we're selling it.
CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) I'm talking about our dreams, man. You don't understand.
RAY RAMANO: (As Zak Yankovich) OK, here's what I do understand, Richie. You're high.
CANNAVALE: (As Richie Finestra) Yeah, I was - so what?
GREENE: The '70s, a time when there was actually a lot of vinyl.
DEGGANS: Exactly (laughter). Well, there's - vinyl's coming back.
GREENE: Yeah, it is.
DEGGANS: Mick Jagger was talking to his critics. And he said, you know, he doesn't play vinyl, but his kids love it.
GREENE: There you go.
DEGGANS: So there you go (laughter).
GREENE: That tells you something. Eric, we have to say here, you're into superheroes, right?
DEGGANS: I am a comic book geek.
GREENE: OK. Well, this is why...
DEGGANS: Card-carrying, certified comic book geek.
GREENE: Nice, this is why you're into this new show on The CW, right? It's over on network TV, "Legends Of Tomorrow."
DEGGANS: "Legends Of Tomorrow," they basically took a bunch of characters that we've seen in storylines in "The Flash" and "Arrow," Hawkman and Hawkgirl. And they've spun them off into this special show that involves time travel. A guy from the future comes back, grabs a bunch of these heroes and takes them on an adventure to take down this immortal, big bad villain. This show is executive produced by Greg Berlanti. This guy, I like to call him the David E. Kelley of superhero shows.
DEGGANS: David E. Kelley, you might remember, is the executive producer who created "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" and "Boston Legal."
GREENE: Addictive shows, yeah.
DEGGANS: Tons of shows for television at one time, and that's something that Greg's doing too with "Supergirl" on CBS. He's doing "Arrow" and "The Flash" on The CW besides "Legends Of Tomorrow." And he's really figured out how to translate these characters into compelling television.
GREENE: Sounds good, and before we go, we should say, you and I are both card-carrying karaoke fans.
DEGGANS: You know it.
GREENE: I'm hoping that we can find a time for that while we're out here in LA together.
DEGGANS: (Laughter) I'm taking you down, Greene. I'm taking you down.
GREENE: I know you will. You always do. It's NPR TV critic and karaoke star Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.
DEGGANS: Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.