This year's fall TV schedule offers up plenty of darkness and humor

Seasonal affective disorder

James Franco and James Franco in The Deuce
James Franco and James Franco in The Deuce

Despite new TV series coming along every week or so, we still think of autumn as the definitive time when new shows appear to tempt us from our busy, stressful lives. With the angst in America multiplying and coagulating by the second, I'd say we could use a dose of comedy right about now. But if you're like me, your awareness of current events never recedes very far into the miasma of your subconscious, and you seek out some dark fare, too. Some of the new series I'm most intrigued by span the continuum of hilarious to disturbing, maybe even including elements of both.

American Horror Story: Cult

First up: a new season of American Horror Story started Sept. 5, just in time to remind us that summer is truly over. The subtitle, Cult, is an odd one, given the anthology's tendency to name the show after a specific location. The focus is on the most recent presidential election and its impact on, well, everyone. Apparently, notable cult figures from history will also make an appearance (rumors point to Andy Warhol and Charles Manson). Some exceptional cast members return (like veterans Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, plus Adina Porter from AHS: Roanoke, and Emma Roberts from AHS: Coven) with some new additions (Lena Dunham, Leslie Grossman). The tendency this show has to balance moments of unutterable brilliance with poorly conceived plot twists is almost always smoothed out by its excellent performances. No Jessica Lange or Kathy Bates this time around, though. (Airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX)

American Vandal

Netflix and Funny or Die team up for a true-crime satire series called American Vandal that looks promising. It follows the destructive spree of some high schoolers who spray-paint penises on their teachers' cars, and the aftermath after a student with a known history of ... er ... dicking around claims he was framed (hey, funny and dark, right?). (Premieres Friday, Sept. 15, Netflix)

Better Things

If you were a fan of Fox's animated show King of the Hill (and come on, who wasn't?), you know Pamela Adlon as the voice of Bobby Hill, a chubby, precocious teen sprung from the loins of the manly, conservative (but loving) Hank Hill. Or maybe you know her as Louis CK's fictional girlfriend on Louie. The second season of her show Better Things, about a single mom of three daughters who's an actress working in Hollywood, now features Adlon directing every episode, which can only mean it's going to continue to be awesome. Adlon has a scrappy, appealing quality that comes through beautifully in this semi-autobiographical comedy. (Premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, on FX)

The Deuce

HBO is creating some buzz with their new series The Deuce, a 1970s-set drama about porn and prostitution in Manhattan that stars James Franco (yes he will have an icky mustache, and will also direct two episodes), the always-interesting Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the suave, versatile Gary Carr. The Deuce is the work of the creators of The Wire (also Treme and The Pacific), so, yeah. Personally, I'm looking forward to the soundtrack, the costumes and the slang. In that order. (Streamers can already check out the pilot on HBO Go or HBO Now.) (Premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, on HBO)

Law & Order True Crime

True crime is an increasingly trendy genre on TV, and the debut season of Law & Order True Crime takes the franchise's usual format of "ripped from the headlines" narratives a step further by hewing even closer to reality, using actual names and events. The Menendez killings were the stuff of horrific news in 1989: two snotty Beverly Hills brothers who murdered their parents in cold blood. The terrific Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) and Chris Bauer (The Wire, again) star. (Premieres 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, on NBC)

Masterpiece Mystery!

I must say, in light of all the horrific imagery and words dominating the news lately, I am looking forward to a new season of Mystery! on PBS. The Collection, a sort of espionage-tinged thriller that revolves around the world of high fashion in post-war Paris, returns for a new series this year. It stars Richard Coyle (goofy Jeff from the sexy, funny U.K. series Coupling), character actress Frances de la Tour (from Outlander and several Harry Potter films), Mamie Gummer (recently seen in The Good Wife) and veteran actor Alan Corduner (Homeland and a million other things). Escapism? Perhaps. But if you're like me, you've become very interested in history lately, too. (Airs 9 p.m. Sundays on WUCF)

Top of the Lake: China Girl

I am extremely excited to see the next installment of this Sundance series starring Elisabeth Moss as a police detective returning to her childhood home (a place of dark memories) to investigate a missing-person case. Filmmaker Jane Campion's first TV venture in 2013, set in her native New Zealand, proved hugely popular after it hit Netflix, and a second season (also co-written with Campion's writing partner Gerard Lee) was planned some time ago. Grand vistas, moody cinematography, and intense performances made this crime procedural a very human and horrifying experience. Nicole Kidman (who starred in Campion's Portrait of a Lady) joins the cast this time around. (Premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, on Sundance)


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