Doesn't it seem like the best characters on TV right now are non-fictional? This past week, a colorful slate of Republican presidential candidates took part in a debate so tense and sloppy that it may change the way those events are televised in the future. Warriors point guard Steph Curry and the world champion Kansas City Royals gave prestige-TV–level performances. Meanwhile, a Project Greenlight season that's raised questions about diversity and privilege in Hollywood ended with one final stand-off between producer Effie Brown and writer-director Jason Mann. (And how perfect is it that the current state of show business can be summed up by a personality clash between a black woman named "Brown" and a white man named "Mann"?)
That explains why we've got realness all up and down our weekly list of the best and most memorable television — from an outstanding HBO documentary to a venerable reality competition, with an inspired Comedy Central prank show wedged in between. Yes, we also leave Earth behind to visit a dangerous distant planet, coming back in time to ward off an attack from another dimension. But it's the truth that's haunting us this week, in the form of a game, an argument, or one bittersweet dance.
5. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes out of this world (ABC)
The flagship series in Marvel's television universe has been reliably entertaining but rarely special, outside of the occasional stunning action sequence or crazy plot-twist. But "4,722 Hours" tried something new, and the change-of-pace really clicked. Earlier this season, S.H.I.E.L.D. retrieved one of their own, Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), from a distant planet where she'd been stranded for over six months. Last week, we found out how she spent that exile: fighting and eating the local wildlife, pining for her co-worker/admirer Leo Fitz (Iain de Caestecker), and meeting another intergalactic castaway in NASA astronaut Will Daniels (Dillon Casey).
From the blue-tinted alien vistas to the callbacks to sci-fi classics like 2001 and Planet of the Apes, this episode has a look and feel unlike any other episode the series has aired to date. But the left-field approach is really just meant to illustrate how Simmons adjusts to her new life, and why that matters. She starts out sure that Fitz will save her, but time and circumstances wear her down until she eventually falls for her new intergalactic companion — which makes her eventual rescue more of a romantic tragedy. Between the Marvel movie tie-ins and the complicated narrative, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has to do a lot of heavy lifting from week to week. But as seen here, there's still something to be said for old-school TV, where an episode just delivers one powerful story, told extremely well.
4. Reality Overload: Survivor (CBS)
Even the best-designed reality-TV competitions (your Amazing Races, your Top Chefs) suffer weeks where the gameplay sucks, the outcome's inevitable, and none of the contestants say or do anything interesting. And then there are episodes like last week's Survivor, which began with a player being evacuated due to a family medical emergency, and ended with a classic tribal council blindside. In between, the tribes went through a merge, played a slippery round of ring-toss, and endured an eating contest that had them swallowing bugs and bird-embryos. By the time the show circled back around to reassure the audience that the opening health scare had turned out okay, a lot of folks watching had probably forgotten there was ever a problem.
This season has been dubbed "Second Chance," because the cast is made up of returning players who came up short the first time they played. (Fans voted for these contestants, which means they're all memorable characters.) Even if nothing much were going on, it'd be both tense and touching to watch the gawky Stephen Fishbach struggle to be taken seriously, or "Chaos" Kass McQuillen revisit old grudges with her ally-turned-rival Spencer Bledsoe, or Abi-Marie Gomes test the sturdiness of alliances. But throw in some close challenges and a ton of desperate maneuvering, and this is shaping up to be one of the series' best games in years.
3. Nathan for You: 1, Real news: 0 (Comedy Central)
Nathan Fielder's po-faced prank show probably won't ever top the "Dumb Starbucks" stunt when it comes to duping the national media, but it came close last week with "The Movement." Earlier this year, the comedian hired bodybuilder Jack Garbarino to pose as a fictional weight-loss guru, pitching a program where customers would get their exercise by helping people move boxes and furniture. To promote the concept, Fielder booked his shill onto morning news shows around the country, where bubbly anchors never openly questioned the soundness of the idea or any of Jack's made-up anecdotes about his years of working with "jungle children."
As always with Nathan for You, the host's clueless persona has him intentionally and comically straying from the main point. He's primarily worried about what might happen if his fake health nut is seen in public working out in a gym rather than carrying cargo around. ("I have major trust issues stemming from a non-sexual incident that happened when I was a child," he explains.) To prevent that, Nathan hired a private eye to follow Garbarino, then got distracted by the gumshoe's admission that he posed for a Penthouse pictorial when he was younger. The genius of this episode — and this series in general — is that while Fielder's fretting over minutiae, he's proving that dieters can be easily misled, cheap labor can be obtained through fraud, and local broadcasters never fact-check. Devastating.
2. How to Dance in Ohio documents the struggles of young autistic adults (HBO)
Whenever children are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders, parents scramble to the internet to find out what the rest of their lives are going to be like; while there's a lot of info available about "early intervention" and school-age therapies, much less has been written about the challenges of ASD adults. If nothing else, Alexandra Shiva's HBO documentary fills a need, just by giving some screen-time to three maturing women on the spectrum (between the ages of 16 and 22) and letting viewers see how they cope with everything from college and work to simple "How do you do?"-level socializing. All of this is monumentally difficult for anyone who has trouble reading facial expressions or coping with unpredictability. But it's not impossible.
How to Dance in Ohio covers a Columbus-based therapy program's attempt to hold a sort of prom, designed to force clients to deal with some common coming-of-age problems — like asking for dates, and dealing with rejection. But the doc is really about these three remarkable ladies, who are old enough to be painfully aware of what they lack yet are try not to let it prevent them from achieving independence. Unlike most movies and TV shows about autism, the film doesn't focus on the loved ones, struggling to deal with ASD kids. Instead, Shiva's refreshingly honest about the need for parents to push autists and Aspies to try new things, and her movie is ultimately encouraging about what can be achieved.
1. Ash vs. Evil Dead gets off to a groovy start (Starz)
It's tough to pinpoint the exact coolest part of Ash vs. Evil Dead's first episode. Maybe the scene where our meathead hero stomps the floorboards and makes a shotgun fly up into his one good hand? When he leaps through the air to connect his handless arm to a chainsaw that's hurtling toward him? Or maybe it's when the four-inch-high porcelain figurine that comes to life and kicks his ass. Really, what's most amazing for longtime Evil Dead fans is that all those little bits and about a half-dozen more are scattered throughout a single 40-minute TV episode, starring Bruce Campbell, directed by Sam Raimi, and co-written by Ivan Raimi — the original team, back together.
Campbell and the Raimis owe their careers to the three cult-horror classics that brought style, slapstick, and crackpot ambition to the whole "cabin in the woods" genre, and for decades now, devotees have been clamoring for more. Judging by this 10-episode show's debut, a premium cable TV show is exactly what the franchise needed. The Starz series gets back to the originals' low-budget goofery, with kinetic fights in small spaces, and occasional interludes of cameras rapidly whooshing through the wilderness. All that's missing is a little VHS tracking wobble.
Ultimately, the premiere's choicest moment is just the dim-but-capable Ash Williams walking into a bar, absentmindedly tossing a dart (and missing the board by a mile), then hitting on a woman by saying to the bartender, "I'll have a Moscow Mule and two of whatever the lady's having.” That's all this show really needs ever needs: Ash being Ash.