Parades and pigskin aside, there wasn't much happening on television during the week of Thanksgiving. But for the past seven days? The box has been overstuffed. While various series are racing toward their seasonal end games, the networks have begun trotting out some early holiday diversions, hoping to capitalize on the viewers who are already eager to surround themselves with mistletoe and holly. There were even a few premieres last week, including a sneak preview of NBC's new sitcom Superstore, the return of Bravo's Top Chef, and a single-episode sneak-peek for the return of Amazon's Transparent. (Look for more on this show next week once the whole phenomenal sophomore season has been uploaded.)
This week, we're taking a moment to praise one powerhouse finale (which we're hoping won't be for the whole series) and soak in a holiday special from a most unlikely-but-welcome source. Ah, but are there superheroes, you may ask? How about a half-dozen or so, packed into two hours, spread across consecutive nights, bringing joy to the world … or at least to the part of the globe that likes comic books.
5. The Big Crossover: The Flash and Arrow (The CW)
Consider this paradox: Both of these DC superhero series are at their shakiest whenever they're piling on characters and juggling subplots — and yet each time these shows have done crossover two-parters, they've been among their respective best episodes. Last week's "Legends of Today"/"Legends of Yesterday" double-dip was designed to set up next year's spinoff series, called, inevitably, Legends of Tomorrow. The result: They were a bit of a mess on the storytelling side, introducing the all-powerful immortal villain Vandal Savage and then quickly besting him with an iffy bit of loophole-closing time-travel. And yet, for a certain breed of geeky aficionado, these episodes were a too-brief trip to masked-crusader nirvana.
For two nights in a row, DC Comics fans got to see Barry Allen palling around with Oliver Queen, and Felicity Smoak nerding out with Cisco Ramon, and big action sequences involving Black Canary, Speedy, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and John Diggle. In a way, these two shows don't really fit together all that well, given that Arrow is moody and gritty and The Flash … well, Barry put it best last week when he told Oliver, "My world is stranger than yours." But the darkness of one series balances the lightness of the other. And while it'd be exhausting to follow all of these heroes week after week, it's a gas to get them all in one place, thus realizing the dreams of every kid who ever spent hours sprawled out on the floor with stacks of old Justice Leagues.
4. The Great Holiday Baking Show pops out of the oven (ABC)
One of the buzziest shows of 2015 didn't actually debut this year. PBS imported the fifth season of BBC's The Great British Bake Off over the winter (replacing the last two words with "Baking Show," possibly for Pillsbury-related reasons), and then put the whole shebang up on Netflix. By the time the network aired 2013's fourth season a few months back, the series had become almost as much of an obsession among American audiences as it's been in the UK. The repeats have done so well on public television that ABC's now giving it another go, with a shortened Christmas version airing this month.
Only one of the original's judges has made the trip over: octogenarian English cookbook queen Mary Berry. But nearly everything else is the same, from the three-stage weekly competition format to the well-appointed canvas-covered kitchen in the countryside. (A few months ago, Anna Kendrick, speaking for us all, tweeted, "Life is confusing, and overwhelming, and I don't want to play anymore. Please can I go live in the Great British Bake Off tent please?") These home bakers sweat over their gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, but they never snipe at each other, and never look into the camera to give pissy confessionals. They know the first rule of cooking dessert: Don't make it too bitter.
3. Have A Very Murray Christmas with Bill and his buddies (Netflix)
The New Yorker recently featured a Mike O'Brien piece about "how to live an alternative comedy life style." All you have to do is get an ordinary job, marry a normal person, have lovable kids, and die happy ... but secretly know that you're doing it all ironically. Netflix's Bill Murray Christmas special is kind of like O'Brien's essay come to life. Co-written by the comedian, Mitch Glazer, and Sofia Coppola —who also directed — A Very Murray Christmas tries to come across as the opposite of every old TV variety extravaganza. The depressed star is stuck in a snowbound hotel with no power, passing the time by asking other mopes — everyone from Jenny Lewis to Maya Rudolph and the band Phoenix — to sing songs with him. Belting out a few carols, however, doesn't change everyone's melancholy mood.
In fact, there's a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek yuletide cheer here, especially when Bill dreams himself onto a blindingly white soundstage with George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and dozens of foxy dancers. But when everyone's gathering around the piano to sing The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" (with Lewis handling the Kirsty MacColl parts!), or when Coppola's filming Murray looking out over a beautifully chilly city on Christmas morning, well — that sweetness ain't artificial.
2. Nobody beats The Wiz (NBC)
For two straight years, NBC has scored big ratings with live broadcasts of classic Broadway shows, although judging by the Twitter responses, about half of the viewers tuned in to hate-watch. Then something unexpected and wondrous happened this past week: The network aired a musical that people actually liked. Maybe the poppy energy of The Wiz is better suited to the small screen than the heavy-footedness of The Sound Of Music and Peter Pan. Or maybe it's that the producers hired talented singers and dancers like Shanice Williams, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier, Queen Latifah, and Ne-Yo, and didn't put any obstacles in the way of them being amazing.
Whatever the reasons, this energetic production Wiz was a wonder, and drew so many eyeballs that NBC is planning to run the show again on Saturday the 19th. (And maybe with fewer commercials this time? That'd be awesome.) From the special "acrobatic effects" by Cirque du Soleil — who together made one heck of a tornado — to the exultant performances of "Ease on Down the Road" and "Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day," this show was a treat to watch. Please, NBC: remember to keep making them this good.
1. The Leftovers sets paradise on fire (HBO)
Look, the HBO show loosely based on Tom Perrotta's novel isn't for everybody. The show sends its characters on punishing spiritual odysseys that typically end in confusion, despair, and other words that don't describe a fun way to spend a Sunday night. But like a lot of art that comes from a place of morose, impotent fury, this creation is more full of life and humor than its detractors recognize. It's like the TV equivalent of Neil Young's bleak mid-1970s "ditch" records On the Beach and Tonight's the Night: tuneful, soulful, and rollicking, with the kind of frayed edges that leave listeners both exhausted and exhilarated.
If "I Live Here Now" is in fact the last of The Leftovers — should the network choose not to renew an expensive, sparsely viewed series for a third go-round — then it went out literally blazing. In the finale, the maddening doomsday cult Guilty Remnant overran Jarden, Texas, which had been the only town on Earth not to lose any of its citizens during a global epidemic of unexplained "departures." As rioters filled the streets and the community burned, the show's main hero Kevin Garvey returned to his house to find all of his loved ones together, and happy to see him.
Similar to showrunner Damon Lindelof's Lost, which also ended with friends and family gathering to face oblivion, the series suggests that if there's any meaning in modern life's escalating mayhem, it can be found in the people immediately around us. That's not really a happy message, but it's useful — and maybe even hopeful. And while that may not be enough to earn 10 more episodes, it's enough to make us grateful for the 20 we got.