TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli thought that TV basically took a summer vacation this July. But he says this month, TV's back with three unusual and distinctive new series - a miniseries, a sketch comedy series and a new type of anthology show.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The first of these new series is a fact-based drama about the long hunt for the Unabomber. It's called "Manhunt: Unabomber" and stars Sam Worthington as the young FBI profiler who's on his trail and Paul Bettany as the killer he's chasing, Ted Kaczynski. This eight-part miniseries begins tonight on the Discovery Channel, which has never before presented a major scripted drama. So you'd be excused for not expecting much.
Yet, "Manhunt" is an all-out winner. It draws great tension and frustration out of the bureaucracy of this particular federal bureau and takes the time to detail the Unabomber's motives as well as his methods. This miniseries also is presented cinematically and with subtlety. The graphic shots of the bomb victims may unsettle you, but it's the symbolically-loaded late-night shots of traffic lights that are most likely to haunt you, just as in the original "Twin Peaks."
On Wednesday night, the new series is "Baroness Von Sketch Show," a sketch comedy series presented by the IFC network. We're used to quirky sketch comedy from IFC. It is, after all, the longtime home of "Portlandia." But "Baroness" hails from even farther north. It's a comedy import from Canada. More significant, it's a gender reversal of such classic sketch shows as "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "The Kids In The Hall," all of whose members were male.
In "Baroness," the four stars and creators - Carolyn Taylor, Aurora Browne, Jennifer Whalen and Meredith MacNeill - are women. And while "Baroness Von Sketch Show" is by no means the first hilarious all-female sketch series - Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were killing it back in the '80s with England's "French and Saunders" - it does make notable strides in being less about pop culture parodies than about exploring the feminine perspective, like at an imaginary meeting of political leaders at a world summit in Copenhagen in the year 2050.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARONESS VON SKETCH SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Delegate of Scandinasia) Greetings, and welcome. Thank you so much for coming today. This is our first world summit since the revolution where we ascended to power, replacing our male counterparts. It's been a busy few years, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Delegate of Old South North America) To say the least.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Delegate of New South North America) What's on the agenda?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Delegate of Old South North America) Yes. First of all, the economy.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Delegate of California) Well, actually, everything's great here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As Delegate) Yep, us too.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #6: (As Delegate) We're cool.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #7: (As Delegate) Us, too.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Delegate of New South North America) Same here - Jill?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Delegate of Old South North America) Yep. All good here, no problems.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Delegate of California) Great. OK, environment - is anyone having any environmental problems, anyone?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #8: (As Delegate of Chinastan) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Delegate of California) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #9: (As Delegate of Africantarctica) Nope.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #7: (As Delegate) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #10: (As Delegate) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #11: (As Delegate) Nope.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Delegate of Scandinasia) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #12: (As Delegate) None.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Delegate of New South North America) Ditto.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Delegate of Old South North America) And what about conflict, social justice - any war, any hardship, conflict in their continents?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Delegate of New South North America) No. We just talk it out, these days.
BIANCULLI: Finally, on Thursday night, there's a new comedy series on TBS. This is a network that used to be known for rerunning classic comedies, not making its own. But lately, with the talk show "Conan," the political satire "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" and the criminally-underappreciated sitcom "Angie Tribeca," TBS has more than made its mark.
And now with Thursday's "Guest Book," it presents a comedy that's an anthology show. That's different. But the differences extend past that. HBO recently unveiled "Room 104," an anthology series set in one room in a motel. Personally, I checked it out but was in no mood to check in - not for the long run. But "Guest Book," created by Greg Garcia of "My Name Is Earl" fame, is something special.
It uses the same basic premise as "Room 104" by setting each episode, with a new cast and storyline, inside a guest room - in this case, Froggy Cottage, a rundown resort cabin in a small rural town. In one episode, the cabin is rented by a couple that has invited their son and his fiancee on a weekend retreat. The mother who narrates the episode, played by Stockard Channing from "The West Wing," is a devoutly religious Christian. The future daughter-in-law played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who played Chloe on "24," is an atheist. But the mom hopes the change of scenery also will lead to a change of heart and of faith, especially when she presents her son's fiancee with a necklace sporting a crucifix.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GUEST BOOK")
STOCKARD CHANNING: (As character) I was feeling so good about the change that was happening in Lynn (ph) that I got brave enough to take a little gamble.
(SOUNDITE OF KNOCKING)
CHANNING: (As character) Lynn, listen. I know you have your beliefs, and I totally respect that. But I bought something for you before I knew about the whole atheist thing. And I've been holding on to it, which is really silly because it's just a beautiful piece of jewelry.
MARY LYNN RAJSKUB: (As Lynn) Oh, my, look at that. There's a little Jesus on there.
CHANNING: (As character) Well, that's one way of looking at it. Or it's just a pretty necklace with a very fit, long-haired hippie on a cross. It doesn't matter who you think it is. There's no denying that the blue of his tears really makes your eyes pop.
BIANCULLI: The rotating weekly occupants of Froggy Cottage are entertaining enough on their own. But "Guest Book" also features recurring characters who staff the resort or live in the town sort of like the crew of "The Love Boat" or the hosts on "Fantasy Island," except that they have continuing storylines, and their lives intersect with those of the guests.
It's a layered, twisted structure as complicated as the intermingled plot twists of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "Arrested Development." And yes, "Guest Book" deserves mention in that same company. Like Discovery's "Manhunt: Unabomber" and IFC's "Baroness Von Sketch Show," "Guest Book" on TBS is well worth your attention.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be former Vice President Al Gore. And he has a new documentary updating his first film about climate change. It's called "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER")
AL GORE: The next generation would be justified in looking back at us and asking, what were you thinking? Couldn't you hear what the scientists were saying? Couldn't you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?
GROSS: I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.