(Hulu, July 25, streaming anytime thereafter)
Nobody in show biz is hotter than Stephen King, and this 10-part series set in his fictional Castle Rock, Maine — where ghastly things have happened, from The Dead Zone to Cujoto The Shawshank Redemption — boasts two stars of King’s hit films: Carrie’s Sissy Spacek, 68, and Bill Skarsgard of 2017’s $700-million smash It. The show is created by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) and has King’s blessing.
Spacek is ominously, yet at first affably, otherworldly as a resident of the cursed town, menaced both by its actual horrors and by her own dementia. When her adopted son, Henry (American Horror Story’s brilliant Andre Holland), a death-row lawyer, returns to his hometown to represent a haunted-looking Shawshank prisoner (Skarsgard) found locked in a cage in an abandoned wing of the prison, she doesn’t recognize her child, telling him brightly, “I adopted a black son!”
Her plight (and superb acting) exemplifies King’s signature combination of gritty all-American realism and supernatural shudders. But everyone else in town recognizes Henry and blames him for the inexplicable death of his preacher dad decades before when he was a kid. He has no memory of the death and walks his hometown streets alienated by a vague sense of foreboding. The brooding atmosphere is wonderful, as are Scott Glenn, 77, as Castle Rock’s retired sheriff who’s seen way too much, and Melanie Lynskey, 41, as a psychic real estate agent with scary voices in her head that are unfortunately real.
Castle Rock demands patience because it parsimoniously parcels out its plot. It’s packed with in-joke references to other King stories, which fans call “Easter eggs.” Nevertheless, the Hollywood Reporter complains that the story is “all Easter eggs, no Easter dinner.” That’s not totally fair. Granted, it teases us to the point of annoyance and doesn’t get really good until Episode 3, when we learn a bit more about Henry’s dad’s death. After that, it’s killer entertainment for those who are patient.
Orange Is the New Black, Season 6
(Netflix, July 27, streaming anytime thereafter)
The second-most important show in Netflix history (after House of Cards) took a bad fall last season, with the plot entirely devoted to a three-day riot at the prison packed with interesting women.
But the new season is more promising, as they all scheme to get their exculpatory stories straight while authorities try to figure out who sparked the revolt and killed the guards, or at least find some scapegoats, such as Taystee (Danielle Brooks), falsely accused of murder. There are terrific grownup characters old (sourpuss Russian Kate Mulgrew, 63) and new (One Day at a Time’s Mackenzie Phillips, 58, as a druggy convict in a blood feud with her sister in the next cellblock). The show remains overpopulated with 16-plus main characters. This worked better in its breakout first season, which focused on the relationship between the two main convicts: Taylor Schilling’s Piper and Laura Prepon’s Alex as lovers with betrayal issues.
Thanks to its unpopular riot-themed season, Orange earned zero of Netflix’s record-breaking 112 Emmy nominations this year. It will never be TV’s most-buzzed-about show again. But we’ve gotten attached to its multiple characters, marvelous actors and smart takes on real social problems around race and power. And their sprawling adventures are far more worth watching this year than last.
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Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis
(Comedy Central, July 29, 10 p.m. ET)
The work of Bruce Willis, 63, has earned $3 billion at the box office and garnered him two Emmys, plus a reputation for a not invariably impeccable attitude. He’s in the news because he’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of his hit Die Hard. Yippee-ki-yay! So he’s the ideal candidate for a Comedy Central roast hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his costar in the highly grownup-pleasing sci-fi flick Looper. Far be it from us to do spoilers, but here are just a couple of the quips you’ll see Willis attract like arrows to Saint Sebastian. His Moonlightingcostar Cybill Shepherd, 68, told him, “We may not have had a conversation in 30 years, but we’ll have something more important. Residuals.” He retorted, “Cybill, it’s so great to be back on TV with you, honey, on another show starring me.”
But he had a tougher time with a surprise guest: his ex-wife, Demi Moore, 55. “I look at our marriage like The Sixth Sense. You were dead the whole time.” Noting that Willis considered the end of their marriage his biggest failure, she added: “Bruce, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve had much bigger failures. Planet Hollywood, Hudson Hawk,Striking Distance, campaigning for Michael Dukakis, turning down Clooney’s role in Ocean’s Eleven to focus on playing the harmonica.” Willis was reportedly hugely amused. Edward Norton, Dennis Rodman, Martha Stewart and Kevin Pollak piled on, and a lovely time was had by all. Tune in and join in.