Proof of intelligence on TV arrives Sunday with 'Downton Abbey,' 'The Firm' and 'House of Lies'

Ben Schwartz, Don Cheadle, Josh Lawson and Kristen Bell in House of Lies.

Showtime

Ben Schwartz, Don Cheadle, Josh Lawson and Kristen Bell in House of Lies.

Find everyone you know who complains about the awful state of television and park them in front of a screen on Sunday night.

Why? To catch a powerful lineup of interesting shows coming to the tube at the start of next week — kicking off a winter season filled with gems held back from the rush of the fall season.

It may take some doing; two of these shows air at the same time on Sunday (consider a DVR or video on demand, if you can swing it).

But you'll be rewarded with an experience worth the trouble — a stream of compelling TV product good enough to make you forget we've still got many weeks before The Walking Dead and Mad Men come back.

Downton Abbey, returns for second season at 9 p.m. Sunday on WEDU-Ch. 3: I'll admit I'm a latecomer to Masterpiece's well-regarded, English-made series about the fictional country home of a British Earl and Countess, set in the early 1900s. But a boatload of honors for Downton's first season, including six Emmy awards, can make even this thickheaded Yank pay attention.

This season, time jumps forward two years to the start of World War I; the draft of able-bodied men is blurring lines between nobility and commoner. The show's patriarch, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, chafes under the genteel arrangements that keep older men with titles away from the battle front, as his oldest daughter Mary remains separated from the man she loves, Matthew, who is engaged to another.

If you've guessed this is soap opera for those who think they're too smart or cultured for soap operas, you've got the gist. At a time of real-life focus on how the wealthy exploit the working class, it is compelling to see an aristocracy that takes its responsibility to commoners seriously (even if it does feel a bit like propaganda).

House of Lies, debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime: Don Cheadle is a fast-talking, hyper-kinetic, super-savvy ball of charisma as Marty Kaan, the big money "closer" at the second-largest management consultant firm in the country. He's the kind of guy who can pass off a stripper as his wife during a business dinner, end it in a fistfight and still land a massive contract.

And yes, this is a comedy.

It is also the role of lifetime for Cheadle, who plays Kaan like a man intentionally moving just fast enough to avoid learning how empty his life is. George Clooney might play him in the movie; but casting Cheadle, who is black, in a role that seems written for a white man, makes the character, his cross-dressing young son and dysfunctional psychiatrist dad even more compelling.

The perfect comedy for an age where corporate America seems like the biggest slapstick show in town.

The Firm, debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on WFLA-Ch. 8: After watching NBC work wonders with its Parenthood remake, I was willing to watch its reinvention of this John Grisham novel/Tom Cruise movie. And at the risk of looking like a sap, I can say the TV version kept me entertained and engaged, even though it asks viewers to take one big leap.

The hurdle: accepting that an earnest, talented lawyer can stumble on a secretly nefarious, openly glamorous law firm twice in the same lifetime. The show opens a decade after the book and movie, as plucky lawyer Mitch McDeere (an appropriately earnest Josh Lucas) has pulled his family out of witness protection to start his own law firm in Washington, D.C.

Only question left: Can NBC alternate a legal case of the week with the ongoing conspiracy deftly enough that we don't feel like we're watching a cheap imitation?

Proof of intelligence on TV arrives Sunday with 'Downton Abbey,' 'The Firm' and 'House of Lies' 01/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 6:34pm]

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