It's a busy few weeks in TV land, beginning tonight with the return of Starz's "Spartacus" for its final season and continuing Monday with the second season of the revived "Dallas" on TNT.
So long, 'Spartacus'
When Starz announced the new season of "Spartacus" -- the show's fourth edition, including a prequel season -- would be its last, it came as a surprise. "Spartacus" draws more viewers than any other series on the premium cable channel. Why would Starz end it so soon?
But in watching the first two episodes of this final season, that decision seems to be the right one.
"Spartacus: War of the Damned" (9 tonight, Starz) begins as Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and his ranks of rebellious freed slaves swell, terrifying the Romans.
In years past, early episodes of a new season often focused on introducing Spartacus' new comrades. But with the Roman characters mostly killed off at the end of last season, "War of the Damned" spends its time introducing new Romans.
Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells) steps up to the plate as the Romans' new leadership in the battlefield, and his entitled son, Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), also wants to be involved in the war effort. Next week's episode introduces Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance), who also turns out to be a brat.
But the new Romans are no replacement for the original Romans of the series. "Spartacus" worked best when it was an ancient "Upstairs Downstairs" with the house of Battiatus as the "upstairs" component and the gladiator school as the "downstairs." With that element gone, the show has no natural home base and feels a bit unmoored.
That's why it feels like the right time for Spartacus to meet his fate.
In a teleconference with reporters last week, "Spartacus" creator Steven S. DeKnight said the show's writers knew before the end of the previous season, "Spartacus: Vengeance," that the upcoming "Spartacus: War of the Damned" would be the show's swan song.
"We had plenty of time to figure out where we were going to go," he said, acknowledging his initial plan was for the show to run five to seven seasons until he began researching the war years, which get repetitive. "Spartacus and his band of rebels didn't exactly have a dramatic three act structure to what they were doing. They were all over the place. ... When you read it, you really get the sense that there was no plan."
In addition, the story repeated itself as Romans attacked Spartacus and his crew and got defeated over and over.
"I really struggled with how to lay this out in an entertaining fashion for two or three more seasons without completely jettisoning history," Mr. DeKnight said. "I didn't want to completely turn my back on history and just make it fictional."
At the risk of spoiling the plot, students of history know the Spartacus story does not have a happy ending for the show's title character.
"I have a long history of ripping hearts out. So, yeah, it's a gut-wrenching finale," Mr. DeKnight said. "It is a beautiful, powerful, emotional ending. And the trick was, how do you end it? This was something we talked about before we shot the first episode of the series. Everybody knows how it ends. It would be like doing a movie about the Titanic and the Titanic doesn't sink. We wanted to [keep] as close to history as possible. So the challenge was, how do we have that ending but still make it a victory. And, you know, the last episode is called 'Victory' and it's a bit of an ironic title. Because it really explores how the rebels gained victory in defeat. And how, frankly, the Romans suffered defeat and victory."
TNT's revival of "Dallas" resumes Monday at 9 p.m. with a two-hour season premiere that's bittersweet knowing the show's most valuable player, J.R. Ewing, will soon be gone. Actor Larry Hagman, who became inextricably linked with J.R., died in November, and his character will be killed off a few episodes into the new season.
Executive producer Cynthia Cidre, who developed the new "Dallas," has done her best to introduce new characters and stories, but J.R. remains the heart of the show and always gets the best lines.
"I came over to deliver some muffins to the pretty little secretaries," J.R. says during a visit to the new Ewing Energy offices in Monday's premiere. "Who could guess so many would turn out to be men. Where's the sport in that?"
At the end of the first season last summer, viewers learned, in a surprising, satisfying twist, that Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe) had been tricked into marrying the daughter of Ewing nemesis Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval). It turned out Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo) was actually Pamela Rebecca Barnes, daughter of Cliff and Afton.
The early part of the new season finds Christopher trying to get the marriage annulled while his cousin, John Ross (Josh Henderson), does his level best to undermine those efforts for his own selfish gain. As usual, J.R. gets to make the most entertaining observation about the whole scenario with a reference to Bobby's ex-wife, Christopher's mother, Pam.
"You're not the first Pam to fox your way into the hen house," J.R. says. "I'm one-for-one on flushing out Pamelas and I plan on being two-for-two."
It remains to be seen how "Dallas" will cope with the loss of its finest player. Some reports suggest J.R. will be murdered around episode seven, and "Dallas" will spend the remainder of its 15-episode second season playing out "Who killed J.R.?" aping the old "Who shot J.R.?" plot that gave the show its buzz back in the 1980s. If that's the direction "Dallas" heads, it's a smart move, a way to build buzz using nostalgia as the basis for a new mystery.
"Dallas" traffics in a lot of prime-time soap cliches -- pinched glances and slow, deliberate nods of approval abound. This visual language of a bygone TV era may seem foreign to young viewers. The show also confuses sometimes: When the real Becky Sutter arrives from Des Moines, Iowa, she inexplicably displays a Texas accent.
Monday's premiere introduces Judith Light ("Ugly Betty") as a new Ewing nemesis. She's caught up in a story involving Bobby's current wife, Anne (Brenda Strong).
And Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) gets her heart broken and threatens to lapse back into the alcohol addiction that plagued her through the first run of "Dallas." She gets support from a perhaps unlikely source, ex-husband J.R., in a scene that would seem to give some closure to that relationship before J.R.'s demise.
"If I can throw my weight around this town after all the crap I've pulled," he tells her, "you'll bounce back just fine."
No question about it: "Dallas" may or may not be able to bounce back, but it won't be the same once J.R. Ewing is in the grave.
'Edge' visits Pennsylvania
Travel Channel's "Edge of America" (9 p.m. Tuesday), hosted by Boston Globe arts writer Geoff Edgers, explores Pennsylvania in next week's episode, including a demolition derby in Hamburg, a Celtic festival in Bethlehem and Pittsburgh's Zombie Fest.
In the short Zombie segment, Mr. Edgers competes in "severed head shot put."
'The Choir' tunes up locally
Back in July 2010, BBC America premiered an imported reality show, "The Choir," which followed British choirmaster Gareth Malone as he traveled around England forming community choirs. Later this year cable's USA network will air its own version, with Mr. Malone traveling around the United States. At this month's Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., he said he stopped in Pittsburgh just before Christmas to form a new choir at Pittsburgh Brashear High School.
USA's version of "The Choir," including the Brashear episode, is expected to air this summer but no premiere date has been announced.
AMC's "Mad Men" returns for its sixth season with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. April 7. ... Lifetime's "Army Wives" is back for its seventh season on March 10, the same day "The Client List" returns for its second season. ... ABC will delay the return of "Body of Proof" for two weeks to avoid premiering the show and then getting pre-empted the next week for the State of the Union address. "Proof" will debut its new season at 10 p.m. Feb. 19. ... ABC canceled "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" this week and will double-run "Happy Endings" on Tuesdays starting next week. ... TBS pulled the plug on freshman comedy "Wedding Band." ... Science Channel is moving its reruns of "Fringe" to 8 p.m. Friday beginning today. ... Pittsburgher Kenrick Cheong will be a contestant on CBS's "The Price Is Right" (11 a.m. weekdays, KDKA-TV) on Tuesday's episode. ... Variety reports "Girls" will be back for a third season, but HBO has not yet confirmed the renewal. ... Fox has canceled "Ben & Kate," replacing it with a double run of "Raising Hope" for several of the weeks before "Hell's Kitchen" takes over the 8-9 p.m. time slot on March 12. ... "Doctor Who" returns to BBC America with new episodes on March 30. ... MTV's "World of Jenks" is back for a second season at 11 p.m. March 4. ... During a set visit to NBC's "The Office" last week, executive producer Greg Daniels told me he's hoping to take some cast and crew to Scranton, the show's setting, to film scenes before the series ends in May, but no plans for a location shoot away from the show's Los Angeles soundstages have been finalized. ... Blind children share stories of how they perceive the world on "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" (8 p.m. Monday, Nickelodeon). ... The Snipe family of Pittsburgh -- including Deyotta, Rich, Dianne, Erica and Aleshia -- will compete Tuesday on "Family Feud" (7 p.m. weeknights, WPCW).
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The Big Bang Theory," "Longmire" and "Shakespeare Uncovered." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Dallas," "NOVA" and Style's "Built." Read online-only TV content at www.post-gazette.com/tv.
Tuned In podcast is on a brief hiatus due to technical difficulties. It will return soon.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news. A portion of this column first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.