Hamish McKenzie in Baltimore
Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire proved that 20th-century period dramas can help today's studio executives fuel their Ferraris while harking back to an almost-forgotten time when America was great. And so, among the newest television offerings from the United States that will soon show up in Hong Kong are copycats such as Pan Am.
The airline drama arrived with high expectations, fed by Christina Ricci (right, foreground; The Opposite of Sex) in the lead role, comely stewardesses stuffed into figure-hugging uniforms and nostalgia for an era when economy-class air travel afforded room to extend your legs beyond the knees. The show, which is scheduled to start on AXN Beyond in February, is set in 1963 and dabbles in espionage, the cold war and stock-standard romantic storylines while occasionally reminding viewers of the time's grinding sexism. Some critics have called it 'Mile High Mad Men', but that's unfair to the ad agency drama, which is superior in tone, nuance and detail to Pan Am, which favours using pretty smiles and sparkling visions of an idealised past to whisk the mindless masses away from the morbid present.
More relevant to contemporary reality is Laura Dern's (What's On cover; Rambling Rose) Enlightened, which starts on HBO Signature on December 13. Beautifully shot in an overly bright Californian suburb that hides a plenitude of dark secrets, Enlightened depicts the travails of Dern's Amy Jellicoe as she strives to outgun her crushing mid-life insecurities with a torrent of yoga rays. Jellicoe engenders conflicting sympathies - she is both maddeningly neurotic and uncomfortably familiar, simultaneously vulnerable and defiant, and emotionally shackled to a drug-addicted ex-husband (Luke Wilson; The Royal Tenenbaums) who still somehow serves as an emotional crutch.
While Enlightened is ostensibly a comedy, co-creator Dern's intensely personal performance elevates it to a superior form of entertainment: one that sucks you into the tunnels of depression for 30 minutes only to spit you back out with a bit of hope.
The dark forces are more external in Boss, a political drama centred around a ruth- less Chicago mayor named Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer; Frasier), who has been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder. Viewers are taken into a cynical but not far-fetched political world in which the real business is conducted violently in the shadows while the executioners smile and glad-hand in public. Grammer plays his part with simmering menace while his sauntering blond assistant (Kathleen Robertson; Beverly Hills, 90210) uses her sex appeal to help her boss in his civic duties. With any luck, this show will make it to Hong Kong next year.
Taking the 'darkness lurks among us' idea to cartoonish extremes, meanwhile, is American Horror Story, the latest show from Glee creator Ryan Murphy, which trades on well-worn genre tropes - a haunted mansion, psychosexual kinks and creepy old ladies - to atomise the white-picket-fence American Dream. The show offers plenty to entice fans of bondage and - ahem - self-pleasure, which, if we're honest, accounts for most of the population.
For a series that caters to more vanilla tastes, we can look forward to Once Upon a Time, which features a cast of characters that includes a buxom Snow White, Robert Carlyle as a slimy Rumpelstiltskin and hardly any naughty body parts.
Of the new crop of shows, the fairy tale fantasy provides the best escapism for American audiences. It'll have to serve, at least, for another few months. Why?
Because Mad Men returns in March.
Regular Channel Hopper Yvonne Lai is on holiday. Next week: the second of two 'TV postcards' from America.