Saturday, August 29, 2009

Summer TV Report Card

Thanks to cable, summer is no longer the desolate television wasteland, comprised of repeats, intelligence and dignity sapping reality shows and dumped pilots. (Network television, however, still continues this time honored taking out of the trash).

So how did summer viewing stack up, quality-wise? Let's take a look. Here are my grades for various summer season shows (some of which are still in progress):

Burn Notice: A-
Very solid season, filled with everything we like (how-to voiceovers, CGI-free action, colorful cover identities, lots of Sam Axe) and only a little of what we don't (meandering master plot and too many scenarios where the bad guys tidily take each other out). The only serious misstep was with the character (and casting) of Detective Paxson.

Royal Pains: C-
This freshman show seems to have caught on in the ratings and performed well even after losing the superior Burn Notice as a lead in. I stuck with it through to the finale, but I'm not sure that I'll keep it on the season pass list when it returns next summer. Other than Campbell Scott's mysterious Boris, all the characters are black holes of charisma or downright annoying (I'm looking at you, Evan). The nifty "solutions" to medical problems lack the brilliance of House and aren't as fun as similar improvisations on Burn Notice. And I don't give a damn about any of the relationships here.

In Plain Sight: B-
Credit where credit is due for successfully centering a show on a prickly, borderline unlikable character. Mary McCormack's Marshal Mary Shannon is competent and caustic, and her interplay with the show's best character, Fred Weller's bone-dry Marshal Marshall Mann, is the reason to keep coming back. The show also made some effort to adjust the supporting cast, making Stan more passionate and less buffoonish, and pushing Mary's aggravating family to the background. The creator and showrunner has left the series, so we'll see how things shake out next year.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
: B+

This warhorse keeps chugging along, offering "ripped from the headlines" crimes to be solved by two of TV's quirkiest and most watchable performers, Vincent D'Onfrio and Jeff Goldblum. The supporting cast is also sublime. I really like the work done by Eric Bogosian, Kathryn Erbe and Julianne Nicholson.

Saving Grace: D
On the surface, I should love this show. It features characters from "flyover country" that are taken seriously, blends procedural crime-solving with a dollop of the supernatural and has talented actors giving real and naturalistic performances across the board. There's no question that Holly Hunter's bravura scenery chewing is a thing to behold. Yet every single episode I watch feels like there are three or four scenes cut out that would help it hang together more coherently. And the overall arc shambles aimlessly along, confusing "divine mystery" with "exasperatingly nonsensical." A nice effort, but definitely far less than the sum of its parts.

The Closer: B
I've long stopped pulling my hair out over Kyra's dinner theatre Georgia accent (now that Saving Grace is shutting down, perhaps Holly Hunter can give her some dialect coaching?) and just enjoyed this show for what it is. It features a great supporting cast (any reason for more JK Simmons on my TV is a reason to cheer) and a bluesy score (the opening scenes / credits roll out sequences are among the best on TV). Though the "revelation in Brenda's personal life triggers an 'a-ha moment' about the case" device can be a little trite, the show just works.

Leverage: B
More fun than it ought to be, this lightweight summer diversion is eminently watchable, thanks mainly to the performances. Timothy Hutton grounds the team with his actorly chops, and the rest of the Leverage group orbits around him giving us everything from geektastic riffing (Aldis Hodge's Hardison) to inexplicably adorable face-scrunching (Beth Riesgraf's Parker). The con mechanics don't always hold up under close scrutiny, but this show is as refreshing as a lemonade on a summer day.

Weeds: D
I gave up on this show for a while, but came back this season to see what's going on and can't believe I made it through the entire thing (one more episode, the season finale, airs Monday). Mary Louise Parker is sexy as hell and gives her all to a role that just doesn't do anything for me. Nancy Botwin isn't particularly likable, competent, moral, funny or engaging. (In Plain Sight's central character is similar prickly, but is at least good at what she does). The side plots, whether they feature the kids, Doug and Dean or Celia, feel beamed in from another show and I can't believe anyone gives a shit about Esteban or his career. Really, the only redeeming features this season have been Justin Kirk's nimble gift for comedy and pathos, and Alanis Morrisette's surprisingly winning guest shot. A mess.

Nurse Jackie: B+
A meandering examination of an addicted ER Nurse and her personal and professional travails, this show won me over on the strength of the acting, particularly a ferocious and vanity-free performance from the incomparable Edie Falco and Merritt Wever's lovable, loopy Zoey. With the exception of Anna Deavere Smith's slapsticky administrator (I fault the character and writing more than the actress, who ably tries to work with the tone deaf material she's given) the whole ensemble turns in great work.

Entourage: D+
Another show, like Weeds, than appears on my TiVo more out of habit than any sort of passion. It was never blessed with sharp writing or performances (save early, pre-sushi Piven) in the first place, and it's only gotten shaggier in its later years. This year, the show's least compelling character, Eric, winds up with most of "dramatic" heavy lifting, and he's simply not up to the challenge (and what's with the annoying stick figure neighbor? Ye gods). It takes a special kind of ineptness to waste Gary Cole.

Hung: B
This one seems to be really hit or miss for a lot of folks. Not quite funny enough to be laugh out loud hysterical, yet not as sharply dramatic as something like Nurse Jackie can be, Hung is content to drift along on the charms of its cast and wacky premise. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you enjoy Thomas Jane and Jane Adams. Personally, I think Jane is an underrated actor who filters some of his character's jockish obliviousness with a hangdog earnestness, and I've long had a crush on the delightful quirky and compelling Adams.

True Blood: A-
While this isn't a deep, thought-provoking meditation on the human condition (such as other HBO efforts like The Sopranos or Deadwood), there's hardly anything on TV now that offers this much outlandish, over the top fun. Though I could do without some of the characters (like Eggs), Michelle Forbes has been a gleefully demented big bad and the relationship between the shy, sweet Hoyt and the vampire virgin Jessica is funny, compelling and fascinating to watch. Almost all the eccentrics in Bon Tomps have something to do this season (welcome back, sassy Lafayette!), and the show has found a nice tone that effectively straddles gut-busting camp and operatic melodrama.

Virtuality: A-
Though this was a failed pilot aired as a burn-off TV movie, it's really a shame Virtuality didn't get more of a shot. It was well cast, well written and had an abundance of ideas to explore.

Being Human: B
What a delightful little surprise this BBCA import has been. It's the story of three flatmates (as they say across the pond) - a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. Though I frequently watch with the closed-captioning on in order to catch some of the mumbled English slang, and some of the foundational "rules" about how these supernatural creatures operate aren't exactly clear, I admire the winning performances of the three lead actors and appreciate the fact that the plot isn't afraid to go to some very dark places.

Rescue Me: B+
This has been a very successful comeback for a show that seemed to be running out of gas during its last go round. Most all of the central characters have gotten a plotline to wrap their arms around, and you can never go wrong when you give the crew of the 62 Truck more scenes to hang around and shoot the shit about women, pop culture, politics or life in general. Sometimes, the focus on Tommy's magical love life can be wearying, but it helps when you have an actress as good as Callie Thorne to play balls-out crazy, or one as talented and sexy as Maura Tierney to play a mysterious new interloper. Few shows can vacillate between pathos and comedy as well as Rescue Me, and one of the things I've admired this season has been a concerted effort to feature longer, unbroken set pieces that mine the depths of both.

Eureka: B-
Though I'm a little pissed that Friday's episode was a glorified clip show masquerading as a new episode, Eureka does what it always does: provide an amiable, well-acted and engaging summer diversion that coasts effectively on its high concept trappings and likable cast. Jamie Ray Newman has added some life, too, as a flame-haired, lispy romantic foil for the comically gifted Colin Ferguson.

Warehouse 13: A-
This freshman series, a delightful melange of The X-Files and TNT's Librarian series, with a dash of Bones thrown in, charmed from the start, though it isn't without a few growing pains. It is winningly cast, with leads Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly as "Secret Service" agents tasked with procuring magical and sci-fi "artifacts" for the mysterious Warehouse, which is overseen by reliable veteran actor Saul Rubinek. Recently, Allison Scagliotti joined the cast as a young hacker genius to add some depth (and winsome attitude) to the team. McClintock and Kelly have chemistry to burn, and the whole concept is fun and breezy, and a great way to spend an hour. The artifacts themselves have been inconsistent in nature, ranging from historically clever to poorly conceived, and some of the episode wrap ups have been a wee bit trite. It's all but impossible for new shows to find their tone and footing right out of the box, but with the addition of more backstory and a recurring nemesis (Roger Rees), Warehouse 13 is quickly getting into an addictive groove.

Psych and Monk: (Incomplete)
We're too early into their summer runs to offer a complete evaluation for these returing USA favorites, but I will say that Monk seems to have stepped up a bit in its swan song from a lackluster prior season. The ratings show that Psych suffers some viewer drop off from its lead in, and I can't understand why, as this show continues to make me giggle with its endless pop culture riffs and the easy chemistry between leads James Roday and Dule Hill.

All in all, if, like me, you find reality drivel one of the horsemen of the apocalypse and needed some scripted viewing this summer it really was a pretty good time to be plopped on the couch in front of the tube.


  1. I didn't get to watch as much TV this summer, but the ones listed here that I did watch (The Closer, Virtuality, True Blood, and Warehouse 13, Psych), I agree with your assessments. True Blood, Closer, and Psych are appointment television for my wife as well as me, and I love Warehouse 13 more every week.

    Looks like I gave up on Being Human too early...I'll have to try and catch a marathon.

    Does Mad Men count as summer TV? ECSTATIC to have that show back, as well!

  2. Well then, you have excellent taste in television! :)

    I was torn over whether or not to include Mad Men, and give it an "INC." So much of what happens on that show unfolds over the entire season (as opposed to other "late summer starters" like W13, Psych and Monk, which tend to be more episodic). But Mad Men has started much more briskly than in previous seasons, no? And it is AWESOME. I can't wait until tomorrow. True Blood/Mad Men is the best 1-2 punch I can remember in quite a while. (On a quasi-related note, I just did a "grid" of fall TV, trying organize my TiVos, and Thursdays are BRUTAL. All on Thursday: Bones, Flash Forward, CSI, Fringe, Supernatural, The Office, 30 Rock, Community, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Mentalist. Yoiks.

    As for Being Human, there are only 6 eps in the total UK season, and each one got better, more surprising and built on what came before. (haven't watched tonight's finale, yet). Each one also had more laughs (and more dark turns) than the one previous. Good stuff.