The annual orgy of fall season premieres seems less exciting with each passing year. Could it have anything to do with the fact that summer television keeps getting better and better? Here are the best of the season’s new and returning series so far, along with a couple of teases about the treasures to come.
Torchwood (BBC America, premieres July 20). Let’s begin with the best: Torchwood: Children of Earth is the television event of the summer. In fact, this is one of the finest television productions you will see all year. It’s a five-night, five-hour mini-series (or maxi-episode) that will thrill veteran fans of this Doctor Who spin-off all over again, but those unfortunate souls who have yet to discover the adventures of cocky omni-sexual alien fighter Captain Jack Harkness (the multi-talented John Barrowman) will likely be dazzled by it, as well. (Happily, the self-contained storyline is easily accessible to newcomers.) Harkness has faced dozens of deadly threats from other worlds during the first two seasons of this series (and on Doctor Who, too), but never one as grave as in this tale, in which the menace is directed at all of the children on Earth. (The expression, “We are coming!” will haunt you for weeks to come.) That’s all I’m going to say about it for now, except for this important footnote: Fans of this franchise who think they know all there is to know about Harkness and his teammates will learn a whole lot more about all of them right out of the gate. To put it another way, you don’t know Jack!
Nurse Jackie (Showtime). Edie Falco is delivering the performance of the year as a compassionate and indefatigable wife, mother and medical professional in this extraordinary hospital-based drama that is so well-crafted it makes a time-worn genre feel positively new. Every actor on this show is doing extraordinary work, so much so that each character comes across as someone I have never before seen in a television series. Nurse Jackie Peyton is about as flawed as they come, carrying on an affair at work with the doctor who feeds her drug addiction, but the flawless Falco makes her deeply interesting and deserving of the viewer’s sympathy and respect. I’m not quite sure why Jackie feels the need to get it on with another man, because her husband is a smart, sexy, hard-working guy. But I can roll with her, because watching this woman maneuver through the many complexities in her life, several of them self-imposed, is endlessly entertaining and never less than rewarding. (The July 13 episode with guest star Judith Ivey is about as perfect a half-hour of television as you are likely to find.) Showtime has perfected the art of the half-hour comedy/drama with Weeds, United States of Tara and now Nurse Jackie. It’s a genius format: Whereas most hour dramas have me watching the clock, every episode of these three series leaves me wanting more.
America’s Got Talent (NBC). Now that Fox has decided to run So You Think You Can Dance in the fall, America’s Got Talent is the only summer broadcast hit that has not been moved into the September-May season by its network. (CBS’ Survivor, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Fox’ American Idol all began life as summer shows.) As tempting as it is to suggest that sorely struggling NBC relocate Talent into a potentially more profitable position I’m glad it has chosen to maintain this welcome summer tradition. Idol and Dancing are exciting pop-culture phenomena, and they are two of my favorite shows, but I can’t recall ever being genuinely moved by anything I have seen on either one of them. By contrast, I can’t get through an hour of Talent, especially during its audition weeks, without a lump rising in my throat. I was floored by the talents of 13-year-old dancer Arcadian Broad, 14-year-old singer Thia Megia and supernaturally skilled illusionist Drew Thomas, but I am all about chicken catcher and aspiring country singer Kevin Skinner. He may prove to be our Susan Boyle.
Web Soup (G4). Major entertainment magazines are only now catching on to the appeal of E!’s The Soup and its talented host, Joel McHale – two years after this column called much attention to both! So pay attention when I tell you that G4 (a sister network to E!) has a brand new winner in Web Soup, a weekly summation of what its instantly ingratiating host Chris Hardwick calls “the Internet’s freshest droppings.” What better way to sort through the thousands of viral videos uploaded online every week than by letting a television show do it for you? Even better, Hardwick and his team divide them into such categories as “Things You Can’t Unsee” and “The Greatest Web Video Ever (This Week)” for easy comic consumption.
Attack of the Show (G4). Now this is awesome: Attack of the Show is already a daily must-see experience for any self-respecting digital or Web culture aficionado (or nerd), but later this month it is going to meld with the annual fan-boy (and –girl) gathering that is Comic-Con for an unprecedented live two-hour telecast of one of the Con’s many SRO panels, The Star Wars Spectacular. AOTS hosts Kevin Pereira and Olivia Munn will moderate. That’s happening on July 25th (at 2 p.m. ET). It’s a big month for AOTS, which marks its 1000th telecast later this week (July 9) with a live two-hour special.
Burn Notice (USA Network). Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and Bruce Campbell appear to be having more fun than anyone else on television during the third season of USA’s high-octane action-adventure about a mysteriously ousted government agent fending off dangerous old enemies and potentially deadlier former employers with a little help from his friends. No guilt about it: Watching Anwar’s supremely self-confident Fiona Glenanne blow up or gun down the bad guys is one of the summer’s great pleasures.
True Blood (HBO). Alan Ball’s sexy, gory, sexy, violent, sexy, dark, sexy, scary, sexy, funny, sexy and disturbing expansion of Charlaine Harris’ novels about the erotic relationship between psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and centuries-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) has improved markedly in its sophomore season with the addition of the scintillating Michelle Forbes as the enigmatic Maryann Forrester, a supernatural temptress who befriends the locals in the tiny Louisiana town of Bon Temps and brings out the nasty in all of them. She’s also a monster or demon of some kind that butchers people on the side, but she’s much more fun to watch when she’s working her mojo.
Rescue Me (FX). The musical sequences with Steven Pasquale, while well produced, are starting to wear thin, but in every other way the fifth season of FX’s hot-blooded drama about New York City’s bravest and the women who love them has surprisingly emerged as the series’ best to date. Tormented by refreshed memories of 9/11 and haunted by the ghosts of the many males he has lost over the years (his sweet young son, his argumentative brother, his unloving father and his beloved cousin), alcoholic firefighter Tommy Gavin is hitting the bottle in a big, bad way. (In a recent sequence more horrifying than anything ever seen in True Blood, Gavin’s alcohol-induced psychosis prompted him to light a blow torch and burn a hole in his inner thigh.) Denis Leary’s unflinching portrayal of a man being destroyed by his demons is simply stunning. Callie Thorne, as oversexed and emotionally damaged 9/11 widow Sheila Keefe, is doing her best work ever, and Pasquale deserves special recognition as dimwitted Sean Garrity, forced to contend with his ferociously flawed mother and brother (and take a lot of good-natured shit from his buddies) while fighting kidney cancer (and dreaming that he is a talented song and dance man).
Also hot this summer: TNT’s The Closer, even though it has been bogged down by an ill-advised subplot about Deputy Police Chief Johnson’s dying cat; Showtime’s Weeds, more happily harrowing than ever now that Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) is carrying a murderous mobster’s child; Syfy’s Warehouse 13, an easy to take science-fiction adventure that invites good-natured comparisons to The X-Files; and BBC America’s upcoming Being Human, about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost who live together and cover for each other when their darker halves get the best of them. It’s kind of like Melrose Place, but with more realism.