For me, television during the summer is akin to a vast desert, littered with reruns, brain-dead reality shows, and sporting events that I couldn't care less about. But fortunately, since early June, there have been a handful of oases of worthwhile televised product to be found among the seemingly endless sea of dreck.
These are the shows that I'm making it a point to watch until the Fall season begins:
True Blood, Season 3 (HBO)
The True Blood cast vamping it up
I've been following this series since its first episode and it's been fun to watch it grow and evolve and explore new directions and ideas with each season. I have to admit, I was wary of True Blood at first-I'm something of a vampire purist and I really dislike it when the Undead are portrayed primarily as youthful, gorgeous, courtly fops and cover girls who, aside from having fangs and some cool super-powers, seem every bit as human as they were when they were alive. There's a little bit of that in True Blood, but it doesn't apply to every vampire and it works in the context of the show and from a character standpoint. There's nice variety in the way each vampire is portrayed in True Blood, real individuality, and that's part of the reason why I got hooked on it. The cast is uniformly great, the writing is crisp, witty (sometimes it's downright hilarious), often disturbing, and always intriguing. There's plenty of sex and gore to keep jaded viewers like me satisfied, and I'm always eager to see what will happen next. The first season was good, the second season was better, and this third season is shaping up to be the best one yet.
Hung, Season 2 (HBO)
Thomas Jane and Jane Adams
As far as HBO comedies go, this will never be on the same level as The Larry Sanders Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not even close. For one thing, Hung is supposed to be a comedy, but it's not particularly funny. In fact, I don't think I've so much as chuckled from it since midway through the first season. There were actually episodes of Oz that were funnier than this show. In that respect, it's a wonder that I'm still watching it. But I can't deny that the cast is good, particularly Thomas Jane, Jane Adams, and—I can't believe I'm writing this—Anne Heche. And most of the characters are likable (or at least interesting) enough that I want to see where the mildly compelling stories will take them. But you'd think there would be a lot more laughs to be gotten from the premise of a hunky, financially strapped Detroit high school gym teacher with an extraordinarily huge schwinger, who moonlights as a male prostitute for a geeky, insecure female pimp who aspires to be a successful poet.
Rubicon, Season 1 (AMC)
Arliss Howard (left) with James Badge Dale
This is kind of like a more mature, more analytical version of 24, but without any of the high-octane action or nail-biting suspense. It's certainly taking its time in terms of laying out its story. As of this writing, the show has aired five episodes and I'm still not sure what the stakes are or what the overall plot is. There's no clear villain as of yet, and other than lead character Will Travers, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government (played by James Badge Dale, who actually co-starred in the third season of 24 but is much better here), it's hard to figure out exactly who are the good guys and bad guys—although that may be precisely the point. But I don't know. I do have some problems with the plotting—there's a subplot involving a wealthy widow played by Miranda Richardson that, so far, has been mostly off on its own, with little connection to the main plot. Every time the focus shifts to her and her storyline, my attention starts to wander. The writers really need to integrate her and her story in with the rest of the show, and quickly, because right now, her scenes have the same effect as a Keith Richards solo set at a Rolling Stones concert: they signal that you can now go for your bathroom break. The show does, however, succeed in creating a sense of unease and impending danger. And Will's immediate supervisor, Kale Ingram (played by Arliss Howard), is nearly as mysterious, creepy, and intriguing as Michael Emerson's character Benjamin Linus was on Lost. Of particular note is Ingram's boss, Truxton Spangler (played by Michael Cristofer), who is one of the most eccentric, awkward, socially inept, and downright odd characters I've seen on TV in a while, yet he's also thoroughly believable as a human being. A bravura portrayal by Cristofer. I guess I'm sticking with this show till the end of the season, but so far, it hasn't impressed me enough to make me say that I'd want to see anything beyond that.
Louie, Season 1 (FX)
Without a doubt, this is one of the darkest comedies ever produced for television. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn't have as bleak an outlook on life as this show. It's gritty, realistic, and uncomfortable—too much so at times—but it still manages to be funny. Written and directed by standup comedian Louis C.K. (who recently appeared on several episodes of Parks and Recreation as Amy Poehler's cop boyfriend), this show will make you feel that your life is pretty much over once you've reached your 40s, and that by and large, people are absolute shit. But if you can get past that, you'll find some pretty brilliant humor. The storytelling is unique—and defies expectations—in that not every episode tells one story that encompasses the entire half hour. In most cases, each episode is comprised of several self-contained stories separated by commercial breaks—which is a very good way to avoid stretching out a premise that works best as a sketch.
Aftermath With William Shatner, Season 1 (Biography)
The new Odd Couple: Goetz and Shatner
Talk about a surreal viewing experience. A series of straight, serious interviews with notable and/or notorious newsmakers of the past: New York City subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz; Mary Kay LeTourneau, the pretty schoolteacher who had an affair with one of her 14-year-old students and bore two of his children—and then married him once she completed her 7-year prison sentence; former U.S. Army soldier Jessica Lynch, who was captured by Iraqi soldiers in 2003, eventually rescued by American troops, and then used as a propaganda tool by the Bush administration; and convicted killer Lee Malvo, who was one of the so-called "D.C. Snipers." All of them being interviewed by... WILLIAM SHATNER. Huh?!? Captain James T.J. Hooker Crane?!? You really have to see this to believe it. I still can't decide which is weirder: Bernhard Goetz, or Bernhard Goetz being interviewed by WILLIAM SHATNER. There's one particularly strange moment in the LeTourneau episode—and not strange in a good way: The Shat actually tells LeTourneau, now 48, and her husband, Vili Fualaau, now 27, "Your story is a beautiful story... I love your story." Really, Bill? You love a case of statutory rape? You know, there's a famous film director who would probably jump at the chance to hang out with you. I hear he spends a lot of time in France and Switzerland. (I'd like to think Shatner was really just trying to butter up Mary Kay and Vili, in order to make them feel comfortable so that they would speak candidly. But still, it was a stupid thing to say.)I won't say these shows will one day be remembered as among the very best that television has ever offered, but, hey, when you're wandering through a desert, you have to accept any oasis you stumble upon.