Even After the Networks' Fall Season Begins, the Best Shows May Still Be on Cable
Network shows were the 800-pound gorilla that cable avoided often as possible. If USA Network or TNT or HBO had a series they wanted to do well, they always brought it to town when the networks were napping -- over summer, in December or January, maybe in March.
No longer. HBO next week is kicking off a bracing Sunday night lineup which includes the buzzed-about sex drama Tell Me You Love Me and a hilarious new batch of episodes from Larry David's Curb your Enthusiasm. Showtime brought back Weeds and its new buzzed-about comedy Californication just a few weeks ago and its highly-touted drama Dexter starts Sept. 30 -- just six days after the nets haul out their biggest series during the TV season's Sept. 24 start.
Even PBS nerd Ken Burns debuts his ambitious multi-part documentary The War on Sept. 23, practically daring the PBS crowd to pick Cold Case over his lavish history lesson.
Cable has lost its fear of the nets because they know they've got the goods. A generation weaned on The Sopranos and the Shield is bound to go where the good shows are -- and this season on that front, the networks are weaker than ever. I told the Associated Press as much a few weeks ago.
Here's a roundup of some of the coolest new cable shows which will likely still be in new episodes as the networks roll out their new wares. Trust me, you'll probably enjoy this stuff a lot more.
Merits: Stylishly produced and filled with telling details, this series about the '60s-era birth of the modern-day advertising industry starts as a pungent look at the last gasp of 1950s-style sexism, classism and racism, set to the rhythms of a Manhattan ad agency. But it's also the personal tale of magnetic, talented ad man Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm (below right), and the secret past he has hidden from everyone - especially his blondiful, troubled Stepford wife and his arty mistress.
Demerits: Too many characters feel more like character studies than real people. And there are too many knowing cracks about how oblivious these times were - from widespread smoking and drinking to children playing with dry cleaning bags over their heads and riding unbelted in cars. It's tough to care much about these characters and their quirky behavior - why, for example, does wide-eyed secretary Peggy Olson sleep with a guy she just met from her office, only to look down on boss Draper for his affair?
Midterm grade: B+, with a higher grade if they manage to redeem Draper.
Merits: Glenn Close is magnetic in a signature role, playing fire-breathing attorney Patty Hewes like a powerful mix of Anna Wintour and Gloria Allred, the nightmare boss who always seems five steps ahead of anyone else. But the show's secret weapon is Ted Danson (below right), whose turn as charming, unscrupulous CEO Arthur Frobisher - sued by Hewes and accused of misappropriating millions - plays off Danson's good guy reputation to create a disarming and compelling villain.
Demerits: The show's signature storytelling style - leapfrogging from the present, in which Hewes' protege is accused of killing her fiance, to a time six months ago when she started work on Frobisher's case - can be as confusing as it is intriguing. It's time for producers to start revealing how she has fallen so far so quickly.
Midterm grade: A-, depending on how soon they start explaining it all.
Californication, 10:30 p.m. Mondays, Showtime
Merits: Showcases star David Duchovny's talent for playing lovable losers. This time, he is aptly named writer Hank Moody, whose despondency over seeing his hit novel turned into a treacly pop Hollywood movie has brought a massive writer's block, reckless sexual appetite and rejection from the one woman he ever loved. Natascha McElhone is pitch-perfect as Moody's long-suffering ex-girlfriend, muse and mother to their daughter. The bawdy, sex-based comedy touches on modern nihilism, L.A. vapidity and the perils of middle age without feeling like a hopeless cliche.
Demerits: Like too many explicit premium cable offerings, the nudity isn't equal-opportunity; each episode features three or four naked women sexing up Moody, making the show occasionally feel like outtakes from Duchovny's soft porn series for Showtime, The Red Shoe Diaries.
Midterm grade: A. Let's just watch it with the female exploitation, huh, guys?
Merits: This may be the best Miami-centered show since Tubbs and Crockett made pushing up sportcoat sleeves look cool. Jeffrey Donovan is Michael Westin, a super-skilled spy cut loose from U.S. employ by a "burn notice" that has labeled him a security risk. Stuck in his Miami hometown, Westin tackles the odd job with old spy pal Sam (a hammy Bruce Campbell, below right) and hot-for-commitment spy girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), while trying to learn what got him burned. Best part for this old James Bond fan: Westin's dryly hilarious explanations for how spy stuff really works. Florida fans will love the lavish look of this show, shot entirely in the Sunshine State.
Demerits: How long can a guy this cool - in one episode, he cobbles together a GPS tracking bug MacGyver-style from a cell phone - really be stuck in Magic City?
Midterm grade: A+.
Merits: Holly Hunter is the most muscular of TV's new strain of female heroes - brash and unpredictable as a self-destructive Oklahoma City cop who gets her very own guardian angel.
Demerits: Sometimes it seems the only thing that distinguishes Hunter's Grace Hanadarko is her gender. After all, we've seen the fatalistic, oversexed, undercommittedcop who lives for the job done many times by guys (see Willis and Gibson). And every time her angel shows up chewing tobacco and cursing, it feels like another program just rammed itself into our gritty crime drama.
Midterm grade: B. Pending resolution of all the thematic schizophrenia.