These are the times that try TV viewers' souls. Despite what feels like an explosion of content on cable TV, the last weeks of August are notable mostly as a long wind down to the big debuts of new programming on the networks in September. Around this time, looking for good new shows can feel like tracking a single flea in a hoarder's living room, so I'm here to help. Check out these capsule reviews of a few new (or new-ish) shows worthy of your TV time before the flood of new network series begins.
Top Gear, Season 17, debuting at 9 tonight on BBC America: Yes, this is the show that made headlines mostly in America for making insulting references to Mexicans in a broadcast last year. For those who remain unaware, it's an English show about the coolness of cars featuring three "cheeky" Brits who delight in pushing the boundaries of social convention in the commentary. Eventually, the hosts apologized last year for saying a Mexican sports car would be "lazy" and "feckless" just like the country's people. Unfortunately, there's a compelling show about car culture buried in their nonsense, which this week includes one host driving a 10-ton, 9-feet-high SUV called the Marauder (it can pull a tow truck down the street) and another host tearing up a test track with BMW's 1 series M sports car (he compared glee over one feature to the shiver you'd get if told you could set fire to CNN host Piers Morgan). I suggest firing off a letter to the BBC every time they say something culturally stupid, just to keep these guys focused on what they do best: impudently driving and analyzing the world's most interesting vehicles.
The Hour, airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on BBC America: Forget about the awful network series coming that are trying to piggyback on Mad Men-style '60s nostalgia. This is the first TV series to take what Don Draper and Co. have wrought to a new level. Centered on a new investigative series birthed on the BBC in 1956, The Hour offers a look at all the sexual politics of transitioning from the '50s to the '60s — with a woman in a powerful producer's role — along with the emergence of modern, telegenic media and class warfare set against the backdrop of a mysterious, espionage-tinged murder. Fans of HBO's The Wire will recognize star Dominic West as the show's upper-class born, handsomely superficial anchor; fans of great drama will note how Mad Men's style gets a shot of BBC-level pacing (a touch slow) and 007-level spy-jinks. It's so good, I even made up a word to describe it.
True Blood, airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO: More than a month into its run, this supernatural drama continues to titillate and surprise. It's true that you can look at some plot twists and see the writers going, "what if we threw these two characters together?" As when a witch robs baddie vampire Eric Northman of his memory, turning him into a sensitive dude capable of bedding heroine Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). And the show's taste for explicit sex has only grown, giving star Paquin plenty of chances to make up for the series initial reluctance to show her nude (this is R-rated HBO, after all). But developing a witch who can control vampires as the character viewers should cheer but don't, just allows us all to savor the irony of a series that keeps us pulling for the evildoers in a way that feels, well, titillating.