The six TV shows you should catch up on this summer
As you make your summer reading list — complete with those thicker, more challenging books you’ve been putting off, plus a couple of hard-boiled-mystery or chick-litty beach reads — don’t forget to consider the dramas washing ashore on your TV. There’s an evolution under way in how hour-long shows’ plots unfold (watching the ”story arc” reruns of, say, ”NYPD Blue,” usually aired out of order, now seems antiquated to the point of absurdity), and summer programming makes this sun-glaringly clear. You can relax with old classics, discover new passions (I think you’re already catching on to this: Reruns of one of the shows recommended below, ”Without a Trace,” are outdrawing ”ER” replays), and get hooked on a guilty pleasure or two.
This season’s scripted programming, to be sure, is dominated by reruns, with the notable exception of ”The Wire” (HBO, Sundays at 9:30 p.m.). If you’re looking for complex narratives with nuanced characterizations, you — to quote Otis Redding — got to, got to, got to get into this show, which I’m not going to sugarcoat: great characters, great acting, but damn hard to follow. Think of it as ”Ulysses in Baltimore.” For those in search of something a little less knotty, here’s a sample of the broadcast networks’ second-run, first-rate fare.
(Reruns on TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.)
When this rookie series began last fall Sundays on NBC, it got a lot of hype for its style of storytelling — recounting a plot from several points of view, including those of Gary Basaraba’s jovially tough cop and Neal McDonough’s steely-eyed deputy DA, David McNorris. The show got modest ratings: You could sense viewers thought ”Boomtown” was going to be one of those ostentatiously schmancy shows, confusing for its own stylistic sake, and who wants a headache on Sunday night? I felt the same way: The plots seemed excessively simple in order to service the storytelling gimmick.
But as the season progressed, ”Boomtown” de-emphasized the multi-POV format and concentrated on its most interesting characters. By the time McNorris started drinking too much and got involved in a hit-and-run car accident (he ended the season headed to the Betty Ford clinic), I was hooked. You’ll be too, if you start watching now and follow ”Boomtown” into its second, presumably migraine-free season in the fall, when it moves to Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
(ABC, Sundays, 9 p.m.)
Come on, America: Start zooming in on network TV’s most pleasurably intricate, witty hour. Here’s my theory about why Jennifer Garner can get her spandexed curves plastered all over every publication from EW to Femme Fatales (go to a bigger newsstand, bub) and still not win its time slot: ”Alias” suffers from ”Buffy” Syndrome — people think any series with a sexy gal at its center is exploitative or adolescent. But bless creator J.J. Abrams’ hummingbird-fast beating heart; his pulp-espionage plots are bracingly byzantine. And listen here, grown-ups: By adding Lena Olin to the cast as Garner’s mom, Abrams supplied the kind of maturity that gives sex symbols a good name. He also streamlined the show to emphasize action, emotion, family dynamics, and puzzles you can solve. It’s like finishing a crossword while sitting in an Adirondack chair, sipping a gin and tonic.
THE AMAZING RACE 4
(CBS, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
Okay, technically, ”Race” isn’t in reruns, but like the rest of these shows, the fourth installment of real-life pairs hustling across the globe has yet to earn the significant following it deserves. Am I actually listing a reality show among complex and nuanced scripted programming? You bet. So far, I’ve been totally caught up in the way calm Chuck deals with his asthmatic, crabby, supercompetitive girlfriend of 12 years, Millie, and as if coping with strangers’ foreign languages to get directions weren’t enough stress for them, the show constantly reminds us they’re STILL VIRGINS (by the genre’s standards, this is the ca-ray-ziest thing a person can be). After the self-described fat, middle-aged air-traffic controllers were eliminated, I rooted for Tian and Jaree (so dumb and hateful to each other, they provided endless amusement). Now that they’ve been left in the dust (or East Indian bull dung), I’m hoping for some suitably grueling loss for Reichen and Chip (the unambiguously gay duo anxious to prove their hyper-athleticism by springing shirtless, like dolphins with pecs, from a pool in the opening credits), who whine and verbally whop the other couples. My allegiance goes to the circus clowns Jon and Al, who’ve never met a plane ticket they can’t balance on their noses. Nay vote: David and Jeff, bland dumbos who thought their Indian cab driver’s name was ”Money.” Innocents abroad — Mark Twain would be proud.
American Dreams actors’ names?
‘AMERICAN’ HISTORY Though at its center ”Dreams” is about a teenager (Snow, with guest Usher) on ”American Bandstand,” it also explores racial conflict in the ’60s
(NBC, Sundays, 8 p.m., restarts Aug. 3)
This saga of a ’60s family started out gimmicky: Pillowy-soft star Brittany Snow finds happiness as an ”American Bandstand” dancer and squeals as guest stars like Usher and Michelle Branch impersonate Marvin Gaye and Lesley Gore. But it ended up bracingly honest, with race as a flashpoint. ”Dreams” succeeded as it gradually moved away from the immediate family and increased the roles of the supporting cast, such as Henry (the shrewdly guarded Jonathan Adams), a black man who works at the appliance shop owned by Snow’s father (Tom Verica). The writers dramatized the dilemmas faced by a middle-aged African American caught between the polarizing civil rights philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. ”Dreams” also turned Gail O’Grady from an ”NYPD Blue” bimbo into a believable mom, and featured the year’s heppest boyfriend, bespectacled Luke (Jamie Elman), who sneered at the British Invasion and turned Snow’s Meg on to acoustic Bob Dylan. He was myopic in more ways than one (he’ll learn next season, one hopes, how much Dylan dug the Beatles), but he helped make this underviewed series a keeper.
Next up are the TV equivalents of ”beach reads,” which I’d define as dramas that set up and (for the most part) resolve their conflicts in 60 tidy minutes — self-contained tales that satisfy like the short chapters in a lightweight best-seller, or a good short story. Among this off-season’s standouts:
WITHOUT A TRACE
(CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
Jerry Bruckheimer, who produces ”Amazing Race,” ”Trace,” and its lead-in, ”CSI,” makes brainier TV than he does feature films (his upcoming ”Cold Case,” leading out of ”60 Minutes” on CBS this fall, will, I predict, continue his streak). ”Trace”’s lead, Anthony LaPaglia, is a terrific actor who deftly holds himself back to convey jaded experience as Agent Jack Malone, and the show’s signature opening scene — the moment when the victim just fades from the screen, in a ghostlike mirage shot — perfectly matches his eerie, alluring calm. As for CBS’ other crime-scene success ”CSI: Miami” — sorry, it may be a ratings success, but the climate change from dry, hot Las Vegas to humid, hot Miami aside, it simply hasn’t managed to distinguish itself in tone the way…well, the way the next shows do…
THE LAW & ORDER FRANCHISE
Whether it’s ”SVU” (Fridays, 10 p.m.), ”CI” (Sundays, 9 p.m.), or the Sam Waterston-starring Crispy Original (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.), exec producer Dick Wolf says NBC’s ”L&O” is all about the story. But, some 400 episodes later, it’s also about the comforts of structure (discovery, investigation, and prosecution of crime: bang, bing, boom), the bit parts (hey, finally a good use for Sandra Bernhard’s sour pucker as a guest-starring defense lawyer on ”SVU”). And sorry, Dick — about the stars: Waterston’s voice and throat wattle have grown more angry-quivery year by year, and I can’t wait until ”CI”’s Kathryn Erbe finally has it up to here with Vincent D’Onofrio’s hambone camera hogging. Be sure to watch the actress in reruns as she gets steadily more fed up with her minimal dialogue, ’cause I think she’s gonna blow a gasket come fall — and then the Big Guy’s goin’ DOWN!