John Walker's Electronic House

Summer TV Is Surprisingly Good

by on Jul.13, 2011, under The Rest

Summer has traditionally always been the downtime for US TV, but after a disastrous year for the main season the summer schedule is turning everything around. While the major networks aren’t playing a huge part, cable is alight with great shows. Here are some of them.

Franklin & Bash – TNT

Yet another hour-long legal show isn’t too appealing, but seeing that it starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar was enough to have me want to check it out. Saved By The Bell’s Zack will be an obligatory mention until the day he dies, despite a multiple-year stint on NYPD Blue, but it was his impressively good turn in the much underrated Raising The Bar that’s made me interested to see what he does next. And this is perfect, teaming him up with Robot Chicken’s Breckin Meyer, in what turns out to be a buddy team with automatic chemistry. The pair bounce off each other so effortlessly that you wonder if they’re being given space to improvise their constantly funny dialogue.

The premise is pleasingly dumb. Two maverick lawyers working for a small, unsuccessful company, get hired by a giant firm under the leadership of a gloriously scene-chewing Malcolm McDowell. So yes, they bring their wayward ways to a firm that usually plays by the rules, etc, etc. But it’s really not about the cases, which over the first six episodes they’ve inevitably won – rather it’s about the spaces in between, the silliness, and most of all, the banter. So of course judges look sternly at them and warn that any more of their antics and they’ll find them in contempt, but for once it doesn’t matter. In fact, the writers have the good sense to often let the judges enjoy the spectacle.

Reed Diamond plays an excellent straight man as the pair’s main foil, along with an ensemble cast without any weak points. A few critics are making the stupid mistake of approaching the show as if it’s trying to be serious legal drama, confused when the cases are cartoonish or outright unrealistic. But that’s the point – this is a comedy, and an incredibly funny one. Few recent shows have had me skip back to watch a moment five or six times in a row, just to enjoy someone’s perfect (not quite literal) spit-take or superbly delivered off-the-cuff remark. The highlight of these so far came after Meyer delivered some faux-old man grumbling about loud rock and roll music, when Gosselaar mumbled in kind, almost to himself, simply, “YouTube.”

Love Bites – NBC

After yet another horrendous year for NBC, it was par for the course that their only decent scripted drama fell in the summer. Love Bites shouldn’t be any good, and perhaps it’s understandable that network would have been shy of it as a concept, but it turns out to be really decent. It’s also pretty unusual – enough to, I suppose, make it tough to market. Rather than an ongoing drama, it’s actually pretty difficult to define precisely what it is. Each episode is made up of three or four “short stories”, related to matters of love, romance, relationships, or the lack thereof, often with no connecting consistency. Some characters recur each week, others don’t. Sometimes they cross over in surprising and unimportant ways, mostly they’re scattered around various parts of the United States with almost nothing in common.

It turns out this interesting format is a result of behind-the-scenes issues, as a show intended to be the rather tedious sounding idea of two women’s romance problems after all their friends were married, became a collection of vignettes that only vaguely intersect. After a series of disasters, with most the cast now working on other projects, it’s unlikely that it will reach beyond the nine episodes that have been made. But again, that seems perfect, really. Greg Grunberg is a regular, while Jordana Spiro – who was so horribly screwed over by TBS – was meant to be in it but never got the chance. Instead it stars some strong guest appearances, including Zach Braff, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Cheryl Hines, Donald Faison, James Roday, and Beau Bridges, playing one-off characters in stories neatly told in fifteen minutes. Which means it ends up being something unique and interesting, pretty much despite NBC rather than thanks to them.

Happy Endings – ABC

Okay, Happy Endings isn’t brilliant. But it’s surprisingly good for a sitcom that’s been dumped in the hot months. Rescuing the gap left by (I think) the complete failure of Mr Sunshine, it started in April and aired 12 episodes. And thanks to the endless genius of ABC, they were in the wrong order. Yet somehow despite that it managed to do well enough to get picked up for a proper run in the Fall season. Even though they have stories based around estranged relationships with fathers, and people needing the Heimlich manoeuvre in restaurants, it also feels free to completely let go of reality and go just plain strange. And that’s where it hooks me in. One character buying a nerf gun leads, somehow, to action movie, bullet-time sniper scenes. Penny only being able to speak Italian when drunk leads to a surprisingly dark scene of accidental cruelty. And all of that’s in one episode. Also, it stars Scrubs’ Eliza Coupe, which is a fairly simply win. And the use of the phrase “sexnose” for penis.

Oh, and the fight dance at the end of episode six is a piece of choreographic mastery.

Wilfred – FX

I’ve never seen the Australian original, so watching the first episode of the US remake I really had no idea what the plot was about. It’s reasonably surprising to discover a show in which the plot revolves around a man who sees his neighbour’s dog as a man in a dog suit, who starts telling him what to do. Elijah Wood plays the man, and the original Aussie actor, Jason Gann (from the excellent Mark Loves Sharon) plays the dog. It’s like Darren Aronofsky and Goran Dukić made a sitcom.

USA’s Entire Output

The USA network is on fire this summer. And Psych hasn’t even started yet! You’ve got:

White Collar: Everyone should be watching this show! FBI agent and master criminal solving white collar crimes, while one tries to commit his own and the other tries to catch him. But it’s brilliant! Watch this!

Burn Notice: Even though Michael Westen is no longer burned, the series continues on and continues to be excellent corny fun. Shining with the bright light of Bruce Campbell, five seasons in I’m pretty much an expert in how to be a spy thanks to all that narration. And I still love it.

Royal Pains: Why a show about a doctor working in the Hamptons should be even worth filming is hard to explain. How it’s such a sweet, entertaining show I cannot explain. But it is, as a sort of medical drama meets… a comfortable green hillside. It’s daft, the previous season featured Henry Wrinkler, and almost 98% of every episode appears to be dedicated to an offensively clichéd plot about the Indian character and arranged marriages. But still, can’t miss an episode.

And then there’s Covert Affairs and Suits, both extremely watchable.


12 Comments for this entry

  • Jambe

    Royal Pains is a good show. I watched the opener of the new season of Warehouse 13; it was so deliciously corny I couldn’t look away.

  • James Campbell

    Hooray for writing about American TV again! It’s worth noting, for British people anyway, that Franklin & Bash starts on E4 at 10pm tonight.

  • mister k

    Did you enjoy Boston Legal John? I found it quite amusing for what it was, had a similar vibe to the one you describe in Franklin and Bash.

  • Xercies

    Louie is what I’m going to recommend to people definitely, its probably one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. It has surreal moments, grounded comedic moments, and heartfelt moments that sometimes do put a tear in your eye. Also it has moments where it has no jokes and your wondering where its going, it goes to some dark places in those moments.

  • John Walker

    Yes – I really should have included Louie, what with it being the best comedy in years! Next time.

  • Nick Mailer

    Most of these programs sound positively vile: a corporate mind’s pappy reconstitution of whimsy.

    Haha. He said YouTube. That was zeitgeisty five years ago and thus funny!

  • John Walker

    Yes Nick. That would be the point of his having said it in that context. You embarrass yourself once again.

  • Nick Mailer

    No, I mean it fails on the *meta* level. If he’d said Google Wave or something, *then* I would grant you.

  • devlocke

    Nick, I think that it was funny because it was so-last-year, not so-hip?

  • Thants

    Childrens Hospital is back on now too. It’s pretty fantastic.

  • Nick Mailer

    I know. But YouTube is too obvious and broad a punch. It’s like a wah wah note that falls flat. Again, Google Wave or such would have been tuned just right. YouTube is just lazy.

  • Thants

    I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like the joke there is him saying something out of context that is representative of youth culture to annoy Meyer. I don’t think Google Wave was ever exactly a massive hit with the tweens. YouTube not be super new, but it’s still quite relevant with the kids today. Maybe something like “Ke$ha” would be more current.