Prime time television these days is a supremely competitive landscape. Every season there’s an influx of new shows, battling for survival and supremacy. And the competition is so cutthroat that some shows are cancelled before the second episode can even air ("Emily’s Reasons Why Not," so sorry, you were doomed from the get-go.)
Summer is different.
In days not too far past, summer was a flat plain of reruns, reruns, reruns. NBC even launched that "It’s New To You!" campaign a few years ago to promote their summer repeats. I always found that insulting, the underlying message of It’s Not New, But You Don’t Know Any Better, You Second-Class Citizen, So Watch This Because Otherwise You’d Have to Get Up. The occasional show popped up to break the streak—that’s how we all got so attached to "Beverly Hills 90210"—but it was only occasional. Then came, as we all recall, "Survivor."
Now, summer’s a real season.
That said, while summer’s more competitive than it used to be, it’s not quite the same as September. There are fewer shows, and generally, the standards are lower. Mostly, we’re okay with that. It’s summer. We’re all taking it a little bit easier, network execs included.
But sometimes? They take it too far.
The list below will help you sort the wheat from the chaff. And man, is there some chaff. NBC has released many (many, many) clunkers over the years, but I still firmly believe they would know better than to let mindless, trashy product like “Windfall” anywhere near their fall schedule.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Shows You Should Watch
"Deadwood". HBO, 9pm Sundays. Best show on TV right now, bar none. If you attempt to tune in midseason, will you be hopelessly lost? Yes you will. Can you ask the person you’re watching with to give you a quick rundown of each character in a scene? You can ask, but in the time it takes them to explain it, both of you will have missed important, complicated dialogue, and be left even more confused. Is the language so thick with profanity that you may well stare slack-jawed at the screen? Indeed it is. It’s a challenging show, a demanding one.
All that said? Best show on TV. Complex, rich, real characters who aren’t going to act right just to make it easier for you to like them. Beautiful detail in language, costume, set and scene. History and invention, the dark and the glorious. Give it a try. It’ll getcha.
"Project Runway". Bravo, 9pm Wednesdays starting July 12. I didn’t expect them to start up a new season again so soon, but I’m thrilled that they’re doing it. It’s an understatement to say I’m a fan. But there’s something about watching designers compete under time pressure to produce gorgeous garments—supported only by the soothing, erudite demeanor of mentor Tim Gunn—that gets me absolutely addicted. Singer competing against singer? Meh. Dress against dress? I’m there.
"Deadwood". Seriously, people, it’s that good. Watch it. If you don’t have HBO, rent the Season 1 and 2 DVDs.
Shows You Should Think About Watching
"So You Think You Can Dance". FOX, Wednesdays at 8 and Thursdays at 9. I started watching this because my mom’s a fan, and as with "Project Runway," I have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. (I can sew a little, and dance a little. Not at the same time.) It’s an Idolesque format, with competitions every week and viewer voting to eliminate contestants, but there’s more at work. Each dancer is a specialist in a particular style, from hip-hop to ballroom, and each set of partners has to dance in a particular style (chosen at random) each week. Sometimes this works out, like when the ballroom boy and the contemporary girl knock out a killer routine to a song called "Too Much Booty." Sometimes, however, you get travesties. A breaker and a jazz dancer attempting a formal, demanding style like quick-step? Oooh, trainwreck. Both the great dances and the lousy ones are utterly entertaining.
The reason this one didn't make the recommendation list is two-fold: one, if you don't like dance you're sure not going to like this, and two, it interferes with watching several other shows you might want to see. At this point it's still three hours a week -- who's got that kind of time? -- but will soon drop back to two. Still, it's a bit of a time commitment.
"Last Comic Standing". NBC, 9pm Tuesdays. I’ve been going back and forth on this show, where comedians compete against each other for audience votes and, eventually, the eponymous title. Not that I believe everything I read on the internet, but it troubled me greatly to hear that one of the most annoying auditioners (Buck Star) is a paid NBC employee, not to mention that unfunny April Macie was a shoo-in for the house given that she’s dating Season 2 contestant (and big ol’ hottie) Gary Gulman. So I was about to write the show off. Then… the first two weeks were double eliminations, and just like that, the four least funny people were gone. And I started to think, maybe this is worth sticking with. And then the previews announced that someone is getting kicked off the show for violating house rules, and given that outrageous behavior in reality “house” shows is generally encouraged to the extreme, I can’t help but wonder: what can a reality contestant do that’s so outrageous it’s bad?
"Rock Star: Supernova". CBS, 8pm Wednesdays. I can’t vouch for this personally – I missed the July 5th premiere – but I’ll definitely be checking it out. I came in midway through last season’s INXS version, and it has something “American Idol” doesn’t: singers. Not personalities, singers. It was a pleasure to watch these talented people sing every week, and INXS didn’t indulge in the LOOKITME school of judging so common on reality shows now, where elaborate putdowns stand in for honest critique. It’s too early to know whether the new band will meet the high bar set by Ah Bend, INXS.
Shows You Should Not Watch Under Any Circumstances
"Windfall". NBC, 10pm Thursdays. This is the one about a bunch of people who win the lottery. I have never watched a show that requires such constant suspension of disbelief, and I’m counting the one about the vampire slayer and the space Western. Lottery numbers displayed out of order on the TV screen so one character can realize another character played a third character’s birthday as their numbers and become suspicious? Nineteen winners who agree to voluntarily give a million dollars apiece to a twentieth person with an unproveable claim to a share of the ticket? Nonsensical show, yet requires so much work to make sense of.
"Bridezillas". Okay, I must admit I have never watched this, and I don’t even know what network it’s on (although I would have to guess FOX, because it sounds so FOX-y), but I know for sure I shouldn’t watch it and neither should you. It’s called “Bridezillas.” I’m guessing it’s perpetuating stereotypes, tacitly encouraging horrendous behavior, and indulging in cheap voyeurism that humiliates people on both sides of the TV screen. Skip it.
"The Janice Dickinson Project". Oxygen, 10pm Tuesdays. Now, I loved Janice Dickinson on “America’s Next Top Model,” another reality TV indulgence of mine, but this show is so not that show. It’s self-indulgent and arbitrary, like its star. Completely gratuitous nude photo shoots! Scenes of Janice shot through multiple layers of cheesecloth! Firing triplets! Don’t bother figuring out what channel Oxygen is on your cable box just to follow this unentertaining trainwreck.
There you have it, some wheat, some chaff. And if the summer outdoors is more tempting than the summer indoors, don’t worry about it.
The good stuff will always show up on Netflix.
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.7.06 @ 11:40a
I just watched the first episode of Rome last nite. It's fun to see all the famous people pop up: Caesar, Brutus, Marc Antony, Cicero...
I hate the kid that plays Octavian tho.
7.7.06 @ 12:05p
Oh, he gets better. I think.
Rome and Deadwood have a lot in common -- dense dialogue, complex interpersonal relationships, the historical framework to play fast and loose with -- but for my money Deadwood is a better show. Rome's a little soapy. Despite the many whores in Deadwood, Rome is much heavier on the sex.
7.7.06 @ 12:13p
I was wondering as I watched if Rome would be as confusing as Deadwood can be. Is it? As you wrote here, if you miss a line or two in DW, it's tough to catch up. It's like watching Shakespeare, not only are you straining to hear stuff, you're interpreting it in your head as you go, so you're often a few beats behind, development wise.
7.7.06 @ 1:33p
If I remember right it is definitely easier to follow. The language is not modern but it isn't as convoluted as what Milch comes up with.
Plus, so much of what Deadwood is built on is the complicated positioning BEFORE the action, much of which is hashed out in dialogue (or Swearingenian monologue) -- Rome's maneuverings are more active, more physical, I think.
Still, it does demand attention -- more than Lost, less than Deadwood, about the same as The Wire.
7.7.06 @ 3:21p
I had to watch the first episode of "Rockstar" for work on Wednesday. I'd say that it stands up to last season. Of course half the fun is learning people's personalities and whatnot, but it's definitely going on my DVR schedule. How can you go wrong with a panel of judges made up of Gilby Clarke, Jason Newsted, and Tommy Lee?
7.7.06 @ 3:24p
Um, 3 ways?
7.10.06 @ 8:39p
You didn't say anything about "Entourage." I watch it because Adrien Grenier is too pretty not to watch.
The idea is based on Mark Wahlberg's real life, he's one of the producers and I will watch anything he's involved in doing. Jeremy Piven's character, Ari, is just too funny not to watch.
Deadwood is da bomb! (Did I spell that right?) I watch it because f**k is my favourite word and my daughter would stop being my daughter if I didn't watch it. It's addictive. You've been warned.
7.11.06 @ 8:36a
Entourage is great. Every week it flies by and I find myself wishing it were an hour long.
Deadwood blows me away every week. Yeah, it can be a tough watch, but midway through this third season I am finding it more enjoyable than ever. The rhythym of the speech, the constant strategerie, the dense relationships. Worship that show.
"Such acid scrutiny from my former boon companions."
7.11.06 @ 8:59a
I've only seen a couple episodes of Entourage but they do seem entertaining -- maybe I'll try to catch up on them through the magic of TiVO. Have loved Jeremy Piven for years.
7.11.06 @ 9:35a
Entourage really found its footing in its second season. So far this third go-round has been really good as well.
7.14.06 @ 5:17a
Entourage is fantastic. The chemistry between Adrian Grenier and his fellow boys is great. Jeremy Piven is hysterically and acidically funny as super-agent Ari Gold. Especially when he starts bellowing, "Lloyd!"
I've been meaning to watch Rome for ages. Not only do I love political intrigue and potential assassination plots, but I have a thing for guys in tiny centurion uniforms.
These days, Project Runway is definitely my new crack. Not only do I love Heidi Klum's perky, broken English, but I love seeing the designs come to life. I also think Tim Gunn's dry, wry comments give the show a sweet and humorous edge. "Make it work!"
7.14.06 @ 8:27a
Project Runway is a beautiful thing. There are a couple of contestants that I hate (Jeffrey, Malan) but the designs they sent down the runway in the premiere episode on Wednesday were truly awesome. And what a great challenge. I would never have thought of coffee filters, the leather from a futon, or half the other stuff they did.
I am also getting way too emotionally attached to the kids on So You Think You Can Dance. And although they dropped back to two hours of that show this week, next week they're back up to three. Producers, stop it! I have a very tight TiVO schedule to manage as it is!
michelle von euw
7.19.06 @ 12:45a
I'm already hooked on the Runway, so I gave Rock Star a try tonight, and it, well, rocked. Definitely more my speed than American Idol -- yeah, Tommy Lee's a bit of a sexist idiot, but the singing and the rocking kicks ass. And you gotta love the song choices -- the 'Stones, STP, Nirvana, the Beatles -- nice call, Jael!