Summer used to be the most dire season in television, between the re-runs of television’s most insipid offerings and the series of increasingly depressing and dire reality shows. Both are very much in force on the schedule this summer, from Are You Fitter Than A Senior? on Discovery to the endlessly circling NCIS re-runs on CBS. Fortunately, there are some alternatives on US television we can turn to on lazy summer nights when the bugs are out in force and you want to digest your barbecued goodness in peace.
HBO’s True Blood starts up again on 26 June with its fourth season. The third season was a bit of a sloppy mess, but I’m still sticking it out because I have a soft spot for Alan Ball, and the Sookie Stackhouse novels are delicious fun. If the television series continues roughly following the books this season, viewers have some excitement ahead of them, including a whole lot of naked Eric Northman. What’s not to love about convenient memory loss plots, witches, and finding out more about fairies than you ever wanted to know?
While some of the narratives in True Blood are poorly handled, sometimes frustratingly so in the case of racial issues, and some viewers are clearly turned off by the pornographic violence, this is a series that is very true to form for Alan Ball and HBO, in many ways. It’s sexy, it’s complicated, it’s fun, and it’s not afraid to get viewers a little dirty. And it illustrates a marked difference between cable and network television in the United States, not just in the ‘you can’t show that on TV!’ way, but in the sense that True Blood dares to get complex, and for all the violence, it’s beautifully staged, lit, and costumed, a common trait on Ball’s shows.
For even juicier narratives, and a terminal cancer patient turning to a life of crime to provide for his family, viewers can tune in to Breaking Bad starting on 17 July. This show has won six Emmys for a reason; it’s gone where networks fear to tread and it’s brought viewers along with it. While it has a naturally smaller viewership than many network shows, it has a tight cadre of loyal fans who, yes, are willing to give up summer nights to see what will happen to Walter White next. Breaking Bad is a particularly striking narrative now, as people in the US struggle with rising healthcare costs, financial uncertainty, and, yes, a growing methamphetamine problem.
AMC promises an explosive fourth season of their hit series, and many viewers are looking ahead to 17 July with giddy anticipation. Among them are people with disabilities interested in the handling of disability on the series. Breaking Bad has managed to do what many network shows do not; not just hiring a disabled actor to play a disabled character, but being responsible about its depiction of disability and what kinds of messages it projects about people with cerebral palsy. RJ Mitte plays a character who simply happens to disabled, much like Mitte himself in real life.
Unlike True Blood, Breaking Bad poses very real questions about entirely plausible real life situations. The struggles of the characters feel much more immediate, since it’s highly likely that people in the US are living with worry about what will happen to their families after death right now, and rather unlikely that anyone’s having an emotional crisis over the sudden revelation of fairies of the winged variety in the family tree. The drama may feel over the top at times, but the underlying experiences are real.
One thing we won’t be able to look forward to this summer is the return of Mad Men to AMC, thanks to a contract dispute. AMC promises a new season in 2012 but some viewers don’t appreciate having to wait two years for more costumes, more cocktails, and more Draper drama. Weiner’s desire to assert authorial control over his work is certainly understandable, since the show is very much his baby; given what a winner Mad Men has turned out to be for AMC, it’s surprising that they were willing to attempt to go head to head with their temperamental creator. Those longing for a Joan fix will have to settle for fondling their season four DVDs and hoping AMC and Weiner can work it out.
Some other summer stock that may entice you to the remote (or the TiVo) include Weeds on Showtime, returning on Monday for a seventh season of marijuana and mayhem, White Collar on USA for fans of action, and the fourth season of TNT’s Leverage, joining True Blood on Sunday night for fans of vigilante justice and a victory for the little guy. PBS is also bringing us another season of Masterpiece!, and promises a Poirot extravaganza beginning 26 June, for those of us who love a bad French accent and an excuse to throw a mystery dinner party. After a lackluster network season, hopefully cable can heat things up this summer with some fresh storylines, even on long-established shows that are starting to feel a tad past their sell-by date (Weeds).
While there may not be enough on cable to lure viewers to the couch every night, a few offerings certainly stand out head and shoulders above the crowd on the networks. The future direction of good television in the United States increasingly seems to lie with cable, where the seasons are shorter, tighter, and richer; flourless chocolate torte to the day old grocery store sheet cake on the network lineup.