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Back in the not-so-long-ago past, summer television was the great wasteland of endless re-runs and lots of baseball. Now, though, the summer viewing season is where the cable networks present some of the better shows on the tube, and this summer promises to be no different. For USA, TNT, FX, AMC, TVLand, HBO and Showtime, the summer has become their time to shine. And for fans of the small screen, this is a reason to rejoice.
Sure, summer audiences are smaller, but so are the budgets and casts of many of the shows (though not all). What separates summer shows from the major network offerings in the fall and winter is their focus. They are aimed at specific audiences instead of trying for mass appeal. Whether it’s drama, sci-fi, horror or screwball comedy, there are plenty of offerings to keep you inside enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of your living room.
While we can't review all of the new and returning shows, there are several that stand out for originality, quality of writing and acting, and the way they have influenced better writing and acting on the major network's more mainstream offerings. It can be argued that the success of CBS's “Person of Interest,” one of the best-written shows on TV, would never have happened if the cable networks hadn't demonstrated during the past several summers how intelligent and edgy programming can find and sustain an audience.
Case in point has been the ongoing success of everyone's favorite South Beach serial killer in Showtime's “Dexter.” Asking the question "Am I a good man doing bad or a bad man doing good?", “Dexter” had the chutzpah to create a protagonist out of the least-likely leading character possible. That viewers found themselves rooting for a sociopathic murderer opened the door for more complex and morally gray characters to anchor a new breed of dramas. Without “Dexter” on Showtime, there would not have been a “Hannibal” on NBC.
Although “Dexter” followed the time-tested formula of finding unknown actors to create memorable characters, many of the summer shows give well-established actors a chance to stretch their acting legs. Showtime will debut the new “Ray Donovan” right after the Dexter premiere, featuring the talents of Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight. Schreiber isn't exactly a stranger to television, but his turn a few season ago on the aging “C.S.I.” vastly underutilized his range and quirky talent. And when it comes to quirky, there are few more out there than Jon Voight.
It's not only established film and stage actors making their mark on the small screen. “Will & Grace” star Erik McCormack and “ER”'s Noah Wyle both lead a pair of TNT shows that have found an audience. Considering that neither McCormack or Wyle are concerned about a weekly paycheck any longer, they have found the freedom to dive deep into compelling and complicated roles. McCormack as a schizophrenic college professor working with the FBI in “Deception” and Wyle as a father trying to keep his family together in a post-apocalyptic world in “Falling Skies” are both joys to watch.
Yet while most summer shows are to be found on cable networks, that's not to say the major networks are ceding the summer to the new kids on the programming block. Stephen King's intriguing “Under The Dome,” based on the sci-fi thriller about a town in Maine that discovers one day it has been sealed underneath a massive transparent dome, lands on none other than CBS. The network is putting major money (and a hefty promotional campaign) behind what just a few years ago would most likely have been a low-budget fluff show, or a slightly higher-budget miniseries.
Simply put, while there are plenty of things to do out of the house this summer—and Hollywood's film division isn't exactly sitting the summer out, either—if you do find yourself just wanting to kick back in your easy chair with the remote control, chances are you'll find something quite interesting to watch. In fact, the only downside is that AMC's “Breaking Bad” won't be back until August. Damn them.