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Summer TV: Because The Indoors Has Air Conditioning

For those of us not lucky enough to pony up for the swanky digital likes of BBC America -- thanks, Snell, rub it in! -- there's thankfully still plenty of good stuff to watch on TV this summer. Stuff that doesn't involve fat people exercising for our collective amusement, even!

USA's Burn Notice is near-ideal summer viewing. It won't even come close to taxing your brain, but it's smart and witty enough to let you turn your brain off for an hour every Thursday night without feeling guilty about it.

Star Jeffrey Donovan has a sort of cold-blooded, reptilian charisma that he uses to good effect, whether he's playing a womanizing tycoon in a certain Will Smith movie I'm mildly ashamed to have seen, or a brain-damaged police detective with a bullet in his skull in his previous stab at USA Network stardom, Touching Evil.

Here, his distant, vaguely robotic demeanor serves him particularly well as Michael Westin, a wrongly ousted spy whose good heart is buried under multiple layers of kevlar, combat, and general paranoia. Westin's calculated, tactical, improvisation-heavy approach to tackling dangerous situations is a neat touch, pleasantly reminiscent of the glory days of MacGyver. Throw in a smoldering Gabrielle Anwar as his formidable ex-IRA girlfriend, and the perpetually-worth-watching Bruce Campbell as his genially sleazy pal, and you've got a sunny, laid-back mojito of a series. It goes down easy, and it won't take too many brain cells with it.

Crave something more cerebral? Get caught up with Damages, FX's outstandingly creepy new murder mystery/legal series. Rose Byrne is a naive young lawyer who finds herself working for superattorney Glenn Close, in the midst of a thorny case involving scandal-plagued CEO Ted Danson and the billions he swindled from his employees. Meanwhile, flash-forwards to six months in the future find a bloodied Byrne in police custody, dead-eyed and haggard, and the prime suspect in a brutal murder.

Close is unsurprisingly marvelous as the Machiavellian attorney, running her firm with a ruthlessness that any respectable mafia don would envy. She plays things close to the vest, leaving the viewer perpetually guessing what's going on behind her eyes -- and, perhaps, wondering whether her jaw is going to unhinge so she can devour some hapless victim whole. If she's an unrepentant monster, why does she so clearly love her husband? And if she's not so bad on the inside, why does she go to such vicious, frightening lengths to manipulate everyone and everything around her?

Byrne more than holds her own, too, conveying all of her character's doubts and suspicions with admirably subtle facial expressions and body language. The clever writing lets ordinary objects, innocently introduced in a flashback, take on ominous new meanings when they're found at the future crime scene. The plot twists are entertaining and surprising, but Damages' real oomph comes from the fevered, claustrophobic atmosphere it creates. It's a uniquely uncomfortable show, favorably reminiscent of Hitchcock.

Need something to lighten up the tension? God bless the Brits, yet again, for bringing David Tennant back in a triumphant third season of Doctor Who, now making its stateside debut on the SciFi Channel. The Doctor's an incredible character -- funny, daring, tender, and frightening, all at once -- and Tennant plays him to the hilt. This season, he's paired with the superb Freema Agyeman, as whip-smart new companion Martha Jones, for another round of improbable adventures. Even at its worst -- let's just say "pig men," and leave it at that -- the show's still marvelously silly fun. At it's best, its thrills, chills, and great big unabashed heart (two of them, in the Doctor's case) can give even the most jaded viewer the best kind of goosebumps.

Meanwhile, SciFi's better-than-average Eureka returns for its sophomore season, displaying a surprising skill for mining the previous season's plots for intriguing new twists and sneakily intelligent drama. On the surface, it's still the amiable, accessible Northern Exposure-with-death-rays it was last year. But underneath, it's weaving some intriguing plot and character threads that all seem to be leading somewhere big.

In all, this summer's crop of scripted series seems a lot brainier and better, at least percentagewise, than the shows most networks trot out in the fall and midseason. Kinda makes me wish it could be summer all year round -- on TV, at least.


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