While it’s true that the networks are throwing every questionable reality concept against the wall this summer to see what sticks, TV lovers should not despair. Cable is roaring back with plenty of superb programming and the networks are offering the occasional quality scripted fare to keep us entertained during the hot months.
So there’s plenty of small screen delights to tide us over until the granddaddy of all event programming, the Summer Olympics, arrives Aug. 8-24 with hundreds of hours of real-life drama on NBC and its sister networks.
Before you plop down on the couch and glaze over watching the likes of "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" or "Celebrity Circus," set your Tivo for some of these gems:
This viewer’s picks:
"Fear Itself" (NBC, Thursdays at 10 p.m., starting June 5) — A repurposed version of Showtime’s "Masters of Horror," this anthology series brings the best horror scribes and directors in the biz together for hourlong episodes appropriate for broadcast audiences. (The net promises more chills on the DVD set.) I’m particularly looking forward to the episode titled "Eater," about a rookie cop ("Mad Men’s" Elisabeth Moss, right) who spends her first night in the precinct guarding a serial killer.
Brian: I liked the potential of "Masters of Horror" and the pedigree was great, but it was pretty uneven, and I’d worry that "broadcast-friendly" means that storylines get even further diluted to be mass-appeal. Plus, horror film fests like After Dark, and its extensive DVD brand, have stolen some thunder from the TV anthology format. There’s plenty of horror out there for fans who want it. How much regular auds will be drawn to it on TV is a big question mark.
"Swingtown" (CBS, Thursdays at 10 p.m., starting June 5) — The pilot for this ’70s-era romp about suburban promiscuity and open marriages was promising. I look forward to seeing where they go with it. See Season Pass panelist Cynthia Littleton’s take on episode two.
Brian: "Swingtown" felt to me like a promising attempt to bring edgier cable-style material to broadcast TV. But the execution was fairly timid, and selling a show about sexy swingers without much sex doesn’t give me much hope. I do love Molly Parker ("Deadwood" has a lot of residual goodwill in my book) and I’ll stick around to see how the show develops through episode three.
"Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation" (Animal Planet, Fridays at 9 p.m., starting June 6) — Who knew these odd little critters led such fascinating lives?
Brian: I’m in! "Manor" fans will be keen to see if Flower power still rules, or whether the too-hip promos for the new generation will dilute the charms of the first seasons. Will Stockard Channing prove a better voice for the ‘Kats’ exploits than Sean Astin?
"My Boys" (TBS, Thursdays at 9:30, starting June 12) — I can’t wait to hang out with this tomboy Chicago sports reporter and her posse of beer-swilling, poker-playing dudes for a second season.
Brian: I’m from Chicago, and these stereotypes feel a little clunky, but the girl was cute and thanks to some buzz, I may give this one a shot.
"The Closer" (TNT, Mondays at 9 p.m., staring July 14) — Kyra Sedgwick’s tour de force performance as sweet as pie on the outside, tough as nails on the inside Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson elevates this to something above your standard murder of the week procedural. I’m in for season four.
Brian: This and Holly Hunter’s show carry some heft in my book thanks to the star pedigree. But it wasn’t enough to get me to sample either so far, and isn’t likely to in the future. Still feels a little Lifetime-ish to me.
"Mad Men" (AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m., starting July 27) — This sterling period drama is back for its hotly anticipated second season. The cabler is helpfully running a marathon of season one on July 20 as a primer for new viewers or a refresher for returning viewers. The "Carousel" pitch for the Kodak slide projector from the season-one finale titled "The Wheel" may very well have been the finest scene of the last TV season, broadcast or cable. Despite the implausible twist involving Peggy in that same episode, I am enthusiastically, eagerly on board for the further adventures of these dapper 1960s ad men and the complicated women in their lives.
Brian: I’ve set my DVR for the July 20 marathon. This may be my catch-up show of the year.
Reality that doesn’t make us cringe
"So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8, bowed in May) — The dance competition enters the serious phase of the contest as only the best move on.
Brian: I can’t read that without giggling.
"Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" (Bravo, Thurdays at 9, staring June 12) — Sure she can grate on your nerves, but she’s damn funny. (Pictured left)
"Project Runway" (Bravo, July date TBD) — It doesn’t get better than this competition reality series where the sometimes overly dramatic contestants reap what they sew. Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia and Tim Gunn are worth making a weekly date with. This is the last season on Bravo before the show packs its garment bags and moves to Lifetime.
Brian: I’ve got plenty of friends who remain diehard fans, so I’m sure to see some episodes. But like "America’s Next Top Model," it seems like there’s always a new season of "Runway" just around the corner, so no single run ever real stands out.
See what else summer has to offer on the next page.
— By Kathy Lyford with Brian Cochrane
Special thanks to Rick Kissell