Summer TV channel-surfing report

Cowabunga, channel surfers! The summer is here and with it a rising tide of new and returning summer series. Time to kick back and catch a few cathode rays.

Like the season that contains it, the TV summer has traditionally been a time of relaxed ambitions, of transitory simple pleasures. If the shows the networks mount in these months lack star power and substantial budgets, they also represent a kind of vacation from the anxiousness of fall, winter and spring, with their constantly fragmenting and desperately shuffled schedules. You know where you stand in the summer. (You are over by Labor Day, or thereabouts.)

Apart from reality fun and game shows, summer 2010 seems composed largely of cops, spies and monsters, sometimes in the same series. This feels thematically appropriate, but it’s not all the television equivalent of the bottom half of a drive-in double bill. Cable TV, basic and premium, does its business year-round; no show is more prestigious at the moment than " Mad Men,” which begins its fourth season in July. “True Blood” and “Weeds” and “Rescue Me” also all return this summer.

It is a full-packed picnic basket. Here’s a not completely complete guide to the goodies, and the not-so-goodies.


Already running, but not for long, is “100 Questions,” a standard singles sitcom, whose 13-episode order was cut to six. In “Persons Unknown” — Pirandello by way of Agatha Christie by way of " Lost,” from the writer of “The Usual Suspects” — a group of strangers find themselves trapped in a house together, as if they had auditioned for “Big Brother” without knowing it. “Friday Night Lights” has episodes through July. People who want the world to see that thing they can do are currently competing in “America’s Got Talent” and will soon vie to be the next “Last Comic Standing” (Monday).


In “The Gates” (June 20), not for the first time do we see a new police chief arrive with family in a town full of dark secrets, but these secrets are strictly supernatural. In “Scoundrels” (June 20), Virginia Madsen tries to keep her brood of small-time crooks out of trouble after dad goes to jail. “Rookie Blue” (June 24) is “Grey’s Anatomy” with guns; persuasive Missy Peregrym your wide-eyed way in. “Downfall” (June 22), is a trivia game played atop a skyscraper; losers apparently go over the edge. “Bachelor Pad” (Aug. 9) repurposes losers from “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” (now in progress). Returning are “Wipeout,” (June 22), the obstacle course game, and " Shaq Vs.” (Aug. 10), in which Shaquille O’Neal attempts to beat other athletes at their own games.


Old-school/new-school odd-couple cop show “The Good Guys” gets its official premiere Monday; like “Life on Mars” without the time travel. “Lie to Me,” which can always boast that it stars Tim Roth, brings forth new episodes at a new time (Monday); and Gordon Ramsay once again opens the gates to “Hell’s Kitchen” (Monday), to his own chagrin, doubtlessly; in “Masterchef” (July 27) he teases pro chops from amateur cooks.


“Masterpiece! Mystery” has returning seasons of “Poirot” (July 11), including “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Inspector Lewis” (Aug. 29), Kevin Whately not quite erasing memories of old boss Inspector Morse, but a believable boss in his own right. Also coming: a seasonally appropriate replay of “Baseball: A Ken Burns Film,” verite virtuoso Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour “Le Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris,” (June 16) and an “American Masters” profile of Merle Haggard, “Learning to Live With Myself” (July 21).


No new series from the 800-pound gorilla of premium cable, but here come the third season of the gothic soft-core horror soap “True Blood” (June 13); Season 2 of “Hung,” what I suppose could be called the “original” big-penis TV comedy (June 27); and a seventh season of “Entourage” to mark the inexorable passing of time.


“The Big C” stars redoubtable Laura Linney as a woman who decides to live large in the face of cancer; producing methamphetamine is probably not on her bucket list. (Oliver Platt and Gabourey Sidibe make this date feel extra special.) “The Green Room With Paul Provenza” (June 10) features the host in roundtable raps with other comics, including Roseanne Barr, Eddie Izzard and Jonathan Winters; “The Real L Word” (June 20) follows “real-life, hot and happening lesbians in their daily lives at work and play in Los Angeles.” And “Weeds” is back Aug. 16, more trouble for Mary Louise Parker, I ‘spect.

ABC Family

“Pretty Little Liars” (June 8) adapts a young adult book series originally conceived as "' Desperate Housewives’ for teens.” Also book-based is the promising “Huge” (June 28), a teenage weight-loss-camp drama from Winnie Holzman ( “My So-Called Life”) and daughter Savannah Dooley. I am stupidly excited by the overdue return to TV of Melissa Joan Clarissa Sabrina Hart, costarring with Joey Lawrence in the coyly titled “Melissa & Joey” (August, TBA), which looks on paper like a kind of Gen-X “Who’s the Boss?” Plus: more of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (Monday) and teen-tumblers drama “Make It or Break It” (June 28).


The fourth-season return of “Mad Men” (July 25) is as good a candidate as any for TV Event of the Summer, but I otherwise have no special knowledge to share with you. “Rubicon” is the network’s new show this summer, a conspiracy thriller with James Badge Dale (“The Pacific”) as the ordinary guy in over his head, and the attractive presences of Miranda Richardson and Arliss Howard, who should be in everything.

BBC America

“The Choir” (July 7), a pre- “Glee” British reality series (three of them, actually, packaged as one) about music and community, with choirmaster Gareth turning raw stuff into less raw stuff, is extremely moving, I am not ashamed to tell you. And it’s Season 2 for “Being Human,” (July 24), the continuing adventures of a twentysomething werewolf, a vampire and a ghost, roommates whose lives are no easier than yours.


At Bravo, it’s all about the stress. “Double Exposure” (June 15) focuses on fashion photographers Markus Klinko and Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri. “Top Chef: Washington, D.C.” (June 16) works in appearances by Nancy Pelosi, Joe Scarborough, Leon Panetta and Buzz Aldrin. “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Wednesday), is “Project Runway” in nearly every major respect, and most of the minor ones, except that the work hangs on walls and not the skinny shoulders of hungry models. And Real Housewife “Bethenny’s Getting Married?” (Thursday), titular question mark notwithstanding.


“The Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town” (Aug. 20) reunites the Canadian comedians Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson in an eight-part “gothic comic murder mystery”; the comedy event of the summer, I’m just going to say, with no actual proof. The somewhat less awesome but not entirely dissimilar “The Whitest Kids U’Know” gets a fourth season of sketches (Friday) and there are more episodes of “The IT Crowd” (Aug. 10), featuring Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade, who are funny wherever they go.


“Louis” is the comedian Louis C.K.'s second fly at something like a sitcom; he describes it as “a unified stream of consciousness,” which actually sounds promising to me. And fellow angry comic Denis Leary returns in his fireman’s suit for Season 6 of the dysfunction at the junction that is “Rescue Me” (June 29).


“The Hard Times of RJ Berger” (June 14), a post-Apatow teenage sex comedy — roll in thy grave, Judge Hardy — brings this summer’s number of large-penis series to two. “Downtown Girls” (in progress) does “The Hills” New York style; that is, its characters are somewhat less aimless. “Warren the Ape” (June 14) is a puppet parody of celebrity-disaster reality shows; resident therapist Dr. Drew brings the human. And “Jersey Shore” extends its reach to Miami Beach (July 29), where I expect those kids will catch up on their reading.


Flavors of togetherness: “Are We There Yet?” (in progress) is an earnest family sitcom with Terry Crews as a new stepfather; the animated “Neighbors From Hell” (Monday) finds a family of demons masquerading as suburbanites to stop a big earthly drill from reaching Hell, with Molly Shannon and Patton Oswalt at the microphone — the Coneheads meet the Munsters, a little bit. And “My Boys” goes for Season 4 (July 25).


Excepting the returning nurse drama “Hawthorne” (June 22), TNT’s all about the cops and criminals. Jason Lee, whose name was Earl, is an Elvis-imitating police detective in the over-styled but engaging “Memphis Beat” (June 22); Alfre Woodard is in it, too, never a bad thing. Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander are “Rizzoli and Isles” (July 12), gal pals who solve crimes as a funky detective and chic coroner. (You get Lorraine Bracco as a bonus.) And there are new seasons of the “The Closer” (July 12), “Dark Blue” and “Leverage” (June 20).


Summer is like fall over at USA, and there are new seasons of “Burn Notice” (underway), “White Collar” (July 13), with Marsha Thomason (Naomi from “Lost”) joining the cast; “Royal Pains” (underway), with Henry Winkler now recurring. Brand new this summer is “Covert Affairs” (July 17) with Jennifer Garner look-sorta-alike CIA trainee Piper Perabo in an “Alias” sound-alike. Peter Gallagher is there too. And more “Psych” is coming at a date to be announced.


TV Land fields its first scripted series, the not-so-surprisingly solid “Hot in Cleveland” (June 16), in which aging Hollywoodiennes sample the hoi polloi. The venue and cast ( Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and the next president of the United States, Betty White) reads as sort of meta. Syfy has a new season of “Eureka” (July 9), with James Callis (Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”) a new arrival in Geniustown. “Futurama” begins a long-delayed sixth season on Comedy Central, after something like 3,000 years (June 24). Lovely reincarnation comedy “Drop Dead Diva” gets a sophomore season on Lifetime (Sunday). The CW has a single new summer show, the makeover series “Plain Jane” (date TBA), and CBS is also mostly sitting the season out, with new episodes of its reliable Canadian import, the supercop show “Flashpoint” (in progress). A&E has a new Florida-set police-detective show, “The Glades” (July 11).