I recall a time when the most interesting prospect of the summer TV season was Circus of the Stars (Alfonso Rivera was actually a really good acrobat). But HBO managed to change all of that when they started showing Sex and the City during the dry season of reruns. And thus a light bulb went on with networks that they could actually show new things during the summer and it would be okay. A great gift to humanity.
One of my biggest thrills for this summer is the return of Top Chef. I cannot get enough of this show. I watch the rerun marathons and live for each new season. Although I’m not too psyched about setting the show in DC this season, my love of Tom Calicchio and the addition of the syrupy-tongued Eric Ripert trumps any trepidation I might have.
Speaking of Bravo reality TV, I have no shame in admitting that I love The Real Housewives of … franchise. I don’t care about Orange County, but man do I love some Jersey, New York, and Atlanta. With the New York season winding down, I put my trust in those Jersey girls to keep my catfight fix fulfilled. I doubt they’ll disappoint.
This summer will also see the return of My Life on the D-list, another Bravo reality vice that continues to give me the giggles. Last season’s episode with Beatty White playing password at the Sizzler with Kathy and her drunk mother goes down as one of my favorite reality TV scenes.
Lest my readers think my DVR is full of Quick Fires and table flips, two of my absolute favorite shows are returning in the next month. I actually had an argument with a student last spring where he told me that the book is always better than the movie. To debunk that theory, look no further than True Blood. Alan Ball is a genius of uncanny spark who has managed to take a mediocre, yet addictive romance series and turn it into a funny, sexy, tragic, smart, and sassy show that sticks close to the books’ essence while constructing a much more engaging and complicated world for it’s more fully developed characters. To prove my point, look no further than Lafyette and Tara, two characters who are essentially footnotes in the books who have become strong contributing members to a well-rounded cast. And Ball’s invention of novice vamp Jessica is in turns funny and heartbreaking, as with her break with Hoyt at the end of last season.
What I love about the first two seasons is that by reading the books I have a general idea of where the season is going, but I have no idea what twists and turns have erupted from Ball’s brain. Yes, sometimes the show does get a bit too heavy-handed on the Vampire rights as a double for gay rights, but there is something so watchable and charming about it that I am willing to forgive Ball. Last seasons Yahtzee game is the perfect example of the measured quirkiness that Ball does so well.
With my beloved Breaking Bad working towards the end of another masterful season (I am hedging for an Emmy three-peat for Cranston and praying for a much deserved first win for Aaron Paul), I can see, moving ever closer, the July premier of Mad Men. It’s that show you may have heard tons of fuss about but never watched. Or tried to watch but found difficult to get into. Make no mistake, Mad Men is not for the zip-second viewer. Creator Matthew Weiner has the gall and courage to make his audience earn their payoffs. He and his actors are not afraid of silence, stillness, and single lines that can indeed be maddening if you are more of a CSI paced viewer.
There are many things I love about Man Men–the historical setting, the attention to detail, the amazing acting. But what I think I love most about it is that Weiner understands creating complications. His stories are rarely in your face and his characters, down to the man who runs the elevator and has said maybe two lines the entire show, are developed to the point that they are neither good nor bad, happy or bitter–they are, like real people–a little of everything.
One of the things that I teach my students about Shakespeare and why people still study him is that he was the first playwright to really write for the character, rather than the situation. I believe the Weiner and his team have also honed this gift. His characters not only speak realistically, they speak individually while still melding together as people who spend their lives in close company often do.
Don Draper is perhaps one of the best characters of the past couple of years (it doesn’t hurt that John Hamm is too handsome to actually exist in nature). On one hand, the audience has spent the past three seasons watching him deal with a past that we too would try to run from, try to love the wife he thinks he wants, be unfaithful with a string of challenging women that would never have been named Mrs. Draper, and still maintain his career. It is so easy to fall for him in the lovely quiet moments with his children or, in one of my favorite scenes of the series, when he tracked down Peggy in the hospital to bring her back from the brink of Frances Farmer-land. But then there are those moments when his choices feel like a slap in the face. (His firing last season of poor closeted and repressed Sal just for turning down a piggish client left me in tears of sadness for Sal and anger at Don.)
Weiner has a wonderful way of balancing the real historical events in the background of the show while still carrying on the plots of his characters. Mad Men is delicate in this dance, subtle, and thought-provoking. It is one of the few shows I watch where I do not talk to anyone or multi-task because I want to take in every second of it before I call my mom to discuss every nuanced moment. It is not, by any means, pure entertainment. It is something much more that our society sadly ignores. The fact that July will mark the fourth season gives me hope that the world is not just Gossip Girls and Bachelorettes; perhaps, like the folks of the now defunct Sterling-Cooper, we are much more complicated and capable of great feeling, even if it isn’t shouted at the top of our lungs.