Arts and Culture

What a Swell TV Summer

'Pillars,' 'Rubicon,' 'Mad Men' and 'Jersey Shore': It's cool inside.

By Steve Burgess 6 Aug 2010 |

Steve Burgess stays in most of the summer watching television because that's his job and someone has to do it. Have a nice day at the beach.

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Geek hero: James Badge Dale in 'Rubicon.'

Summer entertainment doldrums are upon us. The biggest movies have been released, leaving August for the detritus like Charlie St. Cloud and Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. As for TV, summer has traditionally been even worse, but no more. A few bright souls figured out that A) Not everyone is on vacation, and B) Vacationers who leave their TVs behind are often relocating to cozy woodland cabins with satellite dishes.

Leading the summer TV revolution is AMC. Having proved with Mad Men that a hit series can flourish in hot weather, the channel has waited until the dog days to roll out their latest drama, Rubicon, in addition to season four of the wildly successful adventures of Don Draper and co.

Meanwhile Movie Channel, no doubt eyeballing the success AMC has had in transitioning from film to serialized drama, is offering up its own summer series, The Pillars of the Earth, based on Ken Follett's novels of medieval skullduggery. Fighting, jealousy, plotting, envy, hatred, rough sex -- throw in some fake tan spray and it could be Jersey Shore. Which is also back for another season by the way, on MTV Canada. What a swell summer.

'Pillars of the Earth'

The Pillars of the Earth is a Canadian/German co-production featuring Rufus Sewell, Donald Sutherland, Matthew Macfadyen, Hayley Atwell, the deliciously devilish Ian McShane, and even great Canadian character actor Gordon Pinsent in a smaller role. New episodes air Mondays on Movie Channel.

Early reviews of the series were tepid, and with some reason -- episode one looked a little clumsy and not particularly promising. But media reviews of TV series' can be misleading. Reviewers get a few episodes at most, often only one, and must then pronounce judgment on the whole shebang. And Pillars of the Earth has been gaining steam as it goes. It's not great art, but it does promise at least to be another Rome, the HBO series that started with a framework of historical fact and built around it a big, bloody, political soap opera.

Pillars of the Earth places itself in England in the mid-12th century, when supporters of King Stephen battled those of rival claimant Maud (more commonly known to history as Matilda). It was a time when church and state were completely intertwined in English power and politics. The plot centres on the attempt to build an ambitious new cathedral, one that represents the dawn of a new Gothic age of architecture.

Like the offerings of HBO et al., The Pillars of the Earth makes good use of the license offered by commercial-free premium TV. There's plenty of sex, violence and even a scene of aggressive urination, scenes that would never see the light of HD down on the broadcast networks. More importantly, Pillars of the Earth does not spare its main characters with a lot of ludicrous last-second rescues. Kiefer Sutherland may always escape his 21st century foes, but last week his 12th century daddy Donald was not so lucky. It's always reassuring to see a plot follow its own internal logic rather than invent convenient twists. Pillars of the Earth has some of those too, of course. But three episodes in, it's proving to be a historical potboiler worth watching.


AMC's Rubicon is also a few episodes along. Viewers can catch up online, but the plot is not so far developed yet as to be hopelessly confusing. Rubicon does not move too quickly. Early reviews have bitched about that, but seekers of good television should be reassured. So far the series has the promising feel of quality.

Starring James Badge Dale, recently seen in HBO's The Pacific, Rubicon is a set in the bookish end of the intelligence community. Viewers may be reminded of the '70s spy classic Three Days of the Condor. As in that film, Rubicon's hero is no action stud but a code-breaking geek, working in an office that displays all the glamour of a chartered accounting firm.

As in Condor, our hero happens to stumble upon a code, this one hidden in crossword clues. Soon his professional mentor and father-in-law (Peter Gerety) is killed in a train accident and Dale needs to find out just what he has casually uncovered. A big shadowy organization is involved, natch. All pretty standard stuff, but so far the execution has been superior, and worth following.

'Mad Men' and 'Jersey Shore'

Then there's good old Mad Men, back for another go-around as the cast moves on to a struggling new ad agency. Not much to say about it at this point except that rejoining the tale of Don Draper and Sterling Cooper Draper Price is like pulling an icy-cold drink from your remarkable new Frigidaire home appliance on a sweltering summer day.

Last, and joyfully, unashamedly least, there's MTV's Jersey Shore. Season one of the break-out reality hit almost succeeded in dodging the standard dinner party sneers that the genre attracts. Jersey Shore was so gleefully stupid and appallingly trashy that even some reality TV haters got on board, perhaps seeing in it a subtle indictment of the entire form. Or perhaps there were just a lot of folks who enjoyed seeing Snookie get punched out in a bar.

Either way the orange-hued gang is back, more self-consciously famous this time, but apparently no better behaved -- news reports indicate Snookie got arrested this week on a Jersey beach after getting drunk and annoying people. No word on whether this will be featured on an upcoming episode. Not that you care, of course. You don't watch reality TV.  [Tyee]

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