Arts and Culture

Best of Summer's TV Crop

Freshly picked, weird but surprisingly tasty shows ripe for watching.

By Steve Burgess 19 Aug 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess, who thinks the Grouse Grind is a reality TV show about angrily competitive male strippers, really should get outside more in the summer.

Little known trivia: the term "dog days of August" actually refers to late-summer movies. Traditionally TV has been no better, a wasteland of re-runs and dumping ground for failed pilots. The successful 2007 launch of AMC's Mad Men changed that dynamic somewhat. Nowadays cable channels will roll out new series during the summer doldrums. Below, a few of this summer's TV offerings:

The Borgias

Airing on CTV in Canada and Showtime south of the border, The Borgias is impressively lavish. Jeremy Irons stars as Pope Alexander VI, the infamously devious pontiff from the family whose name has long been connected, fairly or not, with the art of poisoning inconvenient dinner guests. Written and directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire), it plays like a 15-centuries-after sequel to the HBO series Rome (right down to the mysterious English accents employed by all these alleged Romans). Like that earlier show, The Borgias starts with a framework of historical fact and fills it in with soapy sexual and political intrigue. While it hardly qualifies as educational TV -- far too much emphasis on bodice-ripping -- it is at least an enlightening illustration of the times. For centuries the Pope was head not only of the Church but also the Papal States that bisected the Italian peninsula, creating an overlap of politics and religion that was more or less complete. The series also offers a reminder of the astonishingly rich historical landscape of the late 15th century -- Jordan can trot out characters from Machiavelli to Savonarola to Ferdinand and Isabella to Leonardo Da Vinci. As the canny Bishop of Rome Irons gives great devious (though it seems perverse to cast an Englishman as a Renaissance pope just when perfidious Albion was getting ready to cause the Vatican a world of grief).

Jordan's project apparently started life as a feature film before going smaller and longer. The series format allows for more intrigue -- so much in fact that many will tire of the endless evil, the enthusiastic disrobing, and the near-complete lack of sympathetic figures. But it's still diverting, high-gloss historical trash. And a reminder that Church politics ain't beanbag -- then or now.

Strike Back

Last year AMC followed up smash hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad with its third original series, Rubicon -- a surprisingly quiet inside look at an intelligence agency. It was smart and slow. And thus became AMC's first cancellation. This summer HBO Canada picks up the Cinemax series Strike Back, which is what you would get if Rubicon was fed into Dr. Frank N. Telestein's Dramatic Reversal Machine. It's loud, stupid, cliched, and punctuated with more gratuitous sex than Jersey Shore. Watching the first episode I kept flashing back to the film Boogie Nights, wherein those ambitious sex stars decide to elevate their smut flicks with some action plots. Strike Back mixes third-rate Bourne with soft-core porn.

HBO Canada subscribers are better off catching up with Game of Thrones. Season one is done but re-runs will continue in perpetuity, or at least until the now-distant arrival of season two. Game of Thrones may look like standard sword-and-sorcery stuff to begin with, but the series boasts one very rare quality: a near-complete narrative fearlessness. Unless you've read the source books, you really don't know what's going to happen.

Meanwhile AMC rebounded from its Rubicon disappointment with The Walking Dead, a smash hit zombie series returning soon for a second season. AMC aired a sneak season two preview recently -- it showed the hero blowing the heads off zombies. Yup, that's it all right.

Breaking Bad

Suburban drug lord Walter White returns after such a protracted absence you almost expect him to be selling off-brand Celebrex instead of crystal meth. The show has been away so long Brian Cranston will have to let someone else claim his regular Emmy. But series creator Vince Gilligan has not missed a beat with the dark plots and clever little flourishes (like a Roomba cam, bouncing around a room full of passed-out methheads). La Pollos Hermanos boss Gus Frings (Giancarlo Esposito) continues to demonstrate what Colonel Sanders might have become if he had grown tired of shedding mere chicken blood. Better call Saul!

The Yard

Not sure what to make of this one. An allegorical schoolyard tale that transplants adult treachery to the swing sets and jungle gyms, The Yard seems like a concept that underestimated its own creep factor. In fact, the series actually dates back to 2006 but is showing up now on HBO Canada. Summer TV as a dumping ground? In 2011, that makes The Yard truly old school.  [Tyee]

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