Summer TV sizzles with mysteries, sci-fi
"Human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality," wrote T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton," and we can only hope that television executives will take the hint eventually.
Not to worry. While there's too much "reality TV" all over, this summer is unusually rich in original programming. In fact, the networks' lazy days of reruns may be fading out.
"Historically, the networks have never used the summer to launch new shows except for some rare occasions," says Marc Berman of Mediaweek.com, which reports daily on ratings and TV news. One of those exceptions came three years ago, with the launch of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
That instant, albeit temporary, success caused network executives and advertisers to wise up to the fact that travel and barbecues notwithstanding plenty of people watch TV when it's hot outside.
As a result, summer is beginning to be its own programming season. Yes, there are still plenty of reruns and a repeat of a good sitcom is a better option than an inane new game show celebrating nasty temperaments. And cable, which has always programmed more aggressively in summer because there is less competition from broadcast, outdoes the networks once again in supplying good original dramas.
There are at least three exceptional new choices depending on individual taste.
One of them, while based on the reality genre, is amazingly creative.
Dick Wolf's staggering "drama-mentary," Crime and Punishment (Sundays, NBC, 10-11 p.m.), offers a gripping series of carefully crafted true-life stories looking at the United States legal system.
PBS has several new shows this summer, and the best news among them is the return of Mystery! (Mondays, beginning July 1), with three multiple-part chillers worthy of our attention. On the cable front, the new season of the ultra-cool space-opera Farscape on the Sci Fi Channel (Fridays, 9-10 p.m.) is unexpectedly rivaled by Showtime's Odyssey 5 (Fridays, 10-11 p.m.), an outstanding science-fiction adventure that begins tonight. For sci-fi buffs or any action-adventure connoisseur the highly atmospheric and smart "Odyssey 5" is appointment television.
If TV, which is never actually weighty, is supposed to be light in summer, it isn't too much to expect it to be smart, involving, and nontoxic. Good entertainment doesn't have to contribute to contempt for others.
"Crime and Punishment" is likely to attract some controversy. Real trials of accused criminals pose some ethical dilemmas will the TV show affect appeals, for example? How about the law's presumption of innocence will viewers presume innocence until the defendant is proven guilty?
But the show evokes more empathy for the families of victims than even the best fictional courtroom series, including "Law & Order," possibly can. And the San Diego prosecutors emerge as the series' true protagonists.
"The families look to the DAs for justice," says co-creator Bill Guttentag. "We're just capturing the events as they unfold. [These families] develop very close relationships with the D.A.s, and the DAs take the cases very seriously they get emotionally involved and truly care about the victims."
There are three remotely operated cameras in each courtroom, each mounted in a box that looks like a microwave oven. The subjects can't see the cameras move, so there are some very subtle moments captured there, Mr. Guttentag says.
"We want to appeal to an audience, but we also hope we will do some societal good," he says. "We're trying to make a show that is fair, is accurate, and does tell a story well without narration and all of that."
"Crime and Punishment" certainly does have an inevitable voyeuristic element. But it gives us a better insight into how the law works. Judges are far less arrogant than actors make them out to be. Lawyers are far less eloquent. Still, we see them more as everyday heroes of the law who seldom receive their due on TV, where prosecutors are either bad guys or self-righteous egomaniacs. The motives matter. Context is everything.
So, too, in speculative fiction. "Odyssey 5" is motivated by the search for meaning. Both star Peter Weller and executive producer Manny Coto have higher aesthetic aims than are usual on TV. And the context they provide is unabashedly a search for the right questions.
"The spiritual is very important to the story," Mr. Coto says. "The questions about why we are here, what is the meaning of all this, is what Odyssey 5 is about.... These questions are battling within each one of us."
The story begins, modestly enough, with the Earth exploding. The shock waves send a spaceship through a vortex into deep space. An alien intelligence gives the five astronauts who are still alive the chance to return to Earth five years into the past to prevent the catastrophe. But each faces personal challenges their foreknowledge exacerbates.
Mr. Weller says he based his Capt. Chuck Taggart on pilot Chuck Yeager's style and courage. "Taggart is an Everyman in search of an answer for existence," Weller says. "He's trying to sift through the data at hand and make sense out of why he is where he is.... He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he doesn't want it."
Weller and Coto collaborate on every script. "I see my character moving more into a place of questioning existence and values into a more spiritual philosophy," Weller says. "The fact that he's moving into these bigger questions is great for me. It's really an inquiry into what it means to be human."
Coto says the show is less of a genre piece than an investigation into the personal course of each life. "Given five years to go back and make changes, what would you do? It's about the choices we make ... and how those choices make changes in the people around us," Coto says, adding that the series' real meaning lies in the moral issues it raises. "Stories engage us most when there is a moral dilemma."
The same applies to the mystery genre. And "Mystery!" has always delved into moral choices, consequences, and the complexities of the human psyche.
Many critics and viewers felt bereft when this fine series left the air. But PBS has co-produced three new installments for this summer: "Forgotten" (airs July 1, 8, 15); "Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes" (July 22 through Aug.12); and a terrific new series featuring as mismatched a detective duo as one can find "The Inspector Lynley Mysteries: A Great Deliverance" (Aug. 19, 16). A working-class sergeant with aging parents clashes with her superior officer, an aristocrat who must prove himself to the rank-and-file officers of the law. Summer is a great time for a good mystery, says "Lynley" director Richard Laxton. "Time to get out of the searing heat and watch an emotional crossword puzzle unfold...."
Cable also offers two other original dramas worth at least one look. Following HBO's lead with "The Sopranos," Showtime is taking on the gritty world of crime, cons, cops, and parolees in Street Time. Unlike "The Sopranos," it does not deal with the banalities of evil or take comic twists into absurdity it's all very grave. But excellent performances by Rob Morrow and Scott Cohen, complex characterizations, and intense psychological complications make it compelling. Gratuitous strong language and sexual situations remind us it's cable. Bravo's Breaking News provides a jazzy if exaggerated look at a TV newsroom.
And a big little surprise among new work is Showtime's Ten Minutes Older (Mondays beginning July 1, 10:45 p.m.) a series of 10-minute films by some of the greatest lights in the international independent film movement. Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Chen Kaige, Aki Kaurismäki, Werner Herzog, and Victor Erice create meditations on time some of them are exquisite, all are thought-provoking. Ten minutes can be an eternity or a blink of the eye.
The season also marks the return to Showtime of two quality dramas about minority families: Resurrection Blvd., the story of a Latino family in East Los Angeles; and Soul Food, a portrait of African-American family life that investigates class distinctions as well as race.
The networks are venturing more boldly into summer programming. But they're keeping it cheap in every sense of the word.
Tapping into some of the basest of human impulses (from voyeurism to gossip) "reality" game shows traffic in humiliation, backbiting, incivility, sexism, and unprincipled scheming understood as entertainment.
"Reality TV" trades on the illusion that what we are seeing is real people in real situations reacting in real ways. Instead, the contestants are handpicked (usually for volatility), put into unnatural situations, and encouraged to be as nasty as possible.
So this summer, you can watch Fox's exploitative American Idol: The Search for a Superstar and smirk at the failure of hopeful young singers as they are dismissed by pop star Paula Abdul, music producer Randy Jackson, and British record executive Simon Cowell who, by the way, can dish it out, but can't take it. When one singer told Cowell off for "stomping on the souls" of young people, he petulantly replied, "You're here for one reason: You're a loser."
The winner and runner-up of the show's British version, "Pop Idol," both had No. 1 songs in Britain. But even that show's director admits that watching a "nobody" hit it big is not the show's whole appeal. "Part of the emotional response is that an awful lot of people fantasize about singing and then actually take on working for a bank," says Stephen Laxton. "["Idol"] confirmed they were right in not pursuing their dream."
Fox heads to the far north with Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska an atrocious parody of affection and the meaning of marriage. Young women troop up to Alaska to win money and find husbands. For those who may have forgotten, this is the same network that swore off matrimonial reality shows after the "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" debacle in 2000.
ABC brings back The Mole: The Next Betrayal, a show that didn't attract an audience the first time around because the rules were too confusing. A saboteur undermines other contestants who must determine who the mole is.
Don't forget NBC's ruder-than-thou Dog Eat Dog, which makes "Weakest Link" look almost civil by comparison. Contestants try to vote off the most annoying among them, gleefully insulting the loser, who, if he wins his test, may take his revenge and throw one of his enemies off instead.
Fortunately, there's a lot more intelligent reality in the form of documentaries. Check local listings, especially for PBS. But for those so moved, one of the best series available is on the Hallmark Channel: Adoption. Reality is seldom this heartening on television.