Though it still hasn’t become the revolutionary season that industry watchers once predicted, the summertime TV schedule is still a good place to tinker with formulas: A big network like NBC can try a subtle comedy about living in Europe; ABC can order up a drama based on a nonfiction book about the wives of America’s early astronauts; and Halle Berry gets pregnant with an alien baby — or something like that — on CBS. No big whoop.
This summer, like most, is still heavy on crime procedurals, dystopian sci-fi dramas and a limitless supply of shows about fat guys and their barbecue grills. But it’s also got some lookers: HBO’s “The Leftovers,” MTV’s “Virgin Territory” and SundanceTV’s “The Honorable Woman.”
“Masterpiece Mystery!: The Escape Artist”
(Two parts; 90 minutes each; Begins June 15 at 9 p.m. on many PBS stations. WETA does not currently have it scheduled; MPT will air part 1 on Monday, June 16, at 4 a.m. and part 2 on June 23 at 4 a.m.)
We could talk for days and still not land on the reason why a fairly pedestrian, certainly predictable and too-long-by-a-third contemporary legal thriller just looks and feels so much better when it’s British. Who can explain this? Surely it involves at least a subliminal case of Anglophilia, causing a viewer to overlook the same flaws (in plot, premise, acting, editing) that we see in the courts-and-crime fare offered up by American cable networks like USA and TNT. If Franklin & Bash & Rizzoli & Isles & all the rest were all Brits, we might pay more attention to them.
Exhibit A: “The Escape Artist.” an absorbingly stylish, two-part TV movie from BBC that will get American airing this month on most PBS stations (under the “Masterpiece Mystery!” rubric). In the Washington market, it’s been overlooked by WETA, but it is airing on Maryland Public Television . . . at 4 in the morning. God save the DVR.
(Premieres June 21 on BBC America; Saturdays at 10)
A cute, “Borat”-esque antidote to last month’s moronically cruel Fox reality show “I Wanna Marry Harry.” In this mockumentary, aristocrat siblings George and Poppy (Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart) travel to the United States because their late father, Lord Carlton of Caunty Manor, wanted them to experience life across the pond.
Accompanied by a film crew, George and Poppy land in Los Angeles where they gamely rent a convertible (neither knows how to drive), meet with a Hollywood agent and visit the set of a soap opera. After that, a trip to Boston introduces them to the modern-day tea party and has them participating in a Revolutionary War re-enactment. Later there’s an unsuccessful attempt to learn how to play baseball.
Though Gamble and Hoggart never break character, it’s difficult for viewers to know if the everyday folks that George and Poppy meet are onto the ruse or if the show is entirely scripted. Either way, there’s a lack of conviction to “Almost Royal’s” premise that means the funniest parts are only just mildly funny. Though they play around with snobbishness and cross-cultural entitlement, there are missed opportunities (at least in the first two episodes) for George and Poppy to engage economy-obsessed Americans on a deeper and potentially more hilarious discussion of class. Grade: B-
“The Last Ship”
(Premieres June 22 on TNT; Sundays at 9)
“Grey’s Anatomy” alum Eric Dane stars in this military thriller as the captain of the USS Nathan James, the only known ship that hasn’t been affected by a global virus that has killed just about everybody on the planet. Aboard the ship is a paleomicrobiolgist (Rhona Mitra) who has found a sample of the primordial viral strain that could lead to a vaccine.
Your symptoms of deja vu are perfectly understandable: On the face of it, “The Last Ship” looks a whole lot like ABC’s “Last Resort,” which quickly sank in the fall of 2012. This show, which is based on a novel and has summer-blockbuster impresario Michael Bay’s name attached as an executive producer, has problems similar to “Last Resort’s” when it comes to sticking to its claustrophobic premise; everyone’s dead, except for the people the Nathan James crew finds at Guantanamo as well as a villainous Russian admiral in control of a nuclear-armed ship – which technically makes our “Last Ship” the second-to-last ship.
Despite some initial problems with pace and a bland idea of suspense, “The Last Ship” is at least a break from all the detective and lawyer shows that characterize cable TV’s long summers. Three episodes in, it all seems to be about finding the vaccine. But if everyone on dry land is dead already, who cares? Unless, of course, there are more ships out there besides “The Last Ship.” Something tells me there are. Grade: C
(Premieres June 29 on HBO; Sundays at 10)
Whether or not anyone wants to spend the summer staring directly at sorrow and regret, that’s precisely what HBO and the creators of the new drama “The Leftovers” seem to have in mind.
There’s nothing warm or welcoming about it, nor is there meant to be. Where the network’s “True Detective” occasionally broke its dolefulness with the slyest, philosophically artful wink at an audience riveted by its mystery, “The Leftovers” grafts more unhappiness onto unhappiness. Where “Game of Thrones” revels in even its most gruesome developments, it exists safely within the bounds of fantasy, so slay away. “The Leftovers” mainly acts as a means to deliver the worst news about human nature.
Yet, despite the downer language of this review, the show delivers on an exceedingly intriguing premise, with some of the most beguilingly morose performances delivered this year. It’s a strange but good wallow.
“Welcome to Sweden”
(Premieres July 10 on NBC; Thursdays at 9)
Greg Poehler (Amy’s adorable little bro) produces and stars in this loosely autobiographical, 10-episode comedy about an accountant-to-the-stars named Bruce who quits his job and moves from New York to Stockholm to live with his Swedish girlfriend, Emma (Josephine Bornebusch). While waiting to move into their apartment, the couple has to live with her parents (Lena Olin and Claes Mansson) and Swedish meatball of a brother (Christopher Wagelin) at the family’s idyllic summer cabin.
“Welcome to Sweden” has a gentle, indie-cinema feel to it (think “Away We Go” or “The Way, Way Back”), full of pretty locations and awkward cross-cultural encounters as Bruce tries to find a job and adapt to Swedish living.
Unfortunately the show lacks a necessary zing; even the cameo appearances by Bruce’s former clients (Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons) fail to generate many laughs. Don’t get me wrong — it’s refreshing to see NBC bring out a comedy that values subtlety over slapstick, but the situations and dialogue here are just a little too subtle to draw viewers in. It’s like listening to a friend go on and on about the year he lived overseas. It’s a protracted example of I-guess-you-had-to-be-there humor. Grade: C
(Premieres July 16 on MTV; Wednesdays at 11)
In the inquisitive manner of MTV’s always intriguing “True Life” portraits, “Virgin Territory” crisscrosses the nation to acquaint us with young adults from different backgrounds who’ve never had sexual intercourse — some by choice, some just desperate to get down already.
We meet a woman from Upper Marlboro of the “put a ring on it” generation who prizes her virginity as a luxury item reserved for the worthy gentleman who will commit. In Florida, a young man says that family crises preoccupied him in high school, causing him to miss out on encounters with the opposite sex; his guy friends take it upon themselves to help him meet and approach women. And a young bride-to-be, who kept her virginity as part of her Christian faith, frets about her readiness (and willingness) for her wedding night with her husband, who isn’t a virgin. Good ol’ MTV follows them right into the honeymoon suite to see what happens.
Yet “Virgin Territory” isn’t lurid or easily embarrassed. That’s (sometimes) the wonderful thing about this social-network generation: They’ll talk openly about anything, everything. This includes the devout pastor’s son in Michigan who went away to a Christian college and remains a virgin. Uh, except for a few girls he’s dated who performed oral sex on him. That doesn’t count. (Right?) Grade: A-
“The Honorable Woman”
(Premieres July 31 on SundanceTV; Thursdays at 10)
This intricately constructed, eight-episode drama/thriller stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein, the head of a successful British technology firm started by her Zionist father, who was a weapons contractor for Israel and was assassinated in front of young Nessa and her brother in the 1980s.
To right the wrongs that adult Nessa and her brother (Andrew Buchan) view as their father’s legacy, she has steered the company away from weaponry to telecommunications, promoting peace between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. On the morning she’s to announce a big contract, one of her Palestinian business associates is found dead in an apparent suicide, but it’s only the beginning of a series of dark events that will put Nessa and her family and friends in more danger. Stephen Rea co-stars as a spy whose last case brings him to the center of a secret Nessa hoped no one would discover.
Having watched the first four absorbing episodes, I can report that “The Honorable Woman” is a slow-building but gripping story, regardless of where you stand on Mideast politics; Gyllenhaal delivers a remarkably measured and moving performance. And although the miniseries pulses with that familiar sense of Eurostyle cool seen in most imports, it doesn’t become unnervingly cold. Another plus: BBC2 is airing the series at the same time SundanceTV is — meaning, for once, that American viewers won’t be six months behind. Grade: A-
(Premieres Aug. 13 on TNT; Wednesdays at 9)
Sean Bean (famously beheaded in Season 1 of “Game of Thrones”) is back in this espionage/conspiracy thriller from the “Homeland”/”24″/”Fringe” crowd as Martin Odum, a deep-undercover FBI agent who spends months infiltrating and gaining the trust of dangerous criminal groups. When Martin takes on an identity, he inhabits it so fully that he leaves his real self behind; such agents are known around the bureau as “legends,” and they have a reputation for going a bit too rogue.
In the first episode, Martin has taken on the identity of a disgruntled anti-government militia member in the Citizens of Virginia, a terrorist group that recently blew up Wichita’s federal building. An ill-timed ATF raid nearly blows Martin’s cover, but his FBI superiors put him back in to get closer to the group’s mysterious leader, known as Founding Father. Meanwhile, Martin’s trying to remain close to his young son, despite his worries that his ex-wife is writing him out of the picture.
His identity paranoia turns out to be more than a hunch, as a mysterious stranger introduces the series’ key through-line: Martin may not even really be Martin. He may not even know his real identity, which is what makes him so good at taking on imaginary aliases. From there, the show seems a bit predictably structured, but Bean lends a strong and complex presence to the idea. It’s worth watching for a few more episodes to see where it all leads. Grade: B-
My guide to what’s on is arranged chronologically, up through August. I’ve also included some of my recommendations. Keep in mind that in some cases, “recommended” might only mean that I think the show looks intriguing enough to try.
And if you’re trying to find your returning favorite summer shows, see below (yes, all those poor folks are still “Under the Dome”). Note: Recommended, in this case, means that I like the show.