Summer Television: A Time Of 'Men,' Werewolves And Aliens

Jun 8, 2011
Originally published on June 9, 2011 8:44 am

Feel like you're drowning in a flood of so-called "reality" television, Canadian series imports and new cable shows?

It's not you, it's TV; specifically, the oddball land of summer television.

As the big networks try to avoid looking like they've gone fishin' for summer and cable amps up its schedule, there's a new universe of programming for small screen fans to sort though. And there's a few standout series worth seeing — and avoiding — in the weeks to come.

Among my faves: TNT's Men of a Certain Age, a series airing at 10 p.m. Wednesdays centered on the surprising challenges, tragedies and triumphs for American males nearing the big 5-0. Ray Romano brings a second lightning strike after the success of his hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, assembling a compelling take on male friendship and aging with pals Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap).

Another amazing series coming to the Starz premium cable channel July 8 is Torchwood, an Americanized take on a classic British science fiction series starring an immortal, gay former con man who leads a secret organization aimed at saving the world from various perils. In this series, Torchwood: Miracle Day, people across the world stop dying and CIA agent Rex Matheson (an electrifying Mekhi Phifer, previously seen on ER), grabs up the top two agents from Torchwood to try solving the problem in the USA.

For every success like Torchwood, however, there is a failure like MTV's Teen Wolf; an attempt to "tween-ify" and dramatize an old concept first seen in a 1985 film comedy starring Michael J. Fox. Instead of a cableized Vampire Diaries-style take on the wolfman myth, MTV got a warmed-over, underacted mess that feels more like a bad Twilight parody.

Similarly, TNT's upcoming science fiction extravaganza Falling Skies debuts at 9 p.m. June 19 with a dazzling pedigree, including executive producer Steven Spielberg and star Noah Wyle (ER). Unfortunately, this eight-week series, dramatizing the efforts of a scrappy band of humans to fight a superior alien invasion, sandwiches every sci fi cliché from Battle: Los Angeles to War of the Worlds into one predictable program.

My suggestion: watch Independence Day and Red Dawn on Netflix instead, and you'll be ahead of the game.

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Summertime is when the big broadcast TV networks take a bit of a break, and cable networks roll out a lot of new shows.

And Eric Deggans is here to help us sort through what to watch. He is the TV and Media critic for the Saint Petersburg Times. Welcome back to the program, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS (TV-Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Let's get right to it. What should we be watching right now?

DEGGANS: Well, maybe it's because I'm a man of a certain age, but I love this show called "Men of a Certain Age" on TNT. And it's this great comedy, dramedy, about three friends who are pushing 50.

And one of the centerpieces of the show that I really love is they get together at a diner before their day starts and they talk about the things that are really bothering them. And it can be anything like romantic trouble. In one case, it was about having their wallets in their back pockets.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Men of a Certain Age")

Mr. ANDRE BRAUGHER (Actor): (as Owen) What's that about?

Mr. RAY ROMANO (Actor, Comedian): (as Joe) What's that about is we're getting (beep) old. Can't sit on my wallet anymore, got all this ass bone trouble.

Mr. ANDRE BRAUGHER (Actor): (as Owen) Ass bone trouble?

Mr. ROMANO: (as Joe) Like (unintelligible). A hip then a joint gets all out of whack. I read about it too. It's not good. Oh, you told me about it.

BLOCK: Recognize the voices there.

Mr. DEGGANS: That's right. We got Ray Romano playing the owner of a party supplies shop who also has dreams of playing in the senior PGA tour. We got Andre Braugher, who's playing a guy who's taking over his father's car dealership. So, you know, these guys are all at crisis points in their life and they're coping with the big approaching 5-0, you know. If 40 is the new 20 then I guess 50 is the new 30.

BLOCK: Or the new period of constant angst. And it's an interesting show with really edgy camera work but sometimes it seems like the centerpiece is the casting.

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, without a doubt. These are experienced actors who have created really compelling characters and we're supposed to go along on the ride. And, you know, so much of television is focused on youth. You watch network television and it's obviously aimed at 20-somethings. But this show is very much for those of us who are, you know, we're aware that we're getting older and we're facing different issues than we faced 20 years ago.

BLOCK: There are a few things that are rolling out throughout the summer on cable. Reach later into the calendar and tell us what we should be looking out for.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, anybody who reads my blog, the Feed, knows that I am a sci-fi geek and so I am geeked up for this show called "Torchwood," which started as a show on British television. But Starz, the premium cable channel, is doing I guess I would say a little more Americanized version. It's about what happens if everyone on the earth suddenly stops dying.

And Mekhi Phifer, if you remember him from "ER," has an amazing turn as a CIA agent who finds himself wrapped up in the middle of this after he gets in a really bad car accident. And let's listen to a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Torchwood")

Mr. MEKHI PHIFER (Actor): (as Rex Matheson) I had a pole through my chest. I was dead, then I wasn't. I had to pay for this bridge and now I want to know what is going on, all right? Because I was dead and now I'm not.

BLOCK: I guess the question that the undertakers of America would want to know also. People aren't dying anymore.

Mr. DEGGANS: Exactly. This, believe it or not, not dying is one of the biggest dangers the earth has ever faced.

BLOCK: Maybe this trend that I'm noticing is a lot of the shows on cable right now seem to have a very narrow focus on a very specific audience - "Teen Wolf," "Single Ladies," "Franklin and Bash," which clearly is going after men of a different age - younger men who have really gross tastes.

Mr. DEGGANS: (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Yes. And "The Protector," which is a show that seems to be focused on divorced mothers.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. That's a Lifetime show. Cable is an area where you really pick an audience and you super serve them. So, of course, if you're ever going to reinvent the "Teen Wolf" series, you do it on MTV, which is focused on youth. Why anybody would want to do that, I have no idea. And after watching the first episode of "Teen Wolf," I have even less idea. But they tried. They gave it a game try, you know.

BLOCK: We're glad that you watch all that television for the rest of us.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Eric Deggans. He's a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.