Network television ain’t what it used to be, which I suppose makes it something of an old gray mare. With original programming from upstart cable networks like TNT, A&E, AMC, SyFy, and USA, the low-numbered channels have seen a lot of writing talent drift away, especially as draconian managers like Jeff Zucker, former head of NBC, drove them away. Perhaps what’s bad for the founders of TV is good for audiences—cable is trying out some inventive show concepts, and even if they turn into their own formulaic narratives, at least they’re different formulas (I’m looking at you, Burn Notice). A few freshman shows caught my eye this summer, like Necessary Roughness, which I see as a much overdue examination of masculinity and sports. But there are a few gems that have left me hanging all summer or which are about to go on hiatus and not return until the mid-season replacements have stepped in to staunch the bleeding of the oh-so-awful new shows some networks are putting up this fall. In either case, here’s my short list of what I can’t wait to watch again. Between diaper changes, that is.
The Good Wife (Sundays, CBS)—I was disappointed with the season 1 cliffhanger because after nine months of complex storytelling and complicated character relationships, the show was content to leave us all with a very simple question of which man our fearless heroine should choose. Season two quickly dug us out of that, shuffling off the question for a later point, when we’d gotten entranced in an election campaign, new great court cases, and a subplot mystery that didn’t take too long to unfold. When TGW’s second season ended on a big betrayal and the same simple question of man-choice, it didn’t annoy me in quite the same way. I trust the show more now. I can appreciate what they’re trying to hold in tension, and it’s so much more fresh of a “can she juggle it all” narrative than say, the crappy-looking new movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Sure, I want to know if Alicia and Will can make it as a couple (I suspect they can’t), but I really want to know what happens to the friendship between Alicia and Kalinda. And please, more court cases that fascinate! And oh, please more Gary Cole!
Suits (USA, Thursdays, starts again in winter)—I swear I don’t just watch lawyer shows, but Suits is great for giving viewers the kinds of things we don’t typically see on lawyer shows: hierarchies between partners and associates, associates and paralegals, lawyers and clients, and so on. I can’t remember a time when I ever saw on TV a mock trial and all of the machinations involved with it, although The Paper Chase comes close. While there is a silly plot device wrapped into this series—one of the main characters has an eidetic memory—the rest of the story lines ring true. It’s a gritty look at a high gloss world.
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, Thursdays)—There are soap operas, and then there are soap operas. Grey’s Anatomy is a show that’s grown on me like a playful fungi. Now that the complaining Katherine Heigl and T.R. Knight are off the cast, the show has found a second wind with new cast members, one of whom will rock this next season as the new chief resident in the surgery ward (go Kepner!). I still enjoy the small episode-length medical cases, and though I roll my eyes often at the inappropriate messaging about disabled people, medical ethics, and human relations, I’m still hooked. Leave it to a long-running hospital show to teach me pop culture addiction.
The Closer (TNT, Mondays, starts again in winter)—The first season of this series entranced me, with the obvious tension between new Assistant Chief Brenda Lee Johnson and the rest of her squad. But the twisty-turny cases, perpetrators only sussed out by Brenda, were riveting and unlike many detective procedurals—which often signal with clunky camera shots, whodunit—kept me guessing until the last few minutes, week after week. At some point I, like other viewers and fans of the show, started figuring out the clever logic, or maybe the writing settled down to a lower level, but toward the end of the third season, beginning of the fourth, the show had lost considerable luster and was wearing as thin as Johnson’s Southern accent. Now the show is flourishing again, a lot of which has to do with the terrific chemistry between Johnson and the Internal Affairs Captain Raydor, played with usual brilliance by Mary McDonnell. I’ve never watched an hour of this show and felt like it was wasted time afterward.
The Killing (AMC, returns this winter)—Some folks were pissed at the ambiguous ending of season 1, but I do not count myself among them. Maybe it’s because I was a fan of the original Murder One premise of showing one murder trial per season, which audiences also didn’t like, or maybe I just found myself captivated by the performances of Mirielle Enos and Joel Kinnaman, but The Killing was everything I want a dark police narrative to be, and ambiguity is right up that alley. [sic] Instead of a Law & Order-type episode that retroactively examines evidence mishandling, we see it in real time. I can’t think of anything more juicy and complicated than watching how different people related to one terrible crime relate to each other.