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Summer TV Preview!

Breaking down the 22 new shows competing for your vacation-time viewing

Once the dumping ground for series that were unwatched, unwanted, or otherwise Canadian, the summer is now prime time for serious television. (Or, as they call it at the USA Network, with its remarkably resilient lineup of entertaining trifles, “television.”) The next two months will bring a deluge of debuts and season premieres of shows ranging from the terribly interesting to the interestingly terrible. There are new series headlined by superstars and one featuring a superstar’s brother. There’s a vampire show, a vampire virus show, and a zombie show that refuses to stay dead. Michael Bay just can’t stay out of the water, while Steven Soderbergh can’t stay retired.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t. It’s summer, a season when entertainment is still meant to entertain. Where others might leave you paddling out into the riptides unattended, consider me your chillaxing television lifeguard, letting you know how to avoid jellyfish and when it’s safe to dive in. To help set the mood, I’ve also provided a recommended beverage pairing for each of the 22 shows covered below. Watching TV should never feel like work, especially when the rest of the world is on vacation.

Thursday, June 19

Defiance (Syfy, 8 p.m.)

Some things you should know ahead of the second season of this intermittently interesting aliens-live-among-us drama: The action is set in the ruins of St. Louis, which means the happiest fans in baseball now include four-fingered space bugs called “Liberata” who, according to the Defiance wiki, are “capable of urinating.” (Having been in Yankee Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch, I can assure you that this is a big deal.) Also, there is a lizard doctor who looks like an actual lizard.

Beverage pairing: Watered-down Romulan ale.

Dominion (Syfy, 9 p.m.)

Do you remember Legion, a 2010 horror movie starring Paul Bettany as a fallen angel sent to protect humanity — or at least Adrianne Palicki — from a whole flock of his murderous former wingmen? No? Well, either way, this is the TV version of that. Filmed in South Africa, Dominion chronicles the few ragtag survivors of the “Extinction War” — basically heaven’s revenge on planet Earth. I wish this were a gonzo Leftovers (see below) with machine guns, but the show appears to treat its ridiculous subject matter with the solemnity of Scripture.

Beverage pairing: A light beer with a holy-water chaser.

Rectify (SundanceTV, 9 p.m.)

Rectify’s first season was unlike anything else on TV: a molasses-slow Southern gothic about the release of a potentially innocent man after 19 years on death row. Instead of focusing on the big splash of the initial crime, creator and showrunner Ray McKinnon went all-in on the ripples: the damage done to Daniel Holden (Aden Young) after an eternity in prison, the emotional agony of his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister (the electric Abigail Spencer), the relentless hum of the justice system churning beneath them. I’m not entirely sure where there is left to go in a 10-episode second season, but I’m eager to find out.

Beverage pairing: Bourbon and sweet tea.

Saturday, June 21

Almost Royal (BBC America, 10 p.m.)

The British television industry has traditionally exported two types of programs with great success: cheap sci-fi and arch comedy. BBC America, the crown’s foothold in the colonies, has made waves of late with the former. Now, finally, the network is ready to address the latter. Almost Royal takes the premise of Borat — foreign nitwit discovers America — and replaces the lusty Kazakh with two posh siblings who are as soft as figgy pudding. (It’s also, despite improv-y appearances, scripted.) It’s a smart swap, as Americans are always more enthusiastic about laughing at upper-crust twits (played here with appropriate, stiff-lipped cluelessness by Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart) than at ourselves.

Beverage pairing: Multiple gin and tonics.

Sunday, June 22

The Last Ship (TNT, 9 p.m.)

Michael Bay’s latest venture into television — the first was the similarly nautically themed Black Sails — has a killer premise: While a Navy ship is off the grid doing maneuvers in the Arctic, a pandemic wipes out 80 percent of the globe. Unfortunately, the execution looks decidedly lacking. That’s Eric Dane, the erstwhile Dr. McSteamy, as the shouty captain, and Boston Legal’s Rhona Mitra as the requisite superhot scientist (in this case, a cure-hunting paleomicrobiologist, which both Google and vague memories of Jurassic Park assure me is a real thing). There’s plenty of room on the high seas for this sort of apocalyptic adventure. I just wish TNT had leased the cast of ABC’s similarly themed, unfortunately canceled Last Resort to help bring it to life.

Beverage pairing: A salty dog.

True Blood (HBO, 9 p.m.)

The seventh season of this much-tolerated vampire drama will also be the last, meaning it’s guaranteed to answer all of Bon Temps’s lingering questions, including “Does anyone around here own a shirt?” and “Huh?”

Beverage pairing: Shots of absinthe while wearing this.

Tyrant-HP

Tuesday, June 24

Tyrant (FX, 10 p.m.)

This ambitious, expensive drama was a hard sell even before The Hollywood Reporter ran last week’s behind-the-scenes cover story detailing all the turmoil surrounding its production. It was developed by Homeland producer Howard Gordon along with Gideon Raff, the writer responsible for Hatufim (the original, Israeli version of Homeland), as a sort of Middle Eastern Godfather: A young doctor, living in self-imposed exile in America, is called home to the fictional country ruled by his father with an iron fist. (Think Syria or Libya. Or a slurry of both.) According to the Reporter, the production has lurched from one disaster to another, from director Ang Lee dropping out at the last minute, to Raff leaving in a huff, to massive rewrites, reshoots, and very nearly a major recasting (star Adam Rayner is basically an unknown and was forced to re-audition after wrapping the pilot). It’s a fascinating article — one part damage assessment, one part damage control. Here’s hoping the show itself manages to be half as entertaining.

Beverage pairing: Something strong sipped furtively out of a teacup.

Wednesday, June 25

Taxi Brooklyn (NBC, 10 p.m.)

Are you occasionally nostalgic for the summers of your youth, when the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day was one great, raging tire fire of programming misfires, imports, and indifference? Well, have I got the show for you! Taxi Brooklyn — that name! — is a French production inspired by Luc Besson’s 16-year-old film Taxi because … sure it was. This série télévisée stars Grey’s Anatomy’s rosy-cheeked Chyler Leigh as — wait, let’s just let the press materials tell it: “hard-as-nails Det. Caitlyn ‘Cat’ Sullivan, a woman hell-bent on finding her father’s killer.” Because she’s too fiery to pair with regular police — my favorite line from the trailer: “Your father was my friend, but I’m not going to have his daughter running a rogue investigation behind my back!” Mendozaaaaaaa! — Cat turns instead to Leo (Jacky Ido), a charming immigrant from Marseille who becomes her “personal driver, consultant and friend.” This betrays a wildly optimistic ignorance about how taxis actually operate in New York, but what can you do. Comment dites-vous “cliché”?

Beverage pairing: A champagne flute filled with hot dog water.

Sunday, June 29

The Leftovers (HBO, 10 p.m.)

HBO’s latest blast of pulp prestige marries a literary novelist (in this case, Tom Perrotta, upon whose 2011 book the series is based) with a twisty genre premise (2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears) and puts a tested genre peddler (Damon Lindelof, late of Lost) in charge. I’ve yet to watch any of the episodes (HBO mailed out screeners late last week), but I’m already struck by how bleak everything looks in the trailer: all grieving parents, stone-faced cultists, and stars Justin Theroux and Liv Tyler in various states of wall-punching duress. It remains to be seen if such a punishing vibe can be maintained for 10 hours, let alone multiple seasons. But what’s intriguing to me is that The Leftovers appears to be less about answering mystical questions — was it the Rapture? Or something worse? — than it is about processing incomprehensible loss. Given the (extremely well-paid!) wringer Lindelof has put himself through the past four years after his own very public reckoning, he might be just the man to help us through it.

Beverage pairing: Jameson. Neat.

Monday, June 30

Under the Dome (CBS, 10 p.m.)

This Stephen King adaptation was staid CBS’s big entry into the bold new world of “event series.” It was also a hit, mainly because viewers were interested in seeing just how the characters might one day escape the scary status update of the show’s title. But because it was a hit — and because it was a hit on staid CBS — chairman Les Moonves decided the dome wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. (It helped that the show was cofinanced by Amazon, reportedly making it profitable for CBS before the first episode even aired.) Trapping a successful show in a bubble is the dream of every profit-minded executive, but it can get pretty claustrophobic for viewers. It may not happen this season, but I have a feeling the audience might escape the show long before those claustrophobic Domies ever do.

Beverage pairing: Casual gulps of the water you’ve been treading.

Wednesday, July 9

Extant (CBS, 9 p.m.)

Now that CBS has colonized the summer, it intends to stay there awhile. Exhibit 1A is above. Exhibit 1B is Extant, a sci-fi thriller executive produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Halle Berry, in her first television role since the heady days of Debbie Porter on Knots Landing. The plot sounds like a decent enough splice of Species and Rosemary’s Baby — Berry plays an astronaut who returns home inexplicably pregnant after spending 13 months alone in space — and the vibe, replete with dubious suits and robot kids, is suitably ooky. But the real test for the show isn’t so clear-blue easy. CBS proved with Under the Dome that it can do summer spectacle that gets people’s attention. The question is whether it wants to invest in the substance necessary to keep it.

Beverage pairing: Vodka and Tang.

The Bridge (FX, 10 p.m.)

The first season of FX’s border drama gave me whiplash. After launching as the most exhilarating new drama in years, the show very gradually tipped over into a ditch of overwrought serial-killer clichés. Then something even stranger happened: With two episodes to go, The Bridge rebuilt itself once again. With the mustache-twirling villain disposed of, the show took a hard turn back toward the tough brilliance that had attracted me in the first place. (You can watch all this for yourself right now on Hulu Plus.) Because of this, I have absurdly high hopes for the second season. Showrunner Elwood Reid — working solo now that former partner Meredith Stiehm has gone back to Homeland — has grand plans to address the murky, true-life history of femicides in Ciudad Juárez and to do so while highlighting the deep vein of wonderful weirdness (think Lyle Lovett’s bean pot) he tapped into during the otherwise bumpy first year. I understand that second chances are hard to earn in today’s crowded TV landscape, but don’t jump off The Bridge just yet.

Beverage pairing: A shot of mezcal with a Tecate chaser.

Thursday, July 10

Welcome to Sweden (NBC, 9 p.m.)

In real life, Amy Poehler’s brother Greg moved to Sweden to find love and a second career in show business. Later — and, again, this was also in real life — Greg made a TV show about this disorienting experience and got NBC to go halfsies on it with Swedish broadcaster TV4. Not only that, he also managed to corral Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, Gene Simmons, and his sister to help him do it. I barely know what to make of the show. (The trailer seems … fine. ) I think it’s just important to take a moment to respect Greg Poehler’s hustle.

Beverage pairing: A shot of aquavit.

Sunday, July 13

Ray Donovan (Showtime, 9 p.m.)

Ray Donovan is a very silly show masquerading as a very serious one, with the excellent Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, and Eddie Marsan all acting their hearts out in the service of a project with very little of its own. The first season never managed to rise above its uncomfortable blend of The Departed–style Bostonian drama and the self-congratulatory Hollywood back-patting of Entourage. It told a story about boxing and abuse that took swings only at the softest of targets. Maybe things will be better in Year 2, with Wendell Pierce, Hank Azaria, Sherilyn Fenn, and Ann-Margret added to the mix. But I’m not optimistic.

Beverage pairing: A Guinness with a cocktail umbrella floating in it.

Masters of Sex (Showtime, 10 p.m.)

In direct contrast to Ray Donovan, Showtime’s other sophomore series is a very good show on the verge of becoming truly great. I loved the first season tremendously, the way it used sex instead of violence to weave an emotional, adult story about life instead of its well-chronicled opposite. Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen are doing remarkable work here as real-life researchers Masters and Johnson, and showrunner Michelle Ashford appears committed to using her period setting as the beginning of something, not a dead end. Masters of Sex is already plateauing. That leaves you just enough time to get into it before the inevitable climax.

Beverage pairing: A French 75.

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The Strain (FX, 10 p.m.)

FX has usually stayed away from Sunday nights, leaving TV’s biggest stage for its more established dramatic players. But FX has never had a show like The Strain before: a carefully constructed Walking Dead–killer with sturdy source material (Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire virus trilogy) and top-shelf talent in front of the cameras (House of Cards’ boozy congressman Corey Stoll, Game of Thrones’ terrible wedding guest David Bradley) and behind them (del Toro directed the pilot, Lost’s Carlton Cuse is running the writers’ room). The focus here appears to be on true terror, not just latex and spectacle — which is a good thing, even for admitted scaredy cats like me. After passing on The Walking Dead, FX boss John Landgraf took his time getting back into the blood-and-gore business. From everything I’ve seen and heard, it appears he has backed the right undead horse.

Beverage pairing: A bottle of Cipro.

Thursday, July 17

Married (FX, 10 p.m.)

You’re the Worst (FX, 10:30 p.m.)

With its brattier sitcoms banished to the frathouse that is FXX, FX is rebuilding this summer with two new relationship comedies that, theoretically at least, are pitched somewhere between the high-minded whimsy of Louie and the lowbrow tomfoolery of The League. The first, Married, stars Nat Faxon and Judy Greer as settled spouses slowly steering into the skid of middle age. The second, You’re the Worst, is about two miserable assholes fighting against falling in love. I’m more optimistic about the former but more intrigued by the latter, which was created by Stephen Falk, late of Orange Is the New Black and this memorable blog post. Both will get at least a few weeks to earn my fidelity.

Beverage pairing: Pinot grigio/Red Bull and vodka.

Sunday, July 27

Manhattan (WGN America, 10 p.m.)

There is no great need for yet another television show set in the middle of the 20th century, nor is there any apparent demand for the umpteenth retelling of the invention of the first atomic bomb. (This movie handled the whole thing pretty well. This movie was terrible, but at least it took history in some surprising directions.) If we’re being completely honest, the whole idea of yet another TV channel trying to muscle into the wild world of scripted entertainment is pretty dicey, too. But here we are, and Manhattan, WGN America’s second stab at a series after the goofy Salem, doesn’t look half bad. Its creator did time on Masters of Sex — the last period piece to transcend its costumes — and the director is longtime broadcast drama whisperer Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing). A series about the battle between progress and conscience could be good, and the cast — featuring John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C), Daniel Stern (Breaking Away), and Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards) seems solid. Manhattan doesn’t need to reinvent the atom to succeed. It just needs to split it.

Beverage pairing: Duh.

Friday, August 1

The Killing (Netflix)

Face it: This show will never die.

Beverage pairing: Rainwater and my tears.

Friday, August 8

The Knick (Cinemax, 10 p.m.)

That thing I said above about not needing any more shows set in 20th-century America? I forgot to include the giant caveat involving 10-episode series directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen about the radical medicine being practiced at one particularly infamous turn-of-the-century Manhattan hospital. (Despite the title, the series is not about Iman Shumpert sadly walking through the empty halls of Madison Square Garden with this music playing.) Owen plays pioneering doctor John W. Thackery, a surgeon willing to risk the lives of his patients to save them. (Considering there were no antibiotics or anesthesia available, this wasn’t particularly hard.) There is nothing on TV I’m more eagerly anticipating in 2014 than The Knick — especially since Cinemax already proved with the exquisite Banshee that it knows exactly how to handle the intersection of brains and guts. I’m ready to scrub in now.

Beverage pairing: Brown liquor and laudanum.

Wednesday, August 13

Legends (TNT, 9 p.m.)

My podcast partner Chris Ryan swears by the novels of Robert Littell (“an American Le Carré,” he says), upon whose work this new series is based. That alone would get me to tune in even if the match between the makers and the material seems slightly odd. Legends, the novel, is a psychological almost-comedy about the meaning of identity after the Cold War. The trailer for Legends, the TV show, makes it look like a long-lost Bourne movie starring Ned Stark. Here’s the thing: I’m fine with either! Legends is another product of the Howard Gordon Intrigue Assembly Line (see Tyrant, 24, Homeland) and might just be TNT’s ticket to the big leagues. After all, the last two Bourne movies also launched in August, and they won acclaim and audiences by being much smarter than they had any reason to be. Just because it’s hot enough to melt your brain doesn’t mean summer TV shouldn’t still try to engage it.

Beverage pairing: A dirty martini.

 

This column has been updated to correct an error: Married and You’re the Worst are on FX, not FXX.

Filed Under: TV, Summer Television, NBC, HBO, the leftovers

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald