Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Summer TV round-up: New shows

Burn Notice (USA, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
I was a little cautious about this show in my initial review, possibly because I had been so enthusiastic about USA's last new snarky-guy-solves-mysteries show, Psych, only to have all my interest peter out after only a few episodes. But Burn Notice has not only stayed strong, it's also gotten better, and it's maintained a very effective balance of mystery-of-the-week stories with a more long-term ongoing plot. It's still light and inconsequential, but it's almost always fun to watch, thanks to mostly snappy writing and an endearing cast. Jeffrey Donovan makes the lead character charismatic and likeable even when he's doing questionable things, and Bruce Campbell is his typically delightful self in the sidekick role. I've even warmed up to Gabrielle Anwar as the love interest, a character who's gone in an interesting direction from her initial "will they or won't they?" set-up with the lead. My only worry is whether they can sustain the momentum of the larger storyline as time progresses (already as season one winds down, a lot of questions have been answered), but for now this is breezy fun, and quite possibly the one show I look forward to most each week.

Damages (FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.)
I think it was this week that this show finally offered up one twist too many and descended into complete silliness. Not that this means I won't keep watching it, or that I won't enjoy it, but it's turned into one of those shows where every single character is running an angle, has a secret or is in on the central conspiracy. And I don't think quite this level of complication is necessary - there were plenty of mysteries set up just in the first couple of episodes to sustain the entire season, and all these new wrinkles just make it harder to keep track of what's going on. But at the same time the ludicrous twists are generally pretty fun and juicy, and this show is not at all afraid to turn itself into total pulp trash. It's also got some strong performances from Glenn Close, Ted Danson and Tate Donovan (those last two not necessarily people you'd expect to be strong dramatic actors), even if main star Rose Byrne is sort of bland. I have a feeling this is the sort of thing that if it were all compressed into a two-hour movie it would be easily dismissable as some dumb thriller filled with plot holes, but the serialization works well for creating suspense, and gets you tuning back in for the next absurd twist. I can't see how they could ever make a second season of this work, and I hope that they won't try to, instead piling on all the twists they can and resolving the story in the most over-the-top manner possible, which would be consistent with the tone so far.

Mad Men (AMC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
A lot of people have anointed this as the new greatest show on TV, and while I remain impressed with a lot of things about it, I think my appreciation is a little more muted. I have a regular blog reader and correspondent who is infuriated with what she sees as the period inaccuracies of this show (as well as its misrepresentation of the advertising business), but other commentary online seems more divided about whether or not certain details are accurate. Having neither lived through the 1960s nor worked in advertising, I can't really say, but I think what is important to me is that I believe the show's own world in itself; that is, the details seem consistent, and they paint a full picture of an environment that I can buy into. There are still moments when the producers seem to be trying too hard to hammer home the idea that, "Look! Things were so different back then!," but I think they've toned that down enough to where it's not too noticeable. What annoys me more is the development of a mysterious backstory for main character Don Draper, which just seems extraneous and unnecessary. I don't need a mystery to solve in every show; this one is very good just as a character drama about the corporate world of 1960. But so far at least that storyline has been handled subtly enough, and I'm fascinated by what's going on with almost all the other characters. I love Vincent Kartheiser's desperate sliminess as Pete Campbell, and Christina Hendricks is marvelous as the sexy, conniving bitch who knows all the office secrets. I'm not ready to proclaim this show brilliant yet, but it is doing a lot of things right.

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