Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer TV roundup: Returning shows

Burn Notice (USA, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
Last season's finale seemed to contain a game-changing plot development, but it turned out not to be as world-shattering as it first appeared. That's not necessarily a bad thing - Michael's search for who burned him could have gotten boring and tedious if stretched out too long, and putting him one significant step closer without altering the basic premise of the show is a smart way to keep things interesting without messing with what works. The result is that the show can mostly get back to the self-contained plots about Michael helping people in trouble, while also giving him a long-term antagonist we can put a face to. The mix of single-episode A-plots with the long-running B-plot works well here, combined with the continuing character arcs (Michael and Fi's on-again, off-again relationship; Sam's romantic troubles; Michael's family issues) that give the show a sense of progression. Most importantly, the second season is still flat-out entertaining, showcasing Jeffrey Donovan's considerable charm and strong comic relief from Bruce Campbell. Not all the capers are fascinating, but they provide enough structure to keep things moving from one adventure to the next as the producers string along the larger mystery effectively.

The Closer (TNT, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Now in its fourth season, this show has largely run out of shocking and/or clever ways for Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Leigh Johnson to dupe suspects into confessing their crimes, and I will confess that I've all but lost interest in the mysteries that form the bulk of each week's plot. Brenda is veering into increasingly unethical territory with her methods, and while that's sometimes glossed over, the producers are making an effort to show that her bullheadedness can have consequences. As always, it's the character interactions that hold my attention, and this season has been very rewarding in that area, from the tensions in Brenda's relationship with FBI-agent fiance Fritz to Gabriel and Daniels' fractured romance to the comedy team of Flynn and Provenza. Even when the whodunit is labored and obvious, the show itself remains graceful and engaging.

Mad Men (AMC, Sundays, 10 p.m.)
Now that The Wire has ended, this has become the new default greatest show on television according to the critical establishment. And I hesitate to join in with the over-the-top praise, because I think it creates overinflated expectations for people who haven't seen the show, and because it tends to curtail any meaningful analysis. But I will say that this is a very good show, and I do think people ought to be watching it, and so far this season has been incredibly well executed. It's still an incredibly slow-moving show, and sometimes I get impatient for people to do more than stare at the walls meaningfully, but there is a lot of character development going on in that staring. This year has seen some increased focus on secondary figures like Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey, and more time spent with the likes of Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell away from the office. Plus, main character Don Draper is showing even more cracks in his ad-genius facade; there's always the sense on this show that the carefully crafted world of each character could come crashing down at any moment. I still love Christina Hendricks as the marvelously bitchy Joan, and I feel like there's more humor this season, even if it's often quite dark. Now that the slightly labored mystery of Don's origins has been revealed, creator Matthew Weiner is focusing on the characters' present (which is 1962), and where they may go is, to me, far more interesting than where they've been.

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