The Only Summer-TV Guide You'll Ever Need

Connie Britton i i

Connie Britton plays Tami Taylor on the critically adored NBC drama Friday Night Lights. NBC hide caption

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Connie Britton

Connie Britton plays Tami Taylor on the critically adored NBC drama Friday Night Lights.

NBC

For the most part, the story of broadcast television has gone like this: Just as bears hibernate in the winter, over-the-air TV networks hibernate in the summer — from the end of May, when the official TV season is over, until mid-September, when it begins again.

Oh, every 10 years or so, the broadcast networks will wake up and try something new and interesting — summer debuts for Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? a decade ago, Northern Exposure a decade before that.

But most of the time, what CBS and the other broadcast networks give us isn't much. This summer isn't any different. Oh, we have a fabulous summer run of Friday Night Lights on NBC — but to those of us who saw these episodes already when they premiered on DirecTV, they're just another type of summer rerun. And some broadcast shows, like Glee on Fox, are worth watching more than once, so that's something, I guess.

But where's the new stuff? Broadcast TV offers us plenty of first-run shows this summer — more than in the past few years — but they're mostly reality-show or competition-show junk like Downfall and Big Brother. Or subpar dramas like The Gates and The Bridge.

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Anna Paquin plays Sookie Stackhouse and Alexander Skarsgard plays her fanged love interest Eric on the HBO drama, True Blood. John P. Johnson/HBO hide caption

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Anna Paquin, Alexander Skarsgard

Anna Paquin plays Sookie Stackhouse and Alexander Skarsgard plays her fanged love interest Eric on the HBO drama, True Blood.

John P. Johnson/HBO

The bright spots are few, if you don't have cable or satellite TV, but they are there. Fox, for instance, has given us Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks in the enjoyable cop comedy The Good Guys on Mondays. ABC has given us a thoughtful, engrossing documentary series in Boston Med on Thursdays. And that's about it.

Ah, but on cable TV, summer is the season when quality TV really ripens. I hate to toss out a long list — but it's the quantity, as well as the quality, of summertime cable shows that counts. Instead of taking the summer off, my TiVo is working harder than ever, trying to keep up with shows I watch and enjoy each and every week.

On HBO, just as Treme ended, True Blood came back on Sundays — gorier, sexier and funnier than ever. Showtime ended its seasons of Nurse Jackie and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but hasn't taken the rest of the summer off; its comedians-talking-comedy chat show The Green Room with Paul Provenza was a delightful surprise — and in August, Weeds returns, paired with a new show starring Laura Linney, The Big C. (It's a dark comedy focusing on the aftermath of a terminal cancer diagnosis.)

On Tuesdays, FX followed its new cop show, Justified, with the newest season of Rescue Me, which is terrific — and with an ambitious new comedy from Louis C.K., called Louie, which I really like.

Syfy has a bunch of fun shows that either returned or premiered this month: Warehouse 13 on Tuesdays, Eureka and Haven on Fridays. And BBC America has been active, too. For genre fans, it has the newest episodes of Doctor Who on Saturdays, followed by a new season of Being Human, which is an alternately goofy and dark series about a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost all trying to just get along.

On Monkey See

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Jon Hamm returns to the screen as Don Draper, the 1960s ad man at the center of Mad Men. AMC hide caption

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Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm returns to the screen as Don Draper, the 1960s ad man at the center of Mad Men.

AMC

BBC America also has what may be the sleeper hit of the summer in The Choir, which airs Wednesdays. It's a documentary series about a young man in England building choirs from scratch and preparing them for international competition — and I absolutely adore it.

That's a long list, but hardly a complete one. I haven't mentioned USA Network's Burn Notice, which is back on Thursdays, or its new Covert Affairs, which just started on Tuesdays. Or TNT's Leverage, which airs Sundays, or Futurama, which Comedy Central just resurrected on Thursdays.

And intentionally, I've saved the best for last, because a show is returning that could save the summer all by itself. On Sunday, July 25, AMC's Mad Men returns for its fourth season.

Last season ended with Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, quitting his job, assembling some colleagues, and planning to start a new renegade ad agency. That's where this new season begins — and all I'll say about the opening hour of Matthew Weiner's fascinating drama series is that the dominant themes — from the very first moments — are about identity and reinvention.

In fact in the very first moments of the new episode, Don is interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age who asks him point-blank, "Who is Don Draper?"

"Excuse me?" Draper says, as the reporter repeats himself. "What do men say when you ask that?"

"Well they usually take a minute to think about it and then they do something cute," replies the reporter. "One creative director said he was a lion tamer."

"I don't want to do that. In the third person?"

"I don't know," says the reporter, trying to fill in details. "Knockout wife, two kids, house in Westchester, take the train, maybe take your car — now that you can afford it?"

"Who told you that?" replies Draper.

"Anything? Now's your chance."

"Well, as I said before, I'm from the Midwest," Draper says. "We were taught that it's not polite to talk about yourself."

This is the Don Draper we've come to know and love — enigmatic, soft-spoken, preferring to let his ad campaigns and their successes speak for themselves. But in this new season, as one of the partners in this new ad agency, that Don Draper won't do. He has to self himself, as well as the products of his clients, if his new agency is to make it.

And he's not alone. Everyone around him in this period drama is struggling to navigate, and survive, the 1960s. And as they all fight to do so, they help make it easier for us to survive the summer of 2010.

David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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