DAVE DAVIES, host:
Watching television between June and August, according to our TV critic David Bianculli, used to be a real chore and a real bore. These days, he says, it's anything but if you know where and when to look.
DAVID BIANCULLI: 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 "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 satellite television's 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."
The bright spots are few if you don't have cable or satellite TV, but they are there. Fox 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 talk-show featuring comedians-talking-comedy, "The Green Room with "Paul Provenza" was a delightful surprise and in August, "Weeds" returns, paired with a new show starring Laura Linney,
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.
The Syfy channel 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.
BBC America also has what may be the sleeper hit of the summer in "The Choir, 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 the same network's 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, gathering some colleagues, and planning to start a new renegade ad agency. That's where this new season begins and all I'll say about this 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 here are the very first moments as Don is interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age.
(Soundbite of AMC's "Mad Men")
Unidentified Actor: (as reporter) Who is Don Draper?
Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Don Draper) Excuse me?
Unidentified Actor: (as reporter) Who is Don Draper?
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) What do men say when you ask that?
Unidentified Actor: (as reporter) Well, they usually take a minute to think about it and then they do something cute. One creative director said he was a lion tamer.
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) I don't want to do that. In the third person?
Unidentified Actor: (as reporter) I don't know. Knockout wife, two kids, house in Westchester, take the train; maybe take your car now that you can afford it?
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Who told you that?
Unidentified Actor: (as reporter) Anything? I mean now's your chance.
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Well, as I said before, I'm from the Midwest. We were taught that it's not polite to talk about yourself.
BIANCULLI: 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 sell 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 '60s. And as they all fight to do so, they help make it easier for us to survive the summer of 2010.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.