Sunday, September 9, 2007

Smoke & Mirrors

While I have long been one to eagerly anticipate the new "Fall Season" of network television (once gloriously heralded by the once-proud TV Guide), I no longer look to the networks to provide compelling or even interesting TV fare. The heyday of the "Big 3" TV sitcoms like "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Will & Grace" (the early years) is long gone. Only "Two and a Half Men" seems a worthy successor, and sometimes that's debatable, given the show's grating tendency to push raunch over repartee a little too often. I also enjoyed "Becker," which I consider, like its cast, cruelly underrated.

Yes, there are some good dramatic hours. ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" comes to mind. And "CSI: Miami" is almost always an hour of dependable craftsmanship. Never have been a fan of the Law & Order franchises or of "Lost" or "24." Maybe I'll catch up one day on DVD.

For my money, the best stuff on TV these days is on cable. It's a real shame, too, that the off-network shows I've admired all summer are about to end. I'm speaking here of AMC's "Mad Men," a truly superior piece of acting set in 1960 at a Manhattan ad agency. How refreshing that the producers, for the most part, went about casting ordinary-looking actors and not just eye candy for the MTV set. Jon Hamm, movie-star handsome as the lead, plays a mysterious and enigmatic womanizer when he's not the go-to guy at Sterling & Cooper. The art direction deserves a mention, too, for it sets a new standard in TV drama. The women are tightly corseted, the men sleek and the surfaces shiny. It's Brylcreem and Betty Crocker, wrapped in a fog of eye-burning and unfiltered cigarette smoke.

The other show I admired all summer is USA's "Burn Notice," starring Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who gets tossed out of a domestic spy agency for reasons even he doesn't know. In the trade it's called getting "burned." So he's dumped in glittering Miami without money, credit cards or transportation. It's a carnival funhouse of death, with gunmen lurking behind the crazy mirrors. Fortunately for the writers, and the viewers, he was born there, can lean on his mom (the always-good Sharon Gless) and a former girlfriend (the darkly exotic Gabriel Anwar). Some critics have described it as a clone of "Magnum P.I.," but I think that's doing "Burn Notice" a disservice. A lot of the show is done in a noirish voiceover, and Donovan's character provides a running commentary on the tricks of the spy trade. Whether the how-to's are accurate is beside the point. They sound credible and make the show seem fresh. I'm really sad we have to wait another year to see Donovan light up the small screen again. And here's hoping the writers can find Gless more to do than scold her put-upon son.

A footnote: I read somewhere recently that the suits at HBO were given a chance to feature "Mad Men" and passed. Maybe that's why the once-formidable premium cable network has fallen on hard times. I'm not a programing executive, but even I could see the premise as the kind of innovative TV we need more of. I'm thankful, though, for their seeming stupidity, because I don't have to pay extra to watch it. Hallelujah! A fleeting example of the joy of "free" TV.

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