Monday, July 2, 2012

How To Get Your TV Fix This Summer (Without Watching True Blood

A thoughtfully funny priest, a bumbling spy and a downright Biblical clash of Kings provide a great antidote to vampires and werewolves.


Clockwise from top left: Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi in Better Off Ted; Chris Egan in Kings; Jude Wright and Darren Boyd in Spy; and Tom Hollander in Rev.

With May sweeps a distant memory and early-summer series like Game of Thrones already finished, summer TV epitomizes Minow's famous "vast wasteland." Although many cable networks are starting to challenge traditional scheduling, the current television landscape consists mostly of reruns, reality series and True Blood. Even Doctor Who, normally a godsend for those of us who prefer quality programming to baking on the beach (not everyone tans, and not all of us enjoy slathering on SPF 1500 and donning a hat just so we can watch other people brown) has taken an extended hiatus, and won't be returning until an unspecified date in the fall.

Luckily, we live in an age of streaming video and HD laptop displays, which means that a world of TV is sitting at our fingertips, waiting for us to dispel the summer doldrums and dive right in. If you find yourself with some extra time between barbecues and beach parties, these five series are well worth your time and energy (and, in some cases, the cost of an Amazon Prime subscription).

Spy

Who should watch: Anyone who misses the covert ops shenanigans of Archer and adores Community's genre parodies.

Available on: Hulu

Hulu has become a great source of less-known British television, and Spy is one of the streaming service's best offerings. The show's protagonist, Tim (Darren Boyd), is a middle-aged loser working in an electronics store and fighting for the love (and custody rights) of his precocious, witheringly critical son Marcus (Jude Wright) when he stumbles into the wrong civil service exam and ends up as an MI6 agent. Spy combines the best elements of several shows - the set-up is pure Chuck, the portrayal of MI6 is right out of the Archer playbook, and later episodes have Marcus starring in parodies of gangster movies and Westerns that could have teleported in from Community - but the show makes them its own. Spy features a great cast of supporting characters (I'm a particular fan of Mathew Baynton's Chris), but the whole enterprise is anchored by the prickly, hilarious, often cruel and occasionally sweet relationship between Tim and Marcus, whose odd couple banter is like nothing else on TV.

Rev.

Who should watch: Anyone who loves the way Chris and Reagan's lived-in, quietly realistic marriage anchors Up All Night.

Available on: Hulu

Another stand-out in Hulu's Britcom lineup, Rev. tells the story of Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), a Church of England priest who presides over the urban parish of St. Saviour's and its small, eccentric flock of worshipers. For those of us steeped in the overheated religious rhetoric of American public discourse, Rev., with its quiet exploration of the role religion plays in the lives of communities and individuals, is a breath of fresh air. Adam isn't exactly an outsized personality; he's just a smart, faithful priest trying to do right by the parishioners who rely on him. 

Both the show's comedy and its sweetness come out of Adam's small struggles. In the excellent fourth episode "The Rival," which deals with Adam's jealousy of his former divinity school classmate, Roland Wise (Hugh Bonneville), now a famous TV personality. "The Rival" mines Adam's envy for laughs, but it also takes an unexpected (and deeply moving) turn, culminating in a moment that looks at what it means to be a man of God. And, at the end of the day, Adam always returns home to his funny, supportive, sexy wife, Alex (Olivia Colman). Adam and Alex's relationship is wonderfully naturalistic, a dynamic that anchors the show throughout its more absurd twists and turns. Rev. works as a show about religion, a portrait of an occasionally contentious but undeniably strong relationship and, most importantly, as a comedy.

Better Off Ted

Who should watch: Those who pine for the sharp wit and absurd scenarios of 30 Rock, or anyone trying to kill time before the much-anticipated return of Arrested Development.

Available on: Amazon Prime

Better Off Ted ran for two seasons on ABC, which is about one and a half seasons longer than its ratings might have suggested it should. The whip-smart workplace comedy was hailed by critics as a true successor to Arrested Development, but viewers never caught on. Better Off Ted was a brilliant office satire on the level of 30 Rock, and the absurd adventures of Ted (Jay Harrington) and his co-workers at the sinister mega-corporation Veridian Dynamics are consistently hilarious. Harrington and his office crush, Linda (Andrea Anders) are great, and Portia de Rossi turns in a typical tour-de-force comic performance as Ted's boss, Veronica. The funniest moments, however, belong to the dynamic duo of Phil and Lem (Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett), two Veridian scientists whose hijinks drive many of the series' best episodes.

Red Dwarf

Who should watch: Anyone who misses Doctor Who so much that it hurts; those who always wondered what Battlestar Galactica would look like as a comedy.

Available on: Amazon Prime

Red Dwarf was quite popular in Britain, where it ran for eight seasons, but it never made much of a mark in the U.S. The series tells the story of Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a chicken soup machine repairman and the last surviving member of the mining ship Red Dwarf, and his attempts to return to Earth after being cryogenically frozen for three million years. Lister is accompanied by the Cat (Danny John-Jules), a life form who evolved from Lister's pet cat; a hologram of his insufferable fellow crewman, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie); the ship's less-than-intelligent computer system, Holly (Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, depending on the season); and the service mechanoid Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).  Red Dwarf's great theme song alone makes it worth a watch, and while the show's laugh track might make it seem dated at first (its run began in 1988), the sharp writing, absurd situations and endearingly terrible visual effects make Red Dwarf a great way to spend a few summer afternoons.

Kings

Who should watch: Anyone who can't get enough of Game of Thrones' complex politics and epic power struggles.

Available on: Hulu

I was an early cheerleader for Kings, NBC's short-lived, unwatched update of the Biblical story of King David. I eagerly devoured the entire series, from the gorgeous, tragic, cinematic pilot to the final few episodes, which were burned off on Saturday nights in the summer.Now, however, the show has reappeared on Hulu, and it's the perfect way to get your epic fantasy fix when Game of Thrones is off the air. The complex, conflicted struggle between King Silas Benjamin (the magnificent, magnetic Ian McShane) and Davis Shepherd (Chris Egan) forms the center of the show, but the margins are plenty entertaining as well. Come for McShane's powerful performance as a king slowly realizing that he is no longer God's chosen leader; stay for Sebastian Stan's darkly charismatic Jack Benjamin, a crown prince with a potentially life-destroying secret, and Susanna Thompson's manipulative Queen Rose, a woman who could certainly give Cersei Lannister a run for her money in the icy blond department. (Just try not pay attention to Allison Miller's blandly virtuous Michelle, a feat made easy by her totally unmemorable performance.) The biblical language occasionally veers into the absurd, but the explorations of power, faith and loyalty will you in, all the way through the series-ending cliffhanger.

The show's ending might remain unresolved, but I wouldn't worry about David; something tells me he'll make out alright in the end.

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