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The eccentrics

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

HOT AND NOT Cable’s warm season brings Meadowlands, Burn Notice, Big Love and Flight of the Conchords.

The Sopranos is dead. The big network dramas and comedies are on vacation until the cool months (or longer, in some cases). What’s worth watching? Not much. Summer used to be the time when broadcast networks aired frothy fare (Fox’s short-lived, fondly remembered Keen Eddie) or series that were initially deemed too odd to become hits in the spring or fall (like CBS’s Survivor and Big Brother, both of which launched in bathing-suit weather). This summer, the network landscape looks barren, save such showbiz-themed competition series as Fox’s On the Lot and So You Think You Can Dance.

Cable is a desert too, but at least it’s got a wheezy carnival parked on it. There’s a histrionic legal thriller (TNT’s The Closer); a self-pitying, macho soap (FX’s Rescue Me); ; a feel-good doctor show about organ donation (TNT’s Heartland) confident but uninspired sci-fi thrillers (USA’s The Dead Zone and The 4400; Sci-Fi’s Stargate Atlantis and its departing SG-1). But there are also four series-—three new, one returning-—that are just fresh enough to stand out from the pack and be worth having an opinion on-.

Showtime’s Meadowlands promises more than the usual, then doesn’t quite deliver: Its veneer of class is generated by the cast’s British accents. State of Play’s David Morrissey stars as an ex-crook entering witness protection with his family after his former life literally went up in smoke (the pivotal inferno is glimpsed in flash cuts). We learn that the community consists of relocated ex-criminals—a promising origin point for what could have been a hybrid of Lost and HBO’s late, still-lamented prison soap, Oz. Too bad it’s content to be another “You know who’s hypocritical? Suburbanites!” series. (Gee, who would have guessed that the overinvolved housewife would turn out to be sexually frustrated?) Only criminal intrigue distinguishes Meadowlands from the likes of Desperate Housewives and Weeds.

HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, on the other hand, might be the most assured freshman comedy since Arrested Development’s first season (but not as tightly plotted). Very little happens in any given episode: It’s a sketch-comedy popcorn chain with a plot serving as weak thread, and it devotes a good deal of its screen time to ridiculous music videos (occasionally performed in a “robot” voice) that seem designed to be uploaded to YouTube. The concept-—---two New Zealand slackers and their band try to conquer New York City-—is standard fish-out-of-water stuff, but stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are engaging doofuses, willing to look incredibly stupid for a laugh. While far from brilliant, it’s a funny show that puts the increasingly tired Entourage (which precedes Conchords on Sundays) to shame.

The spy comedy Burn Notice (debuting June 28 on USA) starts off with a charming swagger but ends up being felled by a failure of nerve. Michael Westen (charming-enough-for-government-work Jeffrey Donovan) has been “burned”-—cut off from his agency’s resources and ostracized by his peers for reasons unknown. He returns to his hometown, Miami, to make nice with his ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless), and to figure out who wronged him. The series flirts with becoming a 21st-century MacGyver, a cool escapist yarn about a cocky spy who claims he’d rather fight bad guys with materials he can buy at a hardware store than use a firearm; in one daft scene, Michael takes out a villain’s stronghold with duct tape and a power drill. Alas, in the pilot’s final stretch, the hero mostly shoots his way out of trouble. A series that dares bring the great Bruce Campbell back to TV (as the hero’s best friend and mentor) should show more imagination.

Thank heaven for HBO’s Big Love, a series about American polygamists that’s just hitting its stride. In its sophomore season, it’s still struggling to overcome flaws that hampered it last year (the scenes at the fundamentalist compound often seem extraneous, and the character quirks can feel ladled on). But the scenes set in the households of grinning retailer Bill Henrickson (a hyperearnest Bill Paxton) and his three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chlo Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin, forming one of TV’s strongest acting teams) are fascinating. This season, Big Love asks what 20th- and 21st-century women had to give up in order to live this lifestyle; at the same time, it shows their teenage offspring slowly breaking with tradition (one even joins a post-Mormon support group). Big Love isn’t perfect, but it’s unique: a domestic drama worth committing to.

Written by Todd VanDerWerff
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