Pop Culture

Sunday Night TV Summer Logjam

It wasn’t very long ago that summer television programming was a barren wasteland of reruns and lame reality shows. The reality shows are still here (Bravo has to make money), but with the explosion of original programming on cable, the summer months are nearly just as full of new shows as the traditional September-May schedule.

The big networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX) still stick to the traditional model with a few exceptions, but cable networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, etc. don’t really follow a set schedule. Since most seasons of cable shows run from 10-13 episodes, that evens out to about four periods with different shows throughout the calendar year.

Sunday is still the go-to night for a network’s best offerings and in 2014 there is currently a logjam of intriguing shows that are all airing at 10 p.m. (ET). The first two – HBO’s The Leftovers and FX’s The Strain – are currently in their first seasons, while the third, Showtime’s Masters of Sex, began its second season a couple weeks ago.

Sunday night is really the only day with any scripted programming I’m watching during the summer, but with three shows on at the same time, it takes a day or two to get caught up.

Right now the priority is Masters of Sex. With a title like that, you might think the show was about nymphomaniacs with dominance issues or better suited for airing on late-night Skin-emax. Instead the show is a drama set in the late 1950s about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they overcome the buttoned-down sensibilities of their era before becoming household names later on for their work.

I doubt Masters of Sex would’ve been a show I’d be interested in if not for the fact that it garnered great buzz when the first season premiered, eventually being regarded as the best new show of last fall. I ended up catching up on the show this spring once the season ended and while it’s not quite at the level of the very best dramas on TV (Mad Men or Breaking Bad before it ended last September) it’s on the next tier.

What’s most impressive about Masters of Sex is despite the fact sex is at the forefront of the show and inevitably nudity is prevalent, the show isn’t sensationalizing the subject matter and exploiting it in a gratitutious way to get viewers. It’s a serious drama that just happens to be about a topic that still makes viewers uncomfortable.

It helps that the performances across the board are outstanding. In the lead roles, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are doing the heavy lifting and both are fantastic. In addition, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney give equally strong supporting performances. For their work, Caplan, Bridges and Janney all received Emmy nominations earlier this month.

When ABC’s Lost ended its run in 2010, the show and its executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, were accused by many of not resolving enough of the show’s long-running mysteries and concluding the story on an unsatisfying note.

Lindelof, who co-wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and Prometheus after Lost ended, is back as the showrunner for HBO’s The Leftovers. An adaption of a novel by Tom Perotta, The Leftovers is about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event where two percent of the world’s population, about 150 million people, suddenly vanishes without any explanation. The series is set three years later and depicts the lives of residents in an upstate New York town who are attempting to move on after this seismic event.

Through four episodes, the series is definitely compelling but it’s also seriously depressing. Depressing to the point I recently heard Grantland’s Bill Simmons speculate the reason it’s airing in the summer isbecause if it ran in February, HBO would be responsible for mass depression coast to coast.

The plot of the show is basically not unlike what you imagine September 11th or the Newtown shooting felt like to families and survivors, multiplied by 100. One character loses their entire family in the Sudden Departure, while another ultimately decides to abandon her family to join a cult that has sprung up in the aftermath. Everyone’s basically walking around numb to the world around them and trying to hang on to what remains of their sanity.

All this makes the show sound incredibly unappealing, but it’s well-acted, well-written and truly thought-provoking in creating a plausible depiction of what would happen under these circumstances.

On a lesser show, the focus would be on the characters attempting to learn what caused the Sudden Departure, but here it isn’t an issue at all. It’s almost as though this is Lindelof’s response to those that felt Lost left too much unanswered. The whole point is answers aren’t coming.

This is the smart approach. The best season of Lost was the first because all of the mysteries were being introduced and the possibilities of what was really going on that crazy island were endless. Once the series started resolving mysteries and unpeeling the layers, it was still entertaining but it lost something. The unknown is almost always much more interesting than the actual explanation.

I’m hoping they never reveal what happened to all of the vanished loved ones on The Leftovers. It’s much more compelling watching the survivors try to cope in the aftermath.

I was fully prepared to dislike FX’s The Strain leading up to its premiere. I’m not a huge vampire fan having never seen an episode of True Blood or The Vampire Diaries, and all the buzz I heard about The Strain in the lead up to its premiere was that it was extremely campy and extremely gory.

After watching two episodes, it’s definitely gory and definitely campy, but it’s also pretty damn entertaining. The show is about a strange virus brought into the U.S. from a commercial flight that basically turns its victims into a form of vampire. The plot revolves primarily around a CDC higher-up, played by House of Cards’ Corey Stoll in a ridiculous wig, who works to contain the epidemic.

You kind of know what you’re getting when the main promo poster features a worm crawling out of a someone’s eyeball. Surprisingly and especially in the premiere, the show doesn’t over do it on the gore, but when the moments come, it goes all out. There’s a particularly gruesome scene late in the premiere episode set to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline that actually made me burst out laughing at the craziness.

I’d like to think that’s the intent and with characters with names like Ephraim Goodweather and Vasilly Fet, this is clearly a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like most good horror entertainment, the primary goal is to entertain and keep you from thinking too hard about the implausibility of what you’re watching.

Categories: Pop Culture, Television

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