I Like to Watch

Soothing summer TV, coming right up! A handy guide to some televised offerings to sedate you as the mercury rises.

Published May 31, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

From left, images from "Nurse Jackie," "Mad Men," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "True Blood."
From left, images from "Nurse Jackie," "Mad Men," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "True Blood."

Modern life has a frustrating way of setting us up to fail seconds after we wake up. I didn't exercise this morning, and neither did my dogs, who sulked instead. I drank caffeine, which is bad for me, and wrote for a few hours instead of vacuuming the living room floor. I didn't shower. I drove my daughter to daycare and she didn't cry when I left, but I didn't spend the day with her. I walked the dogs but didn't run because I still have a cough, which must mean I'm doing something wrong. I paid some bills but didn't clean off my desk. I watched a screener of "Nurse Jackie" but didn't figure out what its central premise is. I made dinner but my daughter only ate bread. The baby nursed for an hour (good) then spent an hour sleeping in her automatic swing while I ate chocolate and watched "Make Me a Supermodel" (bad). I took my vitamins but didn't floss. I wrote this paragraph, but I'm pretty sure most of you won't like it, since it means waiting longer to find out what time "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is on (9 p.m. Mondays on TLC).

Each year, we nurture hopes that summertime will provide a respite from the impossible expectations of modern life. Even if we have very few vacation plans and tend to work just as hard during the summer, we still stubbornly imagine ourselves with sun-streaked hair, breezing around in linen pants, reading great novels while sipping on icy, fresh lemonade poured from a nearby pitcher. There are no dirty rugs or sulking dogs or neglected babies in our summer fantasies. But the truth is that most of us spend our summers the way we spend the rest of the year: watching "Weeds" and "Project Runway" and "So You Think You Can Dance" while the baby rocks in her automatic swing, patiently awaiting the birth of self-awareness and its accompanying pervasive sense of failure.

The living is queasy

Aw, come on! Darkness and pessimism can be invigorating, fun, even! You just have to lean into the horribly oppressive alienation of our sad little lives in this impoverished modern era, then you'll catch the spirit. Catch that spirit, everybody!

Just look at "Nurse Jackie" (premieres 10:30 p.m. Monday June 8 on Showtime), an unremittingly dark half-hour comedy with a premise I haven't figured out yet (but which I'm contractually obligated to figure out by next week). Jackie (Edie Falco) is a very effective and efficient nurse with a handsome husband and two adorable daughters. She also has a serious pill problem, a lover who doesn't know she's married, and an unnervingly cynical, hopelessly bleak worldview. Jackie demonstrates very clearly that there's real joy to be found in darkness. She also demonstrates just how irresponsible and wrong the modern urge to put yourself first can be. Jackie is the sort of flawed heroine who's made for a world in which self-involved doctors consume sushi lunches while their patients suffer, and bad mothers stick their babies in automatic swings with the soothing "cricket" sounds turned on so loud that their toddler daughters ask, "Where are the crickets?"

At any rate, "Nurse Jackie" is my new favorite show of the summer, so don't miss it. It comes on right after my old favorite show of the summer, "Weeds," which returns for a fifth season next week (premieres at 10 p.m. Monday, June 8, on Showtime). Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) -- see also: the most selfish mommy in the known universe -- is back and worse than ever. She's pregnant with a Mexican drug lord's baby and her kids are starting to hate her outright. If she keeps it up, she'll end up like Celia Hoades (Elizabeth Perkins), who's been kidnapped by her own (abusive, bitter) daughter, Quinn, only no one cares about her enough to pay the ransom. Congratulations to Showtime, for boldly going where no cable network has gone before in bringing us the Selfish Mom Hour. Selfish moms everywhere salute you!

Yes, I recognize that just because you're a mom and you're selfish, that doesn't mean that you're plucky and cute and people should care what you have to say. Instead, think of the Selfish Mom as an archetype, one that serves as a conduit for all of our self-flagellating and thwarted expectations in these trying, alienated times. Having been flooded with too much information on the "right" way to do everything under the sun, we all find ourselves falling short of the mark, over and over again, each day. This must be why shows like Bravo's "Project Runway" (premieres Aug. 20) and "Top Chef Masters" (premieres 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 10) exist -- so we can feel a cathartic purging of self-hatred as we watch professionals flailing their way through impossible challenges and, time and again, failing miserably. They become wildly unprofessional, cursing and sweating and lashing out defensively. Reduced to a jumble of nerves, they begin repeating self-hating mantras for the camera: I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough, and people don't like me! Meanwhile, at home, we feel oddly calm and relaxed for the first time all day.

Since Bravo's "Project Runway" replacement, "The Fashion Show" (10 p.m. Thursdays), hasn't been nearly as lively or as compelling as the genuine article, you have to wonder if the spinoff "Top Chef Masters," which features world-renowned chefs instead of newbies, will have the same charms as the original. At least the producers are the same, and no one will be asked to incorporate silky gray harem pants in five different "looks." (Aren't the challenges on "The Fashion Show" awful? This is the worst copy of a good show since the achingly bad Bravo experiment "Step It Up and Dance.")

Gaylords of the dance

Speaking of dance shows, "So You Think You Can Dance" (currently airing on Fox, check listings) is back this summer (and again in the fall), and while the audition phase is less than compelling, this is one of my all-time summer favorites. Controversy has already plagued (or blessed?) this season of the show, thanks to some dismissive comments judge Nigel Lythgoe made about a pair of male auditioners who ballroom danced their way across the stage together. Lithgoe said that he couldn't really get into watching two men ballroom dancing. No big surprise there, really: Lythgoe is hopelessly stodgy and closed-minded for a 50-year-old. He also doesn't like punk rock hairstyles or ripped clothes or self-congratulatory gestures onstage, and he often urges particularly fey dancers to dance in a more manly fashion. If you're in a forgiving mood, all of the above could be excused as aesthetic preferences, however mired in sociocultural prejudices they might be.

Nonetheless, after outrage was expressed by GLAAD, Lythgoe apologized profusely for his comments, thereby cementing the growing impossibility of being an outspoken asshole in public. Now, is that what we really want, people? Do we really want a world devoid of outspoken assholes? PTA meetings will lose their spark, reality TV will go dark. Who will we jeer at over our pudding cups each night?

Unfortunately, this probably means that "So You Think You Can Dance" will soon lose its delectably dorky, unself-conscious tone (particularly since it's set to air in a fall prime-time spot on Fox). Yes, Lythgoe and fellow judge Mary Murphy alternate between an open-minded embrace of any heartfelt artistic expression (to the point of shrieking and weeping openly) and a prickly conservative stance that feels horribly out of touch with the times. But that peculiar friction constitutes one of the primary delights of watching this show. What will the horny old choreographer and the ballroom nut job think of this hip-hop routine? Will they throw their hands to the heavens and praise the Lord for such purity of motion, or will they make some unsubtle comments about a dancer's costume that clearly indicate that Mary thinks she looks too butch, but Nigel wants to do her? This is the Simon Cowell Factor: Their lustful gazes and petty grievances and unfair assessments make us love our favorite dancers all the more feverishly.

At any rate, just know that this show is seriously addictive (if you're in the market for a new addiction, and who isn't?). For a more enlightened yet less aesthetically rigorous offering, you might sample the hip-hoppier-than-thou MTV version, "America's Best Dance Crew" (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6) with its break-dancing, stunt-sporting, signal-flashing teens. Despite the ne'er-do-well "looks" they sport, Shane Sparks and the other judges recognize that these are good kids, kids who know how to work hard, kids who almost uniformly found meaning in their lives by moving their bodies to the sweet strains of "Let Me See That Booty" and the like. "America's Best Dance Crew" is sort of the scrappy, younger, ghetto cousin to the ballroom dancing and preteen-girl-focused cheese of "So You Think You Can Dance," but together they make a complete meal for former dance team geeks, "Solid Gold" fans and general-purpose dance-loving freak jobs nationwide.

Post-dramatic stress syndrome

But we've only scratched the tippity top of the glacier of new and returning shows sliding your way this summer. Don't forget everyone's favorite freelance spy dramedy "Burn Notice" (9 p.m. Thursday June 4, on USA), which returns with its usual, faintly cheesy, speedy finale resolution. After dropping out of the bad guys' helicopter into the ocean and swimming ashore, Michael is up to more trouble within minutes, thanks to a hairy assignment from an old friend.

Afterward you can check out "Royal Pains" (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, June 4, on USA), a new drama about a doctor, Hank, who loses his job and ends up becoming an on-call physician for high society clients in the Hamptons. Now, most USA shows are a little cheesy on the surface, but this one is also filled with cheese, the kind of cheese that frat boys eat late at night when they're drunk. Like a cross between a dumb version of "House," a smart version of "90210" and a modern version of "MacGyver," "Royal Pains" features lots of hot girls in bikinis, macho emergency doctor maneuvers with plastic baggies and duct tape, and jokes with the word "dude" in them. Hank actually says to his brother, "Do me a favor? Never speak to me again" – and it's supposed to be funny. Like some of the CW's less captivating offerings, this show is a cheese pizza with cheese-stuffed crust. But if that sounds tasty, by all means, enjoy!

Do we have "House" or "Grey's Anatomy" to blame for the fact that medical dramas seem to be making a major comeback? In TNT's "Hawthorne" (9 p.m. June 16), Jada Pinkett Smith plays a nurse, while Fox's "Mental" (9 p.m. Tuesdays) is about an unconventional doctor in a psychiatric ward and "The Listener" (premieres 10 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, on NBC) centers around "a 25-year-old paramedic who has a big secret -- he's a telepath." How original they all sound! Wake me up when it's over.

AMC's "Mad Men" isn't back until August, so let's distract ourselves with more new shows, none of which sound all that good. "The Philanthropist" (premieres 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, on NBC) stars James Purefoy (Mark Antony from "Rome") as a rich Romeo who becomes a changed man, and "Merlin" (8 p.m. Sunday, June 21, on NBC) is a 13-episode update of the story of the infamous sorcerer in the city of Camelot, "in a time before history began." Wow, when did history begin, anyway? When jalapeno poppers were invented?

But don't get so distracted by magic that you forget about the second season of "True Blood" (9 p.m. Sunday, June 14, on HBO), in which we rejoin Sookie, Bill and the rest of the gang for more atypical vampires and stereotypical rednecks. And if Sookie's Southern belle feels a little aimless, there's always the focused, ever-hungry, vaguely neurotic energy of Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) of "The Closer" (returns 9 p.m. Monday, June 8, on TNT).

For those with a thirst for military-themed entertainments, it might be time to peruse the much loved domestic drama "Army Wives" (third season premieres 10 p.m Sunday, June 7, on Lifetime) or the much ignored mystical drama "Kings" (8 p.m. Saturday, June 13-July 25) -- which has been canceled, sadly, but NBC is burning off the second half of the season on (cough, cough) Saturdays. I may be all alone, but oh yes, I'll be watching.

Beyond the fail

Oh sweet Lord, what else, what else? "Entourage" is back in July and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is back in August and this fake cooking show called "Food Party" (premieres 11:15 p.m., June 9, on IFC) is supposed to be funny, plus HBO has some show about a well-endowed young man, aptly titled "Hung" (premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, June 28) (although at first I assumed the guy from "Top Chef" got his own spinoff). It's all so confusing, there's just too much TV out there, like that goofy Sci Fi show "Eureka" (9 p.m. Friday, July 10, on Sci Fi) or everyone's new favorite adventure-job reality show, "Whale Wars" (9 p.m. Friday, June 5, on Animal Planet) or a million other things. I know I've failed you by not listing every single show, but for the love of Don Draper, remember, summer is for sipping lemonade and feeling smug about your linen pants! Now go get some stupid linen pants and stop thinking about TV already. 

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Entourage Hbo Hung I Like To Watch Mad Men Mtv Nbc Nurse Jackie Reality Tv Television Top Chef Masters Weeds