As we begin to embark upon the fall television season, which has me excited for tonight's premiere of the 5th year of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I wanted to write a quick review of what was easily the best summer season of television series in a long time, maybe ever. There were a half dozen or so shows that I made appointment viewing in the past couple months, and with True Blood's wacky and somewhat disappointing finale Sunday, only Entourage remains as a summer series that is continuing into fall. But Ari and the gang are nearly over, so without further ado, here are my rankings of the top series in the summer of 2009 (that I watched).
- Nurse Jackie (Showtime) This new show that followed Weeds on Monday nights seemed a little shaky to me at first, but I was paying $10 a month just to watch Weeds so I stayed with it, and I couldn't be happier. Edie Falco of Sopranos fame plays the eponymous star of the show, a night nurse at a New York City hospital who (1) has a massive prescription drug habit, (2) is cheating on her husband with someone from the hospital, (3) has two young children, the oldest of which has anxiety issues similar to her own, and (4) constantly bends the hospital rules to preserve all her secrets and to provide better nursing for her patients. So yeah, she's really fucked up. Like really, really. But as played by Falco -- who is absolutely brilliant in the role -- she's also incredibly likable and vulnerable and even sometimes hard to watch as she digs herself further into self-made traumas that only dramatic actions can get her out of. When she can't get her wedding ring off in an episode late in the season (no one but her closest friend at the hospital, a hilarious but also well-rounded doctor character played by British actress Eve Best, is aware that she's married, including her lover), she has her doctor friend cut it off and then, in a painful scene to watch, ends up smashing her finger in the bathroom with a hammer for an excuse for her husband about what happened to the ring. The show is a half-hour long, but in the mode of Weeds, it's not a comedy, nor is it a drama -- it's certainly far from melodramatic -- but there are funny parts, some outright hilarious; there are serious parts; there are amazing parts; and mostly, it's just about these flawed people living their flawed lives, and failing, but holding my interest in a way that no new show has captured my interest since, well, True Blood last September. By the end of the season, I would watch the taped episode of Nurse Jackie before the taped episode of Weeds. Which makes it #1 in my book.
2. True Blood (HBO) My 2nd favorite show from last year's season has had a strong run this summer, but not quite at the level of their first season. There were two distinct storylines, the first involving Sookie and Bill in Dallas, trying to locate Eric's "maker" Godric, who happened to have voluntarily been kidnapped by the Fellowship of the Sun, a freak scene of religious nuts who -- despite being super-religious wackos (isn't that redundant?) -- were kind of right to fear vampires. The second story line was the increasingly bizarre and highly sexual storyline involving Maryanne and her bacchanal celebrations back in Bon Temps, which by the end of the season, had turned into an orgy of human zombies in service to her, a Maennad (sp?) trying to make a sacrifice to her god Dionysus by using Sam's body. Yeah, it was a little ridiculous, and while I loved the buildup of the Maryanne storyline, I didn't like the conclusion, when every single person in the town except Sam and a returning Sookie and Bill, were under Maryanne's evil spell. The trick that Sam and Bill play to end up killing her was mildly clever, but I saw it coming a million miles away, and the damage had sort of already been done. It took Buffy until season 5 to have a storyline about a scary female "god" who couldn't be killed, so while this True Blood subplot was probably a little better, it was still a minor disappointment. The first storyline in Dallas, though, was much more enjoyable, probably because hanging out with Eric and the other vampires was just a lot more fun than the white trash Bon Temps people. The suicide death of Godric was very well played and a highlight of the season. The final episode, in the post-Maryanne part, had Eggs getting killed (thankfully, I hated his character and his effect on Tara), Bill proposing to Sookie, and then Bill getting captured by a vampire obviously working for Eric, which will hopefully lead to a great season 3. The only downside -- I think we have to wait until next summer for that to happen.
3. Weeds (Showtime) Not their best season. Not their worst. Somewhere between the peaks of seasons 1 & 4 and the low point of season 3, this year showed a lot of promise for Nancy as she broke out of the controlling influence of her Mexican drug runner boyfriend early on, at great risk to herself and her family, and planned to raise their baby on her own (with Andy's help). But then she kind of went right on back to her stupid Nancy ways and dumped Andy to return to baby daddy's house and world. So that was disappointing in the arc of Nancy's redemption, which never really got started, but to be honest, it's exactly what Nancy would do. Subplots about Doug and Celia and Silas all trying to become drug dealers didn't really work very well, except as comic relief, but I enjoyed the introduction of Alanis Morrissette as Nancy's doctor/Andy's lover. I also enjoyed the conclusion of the season, when Nancy tries to fight back against her now husband's puppet-master, Pilar, and especially the dramatic murder of her rival in the final scene by... wait for it... Nancy's 14-year-old son, Shane. Yeah, that was pretty awesome. I can't wait for another season.
4. Hard Knocks (HBO) With so many great scripted programs on pay cable (and a lot that I don't watch on regular cable -- sorry, there's only so many hours in the day, fans of Rescue Me and Mad Men), I'm surprised I'm ranking a reality show so highly, but as always, HBO's 6-week foray into an NFL training camp was absolutely riveting and enjoyable and ended way too soon. This year they filmed the Bengals, who looked like they were run by the coaching rejects of the world, and based on what I'd seen on the show, will likely win less than 5 games (they lost in week 1 and didn't score until the fourth quarter). But the show doesn't so much focus on the football as it does on the fringe players struggling to make the team against great odds. So we follow along with Brian Leonard and DeDe Dorsey as they fight for the 3rd running back slot (they both made the team, but Leonard won the race), and with a pair of young safeties trying to make the final roster (one did, one got relegated to the practice squad). There were a lot of funny moments, a lot of sad moments (tight end Ben Utecht's concussion a day after being elevated to starter after Reggie Kelly's season-ending injury), and a lot of bizarre moments featuring OchoCinco. Child, please.
5. My Life on the D-List (Bravo) I've seen every season of Kathy Griffin's Emmy-winning reality show and it's never not funny or good. I don't think it was any worse this year, but with so much quality ahead of it, there wasn't much room for it to move up. This year's theme was Kathy hanging with A-List stars, and we saw a ton of them, from the hilarious trip to Miami with Gloria Estefan and Rosie O'Donnell, to legends like Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and Don Rickles. Even Barry Manilow makes an appearance, and according to one of my friends, you can't get any more A-List than that. And no, surprisingly, my friend is not gay. Weird.
6. Entourage (HBO) This season has focused much less on Vince and much more on Turtle and Eric, who are spreading their wings and making names for themselves outside of Vince's hemisphere, Eric by joining a legendary talent management firm and dating a crazy, big-headed girl, and Turtle by banging Jamie Lynn-Sigler of Sopranos fame. Vince never was the most interesting character on the show (and the actor playing him has been pretty dull all along), so I don't mind the divergent interests, but I never really liked Eric (he's possibly more dully played than Vince), and I definitely hate his big-headed girlfriend. Why he's gone for her and not the much hotter Sloan is beyond me. Of course, the show only truly shines when Ari is involved, and Ari's main problem has been his new employee Gary Cole, who was cheating on his wife Jami Gertz, which provided some great scenes of Gertz screaming, but for the most part, was kind of a downer of a story. I'm much more intrigued by the Ari/Lloyd feud that grew to a breaking point this week, and the implications that could have on the rest of the season's episodes.
7. The Next Food Network Star (Food) I would never have expected Melissa D'Arabian, the housewife without any culinary training and no on-camera experience, to win the competition, especially over the other finalist, Jeffrey, whose food looked (and according to judges, tasted) much better. But alas, Melissa was the champion and her new show $10 Meals has already been on the air for several weeks. I watched one episode. She's no Barefoot Contessa.
And I think that's it for shows that I watched this summer. Can't wait for the fall.