Surf's Up For Tv

Grab the remote: Summer isn't just for reruns anymore as two Baltimore institutions star in documentaries

May 26, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

For half a century, fall TV has been a time of new series and original episodes, while summer was thought of as the doldrums of rerun programs.

But not this year -- as more networks and channels move to the year-round programming model pioneered by Fox and cable TV. The glitter and streamers have barely been swept away from the stage of American Idol, and a new television season is already under way.

And this summer, viewers will be offered some of the finest programs of the year -- ranging from new episodes of the medium's best dramas, Mad Men (AMC) and The Closer (TNT), to highly rated reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance to outstanding HBO and ABC News documentaries focused on famous Baltimore institutions.

Here's a look at some of the best docs, dramas, detectives and dancers headed for the small screen in coming weeks and months.

Documentaries

Academy Award-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond turn their cameras on the classrooms of one of Baltimore's most storied high schools in Hard Times at Douglass High, which premieres June 23 on HBO.

Using the cinema verite (fly on the wall) documentary style that they helped pioneer in such landmark films as An American Family (PBS, 1973), the Raymonds offer a compelling and nuanced look at life in this Baltimore school. Filmed across an entire school year, there's plenty of drama generated by the struggle of teachers, administrators and students trying to meet the requirements of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act -- or face severe sanctions.

Parts of the story are not pretty -- such as the filmmakers' claim that some 50 percent of the school's 500-plus freshmen will not be back for a sophomore year, or image after image of boarded-up rowhouses that open the film on a tone similar to that of HBO's drama The Wire.

But, in the end, Hard Times at Douglass High does something few films, books, plays or TV shows have ever done: It makes you care about the kids, teachers, schools and their futures.

Nobody does documentaries on TV like HBO, and the Raymonds' film is only one in a stellar summer lineup that will air Monday nights starting June 9 with Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired by Marina Zenovich.

ABC also has a documentary from an acclaimed filmmaker that looks at life in Baltimore, with Hopkins, a six-part series that takes viewers backstage at Johns Hopkins Hospital beginning June 26.

The film, which is not yet available for preview, is the work of ABC News executive producer Terry Wrong, who first brought the life-and-death stories of the world-renowned hospital to network primetime in 2000 with Hopkins 24/7. In addition to winning major awards, the series drew audiences as large as 12 million a night -- proving there is a mass audience for quality nonfiction storytelling on network TV.

In an interview with The Sun while he was filming last summer, Wrong said Hopkins will focus on the "making" of young doctors.

Dramas

AMC has not yet set a date, but the cable channel is promising a July return for the second season of Mad Men, the stylish series about life on Madison Avenue circa 1960. Created and produced by Matthew Weiner, a one-time Park School student who has gone on to win Emmys for writing and producing on HBO's The Sopranos, the series has single-handedly given AMC a new identity as a home of top-flight original drama. Fifteen episodes are scheduled to air during the summer.

The Closer, cable TV's highest-rated drama, will also return in July, though the exact date has not been set. Starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, assistant chief of an elite homicide unit in the Los Angeles Police Department, the TNT crime series drew audiences of more than 8 million viewers a week, a new high for basic cable TV.

Saving Grace, a companion TNT crime drama starring Oscar-winner Holly Hunter as a troubled police detective, is also scheduled to start a new season in July.

Detectives

The Brit boy detectives are back in high style on PBS this summer with the new Masterpiece Mystery! series offering the final three hours of Foyle's War, as well as new episodes of Lewis and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Lewis is the spinoff of the Inspector Morse series that ended with the death of John Thaw, who played the acerbic Oxford sleuth. But his side kick, Sgt. Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately), lives on as a recently promoted inspector with his own sergeant played winningly by Laurence Fox (Gosford Park).

The series begins June 22 with an episode of Lewis that finds the widowed detective investigating a group of men who used to be devotees of the god Dionysus during their undergraduate days -- and appear to now be into murder. The writing is as clever as ever, and while no one will ever replace Thaw, Whately has his own sad-sack, straight-shooting, irascible charm.

Alan Cumming, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret, serves as host this summer to Masterpiece Mystery!

Dancers

Viewers were hardly given a chance to decompress from Fox's Idol and ABC's Dancing with the Stars, when Fox relaunched last year's highest-rated summertime series, So You Think You Can Dance, on Thursday.

Last summer's second-most-popular show, America's Got Talent, returns June 17 on NBC. That's the talent contest in which Bel Air teen Julienne Irwin did so well. The aspiring country singer eventually lost out to a ventriloquist, but her performances were among the highlights of the competition.

Dreck

Lest anyone come away with the mistaken impression that bad summertime programming has disappeared altogether, NBC offers new episodes of American Gladiator starting tonight at 8.

And let's not prejudge, but one can hardly wait to see what happens when ABC debuts its new summer series, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, on June 24. The reality competition takes 10 Americans to Japan and chronicles the culture shock as they go head to head on a TV game show.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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