We are supposed to be living in a new golden age of television. But you would never know that from the new series this summer.
Despite months of hype about all the big names like Steven Soderbergh and Halle Berry who were going to be behind and in front of the cameras, none of the series even feels like silver at the halfway point of the season.
Big names alone do not make for golden TV. In fact, sometimes the big names are only using TV to pass off inferior work that couldn't get big-screen funding. Some actors and actresses choose to do TV because it fits their lifestyle at the moment — keeping them near home and on a fixed schedule rather than on a far-flung location making a film, for example.
But no critic wants to call out the creators and stars of the new shows. Who wants to be the one voice challenging the "golden age" consensus? That might make you look like you're out of it.
The on-screen evidence, though, is overwhelming. And the more I look at all the talent and money invested in these series, the angrier I get about the mediocre-to-wretched results.
Feature film director Guillermo del Toro's "The Strain" had a lot of buzz in advance of its debut on FX last week. But the buzz all but went away after 2.99 million viewers saw this series about a ghost plane and a guy in a pawnshop who has something in a jar in his back room that lives on human blood and is supposed to be real scary.
It felt laughable to me. And I can't imagine anyone over the age of 12 being impressed.
Really, "The Strain" felt to me like Saturday-morning programming aimed at boys in an earlier era.
And then there was Berry's heavily publicized debut two weeks ago in the CBS series "Extant" as an astronaut who comes back to earth after 13 months of supposedly being alone in space to find out she is pregnant. And, oh yeah, the "child" she already has, a robo-boy created by her engineer husband, is starting to act ... well, let's just say kind of freaky and mean.
"Extant" not only boasts Berry, it also has another Oscar winner producing it in Steven Spielberg. Berry is good enough that even when she is walking through a role, as she is here, she makes her character credible. But that's about the nicest thing I can say about Berry, her character or this flat, lifeless series.
Reviews elsewhere have been mixed, but outside of one or two, they are driven by a general tone of disappointment.
"Extant" drew an opening-week audience of 9.56 million viewers, making it the most-watched series of the week. But being the most-watched series of a week in July isn't anything to get excited about — especially when a series gets the kind of promotional push this one did.
Let's not waste too much time on "Halt and Catch Fire," which debuted in June on AMC and was supposed to be to the computer industry and the 1980s what "Mad Men" was to the advertising business and the '60s.
Actually, I am glad "Halt and Catch Fire" caught no cultural mojo — as punishment to AMC for cheapening the first season of "Mad Men" by comparing it to such superficial fare. I hope the people who run AMC know the vast difference between these two series and were only trying to trick viewers into watching the new series with their outrageous comparison.
And what about FX's "Tyrant," which has been hyped as the new "Homeland"?
Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli series on which "Homeland" is based, invented this series about a pediatrician from California who is drawn back into the heart of warfare, terrorism and tribalism upon the death of his father, the ruler of a small Middle Eastern country.
It's an intriguing idea, and the pilot was steeped in action and violence, but the leap of faith the viewer was asked to make with this return-to-the-tribe premise was too large — and Raff never made us care a whit about the primary American character, the prodigal son, played with clenched jaw and not much else by Adam Rayner.
The news only gets worse: What is yet to come in this hitless summer isn't any better.
On paper, no summertime title looked more promising to me than "The Honorable Woman," a miniseries starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the head of a company and foundation deeply engaged in West Bank politics. The British-made miniseries debuts July 31 on Sundance.
Hugo Blick wrote and directed the series, and he surrounds Gyllenhaal with a superlative British cast that includes Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan. Rea is outstanding as a jaded Brit spymaster.
So, what's not to like? Surprisingly, it's Gyllenhaal, who is in virtually every frame and gives a brittle performance. At first, I couldn't take my eyes off her. And then I realized there was nothing but surface. She either can't or won't go deep as an actress when this script calls for it.
I love that such a big-ticket entertainment project is willing to take on the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian politics. But Blick needed to be more deft in explaining those politics if he and Sundance are hoping for a mass U.S. audience. Byzantine plotting is to be applauded, but not when it leaves the viewer confused at key points in what is supposed to be a political thriller.
I suppose I have to say something about Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence playing lawyers in the FX sitcom "Partners," which debuts Aug. 4. Let's put it this way: If there is anything left of either's career, this should finish it off once and for all.
But here's a truly frightening thought: If "Partners" hits certain audience benchmarks for its first 10 episodes, FX is committed to buying 90 more from Grammer and Lawrence.
Finally, in this summer of big-name dross, comes "The Knick," a medical drama set in 1900 directed by Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen as a cocaine-addicted surgeon. The 10-hour series premieres on Cinemax starting Aug. 8.
People who never saw miniseries like "The Corner" in 2000 are calling such limited series the "new movie." Or is it the "new novel"? Or maybe it's the "new haiku." I'm being sarcastic.
The "new" talk comes from people who seem to know nothing of the medium's past. The dominant business model of British TV since the 1980s has been exactly this kind of limited series, which HBO then imitated in the U.S. Other cable and now Internet channels are finally catching up. There's nothing "new" about such series.
I have never seen a series try as hard to shock as "The Knick." From an opening shot of female frontal nudity, to Owen's character injecting himself between his toes as he prepares for surgery, it's one attempt after another to jolt the viewer. Did I mention the doctor's carriage passing a dead horse lying in the street or one of the goriest operations on a pregnant woman you will ever see in any medium?
All of that is in the first eight minutes.
And it all goes nowhere dramatically for the rest of the hour.
We are in a golden age — just look at Emmy nominees for best drama: "House of Cards," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "True Detective," "Downton Abbey" and "Game of Thrones."
But this summer, the new series offer up only fool's gold.