Idris Elba, Laura Linney, Russell Crowe: Summertime is TV's best time for fine drama

Idris Elba as DCI John Luther in Season 5 of "Luther."
Idris Elba as DCI John Luther in Season 5 of "Luther."(Des Willie/BBCAmerica)

Idris Elba, Russell Crowe, Emma Thompson, Ben Kingsley, Ruth Wilson and Laura Linney. Even in an era that has rightfully come to be known as a golden age of TV drama, that’s a lot of talent for any new season.

But that’s only part of the lineup for dramas premiering just in June on cable or streamed TV.


June has long been my favorite month of the TV year. For decades, when network TV dominated the medium and critics slavishly acted like nothing could compare with new fall seasons, cable counter-programmed by saving some of its best material for summers. As the broadcast networks went dark in the summer in terms of new programs, cable introduced many of its best and most daring productions in June.

Even though cable and streamed TV now own the high ground and networks are largely junked-out prime-time repositories for reality and competition shows, the tradition of outstanding cable programming arriving in June continues. This month is as good or better than any in recent memory.


It starts Sunday night with Elba in the return of “Luther” for a four-episode fifth season, and it goes straight through June 30 with Crowe in the premiere of the first of seven episodes of Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” a docu-drama about the rise and cosmic fall of Roger Ailes, founder of the Fox News Network and sexual predator with women who worked there.

Crowe’s performance as Ailes is the one everyone will be talking about. And the buzz is totally deserved. But the focus on Crowe is also partially the result of some critics and viewers taking the greatness of Elba as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther for granted after four seasons.

Here are some of the productions that I have seen or will be going out of my way to see this month.

Luther (BBC America)

The first shot of DCI Luther in Sunday’s opener shows him getting out of his car as he abandons it to pursue a suspect on foot. It’s a star shot with the camera in such a tight close-up that Elba fills the entire screen as he rises from his seat to his feet.

Not that he needs any extra help from the camera. Few actors have as big and powerful a screen presence Elba.

In a profile I did of him in 2013, Emmy-Award-winning casting director Pat Moran, who worked with Elba on “The Wire,” compared the London-born actor to Clark Gable.

Elba is that big-screen big even on the small screens of TV and computers, and it’s not about his actual size. His presence in “Luther” is more a matter of body language and attitude. He plays big.

But, as Moran pointed out, he can also balance that power with charm and an appealing vulnerability.

It’s all there in the first episode Sunday night.

It took me about 10 minutes to settle back into the depravity and incredible violence of the world Luther tries to police. But once you get the feel again for the rhythm, logic and, yes, even poetry of this series, you are reminded what an edgy, mad, dark, dramatic ride it can be.

And what a supporting cast with the likes of Patrick Malahide, as the gangster George Cornelius, and Wunmi Mosaku, as Luther’s partner DS Catherine Halliday. As for Wilson’s portrayal of the mercurial, mad and brilliant Alice Morgan, she is simply too good to be true.

The term “psycho-sexual jamboree” is used by one of the characters to sarcastically describe one of the relationships in the series, and it’s perfect for the twisted mash-up of sex and power at the heart of Season 5.


Season 5 starts Sunday (June 2) at 8 p.m.

Perpetual Grace, LTD (Epix)

Ben Kingsley stars as Pastor Byron Brown, half of the ministry known to its parishioners as Pa and Ma.

Ma is played by Jacki Weaver.

Ma and Pa are have made millions bilking members of their congregation, and now their estranged son has found and coached a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) into to trying to rob them of $4 million.

After all the cop dramas set on hard, urban streets that I’ve been screening, it took me a few minutes to adjust to the long, flt, panoramic images of New Mexico that serve as the canvas for this series.

But it took me no time to fall under the spell of Kingsley’s performance.

Premieres Sunday (June 2) at 10 p.m.

Tales of the City (Netflix)

Olympia Dukakis and Linney return from “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City,” a 1990s delight that first aired in the U.S. on PBS.

I loved that production and the way it made city living seem magical.

I haven’t seen this version yet. I don’t know if I am ready to go back and risk my fond memories of the original with a new production almost 25 years later.

Premieres June 7.

Los Espookys (HBO)

This six-part, off-beat, Spanish-language comedy with English subtitles was created by Julio Torres, Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen.

The premise: A group of friends use their love of horror to create a business providing horror and fantasy in a Latin American country. Filmed in Chile.

Premieres June 14.

City on a Hill (Showtime)

This crime drama starring Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge is set in the 1990s in Boston. Bacon is a unconventional FBI agent, while Aldis looks like a straight-arrow prosecutor.

The series has a big-name roster of executive producers including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. But the two EPs who caught my eye are Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. The latter is listed as show runner.

Levinson and Fontana have been doing urban crime drama on TV for a while now — since their “Homicide: Life on the Street,” about the homicide police in Baltimore, debuted on NBC in 1993.

Talk about a 1990s drama that was ahead of its time in terms of diversity with superb actors like Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto and Clark Johnson in leading roles.

“City on a Hill” is very much about race, from the very first thing viewers see on the screen, a script saying, “In October 1989, a white man, — CHARLES “Chuck” STUART — killed his wife, wounded himself and then claimed the killer was black.”

But characters from a show set in another era talking about race on TV today can be complicated, especially when the characters say some of the things uttered by Jackie Rohr, the corrupt FBI agent played by Bacon.

I need to see more before making a call on this one.

But given Fontana’s credential as the creator of the groundbreaking HBO prison, “Oz,” which he and Levinson produced, I’ll be back for more than the three episodes made available for screening.

Premieres June 16.

Years and Years (HBO)

How about Emma Thompson starring as a member of Parliament? Does that sound intriguing enough for you?

I can’t wait to see this one written by Russell T. Davies, who did “Queer as Folk” and “Doctor Who,” when it premieres on June 24.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime)

This is the one production not to miss this summer based on the two episodes made available for screening.

There are seven episodes in all tracing the arc of one of the most spectacular and culturally significant careers in the history of television.


When Ailes was fired by Fox after a sexual harassment lawsuit by former network host Gretchen Carlson, his career was mostly being defined by his mistreatment of women. But as this series demonstrates, there’s much more to say about the ways the former political operative changed cable news and changed American politics.

I am not sure what to make of the early focus by critics on the physical transformation of Crowe into Ailes. Yes, the makeup is great, and looking the part matters tremendously in a visual medium.

Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes
Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes(Photo courtesy of Showtime)

But I wonder if the focus on the look of Crowe as Ailes is symptomatic of what a superficial and visual culture we have become after more than half century under the influence of network TV.

I am surprised by all the talk about the makeup Crowe wears because it is the performance he delivers that so impressed me.

Like Elba, Crowe’s onscreen presence is awesome. He uses his body in ways that are reminiscent of an older Marlon Brando.

This actor who once played the title character in the 2000 movie “Gladiator” has himself been hobbled by injuries suffered during such action roles. But he incorporates those injuries into his every movement as Ailes until you can almost feel his lumbering, looming presence in the halls of Fox News through the screen.

And when he explodes, as he often does at both underlings and nominal bosses, you understand why he was so feared by some.

Yet, in tribute to the script and Crowe’s performance, even after just the first two episodes, you also have a sense of why and how he also inspired such loyalty from others.

I hope to see all seven episodes before it premieres, so I can drill down on it at the depth it deserves.

But “The Loudest Voice” already looks to be one of the most compelling and culturally significant TV productions of the year.

Premieres June 30.

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