Networks Try to Revive Summer, And So Far, They're Very Trying

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The refrain couldn't be more familiar. Each summer, the broadcast networks announce with conviction that, after years of declining off-season ratings and cable surging with fresh shows to woo the audience away, they can no longer afford to put out the "Gone Fishing" sign.

But wouldn't a watering hole be preferable to a sinkhole? Because that's what this supposedly revolutionary TV summer, heralding a brave new year-round programming strategy, is beginning to resemble.

New can be good. When CBS dropped Survivor into the summer of 2000, America went crazy. Same thing with Fox's American Idol.

But this summer? There's not much good on—unless you check the cable listings, of course. Monk? Great to see you again. Nip/Tuck? Took you long enough to come back, you naughty scamp. Six Feet Under? Still overrated yet still fascinating. Which is more than you can say for the majority of the network newbies, unless you nurse a morbid fascination for mediocrity.

The Drew Carey Show? Uh, no thanks. We thought you were dead, which would have been a kinder fate than producing a final season nobody wanted. And Come to Papa? Even by NBC's wobbly comedy standards, that's such a pathetic burnoff it could make you pine for the lost episodes of Good Morning, Miami. (Not to give NBC any ideas, mind you.)

After watching the electrifying season finales of HBO's Deadwood and FX's The Shield, enthralled and inspired by the originality and daring of dramas that keep getting better with each groundbreaking episode, it becomes even easier to make the snap judgment that the broadcast networks have just about given up. It seems an awfully distant memory that, once upon a time, CBS swung the bat during the summer and introduced us to the charmingly offbeat residents of a place called Cicely, Alaska, in Northern Exposure.

This summer, we've mainly been exposed to rehashes of things we've seen before and for the most part done better, especially in the oversaturated world of contrived reality programming. NBC is doing well with the second season of Last Comic Standing, but is another amateur talent competition—the woeful Last Action Star
—really necessary? The less said about ABC's Ultimate Love Test the better.

Even the grand Pooh-Bah of reality, the estimable Mark Burnett, has crapped out creatively with Fox's repugnant yet surprisingly dull The Casino.

Imagine The Apprentice without a larger-than-life Trump, The Restaurant without a self-destructively self-absorbed Rocco or his sympathetic mama. That's Casino.
All it offers, like so much of this summer's flotsam, is a too-familiar formula and a desperation to pander to fill the void where charismatic characters and authentic conflict should be.

The would-be stars of the show, two smug dotcom tyros who took over Las Vegas's Golden Nugget, add up to less than zero on camera. After roping longtime pal Andre Agassi into investing with them, one says, in a manufactured sound bite, "Business just got personal." (And reality TV just got a little more scripted, even phonier than usual.)

Casino's desire to shock is almost endearingly quaint, kind of like those allegedly titillating Vegas showgirl revues. The pilot included a feeble set-up gag about an obnoxious high roller making the moves on a woman who turns out to be a guy, and too much time spent with a frat-boy bacchanalia in which the token nerdy "virgin" guy is cheered on as he removes a party girl's whipped-cream bikini with his face.

Disappointing as it is, The Casino probably has more potential than most of the rest of Fox's aggressive summer onslaught, a half-dozen shows in all (including a second helping of the overexposed Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie reality-comedy The Simple Life). The network's goal is obvious: to get some traction before post-season baseball comes along and throws everything into disarray. It worked last year with The O.C.

But Fox seems to have ignored the lesson of that little gem. The O.C. smartly tweaked a shopworn cliché (the teen soap set against a 90210-like world of privilege) by infusing it with self-referential humor and introducing genuinely witty characters like Adam Brody's Seth Cohen. The result is one of the most disarmingly enjoyable escapist serials since the heyday of Dynasty and Melrose Place.

This summer, we're stuck with North Shore, a painfully lackluster Hawaii Hotel
knockoff that's about as savory as a tainted poi platter. I can't be sure, but I don't think it's trying to be a comedy. Neither, apparently, is Quintuplets, which, if it had been scheduled for fall, would have been a front-runner in the annual derby to guess which Fox series will never make it to air. Poor Andy Richter, who plays the dad.

On the other hand, Method & Red at least has the feel of a trademark Fox comedy: crude and silly but funny, as it pits hip-hop duo Method Man and Redman against their uptight neighbors in a gated New Jersey suburb.

Fox is rarely accused of being too deep or serious, but when it tries to be, well, it just shouldn't. Aiming high didn't exactly work for The Jury, Fox's numbing attempt to introduce a serious legal drama—albeit one with frantic cross-cutting among jury room, courtroom flashbacks, and crime-scene footage—amid all the goof fluff on the schedule. It's the wrong show on the wrong network at the wrong time.

And so far at least, from broadcast networks, it's the wrong summer. This is the one in which quantity got greenlighted, not quality.

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