Monday, September 7, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Thanks to cable channels broadcasting their original shows at odd times of the year to avoid competing with network fare, summer is no longer quite the TV doldrums it once was. I’ve sampled quite a few of these shows this summer, some of which I’m very attached to now. So, here’s how I spent my summer vacation (when not studying for or taking the bar exam, that is).

1. In Plain Sight

The Premise: Inspector Mary Shannon is a U.S. Marshal assigned to WITSEC, the program that relocates witnesses in high profile federal criminal trials to protect them from retaliation by the people they’re testifying against. Each week Mary, her partner Marshall, and their boss Stan protect a different witness, and trouble usually ensues. Mary also faces her share of home drama, as she lives with her recently sober mom Jinx, her younger sister with a kind of sordid past Brandi, and her new fiancĂ© Raphael.

The Run-down: This show has its ups and downs, but the good generally outweighs the bad. Some of the witnesses of the week are very compelling, like a structural engineer played by Clark Peters (Detective Freamon on “The Wire”) who wants to commit suicide after a bridge he designed collapses. Other witness of the week stories are too farfetched to hold my interest. An example would be the witness in the second season finale which aired this summer. The witness in that episode was a revolutionary from a South American country who angered her government when she tried to organize factory workers. The CIA pulled her out of the country and wanted to fake her death, and they asked Mary to watch over her. I also don’t love the plots about Mary’s family life, because they tend to run towards the over-dramatic, although Mary’s family has been somewhat toned down from the shrill first season finale. The thing that I appreciate most about "In Plain Sight" are the scenes that take place in court rooms. IPS is the only show remotely law related that I can stand to watch because for the most part, they get courtroom scenes right. Or at least they get the big stuff right. Direct examinations sound like they’re supposed to, and there are only leading questions on cross. IPS is truly the only show I can say that about, which is definitely a huge point in its favor.

2. Psych

The Premise: Shawn Spencer and his best friend Burton “Gus” Guster run Psych, a “Psychic Detective Agency.” Shawn, however, is not actually a psychic. He has been trained by his cop father Henry to be extremely observant and use his photographic memory to his advantage. Shawn and Gus get most of their work from the Santa Barbara Police Department, where they often work with Detectives Carlton Lassiter and Juliet O’Hara. Outside of their detective agency, Shawn has a somewhat tempestuous, but usually supportive, relationship with his dad, and Gus is a pharmaceutical sales rep.

The run-down: Other than an ill-conceived short arc involving Shawn’s mother at the beginning of season 3, "Psych" is, for the most part, good silly fun. The mysteries in each episode are pretty simple, but it’s the funny banter between the characters, especially Shawn and Gus, that keep me tuning in. "Psych" has heart. Shawn and Gus are best friends since childhood, and it’s obvious in every episode that they really do care about each other. It has also been fun to watch Detective Lassiter, once a thorn in Shawn’s side, begrudgingly come to respect what Shawn does, even if he knows Shawn isn’t really a psychic. "Psych’s" summer half of the season only started a few weeks ago, but so far the episodes have been the light fun or horror movie spoofs that Psych does well. The only thing I’m not thrilled with so far this season is Shawn’s new girlfriend, Abigail. Shawn doesn’t really seem to care about her all that much, and she’s very meddlesome. In the second episode this season, she met Henry behind Shawn’s back because she wanted to “fix” Shawn and Henry’s relationship. Anyone who watches "Psych" knows that Shawn and Henry, even though they may not admit it, actually have a pretty great father/son relationship.

3. Leverage

The Premise: Nate Ford used to be an insurance claims investigator until his own company denied a claim for cutting edge treatment that could save his son’s life. Nate teams up with “grifter” Sophie, “hitter” Eliot, “hacker” Hardison, and “thief” Parker to form Leverage, Inc. The Leverage team finds people who have been victimized by big corporations and cons the executives of those corporations. The goal is to get some monetary relief for the client and embarrass the executives. The team doesn’t really get along at first, but as they take more clients, they begin to rely on and trust in one another.

The Run-down: I love heist movies, so I find "Leverage" to be a lot of fun. It’s sort of like a 40 minute mini-heist movie every week. The characters on "Leverage" aren’t quite as well developed as the characters in many of the shows I watch, because the focus is usually more on the con, but I enjoy watching the team do their thing so much that it doesn’t matter. It’s interesting to see the variety of methods they can use to accomplish their goal. Sometimes they want to steal a specific item, sometimes they want to mess with the executive psychologically. The team seems to have gone the psychological route more frequently in recent episodes. In “The Order 23 Job,” they took over the floor of a hospital to make a man who had conned countless people out of money think he had a horribly contagious disease. In “The Three Days of the Hunter Job,” the team made a cable news network “reporter” that thrived on her viewers’ fears think she had a lead on a huge story so she would embarrass herself on the air. I prefer the more straightforward heist episodes, however, and last week’s episode, “The Two Live Crew Job,” which saw Nate and the crew go up against a rival team of thieves, did not disappoint.

4. True Blood

The Premise: Sookie Stackhouse is a barmaid at Merlotte’s Bar and Grill in the small, sleepy, Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps. Sookie tries to be unobtrusive and live an ordinary life, but that’s difficult because she is a telepath. She hears the thoughts of everyone else, and it’s difficult to maintain relationships when you know exactly what the other person is thinking. Everything changes when Bill, a vampire, walks into Merlotte’s one night, because Sookie can’t hear his thoughts. Through Bill, Sookie is introduced to the world of the supernatural beings, or “supes.” Vampires have recently “come out of the coffin” and announced their presence to the general public, but there are shifters and werewolves too. Sookie juggles her everyday life and supernatural politics, occasionally solving a murder along the way.

The Run-down: I got hooked on "True Blood" at first because every episode ended on a cliffhanger, and I wanted to see what happened next. Watching the show encouraged me to start reading the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, the series upon which the show was based. Now, I enjoy "True Blood" for the opportunity to spend a little time in the world of Bon Temps. The production design on the show is so excellent that I feel like I’m transported to the world of the books for about 50 minutes each week. To fill twelve episodes a season, Alan Ball, the creator of the show, and his writing staff have expanded upon and developed incidental characters from the books to have whole plotlines of their own. Sometimes this works very well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, this season, Sookie’s best friend Tara, who is sort of an amalgam of the characters of Tara and Amelia from the books, has been under the influence of a maenad, Maryann. This plotline seems like little more than an opportunity to show gratuitous violence and sex, and it really isn’t all that interesting. On the other hand, one of the more interesting storylines of the season has been the story of Hoyt, a member of the parish road crew, and Jessica, a newly-made vampire. Hoyt is pretty much a background townie character in the books, and Jessica is not even in the books, yet these characters are extremely compelling on screen. Overall, True Blood is an addictive way to spend your summer!

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