Hippo Manchester
August 11, 2005

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Hot summer television fun

Once the dismal lair of repeats and golf, season now offers cool new shows

By Amy Diaz

I remember when those pre-season episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 were big news in summer programming.

Now, summer is no longer a three- to five-month television dead zone but a season where new series flourish. HBO has set the pace with its ongoing series and now other cable networks and the broadcast networks seem fully committed to rolling out summer seasons that, if not as complete as their fall counterpoints, offer variety and several break-out series.

FX has made the best use of the never-ending desire for new stuff to watch. It finished The Shield during the early part of the summer and recently has started up its new season of Rescue Me. Using these fan favorites as launching pads, FX has introduced a group of other new shows, including Morgan Spurlockís 30 Days, Over There and, last week, new comedies Starved and Itís Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Elsewhere on the dial, USA chose summer as the time to introduce the latest season of Monk and TNT launched the addictive The Closer.

Over on the networks, mini-series seem to be the next big thing, with ABC running Hooking Up and Empire. And, of course, reality ó Rock Star INXS, Brat Camp ó still rules.

Hopefully, this ever-growing summer season will become a place to try out new shows, new formats and new talent. With less at stake ó competing against reruns of Lost is not the same thing as competing against Lost ó television has an opportunity to take a chance and find shows that, even if they donít make it to primetime in the fall ó at least have us tuning in during the off months.

Here are three of the latest shows to enter the summer fray.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Mondays, 10 p.m. on Travel Channel. **1/2

To say that Anthony Bourdain is a conceited blowhard is to understate the enormity of his ego and the degree to which he considers his own opinion important.

Seldom have I seen, in real life or on television, someone so in love with himself who isnít an elected official. Perhaps it is us in the American public who have so convinced him of his own brilliance. After all, many of us devoured his book Kitchen Confidential and begged for more. Or maybe it was his years as a restaurantís head chef that has created in him an expectation of adoration. Or perhaps heís just full of himself. Whatever it is, itís amazing that his entire head is able to fit in the frame of my  television.

A foodie who likes simple authentic food done right, Bourdain always has been willing to travel for food and to explain his finds in occasionally crude but easy to understand language. You donít have to be a master chef to understand what he likes about the vast meat market he visits in Paris during his first episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. As he walks past rabbit, duck, venison and some truly magnificent cuts of beef, even those of us who never got farther than Quebec City understand his love of French foods. He praises the use of country recipes (usually a simple blend of flavors slow-cooked) and using in-season meats, to ensure each bite is the best possible. That heís there at all is part of the fun of his food travel show ó no Louvre or Eiffel Tower for him, Bourdainís tourism is all about the countryís genuine eats.

This is actually a tremendously cool way to look at travel. Forget four-stars, forget postcard sights. Soak in the culture of the place you visit, live their lives. And his off-the-beaten-path approach to picking a restaurant is nice as well. These were not the guidebook picks but the neighborhood places that looked interesting to him.

The show suffers from Bourdainís ego inflation only during the traditional travel-show lulls, when heís between outings or not with another person on screen and forced to interact with only the behind-the-camera guys. Itís a fine line a travel show must walk, between look-how-cool-this-is enthusiasm and Iím-here-and-youíre-not bragging. Bourdain stays on the right side of that line 80 percent of the time.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations will not teach you how to cook or tell you where to stay in a foreign country but it is far more entertaining than the slide-show-of-your-friends-cool-vacation that it closely resembles.

Situation: Comedy, Tuesday, 8 p.m. on Bravo **

Ah, the hopes and dreams of a writer ó is there anything more easily crushed?

Shows like Project: Greenlight and now Situation: Comedy are perhaps the cruelest of the cruel reality talent shows because writers (unlike many dancers and singers) are not outgoing and magnetic people. They donít have skills that can be easily shown off at parties. They are people who live and die based on the decisions of some harsh editor, reviewer or, in this case, network executive.

Early on in Situation: Comedy a group of semi-finalists pitches sitcom scripts to industry professionals including Will & Graceís Sean Hayes, one of Situation: Comedyís executive producers. Watching them grasp for the right words, lamely tell jokes that bomb and try desperately to remember simple things (like the premise of their scripts), I couldnít help but think of a scene in Adaptation, the movie with Nicholas Cage. A screenwriter, Cageís character is meeting with a studio executive. On the outside, they are having a business-related conversation; on the inside, Cageís running dialogue is an increasingly desperate plea with himself to stop sweating. The semi-finalists in Situation: Comedy, a reality series that will produce the pilot of two sitcoms that will battle for one NBC time slot, seemed to have similar running dialogs ó ďRemember name.Ē ďDonít swear.Ē

I mention this because this part of Situation: Comedy, the inner dialogue that we donít hear, it most likely the funniest part. In the first episode, 10,000 scripts are pared down to two scripts. In the second episode, the preproduction begins. As with Project: Greenlight, most of the entertainment value comes when the raw, inexperienced, idealistic writers butt heads with the commercial-success-motivated executives. Snarky, entertaining and a little shaming, these conflicts are the most interesting part of the process.

However, as with Project: Greenlight, the exact point when the show has the greatest potential to be interesting (when the Hollywood greenhorns stop being polite) it usually starts to sink under the new-found arrogance of the participants.

This is particularly too bad for Situation: Comedy. Because for a show that holds as its goal producing at sitcom which will save the genre, Situation: Comedy does not have a sense of humor.