Pop Culture — Worth every penny you pay

Worth every penny you pay

by Michelle Saturley

The best series aren’t on network TV, they’re courtesy of your cable box 

Desperate Housewives? Yawn. Survivor? Who cares? Joey? Oh, please. The big networks (NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX) have nothing on the premium channels (HBO, Showtime, F/X, A&E). Cable series usually have a bigger production budget, better writing and fewer — if any — commercials. They’re also free of many of the censorship constraints of the major networks. Just imagine how much cooler shows like 24, Lost or even CSI could be if they were on HBO instead.

But just like with the networks, you have to be careful in cable-land. Since the success of HBO’s original series like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, it seems like pay channels are coming out of the woodwork with their own shows, hoping to get a piece of the market share. But not all of them are worth your time. Here’s the cream of the crop:

Deadwood (HBO, Sundays 9 p.m.) Sure, this western is famous for its frequent and inventive use of the F-bomb, but there is so much more to love. First and foremost, there’s Al Swearengen, the most feared and respected man in the gold mining settlement camp, played with gusto by British actor Ian McShane. The acting, costumes and characters are teeming with realism, since the setting itself is steeped in early American history. The writing is simply brilliant. This is appointment TV. Sorry, Housewives.

The Shield (F/X, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.) The groundbreaking cop show garnered a lot of attention early in its lifespan for its gritty cinematography and violence, but the show has evolved into a riveting, character-driven drama. Michael Chiklis rules as Vic Mackey, a morally conflicted, tough-guy cop with a mean streak the size of California. This season has been rejuvenated with the addition of Glenn Close as the Barn’s new hard-as-nails captain, Monica Rawlings.

Six Feet Under (HBO, Mondays, 9 p.m.) The final season of this top-notch ensemble drama begins Monday, June 6. Now is the perfect time to get caught up on the last three seasons, all of which are available on DVD or via Comcast On Demand. The action centers on the often emotionally repressed Fisher family and their business: a funeral home.

The Sopranos (HBO, on hiatus) Hands-down, the best show on television — period. For the last two seasons, the Soprano crime family has been the subject of a major FBI sting operation. The bait-and-switch cliffhanger at the end of last season left fans of Tony (James Gandolfini) breathing a sigh of relief — but for how long? Now that Johnny Sack has been pinched by the Feds, who’s next? How will Tony handle the emotional fallout after killing his favorite cousin (played by the fabulous Steve Buscemi)? And how long before Carmela (Edie Falco) figures out what really happened to poor Adrianna (Drea de Matteo)? Fans of the mob drama have been waiting a long time for season six, but this show is so good, it’s worth the wait. Please, let the rumors of a season seven be true.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, on hiatus) Seinfeld co-creator Larry David makes George Constanza look positively smooth in this improv-laden comedy. Sure, David is rich and famous, but his long-suffering wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) can’t take him anywhere. Why? Because David was born with no inner filter; his standard mode of operation is open mouth, insert foot. In past seasons, he’s made enemies out of professional wrestlers, weathermen, pro basketball players and even friends like Ben Stiller, Alanis Morissette, Wanda Sykes and Julia Louis Dreyfus. Who will Larry piss off this season? The countdown is on. Meanwhile, catch up with Larry and friends with HBO On Demand.

The L Word (Showtime, Sunday, 10 p.m.) You want beautiful women, gorgeous clothes and lots of hot, sexy drama? Nothing on network television comes close to this racy ensemble show about a group of fabulous lesbians living the high life in trendy L.A. It’s got elements of a soap opera, but it’s so much smarter. Jennifer Beals (Flashdance), Mia Kirshner (24), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) and a stellar supporting cast of actresses don’t just make lesbians cool — they show them as regular people, too.

MI-5 (A&E, on hiatus) If you like FOX’s spy drama 24, you will love this frenetically paced British import. The dedicated agents of MI-5 thwart domestic terrorism in the British isles every single day — and nobody ever says “thank you.” Compelling acting by Peter Firth, who plays the head of the division, as well as the dreamy Matthew Macfayden, who plays top agent Tom Quinn, make this drama even more exciting and realistic.

Project Greenlight (Bravo, Thursday, 10 p.m.) This reality show originated on HBO, but recently jumped ship to Bravo. Project Greenlight was the love child of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wanted to discover unknown screenwriters and directors and give them their big chance…. to lose tons of Miramax’s money. The last two seasons were compelling television, but the films made during the series were box office bombs. This time around, Damon and Affleck have scrapped the previous formula and recruited horror master Wes Craven to guide the winners through the process of making a scary movie. So far, the behind-the-scenes diva shenanigans and meltdowns have been way more scream-worthy.

Penn and Teller: Bullshit! (Showtime, Monday, 10 p.m.) Another smart, funny reality show, this one takes a wry, unflinching look at some of the biggest misconceptions and urban legends in modern society, and skewers them mercilessly. Vegas showmen Penn and Teller debunked the bottled water craze, investigated the real worth of recycling on the environment, deconstructed the Bible and uncovered the truth about ESP — and that was all in one season.

The Wire (HBO, on hiatus). It’s the thinking person’s cop show about the Baltimore Police Department and their never-ending war on drugs, from the dealers in the hood to the corrupt politicians and labor union leaders who pull the strings. This show took a few chances to get into, but once I did, I found it nothing short of addictive. There are heroes and villains on both sides of the drug war, and the smart writing and tangled web of deceit makes it hard to tell the difference. But that’s half the fun. Season four is due to return in early 2006, so catch up with Jimmy McNulty, Bunk, and Stringer Bell either On Demand or on DVD.

- Michelle Saturley

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