Jewel, Kara DioGuardi Jewel, Kara DioGuardi

A quick rundown of highs and lows from the first week of what's going to be a busy summer season.

TV didn't even take Memorial Day weekend off — to the delight of fans of Sunday's two top cable dramas. High point of the week: HBO's Game of Thrones, which has been pretty magnificent from the start and is truly hitting its stride now. Good news for the loyal viewer and fan of epic fantasy, but bad news for noble Ned Stark, who loses his patron when Fat King Robert is gutted by a boar ("murdered by a pig," he scoffs, although suspicion is now falling on the squire who ladled him with booze on the hunt). Poor solemn Ned isn't much of one for bluffing against his dastardly enemies, especially the evil Queen Cersei, who lays out the series' theme (and title) as she warns him, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."

Ned's high road appears to be the road to ruin, as he defies the ascension to the Iron Throne of Bratty Prince Joffrey, the spoiled spawn of Lannister twin-cest between Cersei and Jaime. Named Lord Regent and Protector of the Realm at Robert's deathbed, Ned maneuvers to bring Robert's brother Stannis to rule as the "rightful heir," but he refuses to play dirty by striking first against the wicked Lannisters: "I will not dishonor Robert's last hours by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds." Oh, Ned, WHY NOT?? Anyone else in the corrupt corridors of King's Landing would.

So as he confronts the Queen and her icky Princeling on the throne, believing he has the City Watch at his back, Ned is betrayed, his own men slaughtered as Littlefinger (whore-master and keeper of the coin) holds a knife to his throat, cackling, "I did warn you not to trust me."

The only thing missing in this terrific episode was our favorite Imp, Tyrion. But as a consolation, we meet his dad, the fearsome Lannister patriarch Tywin (a taut Charles Dance), who in the mesmerizing opening scene schools the dashing Jaime while skinning a stag in full camera view. (This is not a show for the squeamish.) Point made: The Lannisters are butchers. Worse news for the Starks.

Meanwhile, Ned's bastard son Jon Snow learns to his chagrin as he takes his Night's Watch vows that he's been assigned as a steward, not a ranger. But he'll be tending the Lord Commander, so at least he'll be close to the seat of power when the time comes. What Jon really wants to do is ride beyond the Wall and find what happened to his missing Uncle Benjen. One grisly clue as he takes his vows before a ghostly tree that looks as if it's weeping blood: Ned's wolf emerges carrying a severed hand in his mouth. (As the captured wild woman tells her hosts at Riverfell, "There's things that sleep in the day and hunt at night" beyond the Wall. Creepy.) And in the land of the Dothraki, when an assassination attempt against Daenerys involving tainted wine is thwarted, warrior husband Drogo vows to cross the sea and claim the throne for his pregnant Dragon Queen: "I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses," he howls. So much conflict, so much territory to cover in the next three episodes.

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WHEN IT RAINS ... It must be AMC's The Killing, which finds most of its main characters rocked by the aftermath of Stan Larsen's brutal beating of no-longer-a-suspect Bennet Ahmed. Stan turns himself in, and Mitch learns their money problems are much worse than she thought. Stan's skeevy sidekick Belko is also in for a rough ride, subjected to tough interrogation after our hapless detectives discover Rosie took a cab back home from the Ahmeds, and Belko was playing house there while his Dream Family was away. (Who can blame him after meeting his ghastly mother and peeking into his Norman Bates bedroom plastered with Larsen family snapshots?) Another false lead, alas, though clearly Belko has earned a visit to some psycho ward. But it all leads to Sarah Linden connecting the dots that Rosie's rendezvous with the mysterious "Adela" wasn't with a person, but with a ferry that shuttles people to a casino.

The biggest mystery of this episode, though, involves Sarah's relationships with her acting-out son, Jack (who has every right to be resentful), and her impatient (for good reason) boyfriend Rick. Why does she think it's better for Jack to take him off the houseboat where he's been partying in her absence and dump him in a ratty motel with no supervision whatsoever? And is Rick using up too many frequent flyer miles hopping back and forth from L.A. to Seattle to coerce Sarah (to no avail) to quit the case and start a new life? (As if.) On this latest unlikely visit, at least Rick spills some back story suggesting some past case landed Sarah in a hospital where she spent time staring at a blank wall. If she doesn't get her act together soon and solve this murder, she won't be the only one courting a severe case of nervous depression. And back at the Richmond campaign ... Oh, who cares? The Killing still grabs me on an emotional level (especially where the Larsens are involved), but by the week, it reveals the challenges and risks of trying to build suspense and twists into a single murder investigation over a long 13-episode season.

HITS AND MISSES: Though I'm already annoyed at Bravo for announcing a celeb-reality spin-off for Kara DioGuardi even before Platinum Hit premiered — enough with the clones! — I checked out the latest talent competition out of a loyalty to the Project Runway format (and original producers) and was mostly rewarded. If you like this kind of show (and I do), Hit plays to type, and to typecasting. Including the delusional types like first-one-out doe-eyed songwriter Nevin, who declares "I am the leader of men and people look to me for direction," before his first "hook" is called out for sounding too much like "Candle in the Wind," then is booted for writing the worst lyric to the bottom-ranking song. (Not sure how I feel about the contestants working mostly in teams. Even though songwriting is often a collaborative process, how will individual voices emerge this way?) The early front-runner is Nick, a supremely self-confident fan-of-himself who boasts, "I feel like I'm the Michael Jackson and I have four brothers around me." Given his early success, I suppose there's something germane — or is that Jermaine? — about his braggadocio.

 

TALENT SCOUTS: Whenever I tune into the cheesy circus antics of NBC hit America's Got Talent, I always feel I should at least be rewarded with a greasy corn dog for my efforts. Instead, we settle for the corny clowning of TV's most insipid host, Nick Cannon, and the blathering of judges who make Steven Tyler seem lucid. (I did appreciate the 50-year-old unicyclist who drew an unamused Howie Mandel into his act and rendered him momentarily speechless.)

 

I'm much more intrigued and entertained by The Voice, which made news this week when NBC crowned it with the post-Super Bowl slot in February (makes perfect sense to capitalize on a show already generating buzz in its first season) for one of its "blind audition" episodes, which so far have been the best part of the show. I'm glad the awkward "battle" rounds are over, and am curious to see how the live performance shows (starting Tuesday) will play. The judges have only been supportive to all at this point, but will they start calling out the weaknesses of singers on competing teams as they rally for America's votes? That would be interesting. And let's hope the duet stage is over, so each contestant gets a turn in the solo spotlight.

Meanwhile, Fox's best-of-show So You Think You Can Dance has already wrapped up its audition process. (Next week: the Vegas callbacks on Wednesday are followed by the Top 20 reveal on Thursday.) How much did we love Cat Deeley — also, significantly, the best summer host — cracking up when a boy dancer complained about his "bruised balls — on my feet, of course." But I mostly love the show's focus on the joy of dance in all its forms, from raw street boisterousness to the artistry of bodies trained to tell stories through motion. (I could have done without the detour into the world of the girl who believes herself to be the daughter of the "real Ringo Starr," and the horror music that swelled when she reveals she's a lesbian.) We've seen so many standouts — including the barely clad Chase, who really knows how to expose his technique; "naughty girl" Jordan Casanova, who's really a good girl; and spitfires like "Lil O" and father-to-be "D.C." Chapman — that it's hard to imagine how they'll cut it down to 20. But really, Nigel Lythgoe, was it necessary to tease "amnesia girl" Samantha bysaying "We'd love to see you dance" after she'd already finished dancing? Back to the barre for you!

DYNAMITE: The term applies to TNT's bittersweet Men of a Certain Age, continuing its terrific second season, but not so much to the instantly tiresome new legal dramedy Franklin & Bash, which implodes in the belief that aggressive quirkiness, smarmy frat-boy sexual innuendo and a "suits are douches" philosophy will endear its Peter Pan protagonists to a wide audience. I just hope it doesn't drag the Peabody-winning Men down with it.

Each of the Men had their moments: Joe's (Ray Romano) fumbling intimacy with his emotionally vulnerable ex-wife, whose mood swings aren't menopausal but the result of another bad break-up; Terry's (Scott Bakula) fumbling at commitment with a woman he feels could be his soul mate backfiring when the toothbrush he places in her bathroom cup triggers a crying jag of second thoughts, putting him on the coach and (for now) out of her life; and Owen's drunken revelry with his wife at the thought of selling off the albatross of the family car dealership to a rival. He has second thoughts the morning after, but Owen is continuing to emerge from his father's shadow, and that's a good thing. As is Men of a Certain Age, one of the quieter shows of the summer but very much worth your time.

FINALLY: Jane Lynch as the Emmys host? Why not? Anyone who thinks her repertoire is limited to Sue Sylvester rants hasn't been paying attention. I'm sure she'll don the tracksuit at some point (and the Glee kids will get at least one production number before the night is over, this being a Fox extravaganza), but she's the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. Now let's just hope the Emmys get the nominations right.

That's a wrap. And here's a quick checklist of what to expect next week in TV: In the news biz, Scott Pelley takes over CBS Evening News as Meredith Vieira departs Today (on Wednesday); Sunday's MTV Movie Awards helps launch the new supernatural Teen Wolf; and among the shows returning for new summer seasons, A&E's The Glades (Sunday), USA's White Collar and Covert Affairs as a Tuesday combo, and Food Network Star (Sunday) and Fox's MasterChef (Monday) for foodies. Dig in, and let me know what you think in the comments or be reaching me directly at askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com.

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