Remember summer doldrums? The dog days of August? Didn't happen this year. I can't remember ever being hooked on so much terrific TV during a time when I'm normally conserving my energy for the fall-season onslaught.
A sign of how truly remarkable this watershed TV summer was: Even the miniseries, a long-dormant genre, made a big comeback, reinvented in a limited-run weekly format. The tone ranged from USA Network's glossy romance The Starter Wife to ESPN's engrossing The Bronx Is Burning, Spike TV's riveting The Kill Point and TNT's adult spy history The Company.
But the real action was in the overstuffed arena of the cable drama series, where it seemed nearly every channel was trying to make a name for itself with a quality contender.
Best of the new crop: AMC's intoxicating Mad Men, a rare example of style informing substance as it colorfully reexamines '60s social mores through a haze of cigarette smoke and scotch fumes. These ad men aren't necessarily bad men, but what they're selling is cloaked in cynicism and sexism. This gorgeous show is an instant classic that I'm saving room for on this year's top-10 list.
Opposite Mad Men on Thursdays at 10 pm/ET (though both are repeated through the week) is USA Network's latest clever diversion: Burn Notice, which I initially underestimated but which has grown on me as the stories have begun to live up to the premise. Jeffrey Donovan is delightful as a cocky ex-spy in Miami who's not taking his mysterious job termination (known as a "burn notice") lying down.
The summer's gotta-see list includes Glenn Close's mesmerizing turn as a devilishly manipulative lawyer in FX's twisted legal thriller Damages and David Duchovny's wry debauchery as the antihero of Showtime's dark comedy Californication. Holly Hunter has also scored as a flamboyantly self-destructive detective touched by an angel on TNT's oddball Saving Grace, and Lifetime landed its biggest hit ever in the military soap Army Wives. Many of us have had to fit in these newcomers among a crowd of returning faves: The Closer (better than ever), Entourage, Big Love, Eureka, Weeds, Rescue Me, Monk and Psych, to name a few. Whew.
Not to mention all of those reality shows. Most are disposable, but there were must-sees. My favorite: Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, on which the awesome finalists were all of such high caliber that it put American Idol to shame. I'm also hopelessly devoted to Bravo's Top Chef, Sci Fi Channel's adorably cheesy Who Wants to Be a Superhero? and HGTV's fast-paced Design Star. By the time fall kicks in, I may need a summer vacation to recuperate from this summer.