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Critic's Notebook: Summer TV Comings and Goings

Forget the old Rodgers & Hammerstein song about June. TV is busting out all over, and what a remarkable week it has been. Starting with HBO's Game of Thrones wrapping another astounding season last Sunday — this run of episodes blessed by being able to dramatize so many, though not all, of the climactic events of book 3, A Storm of Swords, the best in George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice & Fire" series — ending with a...

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

Forget the old Rodgers & Hammerstein song about June. TV is busting out all over, and what a remarkable week it has been. Starting with HBO's Game of Thrones wrapping another astounding season last Sunday — this run of episodes blessed by being able to dramatize so many, though not all, of the climactic events of book 3, A Storm of Swords, the best in George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice & Fire" series — ending with a mournful patricide (a Father's Day bonus!) and a bone-crunching, ear-biting battle between the awesome Brienne and the fallen mercenary Hound. Wherever battle-hardened Arya is heading, we will follow.

Another thoroughly satisfying finale followed Tuesday with the last chapter of FX's severely twisted, suspenseful joy ride of Fargo, which (rare for this network) gave viewers an authentic happy ending for the delightful characters of Molly (splendid discovery Allison Tolman), who'll finally get to be Bemidji's police chief, and her soulmate Gus, the timid cop-turned-content mailman Gus (Colin Hanks), who redeemed his earlier cowardice by channeling his Inner Animal when circumstances led him to snuff out the malevolent Lorne Malvo (the fascinating-to-the-end Billy Bob Thornton), already maimed by the bear trap cunningly hidden in the bedroom of increasingly desperate Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Revelatory acting amid the miniseries' intoxicating blend of savagery and humanizing sweetness, exemplified by outgoing Sheriff Bill's rumination (well delivered by Bob Odenkirk) on the decline of human civility.

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Though not quite a finale, Fox's 24: Live Another Day took a spectacularly grim turn Monday in a gripping 200th episode reminiscent of the series at its unsparing peak, as President Heller (a grand William Devane) sacrificed himself for the greater good. "This is the right way for me to go," he explained to a horrified Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who accompanied him to the stadium, where the Leader of the Free World ended his reign, vaporized by one of Mad Margot's drone missiles. What a way to go.

Thankfully, Louie lightened up a bit in its final episodes, as Pamela (the caustic Pamela Adlon) aggressively took the reins of this painfully awkward please-let's-not-call-it-love match, mocking Louie's body—a gender-reversal callback to the acclaimed "fat girl" episode?—and subverting expectations of who calls the shots in an unconventional relationship that seems to have survived that disturbing hallway grope, one of many controversial flashpoints in a polarizing season.

Lots of fan favorites returned for new summer seasons this week: Switched at Birth and The Fosters on ABC Family, Rizzoli & Isles and Perception on TNT, ABC's Rookie Blue and Syfy's Defiance, paired with the dreary new Dominion, an unnecessary sequel to 2010's Legion, about warring angels on a blasted Earth, where survivors have set up a dynastic civilization in the ruins of Las Vegas. The most critically significant premiere was Thursday's second-season opener of SundanceTV's haunting Rectify, the quietly compelling and emotionally unsettling drama about a death-row inmate released back into his Georgia community after 20 years, exonerated but not forgiven — as last year's climax violently demonstrated, with Daniel Holden (Aden Young, subtly heartbreaking) beaten into a coma.

Daniel remained trapped in the prison of his mind throughout Thursday's season premiere, conversing with the ghost of his executed buddy Kerwin, ironically a life force urging him to wake up: "You look at life as a burden. It's a gift." While Daniel's fractured family frets in the outside world — bitter sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, excellent) no comfort to her spiritually conflicted sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) — it's hard not to be moved by Rectify's unique approach to a redemption story, with an aching tenderness cloaked in a suffocating sadness. As Daniel internally reflects on the events of the first season: "It was the wildest week. Every day felt like a lifetime. It was pretty overwhelming." So is Rectify. It's not much of a spoiler to say Daniel will soon open his eyes from his coma, facing a future that's more uncertain than ever. His ambiguous journey is one of this summer's best bets.

Now on to this weekend, also overrun with choices. The one can't-miss hour is the second-season finale of BBC America's Orphan Black (Saturday, 9/8c), anchored by Tatiana Maslany's sensational ability to bring multiple clones to life, the most heroic being Sarah, who willingly puts herself in the belly of the Dyad beast in a desperate attempt to retrieve her daughter Kira, currently in the clutches of her corporate nemesis "sister" Rachel. Quite a few shocking reversals before the episode ends, revealing yet another mind-blowing kink in the cloning conspiracy.

The weekend's most heavily promoted premiere is TNT's The Last Ship(Sunday, 9/8c), a meat-and-potatoes fusion of Tom Clancy-style military action with a Michael Crichton-like undercurrent of sci-fi/disaster-movie mayhem. The premise is high-concept enough to justify its scheduling in front of a new season of alien-invasion thriller Falling Skies (10/9c): The world has succumbed to a deadly virus that has felled 80 percent of the world's population, and our best hope is aboard a Navy warship captained by starchy Capt. Tom Chandler (Eric Dane, more McStalwart than McSteamy in this setting). The USS Nathan James was in the Arctic during the worst of the outbreak, carrying the fetching Dr. Rachel Scott (humorless Rhona Mitra), who has unearthed the "primordial strain" — not to be confused with the clichéd dialogue — that could result in a cure. While the hot doc focuses on the science, Capt. Chandler and his telegenic crew (including the always-welcome Adam Baldwin as his XO) fend off threats to their security, mostly of Russian origin — although in a future (and better) episode, when they dock in Guantanamo Bay for refueling, they encounter unrepentant remnants of Al Queda. Ship is awfully square in its hokey heroics, solemn acting and predictable subplots: a dull shipboard romance, a lurking saboteur. But it also has the feel of a summer page-turner, sturdy as the title vessel but also just as stodgy. (And I couldn't help pining for ABC's defunct, and more original, Last Resort of two seasons ago.)

A merrier romp awaits viewers of BBC America's jaunty reboot of The Musketeers legend (Sunday, 9/8c), as the irreverent rapscallions swagger and swashbuckle their way through 17th-century France. It's a little cheesy, but never takes itself very seriously — and that includes the sneering villainy of their nemesis Cardinal Richelieu, milked by Peter Capaldi, who'll be showing us a very different and mostly untapped heroic side later this year when he joins the Doctor Who franchise.

One of the most popular previous Doctors, David Tennant, impresses as a gifted defense lawyer whose latest client psychotically turns on him in the Masterpiece Mystery! two-parter The Escape Artist, concluding Sunday (9/8c, check tvguide.com listings). In the first installment, smug Will Burton (Tennant) made the terrible mistake of not shaking the hand of Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell, suitably creepy), the weird loner he managed to free on technicalities — hence the "escape artist" reputation — and Will suffered a terrible personal loss as a result of Liam's psychotic obsession. There's a bit of Fargo's Lorne Malvo in Liam as the antagonists clash in the finale: "You wouldn't blame a lion for being a lion, would you, Will? Especially if you're the one who let him out." Who the real animal is here remains to be seen, with surprising and mostly satisfying fallout in this taut legal thriller.

Finally, a detour into the supernatural. HBO's True Blood (Sunday, 9/8c) opens its seventh and final season on a rather anemic note, as a showdown slaughter led by H-Vamps at Bellefleur's (formerly Merlotte's) leaves Sookie a Bon Temps pariah. I kept wanting to run away with Pam, who's seeking the MIA Eric in exotic, dangerous Marrakesh. ... For a truly terrifying hour of TV, consider Showtime's better-by-the-week Victorian Grand Guignol Penny Dreadful (Sunday, 10/9c), which devotes the entire episode to one of the most harrowing exorcisms since Linda Blair went to hell and back. And Eva Green, as the demonically possessed Vanessa Ives, is a much better actress. She hisses, she shrieks, she convulses, she attacks literal and emotional jugulars, and by the end, everyone's exhausted. But all too ready for whatever freaky thing comes next.

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