Summer is a good time to break your usual TV viewing habits. Ken Tucker has some suggestions: Try something new, like the sharp-witted Law & Order. Try something old: After all these years, has CBS finally come up with a morning show that works? Give another chance to a show you’d previously dismissed, or one that was on opposite a favorite series. Here’s a roundup of intriguing summer alternatives.
CBS THIS MORNING
As soon as I heard that some number crunchers were advising CBS to either shorten or cut back this perennially third-place morning show, I started watching it more closely; anything that strikes bottom-line types as dispensable usually has something going for it.
I was right: If you haven’t seen This Morning in a while, check out the way Harry Smith and Paula Zahn have grown comfortable in their anchor roles without becoming complacent or cutesy; note that Mark McEwen is the networks’ only weatherman who’s capable of ad-libbing something other than a banality or a double entendre; and observe that Charles Osgood, appearing as a commentator, actually takes provocative positions. Recently, he criticized the Supreme Court ruling that criminal suspects could be held in jail for 48 hours before a judge determined there was probable cause for the arrest. Substance in the morning — no wonder these guys are in third place.
THE CIVIL WAR
The summer’s best refresher course is Ken Burns’ 11-hour TV masterpiece, a chronicle of the War Between the States; if it were a book, it would immediately become the standard text on the subject.
Even if you’ve already seen The Civil War, watch it again to appreciate its art: the way Burns has edited the more than 16,000 photographs so they seem to have as much action and life as a movie; the way the minimal arrangements of the period music drench the war in melancholy; the way Sam Waterston, reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and private notes, avoids any false or worked-up emotionalism.
If you’ve spent the past few months watching Cosby or boycotting The Simpsons because you’re sick of the media hype, give the cartoon’s summer reruns a chance — while you weren’t looking, this turned into the best-written sitcom of the year. The episode in which Lisa became intellectually and emotionally enthralled by her substitute teacher was, I swear, the most moving half hour of television I’ve seen in ages. (An uncredited Dustin Hoffman provided the teacher’s voice.)
Bart (you didn’t think I could get through this without mentioning him, did you?) has become much more than a rude dude — he suffers, he empathizes, he recognizes that if he doesn’t watch it, he’ll end up a lovably pathetic blowhard like his dad, Homer. Neither corrupter nor role model, Bart is what we should want from entertainment: He’s funny, interesting, complicated.
BEVERLY HILLS 90210
When this show about a Midwestern family that has relocated to Los Angeles premiered in the fall, I dismissed it as predictable adolescent tripe. It’s still pretty predictable, but Beverly Hills 90210 has become a minor pop-culture phenomenon among teen viewers, and Fox is capitalizing on its burgeoning popularity by running a batch of fresh episodes starting July 11.
The series’ sibling heroes, Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty), are teen idols with a difference — they can act. Beverly Hills has become the show that portrays adolescence with more understanding and sympathy than anything else on the air. Grown-ups will probably think these kids get away with murder: In one annoying instance, Brandon smashed the family car after a few drinks; Dad (James Eckhouse) gave him a hug and said he understood. At its best, though, Beverly Hills captures some of the awkwardness and confusion of teenage years without being drippy about it.
Masterpiece Theatre is taking a summer vacation by spending 12 weeks rerunning this British production, one of its most popular efforts when it first aired here in 1977. John Hurt came to prominence in this country as the creepy Caligula, and Derek Jacobi’s Claudius presides — craftily, decadently — over the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s sly, lewd, and mean-spirited — everything Masterpiece Theatre never was before, hasn’t been since, and should be more often.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
By far the best anthology series on TV, Tales From the Crypt is back with new episodes. On July 3, Whoopi Goldberg stars in “Dead Wait,” directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper; on July 10, Malcolm McDowell plays a timid vampire who prefers to steal his preferred libation from blood banks in “The Reluctant Vampire.”
If you’ve been avoiding Crypt because of the series’ horror-comics premise, don’t be so squeamish-there’s a minimum of gore, and the scary parts are usually coated with humor. At the same time, there’s a gleeful vulgarity, a childish urge to yell, “Boo!,” that gives Crypt an impudent charge.
LAW & ORDER
This cops ‘n’ lawyers show was the past season’s most unassuming yet consistently engrossing new series, and, at a time when ambulance chasers are all over prime time, Michael Moriarty’s soft-spoken, tough-minded prosecuting attorney may well be the best lawyer on television.
Watch the show now, because who knows how good it’s going to remain. Costar George Dzundza, who gave weight and bone-dry humor to his cop role, has left the series, replaced by Paul Sorvino (GoodFellas). The show plans to add two recurring female characters. Now, hey, I’ve got nothing against gurls, but from all reports, these new characters are being introduced to silence complaints from some viewers and advertisers that the show was too male-oriented. And it’s insulting to women who watch this show to think that they can’t appreciate solid writing and wonderful, low-key acting without female protagonists. Beware, NBC: That way lies the Lifetime network.
If you’re home on a weekend this summer, you have the chance to see Comedy Central’s unusual mixture of oldies. They range from classic episodes of The Ernie Kovacs Show (surreal sarcasm from the early ’50s) to curious episodes of Captain Nice, a 1967 oddity starring St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels as a reluctant superhero. (Buck Henry created this show; it’s thin on laughs but big on ’60s camp.) And the 1 p.m. daily editions of The Steve Allen Show from the late ’50s and early ’60s will introduce young viewers to one of the best rep companies in TV history, including Tom Poston, Don Knotts, and Louis Nye.
THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR
Perhaps, like me, you’ve spent the past few months watching Evening Shade diminish in promise; if so, maybe it’s time we switched the channel and gave Fresh Prince another shot. Recent reruns have suggested that star Will Smith has settled in nicely as an inner-city Philly fish-out-of-water flopping around in a posh Los Angeles neighborhood.
These days, the characters are less cartoonish, and Fresh Prince has become less a culture-clash sitcom (TV never deals well with class issues) than the story of Will’s relationship with his new family (just the sort of thing at which TV often excels).
The title of this anthology series, now in its fourth year, stands for “point of view” — each entry conveys the strong opinions of its director. The series runs through Sept. 3, and films range from Mark Kitchell’s revelatory documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, about the Free Speech movement and college-level radical politics (they don’t make students like Mario Savio anymore), to Honorable Nations, about racial tensions between the Seneca Indians and white residents of Salamanca, N.Y.