It's already being called the Summer of Suck. This is the time of year when Hollywood puts out its biggest, boldest, most expensive and windfall-generating films, but so far everyone's picking over the selections as if the local megaplex was a bad seafood buffet. The A-Team, Prince of Persia, and Shrek Forever After all opened to underwhelming numbers, and even such counterprogramming offerings as Killers and Get Him to the Greek haven't met expectations. Given that summer entertainment has become Opposite Land, where down is up, left is right, and no one goes to see Sex and the City 2, what better time to transform network television, usually barren in the hot months, into a destination?
There's reason for skepticism, considering how long the major networks have been trying to push to a "year-round schedule," one that allows them to debut a new series at any time, rather than going all in come fall and having to scramble when things tank. But the tepid response to this year's blockbusters presents a legitimate opening for the networks. The message from the audience is clear: no more sequels, no more adaptations of comics or television shows or SNL sketches, give us something fresh. And the networks have that this summer. They might be shows that were deemed too soft-in-the-middle to be fall tentpoles, or even midseason substitutions, but they're new, and trying them out costs viewers less time, money and effort than going to the movies.
This Sunday, ABC will bow two new scripted dramas, The Gates and Scoundrels, which they're touting as part of their new summer season. They’re not the only new scripted series on the majors—NBC bowed the Christopher McQuarrie thriller Persons Unknown—but ABC has poured money into a campaign to promote their new series in a way that suggests they aren't just burning them off. They actually want people to, y'know, watch them or something.
As for whether or not you should, that's another question entirely. Again, the price of entry is minimal. You have to have a television and an hour to spare to find out if they're worth your time. But in spite of the red-carpet rollout, both shows, in terms of quality, have "network summer" written all over them. In its semi-defense, The Gates isn't quite the embarrassment that its trailers suggest it is, but I realize the faintness of that praise. It's an entry in the Vampire Series Sweepstakes, this time a cross between Twilight and Desperate Housewives, about a seemingly perfect suburban enclave that, beneath its picket-fence façade has—wait for it—dark, shocking secrets. Basically, the secret is that the neighborhood is comprised of vampires and werewolves who are maintaining a delicate peace. When a body turns up, that peace is in jeopardy, and the new family in town that only feeds on Stouffer's lasagna will be caught in the crossfire.
Scoundrels, meanwhile, stars the always-welcome Virginia Madsen as the matriarch of a family of grifters who must keep the pack together after her husband is sent to prison. It's at least light in its execution, which gives it an advantage over the entirely too serious Gates, but neither show is well-written or appealing enough to warrant prolonged attention.
ABC is to be praised for giving the summer schedule a go, yet again, but the problem for networks is that summer has indeed become a robust season for television—only, on cable. When viewers can look forward to True Blood, why waste time behind The Gates? Some of the most fun shows on the dial (Leverage, Burn Notice and Royal Pains) and the best (Mad Men) debut in the summer. That isn't to say that networks can never find a foothold in original summer programming, but that despite the fanfare, the attitude of using summer as a dumping ground seems to persist. Cable is in the ocean chasing the breaking waves, and the networks are still learning to doggy-paddle.