Far removed from its once-shabby reputation as the very definition of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland," summer TV has become a petri dish of creativity in recent years. It's a prime-time test track: New series emerge in limited editions for a few laps around the fans, and if they can maintain an impressive speed they often reappear when the real race begins next fall.
There's still hot fun in the summertime right now, even after the sun sets. Here are a half-dozen summer series you should be lapping up like butterscotch sundaes, if you aren't already.
The Company, 8 p.m. Sundays (repeated at 10 p.m. and midnight), TNT: The miniseries is back! This gripping, magnificent three-week tale of the CIA's back-alley dealings airs its two-hour conclusion this weekend (TNT promises to repeat the entire series, and I promise to tell you when), but the last chapter is powerful and cohesive enough to stand on its own. Graying, world-worn agent Jack McAuliffe (Chris O'Donnell, with great makeup) leads an internal probe to root out a traitor in the agency. Could it be his Yale classmate and best friend? Look for Michael Keaton in an improbable supporting role as a chain-smoking, simpering CIA executive and interrogator.
Burn Notice, 10 p.m. Thursdays, USA: I tuned in to this high-concept action romp to catch Royal Oak homeboy Bruce Campbell in a regular supporting role. (Bruce, buddy, two words: Jenny Craig!) I stayed because Jeffrey Donovan is superb as Michael Westen, a secret agent who receives his pink slip (or "burn notice") from the government and is stranded in Miami trying to learn who threw him over. The writing, especially Westen's first-person narrative, is deliciously spirited, and the ensemble cast, including Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar and the TV return of Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey) as Michael's mom, is custom matched.
The Bill Engvall Show, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, TBS: Jeff Foxworthy's hosting an imbecilic game show and Larry the Cable Guy is starring in movies even cable won't run. Thank goodness one member of the Blue Collar comedy trio is smart enough to stick to his strengths. Engvall's sitcom, based on his standup act and pairing him with sassy veteran Nancy Travis as his wife, is the most immediately likable family comedy since Home Improvement.
The Bronx Is Burning, 10 p.m. Tuesdays, ESPN: Whether you worship the Yankees or puke at pinstripes, you can't help but appreciate the engrossing intertwining of dramatic re-creation and archival footage recalling New York's tumultuous summer of '77. Reggie Jackson (played by Rescue Me's Daniel Sunjata) arrived in the Bronx to battle manager Billy Martin, the nearly bankrupt city suffered a blackout, and the Son of Sam terrorized the streets. Oliver Platt gleefully gobbles scenery as a young George Steinbrenner, and John Turturro should steal home with an Emmy right now for his tortured, spot-on portrayal of the Yankee skipper.
Mad Men, 10 p.m. Wednesdays, AMC: It's the 1960s again – everybody smokes, you can drink in your office, red meat is everywhere and sex is a happy afterthought. Ah, the good old days. AMC's first original series, from Sopranos executive producer Matthew Weiner, is simply fascinating, following a company of ad executives through their personal and professional foibles. As you might expect from a Sopranos alum, the writing, period costumes and '60s ambience are meticulous.
Damages, 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX: Glenn Close is starring in her own episodic series and she will not be ignored. Returning to the network where she turned up the sizzle on The Shield, Close counts bigtime as Patty Hewes, a relentless, ball-busting attorney who leads a class action suit against a corrupt CEO (Ted Danson, reveling in his evil role) who's taken his corporation down the tubes. Reminds me of Steven Bochco's underappreciated ABC series Murder One. This legal drama is as close to Law & Order as House is to ER.
Because these shows are on cable networks, episodes air multiple times each week. Catch 'em whenever you can.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org