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Is Cable TV Finally Worthwhile?

By Bert Ehrmann
September 21, 2007

I usually look forward to this time of year. Sure, I'm a sucker for changing leaves and cooler weather, but it's during the fall that the television networks begin premiering their slew of new comedies and dramas. At this time last year there were so many new shows I was interested in I had to carefully schedule my time each weekday evening in order to catch everything I wanted to see. Shows like Smith and Studio 60 and The Nine captured my imagination, though perhaps not as many other viewers as needed to sustain a successful show.

But this fall something's different. I'm not sure if it's new shows like Cavemen or the multitude of Sex in the City clones, but this year I'm just not interested in many of this season's new shows as previous. Sure, I can't wait for new episodes of established series like The Office, My Name is Earl and Battlestar Galactica but the only new series that I'm even remotely interested in is Bionic Woman and Pushing Daisies – and I hate to admit that even these new shows don't look that inspiring.

It's enough to get me depressed, except I've found a substitute for what's lacking on network television – original series on cable television.

DamagesTuesday nights is when the cable channel FX serves up their series Damages at 10:00 P.M. In Damages, newly minted lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) has been hired by super-attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) as an associate with her law firm. While Parsons believes that it was her talent that helped her land the job, in reality Hewes has hired Parsons in attempt to skew the odds in her favor of winning a very large lawsuit against CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) who apparently bilked most of his employees out of their retirement funds. Hewes, a mix of Gordon Gekko and Jaws, lives by the mantra "trust no one."

Damages plays like a classic 1970s film like All the President's Men or Three Days of the Condor, with intrigue, morally challenged characters and a deep plot where even the bad guys have souls The first season of Damages finishes up October.

Mad MenThursday nights at 10:00 P.M. is when two completely different, yet equally compelling, series airs – Mad Men and Burn Notice. Mad Men on AMC, mentioned briefly in a previous column, follows dapper Don Draper (Jon Hamm) who is a 1960s era Madison Avenue ad exec seemingly living the American dream. He's wealthy, has a powerful job, is married to a gorgeous wife and has two cute kids. Except things aren't quite as perfect as they seem as Draper is not quite able to come to terms with his career choice or life in general choosing to smoke and drink himself towards and early heart attack.

Things aren't any easier for Draper's wife (January Jones) who's so bottled-up that she began visiting a psychiatrist after a panic induced car-crash or his secretary (Elizabeth Moss) who finds that the only way for a women to get ahead in a man's world is to show a little thigh to the boys once and a while in hopes to land a wealthy husband.

Mad Men would have been a perfect fit for a channel like HBO, which begs the question how did they miss this series? Mad Men is also set to wrap up mid-October.

Burn NoticeBurn Notice, which airs on USA, is an equal mix of classic 1980s series like The Equalizer, MacGyver and, yes, even Miami Vice with the dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in to boot. In Burn Notice, spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) has been served a "burn notice" effectively ending his career in the spy craft and cutting him off from any allies he once had on the inside. All that Westen is left with is burned-out ex-spook friend Sam Axe (the wonderful Bruce Campbell) and a beautiful yet dangerous/crazy ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) who's more comfortable breaking down doors than thinking about the consequences that face her once she’s inside.

In order to earn money to learn who "burned" him, Westen takes odd jobs only an ex-spy would be comfortable with like helping the Miami locals fend off drug barons or recovering lost children from the clutches of white slavery. Though the last episode of Burn Notice actually aired September 20 (no one ever claimed Dangerous Universe was timely), a second season of the series has been ordered and I can only imagine that a DVD of the series will be released soon.

Episodes of Mad Men and Damages are available via iTunes.