IN TWEET: EIGHT BITS OF TASTY TV CANDY. JUST THE TICKET WHEN YOU NEED A LATE SUMMER BREAK. EYES OPEN. BRAIN OFF. POUR A COLD ONE. ENJOY!
We’re in the thick of the dog days of summer. That odd, sticky and sultry window between the warm months and the first chill of fall. It’s perfect weather to crank up the AC, crack open a Wailua Ale from Kona Brewing Co. and escape with some mindless entertainment.
More and more, networks and streaming media services are filling summer months with original series programming. As audience fragmentation continues and competition for eyeballs gets even more fierce, content providers are downright paranoid about conceding June, July and August. Almost extinct is the old-school habit of stocking schedules with nothing more than re-runs and burn offs.
While it is harder to find quality programming when the temperatures are high, it’s also a perfect time to latch on to a new guilty pleasure. These are shows that exist for one reason: entertainment. No deep social messages, pesky thinky stuff or anything that would require excessive firing of your synapses.
I’ve watched a ton of stuff on air and online so you don’t have to wade through the swine to find a pearl. This isn’t a list filled with obvious choices like the crap Bravo runs 24/7/365 or the latest “I’m a pregnant/drug addicted/loser teen desperate for my 15 minutes” stuff that defines MTV these days. No Honey Boo Boos, swamp dwellers, sharkosauruses or slutty Amish on this list. That’s not to say you’re about to stroll down the entertainment high road. It just means you won’t feel like you have to shower after a spin with these yummy bon bons.
So you can tune in, turn on and catch up with the fluff you might have missed these past few months, please refer to the handy “Ronthink Guilt-O-Meter” created especially for this post. Based on that beloved terror threat thing from the post-9/11 Bush years, it’s a perfect tool to help you decide what to watch, what you can admit to watching and what you should probably keep to yourself.
Each entry below has been assigned an appropriate guilt level based on the amount of shame you can expect to feel when you watch. I’ve arranged the list in ascending order, starting with the shows least likely to make you a social pariah. Enjoy!
GUILT-O-METER READING: SCANT
Remember those “do-it-yourself” murder mystery party kits? The ABC series WHODUNNIT? is sort of like one of them…except it doesn’t suck. In this ambitious (by summer TV standards) unscripted series, contestants are sequestered in a lavishly appointed mansion where a prize of $250,000 is up for grabs. The twist? One of them is a “killer” who picks off an unsuspecting “victim” at the end of each episode. The person who does the worst job of solving the weekly slaying (more HOWdunnit than whodunnit, actually) is the next one on the chopping block.
WHY GUILTY? Some viewers were so stupid they thought the first murder was real (I kid you not). ABC had to add a “post-death” interview with the offed contestant starting with the second episode. The prize is a little chintzy. After all, this is ABC not GSN. Plus, you get the distinct impression that more than a few of the contestants are several cards short of a full deck.
WHY PLEASURE? It’s a darn good little show and the “murders” are quite elaborately staged (see video below). They don’t make you wait until the next episode to find out which of the newly “scared” contestants ends up on the morgue slab. It’s not rocket science but the show clearly has a sense of humor about itself and “the killer” enjoys taunting the more annoying contestants with well-deserved personal barbs. The bromance between hot Kam and hot (but dumb) Ulysses was fun to watch…while it lasted. Bonus points: the first one “murdered” was an ex-NFL cheerleader.
WHODUNNIT? airs Sundays at 9PM E/P on ABC with next day streaming on Hulu.
THE EXES [TV LAND]
GUILT-O-METER READING: LOW
OK, the premise is asinine and the first season of the show was crap but once THE EXES found its mojo, things started looking up. It also happens to be one of the most gleefully dirty sit-coms on television. While not nearly as accomplished as HOT IN CLEVELAND, it’s a world away from TV Land crap like RETIRED AT 35 (RIP). When it’s firing on all cylinders, THE EXES is a damn funny half hour. TV Land has also ordered 10 more episodes for the current season. Oh yeah…can anyone tell me what’s up with Donald Faison and his freakishly white teeth?
WHY GUILTY? It’s a TV Land original that isn’t HOT IN CLEVELAND. Enough said.
WHY PLEASURE? Kristen Johnston is the main attraction here and Kelly Stables is pitch-perfect as her sexually liberated assistant. Season two featured a couple of laugh-out-loud episodes, including a profanely funny guest stint by Zach Braff playing a closeted pro athlete (see video below) and an entire episode that was one very long (no pun intended) and very funny dick joke (Google “The Exes cucumber” and see for yourself). The vintage vibrator-centric season three opener was more hilarious than a show like this really has a right to be.
THE EXES airs Wednesdays at 10:30PM E/P on TV Land with streaming on Hulu 21 days after first airing.
MELISSA & JOEY [ABC FAMILY]
GUILT-O-METER READING: LOW
I’m not sure exactly what season MELISSA & JOEY is currently in (thanks to the oddball way ABC Family parses out original series episodes) but it’s been a big ratings winner for the network since its debut in 2010. It’s also damn funny so, if you're comedy snob, you should probably skip to the next entry on this list.
WHY GUILTY? It’s not on the ABC Family “cool list” like PRETTY LITTLE LIARS or TWISTED. It’s not a “prestige” title like the recently cancelled BUNHEADS (which I'm still angry about) or the terrific new drama THE FOSTERS. It also stars a Lawrence brother and a former teenage witch. Yes, they do outfit Joey Lawrence in some if the tightest shirts on TV but the show is also self-aware enough to constantly poke fun at the muscle meme.
WHY PLEASURE? It’s probably one of the most subversive sit-coms on a network where you would never expect to find such a thing. While THE FOSTERS has turned controversy into ratings gold, MELISSA & JOEY has been getting away with tons of hanky-panky and adult humor since 2010. Melissa Joan Hart and Lawrence have genuine chemistry and the comedy chops that come from growing up on television. The two younger principles, siblings on the show, are played by Taylor Spreitler and Nick Robinson. They’re two of the most pleasant teen actors on any network. MELISSA & JOEY deftly weaves broad comedy and slapstick with issue-oriented social messages that are refreshingly honest and well-handled. I’m sure conservative folks would be horrified at Hart’s wine soaked version of parenting but I also suspect, for the vast majority of viewers, this modern spin on the family sit-com will resonate and ring true.
MELISSA & JOEY airs Wednesdays at 8PM E/P on ABC Family with next day streaming on Hulu. Earlier seasons are available on Netflix.
ONE LIFE TO LIVE [HULU]
GUILT-O-METER READING: MODERATE
When ABC dumped daytime vets ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIVE in 2012, soap fans flipped out. It took more than a year of stops and starts (and some incredibly complex deal making) but both shows returned with original episodes at the start of the summer. The twist? They are now online originals (aside from the poorly handled re-run test on OWN) airing in a truncated “volume” format that means fewer episodes and seasonal scheduling. Of the two shows, ONE LIFE TO LIVE has definitely made the transition with more grace. It’s not that ALL MY CHILDREN is bad; it just feels like it’s not having as much fun playing in this new sand box. With that said, OLTL does look better and has a stronger cast and writing team.
WHY GUILTY? It’s a soap…and it was cancelled.
WHY PLEASURE? There is something oddly reassuring and wholly appropriate about the the dramatic path OLTL (and AMC) took from oblivion to re-birth. The jury is still out on how long the reformatted shows will last. It hasn’t helped matters any that there have already been a few production and scheduling hiccups since the re-launch. Still, it is heartening to see iconic TV vets at least trying to find their way in a very complex media landscape. Even if the pair doesn’t survive for long, the fact that they are back at all says a lot about the potential of online-only original series and the power of fan-driven programming support campaigns.
OLTL and AMC are available on Hulu. The first season finale for both shows is August 19th.
BABY DADDY [ABC FAMILY]
GUILT-O-METER READING: MODERATE
BABY DADDY is sort of like THE EXES of ABC Family. Not nearly as funny or sharp as it’s more seasoned sibling MELISSA & JOEY, it’s still a pleasant way to spend a half hour. It’s one of those shows I keep telling myself I won’t watch but then every time I see a new episode on my DVR, I press play on my remote like a reflex.
WHY GUILTY? It’s a “classic” sit-com (in the FULL HOUSE sense of the word) with a modern skin slapped on. You do feel kinda bummed if Derek Theler doesn’t take his shirt off at least once an episode. The cast is relentlessly appealing but comic timing is all over the map.
WHY PLEASURE? Two words: Melissa Peterman. Her comedy skills are flawless. She does incredible stuff with often thread-bare material. She’s a bawdy broad…and I mean that as a high compliment. Jean-Luc Bilodeau makes a guy who is really kind of a jerk into someone you want to hang with and there is the aforementioned thrill of a shirtless Theler. A fun drinking game is to take a shot every time Tahj Mowry (younger brother of Tia and Tamera Mowry) desperately tries to remind us that he is very, very, very straight. Really. He is. Totally.
BABY DADDY airs Wednesdays at 8:30PM E/P on ABC Family with next day streaming on Hulu. The prior season is available on Netflix.
HEMLOCK GROVE [NETFLIX]
GUILT-O-METER READING: HIGH
Remember TWIN PEAKS? Not the kick-ass first season. The second one. The season that was an aimless, rambling mess and was probably being made up as it stumbled along. HEMLOCK GROVE is like that…but good. Not “good” good. Train wreck good. Delicious, audacious, insane, mind-bending and gloriously messy. It’s like a dessert you know is bad for you but you just can’t stop eating it. Netflix has picked the series up for a second season. HEMLOCK GROVE also snagged two Emmy nominations, one for visual effects (see video below for why).
WHY GUILTY? It comes from Eli Roth, the douche bag responsible for the first two HOSTEL films. It’s a Netflix original that has none of the aspirations of the exceptional HOUSE OF CARDS. It’s about werewolves, the third most overexposed film beastie after zombies and vampires. Dougray Scott seems to be channeling the scenery chewing performance of Piper Laurie from CARRIE but with none of the “I can see your dirty pillows” glee.
WHY PLEASURE? The show knows it is ALL of the above…and damn proud of it. Still, it’s a gorgeous looking affair that can hold it’s own against any network series (at least as far as production values are concerned). As terrible as Scott is, the rest of the cast is quite good, with especially strong turns from vets Famke Janssen and Lili Taylor. The younger set is also in capable hands with nice work from Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron (almost unrecognizable from his TERRA NOVA days). BATTLESTAR GALACTICA geeks (like me) get a special treat with both Aaron Douglas (aka “Chief Tyrol”) and Kandyse McClure (aka the ill-fated “Dualla”) filling supporting roles. McClure is clearly having a blast with her wackadoo take on the character of Dr. Clementine Chasseur. Best of all, the gore is kept to a minimum even though torture-porn guru Roth is pulling the strings. The first wolf attack happens largely off screen but the way it's shot makes it even more horrifying. Check out the much ballyhooed “transformation” sequence and add HEMLOCK GROVE to your Netflix queue.
HEMLOCK GROVE is a Netflix exclusive. All 13 episodes of season 1 are now available.
GUILT-O-METER READING: HIGH
It took a few years (and a misfire at Lifetime) but the stateside adaptation of the BBC series MISTRESSES has been steaming up the ABC line-up all summer. This re-tooled MISTRESSES is a near perfect concoction of delicious trash spiced up with a top-notch cast and some surprisingly sharp writing. I watched it to make fun of the show and ended up getting hooked.
WHY GUILTY? It’s a U.S. reformat of a well-received British original (check out season one on Netflix to compare). The ABC version ramps up the sex, drama and bat-crap-crazy with plenty of illicit hook ups and some eye-popping girl on girl action (see video below). It’s basically a show about horny people who cheat on their spouses and/or partners in some very creative ways.
WHY PLEASURE? This is a potboiler with a hidden agenda: hook you with the sexy stuff and then make you watch as karma bitch slaps each of the characters for their various indiscretions. The UK original is a shade or two darker to be sure but, it was no SHERLOCK or BROADCHURCH so TV snobs can unruffle their feathers. Yes, Alyssa Milano and Yunjin Kim are the stars but there’s breakout work being done every week by the campy, vampy and wonderful Jess Macallan. No matter what happens with MISTRESSES, she deserves a starring role in something, somewhere. Oh, did I mention hot shower sex?
MISTRESSES airs Mondays at 10PM E/P on ABC with next day streaming on Hulu.
THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX [HULU]
GUILT-O-METER READING: EXTREME
Shhh…do not tell ANYONE I watch this piece of trashy, trashy trash. Picture a mash-up of JERSEY SHORE and any of those awful “housewives” shows from Bravo and then add British accents (really thick ones). The result? THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX. THE smoking gun if you’re looking for proof that UK TV can produce an even bigger pile of gutter clump than several US cable nets combined.
WHY GUILTY? Every character is self-absorbed, self-impressed, “hot” in the Vivid Video sense of the word, vain, dumb and without any redeeming social value.
WHY PLEASURE? Every character is self-absorbed, self-impressed, "hot" in the Vivid Video sense of the word, vain, dumb and without any redeeming social value…BUT they’re British. That means the producers of the show are well aware of how massive a crap fest ESSEX is and they have no problem making as much fun of the principles as you will (see videos below). The show has been a huge hit in the UK, where it is still running. Hulu has exclusive rights to the show here and earlier seasons are available without a Hulu Plus subscription. Now, close your shades, turn off that auto-post social networking feature and take a ride on the spray tan side of the UK.
THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX is a Hulu exclusive. Season six premieres August 15th.