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Rachel Nichols and Jay Harrington star in "The Inside," a FOX summer drama created by "Angel" and "Firefly" alum Tim Minear.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/7/2005 3:55:17 PM ET 2005-07-07T19:55:17

“American Idol” is idle. “Dancing with the Stars” has shuffled off the schedule. The last bit of light and airy early-summer fluff has blown away from the television listings like dandelion seeds in the wind.

So is there anything worthwhile left to watch during the waning days of summer? Or is it time to turn off the TV and head outside to play in the backyard or lake?

Don’t trade that boob tube for an inner tube just yet. There’s a vein of brand spanking new programming running through the late-summer lineup. Some of it’s weird. Some of it’s gloomy and atmospheric. Most of it’s on cable. Despite its mostly downbeat tone, these summer shows are intriguing enough to fill the void until the networks burst back to life with frothy fare in the fall. Here’s a look at a few of the summer’s most darkly compelling programs.

The Inside (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, Fox)

You want dark? “The Inside” is murkier than a sludge-filled sewer. On paper, it’s “Law and Order: Serial Killers,” a run-of-the-mill cop show about the FBI’s Los Angeles-based Violent Crime Unit. But in the hands of quirkmeister Tim Minear (“Angel,” “Firefly,” “Wonderfalls”), “The Inside” is “Se7en”-lite, an unapologetically dark and moody look at sickos, psychos, and the people who track them down.

Front and center is Rebecca Locke (Bridget Fonda look-alike Rachel Nichols), a fresh-faced, doe-eyed new recruit with some firsthand experience dealing with violent offenders. Turns out she was kidnapped as a child by just the kind of guy she and her new colleagues are after. Just what kind of damage did her experience inflict? As the episodes unfold, viewers are getting plenty of clues that Locke’s flawless skin may be holding together a scarred, unstable core. Peter Coyote adds a menacing layer as the rogue unit’s enigmatic boss, who may be more interested in solving crimes than making sure his agents come out of their investigations physically — and psychologically — in one piece.

It took until the fourth episode — written by “Buffy” alum Jane Espenson — for the show to really gel into a solid mix of black humor and piano-string tension. But if you want to check out this moody hour, you’d better act fast. Online buzz — including Minear’s own Web site — is already sounding the show’s death knell.

The 4400 (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, USA Network)

After a successful limited run last year, “The 4400” is back as an ongoing series. Although sometimes saddled with less-than-stellar acting, the show features weighty themes and an intriguing premise: 4400 people who went missing over the course of several decades have returned. They haven’t aged a day from when they disappeared, and they’re each exhibiting special abilities. Were they abducted by aliens? Is it a government conspiracy? Investigators Mulder and Scully — I mean, Baldwin and Skouris — aim to find out.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings At the end of last year’s limited run, the investigators discovered that the 4400s weren’t taken by aliens after all, but humans from thousands of years in the future. The public is reacting to the returnees with a healthy dose of paranoia, and viewers aren’t entirely sure if the 4400s are meant to save the world — or destroy it.

Like “The X-Files,” “The 4400” weaves in the overall mythology of the show with freak-of-the-week cases that spotlight a different character each episode. Baldwin and Skouris (Joel Gretsch and Jacqueline McKenzie) are tightly tied to several of the main abductees, including Baldwin’s nephew, Shawn. Thanks to his ability to heal people, Shawn’s found himself at the right hand of villain Jordan Collier (you know he’s a baddie because of the beard), and could play a major role in whether the 4400s are accepted by society, or hunted down like super-powered dogs. Skouris is deeply invested in the 4400s, too, thanks to her newly adopted — and creepy — daughter Maia, who disappeared in the 1940s and came back with the ability to see the future.

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Speaking of creepy daughters, it seems the future of humanity might hinge on the infant child of two of the 4400s. Baby Isabelle’s overactive imagination can do just about anything, including forcing bad guys to kill each other. That’s one little girl who, when she wants a cookie, you give her a cookie.

The Comeback (Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET, HBO)

Phoebe Buffay, she ain’t. Lisa Kudrow (who, with Michael Patrick King of "Sex and the City," created the show) stars as a tightly-wound, washed-up TV star who lets a reality show document her return to the limelight. Unlike free spirit Pheebs, Valerie Cherish is far more achingly pathetic as she struggles to return to glory.

The best moments are Valerie’s attempts to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear show-within-the-show sitcom she’s on. Valerie plays Aunt Sassy, a peripheral character on “Room and Bored,” a terrible show about four hot twentysomethings living in a condo. Like HBO’s far superior “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Comeback” documents all sorts of backstage goings-on — most of which end badly for Valerie. Kudrow’s subtle facial expressions as she tries to mask her disappointment are funny in small doses. But the more you watch, the more painful it becomes.

Entourage (Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, HBO)

Paired with “The Comeback” — but considerably less dour — is another Hollywood-based show, executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s “Entourage.” It chronicles the career of up-and-coming movie actor Vince Chase and his close circle of friends. Along for the ride are nice-guy manager Eric, coattail rider Turtle, and half-brother — and fellow actor — Johnny Drama, played by Kevin Dillon, who’s got a bit of experience shivering in a more famous sibling’s shadow. Dillon’s scenes are among the most entertaining, and often cringeworthy, whether he’s botching an audition, contemplating calf implants, mining industry relationships for a scrap of an on-camera opportunity, or arguing with Ralph Macchio about who let the monkeys loose at the Playboy Mansion.

But just about every big laugh belongs to Jeremy Piven, as Vince’s unsentimental and sometimes sleazy agent, Ari. His line “Let’s hug it out, bitch” became a first-season catchphrase, and for good reason. Yeah, it’s yet another show about the entertainment industry, but the sometimes cynical, always sharply written “Entourage” is definitely worth a look.

Stella (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET, Comedy Central)

“Stella” is about … I’m not quite sure. It stars Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain, three members of comedy troupe The State who didn’t go on to star in “Reno 911,” that much I know. It’s absurdist antics a la the Marx Brothers, I’m pretty sure. But beyond that, well, maybe you can figure it out.

So far, the suit-wearing trio got evicted, became the best dressed homeless people on the block, then got their apartment back by botching open-heart surgery on their landlord, Josef Mengele. Along the way, they wore skunk tails and fake mustaches. And that was just the first episode. It’s a darkly hilarious, clever show that somehow manages to work in copious amounts of slapstick and silly humor — without being stupid.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis.

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