Not that long ago, summer was strictly rerun season. But then came 2000, when a brand-new show called “Survivor”rat-chomped its way to blockbusterhood, and summer schedules began to fill with (often inexpensive) new shows.
Throw in the expansion of new original programming on cable, and there's no reason to power down your TiVo for the summer. Here are 10 shows worth recording, whether you're looking for shows with substance or simply something fizzy to savor when the temperature passes 90 degrees.
“America's Got Talent” (NBC, third-season premiere June 17): Hey, nobody's here to tell you that “America's Got Talent”is anything more than a hit-or-miss variety show that serves up balloon animals alongside bluegrass bands. But there's something stubbornly affectionate about this salute to oddballs whose special abilities have long gone unrecognized — or resented — by everyone they know. If you embrace just one David Hasselhoff-adjacent series in the upcoming year, better to go with his judging turn here than with the “Knight Rider”remake planned for fall, in which he apparently will be only a spirit guide.
“Penn & Teller: Bulls--t!”(Showtime, sixth-season premiere June 19): If you can get by the aggressively profane title, you'll find a pretty aggressively profane (and Emmy-nominated) show. But if you're not troubled by that, “Bulls--t” is genuinely risk-taking; ironically, nothing was more unexpected for this unsentimental showcase than last season's aggressive defense of Wal-Mart. Not every episode works, and sometimes a full discussion of both sides of a debate gives way to a spirited gut-punching administered to whichever side is more irritating. But it's smart and funny, and what's not to like about a spirited gut-punching?
“I Survived a Japanese Game Show”(ABC, series premiere June 24): If you're a YouTube fan, you know that Japanese game shows are not like American game shows. The Japanese shows tend to involve a lot of physical stunts, including the “Human Tetris” that Ellen DeGeneres played on her show for a while. This is the lowest lowbrow entertainment, probably a good companion to “Wipeout,” ABC's other summer offering for people who want to watch other people fall into vats of goo. But we are an “America's Funniest Home Videos” nation, and we like watching people fall down, get hit with stuff and be humiliated in ways that ultimately harm no one.
“The Baby Borrowers”(NBC, series premiere June 25): In this remake of a BBC hit, young couples (all were at least 18 as of filming) care for a baby, then a toddler, then for preteens, teenagers and elderly people in turn. Not as daring as it might seem (there's supervision on hand), the show is likely to spotlight a lot of bafflement, and possibly some thoughtful discussions about how difficult it can be to care for others. With reality shows, it's always hard to tell what will be trash and what will be oddly affecting. But with “Survivor”veteran Tom Shelly as an executive producer, and a good chunk of the production crew coming from upper-tier reality shows, this one might be better than you'd think.
“Dance Machine”(ABC, series premiere June 27): If you like good dancing, you're probably watching “So You Think You Can Dance.” If you like dancing that's pretty good for a telenovela actor, you probably just watched “Dancing With the Stars.” But if you like the dancing that you see at weddings — if you groove to ordinary schmoes who just like to get down — tune in for “Dance Machine.” Each week, six regular people do their favorite dances. Call it “America Don't Need No Stinking Talent,” and from the promo running on ABC's site, it looks weirdly endearing. Certainly, if you're ever going to sit back and watch somebody's uncle do the Running Man, you should do it in the summer.
“The Closer” (TNT, fourth-season premiere July 14): An early entrant in the crop of shows that have finally given good homes on basic cable to underused actresses (including “Damages”with Glenn Close; “Saving Grace”with Holly Hunter; and now “In Plain Sight”with Mary McCormack), “The Closer”deserves its status as a trailblazer. Think of it as “Law & Order”with a better sense of humor. You may find Kyra Sedgwick's accent distracting at first — OK, you will — but her aggressive southernness lends a swampy, summery feel to the show that makes it perfect for a toasty night.
“Monk” (USA, seventh-season premiere July 18): You have to hand it to “Monk,” which is entering its seventh season on USA. Tony Shalhoub, as the obsessive-compulsive detective, has won three Emmys in six seasons. It's an imposing record of dominance for a guy who was up against leads from such network powerhouses as “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Once, there was an offbeat, in-the-know hipness to liking “Monk” simply because it was cable rather than network and featured an oddball central character. That it now feels like part of the mainstream speaks not only to its quality and longevity, but to the growth of cable drama it helped promote.
“High School Musical: Get in the Picture”(ABC, series premiere July 20): The “High School Musical”phenomenon is peculiar for the same reason the “American Idol”phenomenon is peculiar: both are juggernauts of family-friendly squareness peaking when popular culture is supposedly vulgar, nasty and cynical. Naturally, the next step for the ABC/Disney family was to create an “Idol”-style competition touching on the upcoming “High School Musical”theatrical release — the winner will appear in a video over the movie's end credits. A perfect summer confection, just right for watching while lying around with lemonade and an electric fan. We're all in this together, after all.
“Mad Men” (AMC, second-season premiere July 27): “Mad Men” faces the counterintuitive drawback that also faced “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire”: It's become so widely lauded that it risks annoying non-viewers, who feel positively nagged to watch it. But, like those shows, “Mad Men” has earned its status as That Show People Won't Shut Up About. The 1960s-era ad-agency drama is so carefully shot that it feels both authentically old-fashioned and perfectly modern. The art direction lovingly recreates the colors, angles and cadences of Manhattan 40 years ago, and even if the scripts weren't as strong as they are, it would be one of the best-looking shows on TV.
“The Cho Show” (VH1, series premiere Aug. 21): Comedian Margaret Cho's career has taken her not only to countless stand-up stages, but also through a notoriously disastrous attempt at a network sitcom, a burlesque show, two books and outspoken political advocacy. Unlike most of the nitwits who wind up with reality shows, Margaret Cho is both smart and interesting, and her life might actually be worth spying on. With “The Cho Show,” celebreality has a chance to take a big step forward from starlets who don't know the difference between chicken and fish.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Brooklyn.