There's plenty to watch on network television, but we have long been living in the Golden Age of Cable. Ever since HBO told us, "It's not TV. It's HBO," we've been hooked. Ponying up the money for cable can be difficult, but these channels make it worth the price.
HBO has lost many of the signature shows that made it a household name. The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under - they were all instrumental in defining HBO as the channel for daring, intelligent and mature programming. But don't write off the channel just yet. While its new series don't quite match the ratings of those older shows during their heyday, the quality is still top-notch. From the tightly woven family drama on Big Love to the deadpan hilarity of Flight of the Conchords, the network has never stopped taking risks and aiming high. It's done everything from cult fantasy set in the Great Depression (Carnivàle) to introspective relationship drama (Tell Me You Love Me) to a swearing Western (Deadwood). In development: Projects with J.J. Abrams (Lost), Bradley Cooper (Alias) and a new series about vampires in the South from "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball.
Nipping at the heels of HBO, Showtime has developed into a network worthy of being called HBO's near equal. Dexter resembles an HBO program so much, one can't help wondering if the network passed on it before it landed at Showtime. Actually, it probably has more to do with the fact that Showtime Networks' current President of Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, used to be an executive producer on "Six Feet Under." Showtime's best kept secret has to be Weeds, a zippy satire on suburbia, religion and politics that rises up with fists every season. In development: "Doubting Thomas" from some guy you might have heard of called George Clooney and "The United States of Tara" starring Toni Collette from some guy named Steven Spielberg and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. The British series "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" starts airing this summer.
At FX, there is no box, according to the network's new tagline, but one could definitely box together the network's more established shows under Edgy Series Featuring Damaged Men (The Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck). With the introduction of Damages and The Riches, the network is finally highlighting strong, female performances and when combined with the heroines of TNT (The Closer, Saving Grace), HBO (Big Love) and Showtime (Weeds), there's no doubt about it - cable has been very good to women in the past year. In development: "Pretty/Handsome" from "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy and executive producer Brad Pitt about a transsexual's (Joseph Fiennes) journey from married man to woman.
USA is known for its quirky characters, but its the sci-fi shows that first established the network. Unfortunately, it has unceremoniously canceled The Dead Zone and The 4400. Still, there's much worth watching on the network. Aside from Monk and Psych, there's the best show you probably didn't watch last summer. The spy drama Burn Notice manages to be all business and hilariously wry at the same time thanks to the effortlessly perfect Jeffrey Donovan. Michael Westen (Donovan) is a spy who has been "burned," forcing him to take on PI cases while he figures out who tagged him. He's the kind of guy who can tell you how to make a homemade bomb through how-to voice overs and can take out a guy with a butter knife, but even he's no match for former IRA operative Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), his horny, gun-happy ex-girlfriend. These folks would make perfect company for USA's adaptation of Thank You For Smoking.
Between Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC is the new critical darling of cable. Once just an outlet for old movies, the network is capitalizing on its newfound prestige and popularity. Its renamed itself as The Future of Classic and has multiple new series in development. Most highly anticipated is a remake of the 1960s series The Prisoner. The network also provides required viewing for moviephiles on "Shootout," an entertainment interview/discussion show hosted by Variety's Peter Bart and uber producer Peter Guber. It's film talk for people serious about movies.
A&E is still mostly known for a bizarre collection of reality shows (Criss Angel Mindfreak, "Parking Wars") and reruns (CSI: Miami, Crossing Jordan, "The Sopranos"). But keep an eye out for the network, which is taking a page from AMC and developing some of its own series. Its most high profile project, "The Cleaner," brings Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order) back to TV.
Meanwhile, over on TNT, they're attempting to tap into the success of AMC's "Mad Men" with "Truth In Advertising," a drama set in current day Madison Ave starring some other comeback kids, Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (Ed).
Off the beaten path, there's a channel with a lot of programming that sounds "a little Brit different." BBC America doesn't take itself too seriously. Where else can you hear warnings telling you to turn on closed captioning because the program contains British accents, which you would have heard a lot more of if you hadn't thrown their tea into the Boston Harbor? It's that sort of good-natured humor that makes watching the network a delight. Also delightful? "The Graham Norton Show," a talk show that often features American actors/personalties and an extremely flamboyant, no-holds-barred host in Norton. As crazy as Conan can get, there are no talk shows like this in America. Even "Nip/Tuck's" Julian McMahon, while a guest, asked, "What is this show?"
Whether it's the highly superior original "Kitchen Nightmares," reruns of the "Sex and the City" meets Friends comedy Coupling or the sci-fi romp Torchwood, there's something for everyone on BBC America. Plus, you want to see the original before Ben Silverman (The Office, Ugly Betty, "Coupling") inevitably obtains the rights to remake it for American television.
Story by Vlada Gelman
Starpulse.com contributing writer