"Pretty Little Liars" in the just-concluded first half of its second season proved that it isn't just an engaging scripted series for tweens and teens -- it's one of the most skillfully constructed and consistently satisfying dramas on television, period. Unlike so many of the top dramatic series on broadcast and basic cable, "Liars" never takes itself too seriously, even as the four young women at its center find themselves pulled into one fresh hell after another. I particularly admire the way the writers of this show keep the girls' parents involved in the narrative's increasingly multi-layered drama without actually moving them to the center of the action.
There are two new serialized dramas set to debut later this month that also center on young women in extreme situations: ABC's "Revenge" and The CW's "Ringer." Even though they boast bigger budgets and bigger stars, I don't think they'll enjoy the same level of success as this modest little show. Certainly, they won't achieve the same level of influence.
Meanwhile, "Louie" in its second season has slowly transformed from a curious little comedy punctuated by moments of startlingly realistic drama to a profound little drama enhanced by moments of startlingly realistic comedy. There is great variety and experimentation at play here. In one episode, Joan Rivers gave what may be the performance of her lifetime (she played herself, reluctantly and then cautiously seduced by Louie himself). In another, Louie traveled to Afghanistan to entertain troops, carrying a duckling in his bag that his daughter insisted would keep him safe. I'm not sure what's going on with this show, as far as its general direction is concerned, but I like what I'm seeing. There is nothing else like it on television, and I'm not sure there ever has been. Of course, the same can be said about "Wilfred," the lead-in to "Louie" on FX's Thursday night schedule, but I can't imagine it ever transcending cult status. "Louie," on the other hand, seems destined for genuine greatness. Comedian Louis C.K. is a visionary. Who knew?
"Louie" may be profound, but popcorn has its place, too, and there is no better example of that than the new Cinemax action-thriller "Strike Back." Everything about it reflects a network totally in tune with its action-hungry viewer base (or customer base, as the case may be). It's scheduled in a way that makes perfect sense, even in this era of schedule-averse viewing patterns. What better time than Fridays at 10 to debut new weekly installments of a show that embraces the true nature of grown-up escapism? All that's missing is the beer and pizza.
There is plenty of cheerful exploitation on display, served up inside some very smart storytelling that instantly engages anyone who goes along for what can only be described as a wild ride. "Strike" focuses on hard-living Sgt. Damian Scott (Sullivan Stapleton, a star on the rise), a former Delta Force operative recruited by an elite British military unit. Scott is so tough that nothing slows him down, including a shot to the leg and the nasty extraction of the bullet by his new partner, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester). Working in tandem with two equally tough women - team leader Col. Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) and fellow agent Capt. Kate Marshall (Eva Birthistle) -- they're in relentless pursuit of maddeningly elusive international terrorists who claim to have taken possession of the very same weapons of mass destruction that were said to be in Iraq back in 2003, before the war began. (That plot point alone should get people talking.)
This testosterone-charged show is perfect for what it is. There is plenty of violence, bloodshed, sex and nudity along the way, some of it gratuitous, some of it restrained, and all of it right in line with so many of the low-budget R-rated movies that have come to define Cinemax. With its explosive action and gripping cliffhangers it might remind viewers of "24," albeit with breasts, butts and much cursing. (I'm certain Jack Bauer would have loved to use the F-word as often as Sgt. Scott does.) As far as the sex is concerned, the first few episodes haven't moved into Skinemax territory, but I wouldn't put it past the creators of this unashamedly entertaining series to go there -- if it were crucial to the story, of course.
"Strike Back" is a terrific first shot at something new for a Cinemax: original programming that is actually worth watching. Next up: a series based on the "Transporter" movies.