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Cable Offerings Previewed at Press Tour Run the Gamut

July 10, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. _ The cable networks have been meeting with TV critics here all week, and in their range _ of both subjects and quality _ it’s a pretty solid tour of the TV universe.

On one, high end was BBC America, with its usual slate of smart programming, including “BBC World News America.” The news people talked about their commitment to covering the world, to maintaining their impartiality, and “to living up to the standards set by BBC journalists long before us,” according to executive producer Rome Hartman.

A different kind of “news” _ not that this show would use that description _ was E!’s cheeky, very clever “Talk Soup,” which covers the world of reality, talk and just generally bad TV.

“Unless the power grid fails, there will never be a shortage of material,” said star Joel McHale, who describes himself inelegantly as a ‘basic cable clip show host.”

My point? There’s room for a lot of things inside your TV, and after you spend a little time around the cable networks, you start to understand how vast the TV spectrum _ and the spectrum of what interests America viewers _ can be.

One of the dramatic standouts on TV is AMC’s textured, atmospheric “Mad Men,” which returns for season two July 27. The cast and creator talked this week about their pride in the show, and about their amazement that it’s gotten such critical acclaim.

“It’s like, we’re not crazy,” star Jon Hamm told critics. “Other people like good stuff, too.”

Creator Matthew Weiner said the success hasn’t really sunk in. “I’m one of those writers who only hears the bad things,” he said, “not that I want to encourage anyone.”

Weiner and the rest all deflected the praise, saying it’s a team effort.

“I don’t want to create the illusion I do this alone,” Weiner said. “We have a talented writing staff, a brilliant cast, and the cinematographers, the crew … we even have an amazing caterer.”

On a softer front, there was the Hallmark Channel, one of the last bastions of original, old-school TV movies. And because Hallmark’s stars tends to be _ lets call them old-school, too _ it gave critics a chance to catch up on some past shows.

Jane Seymour, for instance, is starring in a Hallmark movie coming in August called “Dear Prudence” about an advice columnist-turned detective. She told critics her most notable TV, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” is not coming back because CBS is done with it.

“CBS owns it,” Seymour said, “but I do have all the clothes.”

Cheech Marin, talked about how much he enjoyed his days doing the Cheech and Chong act, and said a Hallmark movie he’s doing, called “Expecting a Miracle” works out well for him because he plays a priest.

“I get 100 hours of public service knocked off because of it,” Marin said, “so it’s win-win.”

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On Sunday night, David Simon and Ed Burns _ the team behind the brilliant series “The Wire” _ are back on HBO with “Generation Kill” (at 9 p.m. EDT), another mesmerizing and eloquent ode to the little guy.

In this, they turn their feel for detail and nuance, and their straight-forward, fluent writing on the early days of the Iraq war, and the result is another triumph of riveting, complex storytelling.

This seven-week series is based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with the elite U.S. First Recon Marines. He wrote about the war from the perspective of a bunch of well-trained 20-year-olds who spent the first weeks, as Wright says, “at the tip of the spear.”

Wright’s book and this miniseries _ both Wright and Simon say in press material they stayed true to the book _ focus on the people in the Marines, their routines and on all their battles. And like “The Wire,” this is utterly without cliche and totally absorbing.

Many of the characters are based on real people. There are great officers and bad ones, good-hearted Marines and angry ones, smart decisions and boneheaded moves. No person is simply one thing, and most of all, when they are under fire, this group responds like the top-level force they were trained to be.

Simon’s sense of humor is layered throughout in witty conversation and in irony. His sense that any system will crush the regular people in it also comes through, and it jives with Wright’s reporting. For instance, the battalion was sent off woefully low on batteries for their night vision equipment, and one captain refuses to give them more, saying Marines have been trained to conserve.

But in this case, the system saves them, too, at least in the early weeks of the war covered in this miniseries. Their training, mixed with their solace and pride in being Marines, takes them through in battle.

There is a realism _ in the language, the confusion, the stomach-turning sights and the flatness of many soldiers’ reactions to death _ that can make this hard to watch, especially with U.S. forces, and some of the Marines in the film, still engaged in Iraq.

But this feels more like a piercing act of journalism than some TV movie, and it paints a valuable and vivid picture of being a modern American soldier.

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Friday night, CBS starts “Flashpoint” (10 p.m. EDT), a new, brisk, all-around interesting cop show about an elite SWAT-style team, and you have to wonder why CBS doesn’t seem to like it.

This is a different kind of series. The characters aren’t just more bravado-filled supercops, though they talk like they want to be them. Instead, they’re real _ if very capable _ regular people.

What’s also different is that the focus is only partially on the police crisis. The aftermath, and the often-haunting or isolating impact on team members, is a big part of the show, and it’s handled with what seems genuinely human layers.

It stars the always-good Enrico Colantoni, and the rest of the cast is more than solid. The writing is forceful, the characters are intriguing, and the taut moments don’t feel like you’ve seen them a thousand times.

But CBS is airing this late on a Friday, one of the lowest-rated nights of the week, and viewers might wonder if the network has already given up on the show.

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Rick Kushman: rkushman@sacbee.com

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(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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