Maybe the summer TV doldrums will hit in August, but they sure aren’t in evidence this week with a plethora of new and returning cable dramas.
Tonight FX debuts “The Strain,” and Showtime brings back “Ray Donovan” and “Masters of Sex.” On Saturday, Hallmark Channel returns “Cedar Cove” for its second season. And a quartet of new scripted drama series debuts.
It’s too bad so few viewers have access to El Rey — locally El Rey is available on DirecTV (Channel 341), but the cable network is not yet available on Comcast or Verizon’s FiOS TV — because El Rey shows have a distinctive, stylish, pulp noir vibe that really sets them apart.
El Rey’s first series was the TV version of “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn,” which was violent and bloody but also clever, smart and beautifully shot. Now comes the much less graphic “Matador” (9 p.m. Tuesday), a new take on the undercover spy show.
Created by some of the team behind “Sleepy Hollow,” including Roberto Orci (“Star Trek: Into Darkness”), and executive produced by Dan Dworkin and Jay Beattie (”Revenge,” “The Event”), “Matador” introduces viewers to Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna), a DEA agent who gets recruited by CIA control agent Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan) and her awkward CIA partner Noah Prescott (Neil Hopkins) to try out for the professional soccer team L.A. Riot.
The CIA wants Bravo to get close to the team’s billionaire owner Andres Galan (Alfred Molina, “Ladies Man”), who may be in league with some international baddies. In exchange, Bravo’s imprisoned brother will get his sentence reduced.
The show’s opening culminates in a pretty funny, gross-out gag that follows Bravo chasing down a drug dealer, proving “Matador” has a sense of humor and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“A man’s entitled to stand his ground,” Bravo says at one point. “Ask Florida.”
There’s a hint of “Chuck” in the overly long training montages as Bravo gains the skills to try out for the Riot, where he makes a quick impression and earns the nickname “Matador” after he “spears the bull” and injures a team star with a rabid fan following.
A fun, entertaining action show, the timing is right for “Matador” after soccer’s rising American prominence, thanks to World Cup fever.
Executive produced and written by Richard LaGravenese (“Behind the Candelabra,” “The Bridges of Madison County”) with a pilot episode directed by “Scandal” star Tony Goldwyn (director of “Conviction”), WEtv’s first original drama series offers a serious, talky, thought-provoking introduction.
The earnest two-hour premiere raises some worthwhile questions about justice, race, politics and ambition. It’s not perfect — the pace is a bit plodding at times,; some characters hew a little too close to types — but overall “The Divide” is an engaging endeavor.
The series focuses on overeager, overly impassioned law student Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), an intern at an Innocence Project-type organization that seeks to prove the innocence of the wrongly convicted.
Christine has her own personal reasons for getting involved with The Innocence Initiative: Her father was wrongly convicted of a crime; she was there, but no one believed her version of events.
The central case in the series picks up 12 years after the murder of a middle-class African-American family as one of the men sentenced in the attack, Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer), is about to be executed.
Christine discovers evidence that could clear Bankowski, much to the consternation of the district attorney who made his career by putting Bankowski behind bars. District Attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton, “The Newsroom”) is black, like the victims. Bankowski and another man convicted of the crime, Terry Kucik (Joe Anderson), are white.
This is where the exploration of race comes into play as Page galvanizes members of the African-American community in opposition to Christine’s efforts, with one person shouting at a community gathering, “This wouldn’t be happening if he was a black man on death row!”
The pilot suggests Page deep-sixed evidence that would have cleared at least one of the men convicted, but there are also suggestions that The Innocence Initiative, run by Page’s law school friend Clark Rylance (Paul Schneider, “Parks and Recreation”), is getting funding from politically motivated sources.
“The Divide” pilot suffers from a few TV flourishes -- of course it’s the passionate intern who finds evidence of the convicted man’s innocence! -- but “The Divide” deserves the attention of fans of legal thrillers as it marks a step in WEtv’s evolution away from the likes of “Bridezillas.”
It’s not just WEtv that’s seeking to change its image. USA Network began evolving its “blue sky” programming strategy of light dramas last summer with the debut of the cloudier “Graceland.”
Now comes the considerably darker “Satisfaction” (10-11:23 p.m. Thursday, USA) about a couple in midlife crisis.
Investment banker Neil Truman (Matt Passmore, “The Glades”) has been married to wife Grace (Stephanie Szostak) for 18 years, and in some respects, he has it all: a generally happy marriage, a teen daughter, a pool in his backyard, and a 3-D, 80-inch TV.
But lately picking out his tie has become the most exciting part of his day, which leads him to believe something is wrong: Cue existential, middle-age crisis.
Neil tries to quit his job, but his boss thinks he’s joking when Neil says, “We don’t contribute anything to the world in any meaningful way. We just horde money.”
After a disastrous business trip that inexplicably doesn’t make the news, Neil returns home to find Grace having sex with a stranger, although Grace does not see Neil.
Then the pilot flashes back six months to tell Grace’s side of the marriage story. She’s been out of the job market raising the couple’s daughter and finds it difficult to get back in. She’s unsatisfied by her book club and uninterested in sex with Neil. But when she meets a male prostitute, Simon (Blair Redford), she starts making appointments and paying for sex.
At this point the almost 90-minute “Satisfaction” pilot returns to the present and shows Neil’s reaction to his wife’s infidelity, which involves a turn into territory explored on HBO’s “Hung.”
This ultimately bolsters Neil’s confidence and puts a spring in his step, although through the pilot episode he and Grace never discuss that he knows about her dalliance.
Like many recent pilots, the premiere of “Satisfaction” gives little hint as to what the show will be on a weekly basis. When will Grace get clued in? Will Neil try to juggle his day job with a sex worker side gig at night?
When it comes to exploring relationships and the interior lives of its characters, “Satisfaction” seems fairly on point and entirely relatable. But will viewers find entertainment value in a story that may also hit close to home?
Although the subject matter is darker than usual for USA, series creator Sean Jablonski (“Suits,” “Nip/Tuck”) manages to find lighter moments so that “Satisfaction” is not a depress-a-thon.
Neil tends to have every bit of bad luck imaginable – he’s physically bumbling, which seems designed more to lighten situations than it fits Neil’s character – and sometimes these comic flashes work well, particularly in an airplane scene (although the ramifications of that scene are not rooted in the real world).
Perhaps the biggest challenge for “Satisfaction” is that its characters can never be satisfied or the show would end; how satisfactory will their endless misery be to viewers?
Call it “Royal Pains 2.0.”
Just as that earlier USA series focused on a doctor catering to an elite clientele, so does “Rush” (9 p.m. Thursday).
But befitting USA’s new, darker vibe, Dr. William Rush (suave Tom Ellis, “The Fades”) is a doctor who dabbles in drugs and treats known criminals who are willing to pay him loads of cash to look the other way.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine (“How To Make it in America”) even shows Rush treating a woman who was beaten by her baseball player boyfriend. Rush takes the man’s money the first time. And Rush takes the money the second time he treats the same bruised woman, but in a nod to the limits of a USA character as an accessory to attempted murder, Rush also offers the ballplayer some payback. In addition, Rush’s assistant, Eve (Sarah Habel), encourages the abused woman to leave her boyfriend.
And that shows that “Rush,” although darker than earlier USA efforts, isn’t AMC- or HBO-dark. This isn’t no-limits Showtime. There are still some limits on how dark characters at USA can get.
“We don’t screen, we don’t discriminate, we don’t judge,” Rush says of his treatment policy. “I’m not a shrink, not a lawyer, not a priest, not a cop. We treat people who pay.”
Rush does drugs with a woman and then brings her back from near-death after she goes into convulsions (he keeps a defibrillator handy for just such occasions), helps his drug dealer by offering medical assistance to a gravely wounded gang-banger, and annoys his best friend (Larenz Tate), a more conventional ER doctor, who invites Rush’s ex-girlfriend to a party, which messes with Rush’s head.
Basically, “Rush” is USA’s answer to “House,” albeit with a younger, hotter doctor. Unlike “Satisfaction,” “Rush” doesn’t seem overly serialized, which keeps it in line with traditional USA series, only this one is more gray-sky than blue-sky programming.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.