HBO begins its summer season Sunday with two returning series and one newcomer. As has been the case with this premium network of late, the results are a mixed bag.
HBO's first stab at a traditional multicamera sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience is markedly different from its other series -- not in the amount of profanity or sexuality, but in its look. Most HBO shows have a high-gloss sheen -- the cable network recently decided to wrap up "Deadwood" because each episode cost $5 million when most TV dramas cost $2 million -- but "Louie" (10:30 p.m. Sunday) is as downscale as the family at its center. The set is sparse to the point that it looks like the show was made on a public access budget.
Louis C.K., a writer on HBO's Emmy-winning "Chris Rock Show," created, stars in and is executive producer of "Louie," the story of Louie and Kim (Pamela Adlon), a blue-collar couple raising a daughter. She's a full-time nurse, he's a part-time mechanic.
The premiere episode begins awkwardly with a sitcom staple: The cute little kid who asks "Why?" in response to every question her father answers. Only here, Louie's responses are increasingly amusing ("because the service economy replaced manufacturing") and escalate to " 'Cause God is dead and we're alone."
The show also features some of Louie's work buddies and a black family across the hall who Louie unintentionally insults at every turn.
"Louie" is not an HBO home run: Often funny when it tackles taboo topics head on, the show walks a fine line between honesty and unnecessary crudeness, and it often goes a step too far.
Sex is a primary topic (viewers even see Louie and Kim going at it in bed in next week's episode). The simulated sex in episode two concerns Kim's realization that she's never had an orgasm.
Some of the show's comedy is just crude, some of it is crude and funny, but it's guaranteed to offend a large segment of viewers.
In addition to the profanity and sex, "Lucky Louie" differentiates itself from broadcast network sitcoms by allowing one of Louie's friends to smoke with impunity, and he's not a villain. But like so many network comedies, "Louie" also features a balding overweight guy and a slim, attractive wife who's out of his league, proving that even HBO can play by the rules of conventional TV.
Vince (Adrian Grenier) and his buddies are back for another season of life in the Hollywood fast lane. And it looks like things could get even faster this season on "Entourage" (10 p.m. Sunday) as Vince's "Aquaman" movie opens with high expectations all around.
In the season premiere, Vince looks for a date for the film's premiere while his agent, Ari (the wonderfully craven Jeremy Piven), obsesses over the size and location of his new office now that he's started his own talent agency.
Vince's half-brother, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), wants Ari to represent him, too, but Ari shuts down that idea with a smile on his face: "I say it's important that whoever represents you, cares about you."
James Woods makes a cameo Sunday, tussling with Drama and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) for tickets to the "Aquaman" premiere. The second episode of the new season includes footage from Vince's "Aquaman" movie. But I'm surprised the "Entourage" writers had no one take the faux film to task for casting a swarthy, dark-haired Vince as a blond character. Surely fanboys on the Internet would have cried foul.
Otherwise, the show hits the right Hollywood insider notes, but this season "Entourage" begins to feel a little tired. The three episodes sent for review seem oddly directionless. Perhaps it will pick up steam in later episodes, or maybe "Entourage" just has a limited life span. Regardless of any plot deficiencies, "Entourage" offers winning characters worth watching, the chummy male equivalent of "Sex and the City."
It's a bittersweet return for fans of "Deadwood" (9 p.m. Sunday), who know the end of the show has been negotiated. After this season, creator David Milch will close the series with two two-hour films instead of a fourth season.
It's hard to imagine "Deadwood" with a different cast because the current cast makes up one of TV's best ensembles. They turn in such mesmerizing performances that it doesn't matter that half the time it's difficult to follow the story through the dense Shakespearean dialogue.
But it doesn't take a degree in English literature to understand the menacing ways of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the puppetmaster of Deadwood.
"Don't I yearn for the days a draw across the throat made [expletive] resolution," Al opines.
Elections for sheriff and mayor of Deadwood are in the offing, and George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) is out to claim land owned by Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), leading to an alliance between Al and Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).
On a lighter note, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) tries to find a way to speak to schoolchildren about scouting for Gen. Custer. Her first attempt is as hilarious and profane as it is brief.
In an upcoming episode, Al's old friend, stage promoter Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox), comes to town, adding a new, surprising element: A warm friendship between Al and, well, anyone.
Overflowing with a cast of dozens, it's no surprise that making "Deadwood" is a pricey proposition. It's just a shame that ballooning production costs will be bringing this fascinating, challenging series to an end.