Beating the…Cold: The Best and Worst of US Summer Ratings TV by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on August 7, 2011


While the whole of Melbourne moved to Europe for the winter holidays, I stayed in my cold house and watched a tonne of US Summer Ratings television online. (N.B. Summer Ratings is US networks’ off-peak season, so the best/worst of the crap that doesn’t make it to peak ratings) Here’s what I watched, and what I learned about what I watched:

Alphas (SyFy)

Alphas - typically ridiculous tagline.

Alphas tries to capture the magic of superhero stories that so eluded No Ordinary Family, The Cape and the later seasons of Heroes. In my opinion, it doesn’t quite get there. Dr. Rosen, resident ‘science man’, collects together a group of socially-deformed rejects with special abilities (‘Alphas’) to fight other socially-deformed rejects with special abilities and dispense justice. Some of the team are Bill (who can activate his ‘fight or flight’ mechanism), Rachel (who can hyper-intensify her senses) and Gary (a highly-autistic young man who can control all electromagnetic frequencies). I so wanted to like Alphas, because I love superheroes, especially the kind who channel X-Men as this group does. Unfortunately, Alphas is boring, with disconnected characters and a clunky script. It’s basically NCIS meets season 3 of Heroes, and I can’t really imagine anything worse than that. It’s worth checking out if you’re a hero devotee, but you’ll probably reach the end of the (ridiculously long) pilot unsatisfied. You’d be better off turning to the Brits, who do hero stories with style and quirk in Misfits and No Heroics.

Awkward. (MTV)


Awkward. (damn it, yes, the full stop is included in the title), is part of MTV’s new scripted TV coup. Jenna Hamilton, dorky high school student, complains via the blog medium about her crappy formative years. After an amusing mishap in the bathroom leads to allegations that Jenna is trying to commit suicide (and lands her with an arm cast set in a permanent high-five movement), she must learn to bear the brunt of sudden notoriety. Jenna goes from “Invisible Girl” to “That Girl” with humour and style. Though, generally, watching someone whinge about their teen years is the last thing I’d want to do, I like Jenna and I love Awkward. It is well-written, and is superbly acted by Ashley Rickards. If you think the scene where Jenna ‘pops her cherry’ with armpit-sniffing jock Matty at summer camp is hilarious, Awkward. is for you. Episode two, “Knocker Nightmare” is even better than the pilot.

The Glee Project (Oxygen)

The Glee Project - Ah, perfect picture of my three favourites (L-R: Cameron, Samuel and Hanna)

The creators of Glee are, oddly, far more adept at making a reality TV show based on their show than they are at creating their actual show. In The Glee Project, 12 young people compete for a seven-episode spot on the new cast of Glee. They sing, dance, shoot videos and cry in front of judge Ryan Murphy (Glee’s creator and writer). There’s a lot to like about The Glee Project. The show has a tight format, engaging challenges and (mostly) likable contestants. The most intriguing thing about TGP though, is the ‘behind the scenes’ look we get at the making of Glee. The other mentors/judges are Glee’s vocal producer, casting director and choreographer (Zach, who might be the love of my life), and the challenges are based on the concept and practice of making Glee. It’s also interesting to note that Murphy and the other judges can explain their philosophy behind the writing and producing of Glee much better than it is executed in the aforementioned show. Regardless, TGP is fun and I was able to become very quickly attached to my favourites (funny fat girl Hanna, hipster Christian Cameron and almost-homeless dreadlocked Samuel). N.B. I’ll be most intrigued to see whether asking an audience to become attached to one personality, and then altering that personality to fit a fictional character will work, but that’s a question for the next season of Glee.

The Nine Lives of Chloe King (ABC Family)

The Nine Lives of Chloe King - THAT HAIR!!

Y’all can probably tell that I love anything to do with teenagers or super powers. The Nine Lives of Chloe King has both those things, so how could I resist? On her sixteenth birthday, Chloe King discovers she is Mai—an ancient race of “not quite human, not quite god” superheroes with cat-like abilities. Not only does Chloe now have retractable claws coming out of her fingertips, she is also the Uniter—the one Mai who has “nine lives to live, nine lives to endure” (this is amusingly verbatim). Nine Lives is a bit of silly, mindless fun. Chloe has bitchin’ hair, a decent high-kick and two very good-looking boys fighting for her love (one each for respective tastes). There’s sweet Brian, a human, with sexy eyes and a big obstacle separating him from Chloe. Alternatively, you could go for Chloe’s Mai protector, Alek, who hilariously cannot act but whose muscles ripple engagingly beneath his shirt. I am torn, but I do love Nine Lives. Chloe and her mother channel a little too much Gilmore Girls Lorelai/Lorelai (all that BFF fast-talking nonesne) and the script is a bit melodramatic and “punchy” for my taste, but it’s a lot of fun. Kind of like a watered-down Buffy (which I guess makes it Kim Possible?).

Pretty Little Liars – Season 2 (ABC Family)

Pretty Little Liars - Classic picture of the Liars with ridiculous looks on their faces (L-R: Emily, Spencer, Aria and Hanna)

Pretty Little Liars is genius television. Back in season one, estranged Besties Aria, Emily, Hanna and Spencer reunite upon discovering that their Chief Bestie, Alison (missing for a year), has been murdered. We promptly figure out that, though Alison was a nasty little piece of work and probably deserved a whacking, the Liars (afore-named Besties) are determined to uncover the identity of the Whacker. To add fuel to this already ridiculous fire, the girls are being stalked by the mysterious omnipotent, omnipresent, sociopathic spectre “A” (who has an impressive command of telecommunications and social media).  Through season one, we (and the Liars) ponder, “Who is Ali’s killer?”, “Who is ‘A’?”, “Which boy am I going to date?”, and other important life decisions. In season two, we’re all pretty much pondering the same thing (because PLL loves it when things that appear resolved prove to be resolutely unresolved). Season two opens with many changes and developments. For one, there’s the increasing annoyingness of Aria (and her obsession with old dudes), and the growing irrelevance of Lesbian Emily. Also, the appearance that Lesbian Emily is dying from some undisclosed “shoulder pain”. The best part of season two is undoubtedly the sheer awesomeness of Hanna (Sample Dialogue: “Hanna, you’re going to a funeral, not a Nicki Minaj concert.” Brilliant.), but running a close second is the fact that Spencer flips it and TOTALLY LOSES HER SHIT BIG-TIME. PLL is trashy and ridiculous, but it’s well-constructed and sneakily brilliant. The writers consistently evoke a delicate balance of teen romance, melodrama, suspense (/’horror’), frivolity and absurdity in every episode. PLL is simply undeniable.

Project Runway (US) – Season 9 (Lifetime)

Project Runway - Oh, Heidi!

Project Runway is probably an acquired taste. I’m not the world’s biggest reality television fan, but when it’s good, it is damn good. Project Runway is good. 16 emerging American fashion designers compete for a lot of money to start a new line, a spread in Elle magazine and a show at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. The first episode of this season is the semi-finals, where we meet 20 fashionistas, who are whittled down to 16 (who are then whittled down to 15). The show is judged by fashion designer Michael Kors, director of Elle magazine Nina Garcia and supermodel Heidi Klum (who also hosts the show). The contestants are mentored by Tim Gunn, director of fashion at Parsons, New School for Design. What makes PR so great (in comparison to other competition-based reality shows) is that the contestants have actual talent, and the prize at stake is a real chance to start a potentially profitable business. They have to prove themselves every week in awesome challenges (this week, it’s making an outfit from the pyjamas they wore to sleep and a sheet from their bed). The other thing that makes it a fantastic show (much like TGP) is that the mentor and judges are qualified—and rockin’. You’ve gotta love Tim Gunn, that gorgeous fey man who flits in and out of the PR workroom parroting “Make it work, make it work” (see contestant Santino’s impression of Tim from season 2). Also, who can resist Heidi Klum’s affected German accent: “As you know, in fashion, one day you are in, and the next, you might be out”? Though not as strong as previous seasons (i.e. season 2, the best one), I’m still watching and enjoying PR. I like the stunning ex-Miss Universe contestant (from Trinidad and Tobago), who learned to sew four months before being accepted to PR.

Teen Wolf  (MTV)

Teen Wolf - Yep, this picture pretty much sums it up.

I tried so hard to stay away from Teen Wolf. The concept, of rebooting a camp comedy film from the 1980s and making it an MTV show for teenagers, is so irksome. I have to say, though, Teen Wolf is not all that bad. True, I am totally over the whole vampire-werewolf phenomenon. True, Teen Wolf does have a desperate desire to be considered “cool television”. TRUE, the men are all overly-coiffed and busting out of their Bonds chesties. However, beneath all that icky MTV exterior, Teen Wolf is surprisingly well-done. Scott McCall, a dorky asthmatic teenager from Beacon Hills (with an inexplicably ripping bod), is bitten by a werewolf while out searching for a dead body with his best friend (you know, as ya do). Suddenly simultaneously dangerous and in danger, Scott attempts to conceal his true identity from those around him (including his new girlfriend, Allison). There is a healthy serving of wit that I didn’t expect at all from this show (mainly provided by Scott’s best friend, Stiles). It’s also nice to see that being a supernatural thingy isn’t a big boo-hoo-palooza (like the Twilights and Vampire Diaries of the world try and convince us it is). Scott does go through a healthy amount of angst over his new-found desire to rip the flesh from his friends’ bones, but the show is fun and bouncy (as opposed to depressing and overly-serious). Also, any show that devotes an entire episode to teens being chased around and around their school at night by a crazed wolf is alright with me (Stiles, verbatim:“I’m NOT going to die at school!”).

Suits (USA Network) 


I’m not going to lie, the fare at USA Network is really not my thing (these are the guys who create smart-ass buddy dramedies like White Collar and Burn Notice). I watched Suits as an exercise in branching out of my comfort zone. Lucky for me, despite having a crazy-long 90 minute pilot and being about lawyers (who I could care less about), Suits was not too bad. Mike Ross is a college drop-out stoner with super memory who takes law school entrance exams for slacker kids in order to raise petty cash for his sad little life. When he decides to help his friend Trevor (a drug-dealer) with a risky drop, a misadventure leads to Mike running into hot-shot lawyer Harvey. Harvey is looking for an associate who is as smart and bitchin’ as him, and is charmed by Mike’s cocky attitude, incredible memory and sob story. Harvey allows Mike to work for him as an associate (despite being totally unqualified to practice law) and a father/son bromance quickly develops. The script is straight-up, with colourings of wit, and the cast is dotted with perky females. However, the real hook is supposed to be the dynamic duo Mike and Harvey. Admittedly, Patrick J. Adams is strangely irresistable as whip-smart, sweet Mike, but Gabriel Macht’s pseudo-Patrick Bateman act (as Harvey) is dull and overwrought.  I did chuckle at some of the gags, and I thought the writing was, at points, snappy (there is a fantastic running reference to ‘suits’ that I found amusing), but Suits isn’t really for me. Basically it’s a show where two guys jerk it at each other over how clever they think they are. Dull City.

Switched at Birth (ABC Family) 

Switched at Birth - The girls look hell-a evil here...

I couldn’t decide for ages whether Switched at Birth is good or dreadful. The concept is nuts, and also totally rad. Two teenagers discover they were switched at birth, so their respective families all move in together in order to get to know their estranged biological each-others better. The girls (Bay, an upper-middle class pain-in-the-ass, and Daphne, a trashy-side-of-the-tracks deaf girl) go through the expected anxiety and frustration at discovering the life they have was not meant for them (they also go through a lot of boy swapping, gross). As one would anticipate, hijinks and drama ensue. Switched at Birth is majorly hamstringed by the fact that its home is ABC Family (where family drama goes for a twee, 7th Heaven-style makeover). However, the show has some engaging storylines. Also, Daphne’s deafness allows the writers to delve intriguingly into deaf culture. The deaf community portrayed on Switched at Birth—albeit liberally constructed, I assume—is an innovative way of representing and discussing the concept of minority (without the stereotype of gender or race). I like Daphne, but I want to kill Bay dead with a big big hammer. She is so annoying, and I hate her hair. However, I do respect that the girls’ class statuses didn’t translate into the princess/trash-whore dichotomy. The best new character on television is undoubtedly Daphne’s deaf best friend Emmett. he doesn’t speak (unlike Daphne who speaks and signs), and his impeccable acting ability allows him to convey wit, kindness and humour to a sign language-illiterate audience. The first 6 episodes pissed me off, because Bay’s family didn’t seem to care about learning sign language, but now everyone’s learning so most of the show is bi-lingual (speaking and signing, or signing with subtitles). An interesting construction of a high-concept drama, Switched at Birth is definitely worth at least a look to witness what the show makes of its many gimmicks.

**Editors Note: The Summer Ratings Season has progressed since this article was written. Switched at Birth (surprisingly) only got better (except for an uninspiring final 3 minutes in the season finale), while Alphas (unsurprisingly) only got worse. Chloe King lost us for a while in the middle, but hit back with a superb season finale (full of impecably well-constructed cliff-hangers). TGP remained consistently good fun, and then wussed-out in its penultimate episode. With the finale pending, we don’t quite know which team to be on (Team Damian, Sam, Alex or Lindsay). Project Runway is still Project Runway, and the formula is (sadly) tiring. Pretty Little Liars is coasting, which is brilliant because clearly they’re leading up to something good. Also, Spencer is still a giant cup of crazy, and Blind Jenna might be getting her sight back (which prompted some poor taste comments from Hanna about her being “scary enough with four senses”). Suits is pretty dull (if we’re being honest) and also rather arrogant in its construction. Teen Wolf got kind of scary, but still retained enough spark to keep us interested until the thrilling season finale. We have been most surprised and pleased by the progression of Awkward. It is a sweet, funny and compelling show with a fabulous lead actor, and if we were to suggest one thing off this list for you to watch, readers, it would be Awkward. for sure.

Matilda greatly enjoyed this year’s summer ratings, but what did you think? Is there a summer show you’ve seen that Matilda didn’t review? Readers, to the comments! 

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s Editor-in-chief and co-creator. For more of Matilda’s list-making, check out Lecherous Arts: A Guide to Perving in Melbourne

Posted in: Television