The fall season will begin with a trickle just after Labor Day and then get going in earnest two weeks later, but as we prepare for the return of our old favorites, it's not a bad idea to pay tribute to the shows that got us through a long hot summer. Here are ten of the season's best, in no particular order.
Big Brother 11: Even when the cast is subpar -- and let's face it, if Jeff and Jordan ever reproduce, it will be like the first five minutes of Idiocracy come to life -- the increasingly strong editing can still make the house look interesting. The decline and fall of the odious Ronnie and the back-to-back flakeouts of Chima and Lydia made all the tedium in between worth it.
In Plain Sight: I'm probably one of the few who prefers this series to Burn Notice, because New Mexico is more interesting to me than south Florida, and because Mary Shannon is my favorite USA character. The chemistry between Mary McCormack and Frederick Weller makes the show hum, and permits me to overlook plots and supporting characters that aren't always strong.
Deadliest Catch: After five seasons, you would think this series would have repeated itself into oblivion, but the distinct personalities continue to make it work, along with the knowledge that the danger on display is not mere network hype. And a scene near the end of the season in which a veteran crew member was laid off was a reminder that behind the macho posturing, these captains are running serious businesses.
The Colony: This switch from the typical Thom Beers macho reality formula presented a controlled fictional scenario: place people in a simulation of a post-apocalyptic urban environment, and see how they adapt to the lack of communication and power. While nerves are on edge, a disclaimer assures us the participants are totally safe; and cooperation and ingenuity are more prevalent than typical petty reality backbiting.
Rescue Me: The firefighting drama came back stronger than ever after missing all of 2008. The mordant workplace humor hummed along, there was a lessening in the amount of quasi-misogyny, and as for Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) -- well, things are still pretty messy, and we wouldn't have him any other way. Michael J. Fox turned in some excellent Emmy-nominated work as well.
Whale Wars: The cat-and-mouse game between the activists with Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet became even more tense this season, as both sides refined their tactics and the eco-activists took ever more risks, to the point of putting their ship in peril at the bottom of the world. If viewers are paying attention, they will be more worried about the lives of young Sea Shepherd crew members than those of the whales.
True Blood: Yes, I've succumbed, like one of Maryann's "devil zombies." Not entirely: it's never a good sign when you can't wait for the alleged stars of the show to make way for the subplots. But when those subplots involve the cruel humor of Alexander Skarsgard's Eric, Jason's sojourn in a fundamentalist compound, and Jessica's pouty adjustment to vampire ways, I can forgive a lot. And then there's all the orgies.
The Next Food Network Star: This series combines food knowledge (or an ability to fake it -- witness past winner Guy Fieri) with the ability to shine on camera, and watching the occasional tension between the two can be intriguing. Not everyone who possesses knowledge has the ability to teach. The latest winner, Melissa, looks like a keeper.
Top Chef Masters: I was a skeptic that this series would be able to hold my attention, given that these were not up-and-comers as in original recipe Top Chef, but established culinary stars playing for charity. But the purity of the competition worked for me, and once it was Hubert vs. Chiarello vs. Rick Bayless, it became fascinating to guess at which one of these geniuses would be judged the best of all.
So You Think You Can Dance: This season was a step below its predecessor, and I have some concerns that there are really enough good amateur dancers to keep this series running. But the overall tone of class and seriousness is still present, and by the time the season had reached its final four dancers, one again had the sense that there were real stakes and that the winner would be very deserving.
Honorable mention: The coverage of the sudden death of Michael Jackson was occasionally tasteless and excessive, not unlike the man himself could be. But these types of national "moments" are not only what television news does best, but it's something that newer media have yet to truly replicate. The Jackson memorial will live in the national memory longer than anything else that has been seen on the tube in the summer of 2009.