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Escaping reality

"Empire," filmed entirely in Rome and south central Italy, focuses on Julius Caesar's nephew, Octavius, and on a fictional disgraced gladiator, Tyrannus. (ABC / The Spokesman-Review)
Ann Oldenburg USA Today

Summer TV tends to be like summer beach reading – light ‘n’ fluffy, nothing too heavy for long sunny days when viewership usually drops.

Cable channels usually see the season as a time to lure viewers. Collectively, the six major broadcast networks lost 7 percent of their audience last summer, compared with the summer before, and 38 percent of their regular-season audience, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Another wave of reality shows is on the horizon, but the next few months also offer some big-event scripted series. Among the best of the bunch:

“The 4400”

When: Returns Sunday at 9 p.m. as a two-hour special, followed by 13 one-hour weekly episodes starting June 12 at 9 p.m. on the USA Network (cable channel 58 in Spokane, 39 in Coeur d’Alene).

Concept: An exploration into 4,400 people who, after being reported as missing or dead, reappear in a ball of light. They have not aged physically, and many have returned with dramatic abilities ranging from enhanced reflexes to precognition. A government agency is tracking them.

Why it’ll be hot: Alien shows are the newest trend, and plenty are coming in the fall, but this one is ahead of the game. It started as a miniseries last summer, and its premiere drew 7.4 million viewers, a record for basic cable.

Billy Campbell is back as Jordan Collier, the self-proclaimed figurehead of the 4,400 returnees. Peter Coyote, who headed the original investigation, is gone.

Jacqueline McKenzie plays Diana Skouris, one of the agents investigating the returnees. She now has adopted one of them, a little girl named Maia.

“If you really sit back and look at it, it is deeply terrifying,” McKenzie says. “We’re dealing with things that are so unknown. The stakes are very high.”

The returnees, she says, are “people like you and me, but have just so by chance been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or were they chosen specifically? We don’t even know that.”

Scott Peters, one of the creators of the series, has high hopes for this season.

“One of the greatest gifts is that we have 13 hours to tell the story and not rush through it,” Peters says. “We’re able to weave in larger themes, such as religion and the role of government in our lives. We’ll be able to deepen the characters and flesh them out.”

As for whether there will be contact this season with aliens, he says, “You never know. Anything’s possible in a world where people appeared in a ball of light.”

‘Into the West’

When: Premieres June 10, 8 p.m. on TNT (cable channel 54 in Spokane, 31 in Coeur d’Alene); six two-hour episodes.

Concept: It’s the broad story of the opening of the American West, focusing on the struggle between Native Americans and pioneer culture while also exploring the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad and the wars leading to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Why it’ll be hot: It’s big and bold – more in the vein of old-fashioned Westerns, not edgy like HBO’s “Deadwood.”

Making the six “small films,” producer David Rosemont says, required more than 1,000 cast and crew, 1,500 extras, 20,000 costumes, 150 locations, 176 shooting days and six directors. In the first episode alone, 1,600 head of buffalo were used.

“It was fun,” says Matthew Settle, who plays main character Jacob Wheeler. “Anytime you put on moccasins and leather and chaps, it’s like revisiting your youth.”

The stories are serious, though, he adds: “I like the series because it looks into less of what we did and more of why it was done.”

The project has Steven Spielberg as executive producer.

“He does not lend his name lightly to television or features,” Rosemont says. “There was a certain story that we told that he wanted to tell – the real story of settling the West and how we came to who we are.

“This is not a Western; it’s a film about the West. His presence was felt.”

‘Empire’

When: Premieres June 28, 9 p.m. on ABC (KXLY-4 in Spokane); six hours (two-hour premiere, four one-hour episodes).

Concept: The sweeping drama filmed entirely in Rome and south-central Italy focuses on Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavius, who is destined to become the Emperor Augustus and inherit the throne.

Why it’ll be hot: It’s epic and features intense gladiator battles, along with a lot of Roman intrigue and backstabbing, and a young new actor, Santiago Cabrera, 27, in the role of Octavius.

A soccer player through college, Cabrera is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian. He considers Santiago, Chile, his hometown, and he lives in London. This is his American television debut.

“I was happy from the word go, from the moment I got the part,” he says from London, where he will soon start shooting a romantic comedy called “Love and Other Disasters” with Brittany Murphy.

Audiences will like “Empire,” he says, because “I guarantee it gets better and better. The more it goes on, the more you care.”

Also look for Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, as Servilia, mother of Brutus; Dennis Haysbert (former president on “24”) in the role of fictional retired general Magonius; and James Frain (Paul Raines on “24”) as Brutus.

‘Over There’

When: Premieres July 27, 10 p.m. on FX (cable channel 53 in Spokane, 65 in Coeur d’Alene); 13 episodes.

Concept: Gritty, intense drama focusing on a platoon of soldiers assigned to duty in Iraq.

Why it’ll be hot: From screenwriter Chris Gerolmo and TV drama veteran Steven Bochco, it’s the first drama with the Iraq war as its backdrop.

Expect graphic and bloody scenes from combat and some profane language. Already, the question of how the portrayal of the war will manifest itself politically has come up.

“This is a show about soldiers, and I think one of the things we were able to capture is the chaos of it. This isn’t about politics or policy,” Bochco says.

No individual episode attempts to portray the epic canvas of the war, political decisions or the breadth of feelings about the war in this country, says FX President John Landgraf.

But, he says, “As you aggregate them, you have these fascinating deep arcs of the unfolding experience of how it’s impacting them and the family.

“War is such a deeply complex topic,” Landgraf says. “It has complex meanings; it can’t be reduced to one thing. It is not all bad; it is not all good. …

“And the series needs to examine it in all its complexities. People will be affected by it in different ways.”

Bochco says he couldn’t “begin to approximate the level of reality that I think a show like this requires” if it were on network television.

“I’m sorry not to be on network TV,” he says. “But this is a show that belongs on cable, and it’s a privilege to be there.”

‘Barbershop’

When: Premieres Aug. 10, 10 p.m. on Showtime (premium cable channel 576 in Spokane, 226 in Coeur d’Alene); 10 episodes

Concept: Set in a gradually gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago, the comedy series begins where the movie franchise left off, with most of the same characters and a few new ones.

It’s part of a new comedy block of programming paired with the more daring “Weeds,” about a pot-dealing soccer mom, airing at 10:30 p.m.

Why it’ll be hot: It’s based on the popular 2002 movie starring Ice Cube and will feature Omar Gooding from ESPN’s “Playmakers” in the lead role.

Showtime President Robert Greenblatt says the series went right into production, with no traditional pilot made, because he was so sure it would be good given the movies that preceded it.

“There’s a captive audience there already,” Greenblatt says. “We’ll try to be as funny as those movies are.”

He hopes fans who loved Showtime’s black family drama “Soul Food,” canceled last year, will tune in.

“When (‘Soul Food’) was finished after five years, there was a huge audience out there,” says Greenblatt. “I think there is an audience for a show like this.

“The ‘Barbershop’ movies have more female appeal than male. I would love nothing more (than) for that audience that liked ‘Food’ to find this.”

While none of the actors from the film was available, he says, “We have a really great group of people. Most are unknown; there won’t be baggage.”

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