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Ellen Gray: Networks rev up for summer season

MENTAL. 9 tonight, Channel 29. THE GOODE FAMILY. 9 p.m. tomorrow, Channel 6. EVERYONE TALKS about a year-round TV season, but how many of us are willing to stick around for it?

Chris Vance (left) plays a rule-breaking psychiatrist in "Mental."
Chris Vance (left) plays a rule-breaking psychiatrist in "Mental."Read more

MENTAL. 9 tonight, Channel 29.

THE GOODE FAMILY. 9 p.m. tomorrow, Channel 6.

EVERYONE TALKS about a year-round TV season, but how many of us are willing to stick around for it?

Take last Thursday.

On the day after May sweeps ended, taking with it Fox's "American Idol," ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and fresh episodes of the season's most-watched shows, the two-hour season finale of ABC's "Ugly Betty" struggled to a third place in its time slot.

In first place? The premiere of "So You Think You Can Dance," a summer series that's done well enough that Fox is promoting it to the regular season next fall.

In second: reruns of CBS' "NCIS" and "CSI," just two of the procedurals that do better in reruns than most other networks' serialized shows.

Sure, ABC drew just a few more of the younger viewers advertisers target than CBS did, but not nearly as many as Fox.

In summer, we're still conditioned to look to broadcast networks for "reality," looking to cable for scripted fare.

In the next few weeks, we'll see the return of TNT's "The Closer" and "Raising the Bar," Lifetime's "Army Wives," HBO's "True Blood" and the premieres of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," with Edie Falco, and TNT's "Hawthorne," with Jada Pinkett Smith.

That's a lot of firepower.

But it's not as if broadcasters aren't firing back.

It'll be a long wait - at least for those who don't have DirecTV - but NBC plans to air Season 4 of "Friday Night Lights" next summer, after the satellite TV provider's run ends.

This summer, it has "The Listener," a Canadian drama about a telepathic paramedic, premiering June 4, and "Merlin," a British-made show it first announced for this past season, premiering on June 21.

So, yes, it's outsourcing, just as CBS is with the Canadian-made "Flashpoint."

Leftovers, though, remain a staple of the networks' summer diet, with ABC planning to air the remaining episodes of canceled series "Pushing Daisies" (starting May 30), "Eli Stone" (starting June 20) and "Dirty Sexy Money" (July 18) and NBC bringing back the rest of the canceled "Kings" (starting June 13).

And then there's Fox's "Mental," a drama about life in a Los Angeles hospital's psychiatric unit that was reportedly shot in Bogota, Colombia.

Produced by Deborah Joy LeVine ("Lois and Clark") and her brother, Dan Levine ("The Division"), "Mental," which is scheduled to go international this summer, is a poster child for the new economics of the TV industry.

It's also Fox's latest attempt to clone its idiosyncratic medical drama "House."

British lead? Check.

London-born Chris Vance ("Prison Break") - who gets to keep his accent - plays Dr. Jack Gallagher, a rules-breaking psychiatrist whose first day as head of mental-health services finds him stripping down before confronting a schizophrenic patient who's off his meds.

Uptight but attractive hospital administrator? Check.

Annabella Sciorra ("The Sopranos") isn't just Jack's new boss, she's an ex.

House calls, some of them unauthorized? Check.

At least Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) generally dispatches minions to check the kitchen cabinets. Gallagher does his own breaking and entering.

Hallucinations? Check.

Forget Stewie on "Bones" and Amber on "House" - a ward full of mental patients gives "Mental" carte blanche in this area, and producers seem helpless to resist.

True mental illness is a tough thing to convey - and tougher to live with - and though "Mental's" approach is more patient-centric than some previous efforts, it can't help but focus on the bizarre in a way that probably doesn't help an already-stigmatized population.

That, though, is politics.

As TV dramas go, "Mental" is far from unwatchable. But unless you're spending the summer without cable, it's also probably unnecessary.

Unnecessary, and close to unwatchable, is ABC's "The Goode Family," a long-delayed animated entry from "King of the Hill" producer Mike Judge.

Judge, whose messing with Texas has generally been gentle, nuanced and hilarious, seems to have checked subtlety at the no doubt politically correct front door of "The Goode Family."

Their mantra is "What Would Al Gore Do?," their adopted African kid is a white 16-year-old (from South Africa) they named Ubuntu, and if they accidentally buy two-ply toilet paper, they separate it to make it last.

Oh, and they get tongue-tied around black people. No, African-Americans. No, people of color.

There's a lot of funny to be found among guilty yuppies - see Signe Wilkinson's "Family Tree" on our comics page for examples - and with a composter in the back yard and a hybrid hatchback full of reusable bags, I don't just know these people, I am these people.

I just wish Judge has made us as funny as those nice folks down in Texas. *

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