Diane Werts writes about television for Newsday. Werts previously was the founding editor of Newsday's trend-spotting magazine TV
The TV industry calls them "emerging networks" -- cable channels just starting up, expanding to more households or breaking through with a fresh identity.
This month, three are loudly launching original dramas, making bold statements about their brand and ambition.
How's this for out-of-the-box wow? The lightly regarded WE channel (yes, of "Bridezillas") finally steps up to the plate with its first scripted hour -- and hits a grand slam that resounds like an extra-inning World Series winner. "The Divide" premieres Wednesday (9-10:50 p.m.) with almost two hours of breathtaking drama.
It summarizes dry but unfolds with stunning force. At its core is legal intern Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), whose incarcerated dad provides her reason to work for an innocence project trying to overturn wrongful convictions. She's racing to spring a death row inmate in a 12-year-old Philadelphia case with explosive racial implications. She is white, as is her boss (Paul Schneider), an old classmate of the city's black district attorney (Damon Gupton), who has large ambitions of his own. They, and others in their orbit, will all be weighing where they stand when it comes to justice, both specific and societal.
Writer Richard LaGrevanese and director Tony Goldwyn ("Scandal") nail details of character and place so strongly that the wider moral questions wield all the more power. Layers keep enfolding the story, pulling us ever deeper in its grasp. "The Divide" for WE feels like "The Shield" did for FX, an earthquake shifting the channel to serious series player.
This week also brings a splashy show for the new El Rey Network, launched in December by high-octane moviemaker Robert Rodriguez (and still seeking local distribution beyond DirecTV, although it’s available for free on iTunes, VUDU and XBox). Rodriguez's mindset suffuses tonight's premiere of "Matador" (9 p.m.), in which a federal agent (Gabriel Luna) infiltrates a Los Angeles soccer team run by a suspected crime lord (Alfred Molina) -- but not until gunfire and gore proclaim this is, indeed, Rodriguez's baby.
Later this month comes the second original from Chicago's striving superstation WGN America (now on DirecTV, DISH and FiOS), following its witch trials saga, "Salem." But "Manhattan" (July 27 at 9 p.m.) is closer in spirit to "The Divide," as it chronicles the World War II atomic bomb project in the atmospheric desert of New Mexico. Ambition is writ in the credits of director Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing") and writer Sam Shaw ("Masters of Sex"), and their work here doesn't disappoint. The visual palette is cool, the human drama is hot, the cast conveys gravitas (John Benjamin Hickey and Daniel Stern among them) and the period ambience is "Mad Men" evocative.
TV that's cerebral, TV for the senses. Even on the medium's periphery, there's suddenly lots worth watching.