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Summer TV Smackdown: Our Complete 2014 Watch List

Vampire hunters, plagues, psycho angels, country MCs and tons of nudity

We've grilled 50 Cent on Power (the new show he's executive-producing for Starz) and given you a primer for the (already great) second season of Orange Is the New Black. But there are many more salacious, supernatural and sadistic shows on the docket for the year's hottest months. Here's a breakdown of everything Rob Sheffield will be watching on the channels that push the boundaries this summer.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

‘The Leftovers’

June 29th, 10 p.m., HBO

The summer's darkest and weirdest new drama has a hell of a premise. Three years ago, something very strange happened – millions of people all over the world suddenly disappeared at the same time. Nobody knows why. Was this the Rapture? Or something worse? Dazed survivors in a small-town bar watch the TV news run a reel of the celebrities who vanished that day: Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, the pope. The bartender grouses, "I get the pope – but Gary fucking Busey? How does he make the cut?"

Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, The Leftovers is relentlessly grim. Justin Theroux stars as a police chief in a New York suburb trying to keep the lid on a typical American town that's ready to explode after three years with no answers. Cults and gurus are everywhere; violence breaks out at random. The town holds a three-year-anniversary parade for the lost heroes – as the mayor explains, "They're heroes because no one's gonna come to a parade for We Don't Know What the Fuck Happened Day." The Leftovers is often difficult to watch: Bad things happen to babies, while even worse things happen to animals. But Theroux has never been more intense, as he tries to hold on to his sanity amid the madness.

Jonathan Hession/Showtime

‘Penny Dreadful’

Sundays, 10 p.m., Showtime

Welcome back to the screen, Eva Green – the former Bond girl turns out to be a tough, brooding, altogether terrifying leading lady as a mystic operator in Victorian London. She's just one of the many awesome surprises in Penny Dreadful. London is the most repressed city in Western civilization, except the corset is about to burst – evil creatures are afoot, and a pervy aristocrat (Timothy Dalton) enlists Green to help rescue his daughter from an occult underworld. It has the exact right mixture of supernatural poppycock and urban-noir suspense. Over here it's Oscar Wilde's decadent young Dorian Gray, while over there it's Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his latest monster. Josh Hartnett was always a lightweight annoyance as a movie star (it's like he was put on Earth to make Jared Leto seem deep), but even a confirmed non-fan has to admit he's pretty much perfectly cast here as a cowboy. And, of course, there's plenty of flesh. The best scene comes when a tubercular prostitute ­climaxes in the middle of banging Dorian Gray – by coughing up a bucket of blood all over his face. Those were the days.

Michael Gibson/FX

‘The Strain’

July 13th, 10 p.m., FX

Meet the new vampires – no, not the sexy kind. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's horror show aims to make these blood-guzzlers as repulsive as the zombies on The Walking Dead. When a mysterious viral plague hits New York, the only man on top of the situation is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll – he was Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris), your basic cocky anti­hero asshole head investigator from the Centers for Disease Control. He might look like the bastard spawn of Christian Slater and Dennis Quaid and have the worst hairpiece on television, but the doctor has a nose for germs, and he starts to suspect this epidemic is something new: a vampire virus. The best trick on The Strain is making these vampires so stomach-churning: There's a feeding-frenzy scene set to Neil Diamond – which might forever change the nausea level you associate with "Sweet Caroline."

Zach Dilgard/A&E

‘Big Smo’

June 11th, 10:30 p.m., A&E

It was only a matter of time before somebody tried to do a hip-hop Duck Dynasty. So here's the latest A&E reality star: Big Smo, a white "country rapper" from a humble farm in Unionville, Tennessee. Big Smo has a record deal, pimping his major­label debut, Kuntry Livin'. He's also got his girlfriend and a couple of daughters back home on the farm. Can he hustle the music business and hold on to his simple down-home Southern values? Can he tour with his Buckwild-style entourage while being a good father? Can he earn a chance to work with his hero, Darius Rucker? And can he keep the standard sitcom-ready reality-show adventures going all season with a balance of sincere family-man shucks and rap-game bling? Let's just say you can smell the distinct aroma of "Labor Day wedding episode" all over Big Smo.

Ilze Kitshoff/Syfy

‘Dominion’

June 19th, 9 p.m., SyFy

Quite possibly the best opening line of any drama in SyFy history: "Twenty-five years ago, God disappeared." SyFy makes a bold return to science fiction (what a concept!) with this bizarro post-apocalyptic romp about a war between human beings and angels. See, after God's exit, two archangels began fighting over the human race – Gabriel led an army of his fellow angels to invade Earth and wipe out our inferior species. But Michael led a human army to fight back. Now humans live in ruined cities like Vega, which turns out to be what's left of Las Vegas. (You'd figure that would be the last place angels would fight about.) Dominion is based on the strange 2010 angels-vs.-humans action flick Legion, with a compelling mix of otherworldly intrigue and shoot-'em-up violence. Whatever Dominion lacks in coherence, which is admittedly everything, it makes up for with audacity.

HBO

‘The Knick’

August 8th, 10 p.m., Cinemax

Welcome to New York's Knickerbocker Hospital, circa 1900 – back in the bad old days when anesthesia is primitive and antibiotics are unknown. And meet your doctor, Clive Owen – a mustachioed tyrant whose main interests are cocaine injections, opium dens and chopping into his patients' bodies. Steven Soderbergh's The Knick is basically a medical Deadwood – Owen is like Al Swearengen, drugging, whoring and swearing away, except with a scalpel in his hand instead of a hunting knife. Which doesn't necessarily make him any less deadly. You have to hand it to Soderbergh for some of the most gruesome operating-room scenes you'll ever watch through your fingers. All the period detail is superbly vivid, and Owen is magnetic; trying to cheat death is his personal battle with the Almighty – as he says, "God always wins. It's the longest unbeaten streak in the history of the world." But it's a battle he relishes.

TBS

‘Cee Lo Green’s the Good Life’

June 23rd, 10:30 p.m., TBS

Does the world need another scripted-to-death celebrity reality show? No, but the world always needs more Cee Lo. This is a warmhearted dues-paying posse move – after making it big solo, the Voice star goes back home to Atlanta to reunite his old hip-hop crew, the mighty Goodie Mob. He makes another album with the Dirty South vets, and since Cee Lo is way more famous than the rest of the group combined, there's some tension in the air. But they turn that into a running joke. Best episode: Cee Lo tries to go on a diet. "I can't let you deny me of the pleasure of fried pork chops and gravy," Cee Lo complains. And as one of the Goodie Mob warns, "It's not wise to come between Cee Lo and his food."

Richard Foreman/TNT

‘The Last Ship’

June 22nd, 9 p.m., TNT

One man – and his naval destroyer – must find a way to save humanity from extinction, and like most plans to rescue the human race, this one involves Michael Bay. The Transformers cinéaste moves to basic cable for The Last Ship, apparently because Hollywood was holding him back from full creative expression. But don't worry – Bay brings his beloved CGI blowing-shit-up action scenes with him. Eric Dane (Grey's Anatomy) commands this vessel, with a crew that includes a pouty-lipped biologist and a dog named Admiral Halsey. (Considering that Halsey spent his most famous battle sailing in the wrong direction, you have to figure these seamen are just seriously stoned Wings fans.) They've been at sea for months when they find out an epidemic has wiped out 80 percent of the Earth's population. Their mission now: Find a cure. "What's left of the federal government is holed up 200 feet below the White House," the president warns in a video chat. "We have no allies, we have no enemies – just a world of sick, desperate people." (Sounds like the audience when I saw Pearl Harbor.)

TNT

‘Murder in the First’

June 9th, 10 p.m., TNT

Behold: the return of Bochco! This homicide drama brings back executive producer Steven Bochco, one of the genre's founding fathers. Murder in the First follows one murder case across a whole season, with a pair of San Francisco homicide cops – the intriguing duo of smooth operator Taye Diggs and rough-around-the­edges slob Kathleen Robertson. They find what at first looks like your everyday drug murder – a corpse shot in the face, alone in his junkie flophouse, right next to a pinup of an Amy Winehouse look-alike. (Oh, that Bochco touch.) Before you know it, this case gets bigger, as the trail leads them to a mysterious Silicon Valley software guru who clearly has a few dark secrets of his own. Murder in the First might stick to the cop-show rule book, but it's a rule book that Bochco helped to write – and the fact that it functions like clockwork proves that with some genres, sticking to the rule book can be a smart move.