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Grimness is a man’s game on summer TV

It’s been a grim summer. Especially for men, mostly middle-aged white ones.

At least, it has been on television, which has experienced a near epidemic of clenched jaws and downturned mouths. Male actors and even the occasional reality star have been putting on an unintentional clinic in how (and sometimes, how not) to look grim. In one show after another, as an actor strains facial muscles to the breaking point, you can almost hear the director urging: “Give me grim. No, grimmer. No, even grimmer.”

Jack Bauer in “24: Live Another Day” was disgruntled over an impending rain of death from the skies, and so was Fin Shepard in “Sharknado 2: The Second One.” Frank Winter not only is trying to build an atomic bomb but also has vexing family issues in “Manh(a)ttan.” That Big Jim Rennie’s town is cut off from the world by a clear, impenetrable covering has been the least of his worries in “Under the Dome.” Grim, grim, grim.

This is a very specific emotion, this grimness. It is not “angry,” with screaming and throwing of things against the wall. It is less demonstrative than “furious,” more ominous than “miffed.” The grim on display all over television is a foreboding scowl that says, “The situation is very grave, and I am extremely displeased about it.”

Though some grim has been manifesting itself on returning series, many of the shows trafficking in the emotion are new. And it seems to be largely a guy thing. Halle Berry, inexplicably pregnant after a long spaceflight, ought to have a lot to feel grim about in “Extant” on CBS, but she is mostly wary and haunted, which aren’t the same thing. Jennifer Finnigan of FX’s “Tyrant” is relatively placid considering all that her family is going through. Grimness, at least this summer, is a man’s game.

But some men are better at conveying the emotion than others. Here are the Top 10 Grim Guys of Summer, in reverse order – that is, least effective at rendering grim to most effective:

Cliff Curtis (Javier Acosta in “Gang Related” on Fox): Javier is the head of the Los Angelicos criminal gang, so of course he’s grim because grimness instills fear and respect. He has been especially grim recently because the Los Angeles police officer who is supposed to be providing protection for the gang had to have him arrested for reasons too dense to detail here. Curtis is at the bottom of the Grim Top 10 because he’s too darn good-looking. If you really want to pull off grim, a little homeliness helps.

Ian Ziering (Fin Shepard in “Sharknado 2” on Syfy): Of course Fin is grim, because last month for a second time – what are the odds? – he found himself in the middle of a sharknado. It was Syfy’s sequel to its unexpected 2013 hit about tornadoes that suck sharks out of the water and drop them onto urban areas. Ziering again saved the world, but pulling off a good grim is hard when actors and television personalities of all sorts are trying to horn their way into your movie for kitschy cameos.

Adrien Brody (Harry Houdini in “Houdini” on History): “Fear is how I know I’m alive,” Houdini says in the forthcoming History miniseries as he is plunging off a bridge into icy water while wrapped in seemingly inescapable heavy chains. No wonder he’s grim. But Brody’s is a brooding sort of grimness, mixing in Houdini’s quest for fame, preoccupation with spiritualism and looming foolish death. And a lot of it is conveyed through voice-over. Not the ideal recipe for pure grim grimness.

Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer in “24: Live Another Day” on Fox): Jack was back in a new season of this venerable series, and boy was he grim. Too grim, really. Sure, Jack was carrying an enormous amount of baggage, and maybe he was irked that he’d been off television for four years, and terrorists had seized control of U.S. drone aircraft, but Sutherland sometimes seemed like a caricature of grim. Next time, pull it back, Jack.

John Benjamin Hickey (Frank Winter in “Manh(a)ttan” on WGN America): It’s the 1940s in Los Alamos, N.M., and Frank has a lot on his plate. The world is counting on him and his team to come up with a bomb that will end World War II but could also destroy life as we know it, and he’s being hassled on the domestic front as well. Hickey delivers the grimness of the supersmart, of a man who knows he is changing the world and not necessarily for the better.

Kelsey Grammer (Allen Braddock in “Partners” on FX): Allen is the scowly half of a pair of mismatched lawyers forced into business together on this sitcom, which began this month. The character is grim because his father fired him from the family law firm. The actor is grim because he has somehow ended up in this awful show.

Dean Norris (Big Jim Rennie in “Under the Dome” on CBS): When the dome first came down over his town last summer, Big Jim, a bully with a selectman’s title, saw it as an opportunity. In Season 2, though, he has been finding that power comes with a price. Norris looks a little scary even when he doesn’t have his game face on, so when he goes grim, people pay attention.

Steve Austin (in the reality series “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge” on CMT): When he was a professional wrestler, Austin generally had “Stone Cold” appended to the front of his name, so you expect grim whenever he turns up in his current career as an actor and television personality. You get it in “Broken Skull Challenge,” in which he badgers macho men and women as they compete to get through a down-and-dirty obstacle course. The stakes may not be very high compared with some of the entries on this list, but the dude sure makes it seem as if they are.

Sean Bean (Martin Odum in “Legends” on TNT): Martin, an undercover agent, has domestic terrorists, interagency conflicts and family pressures to deal with. Oh, and he’s also confused about his own identity. Bean, aided (as many of the Top 10 Grim are) by scruffy facial stubble, looks grim even when he’s receiving a lap dance at a strip club, as he did in the recent premiere. He was pretty grim in Season 1 of “Game of Thrones,” too. Maybe the flak he received for revealing a possible “Game of Thrones” spoiler in a recent interview has made him extra-grim in the new show.

Richard M. Nixon (the 37th president of the United States): Some fine actors have been doing grim this summer, but none have done it better than Nixon did in real life 40 years ago this month. That was when he resigned from office, an event revisited by several television specials in recent days. The king of grim, then and still.