Finally, it’s cool to admit you spent your summer watching reruns on the USA Network.
The fact that there are now summer television shows worth watching shouldn’t come as a big surprise. As noted by every major website over the past few weeks, we are “suffering” from an abundance of good television across the board, and FX CEO John Landgraf’s comments regarding the possibility of television bubble have been analyzed to death. What did manage to take us off guard this summer, though, is that so much good television could come from networks and streaming services not typically known for their original series.
If you did not venture too far from programming stalwarts such as HBO or FX, you may have missed a few networks announce themselves as players on the national scene. Networks and streaming platforms such as Hulu, MTV, Amazon Prime, USA, and even Lifetime gave us some of this summer’s best new programming, shows that received wide critical acclaim and more than a few raised eyebrows at their base of operations.
Here’s a look at a few of the best shows from the most unlikely of places.
Catastrophe (Amazon Prime)
With the sheer volume of resources that Amazon Prime has put into their streaming original programming – pushing critical successes like Transparent into the middle of award season and giving Woody Allen a degree of creative freedom that keeps him up at night – it’s easy to forget that Amazon is a company that doesn’t actually have a history of making things. Amazon has always served as a middle man between us and the things that we want to consume; it couldn’t be more fitting, then, that the platform’s best show is not one that they created but one that they bought wholesale and delivered to us.
Debuting on England’s Channel 4 earlier this year, Catastrophe is a television series about a fortyish couple – an American, played by comedian Rob Delaney, and a Brit, played by Sharon Horgan – whose short fling leads to an unexpected pregnancy and the even more unexpected decision to make the relationship work. The modern television landscape is populated by couples who relish their own sense of misanthropy, but Catastrophe is a delightful dalliance with likable people who are committed to having an adult relationship. They’re a little too old to play games or romanticize each other’s faults away, so instead, they do decidedly unsexy things such as communicate and cooperate. Most thirty-somethings feel like they’re playing at adulthood from time-to-time; Catastrophe is a show that teaches us that growing up sometimes means committing just as much as choosing.
Difficult People (Hulu)
Speaking of USA, here’s one they probably wish they had back. Much like Amazon Prime, Hulu has spent the past few years being a better content provider than content creator; no amount of original programming will ever be as important to the service’s long-term success as the over $300 million they paid this year for the exclusive rights to South Park and Seinfeld. And despite a few scattered attempts at original programming, Hulu has yet to break through on the strength of its own content.
Difficult People might be the show to change that. What makes the series so funny are the aspects of autobiography that the two actors bring to their roles. Julie Klausner spent several years as a pop culture critic for New York magazine – focusing primarily on the various permutations of the Real Housewives empire – which lends her character’s celebrity insults a degree of legitimacy only possessed by those who earn a living being snide. Meanwhile, Eichner’s struggling character is the most dialed down version of the actor we’ve ever seen – which includes both Billy on the Street and Parks and Rec — allowing him an opportunity to show off his more talented side.
Under the watchful eye of Executive Producer Amy Poehler – and with one high profile joke scandal already under its belt – Difficult People promises to continue holding a mirror up to our own self-absorbed relationship with pop culture and celebrity.
Mr. Robot (USA Network)
With NBC tearfully taking Hannibal out behind the shed with a rifle, USA Network’s Mr. Robot might now be the best-directed show on television. Raise your hand if you ever expected the words “USA Network” and “best-directed” to find their way into print.
For years, USA has thrived on a very specific type of upbeat television. Show likes Psych and Burn Notice were cheerfully anachronistic – bucking the contemporary trend of dark, darker, darkest – but not particularly challenging and the makeup of the channel’s audience reflected this focus on breezier fare. And there is no reason to think that this would ever change; when network president Chris McCumber referred to “bravery” as a value shared both by his network and our country, it epitomized the kind of bland media speak that often translates to reactive, not proactive, programming decisions.
Instead, USA greenlit Mr. Robot, a dystopian hacker drama pulling in rave reviews from everyone capable of pushing aside their skepticism long enough to try the pilot. It offers star turns for two of its young actors, has unlocked Christian Slater from actor jail, and even managed to impress people with the accuracy of its techno-thriller language (my friend in the information security industry can vouch for that), all while being one of the most beautifully shot shows on television right now. If not for UnREAL’s presence on this list, Mr. Robot would easily be the most surprising breakout of the summer season.
In a 2013 interview with Time titled “How MTV Decided to Abandon Rebellion,” MTV president Stephen Friedman sat down with the magazine and discussed the changes the network had made to target millennials. As MTV attempted to skew younger and move on from Generation X, Friedman pushed the network to rebel against rebelling, at least when it comes to youth culture and parents. Friedman’s research indicated that millennials are unlikely to make decisions without first checking with their parents; therefore, scripted television that sensationalized the culture gap between generations was less likely to appeal to their target audience.
The concept behind a show like Scream, then, is a little bit more ambitious than a simple cash grab with a recognizable franchise. Scream is a film that many Generation X youth – the core demographic for MTV since its inception – saw in their early or middle twenties. By reworking Scream for a contemporary youth audience, MTV has created an opportunity for their old audience and their new audience to find the common ground that millennials seem to value. And the thematic element of a cross-generational murder mystery fits right into the new type of narrative television that MTV is trying to provide.
If all of this seems overly corporate and cynical to you, then consider that Scream has episodes in the first season directed by indie horror favorites Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) and Ti West (The Sacrament) and at least one die-hard advocate in your Twitter feed (I have two) and there might be more reasons to give the series a chance than just simple nostalgia.
In my little corner of the Internet, no television series was more discussed and marveled at than UnREAL, the scripted behind-the-scenes-of-reality-television drama. Critics have called it the most feminist show on television or the first true female anti-hero for the medium. And all of this from a channel whose programming lineup this very week includes Unsolved Mysteries reruns and an unauthorized television movie about the cast of Full House. Unreal indeed.
What surprises us most about UnREAL is not that someone made a show about being behind-the-scenes on a dating show but that it took so long for something like this to break through. Even if we exclude anything before the rise in popularity of The Bachelor or American Idol as being part of the modern reality-television movement, we are still left with more than thirteen years of instant celebrity culture; our disgust of the form is matched only by our fascination with the shows that we treat as exemptions. And despite the occasional spoofs like Burning Love or Drawn Together, the entire industry has mostly avoided any kind of closer scrutiny.
And as with all the best pulp art, UnREAL embraces its own lowbrow nature and uses it as a message to tackle important issues. Series creator Marti Noxon spent years making a show about vampires and high school cheerleaders one of the most progressive places on television; should UnREAL prove to be more than a one-season wonder, then this might usher in a new era of reality-exploitation television for people with something important to say about modern culture.
Tell us below: what was the best new show you watched this summer?