Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street. Or not. If the Hollywood puppeteers of television programming have their way, you’ll be trancing in your seat, doing the Watusi with your DVR, attempting to Monkey with your remote control.
The hunt to capture your eyes has grown increasingly fierce over the past 15 years, as the competition has expanded to hundreds of channels and “content” deliverers. And so the whole idea of summertime as a quiet period for TV, an opportunity for viewers to stray from prime time and recharge for the fall season, is over. The sprawling TV industrial complex just isn’t having it anymore. The waves of new and returning summer shows that began in the early 2000s have only gotten stronger, so that lineups in July are almost as busy as they are in the fall.
And as a bit of positive reinforcement for the networks and their summer aspirations, the highest-rated new series of the 2013-14 season was a summer series, CBS’s “Under the Dome,” which returns for season two on June 30 with an episode written by Stephen King. Not even “The Blacklist,” which premiered in the fall, drew as many total viewers.
So here we are. Twenty summers ago, you could watch repeats of “Friends” and “Chicago Hope” and, of course, “Law & Order.” And occasionally, the networks would pull out a summer series or two. Now, as July approaches, we’re about to get whopped with episodes of new and returning series, on the networks and on cable. That onslaught includes the return of Showtime’s fine “Masters of Sex” and the overheated “Ray Donovan” on July 13, a new vampire horror series on FX based on novels by Guillermo del Toro called “The Strain,” also due July 13, and “Extant,” a high-profile CBS sci-fi drama on July 9 starring Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from 13 months on a solo space mission to find that she’s preggers.
One of the most compelling new summer shows is “The Leftovers,” which premieres on HBO on Sunday night. About the social disorder and emotional fraying that occur after 2 percent of the population disappears, it’s anything but light summer fun. A round of existential angst for all!
The rehabbing of summer TV is the result of a few significant shifts in the early 2000s. USA and TNT began to realize they could claim summer as their premiere season, taking advantage of the networks’ seasonal passivity. USA’s “Monk” and TNT’s “The Closer” were huge, and they inspired a lineup of light summer dramas including USA’s “Royal Pains” and TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles.” And the pay cablers, too, began to use the relative quiet of summer to launch series, including HBO’s “Entourage” and “Six Feet Under.” They all understood that, with so little going on on the networks, viewers were more likely to sample their goods. And they were right.
Soon enough, the networks began trying to catch up with the cable channels. They lost summer, and they are not good losers. They’ve been throwing down all kinds of new summer material in recent years, from reality TV to soft dramas such as NBC’s just-premiered “Taxi Brooklyn,” to lure us all back. NBC will be delivering a pair of new Thursday sitcoms, “Welcome to Sweden” and “Working the Engels,” on July 10. On July 31, ABC has a “Lord of the Rings” reality show called “The Quest” that will put players in a forest peopled by “magical creatures,” as the network’s website puts it. And CBS is already blessing us with another round of “Big Brother.”
All of this urgent competition for summer real estate is, of course, a good thing for us. I’ve already got a full lineup of promising TV to watch over the next two months. Sundance Channel’s recently returned “Rectify” is a unique slow drama about prison, freedom, and mental prisons. I won’t miss an episode. If FX’s “The Bridge,” which returns on July 9, is as textured as it was last summer, it will be well worth watching. HBO’s “True Blood” is on my list, simply because the now-inferior series is having its last hurrah. Maggie Gyllenhaal is starring in the BBC-produced spy miniseries “The Honorable Woman” on Sundance beginning July 31, and that certainly could be special.
Meanwhile, episodes of the great “Orange Is the New Black” wait in my Netflix queue, soon to be joined by the supposed last season of “The Killing” on Aug 1. I’m sure I don’t need to go on, with mentions of three new FX comedies, IFC’s “Garfunkel and Oates,” and Starz’s “Outlander.” You know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are dressed to chill.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.