The longest summer of the longest year is coming to an end. That means it’s time to look back over the season and hand out a few awards to those campers who distinguished themselves. And, surprisingly, there are many to choose from. Despite the pandemic, whose impact on TV production has been particularly hard on the broadcast networks, a spate of new cable and streaming shows were released between June and August. Here are those going home with prizes.
THE ALL-AROUNDER: The lead performance by Michaela Coel is astoundingly good in the astoundingly good “I May Destroy You,” which she also wrote and co-directed. A 12-episode series about rape and consent may sound like Lifetime-movie hell, but Coel came up with a complex, gut-wrenching, funny, and unflinching take on the subjects with nary a false moment. As the star, she is charismatic and able to communicate the smallest, most critical emotional shifts without a hint of strain. As the writer, she is lucid, ambitious, and able to juggle a variety of tones. The HBO show was the summer’s most emotionally demanding — and rewarding — series.
BEST BLASPHEMY: If you’re going to bring back the sharpest, most cynical sitcom of the past 20 years, you’d better bring it. “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” was the kind of sellout “30 Rock” once so brilliantly mocked, a desperate attempt by NBC to promote its fall lineup and its streaming service, Peacock, in the absence of the annual advertiser-seducing upfront presentations. The gang was all there, led by Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, and Jane Krakowski, but they were used as shills for NBC and Peacock in the name of corporate synergy. If you want a fully ironic antidote to the “30 Rock” special, watch the first episode of the third season of “Corporate” on Comedy Central, which aired earlier this summer; it’s a brutal and brilliant go at the streaming wars
SPECIAL CASTING COMMENDATION: Thank you, Joe Biden, for selecting Kamala Harris this summer as your running mate. This fall, “Saturday Night Live” will need all the help it can get as a live show during a pandemic; being able to bring in Maya Rudolph to play Harris, as she did to perfection last year, will provide a valuable assist. Rudolph’s three turns as the senator from California — making the candidate into the fun, glamorous aunt who’ll prosecute you to within an inch of your life — brought her a best-guest Emmy nomination this summer. Lorne Michaels, you take it from here.
THE DON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES PRIZE: A six-episode British thriller imported by Peacock, “The Capture” left me reeling, unwilling to trust any footage I see from now on. It’s set in London, the famously heavily-surveilled city loaded with CCTV cameras. The detectives here rely on the street footage to solve crimes, but sophisticated deep-fakery is changing the game. Now one of our most historically dependable faculties, sight, is unreliable. Criminals can doctor footage, and so can cops. The twisty story has creative ups and downs, but the concept is consistently haunting.
MOST MISSED: No question: “Succession.” This summer could have been perfect timing for the show, providing us with a perfectly horrible group of people on whom to dump all our pandemic frustration. Instead, the drama-comedy, which HBO usually premieres in the summer, may not even go into production until late fall, according to creator Jesse Armstrong. The last we saw, Kendall threw his father under the bus, leaving his father smirking in admiration at his son’s gall and wit. That killer image will have to sustain us for longer than I’d hoped.
TRUE CRIME JACKPOT: The HBO docu-series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a powerful procedural about the search for the Golden State Killer. And it’s the story of the tragedy and bravery of the rapist-murderer’s victims and their families, whose lives were broken by depression, shame, and police officers with no sensitivity to survivors of rape. And it’s a look at the true-crime genre and those obsessed with it, including author Michelle McNamara, whose own death becomes the one mystery the series doesn’t get to the bottom of.
CREEPY CATE CROWN: Netflix’s “Stateless” gives us the Cate Blanchett we love to see, the Cate who will cut you with a leer if she needs to, the Cate who looks so nice on the outside only because she’s hiding how ugly she is on the inside. She plays a scamming cult leader who, with her noxious husband (played by Dominic West), sends Yvonne Strahovski’s fragile soul over the edge. The six-part Australian import, about the flaws in immigration policy and the nightmare of detention centers, didn’t get a lot of attention when it premiered on Netflix in early July, which is too bad. It’s imperfect — a show taking on immigration that’s largely about a white woman? — but nonetheless powerful.
OPTIMISM HONORS: Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” takes this special prize in a landslide, although, given the dark tenor of most scripted TV these days, it didn’t have much competition. The comedy is a bucket of positive feelings, led by its titular character, played with upbeat gusto by Jason Sudeikis. Ted rivals Leslie Knope (“Parks and Recreation”) for his yes-we-can attitude, and, as a soccer coach for a losing English team, he shares plenty of the motivational might of Coach Eric Taylor (“Friday Night Lights”). A feel-good show in a feel-bad time? Yes, please. Special shout-out to Jeremy Swift as the much-abused and endearing Higgins (he was Spratt in “Downton Abbey” — yeah, that guy).
COMING OF AGE CITATION: Available on Hulu, “In My Skin” ought to be unbearably bleak. The five-episode half-hour British series is about a high schooler — Bethan, played by the miraculous Gabrielle Creevy — who pretends to her friends that she comes from a safe and caring middle-class home; in reality, her mother suffers from serious mental illness, her father is an alcoholic, and they are poor. And yet the show is filled with kindhearted moments, as Bethan acts as a parent-like figure to her wounded parents, and as she and her amusing grandmother share moments of levity. It’s about survival, not lying, and I was immediately ready to see more.
THE MEDAL OF MISREPRESENTATION: The “Perry Mason” that aired on HBO this summer had little to do with the “Perry Mason” that ran for so many years with Raymond Burr in the title role. The new show borrowed the title to stoke potential viewers; it’s really another HBO antihero drama with noir trappings, and a middling one at that. This Perry, played by Matthew Rhys, is a broken man with PTSD, a drinking problem, and money troubles, until he suddenly becomes Super-defense-man. Let’s call it a faux-boot instead of a reboot, and hope that season two — when Perry becomes more like the Perry we know — has a better season-long case.
PARTICIPATION TROPHIES: Aw, “Love, Victor.” Set in the same world as the 2018 film “Love, Simon,” this Hulu series is a sweet and breezy look at coming out as gay in high school. OK, so we’ve seen it all before, and there are no surprises, and it has been done with more depth elsewhere. Still, the series has its YA heart in the right place. You too, “Little Voice.” OK, so the Apple TV+ series from Sara Bareilles relies on rom-com cliches and cutesiness. Still, it’s an easy summer watch if you’ve already gone through HBO Max’s “Love Life” and Hulu’s (sadly canceled) “High Fidelity.”
MOST IMPORT-ANT TREND: This summer, as the storage of new American series began to diminish due to the pandemic, British and Australian shows that had already aired over there started popping up over here. And most of them — including “The Capture,” “In My Skin,” and “Stateless,” already mentioned here — were decent, if not excellent. HBO Max imported a six-episode dramedy set in the 1980s called “Frayed” about a woman who loses her husband and their fortune overnight. She moves with her two kids back home to Australia to live with her financially struggling family, with “Schitt’s Creek”-ian results. It’s a warm portrait of extended family, and a bit raunchy, too. Hulu picked up the six-episode British comedy “Maxxx,” a fierce lampoon of fame and the hunger for it, with O-T Fagbenle (June’s husband on “The Handmaid’s Tale”) as a has-been boy-bander and an over-the-top Christopher Meloni as a record exec. And Showtime is airing “We Hunt Together,” a cat-and-mouse suspense series with some of the psychosexual playfulness of “Killing Eve.”
THE RELEVANCE CUP: HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” is set in segregated 1950s America, as a Black Korean War vet goes in search of his father. He and his Black traveling companions encounter a different supernatural motif in each episode — monsters, a haunted house — that ultimately represents something real: racism. They also encounter straight-up racism, as they face Ku Klux Klanners, sundown policies, and hostile restaurant owners. It’s a period piece, and it isn’t. Sure, the costuming and cars are dated, but the vigilante violence, the white supremacism, and the cops’ mistreatment of Black people are not. It’s one of the many embedded and disturbing ironies in the exuberant series, which was made before the latest surge of Black Lives Matter but arrives at the exact right moment.