As we head into the fall, when everyone starts buying aspirational sweaters and blank notebooks in which they plan to write their novel, it’s time to look over the summer in TV. We’re many years past the days when summer was a kind of dumping ground for flimsy variety series and reruns, and there are plenty of worthwhile shows to assess now, before we move onto the annual onslaught of premieres in September and October. Herein, a list of high- and lowlights.
It’s not of the highest quality; neither was its originator, “Beverly Hills 90210,” a teen soap with social issues that now triggers all kinds of nostalgic feels. But, thankfully, this Fox reboot has some new ideas, unlike most of the many we see these days. It’s not just nostalgia; it’s about nostalgia, and the “90210” actors whose lives are defined by it. The members of the gang — minus the late Luke Perry — are getting old and a wee bit weary of having to revisit their early years; but then they know they need to in order to survive. The jokes are a mixed bag — they live where meta meets meh — but the approach is admirable.
“Years and Years”
This six-part HBO miniseries took us on a sweeping and addictive — and highly unsettling — tour of how the next 15 years on Earth might look. As we followed the near future of the Lyons family, we witnessed a world unfold that only saw current global problems, including immigration conflicts, climate change, amoral leaders, and high-tech dependency, worsen. From Russell T. Davies of “Dr. Who,” it was a “Black Mirror”-like vision for this moment, with Emma Thompson as a particularly devilish politician and Russell Tovey as a particularly lovable sibling.
The Democratic debates
The four summer nights of the faceoff for the Democratic nomination were — how can I say this delicately? — exasperating. They amounted to a collection of short and superficial non-answers, hand raises, and memes, ultimately signifying very little. Both events — the first on NBC, the second on CNN — proved problematic, as they pursued a reality-show-like atmosphere with divisive, crowd-pandering questions. The time limits, while perhaps needed, made it hard to push the candidates beyond prefabricated talking points. They were poorly served by the format, as were viewers. Watching the No. 1 polling candidate, Joe Biden, sail forth with no passion or grit, cast an unfortunate pall over everything. Fingers crossed on the next round, on ABC Sept. 12 (and, if enough candidates qualify, Sept. 13).
BEST FIRST-CLASS UPGRADE
The first two seasons of Netflix’s origin story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling were entertaining but shallow. Turns out they were just introductory; the show finally blossomed into something deeper and character-driven in its third season, with Las Vegas-set story arcs for most of the characters. Finally, the actors got material that enabled them to do some exploring, most notably Gayle Rankin (she’s Sheila the She-Wolf) and Chris Lowell (he’s Bash, who is tormented by his sexuality). Even the dreaded will-they-or-won’t-they relationship cliché worked this season, as Marc Maron and Alison Brie established one of TV’s more unexpected unions. It’s the most improved show of the summer.
MOST UNEVEN DRAMA SET IN 1990s BOSTON STARRING KEVIN BACON
“City on a Hill”
It started out with great promise, with the potential to become a faceted portrait of the inner workings of a city, and I’m definitely not ready to dismiss it entirely. But the first season of Showtime’s Boston-set drama had a narratively fuzzy midseason, the writers seemingly unsure of how to pursue the many secondary characters they introduced so well at the start. The relationship between leads Aldis Hodge and Kevin Bacon got tiresome and vague, and the finale was topped by a courtroom scene teetering on illogic. Some of the acting was aces — Mark O’Brien was jittery excellence as Jimmy the rat, Catherine Wolf was the hard-nosed mother-in-law and mother, and Bacon ultimately made his Jackie Rohr roar — but the story needed at least another hour in the oven.
THE RELEVANCE PRIZE
“The Loudest Voice”
The Showtime miniseries hit this moment in history right between the eyes. It was the story of how and why Roger Ailes created Fox News, and it showed how he understood the power of stoking viewers’ fears with lies. As Ailes, Russell Crowe was a formidable ideas guy and, in scenes that tended to go over the top stylistically, a sexual abuser and power misuser. He created his cable news channel without much concern for journalism; for him, it was all about making money for Rupert Murdoch and leading a political charge in whatever direction he chose.
PERFORMANCE OF THE SUMMER
Mj Rodriguez in “Pose”
The second season of FX’s Emmy-nominated look into the ballroom subculture of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a bit mixed up and, at times, trite. The cast never gave in to the script problems, though, and I was awed by a few of the actresses, including Indya Moore as Angel. But Mj Rodriguez stood out for her remarkable work as Blanca, the mother of the House of Evangelista, whose world has been rocked by an HIV diagnosis. She carried the season brilliantly, shining in — but not dominating — all of her many scenes. Her Blanca is a model of grace and kindness, and if I were doing of list of TV’s best mothers, she’d be near the top.
THE LEAST SURPRISING BOTCH
“Big Little Lies”
The just-let-them-be philosophy toward reboots was fully justified by this HBO misstep. “Big Little Lies” was meant to be a one-off miniseries, but its popularity and prestige drugged all those involved into thinking there was more story to tell. There was not. The resulting second round was essentially a lot of aimless melodrama and go-nowhere subplots, all building up to an absurd courtroom scene with Nicole Kidman’s Celeste on the stand. I have a million questions about the choices writer David E. Kelley made with each of the main characters, but, alas, I don’t have much interest in asking them.
THE BIGGEST ‘BUT’
Yup. As thoroughly irritating and unnecessary as the second season of “Big Little Lies” was, Streep nonetheless made it somewhat worthwhile. Whenever I talk about the disappointing season with friends, there is always a “But Streep” moment. She played an awful mother of an awful son and an even worse mother-in-law and grandmother — but she played her with suppressed fury. She didn’t steal scenes; she quietly pocketed them. She lifted them, in both senses of the word. Her Mary Louise (which, by the way, is Streep’s given first name) was mousey in appearance but able to zero in on her targets with sociopathic intensity. It was Streep who brought the only intrigue of the season.
THE TEEN DOWNER TROPHY
This brooding HBO series was about teens dealing with sex and drugs, created by Sam Levinson with a very dark, cynical, and at time nihilistic point of view. It came to provoke, and not to deliver CW-like moral codas. But it also arrived with imaginative camerawork, an incisive script, and a few performances — by Zendaya as a young woman getting sucked down the drain by addiction and depression, by Hunter Schafer as her new friend — that were indelible. In a way, “Euphoria” was the bleak cousin to Netflix’s far happier teen series, “Sex Education.” They’d make an interesting double binge.