"Cracker Casserole," the second episode in the second season of TNT's grossly underrated Claws includes a scene wherein Desna (Niecy Nash) shoots a commercial starring men wearing ruby sequin booty shorts twerking to Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations." It's a total hot mess, but the fabulously good kind that actually serves the story and lets its viewers delight in its joyously absurd spectacle. It is delicious nonsense that's perfect for summer.
Once upon a time, summer TV meant reruns and lousy game shows. But thanks to cable, streaming and yes, even some broadcast, there's now veritable amusement park of scripted TV coming in those carefree months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. If summer shows have anything in common, it's that they're unabashedly indulgent — colorful and occasionally kooky as they are satisfying.
Everyone expects fall TV to check certain boxes. Fall is when people swoon over hearty, hefty dramas sure to move anyone with a beating heart (This Is Us) or settle in for easy-to-love comedies with mass appeal like The Big Bang Theory and The Goldbergs. Fall is time for reliable procedurals that always solve the case or save the patient's life, in the process making advertisers happy with assured returns. And since the bulk of Emmy eligibility comes clustered in the in the fall months, the stuff networks offer up as their very best often comes when the kids are back in school and the leaves begin to fade to brown. Fall TV is wonderful, but often safely tucked into comfort or prestige categories.
Summer in America, by contrast, is for pandemonium. It's when we squirt gas onto fires to torch meat, roast our skin on the beach and risk losing thumbs to shoot fireworks. Summer is dangerous, exciting and so fun; in kind, it's when we get TV that takes big creative risks. Take GLOW (back for Season 2 June 29) for example, one of the leaders of Summer TV pack. Might it be appropriate to watch neon leotard-clad ladies fake wrestle and perform ironic, semi soft-corn porn gestures in the fall? I guess. But Netflix's delightful and socially conscious comedy, set in the doubly ridiculous worlds of 1980s LA and wrestling, certainly feels perfect for summer: whimsical, wild, just responsible enough. Like Claws, GLOW doesn't pretend to court masses — it's happy to speak to viewers with a specialized interest in wild, extravagant subcultures. Same for Snowfall, FX's crack origin story from John Singleton (July 19) which speaks to viewers who get the overlapping hip-hop/drug lord references, or HBO's Succession, which improbably makes the a Rupert Murdoch-ish clan as clumsy and goofy as the Bluths of Arrested Development. And while AMC's Dietland (Mondays at 10/9c) — which includes vigilante feminists on the loose, occasional animation and its own version of a hilariously nightmarish Miranda Priestly — may not have reached its potential in its first season, it at least marches confidently to its own bizarre little beat which is a creative license a fall show would almost definitely never get.
No work, no school, and all play are hallmarks of the summer experience, but summer's scripted TV , exuberant as it is, isn't entirely vapid. Freeform's The Bold Type (Tuesdays at 8/7c) sticks the landing between being a tween fairytale — working at a glamorous fashion magazine while navigating city life and love — and weighty issues including toxic female relationships and navigating complex sexual and racial identity. Insecure, which arrived in its first two seasons in July and August (it returns August 12), oozes with a sunny, sultry sweatiness — it's set in LA after all — and makes good comedy of Issa and Molly's romantic foibles. Within Insecure's one-liners and crazy situations though, is a conversation from black women to one another that celebrates their special experiences — a dialogue that offers up important representation and even helps heal some wounds. Summer TV isn't less thoughtful than fall TV, it's just less preachy, and solves its problems with strong margaritas rather than talk therapy.
Satisfying summer TV isn't new; Mad Men's first three seasons debuted in July and August; Breaking Bad's phenomenal last three came at the same time. But the new bounty offers up content that's cooler and more defiant — sometimes combining a twist on format with appropriate summer sizzle that drives growth for the network. Here the undisputed leader is Starz's Power, the explosive 50 Cent-led crime drama that, through traditional TV and the Starz app, draws in about 8 million viewers per episode. Back July 1 and already renewed for Season 6, Power offers gunshots, intricate plots full of double-crossing, high-stakes heists and lots of hot sex. Basically, everything moviegoers want from a summer blockbuster, except the stadium seating and $14 boxes of candy.
The undisputed losers of summer are broadcast networks, which have mostly have stuck to the script of game shows and reality competition fare — although ABC's Celebrity Family Feud and Big Brother are as fun as the genres get. There are signs that the big boys are becoming more nimble in the scripted summer space though: Reverie (May 30, NBC) and Salvation (CBS) and) try new ways of doing sci-fi — and the latter's renewal for a season (June 25) suggests some willingness to keep experimenting with off-kilter shows in summer, as CBS had with BrainDead, its enjoyably bizarro comedy-thriller about alien bugs infecting congressmen's brains that was probably canceled too soon. Hopefully broadcast networks will keep the party going, and rise to disruptors' challenge by pushing out more wackadoodle scripted fun in summer. After all, every summer is now the hottest summer on record, now that we're all stuck indoors to beat oppressive heat, we're the ultimate captive audience. But who wants to think about anything too heavy now? Let's have another daiquiri and enjoy all this good TV.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS.)