What Should a Summer TV Show Be?

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by JoJo Whilden/Netflix, Warner Bros./Getty Images, Michael Desmond/Warner Bros./Getty Images and HBO/Getty Images

The concept of a “summer movie” is well defined: It’s big and splashy, chasing “blockbuster” status, maybe with a slightly bubblegum side. Summer TV is more amorphous: Sometimes the idea of “summer TV” conjures a rerun desert whose only oases are scuzzy network game-shows, at which point one might as well drink the sand. Other times it brings up lo-cal USA procedurals, or maybe some secretly addictive MTV reality shows. And there’s always an HBO drama of some kind. But now that it can no longer be dismissed as an off season, what should a summer show be? Summer brings out a craving for a certain kind of show, and it opens up an avenue in our TV hearts that might otherwise have been too calcified during the regular season.

That ideal “yes, this” sensation comes particularly from shows that are unusual in premise or execution, ideally both. These dream summer shows — DSS — are a little edgy, often sexually charged. They tend to have distinctive voices. “Quirk” makes it sound trifling, but there’s something beautifully offbeat, occasionally soapy, about the perfect summer show.

This is all typified in the quintessential summer series: The O.C. There are plenty of teen shows and there are plenty of beachy soaps, but back in 2003, the patter and humor of The O.C. was shockingly different. In fact, 2003 is perhaps the best summer TV year ever: Dead Like Me, Reno 911!, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Nip/Tuck, and The O.C. all premiered within months of each other. Regardless of how these shows have aged or when they wore out their premises, at the time, these were audaciously, thrillingly original.

[Note: For these purposes, “summer” is anything after the traditional regular TV season, so approximately early June to mid-August. Shows that premiered at the end of August but were designed to run during the regular season, for example, My So-Called Life (August 25, 1994), are not included.]

Some of this is splashiness, a certain flare. That’s part of what makes Sex and the City another perfect example of a DSS. Nip/Tuck, too — even as the show covered some very dark territory in its early seasons, there was a glitz to it that kept it from drowning. Early seasons of True Blood had a similar naughty joy, and last year’s You’re the Worst craftily played with its own balance of cynicism, sexiness, and silliness. Melrose Place’s first season premiered in July, and then the series followed a regular schedule until its final season, when it again returned to its true home in the summer rotation.

So if soapiness is a requirement for the dream summer show, a sense of spiritual torture is a disqualifier. The Wire is a summer premiere show and, duh, an excellent show, but it’s not an ideal summer show. Its first two seasons began in June, the third and fourth in September, and the fifth in January — but it feels like sweater-weather watching, even though we see the characters more or less year-round. The Knick? No, not summery. Outlander? Borderline. Mad Men’s first four seasons and Rescue Me’s entire run were all during the dog days, and yet I wouldn’t want a summer schedule full of shows just like those.

I’d want one full of shows like Six Feet Under, another summer premiere and another example of tele-excellence. It does feel like a summer show, even though it’s often tragic and overwhelming. The difference is it’s permeable — sad but not despairing. Oz’s first four seasons are summer seasons, but it’s too claustrophobic to meet our DSS criteria. You don’t drink rosé while watching Oz. But you might while watching Orange Is the New Black. And you definitely should while watching UnREAL.

Defining a dream summer show is more of an art than a science. Just because some DSS are on the fluffy side doesn’t mean all lighter shows are ideal summer series the D in DSS signifies not only style but quality. Procedurals like Psych, Monk, Rizzoli & Isles, Drop Dead Diva, and even Suits — summer premieres, all of them — lack the urgency to be a dream anything, and antihero detritus (Ray Donovan, Californication, Tyrant) is too inessential. And lest you think all DSS viewing needs to be summer-seeming, recall 1990’s exemplary summer series: Northern Exposure. Or 1991’s Sisters. They emphasize emotional potency, and both had a major eccentric streak. Surfboard not required.

A DSS can of course be a straight-up comedy: The Sifyl and Olly Show, say, or Reno 911!. Drunk History. South Park’s first season. What makes these shows particularly suited to summer viewing is how wild they are, how much watching those shows feels like chucking your math binder in the trash on the last day of school.

Which brings us to reality and unscripted shows. Lots of lasting reality shows first test the TV waters in the summertime. Road Rules, Survivor, American Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Hills, Queer Eye, Top Shot — all these shows eventually aired during the regular season, but each got its start during the summer. Behind the Music kicked off in the summer, too. Some reality seems locked in to summer-only airings, like Big Brother, So You Think You Can Dance, and The Glee Project, and, of course, let us not forget those weird reality summer affairs like NYC Prep (one season) or Sorority Life (three seasons, but only one good one).

A reality show that makes the leap from summer to regular season might seem like a “success,” particularly for a network. (MTV and Bravo are less beholden to the typical fall-premiere schedule.) But what we really need is for these delightful treats to stay where they belong, alongside fireworks and watermelon and certain constellations. Summer is their home! A time when we desire and deserve shows that are different and exciting, but also open and buoyant in a way; aesthetically, maybe, and constitutionally.

For more, listen to “The Vulture TV Podcast” summer TV episode.

What Should a Summer TV Show Be?