TV isn’t a game, and summer isn’t always an ideal playing field anyway. The pickings can be iffy, the junk prevalent, and Sharknadoes have been known to whirl up at any time. Yet none of that stopped me from putting on my black-and-white striped referee Snuggie and, for the second straight year, declaring the season’s winners and losers. From new shows to old favorites to abstract concepts, nothing escaped my entirely subjective wrath. Did Cinemax have a better summer than Netflix? Is AMC the new NBC? Is You’re the Worst secretly the best? Read on to find out.
WINNER: John Oliver
John Oliver’s champion status shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, he was one of the headliners of this column last year, thanks to a three-month fill-in gig hosting The Daily Show that started as an audition and ended up a supernova. If anything, Oliver proved to be too good at doing Jon Stewart’s job, at least as far as Comedy Central was concerned. Just two months after welcoming back his boss, Oliver was snapped up by HBO to host his own weekly satirical news show, thus setting up one of the great “what ifs” in recent late-night history: Oliver fled the coop because there was no free desk for him to inherit — and you don’t go back to prancing around in front of a green screen once you’ve proved yourself capable of this. And yet, just a few months later, David Letterman announced his retirement and Stephen Colbert snapped at the chance to replace him. If Comedy Central had signed Oliver to a new contract last summer, potentially with some sort of promotion clause, would the network be spending its summer vacation prepping The Oliver Reporer instead of crossing its fingers and rolling the dice with Larry Wilmore? Would Comedy Central’s streak of demo dominance have remained as stiff as a Britisher’s upper lip?
Quite honestly, I think the short answer to both questions is “no”: HBO offered too much money and Oliver was smart enough to realize that his shtick was too close to Stewart’s to offer much contrast at 11:30. The chance to do his own thing rather than make people forget about somebody else’s was too great to pass up.1 Last Week Tonight was going to happen, if not on HBO, then somewhere else.2 But I don’t think even the most optimistic Anglophile alive thought Oliver’s new show would be this good, this fast. Rather than treating his new weekly schedule as a limitation (which was the entire concept of the initial ad campaign), Oliver and his staff have made depth their signature. As the rest of the media — intentionally funny and otherwise — tweaks on immediacy, Last Week Tonight revels in consideration and care. Sure, LWT maintains the rigid newsreader presentation of The Daily Show, the overreliance on Fox News gaffes, and is marked by Oliver’s inimitable ability to turn the simple pronunciation of words like “New Hampshire” into an off-road adventure in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But LWT doesn’t make sense as competition. It makes sense as evolution.
Could Comedy Central conceivably have avoided this scenario by locking up Oliver with a new contract last fall, perhaps one with a sort of holding clause? Perhaps. The sense I got from network programming head Kent Alterman when we spoke last spring was that (1) they had no way of knowing when Letterman was leaving and what effect that would have on Colbert, and (2) Oliver was headed out the door anyway.
Fun fact: CBS actually approached Oliver last fall to gauge his interest in taking over Craig Ferguson’s slot. The thinking was that Letterman would be retiring sometime and it’d be better to have a potential replacement locked up early. We all know how that wound up. But it’s further proof that Oliver was not going to stay on basic cable for long.
As much as I love The Daily Show and Colbert, I find myself tuning in less and less frequently. Their bullshit-skewering remains plenty sharp, but the longer they keep at it, the more the targets begin to look like piñatas instead of sacred cows. It’s always invigorating to see someone confront hypocrisy armed only with a rapier wit (and, I suppose, an unparalleled video archive operation). But the tone feels increasingly claustrophobic. Like the curated, nonstop thrum of the Internet, where it’s possible to build an echo chamber and then live there, quite comfortably, for years, these shows preach primarily to their like-minded choirs. In 2014, The Daily Show and Colbert make me feel better far more often than they make me think.
This has not been the case with Last Week Tonight. Across its first 15 weeks, the show has brought much-needed attention, empathy, and satire to such unsexy issues as net neutrality, predatory lending, and, most recently, the militarization of American police. Oliver excels in these long rants, which often exceed 15 minutes (an average Daily Show tops out around 21, minus commercials). He’s indignant, sure, but he’s also remarkably informed and calm. This unflappability started out as welcome and has morphed into something necessary. It’s a measured approach that reminds me of this Alexis Madrigal piece from the end of last year, which suggested the Internet’s nonstop “stream” has finally crested, and that the time might be right for a return to more pointed reflection. Consider John Oliver, dopey hair and all, the tip of that overdue spear.
LOSER: The Monoculture
Two weeks ago, Bill Simmons caught me off guard with a question: Has this been the worst TV summer in history? I realize now that he didn’t mean in terms of overall quality. After all, moments after making that proclamation, my boss was singing the praises of Nathan for You as his favorite thing on the air. With smaller bursts of brilliance visible all across the dial, what’s lacking this summer isn’t quantity. It’s the single show that everyone — or at least the “everyone” that most of Twitter and the chatty guys in your office break room pass for these days — is watching. It’s not that there’s nothing to love. There’s just very little to share.
This matters only because we’re coming off an unprecedented run of consensus shows. Not the biggies of the previous decade — your Sopranoses, your Shields, your Offices — but the titans of the last few months. This time last year we were gearing up for the national meth binge that was the incredible final season of Breaking Bad. This winter, everyone had an opinion on True Detective. (And woe betide he who had the wrong opinion!) In the spring, those debates dovetailed smoothly into another 10 weeks of incest and anarchy on Game of Thrones. It’s undeniably exhilarating to be caught up in one of these highly socialized seasons, and the complete opposite of the pervy isolation of the dedicated binge-watch. This communal aspect transforms TV into a national sport and Sunday nights into game days. It’s fun even when the shows falter.
This summer’s biggest debut was HBO’s The Leftovers, a series that, regardless of how you feel about it, was undeniably a poor choice for a shared summer watch. The Leftovers is frigid, furious, and bitter. It takes pleasure and locks it in a refrigerator. It takes intrigue and shoots it point-blank in the chest. Even the show’s fans would admit it’s not exactly a good time — the best episodes (“Two Boats and a Helicopter,” “Guest”) leave you curled up in a sadness ball, not taking to Twitter to commune. I wouldn’t go so far as to call HBO a summer loser here — though, tepid renewal aside, there’s simply no way the network’s suits are happy with the show’s unrelenting grimness and uninspiring ratings — but it’s close.3 It’s not yet clear how much a vague term like “enthusiasm” matters to TV’s bold, ratings-agnostic future, but it’s not nothing. It had to have been both galling and instructive that the most talked-about HBO series this summer was one that won’t even start shooting for months. The gossip and scuttlebutt surrounding True Detective Season 2 captivated the Internet in a way The Leftovers never could. The choices this summer have been limitless. But that’s not always so much fun.
HBO isn’t the only network to swing for the zeitgeist this summer and miss. FX expected big things from Tyrant, but all it got was an overheated bust.
Wait, that seems kind of grandiose. Let me rephrase:
We’re wading into tricky waters here, but bear with me. First the reality: Netflix is raking in the dough. In Q4 2013, the upstart service generated revenues of $1.2 billion, which is just a rounding error away from HBO’s $1.3 billion. But, as I mentioned above, public appearance matters — it’s why Netflix wildly outbid everyone for House of Cards and why its multiple Emmy nominations this year and last are as valuable as actual trophies. So it was interesting to observe the way the very same business model that launched the little-hyped Orange Is the New Black into the stratosphere in Season 1 may have hamstrung its growth in Season 2. Last year, Netflix’s proprietary binge system worked like gangbusters for Orange. It was an unexpected treat just lurking on the company’s servers, waiting to be discovered as the heat of summer swelled into the dog days of August. This year, Orange was greeted as a phenomenon — it got more press in the weeks leading up to its release than the real Piper Kerman ever got for going to prison in the first place. But once that tempest blew away, Orange disappeared from the conversation.4 Unique, tart, and addictive, Orange should have dominated the summer as a consensus show. Instead, it simmered quietly as an exercise in independent study. This is the potential downside of allowing fans to make their own schedule. And with Netflix’s other big moves this summer veering from unheralded to downright head-scratching, it fed into the impression that the former red-envelope company is playing it safe instead of playing to win.
It wasn’t a victim of bingeing, but Orphan Black, another series that came out of nowhere in 2013, also stumbled this summer. Not necessarily creatively — the show remains more or less the same kicky treat it’s been from the beginning. But the jump many expected the show to make, from the fringes of fandom to mainstream consideration, didn’t really happen.
Contrast this with Cinemax’s bold play to transform its image from grind house to art house with The Knick, the gripping and occasionally gruesome medical series that premiered just two weeks ago. A surprise investment in the auteurist vision (and insanely fast shooting schedule) of director Steven Soderbergh accelerated a transformation that had begun in earnest with the savagely smart Banshee. I have to think Cinemax got more good press the week of The Knick’s premiere than it had in the preceding 33 years combined. (What can I say? Teenage boys may run the multiplex but aren’t prone to writing influential think pieces on the glories of The Erotic Traveler.) If anything, the rebranding may have happened too quickly: Despite reams of good notices, The Knick’s premiere attracted an audience of only around 350,000 or so patients — a number below the 480,000-plus earned by the considerably less-hyped Banshee back in 2013. This doesn’t mean The Knick is a failure by any stretch — when repeat airings (including a Saturday-night run on sister channel HBO) were tallied, the pilot ended up with around 1.7 million viewers. It just means Cinemax’s current subscriber base doesn’t quite sync up with the subscriber base it actually covets (think suit jackets, not raincoats). But the network is banking on the attention garnered by The Knick, which was renewed for a second season before the first premiered, being worth more in the long term than a gaudy ratings debut. And I think the network is right. Being seen as a risk-taking, creative place, both within the industry and without, isn’t just smart business — it’s slowly becoming the key to the business. I’d still take Netflix’s future over Cinemax’s any day. But the summer Netflix just had? That I’m not so sure about.
WINNER: Nontraditional Male Hair Choices
Speaking of Cinemax, it doesn’t necessarily seem logical to take the rugged, recognizable face of the one movie star who’d ever agreed to appear on your air and affix to it a mustache that could charitably be called a caterpillar with bursitis. But the strangely manicured lip-hair Clive Owen rocks in The Knick actually helps sell the entire series. His Dr. John Thackery is clearly a genius. We know this because he wears white shoes and slices open abdomens with grace and impunity. He’s also a bit of a loose cannon, a fact made plain by his need to inject liquid cocaine directly into his croupier. The mustache, as they say, really ties the room together: It’s tidy enough to suggest science, yet rapacious enough to carry a whiff of the nightlife — not to mention last night’s soup.
On the other end of the ridiculous spectrum is the shimmery rug currently draped over Corey Stoll’s head on The Strain. Far more terrifying than any thrusting vampire tongue, more bizarre and awful than any resurrected Nazi evil, this is a wig truly designed to inspire nightmares. Though at first I railed against the decision to cover Stoll’s most recognizable feature — would Adrien Brody ever play Voldemort? Would The Situation ever wear Spanx? — I’ve since come around on it. The ill-fitting curtains suggest the sort of tongue-in-cheek extremity that The Strain aspires to convey, even as it struggles with more basic things like character and logic. There are rumors that covering Stoll’s shining glory is all part of a long con — that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather will, at some point soon, be forced to shave his artificial locks to pass as a bloodsucker. We’ll see. For now, I applaud The Strain for letting its freak flag fly — directly from its star’s prominent flagpole.
WINNER: You’re the Worst
WINNER: Chris Geere and Aya Cash
WINNER: All of Us
Am I overdoing it? Perhaps. But no comedy in recent memory has filled me with happiness like You’re the Worst. It’s a tart rom-com about two awful people falling into some highly sexualized version of like. But here’s the secret: All that hilarious vinegar is there only to cover the show’s sticky, sweet heart. Chris Geere and Aya Cash, who play the central assholes (Jimmy, an entitled, unpopular British novelist, and Gretchen, a slovenly publicist), pop together like fireworks and, when you strip away the cat stealing, day drinking, and genital spitting, their relationship is really no different from those that have fueled all classic sitcoms: two nonsensical people who make sense only together. Early episodes leaned heavily on the stars — which is fine, their backs are sturdy and their timing tight — but the show has improved as it’s fleshed out the supporting cast, particularly Desmin Borges’s gentle war-vet roommate and Brandon Mychal Smith as Gretchen’s Odd Future–y client. Creator Stephen Falk, who did time in the writers’ rooms of Orange Is the New Black and Weeds, has said he wrote You’re the Worst as a kind of cleansing corrective, to get all the bad mojo of years of sitcom development hell out of his system. But it never feels like a purge. Instead, it’s a bawdy celebration of all the beautiful, stupid, gross, foolish, and fantastic things we’re willing to do for sex, love, and friendship — or, at the very least, for a really good cocktail in the middle of the day.
LOSER: Halle Berry
Berry wasn’t wrong to make the leap from the big screen to the small when she did. She just may have taken too large a jump. By choosing a high-profile project like Extant — executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, airing on CBS, TV’s most-watched network — Berry avoided the sliding scale of eyeballs and influence that allows movie stars to reap the prestige of TV writing without worrying about the responsibility to deliver a blockbuster-size audience. (Matthew McConaughey is now one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but an average first-run airing of True Detective earned about 2.5 million viewers. Decent, but not exactly Interstellar.) Extant — a sort of Rosemary’s Baby in space — started strong both creatively and otherwise, but quickly dimmed. Recent episodes have won their respective nights, but only barely. As its first (and potentially only?) season winds to a close, Extant is averaging nearly the same weekly audience as NBC’s bargain-basement French coproduction Taxi Brooklyn, a show that pulls off the rare feat of misrepresenting both taxis and the borough of Brooklyn. It’s no longer risky for a movie star to work in TV. But when you dive into the deepest end of the pool, you’d better produce a much bigger splash.
I know, right? I’m as shocked as the next person. But nearly every bit of underpromoted chum the network tossed off this summer somehow managed to find an audience. It’s not just the aforementioned Taxi Brooklyn. The low-key charms of Undateable and Welcome to Sweden both earned renewals, and the absurd The Night Shift, a show about bad-boy doctors revving motorcycles in emergency rooms (apparently) was actually kind of a hit. Does this make NBC the jumbo shrimp of major networks — the most watched when no one is really watching? Or does it mean that, of all the big four broadcasters, only NBC boss Bob Greenblatt knows the sort of easy fluff that sunburned people crave? Sure, the suddenly competent NBC won the regular season, too. But this bizarre victory strikes me as even more impressive. I mean: Taxi Brooklyn!
A year ago, AMC was reaping the rewards of its somewhat controversial decision to split the final season of Breaking Bad across two summers. Despite plenty of naysaying, my own included, the way Heisenberg’s final hours played out represented an unambiguous triumph of both art and commerce. But what a difference a year makes. Despite plenty of promotion, neither of the network’s great white dramatic hopes made much of an impact. Turn was decent but inessential. Halt and Catch Fire had its partisans and showed real improvement, but barely moved the needle. Yes, any network that has The Walking Dead — a.k.a. the most popular show on television, more or less — can never really be considered a loser. (Unless you actually watch The Walking Dead. Sorry! Couldn’t resist!) And both Turn and, as of this morning, Halt and Catch Fire have been renewed. But it’s not a good sign when the most exciting thing your network has done in more than a calendar year is release 10 seconds of Bob Odenkirk talking.
WINNER: TV Viewers
Awwww. Is it weird to get touchy-feely? Especially in sweaty August, when touching and feeling are the last things anyone really wants to do? I hope you’ll allow it. Because while this summer may have lacked a definitive show, it certainly wasn’t lacking for excellence. Around this time in past years, my DVR was usually stuffed with parbaked nonsense like Food Network Star and House Hunters International. In 2014, it’s groaning with high-quality organic fare like Rectify, a searing, unsettling show that wrestles with issues of guilt, grief, and survival far better than the clumsy The Leftovers, and The Honorable Woman, a hypnotic British spy thriller with ice in its veins, gin in its glass, and betrayal in its heart. (Both air on SundanceTV, a network that, some stumbles aside, has positioned itself as the AMC relation that prizes brains instead of devouring them.) With TV real estate at a premium, there simply isn’t time or space to schedule shows based on seasons. The summer now has as much highbrow fare as the fall.
And so these past few months have seen the brilliant resurrection of FX’s The Bridge as a creepy, crawly border noir — the rumpled equivalent of the busted paperback you bring to the beach and then stay up all night reading instead. And, over on Showtime, while Ray Donovan has the mom vote locked up — seriously, everyone’s mother seems to love this show and I have no idea why — the subtle Masters of Sex has quietly elevated itself to another level. “Fight,” the season’s third episode, in which Michael Sheen’s Bill and Lizzy Caplan’s Ginny were locked in a hotel room, watching boxing on TV and sparring with each other, was as good an hour of television as you’ll ever see. It was a perfect (fake) marriage of script, performance, direction, and provocative, ultimately devastating ideas. I’ll be the first to admit that not one of these shows is for everyone. They’re too slow, too weird, too chilly, too much. But I’m happy they’re all there for me. Summer TV used to be a relaxing vacation. Now? It’s a trip.