For dedicated TV watchers, these are the good times. Mad Men is ending its legendary run on a dizzying, deeply emotional high. Game of Thrones, always good, has suddenly become wildly great, tumbling off of George R.R. Martin’s well-worn template and discovering something vibrant and unsettling in the process. And those are just the headliners. Daredevil is cracking bones. The networks are networking. Veep is Veeping. Our cups, like our DVRs, truly runneth over.
But don’t get too comfortable on that couch. The next great wave of entertainment is always just around the corner and the last thing you want to do is get swamped. The summer was once TV’s great dead zone. But in 2015, the season is suddenly more demanding than those bitey ghouls on AMC. Consider the below a cheat sheet for what’s ahead in the next three months, an intriguing cocktail of returning favorites, splashy debuts, and head-scratching Hail Marys. To be clear: With one minor exception, I have not yet seen any of the series mentioned below. (And I’ll likely be writing full reviews of many of them as they premiere.) So what I’ve done is divided the schedule into three tiers: shows worth checking out right away, those to approach with caution, and those to consider not approaching at all. The heat can make you crazy this time of year. But hopefully not crazy enough to be optimistic about Ballers.
Tier 1: Watch Live
Hannibal makes sense in the summer, when its ravishing, gourmet treatment of pulp storytelling stands in artful contrast to the lowbrow mayhem on view at the multiplex. But it’s also a shame that NBC keeps its crown jewel apart from the rest of its programming. Part of that is due to business: Hannibal is produced and distributed worldwide by Gaumont International, meaning NBC’s relationship to the show is strictly transactional. But part of it is also servicey: Hannibal’s horrifyingly beautiful imagery, its amused attitude toward cannibalism, and its arch, fetishy interpretation of violence is to the rest of NBC’s lineup as Cheers is to The New Normal.
I’ve yet to dive into Season 3 — the screeners just arrived and I find Hannibal to be as disturbing as it is delicious, meaning bingeing isn’t on the menu — but there’s no reason to expect any drop-off in quality. The action moves to Europe, Gillian Anderson moves to the regular cast, and Michael Pitt moves away completely — his Mason Verger has been recast with Joe Anderson, which isn’t that big a deal since Mason Verger mutilated his own face in Season 2. Hannibal is unquestionably extreme — but that’s not what makes it remarkable. It’s the rare show that has taste, even if its particular appetites aren’t for everyone.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC America)
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, published in 2004, is one of the best novels of this young century. It is, at once, a note-perfect celebration of Victorian literature, a deep dive into British social, cultural, and military history, and an exhilarating exercise in fantasy “what if.” As in: What if magic were real? And not in a Harry Potter–let’s-all-play-sports-on-brooms sort of way; what if magic were as real as chivalry, war, prejudice, fear, resentment, and love?
It’s heady stuff, yes, but it also seems perfectly suited for a generation that expects a dollop of genre to help sweeten even the most serious of meals. After years attempting to condense the book’s nearly 800 pages into a movie, the powers that be finally shrugged and turned to television, where they should have been looking all along. The seven-part series looks absolutely fabulous, with an excellent cast (Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsan as the mousey Mr. Norrell, the 19th century’s first “respectable” magician, and Babylon’s Bertie Carvel as Strange, Norrell’s passionate protégé turned rival) and a tone that seems to capture the novel to a T. Fans of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones: Your personal Venn diagram has been revealed.
Deutschland 83 (SundanceTV)
So you’re telling me that this is an eight-part spy-soap about an East German teenager infiltrating the West German army set against a backdrop of New Order and Eurythmics bangers? And that it’s basically a sexier The Americans, only the entire thing is in German? How many ways do I need to say ja? You had me at “spy-soap”!
True Detective (HBO)
I didn’t like True Detective Season 1, putting me squarely in the minority and also directly in the crosshairs of the passionate Lone Star–sippers who did. Trust me: This wasn’t trolling, just an honest reaction to eight hours of television that struck me as all hat and no cattle. Yes, it was a remarkable showcase for two ace performances and some jaw-dropping directorial strutting. But I found everything around McConaughey and Harrelson’s bromance to be thinner than the aluminum figures Rust left in the recycling can down at HQ.
But I can understand why you might interpret this as trolling: I think the second season of True Detective looks much more promising than the first. For real! To begin with, the cast is bigger, better, and deeper. Colin Farrell is one of the most underrated (and consistently misused) actors in Hollywood; his mustache gets even less respect. (To be fair, it was pretty lethargic in Miami Vice.) Vince Vaughn is hungry for a hit. Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, and Abigail Spencer are all eager for and deserving of a brighter spotlight.1 The new season’s setting is also appealing: the long, agricultural valleys and drive-bys that break up the drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco are rich, underexplored terrain for noir storytelling. And everything I’ve heard about this season has suggested that “noir storytelling” is the goal here. To which I say: Good! It’s just a vibe I get, but it seems that in his second go-round, creator Nic Pizzolatto is more intent on telling a decent story than on referencing all the stories — sayonara, Cthulhu! — which may sound less ambitious, but, if we’re being honest, can also be plenty difficult. Whether that will translate into a similar popularity remains to be seen. We all know that time is a circle and history repeats itself — yadda yadda yadda, Carcosa Carcosa Carcosa. But duplicating a lightning strike like last year’s is easier said than done.
At least Serious Actor Taylor Kitsch. Action Star Taylor Kitsch had that spotlight and buried it in the red sands of Mars.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)
I’ll leave for another day the debate over whether it’s a good or bad thing for Netflix to try to become a benevolent Oprah for obsessive comedy nerds — “You get a reboot! And you get a reboot!” Instead, let’s just say that David Wain and Michael Showalter seem to have learned the lesson of Arrested Development and steered into the ridiculousness of their unlikely second chance. This eight-episode series purports to be a prequel to Wet Hot American Summer, a 14-year-old cult film that has, over time, morphed into an all-out classic. Many of its willing and goofy participants have gone on to achieve considerable fame and fortune elsewhere: Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni. (Sadly, the refrigerator was last seen begging for a hit of baking soda at a scrapyard on the wrong side of town.) The nutty thing about this new Wet Hot — yes, nuttier than fortysomethings playing teenage parts they last played in their late twenties — is that all of those boldface names are back, along with even bolder company: Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, John Slattery, Josh Charles.
Unlike Arrested Development, which saw its trademark meticulousness sag under the weight of expectations (and extracurricular cast commitments), Wet Hot was always about anarchy. If we can assume that tradition holds true (and with Chris Pine credited in the cast as “a mysterious figure” and Randall Park as a lovelorn “camp librarian,” why would we assume otherwise?), this should be a blast.
Summer is also the perfect season for Rectify, a woozy, slow-as-molasses morality tale that’s as intoxicating and transporting as a hot Georgia night. Though never less than good, Rectify’s second season wobbled a bit as the laser focus of the early episodes gave way, often awkwardly, to a larger canvas. The story shifted slightly from former death row inmate Daniel Holden’s adjustment to the world after 19 years away from it to his fumbling attempts to embrace the fullness of life. In retrospect, 10 episodes may have been too many for a show that rations out plot with the abstemiousness of a preacher tending bar. So I’m happy to see that SundanceTV and creator Ray McKinnon have dialed back to just six episodes for the upcoming third season. Beguiling, often beautiful, Rectify moves at its own unique pace.
Fear the Walking Dead (AMC)
Here is something everyone involved with television will readily admit: The Walking Dead is an unstoppable force with ratings and fan engagement that are the envy of the industry. Here is something else: Man, wouldn’t it be great if The Walking Dead were just a little bit better?
Yes, AMC’s juggernaut improved mightily in its fifth season, though the truth is, it didn’t really need to — the numbers seem to go up every time a walker goes down. So while it’d be easy to think of this inevitable spinoff as a cynical cash grab, I’m choosing to look toward the light: Maybe AMC and comic creator (and executive producer) Robert Kirkman are eager to take a mulligan on the storytelling failures of the mothership and start fresh with better characters and a better angle on the end of the world. Though I haven’t seen a frame of the series, all signs suggest that they may have gotten it right. Unlike The Walking Dead, which thrust Rick and his righteousness into the dystopian aftermath of the plague, Fear begins with just that: terror. It’s Los Angeles, and there are rumors of a nasty flu strain back east. A grainy video appears of a crazy person taking bites of a pedestrian. (Producer Greg Nicotero has referenced the Florida bath salts “cannibal” in his early interviews about the show.) Is this a joke? Or is it all really happening?
Cliff Curtis and the sublime Kim Dickens (Friday Night Lights, Treme) star as a teacher and guidance counselor, respectively, who are forced to adapt as society melts away around them. (Six episodes will air this summer; a full season has already been ordered for 2016.) Adjustment, terror, and chaos are much richer themes to tap into than TWD’s increasingly nihilistic mantra of survival. I’m looking forward to a series that prioritizes people, not bodies.
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Tier 2: Watch Later
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Of all of AMC’s non-spinoff programming, Halt is blessed with the best cast and the most intriguing premise: It’s set in the early, freewheeling days of the Texas computer industry, when guys with beards and Martin Fry hair were attempting to re-create the spark of Cupertino deep in the heart of the Lone Star State. The first season was promising but often puzzling. It had all the right circuitry but seemed to be emerging from the wrong garage: Why the fascination with Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy’s familiar hustle when Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis were right there with a uniquely fierce, feminine mystique? From everything I’ve heard and seen, both on and off the record, Halt 2.0 rewrites its code precisely in their direction. (I’m digging the analog Silicon Valley vibe in this clip!) So while I wouldn’t call myself an early adopter, I’m more than ready to invest in an upgrade.
So here’s a drama about lifelike robots and the constant rewriting of our moral code that their presence requires. And it’s not Extant or Almost Human or Black Mirror or Small Wonder. Which isn’t to say that Humans is facing undue expectations when it premieres next month — because, come on, Small Wonder certainly wasn’t anything to crow about — but it will face a tough road to justify its existence. This is particularly true in 2015, as the poison apple of artificial intelligence has been on the menu everywhere recently, from small screen to big. So, while I have to admit that I have no actual idea what this show is about — other than, you know, designer droids — the cast is strong (don’t hurt ’em, Bill Hurt!), and the fact that Humans is a coproduction with the U.K.’s often reliable Channel 4 (home, it should be noted, of the aforementioned Black Mirror) gives me hope. With zombies nibbling at all ends of the dial, my sincere hope is that Humans’s title is more than just ironic.
Do you know what Sense8 is about? No, I’m seriously asking: Do you? Because I certainly don’t, and neither does anyone else. Basically a blank check written to the crumbling entertainment conglomerate known as the Wachowskis, the series remains a near total mystery less than a month before it debuts. (Some photos appeared online as I was writing this article. They … don’t really clear anything up?) Here’s what I’ve managed to piece together: Sense8 is about eight telepathically linked strangers from all around the globe. Though each character remains in his or her own city (locales include Chicago, Iceland, Seoul, Mumbai, and Mexico), they will interact “emotionally” and tackle issues ranging from bigotry and racism to gender and fear. Oh, also, there is a stranger named “Mr. Whispers,” because of course there is. Look, I could sit here and snark, or I could say that giant, head-scratching swings like this are exactly what Netflix ought to be doing with its obscene piles of cash. I’ll take global weirdness over globally financed drudgery any day.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Let’s be clear: I think Orange is terrific and have no reason to believe that’s changed. But as Season 2 unspooled, it became obvious that while you can take the creator away from Showtime, you can’t really take the Showtime out of the creator. As with Jenji Kohan’s previous success, Weeds, Orange didn’t seem to escalate or elevate as it went on — it just sort of spread out. No peaks, in other words, just a very lush valley.
This is by no means a knock: Not every series ought to be a roller coaster like Breaking Bad; crafting something that feels intimate, familiar, and welcome is every bit as hard as producing something gripping and demanding. But while I’m genuinely thrilled at the prospect of more Orange — no series on TV has a deeper, more diverse, or more captivating cast — I’m also not jumping out of my skin with anticipation for it. That’s not a problem for me, since Netflix’s model allows me to take my time. But I wonder if, long-term, it’s a problem for Netflix, since insatiable hunger tends to be an important part of the bingeing model. We’ll see!
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Speaking of Showtime! After an exceptional first season, Masters faltered in its second in a way that’s worryingly familiar to fans of the network. A show that was extraordinary in its ability to tell a broad story with a keen and stylish focus lost its perspective midway through the year. If Mad Men rides history like a wave, Masters found itself wiped out on the shore: Its handling of the civil rights struggle felt more academic than one of Bill’s pre-Virginia papers. But if my ardor for the show has cooled, my interest has not. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are doing striking, careful work as colleagues turned lovers turned something else entirely. Here’s hoping showrunner Michelle Ashford figures out how to get Masters’s mojo back.
Denis Leary stars as Johnny Rock (bad name!), a hard-partying frontman who, despite his best efforts, failed to burn out. Instead, he faded away. Now, he and his graying, paunchy bandmates in the Heathens (good name!) are jolted back to relevance by the pipes and attitude of Gigi — a young vocalist who just happens to be Johnny’s daughter. I’ve seen precisely none of this show (the first trailer is all rock and roll — no sex, drugs, or even jokes), so it remains to be seen what tempo the comedy is going for. Will it be more Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree? Or some actual intergenerational friction? Music shows can be risky (it’s awfully hard to make the fake songs sound real), but I’m hopeful that Leary will take a cue from the Ramones, an obvious influence, and keep it simple and keep it moving.
Blunt Talk (Starz)
Hey, man, if the sight of Jean-Luc Picard snorting coke in a Los Angeles television studio doesn’t get you fired up, then I don’t know what to tell you. This is a broad and scabrous sitcom from Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death) about a sanctimonious British blowhard venting hot air in Hollywood. The only potential stumbling block is the presence of Seth MacFarlane (a very different type of domestic blowhard) in the credits, but I’m trying to be optimistic: Maybe funding a show like this is a sort of karma-balancing charity for all the years of talking animals and fart jokes?
Tier 3: Watch Out
Here is the most interesting thing about Aquarius, NBC’s summer “event series” concerning the Charles Manson family two years before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders: The network has announced that, following the two-hour premiere, it will make the entire season available on its website for bingeing purposes. This is a remarkable shift in strategy for an old-school broadcast network, roughly equivalent to a fax machine suddenly posting documents to Instagram. (I fear it’s also about as desirable.) Here is the second-most interesting thing about Aquarius: the face David Duchovny is making in the poster. Carry on.
I admire FX’s tenacity in sticking with an expensive, problematic show that, despite the best intentions and the most provocative of subjects, simply didn’t work. But I’m not sure if Year 2 of a failed regime promises much improvement.
Ballers/The Brink (HBO)
Not a promising comedy tandem for HBO this summer, particularly following the knockout combination of Veep and Silicon Valley. Ballers, starring (and cocreated by) The Rock, sees the network backsliding into the back-slappy testosterone Jacuzzi of Arli$$ and Entourage. It’s about rich former NFL players and their desire to become even more rich. Scintillating! Meanwhile, The Brink, from Austin Powers director Jay Roach, is the rare show in this column that I have seen — albeit an early, unfinished cut of the premiere. I’ll save any official thoughts for an actual review, but it’s worth noting that I found its attempts at political satire — Tim Robbins as an alcoholic Secretary of State, Jack Black as a fratty diplomat in Pakistan — clumsy and unfunny. (The jokes are primarily about people being dicks or having them.) There’s plenty of time to be proven wrong, but as of now, these two shows strike me as big ideas in search of comedy when the reverse is always a much more promising place to start.
James Wolk, late of Mad Men and The Crazy Ones, stars as a “young, renegade” zoologist named Jackson Oz who notices that the planet’s animals are suddenly getting ornery and attacking people. I feel like this is something anyone who spends 10 minutes inside a zoo could figure out? But whatever. The series is based on a James Patterson best seller and is thus micro-targeted at CBS’s dependable phalanx of youth-challenged viewers. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s summer. Sometimes you just want your fax machine to send faxes, you know?
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Entering Year 3 of the show, I respect Ray Donovan far more than I like watching it. Despite its many flaws, it has as keen a sense of self as anything else on the dial — and, yes, I’m including the punch-card consistency of CBS procedurals. Ray has a fantastic cast and an ability to attract all manner of fascinating guest players for résumé-burnishing arcs. (In the past: James Woods, Wendell Pierce, Vinessa Shaw, Hank Azaria. This year: Katie Holmes.) It will do what it does and satisfy those who like it. Like my mom, for example. (Real talk: Moms love Ray Donovan.)
The Strain (FX)
Big questions on tap for Season 2 of this campy horror story: Will the vampires destroy the world? And, if so, will they please start with Corey Stoll’s wig?
Correction: This post originally gave a July release date for Fear the Walking Dead. In fact, AMC hasn’t announced an exact date yet.