This summer was excellent for television. In fact, I think I am less excited about the fall season than I was about the fantastic programming that kept me entertained during what is usually considered the slowest, dullest, most barren time of year for TV.
For starters, this summer saw two breakout hits from rather unexpected networks: Lifetime’s unREAL and USA’s Mr. Robot. I don’t know about you, but I certainly never expected two of the most highly acclaimed and buzzed about new shows to air on those networks, particularly because they are so different from Lifetime and USA’s typical programming. unREAL is, in many ways, the perfect summer show—it’s juicy, soapy, over-the-top, and salacious, but it’s also so much more. It pushed the envelope in terms of morally grey (grey is probably generous in some cases—looking at you, Quinn) female characters on television and was incredibly progressive in its views of female sexuality. While the male antihero has become such a staple on television thanks to the Dexter Morgans and Walter Whites of the world, the female antihero is much more rare. unREAL is led by two strong women who make incredibly questionable decisions while being damn good at their jobs. Shiri Appleby’s Rachel often felt like both the heroine and villainess of her own show, and you couldn’t take your eyes off of her. The show went to much darker places than I ever expected, and I can’t wait to see what they do in season two.
Mr. Robot really seemed to come out of nowhere with its impressively smart, edgy storytelling. Rami Malek has to be television’s breakout star of the summer. In lesser hands, Elliot could have become an incoherent, impossible to root for mess, but Malek played him with just the right balance of intelligence, wit, and instability. He freely admits he is an unreliable narrator (on a show told almost exclusively from his point of view), which keeps you on your toes constantly as an audience member because you’re unsure if anything Elliot is showing you is really happening. As I have spoken about before in my discussion of Empire, I strongly believe in the importance of complex, accurate depictions of mental illness on television, and Mr. Robot never flinched in its portrayal of Elliot, who suffers from social anxiety, clinical depression, addiction, delusions, and what a psychiatrist who spoke to Vulture diagnosed as a severe dissociative disorder. Sure, you could see the major twist towards the end of the season coming, but is that not just a sign of well-planned, solid writing? The show also joined a very small collection of programs I can essentially count on one hand where I actually felt the voiceover added something special rather than being a sign of lazy writing (I also include My So-Called Life and Dexter in this group).
This summer also saw the return of a few of my favorite current dramas: Hannibal (which we also very sadly said goodbye to), Masters of Sex, and Rectify. I have written about them all at length in the past, but I’m going to talk about them some more right now because I love them. For starters, I have yet to find a solution for the Hannibal shaped hole in my life and TV viewing. On paper, I should have hated the show. I’m the girl who turned off The Walking Dead forever after the pilot because I found it too gruesome (mostly because of what happened to the horse; I have a thing about seeing bad things happen to animals onscreen, which actually made Hannibal very stressful for me). But I love Bryan Fuller and I love how fearless and bizarre and truly incomparable to anything else on TV it was. I personally loved the finale—I rewound to watch at least one moment a second time, it birthed one of my new favorite gifs (exhibited here), and I found it to be a satisfying series finale, although I would certainly prefer if it wasn’t. Also, at some point in the final season, Gillian Anderson’s Bedelia may have become my favorite character. She was amazing, and I am surprised and pleased by how frequently I have been able to use “observe or participate” in my own life.
Masters of Sex has certainly faced a lot of criticism this season. Some of it I certainly agree with—I could have done without Virginia’s pregnancy and all of the focus on the children, although apparently much of this was a direct result of legal trouble shows can encounter when writing about real people whose descendants are still alive. Even the cast has expressed their dislike for a certain gorilla storyline. While it’s inarguably the most uneven season yet, I still find the show to possess a certain quiet brilliance with performances among the very best TV has to offer. Lizzy Caplan has an extraordinary ability to express a dozen emotions in one controlled glance, and Josh Charles has been a fantastic addition to the cast. Adapting a real-life story that took place over so many decades is no easy feat, and I’m optimistic the show will find its way again next season.
Finally, as one of the twelve people who watch Rectify, I feel obligated to commend it once again. How this show continues to exist I don’t even know, but I am certainly okay with it. This season was interesting—the show has always intentionally been about more than whether or not Daniel is guilty of the crime he went to death row for (we still don’t know), but this season delved more into the actual did he or didn’t he than ever before. I still cannot decide if, once the show has concluded, it will hold up as stronger if he turns out to be guilty or innocent. The intelligence of Rectify isn’t in its mystery, it’s in its characters and the portrayal of small town life and the quiet devastation tragedy has on a family. I was thrilled when Aden Young was nominated for a Critics Choice Award because for three seasons he has been doing work just as good if not better than television’s very best. By some miracle, the show has been renewed for a fourth season, and I hope I will eventually be successful in convincing more people to watch it.
Thus concludes my thoughts on this summer’s higher quality than usual TV offerings. What were your favorite summer shows? What are you most excited for this fall? What is your favorite Will Graham gif? Let me know in a comment!