Critic's Notebook: Netflix's 'Stranger Things' Is the Cure for TV's Summer Gloom

With news and late night consumed by the Trump reality show (please, no renewals), some good shows having bad seasons and others going bleak and bleaker, this is one of the dreariest seasons in recent memory.
ABC/Heidi Gutman; Peter Kramer/USA Network; Sergei Bachlakov/Lifetime; Jojo Whilden/Netflix; Ali Goldstein/Turner Entertainment; Craig Blankenhorn/HBO; Courtesy of Netflix

Summer conjures up images of escapism — a fruity drink by the pool, a lavish BBQ where the calories don't count, a night at the ballpark, a lazy afternoon at the beach. Movie theaters supply brainless blockbusters with A-list actors fighting aliens or dinosaurs or dinosaliens and we rapidly turn the pages of thick hardcovers about intrepid lawyers or lusty vampires or Nosferattorneys.

TV, though, struggles with the summer months. Even with "year-round" as an industry watchword, the networks adhere to a September-to-May scheduling, spinning in circles with their fingers in their ears for June, July and August. And so we're left to pretend that America's Got Talent, essentially indistinguishable from the competition shows of fall and spring, and Big Brother, oddly the reality show that requires the biggest commitments of time and availability, are summery. CBS, of course, has built a wobbly cottage industry on trying to crank out TV equivalents of low-impact potboilers, but Under the Dome descended into unwatchable ludicrousness early, Extant never figured out how to be fun, and Zoo waited too long to get to the evil earthquake-generating sloths.

Perhaps the perfect summer show would be Game of Thrones, a Swiss Army knife of an HBO hourlong. It's fantasy! It's history! It's a soap opera! There are dragons! It's prestige! It's action! It's an adrenaline rush that still inspires thinkpieces! But for years, HBO has run Game of Thrones so that it ended basically as the summer was ramping up, as if the network were worried that Seven Kingdoms couldn't compete with Six Flags.

Production delays have pushed Game of Thrones' next season to summer 2017, so finally it will be where it belongs. But I need escapism now.

Summer 2016 is testing my patience and TV isn't providing a getaway.

I look to late night for a couple of laughs about presidential buffoonery and celebrity chicanery and to be tantalized by the stars of the summer blockbusters telling witty anecdotes that prove they're just like me, only prettier and more clever. Instead, the 2016 election cycle has turned the best of late-night shows into outlets for venting spleen at the absurdity of that day's news or delivering clarity on one source of outrage or another. It's reassuring to have Samantha Bee or John Oliver or Seth Meyers crystallizing my horror with a barb or a punchline, but these days they're pretty much the opposite of getting away and checking out.

The Olympics are underway. I love the Olympics. I love to root for excellence and sob at clip packages even if NBC's disregard for West Coast viewers makes it impossible for the nation to enjoy any moments collectively. But how can I escape my internal Smell-o-Vision telling me about the fecal content in open water events or my fear that any high-def close-up might reveal a disease-carrying mosquito ready to pounce? And why invest in a budding star whose inevitable exposure on performance enhancing drug charges will break my heart? It was bad enough when I was worried about Bob Costas' eyes. 

Scripted TV hasn't necessarily been much better.

UnREAL and Mr. Robot were two saviors of last summer, but both have had dispiritingly bumpy second seasons. UnREAL returned in fine form this summer, but if the first season was a tightly told dark comedy that also tackled issues, the second season has made the mistake of thinking it's an issue show that only sometimes has to deliver a good story. The Lifetime critical favorite seems to have gotten high on its own reviews, as does USA Network's Emmy frontrunner Mr. Robot, which now routinely abandons reasonable standards of episode length with only limited regard for narrative momentum.

Even the best of the summer's options have taken on weight. Orange Is the New Black started its latest season living up to its earlier comedy Emmy classification, but then pushed into far darker and more unsettling territory, with race riots, a harsher-than-ever critique of the American prison system and, finally, tragedy. The biting satire of BoJack Horseman began in a place of silliness, but then plunged headlong into depression. Survivor's Remorse is settling back into a rhythm as a comedy with a fresh perspective on race and class, but the season tipped off in sadness. HBO's The Night Of has a literary pace and a gripping premise, but the Dante-esque journey into the inferno of the criminal justice system makes my feet itch — and it's a show that demands binging but, annoyingly, is being distributed one agonizing weekly installment at a time.

Conventional wisdom says that if viewers can't be relied on to be in front of their TVs with regimented frequency in the summer, then one-offs and shows presenting for binging are where our escapism should come from.

With its expert channeling of summer blockbuster maestro Steven Spielberg and vacation-read genius Stephen King, it's no surprise that the Duffer brothers' Netflix series Stranger Things has become the perfect series to queue up with the air-conditioning pumping. With a juicy comeback role for Winona Ryder, a cast of unknown youngsters inspiring countless "Who's your favorite?" online pieces and a spooky premise that's brought to life vividly despite a moderate budget, Stranger Things is a callback to countless summer movies several generations grew up on. And it's in most ways superior to anything at the multiplex, or on TV, this summer. Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven may not have the powers wrought by a $200 million budget, but originality delivers more oomph.

There are other bits of escapism if you know where to look. I'm as surprised as you are to be smiling when I see a new episode of ABC's Match Game pop up on my DVR. What it lacks in a Charles Nelson Reilly it has made up for with the weekly appeal of Alec Baldwin's '70s Game Show Host cosplay and guests like a manic Leslie Jones, an aggressively disinterested Adam Goldberg and, if we wait long enough, the trainwreck potential of Sarah Palin.

AMC's Preacher had a little punk rock in its soul and brought weekly doses of crazy until its first season ended. Fox's Wayward Pines recently uncorked one twist so loopy it came close to making up for leading man Jason Patric's general inexpressiveness. And then there's my real favorite summer escape, HGTV's House Hunters International, since there's nothing less connected to my real life than a family of eight looking for a $4,500-a-month apartment with grassy outdoor space … in Dubai.

So a word of advice to the TV industry: Television is the medium of the people, and the people love their summer getaway entertainment. If our movie superheroes, toy-affiliated franchises and studio comedies are failing us, TV networks should swoop in and save the day.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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