Critics Debate: The Pain and Pleasure of Summer TV

Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg discuss the season's small-screen offerings, from blasts of genre distraction like 'Stranger Things' and 'Jett' to provocative head-turner 'Years and Years' and returning critical darling 'Succession.'
HBO; Netflix; Cinemax
From left: HBO's 'Years and Years,' Netflix's 'Orange Is the New Black' and Cinemax's 'Jett.'

Daniel Fienberg: In a way, TV this summer really began with the series finale of Game of Thrones, in which an arduous adventure involving myriad high-profile casualties, city-destroying dragons and epic military campaigns climaxed in a coronation for an eccentric and thoroughly disconnected character the series creators felt "had the best story." It's no wonder one of the summer's breakout characters is Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. Really, there's a way to view the entire slate of recent programming as analogous to the bulging Democratic field. There are intriguing upstarts that may seem outside of the mainstream, old favorites trying for triumphant returns and perhaps a few spectacular underdogs worth carrying a banner for. Tim, did I just impose too much subtext on what was once a season dedicated to programming escapism?

Tim Goodman: Oh, sorry, I was busy giving you a golf clap for your efforts. That's … ambitious. But sure! It's an interesting field! I would argue that summer escapism is a myth when it comes to TV ever since cable got great, and what are these "seasons" you speak of? But yeah, even though you and I know it never stops and the TV is always on, people do get an inkling in the warmer months that maybe nothing worth watching will be airing and they can go on vacation. Wrong! I mean, if we're using June as the starting line, uh, wow, there's been a lot of good stuff and there's more to come. What are you liking so far? Let's start there — and then we can discuss what's coming up that has us excited. I hope you didn't plan a vacation. 

DF: Look, we still live in a world in which Stranger Things was the most talked about show on the air this summer. For at least three days until everybody had watched the full season and moved on to the next show. Stranger Things remains the epitome of escapist TV right down to the reassuring way it seems to repeat the exact same plot each season. It's Love Island with a Mindflayer! Are Mike and Eleven "endgame"? Will Hopper and Joyce couple up? I don't want to make it sound like I don't like Stranger Things, but it's a simple pleasure — a bit like how, at least for three or four episodes, Big Little Lies justified its return by merely having Meryl Streep with weasel-teeth sparring with the A-list cast, before it became clear that there really wasn't enough story to fill a season. What have you liked by way of easily digestible summer programming?

TG: I had the strangest feeling as I started watching Stranger Things: "Do I want to do this again?" Not because I didn't like it, but because as you say, it's overly familiar now. It's funny that a third-season show that deals with nostalgia is now itself sort of a piece of nostalgia. "Oh, look, all the kids we knew are now teenagers and things are about to take a goofy and maybe scary turn!" As for Big Little Lies, I was already confident that it was overly dramatic fluff the first season, so instead of gloating about the troubles in the second season I did the heroic thing and took a peek at it just to see Meryl Streep and what she brought to the affair (well, gravitas, for sure, and a fun character). But I'll be honest, it just reconfirmed what I felt last season and, hey, it's not my thing, but if people are into that, cool.

As for other easily digestible shows, I'm super into The Boys on Amazon. And along that same lines of traditional escapist summer fare (that's not really traditional) is Pennyworth on Epix. I'm normally not a fan of origin stories and not the hugest DC or Batman person, but that show is a ton of fun and wholly original. I love the look of it and the vibe. Both of those, as far as escapism goes, are true standouts. 

DF: It's tough, because networks seem almost scared of escapism. Look at Starz's The Rook. It's based on a book that blended spy hijinks and superpowers with a prodigious sense of fun and humor, and the show is, instead, gritty and dour and boring. Pennyworth does better at that because even if you stripped away the Alfred Pennyworth of it all — and you totally could because who the heck genuinely said, "But what were Batman's butler's qualifications for stern domestic servitude?" — it's still a stylish, '60s-set British espionage romp. There's comfort and entertainment in genre-done-right; you could point to Cinemax's sexy, twisty Carla Gugino vehicle Jett or Showtime's couldn't-be-more-Boston-if-they-actually-shot-in-Boston City on a Hill — I like to say that no character in the show is named "Sully," but every character probably could be — as shows that aren't breaking many rules, but play by the rules with some proficiency.

TG: I'm not as down on The Rook as you are, but then again I didn't read the book. That said, I'm not really hooked on The Rook, either. Sometimes when I'm not reviewing something it's just easier to watch distractedly. A while ago I binged all of Jack Ryan on Amazon and enjoyed the hell out of it (trailers for season two also look similarly likely to entertain me without me making too much of an effort) and I'm doing the same with Hanna. But, more to your point, wow is Jett vastly more entertaining. That one I'm going to watch to the end and it's a perfect example of A) a genre series done right and B) Carla Gugino done right. That's a killer combo, and even if it's impossible to tell what's going to happen to Cinemax going forward, it's a fun show and I hope it keeps getting made. City on a Hill, to my eye, isn't quite as escapist but it's certainly done well and I totally endorse people making the commitment to watch. I'm just not going to be one of them, because it's built on a heavy investment and I like to stay light on my feet and able to jump around to, say, a thing like The Boys, which I wasn't expecting to like and now want to gobble up.

For my money, though, Perpetual Grace, LTD on Epix has been arguably the best show I've seen. Again, hard to find if you don't have that Epix app, but now that they have Pennyworth as well and Get Shorty, too, maybe there will be some breakout. Perpetual eases the pain of Amazon finally admitting that it wasn't going to bring back Patriot. Other early summer highlights for me include Los Espookys, which is weird and wonderful, and Euphoria, which is, uh, hard to watch but something very different (spoiler: not escapist!).

DF: Euphoria is pretty much the opposite of escapist, and I go back and forth between finding the show bravely ambitious and annoyingly voyeuristic. It's not that I think it's bad, but I find the conversations it starts much less interesting than those sparked by HBO's much less promoted and hyped Years and Years, in which Russell T. Davies exposes how superficial Black Mirror has become by expertly weaving dystopian and domestic elements. Years and Years doesn't always work, but my gracious the number of things it's tackling, from bioethics to immigration to the erosion of political discourse, is astounding. The only show this summer that's coming close to biting off more topicality is the final season of Orange Is the New Black, a welcome and clear-headed wrap-up to what we'll eventually recognize as perhaps the defining Netflix original.

TG: Years and Years is pretty astonishing, but I think it might take a while for people to find it because it's a show, like Euphoria, with a lot of triggers. Trying to get people to watch either of those is a challenge, and while you can't blame them for choosing to pass, they are missing some excellent stuff, particularly with Years and Years. That said, I will defend Black Mirror from your disparagement! I think two of the three episodes this season are really good so, yeah, there's that. But yes, Orange Is the New Black is really a series that has withstood its own changes, some good and some not great, and has come out the other end a pretty impressive example of how to evolve a show. You're spot-on with the defining Netflix series tag, with the caveat that maybe you're talking about the Netflix we used to know. It's so big now that I'm unsure if it really cares so much about having a defining show so much as it cares about having a defining brand — volume. 

Is there anything else this summer that caught your attention? I tried to like Showtime's The Loudest Voice but found it a little too on the nose. I doubt anyone really found Das Boot over on Hulu, but that was worthwhile and interesting, though I'm not going to die on a hill for that. I mean, maybe there are people not drowning in shows and that's one option. I don't know those people. Anyway, looking forward, GLOW just release its third season and the early peek I took at it was interesting — the Las Vegas setting may shake things up a bit. It probably needs that. But I'm vastly more interested in Succession, which has been nothing but great in its new episodes. And I know we share a love of that one. 

DF: Just as I feel like the new season of The Handmaid's Tale was usurped by Years and Years, which offers a nightmarish scenario with a wider variety of perspectives and tones, The Loudest Voice was, for me, usurped by, or failed to live up to, Succession. I don't think The Loudest Voice is awful, by any means, but it's a triumph of latex, while Succession is a triumph of writing, directing and acting. You know. The little things. And the second season of Succession spends a fair amount of time within the Roy family's media empire, and Fake Murdochs definitely trump Real Murdochs in this case. That's a show that had a momentum-building first season last summer and I hope audiences are ready for more murky, profane family dysfunction in the second season (it pairs well with HBO's new, Danny McBride-created The Righteous Gemstones). Also offering better versions of history-as-illuminating-cautionary-tale-for-the-present than The Loudest Voice are FX's mournful yet joyous Pose and AMC's chilling and current The Terror: Infamy. Viewers have options! 

Finally, I'd be remiss to talk summer TV without mentioning IFC's Sherman's Showcase and HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show, which both continue a recent resurgence in the sketch format. You have any last recommendations or warnings?

TG: The sketch format is alive and killing it! And yes, I would just close by saying that I'm looking forward to whatever the hell happens with the second season of Mindhunter on Netflix. And for people who might be thinking, "Hey, you two, those are a LOT of shows you mentioned and it's stressing me out": Just relax and make a list. No matter what "season" we're in with TV, it's always going to be a marathon not a sprint. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.