clock menu more-arrow no yes
We all watch TV on a floating dock, right?
We all watch TV on a floating dock, right?
Shutterstock

Summer TV used to be a wasteland. Now we have 17 shows worth staying indoors for.

Summer TV used to mean reruns and the occasional stunt or game show. It's where we first encountered joints like Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and American Idol — all of which debuted as totally unproven one-offs with then-unique formats, before ultimately earning higher-profile berths within their networks' respective lineups.

And in keeping with the season's reputation as a time to relax and/or cut loose (presumably in the name of spending more time outside or enjoying the warm weather), the summer TV schedule historically offered a midyear vacation from "normal," more serious programming.

No more! Now summer TV is a cutthroat business, with cable, broadcast, and streaming networks competing to find eyeballs for series both new and old.

Summer series tend to be escapist in nature (think essentially every USA show ever — Burn Notice, Royal Pains, etc.), but there's still plenty of room for the occasional UnReal or Mr. Robot or Halt and Catch Fire — shows that really want to say something about the world we all live in.

Below, we've listed 17 summer viewing options that span varying degrees of "worth checking out," painstakingly chosen by Vox's TV critics, Todd VanDerWerff and Caroline Framke. Maybe you'll find a new favorite on the list.


Outcast (Cinemax)

Try if you like: The X-Files

Demonic possession is an inherently terrifying concept. What if you were trapped inside your body with some other thing that could take control pretty much whenever it wanted to, forcing you into a smaller and smaller corner of your own mind? But for as scary as that idea is, it would seem to have limited appeal on TV, where, presumably, the demon must be cast out sooner or later.

Not so on Cinemax's new Outcast. The darkly entertaining new series from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman follows a young man named Kyle as he attempts to unravel his family's long, mysterious history with possession; its blend of big-picture questions with more immediate scares nicely resembles the adventures of Mulder and Scully.

Airs: Outcast debuted on June 3 and airs Fridays at 10 pm Eastern. Watch online at MaxGo.

UnReal (Lifetime)

Try if you like: The twisted workplace power plays of Mad Men's Don Draper and/or Empire's Cookie Lyon

There's nothing on television quite like Lifetime's scripted drama UnReal, which details the savage behind-the-scenes action at Everlasting, a Bachelor-style reality show. Everlasting showrunner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and her reluctant but talented producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) make TV magic by tearing down anyone who gets in the way of their preferred narrative, from the overwhelmed contestants to the resistant "suitors" to the network execs who think they know better.

UnReal moves at a punishing pace, with so many salacious and horrifying moments that viewers have little time to react before the next one comes hurtling around the corner. So far, season two is even more ruthless than the first, as Rachel stops resisting the siren song of power and throws herself headlong into making Everlasting's story as "magical" as it can be.

Airs: UnReal debuted on June 6 and airs Mondays at 10 pm Eastern. Stream the first season on Hulu.

O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)

Try if you like: The People v. O.J. Simpson

In this, the year of our beloved TV show The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, do we really need another O.J. series? As it turns out, yes, we do, and director Ezra Edelman's sprawling, seven-and-a-half-hour documentary miniseries is the perfect complement to FX's earlier project.

Where the FX mini went deep into Simpson's murder trial, ESPN's look at the story takes three hours to even get that far — and along the way, it digs into the racist history of the Los Angeles Police Department, the rise of O.J.'s pretrial celebrity, and the decay of relations between black and white Angelenos. It perfectly sets up the powder keg, only to have the murder trial light the fuse. It's tremendous television.

Airs: Part one airs Saturday, June 11, at 9 pm Eastern on ABC. The series will then air its subsequent five parts (and rebroadcasts) on ESPN at 9 pm Eastern on June 14, 15, 17, and 18. The entire miniseries will also stream on Hulu, with each part debuting on Hulu the day after it airs on TV.

Mr. Robot (USA)

Try if you like: Lost

It's been a long time since the first season of a TV series left audiences guessing in the way the first season of Mr. Robot did. The show hid one of the most exciting twists in recent television history in plain sight, simply by making the audience think it had outguessed a completely different twist, and boasted an amazing central performance from the haunted, wide-eyed Rami Malek, whose character perpetually seems like he's the only person who can see the world for the corrupt mess it really is.

It's hard for any show to live up to the kind of hype Mr. Robot's first season generated — especially a basic cable show that's mostly a remix of Fight Club — but with Malek and creator Sam Esmail at the center, Mr. Robot has a good a shot at sustaining the buzz.

Airs: Mr. Robot returns for its second season on July 13 at 10 pm Eastern. Season one will soon be available on Amazon Prime.

BrainDead (CBS)

Try if you like: The Good Wife and/or Independence Day

If the above "try if you like" combo surprises and/or confuses you, that's pretty much the point. This ambitious new series comes from Robert and Michelle King — the creators of The Good Wife — but they're not only pivoting from the law to politics, they're also adding some zombie-adjacent action when a mysterious bug sparks accusations of a government conspiracy. Also, it's (apparently) a comedy!

The Kings have produced some stellar television in the past, and as they embark on BrainDead with a cast led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Aaron Tveit (Les Miserables), the potential for greatness is definitely there. The big question is whether the duo can reproduce the compelling intricacies that made The Good Wife great while lightheartedly joking about a worldwide pandemic.

Airs: BrainDead debuts Monday, June 13, at 10 pm Eastern.

Survivor's Remorse (Starz)

Try if you like: Black-ish

Yes, it feels a little reductive to compare Survivor's Remorse to Black-ish — they're two of the only comedies on TV with majority-black casts — but hear us out. Both shows are as much about class as they are about race, with characters who come from lower-class backgrounds but join the moneyed ranks of the upper class after achieving professional success. Both shows feature lovingly drawn extended families. And both shows are incisive when it comes to navigating the racial politics of modern America.

But where Black-ish is a (very well-done) family sitcom, Survivor's Remorse pushes into darker, more dramatic territory, chronicling the story of what happens to one family when basketball phenom Cam Calloway turns pro. It doesn't hurt that the series boasts one of TV's best ensemble casts, featuring ringers like Tichina Arnold and Teyonah Parris.

Airs: Survivor's Remorse returns for its third season on July 24.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Try if you like: Arrested Development

There are so many shows about Hollywood and the misanthropic residents of Los Angeles that it would be more than understandable if the idea of another one bores you. But Netflix's cartoon BoJack Horseman is an acerbic gem, thanks to scripts packed with humor, sharp and empathetic vocal performances, and some of the best and weirdest animation you'll see on television. In this show's world, the most famous sitcom star of the '90s was a talking horse named BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), who now spends his time flailing around his mansion and trying not to drown in his own self-loathing.

Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has invented a world that operates entirely on its own bizarre terms, one that's home to many self-involved individuals who are also surprisingly deep and willing to be honest about difficult issues like depression and sexual harassment in Hollywood.

It's still a comedy, though, and if you're a fan of Arrested Development's rapid-fire pace and layered humor, you'll love watching and rewatching BoJack Horseman to catch all the jokes.

Airs: BoJack Horseman returns for its third season on July 22.

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Try if you like: Grey's Anatomy

Netflix's highest-profile original series has become a summer TV staple. The show straddles several genres — from soap to comedy to straight drama — but is always focused on making its characters feel as real as possible; since its premiere in 2013, the incarcerated women of Litchfield Penitentiary have graced our televisions and computer screens with heartbreaking background stories, complex interpersonal conflicts, and moments of surprising warmth in even the most dire of circumstances.

In the upcoming fourth season, we'll be meeting a whole new slate of characters, as the now-for-profit prison confronts the very real problem of overcrowding. Fans of the Shonda Rhimes school of making you laugh, gasp, and cry in the same scene can hardly do better than sitting down for a marathon.

Airs: Orange Is the New Black's fourth season hits Netflix on June 17.

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Try if you like: The West Wing

AMC's tech-world drama does for the 1980s computer scene what The West Wing did for DC politics: transforms it into a fundamentally optimistic TV series about deeply committed people solving problems, while working toward the same goal and occasionally fighting about it. It's a bright, bouncy show that uses the tech world as its starting point but adds in thoughtful stories about how men and women relate to each other in the workplace, the struggles of marriage, and the divide between having a vision and actually being able to execute it.

Plus, the cast is tremendous, especially Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé as two very different women working at a very early online gaming company and occasionally having gigantic screaming matches about its future. This is your favorite show you're not watching yet.

Airs: Halt and Catch Fire doesn't yet have a season three premiere date, but it seems safe to assume the show will return sometime this summer. The first two seasons are available on Netflix.

The Get Down (Netflix)

Try if you tried and gave up on: Vinyl

Earlier this year, HBO tried to delve into the chaotic world of 1970s New York with its lavish rock drama Vinyl … but the show quickly faded. Now The Get Down will make its own attempt to transport viewers to New York's '70s music landscape. From Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) and The Shield's Shawn Ryan, the series follows a group of Bronx teenagers diving headfirst into the burgeoning hip-hop and punk scenes amidst chaotic social change. Since all we have is the trailer, we don't know a whole lot more — but, hey, at least the music is great.

Airs: The Get Down's first season hits Netflix on August 12.

Animal Kingdom (TNT)

Try if you like: The scenes on The Sopranos where Tony and his mother yelled at each other

TNT's spin on Animal Kingdom isn't as nervy or exciting as the enjoyable 2010 Australian crime movie it's based on — at least not yet. But it does boast a strangely fascinating performance from Ellen Barkin, who steps into the role that garnered Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination for the film. As the central family's matriarch, Barkin expertly shades her character's relationships with her three sons and the teenage grandson she's been estranged from for years, offering up the kind of pseudo-incestuous, borderline-flirtatious ickiness that cable drama has been making hay off of for years.

In its first few episodes, Animal Kingdom still contains echoes of the zillions of other cable crime dramas it's competing with, but its Southern California locations are a beautiful sun-drenched hell, and it reveals flashes of a much better show. If nothing else, Barkin sure is fun to watch.

Airs: Animal Kingdom debuts June 14 at 9 pm Eastern.

Greenleaf (OWN)

Try if you like: The family drama of Dallas and intrigue of How to Get Away With Murder

From Six Feet Under's Craig Wright and executive producer (and star!) Oprah Winfrey, OWN's new series takes on the incredibly complicated, constantly roiling world of megachurches. It focuses on the Greenleaf family as prodigal daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) returns home to Memphis after her sister's sudden and mysterious death. With Keith David at the head of the clerical family, Greenleaf promises plenty of drama as the Greenleafs and their parish try to make sense of their tangled webs.

Airs: Greenleaf debuts with a two-night event at 10 pm on June 21 and June 22, and will continue to air regularly on Wednesdays at 10 pm.

The Hunt (BBC America)

Try if you like: Planet Earth

The BBC has produced some of the best nature documentaries in TV history over the course of the past decade, and The Hunt is the latest to hit US shores. Focused on the primal chase between predator and prey, it travels the globe, capturing thrilling scenarios where you genuinely want both the prey to escape and the predator to snatch a meal. The result is plenty of death-defying excitement, as one wrong move could mean utter disaster for one participant in the chase. And like all BBC nature documentaries, The Hunt doubles as a subtle but pressing case for acting immediately to minimize the effects of climate change.

Airs: The Hunt debuts July 3 at 9 pm Eastern.

The Night Of (HBO)

Try if you like: The Wire (this is only a guess; we haven't seen The Night Of yet)

The Night Of has followed a very circuitous path to the small screen. HBO originally planned to remake the British series Criminal Justice — where each season traced a new character's journey through the sometimes tortured hallways of law and order — as a starring vehicle for James Gandolfini, who was deeply passionate about adapting the series for US audiences. (He'll receive a posthumous executive producer credit.)

After Gandolfini died, Robert De Niro briefly signed on, before John Turturro took over the part and HBO renamed the show The Night Of. Without True Detective, HBO could use another big limited series to return to every year, and though it looks a little grim, The Night Of could end up being just that.

Airs: The Night Of debuts July 10 at 9 pm Eastern.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Try if you like: Kinda creepy '80s movies aimed at kids, like Gremlins or The Goonies

We don't know much about this series — the trailer is very mysterious — but the combination of premise (a young boy completely vanishes from a small town in 1980s Indiana) and star Winona Ryder playing her first regular role in an ongoing TV series makes for an irresistible combination. Here's hoping it recreates the eerie, twilight feel of the sorts of '80s movie classics — often directed or produced by Steven Spielberg — that it's evidently going for. And even if it doesn't, it might be fun to watch Ryder solving strange, supernatural mysteries for eight episodes.

Airs: Stranger Things hits Netflix on July 15.

Vice Principals (HBO)

Try if you like: Eastbound and Down

After wrapping up Eastbound and Down, Danny McBride is back on HBO to make you snort laughing with another aggressive comedy. This time, he and Eastbound and Down co-creator Jody Hill take on the hallways of high school, as seen through the aggrieved perspective of two disgruntled vice principals (McBride and Justified's Walton Goggins). When both get passed over for a promotion to principal, they team up to bring down the woman (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who, in their view, stole their job.

McBride and Hill's humor is dependably ridiculous, and the Vice Principals trailer accordingly promises plenty of filth and slapstick to keep you entertained for half an hour.

Airs: Vice Principals debuts on July 17 at 10:30 pm Eastern.

You're the Worst (FXX)

Try if you like: The most biting parts of Bridget Jones's Diary

The cynical couple at the center of You're the Worst would hate us for saying this, but it's true: You're the Worst is telling one of the most romantic stories on television. Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) face the world with a snarl, finding everyone and everything boring and predictable — except, much to their mutual horror, each other. Throughout the show's first two seasons, Jimmy and Gretchen reluctantly fell into their own acidic version of a romantic comedy, becoming more and more drawn to each other even through his worst self-destructive instincts and the revelation of her clinical depression.

Geere and Cash are fantastic, as are supporting players Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue as their equally flailing friends. It's a smart, sharp, endlessly quotable show that flies by if you have a couple spare hours to catch up.

Airs: You're the Worst returns for season three at 10:30 pm Eastern on August 31. The first season is currently streaming on Hulu.

Culture

The books that made us think and act differently this year

Culture

Let Succession be ambiguous

Movies

Why we’re so obsessed with nuns

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.