Summer is always a weird time for the TV industry.
These days, in a #PeakTV world where hundreds of scripted shows air every year, there is no downtime. Which means viewers will see a dizzying number of new and returning TV shows this summer on broadcast, cable and online — close to 100 series, by my count.
But summer is still a time when most of America eases up on its couch potato habits. So lots of television outlets try to look like they're serving up high quality series and shows, while actually using the summer to experiment or burn off stuff that didn't turn out well enough for the heart of the TV season, fall and spring.
Last year, that approach gave viewers some serious summertime gems in USA Network's Mr. Robot, HBO's Ballers, AMC's Humans and TV Land's The Jim Gaffigan Show. But this year, the pickings are slim.
Thus far, I haven't seen a single new show for this summer to match the impact of those programs. But there are some admirable efforts. Here's a look at what's coming, ranked from best to worst, so you can maximize your own binge-watching time — so if you waste a single second watching the Uncle Buck remake, you only have yourself to blame.
O.J.: Made in America, begins Tuesday 6/14 on ESPN
Just when you think FX's American Crime Story told everything you might want to know about O.J. Simpson's rise and fall, along comes ESPN with the best televised examination of this case yet. It's an extensive, five-part documentary ranging from Simpson's late-1960s success in college football to his 2008 conviction in Las Vegas on robbery and kidnapping charges. Along the way, Made In America connects Simpson's tragic arc to our own conflicted, contradictory notions about race, gender, fame, spousal abuse and much more.
The centerpiece is, of course, Simpson's 1995 murder trial. The documentary features one juror who contends her acquittal vote was payback for police escaping conviction in the beating of Rodney King. They interview Simpson's former agent, Mike Gilbert, who is now convinced he helped Simpson get away with murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown and friend Ron Goldman.
As the story progresses, we see Simpson morph from a sports star-turned-showbiz icon who distanced himself from black culture to a disgraced-if-acquitted murder suspect who turned to the black community when white America discarded him. Exhaustively reported and deftly told, this project proves the value of re-examining momentous cases with decades of distance. Only in that light, can you see how the fall of one of America's most celebrated athletes also highlights our struggle to transcend past misconceptions about racial prejudice, policing, spousal abuse and the corrosive nature of fame.
BrainDead, premieres Monday 6/13 on CBS
Consider this Hollywood's primal scream about our out-of-control political process. Developed by The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, this is an absurdist drama about political gridlock caused by alien bugs that worm their way into politicians' brains — and control them. Tony Shalhoub shines as an alcoholic Senator who finds new purpose once the bugs take over, getting him off alcohol and turning him into a charismatic, health-obsessed power broker.
But the tightrope between savvy political drama and wryly funny sci-fi horror thriller is a tough one to walk, and BrainDead too often falls off the wire. Also, tempting as it is to believe that the out-of-control partisanship which prompts a government shutdown could be engineered by alien bugs, the sad truth is, we have no one to blame for our political messes but ourselves.
Animal Kingdom, premieres Tuesday 6/14 on TNT
This had all the makings of a blockbuster summer TV series: Namely, Ellen Barkin as Janine "Smurf" Cody, the sexy, hardnosed matriarch of a California crime family that includes hunky Scott Speedman as the thief with a heart of gold and Southland alum Shawn Hatosy as a borderline psycho son with a hair-trigger temper. But, even though it's based on the hit 2010 Australian film, Animal Kingdom fails in a few important ways.
There's no character in a sea of tough guys, girlfriends and wayward family members that you really care about. Peaky Blinders alum Finn Cole plays Smurf's 17-year-old grandson as a maddening cipher; reunited with the family when his mother dies of a drug overdose, he's our window into exploring their twisted world. But he's also checked out to the point of lethargy, like a laid-back surfer dude on too much Valium. So the character the audience is supposed to care about most seems to care about nothing, which leaves a gaping hole in the middle of a promising story.
Uncle Buck, premieres Tuesday 6/14 on ABC
The fact that ABC pushed this reinvention of a 1989 movie to air this summer instead of spring — it was initially supposed to be a mid-season comedy — should tell you everything. The John Candy film about an unemployed slacker watching his brother's suburbanite kids has been reinvented as a sitcom with an all-black cast, featuring Mike Epps as Uncle Buck. But it's tough to cast a middle-aged black man as a slacker on modern TV without regurgitating all sorts of awful stereotypes, and the pilot episode wheezes under the effort to make Buck — ugh, even the character's name feels weird when applied to a black person — seem unconventional, but in reality, Buck is a step backward.
ABC should have given Epps — a passable comic with a real talent for TV acting — his own sitcom, free from connection to a movie that was already made into a TV show back in 1990 (yeah, I barely remembered it, either). What the network has produced is surprisingly charming in moments and not the train wreck you might expect. But that's hardly the best vote of confidence at a time when dozens of other series are waiting in the wings.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Summer is arriving, which means summer TV is here. The days are long gone when the TV networks more or less took a break during the summer and people would just have to watch the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. This summer will see close to 100 new and returning shows coming to the small screen. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is here. Hi there, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: Have you watched all 100?
DEGGANS: (Laughter) Let's say I've watched about 98.
INSKEEP: Ninety-eight? OK, anything big out there?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, it's interesting, last summer there was this hit that seemed to come out of nowhere, "Mr. Robot." And I was hoping that we might have a similar incident happen with TNT's "Animal Kingdom." It's this great drama about a family of thieves and criminals headed by this sexy, smart matriarch that's played by Ellen Barkin.
It's based on this Australian film from 2010. And it starts with Barkin's character, and she's called Janine Smurf Cody, taking in her 17-year-old grandson when his mother, her daughter, dies of a drug overdose. Now, the other kids aren't that happy that this is happening right before a big heist that they have planned. And Smurf has to set them straight. I think we've got a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANIMAL KINGDOM")
ELLEN BARKIN: (As Janine Smurf Barkin) The kid is in until I say he isn't. And the next one of you to say a word will not get his share of this job, not a penny. Test me. Go ahead.
DEGGANS: I don't think you want to test her. (Laughter) So...
INSKEEP: But Eric, you said you thought this was going to be the great show of the summer.
DEGGANS: I know. I know. Barkin's great. And there's this guy Shawn Hatosy, who plays her psycho son with anger management problems. You might remember him from the TV show "Southland." But it's tough to find a character to care about when you're looking at this sea of thieves and miscreants. And the show is a lot less compelling than I thought it was going to be.
INSKEEP: What about, you know, upscale prestige television, anything big coming?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, you ask people in the TV business, and they're going to tell you that TV's become a year-round industry. You know, TV does not go into reruns in May. Cable TV doesn't really get to take over the summer anymore. So what we're seeing in the summer is stuff that's a little more experimental and a little less commercial than the stuff that might air in the fall and spring.
So I think a good example is CBS's new show "BrainDead," which debuts tonight. It was created by Robert and Michelle King, and you might remember them as the husband and wife team that's behind the legal drama "The Good Wife." And they have a particular take in "BrainDead" on why Washington, D.C., politics seem so dysfunctional and unpredictable. And here's a clip that kind of explains it all.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRAINDEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Some kind of meteor came down. No one knows where it's from. The shifted off so they could study it in Washington. Guess what? It's filled with space bugs. Now they're losing, eating people's brains.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute, but I don't understand. If it's about Washington, why is it called "BrainDead?"
DEGGANS: It's a political drama about aliens creating gridlock in government...
DEGGANS: ...By controlling people's brains. Come on, Steve, isn't that obvious?
DEGGANS: So now...
INSKEEP: We don't need aliens for that. We could do it on our own.
DEGGANS: Exactly. Now, Tony Shalhoub is great as a politician who goes from being an alcoholic to becoming a health nut when these bugs get inside his head. But again, this is kind of a fine line. You know, you're walking between political drama and sci-fi satire. And I'm just not sure "BrainDead" gets over the finish line in the end.
INSKEEP: Does anything excite you this summer?
DEGGANS: I like a lot of returning shows. Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" comes back with great episodes. A whole season drops on Friday. And I can't wait to see James Franco on Lifetime. He does a version of this TV movie called "Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?" And it's about a lesbian vampire who might be a killer.
INSKEEP: Smash hit on the way. Eric, thanks very much.
DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: That's Eric Deggans, our TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.