10 Summer TV Shows Actually Worth Watching

10 Summer TV Shows Actually Worth Watching

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Chris Haston/Bravo, Saima Khalid/WTTV LIMITED/PEACOCK/C4, Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix, Apple TV+

It’s a weird time: Hollywood has not figured out how to recover from the strikes last year and studios are only investing in the safest, most milquetoast programming imaginable. The overall mood is that feeling like you need to sneeze but not quite being able to, except the sneeze is the full collapse of the streaming bubble.

What kind of TV are we talking about here? James Poniewozik has laid out his diagnosis of mid TV, but like dog breeds and buddy-cop duos, mid-ness can come in all shapes and sizes. In its essence, mid-ness is the assessment of a gap or an absence, an empty space that may signify lack of ambition, imagination, or execution. It may be an incompleteness, an overinvestment in one area — gowns, beautiful gowns — while failing to adequately shore up other vital load-bearing structures like character development or plot. In some versions of mid, that emptiness or missing element is an invitation for viewer participation; mid TV can be the most appealing framework for the hate watch, the non-canon ship, the perverse pleasure. It is a prompt, and we get to fill in the blanks. (I give you, for example, The Gilded Age.)

Sometimes, though, mid-ness is an emptiness that fails to fully engage. It is TV primed for the background, an emptiness small enough to slot into the open spaces in your life: the dinner-cooking TV, the TV you fall asleep to. It’s “must-see TV”’s bland sister, TV that’s best when you haven’t seen more than two-thirds of it. This all sounds like a devastating neg, but this is some of the most resilient, successful, and culturally omnipresent TV around and has been from TV’s earliest days as daytime-housewife companion and microwave-dinner accompaniment. The mid of yesteryear was Gunsmoke and Ozzie and Harriet; its corollary today is Suits, Lessons in Chemistry, and FUBAR. Embracing and enjoying this TV is an act of numbing, and there’s a pleasure in that, too. No one wants a world without anesthesia.

Then there’s the larger impression that TV is simply not at its best right now. This general malaise can translate into feeling underwhelmed, even when a series may have been lurking in the background for years, excellent and unappreciated, or a new show proves surprisingly fun. It’s hard to discover and appreciate those shows when the whole atmosphere feels stagnant. Would it be great to have a summer full of bracing, exciting, challenging TV to give us hope that the future is bright? Sure. But a lot of the summer is not going to be that, and you know what? That’s okay too. For now. Not forever! But there are ways to not just endure but embrace a summer of “You know what? It’s fine!” Allow us to show you. —Kathryn VanArendonk

The first season of We Are Lady Parts felt as if it sprung out of creator Nida Manzoor’s head like Athena vaulting out of Zeus: fully realized, totally confident, and ready to kick ass. The coming-of-age dramedy followed the members of the punk-rock band Lady Parts, young British Muslim women with different perspectives on faith, family, and identity bonding over writing and playing music together. In its second go-round, Manzoor explores what, exactly, success for Lady Parts means and how it coexists with its bandmates’ self-discovery: Do Amina, Saira, Ayesha, and Bisma have enough lived experience to write an album? Is it flattering or infuriating that there’s a copycat band mimicking their whole deal? Season two thrums along with the same energetic pacing and whip-smart writing as its predecessor, proving that the only thing mid about We Are Lady Parts is the fact that season one wasn’t an immediate hit. But like a snapped guitar string or an askew hijab, we can fix that. —Roxana Hadadi 

All signs point to The Real Housewives of Dubai’s second season being a real stinker: The premiere debuted at BravoCon way back in October, which means the series has been sitting on the shelf for quite some time — despite the fact that this spring saw the longest gap between new Housewives installments since the Obama administration. The trailer lacks the kind of pyrotechnics that get viewers excited, and the chatter among fans is, well, nonexistent, even when the only other Housewives on offer at the moment is the mind-numbing New Jersey.

But following the Real Housewives is a little bit like following professional sports. One season your team is winning the Super Bowl, and the next they’re back in the minor leagues. (That’s how sports work, right? I don’t watch.) We weather the shitty seasons — the ones where the women seem disconnected, the interpersonal dynamics are more doldrums than drama, and the story lines seem as fresh as a three-day-old jockstrap — because we know that when all the parts click together, we’ll get something transcendently insane. I suggest taking this as the rare opportunity to get into a Housewives franchise at the ground level. Some of the best cities — Potomac, Orange County, New York — took a couple seasons to find their stride, and it’s not like Dubai has nothing to recommend itself: Caroline Stanbury, the standout of Ladies of London, is bitchy royalty, while Chanel Ayan, a couture-obsessed, quick-witted pot stirrer, is positioning herself to become one of the best to play the game. —Brian Moylan

For all the talent and money involved, Winning Time ended up being a remarkably mid show even as it cobbled together a devoted fan base. (Hello!) The premise of exploring an era’s racial politics and relationship with celebrity through the lens of the Showtime Lakers was a solid proposition, but the series’ tendencies toward choppy plotting and visual maximalism drew diminishing returns. Fortunately, Winning Time–heads will get a second run in the form of Clipped, a limited FX series that pushes for similar lines of thematic inquiry in a tighter, sharper, and altogether more successful package.

Based on the 30 for 30 Podcasts series The Sterling Affairs, Clipped dramatizes the 2014 scandal that brought down former Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was caught making a racist tirade — “Don’t bring Black people to my games!” — on tape. Led by EP Gina Welch (The Terror, Under the Banner of Heaven), Clipped runs its game through a contemporary framework that should hit better for an audience shaped by Instagram. That said, you’re going to have to deal with the surreality of watching actors play personalities who still regularly feature in the NBA: Laurence Fishburne is then-Clippers head coach Doc Rivers (he’s now with the Milwaukee Bucks), and he’s rounded out by an assortment of relative unknowns interpreting players from that Clippers era, including Chris Paul, JJ Redick, and DeAndre Jordan. Whether this series works for you will ultimately hinge on its two central women — Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano, the person who recorded Sterling, and Jacki Weaver as Shelly Sterling, his wife — who deliver equally complicated character studies of individuals navigating a public-relations explosion. —Nicholas Quah

The fashion biopic is one of the most reliably entertaining types of mid there is. The costume design will be flashy, the dialogue will be catty, and runway and party scenes will provide plenty of shiny things to look at. The Becoming Karl Largerfeld trailer promises many of these delights, including multiple slow-motion POV shots of people at a club turning to look at Lagerfeld as he walks into the room, and a scene of Lagerfeld admiring his now-iconic sunglasses in the mirror like Batman putting on his cowl as his boyfriend tells him, “You will become the greatest fashion designer in the world.”

Other period pieces often bite off more than they can chew, but it’s fun to see the 20th century depicted through one industry’s and art form’s specific lens. What sets Becoming Karl Lagerfeld apart from movies like House of Gucci and series like Halston and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is that it’s a French-language miniseries shot on location in France, Monaco, and Italy. Hopefully, this lends it an air of authenticity, and, if not refinement as a whole, at least refinement compared to the Ryan Murphy–verse. But the main reason I’ll be tuning in is because Lagerfeld is played by Daniel Brühl, which is just flawless casting. There’s an alternate-universe American version of this series with Lagerfeld played by Jared Leto; instead, we get the really-great-at-playing-cold-and-bitchy Brühl. Brühl rules. —Rebecca Alter

In the greater context of “mid,” Julio Torres’s new confection for HBO, Fantasmas, may not qualify. It is a work of singular vision that no one else could have made and never goes the way that you (not being Julio Torres) would expect. Still, for Torres acolytes, it is certifiably mid within his own repertoire. The show follows a bereft Torres in search of a lost golden oyster (of course?) and features imagined vignettes that err on the side of “not-quite twee.” The tone is so precise because it’s the same one he’s been honing over years of projects, from his Saturday Night Live sketches and My Favorite Shapes special to his previous series Los Espookys and this year’s Problemista. Fantasmas, perhaps for the first time, is a retread. But despite the many segments striking a familiar chord (one even returns to disembodied hands signing checks), it’s always nice to live in Torres’s world for a few hours. And with episodes clocking in at a respectable 30 minutes apiece, what’s to lose? —Jason P. Frank

I don’t know if TV is bad right now or I’ve just lost interest in it, but most recent prestige dramas feel like they should have been movies but were instead stretched out over eight less visually interesting hours because that’s where the industry is leaning. So much of the other stuff just feels like it’s filling algorithmically dictated content buckets — are we positive Netflix has not released a show called Dead Boy Detectives at least three or four times already? If I’m going to sit through something that overstays its welcome and feels overly familiar, I’d at least like those qualities to be there by design. So my most anticipated series this summer is … the return of My Life Is Murder, a New Zealand comedy-drama starring Lucy Lawless as Alexa Crowe, a former cop who lives in Auckland and solves violent crimes too adorable for the local police department to handle, like when a dance instructor is murdered at a tango club or someone dies during a battle over Christmas-light displays. Alexa’s deal is that she’s grumpy, and also that she bakes bread? Look, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the stakes are low, the tone is light, the pace is leisurely, and the murders always get solved by the episode’s end, so that if your attention wanders to, say, a recipe you have open in another tab as you try to cook dinner, it’s not hard to figure out where you’re at. Four seasons of cute Kiwi mystery is plenty, but when that’s exhausted, there’s always the huge back catalogue of Columbo waiting over on Tubi. —Alison Willmore

It’s high summer, the yen is down, and seemingly everyone you know is going to Japan. This applies, too, to the people on your television. These are minor boom times for shows featuring Westerners bopping around Japan (see Shōgun, Tokyo Vice, the opening scene of Sugar, last year’s Drops of God), and come July, Rashida Jones will further the trend as an expat named Suzie grieving the loss of her husband and young child due to a plane crash. Except … are they actually dead? Or is there a big conspiracy afoot? Adapted from a novel by Colin O’Sullivan, this Apple TV+ series delivers a grand visual sumptuousness with a sleek neo-futuristic Kyoto setting, a pastel aesthetic reminiscent of Maniac, and production design that borrows more than a few ideas from Severance. Yes, there’s a lot going on (the titular character is an Asimo-esque robot), but Sunny feels like a show with the potential to be something special if it doesn’t collapse into a hot mess. And even if it’s a disaster, there’s a good chance Sunny becomes the kind of series you’ll half-remember in a few years with some amount of fondness — not unlike a good summer fling. —N.Q.

Some mid TV is so expensive, so star-studded, that it can’t manage to be fully bad. Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid prequel series now entering its sixth and final season, is the opposite. It started off as an original series on YouTube Red, which was the streaming platform’s premium subscription tier when that was still a thing, so an episode of Cobra Kai has about the same production budget as a middling high-school production of Pippin. It’s so cheap that it has no business being as good as it is. And Cobra Kai is by no means good-good. The acting is often wooden, and the side plots are so outlandish that even when the show winks at itself, you still don’t entirely buy them. The kung fu set pieces, however, are absolutely fantastic, as are the stories of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, played as they were in the original by Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.

The series starts with Lawrence as a washed-up handyman with no money, no family, and no inclination to do anything about it until his neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) asks Lawrence to teach him karate so he can defend himself from bullies. The series then becomes The Karate Kid in reverse, focusing on Lawrence and his take-no-prisoners style of fighting that LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi (RIP) did so much to counter in the films. As Lawrence opens his own dojo, LaRusso does the same, first to oppose and then complement each other as other big bads from the movies show up to make their lives hell.

The show has matured into something of a trenchant commentary on masculinity, how we become a product of the men in our lives and whether or not bad teachings can be forgotten or overwritten. While there are many dad shows out there, this one is actually about middle age, how the mistakes of our youth come back to haunt us, and how trying to undo them is sometimes impossible. Cobra Kai won’t be the shiniest thing you ever watch, but you will be shocked at how much this silly, kinda-bad karate show makes you think. —B.M.

Television is a self-organizing medium, and certain genres thrive in this hot, humid, don’t you want to watch other people exert themselves while you stay inside the air conditioning season. Summer is for the swords-and-sandals epic, for maximalist blood splatter, political backstabbing, and maybe even some sexy stuff, for suspension of disbelief that doesn’t veer into the fantastical or ask us to expend too much brain power in exchange for entertainment. Peacock’s Those About to Die, set in ancient Rome during the era of gladiator blood sport, will almost certainly be mid; it doesn’t have the audience of rivals like Netflix nor the appeal of built-in IP like House of the Dragon. And, honestly, the sword-and-sandal genre is arguably itself mid, a style of storytelling that has had mass appeal for decades (Ben-Hur, Gladiator) because of its engagement with big themes of life and death, violence and survival — visceral in feeling and easy to understand. This is not a bad thing! We need a new Rome, a new Spartacus, a new venue for ogling beautifully sculpted physiques before they rip each other apart for our pleasure. —Roxana Hadadi 

Remember the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo? You might not because, as a TV broadcast, it was pretty mid. But it looks like the Olympic organizers and NBC are not going to let that happen again, because the 2024 Games, to be held in Paris July 26 through August 11, are hell-bent on doing the absolute most.

Think the opening ceremony will feature athletes from different countries marching around an arena? Nah, they’re doing this one Lonely Island style: on a boat, motherfucker. Specifically, there will be 100-some boats carrying athletes down the Seine in a floating parade carried live on NBC, re-aired in prime time, and also shown in Imax theaters, because the Olympics is also a movie now. Yes, most of the usual sports will be represented: swimming, gymnastics (Simone Biles is back, baby!), basketball, track and field. But for the first time there will also be breakdancing, a competition set to unfold at La Concorde, thereby enabling the world to see someone do the Worm in the same public square where Marie Antoinette was executed.

Most Summer Olympics show beach volleyball on a beach. This year’s spikers will play in front of the Eiffel Tower because they can. And just in case equestrian events aren’t hoity-toity enough, the 2024 dressage and jumping will unfold at the Palace of Versailles. Watching it will basically be like watching a Sofia Coppola movie, especially if you mute the TV and turn on New Order. In total, there will be more than 5,000 hours of Olympic coverage on NBC and Peacock. So even if some of that is mid — can we admit that watching long-distance cycling is always kinda mid? — it can’t all be mid. —Jen Chaney

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