Summer television. There used to be a time when people assumed (and rightly so) that summer TV meant a bunch of reruns, game shows, and a lot of dead air. But 2015 was the year that changed summer TV forever. Enter Mr. Robot, UnReal, Tyrant’s second season, and other television shows that made us sit up and realize that summer is some TV real estate that’s been slept on.
Take, for instance, Mr. Robot. A lot has been made of the fact that such a cerebral show is on a cable network like USA. Just look up the slew of interviews Rami Malek did during and after the first season of Mr. Robot; you’ll find that the majority of interviewers pose Malek the same question, which is something to the effect of, “Can you believe this show is on USA, the same network that shows Psych and Suits?” With all respect to USA, it is a valid question, and I think even they knew the switch from sunny dramedies to dark, brooding, HBO-esque fare would be something that would take everyone by surprise. But the inevitable question that comes next is, “Can you believe this show is on in the summer? Now we’ve got to be glued to our TVs during the summer, too?”
The roster of dramas have made a lot of hardcore TV watchers realize that the new summer schedule is both a gift and, instead of saying “curse,” I’ll say that it requires a bit of a learning curve. A lot of us have grown up used to the fact that summertime is TV “off time.” But now that we’re in a new age of summer television, I’ve been left with questions.
First, why hadn’t the summer television slots been used for hard-hitting dramas in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that up until about 10 years ago, movies were still seen as the place where the real drama occurred, while television was a refuge for sitcoms and game shows. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that there was a cultural awareness of television’s unspoken “vacation time.” Like with school, TV seemed to go off during the summer, and the hardcore watchers would have to wait for the fall for the next season of Law & Order or Ally McBeal. If you wanted critical fare, you had to either watch your recorded episodes (recorded manually on VHS, mind you), or you simply had to get out of the house and go to the movie theater. Nowadays, though, TV excels at storytelling at a much more rapid and critically acclaimed pace than than film, which means that there are more resources and talent coming TV’s way. With so much talent, the stories have to go somewhere. With the fall season as crowded as it is, it makes sense that the vast, unexplored land of the summer-television slate would be utilized.
Second, now that we’re in a new age of summer television, how will this development mature? In other words, does programming like ABC’s current slate of game shows fit into a world of despotic families, hackers suffering from mental instability, and amoral reality-show producers? The answer to this question is one that’s still developing.
Right now, ABC has a prime-time version of Family Feud (Celebrity Family Feud) on its roster, as well as revivals of Match Game, $100,000 Pyramid, and a new music miniseries called Greatest Hits, comprised of popular acts from certain decades singing one-of-a-kind duets. And, hearkening back to the old times of summer sitcoms, ABC has debuted Uncle Buck (the pilot pulled in stellar ratings). A lineup like this, particularly a lineup filled with game shows, seem oddly nostalgic, while Lifetime, FX, and USA keep us glued to our chairs, biting our nails. It seems like a type of emotional whiplash to be sure. Does an audience which can watch dramatic, fall-season-esque television in the summer and hard-hitting dramas on their personal devices all year round really care about prime-time game shows anymore? None of the game shows mentioned save for one have debuted yet, so parsing the ratings is an activity for another time. But with the growing sophistication of the television audience, as well as the growing sophistication of television itself, I’m starting to wonder if the days of prime-time game shows will become a thing of the past. A part of me doesn’t want them to; they are nostalgic for me, and they do help relieve the stress of the world we live in. But as summer TV becomes more competitive, I wonder just how much real estate dramas will soon take up. Will the new summer season lead to the extinction of game-show season?
There’s certainly an argument to be made for game shows and comedies during these Mr. Robot times. Not everyone out there wants emotional and psychological depth during the months that are traditionally the most relaxing (no school, maybe a lighter work schedule, vacation time, etc.). And as I alluded to already, the world is a tough enough place already. At the time of this post, we’re just coming off the heels of the horrible massacre in Orlando, the deaths of Christina Grimmie and British MP Jo Cox, and many other tragedies. Sometimes, all you want to do is turn off your brain and watch people play games.
In short, this article is an ode to the changing of our summer-television lives. What used to be a time for lighter fare is now a time of head games, cerebral pondering, and twists and turns that require leaps of cognition were previously reserved for the fall. Instead of turning off the world, tuning in to TV, and dropping off into mental escapism, we’re now tuning in and becoming hooked on another type of escapism: one drenched in stress and seriousness. Even spring has gotten into the act now, with the stellar first season of Underground.
Are there more pros than cons to the new options in original summer programming, or are there more cons than pros? It depends on the person. But one thing is for sure: Summer TV will never be the same.