If it seems like there's an explosion of TV coming at you this summer, that's because there is. And it's a trend that's been building for quite a while.
Back in the day — say five or 10 years ago — summer was a time of experimentation and slowing down. Network TV aired shows that would keep the lights on while reserving its best stuff for the fall, and cable TV took advantage by debuting more new shows as an alternative.
These days, that playbook has blown up — at least a little bit. There are dozens of new and returning shows rolling out this summer on the networks, cable and streaming, and the major projects on deck are big as anything on TV — from the beginning of the end of Game of Thrones to Netflix's superhero super group The Defenders.
This year, June feels like an opening act; a callback to those summer days when you got experiments like American Idol, Survivor, Louie or Sex and the City — bold swings that might evolve into something classic and substantial, if the TV cards land right. Here's my list of June premieres that are among the best of those experiments, with a few old favorites thrown in:
Niecy Nash gives the performance of her career as Desna, the owner of a small-time nail salon in rural Florida who allowed her business to become a front for a family of dysfunctional, small-time crooks. She's the leader of a band of women who are characters themselves, including Ann (Judy Reyes) as the shop's cornrow-wearing, tomboyish muscle, and Polly (Good Wife alum Carrie Preston) as a buttoned-down super nice lady just out of jail with an ankle bracelet. But it's Nash who shines as a woman caught in the middle, struggling to please her misogynist, knuckleheaded criminal bosses while protecting the women working in her salon and trying to save enough money to create the glitzy, upscale nail business of her dreams. When Desna's bosses start shorting her and taking her for granted, she has to take matters into her own, um, claws.
Extra points to the show for filming some exterior scenes in Florida, though the locations feel more like urban Tampa than the more suburban Manatee County. (Hey, you notice these things when you're a TV critic living in Florida.) The show walks a compelling line between absurdist dramedy and poignant drama, with a dollop of commentary on gender, class and the struggle to excel when so many things in life seem determined to pull you down.
The Great British Baking Show (PBS)
This is the last cycle of Britain's beloved cooking competition filmed with the crew that made it a sensation on both sides of the pond. Fans know that The Great British Bake Off (as it's called in the U.K.) has been engulfed in controversy over producers' decision to move it from the BBC, a public broadcaster, to Channel 4. As a result, the show is losing its two celebrity hosts — Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins — along with 82-year-old judge Mary Berry. (Steely-eyed, spiky-haired judge Paul Hollywood is reportedly staying on.) So PBS' airing of the show's most recent season (which was broadcast in Britain last year) is your last chance to see these all-stars in action.
It's a pleasure to see Giedroyc and Perkin's goofy charm while introducing contestants and explaining the show's various challenges. Hollywood is equal parts brutal British taskmaster and encouraging coach, egging on competitors who falter while pulling no punches explaining why they have. And Berry is the grand dame of it all, delivering tough assessments of the bakers' wares with expert precision and a grandmotherly hopefulness. Compared to in-your-face unscripted shows like Big Brother or Masterchef, this competition between 12 amateur bakers is like a soothing glass of wine at the end of a long day. Contestants cheer each other on, and the stuff they make — from tiny, chocolate-covered Jaffa Cakes to "biscuits," aka cookies — springs from British culture in wonderful ways.
Producers will have a tough task recreating the show's delicate chemistry with new players, so it's fortunate that PBS has given U.S. fans a chance to savor the last go-round of this genteel reality competition's classic lineup.
The Mist (Spike TV)
Based on the 2007 film (which was based on the 1980 Stephen King novella) this series is about the calamitous events that unfold after a mysterious mist envelopes a small town in Maine. Residents soon discover there are some awful critters in the impenetrable fog — critters that seem to have a taste for human flesh. B-movie fans will remember the film as a showcase for all the creepy ways characters can get killed off, from spiders that lay eggs inside living human hosts to mostly unseen meat eaters with spike-covered tendrils. This 10-episode series gives a bit more backstory, including a soldier from a nearby military base who has amnesia, and a teenage girl who may have been sexually assaulted by a popular high school jock. It may sound predictable, but this B-movie fan was hooked by the first episode. The original movie surprised viewers with low expectations, and the TV version just might do the same.
Broadchurch (BBC America)
There may be no crime fighting couple on TV as compelling as David Tennant's Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman's Ellie Miller on Broadchurch. He's prickly, by-the-book and seemingly impervious to everyone else's emotional needs; she's kind, conscientious and protective of the small seaside English hamlet where the two of them serve as detectives. It would be a mistake, however, to expect the third and final season of this British cop drama to match the electric complexity of its debut, which depicted Hardy and Miller's heartrending effort to catch a child-killer.
In this season, the pair investigates a brutal sexual assault committed near a party that was attended by dozens of local men. Along the way, the show comments on the corrupting nature of modern technology and online porn, the toxic quality of modern masculinity, the disintegration of local media and so much more. The season we'll see this summer has already drawn blockbuster ratings in the U.K., and while this finale can't really measure up to the show's breathtaking debut season, it is a well-made farewell to my favorite crime fighting duo on TV right now.
Named for the mostly female wrestling league Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Netflix's new series is a fictionalized take on the origin of the sports world's weirdest televised product. Pop culture geeks will remember that GLOW emerged in the 1980s, during the heyday of wrestling. The syndicated show featured women who looked like down-on-their-luck actresses and past-their-prime athletes tossing each other around in highly choreographed bits.
In the Netflix series, Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) plays a comically unskilled actress who auditions for a comically unskilled B-movie director played by Marc Maron. Maron's character is assembling the league for a rich kid who's bankrolling it all. Maron is perfectly cast as a reprobate director fully aware of how screwed up he is, while Brie plays a clueless, plucky woman whose knack for making terrible decisions is matched only by her yawning lack of acting talent. Throw in Nurse Jackie's Betty Gilpin as a cheated-on, suddenly single mother who lands in GLOW after a stint on a soap opera, and you have the makings of a compelling, sardonic, occasionally heartwarming series about the creation of a low-rent show.
GLOW is a loving look at a hair-brained scheme developed during an awkward age, as the neon glitz of the 1970s became the cynical, money-obsessed 1980s. The time period depicted feels like the only pop culture moment when GLOW could have been a thing. And in the same way the wrestling league surprised viewers 30 years ago, viewers may be surprised to find Netflix's GLOW is one of the best new shows they'll see this summer.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's official - summer is here. OK, it will be official in a couple of days. But now that you've hopefully got some time on your hands, let's talk about what you might want to watch on TV. We wanted to know what to catch and what to skip, so we called NPR TV critic Eric Deggans at his post in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hi, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.
MARTIN: So first of all, could you set the table? I thought it used to be the case that the TV business slowed down in the summer. Some people actually looked forward to the reruns so they could catch up on what they missed. But you have been telling us...
DEGGANS: (Laughter) Reruns, that's so quaint.
MARTIN: Right? But you're telling us there's actually a huge number of new and returning shows. How many are there and why is that?
DEGGANS: Well, we keep a running tally at NPR's art central here. And we have counted at least a hundred new and returning shows this summer from June 1 till the end of August. And there's all kinds of trends kind of colliding at once, right? You know, you've got streamers that are picking up the slack. Netflix, for example, has a major series debut every Friday in June.
Networks are getting more aggressive with their summer programming because they're realizing that cable and streaming is not slowing down. But they can't put their best shows on in summer because their key time is still the fall and the regular TV season.
And then you have cable channels, for example, like TNT, that seem to be tweaking their image and trying to revamp what they stand for by trying some experimental new stuff. So there's a show called "Claws," for example, that's set at a Florida nail salon that also happens to be a front for organized crime.
MARTIN: That is something I would not have thought of, a nail salon that's a front for organized crime - sure.
DEGGANS: Unless you live in Florida, and then it makes all kinds of sense.
MARTIN: So let's talk about some of your recommendations. You wrote a story early in the week with some of them. One of them was this Netflix show about the creation of a female wrestling league called "GLOW." And I'll play a clip from that. This is comic Marc Maron, who plays a B-movie director who's trying to organize the league.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
MARC MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) This is GLOW.
ALISON BRIE: (As Ruth) Sorry, what's GLOW?
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. This is a wrestling television show just like the big guys but girls, get it? What?
BRIE: (As Ruth) So like Hulk Hogan?
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) If one of you turns out to be Hulk Hogan, I've hit the jackpot.
MARTIN: OK, Eric, so why did this make your list?
DEGGANS: This is a really funny story about lovable losers and this sort of desperate kind of mediocre level of show business where this really bizarre league got sort of burst.
MARTIN: OK, Eric, but with more than a hundred shows coming, how should people sort all that out? How are they going to figure out what they want to watch?
DEGGANS: It's whatever you like. I mean, that's the great thing about this. It's like a smorgasbord, right? So if you like a smart slightly soapy family drama that has some diversity in it, then OWN, Oprah's channel, was bringing back "Queen Sugar" for a second season, Ava DuVernay's series. And it continues at the same level that it was at last season, which was pretty good. If you'd like British cop dramas, there's a show "Broadchurch" on BBC America that features David Tennant and Olivia Colman. I think they're one of the best cop duos on television.
And I'm a nut for B-movies. Spike TV has this show called "The Mist" which is a version of a kind of a B-movie that was a version of a novella that Stephen King did. It hits all those buttons for me. It's a fun, you know, sort of summer viewing.
And finally, if you love great cooking shows, PBS is going to have "The Great British Baking Show." And it's the last season before they revamp the show because in Britain, the show is moving to a different channel, so it's going to have different hosts and slightly different judges. So if you want to see the classic format of the show one last time, you can see it here in America on PBS over the summer.
MARTIN: Bingo. That's mine.
DEGGANS: I knew I would hit one that you'd like at some point (laughter).
MARTIN: You got me. That was Eric Deggans speaking with us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Always a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOFT RIDE'S "THE SUN IN HER EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.