The cliché goes that summer is, for television networks, a mixture of a laboratory for testing risqué formats and a dumping ground for burying failed pilots and other products that had outgrown the system. However, there are a few honorable exceptions to the norm: series that defied their destiny as ephemeral works, released only as patches to get us through to September. In addition, streaming platforms discovered that a good strategy was to take advantage of less competition during the summer interlude to launch some of their more ambitious projects. In any case, what follows is a list of out-of-season series releases whose intentions were not to go down in history… but they did.
Defining the magic of “Northern Exposure” is no mean feat: the characters are eccentric, but the humor is contained, it’s tender, but also critical, romance without the gossip. When CBS premiered the first eight episodes in July 1990, they sure didn’t expect to end up filming 110 shows over 5 years. In fact, the second season aired after summer, in competition with much more conventional series. But the inhabitants of the fictional Cicely had already won the battle and had conquered audiences’ hearts.
Season one of NBC’s “Seinfeld” only had five episodes released in July 1989. The second grew to twelve and the remaining seven seasons exceeded twenty episodes each. Not bad for a show that’s also unclassifiable, and which took great pride in the fact of not being anything in particular. At its peak, it was managing to attract US audiences of more than 35 million each week to engage in the incongruous digressions of Jerry, Elaine, Cosmo, and George.
The first season of “Melrose Place,” released in July 1992, was massacred by critics. Each episode’s self-contained stories focused on the residents of an apartment block in a West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles weren’t quite working. But folk loved the characters. So, for the second season, the show’s creators developed it into a must-see soap opera, with storylines that went on for weeks and gruesome situations, as befits the genre. The rest, as they say, is television history… with a few spin-offs.
HBO tested the water to see whether a summer release might work in its favor with “Dream On”, the first original HBO series it produced, now almost forgotten. But it wasn’t until 1997, with “Oz”, that the strategy truly worked. That series about an experimental prison unit was different from anything audiences had ever seen before and the brand – then an exclusively premium cable channel – began to consolidate its reputation as a ground-breaking and mature. Series such as “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under” were soon to follow a similar strategy and would end up becoming HBO flagship shows.
AMC also waited for the solitude of July to premiere a slow-paced, period drama heavily focused on the finite details but that didn’t feature any particularly well-known actor. But this suicidal production was “Mad Men”, and the man at the wheel was the obsessive genius of Matthew Weiner. The result was audiences captivated by the stylish recreation of the 1950’s, the social commentary included, how it transmitted the pulsating vibe of an advertising agency during the golden age of media… and by the ultra-magnetic Jon Hamm, of course, without detracting from an entire cast of memorable actors.
One of the best comedies in recent years made its way into our lives via the service entrance… and through an even smaller window. Louis C.K. premiered “Louie” on the FX channel and surprised audiences with his destructive self-fiction that examined issues such as loneliness, depression, and failure, while at the same time, neurosis packed with delusional situations. Over five seasons, it became the most celebrated disciple of Woody Allen, until a sexual scandal – masturbating in front of women who had not consented – dispatched this title to one of the limbos from which no platform has dared to reclaim it.
It may have become one of Netflix’s most celebrated series, and one of those to have generated the most merchandising. But “Stranger Things” began life as summer entertainment with an eighties revival also featured in other shows like “The Americans”, “Deutschland 83” and “Halt & Catch Fire”. It was about bringing the Goonies up to speed: a gang of misfit kids, a mystery full of grown-up threats, and a nostalgic take on summer adventures. The series managed to transport viewers several decades back in time and which today forms part of popular culture.
This series heralded an unequivocal cry out to adolescent audiences: it was the first truly adult (and controversial) role for Disney star Zendaya. But the visual power of this creation by Sam Levinson, the unapologetic portrayal of the crudest problems facing Generation Z and an actress in a state of grace perfectly accompanied by her supporting cast members, ensured that the series would captivate a much wider public and become one of the compulsory titles for series fans in 2019. Currently, the creators are preparing a second season.
Another surprise from the summer of 2019 that made the intergenerational leap was this superhero series, created by eponymous comic Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Although Amazon does not provide audience data for its series, one of the platform’s former executives admitted that it had exceeded all expectations and had become one of the most successful original Amazon series. A subsequent study by Nielsen would certify that 8 million people watched the drama about a group of people who form a patrol to fight against superheroes who have become corrupted by their power.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender”
Sometimes summer is also an unexpected springboard for older series. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” premiered on the Nickelodeon channel at the end of George W. Bush’s second term as President. But it wasn’t until it hit Netflix last May that this animated show about an avatar who sets out to restore balance to a war-torn world, became a phenomenon in the United States. The first signs of this appeared in the first week, when it became the most-watched show on the platform, according to Netflix. A feat it held for a whole month, a milestone that even series designed to impact the entire season do not often achieve.