Summer TV Used to Mean Something, Damn It

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I come with a dispatch from the department of frivolous things that are fun to take far too seriously: We have lost touch with what summer TV used to mean, and it’s destroying the cultural rhythms that remind us we live in a society.

Fine, yes — there are other factors contributing to the dissolution of our shared social fabric. Most of them are probably more meaningful. But somewhere on the long list of ways we are drifting apart from our neighbors and losing the ties of our mutual self-conception that Benedict Anderson described as “imagined communities,” there is the simple fact that TV used to signal change in our lives and now it does not.

Before streaming services reshaped our access to and expectations for perpetually available TV, there was a widespread understanding that television was a rhythmic experience. In the fall, as school went back into session and the vacation free-for-all of warm summer months began to cool off, TV surged to the forefront. Cliffhangers you’d been stewing over since May were finally resolved. New shows premiered, and you knew they were coming because you’d seen promotional materials for them in every ad break and on every billboard around town. Fall meant novelty, development, progress — a cue to pay attention to specific stories and the knowledge it wasn’t just you who could discover at last what was in the hatch on Lost. It was everyone.

Spring was the reverse: Your favorite shows were about to take a break. Once summer hit, new episodes mostly stopped. There’d be reruns, which worked as both catch-up opportunities and placeholders, so you didn’t lose the habit of tuning in to see familiar faces at a specific time. It was a collective sagging, an exhalation. It was deliberate doldrums.

When new TV did premiere in the summer, it was operating under a different set of expectations. Summer was the territory for silly reality-competition series, weird burn-off shows no one really believed in, and short-lived “event” TV that often translated to low-budget limited series. Wipeout’s very first episode aired on June 24th, 2008. The NBC sitcom 100 Questions, about the questions you answer on a dating profile, ran for exactly six episodes from May to July 2010. That June was also the moment for Persons Unknown, a show (starring Chadwick Boseman!) in which strangers wake up in a ghost town. Summer was for reality shows like Downfall, about people trying to answer trivia questions from atop a very tall building. Summer was for Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and Guinness World Records Primetime and that long-beloved programming tradition “On Sunday/Monday/Wednesday nights, we watch a movie.”

We haven’t completely lost the “Summer TV is silly” impulse. Just last week, Amazon Prime released a new series called Lovestruck High, a Love Island–type reality show set in a facsimile of an American high school circa 2003 and narrated by Lindsay Lohan. Soon we’ll get a second season of FBoy Island. ABC will air a new game show called The Final Straw, which appears to be giant Jenga hosted by Janelle James. But Lovestruck High is a show that, while technically existing, appears to have made zero dent in our cultural consciousness — how can it signal “This kind of show means summertime” if it’s so buried by other stuff no one knows about it? More broadly, shows like this appear all the time now. There’s nothing about The Final Straw that could not just as feasibly air on ABC in mid-February.

More important, the rest of TV will not stop. Disney+ is churning out Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ms. Marvel. Apple TV+ will have big premieres with the third season of For All Mankind, a Maya Rudolph–starring comedy called Loot, and the true-crime series Black Bird. Netflix blew past any traditional TV calendar from its first days of original programming, and this summer brings another numbing deluge (Umbrella Academy’s third season, more Stranger Things, a Resident Evil series, and tons more). Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled that FX’s What We Do in the Shadows returns in July and Reservation Dogs comes back in August, and I will watch whatever Welcome to Wrexham is and the very grim-seeming The Old Man, starring Jeff Bridges.

But aside from emphasizing that network TV is drifting off into its own distinct ecosystem further and further from whatever “streaming” is becoming, summer TV is now just TV. It’s a calendar version of the endless scroll. It’s TV programming that expects our narrative appetites remain constantly whetted and perpetually fulfilled without ever achieving satiety. It’s a symptom of Peak TV, of course; several hundred shows can’t all squeeze into a September-to-May schedule. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, though. We want more TV, so more TV gets made, so TV never stops, so we expect TV should never stop.

Doldrums can be good. Pausing is powerful. Rhythms and rituals are meaningful, and yes, it’s incredibly goofy to be arguing that without a summer full of reruns, it’s hard to feel that time actually moves forward or waiting for something has appeal. But I do think it’s become much easier to forget that great new TV has value. On some level, we are all children who need to be shooed outside and forced to amuse ourselves with some sticks and a rubber ball so that, when we do come back inside, we can appreciate the luxury of a new episode. Even more: It might be nice to know that everyone was stuck with a summer of reruns for a little while. There’d be no FOMO because there was nothing to miss. It’d be a rare shared experience, like a Woody Guthrie verse about this temporary land of silly summer TV being for you and me.

Nostalgia can be toxic; longing for a halcyon past is always a trap — except in this case, when I am absolutely right about shaking my fist and declaring that things used to be better. Summer TV used to mean something, damn it! We deserve to have that meaning back.

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