What a summer for TV — the airwaves are full of excellent reasons to avoid leaving the friendly confines of your air-conditioned nachos-stocked apartment. The summer TV line-up offers brilliant new shows as well as returning favorites, glorious dumb-ass comedies as well as criminal suspense. There are veteran heroes coming back with new adventures — whether that means Danny McBride bringing that Eastbound and Down magic to high school, Cameron Crowe chronicling the rock & roll road life or Robert Kirkman exploring demonic possession. The resurrection of Winona. The best season yet for Orange Is the New Black. James Franco doing a Lifetime movie about lesbian vampires. Cops, crooks, chefs and aliens. It's all here. Happy sweltering.
Cinemax, June 3rd
There's so much walking dead out there to fear — so Cinemax goes to the well for another horror show created by Robert Kirkman, based on his own comic. Instead of zombies, Outcast is all about demonic possession, starring Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous as a tormented Southern loner who finds — against his will — that he has a knack for battling the forces of evil, though he'd much rather sit alone in the dark and brood about his fucked-up family traumas. (Between Fugit and Cameron Crowe's Roadies, this summer has everything short of a Stillwater reunion tour.) Drifting back to his home town in West Virginia, Fugit finds an Exorcist-ready case of a child possessed by the devil … just like the exact same case that afflicted his own mama back in the day. He also meets a Bible-thumping preacher on who drafts Fugit into his duel with the dark side.
AMC, June 5th
The Schwimmer-assaince just keeps rolling. Fresh from his career-peak star turn as the Kardashian patriarch on The People v O.J. Simpson, David Schwimmer returns with a gritty, mobbed-up restaurant story. He's a blue-collar widower down on his luck in the Bronx — he calls himself "a sommelier, but I'm between restaraunts," which is a fancy way of saying he's got a vicious drinking problem and hopes to get paid for it.
His life fell apart last year when his wife got killed and his young son stopped speaking, right around the time his friend and blood brother Dion (Jim Sturgess) got coked up and burned his restaurant down. But now that Dion's out of jail — and back up to his ass in bad habits — it's time for them both to roll the dice. Like Dion tells him, "You got a twenty-thousand dollar stove and your fridge is empty." Their crazy scheme: fight their way back into the cut-throat restaurant world, starting up a new joint in their own tough neighborhood. ("The Bronx is the new Brooklyn," Dion says hopefully.)
Feed The Beast is part food porn, part crime drama, with a surprisingly thick sense of grief. Secret weapon: Michael Gladis, the pipe-smoking hipster jazzbo on Mad Men, as the elegant mobster with a hand in their pockets and a knife to their throats.
Lifetime, June 6th
UnREAL was one of last year's most unexpected treats: a send-up of phony-ass dating-competition reality shows, on (of all networks) Lifetime. Shiri Appleby is a producer of the slap-and-cry dating show Everlasting, modeled on The Bachelor — but behind the scenes it's even sleazier and more back-stabbing than it is on camera. Pulling the strings backstage, Appleby keeps finding herself making even uglier compromises — and pulling even nastier betrayals — than the girls on the show that she keeps manipulating into drinking harder and crying louder. Creators Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon clearly know this territory from the inside, but you don't have to watch dating-contest freak-shows to enjoy the stiletto satire. Drink up, ladies!
TBS, June 14th
Ellen Barkin might not seem like the first star you'd pick to play a redneck bank-robbing thug-life queen. But she really brings it in Animal Kingdom, which could have been called Mom of Anarchy. A confused California kid goes to live with his grandma after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. But he quickly discovers that she's running her own crime family, commanding his hairy and heavily-armed surf-trash uncles, who all call her Smurf. She bakes them cupcakes and keeps their beds fitted with high thread-count sheets, beaming, "Nothing's too good for my boys!" Barkin is sublimely creepy, especially since she keeps her sons under her thumb by constantly playing quasi-sexual mind games with them. She's in the great tradition of Angie Dickinson in the exploitation drive-in classic Big Bad Mama.
Comedy Central, June 15th
"You're only pretty in Massachusetts!" "That's the worst thing you can say to a woman!" Another Period was one of last year's most welcome comedy surprises — the depraved adventures of a filthy-rich upper-crust Rhode Island family in the early 1900s, with creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome as the shamelessly spoiled Bellacourt sisters. The Downton Abbey-style setting is really just an excuse for a rapid-fire barrage of gleefully offensive gags about incest, racism, abusing the servants and a coked-up Helen Keller. Leggero has the most virtuosically sarcastic eyebrows in the game, and she heads a full house of sick aristocrats and, with great moments from Michael Ian Black, Christina Hendricks, David Wain and Beth Dover and Jason Ritter, who keeps discipline by yelling at the domestic staff: "You are this close to losing your ball-washing privileges!"
Netflix, June 17th
"It's sardine time, bitches. We a for-profit prison now." The inmates of Litchfield are back after Season Three's cliffhanger finale, and as the newly privatized penitentiary keeps getting more overcrowded, tensions are on the rise. Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) takes over as the new warden, with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) as his secretary, but despite his cooler-than-ever handlebar 'stache, he's in over his head. "A hundred new inmates!" he fumes. "I got Inmate-palooza over here! I'm drowning in a sea of orange!"
The crowded cellblocks bring new problems, from snoring to skinheads to slap-happy new guards. The racial conflicts heat up, as Dominican prisoners square off against the Puerto Ricans. ("Dumb-in-a-can." "Fuck you Bacardi bitches!") Taylor Schilling's Piper is relishing her new role at the top of the prisoner hierarchy, now that she's set up her lucrative sideline of pimping used underwear — "I am the prison pussy panty business!" — but that just makes her a bigger target for anyone who wants to take her down. And since she can't stop saying shit like "I'm a gangsta, like with an 'a' at the end," that means pretty much everybody as usual.
Blair Brown raises hell as everybody's favorite new inmate, a celebrity cooking guru who seems to be based on Paula Deen. But O.G.s like Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba, Jessica Pimentel and Samira Wiley continue to amaze; no other show has so many brilliant actors going so deep on such unforgettable characters, with backstories that can break your heart. As Diane Guerrero's ever-awesome Ramos says, "If I hadn't buried my feelings so deep that they only come up when I watch Stepmom, I would totally be tearing up right now."
Lifetime, June 18th
James Franco has made plenty of admirably bizarro moves before, from his stint on General Hospital to his book of poetry to his performance-art coma at the Oscars. But this might might be the most bad-ass stunt he's ever done — remaking the ultimate Lifetime movie, the 1996 cheese classic where Tori Spelling's perfect boyfriend turns out to be a psycho killer. Last summer Will Ferrell and Kirsten Wiig paid homage to the genre with their own Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption, playing all the melodrama totally straight. But Franco ups the ante by turning Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? into a lesbian vampire love story. Leila Young (the daughter of Vincent D'Onofrio and Greta Scacchi) takes over the Tori Spelling role. And as the scared mom who worries there might be some sleeping-with-danger going on — who else but Tori Spelling?
Showtime, June 26th
Cameron Crowe created this tale of noble roadies, based on the rock and roll tour travails he's been chronicling ever since he spent the Seventies profiling the Eagles and the Allman Brothers for Rolling Stone. Roadies focuses on the backstage crew and the camaraderie they develop as the highway stretches on forever. Luke Wilson plays the tour manager of an arena-rock group with the very 1974 name of the Staton-House Band, with Carla Gugino as their perky production manager and Luiz Guzman as a philosophizing bus driver. This has always been home turf for Crowe, from Singles to Almost Famous. And anything that gives Carla Gugino a chance to rock out is a good thing.
HBO, July 17th
Like so many New York crime stories, this one begins with a nice guy who never did anything crazy in his life before tonight … which is when things get bloody. A mild-mannered Pakistani high-school kid from Queens borrows his dad's cab to go to a downtown club. He picks up a passenger: a mystery girl who lures him into bed. Fade to black — until he wakes up and finds her extremely dead body. Did he kill her? Or is somebody setting him up?
Written by noir mastermind Richard Price, The Night Of gets its tension from the two hard-boiled cranks playing mind games over this case. John Turturro is fantastically scuzzy as the ambulance chaser who scams onto the case as the defense attorney, the kind of guy who picks the scabs on his eczema-infected feet, with his pencil, on the subway. Bill Camp is the equally rumpled and manic detective convinced he's got this kid red-handed — both these guys make Lieutenant Columbo look like James Bond. (And the ever-welcome Kevin Dunn shows up as one of the cops, satisfying HBO's requirement that every show needs at least one cynical asshole played by Kevin Dunn.)
When Nasir (Riz Ahmed) threatens to start telling the cops the truth, Turturro has a conniption fit: "I wanna tell you something and it's the most important thing you'll ever hear in your entire life so don't not hear it," he yells at the kid. "Shut it. They come up with their story, we come up with ours." This criminal justice system turns everybody into a wiseguy, even the judge; when a black prisoner complains he got a stiffer sentence than the Jewish guy ahead of him in line, His Honor smirks, "You want Jew time? Do Jew crime." But Turturro steals the show — and considering his role was originally built for James Gandolfini, who tragically died before it came to pass, the actor's achievement is twice as impressive.
Netflix, July 17th
November 1983: a small-town Indiana comics-geek kid vanishes without a trace. The local cops don't have a clue. His working-stiff mom (Winona Ryder) goes looking for answers, except she starts to suspect he's caught up in some sinister government conspiracy involving some deadly adults. (One of them is Matthew Modine.) Stranger Things is an affectionate ode to Eighties geek culture — the missing kid's friends try to solve the mystery, using their walkie-talkies to talk in their shared language of references to Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons and issue #134 of The Uncanny X-Men. (And the kid's teen brother is a music freak who makes him mix tapes full of Joy Division, Bowie, Television and the Clash.) But the mystery deepens when they meet a weird little girl with a shaved head and some creepy supernatural secrets. It's great to see Ryder in action — between this and last year's Show Me A Hero, she's back in the game. Winona Forever!
USA, July 13th
Last year's best new show came out of nowhere — well, out of the USA Network, which is basically the same thing. Rami Malek returns as Eliot, a hacker kid in a black hoodie, recruited into an underground Coney Island cell of vigilante anarchists dedicated to corporate sabotage. The hotly anticipated second chapter picks up where we left off, after the fsociety hack throws the world economy into chaos. Christian Slater returns as Mr. Robot, who plays a murky role in Eliot's unstable and drug-riddled brain; as he says, it's "an infinite loop of insanity." Sam Esmail's visually splendid and outrageously imaginative punk fantasy doesn't rest on its laurels — the new season adds newcomers like Craig Robinson from The Office, Frances Ha's Grace Gummer and rapper Joey Bada$$, while B.D. Wong expands the intriguing role of trans hacker Whiterose, leader of the Dark Army. And in a typically inventive special-effects trick, there's a clever cameo by some guy named Barack Obama.
HBO, July 17th
When Ballers dropped last summer, everybody pegged it as the NFL version of Entourage, with a side order of Arli$$. But it proved Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson could hold his own as a TV leading man, after essentially conquering every other corner of the media. He returns as the ex-football star Spencer Strasmore, finding there's life after the gridiron by putting on a suit and starting a new career as financial adviser to the A-list jocks — to "monetize my friendships," as he put it. Johnson is hardly the first pro wrestler to make the transition into the acting game, but he is probably the first to play a guy you could imagine doing your taxes. Rob Corddry keeps up his hyperactive comic weaseling as a sleazebag sidekick. The bro crew orbiting around these two might be a lot less charismatic, yet Ballers builds a laid-back party vibe around its star's unflappable core of chill.
HBO, July 17th
For most people, high school is a four-year sentence. For Neal Gamby, it's the hellhole he's dug himself into for life, and the only thing that keeps him going is the dream that someday he'll run the place. He's the most pitiful high-school administrator you've ever seen — especially since he's Danny McBride, who makes Gamby a comic creation worthy of Kenny Power, the slob he played to mulleted perfection on Eastbound and Down. Vice Principals is the excellent long-awaited return for Eastbound creators McBride and Jody Hill, except this time their turf is the South Carolina high school where Gamby's the vice principal gunning for the top job. McBride makes it the summer's best new comedy — he's a bundle of sweaty mid-life despair, a petty tyrant with a tragic little mustache and pompadour, seething in his sad blue school-spirit sweater vest.
As Vice Principals begins, the retiring principal of a South Carolina high school leads his two deputies in one final Pledge of Allegiance, while they flip each other off behind his back. (The principal who's stepping down? Bill Murray, in a genius cameo.) Gamsby's arch enemy is Walton Goggins from Justified, as a horrifying smarmy bow-tie dandy, always simpering and sucking up. They battle it out to take over, but to their shock, they both get passed over in favor of a new principal, who adds insult to injury by ordering Gamby to get up early every morning to teach driver's ed in the parking lot. Driver's ed? This means war.
McBride is just amazing — at least Kenny Powers always had his clueless-asshole swagger to carry him through, but Gamby is a darker character who can smell the stench of loser dust all over him. Especially when he's with his foxy ex-wife (Busy Phillips), whose motorcross-riding good old boy of a new husband (Shea Whigham) is cooler, smarter and nicer than he is. When he joins forces with his sworn enemy to bring down the new principal, it just brings out the worst in each other — McBride never stops adding to his own humiliations. His idea of acting like a boss is going around saying things like "I'm sorry you made me yell at you today." His idea of helping to mold the minds of the future is to warn his students, "You know what happens to kids your age if you smoke too much marijuana? You grow tits! Giant turkey tits, down to your knees!" Here, at last, is a true role model for America's youth.
Netflix, August 12th
To the beat, y'all. The Get Down is Vinyl meets Empire times The Wanderers, with a crew of South Bronx kids in the 1970s looking for a way into NYC's exploding music scene. The Bronx is burning and these kids all want to be stars, whether that means singing gospel in church, grabbing the mic at a Grandmaster Flash block party or scheming to turn into the next Donna Summer by getting discovered on the floor of Les Inferno. Moulin Rouge mastermind Baz Luhrman has been threatening this TV musical project for a long time, and nobody can accuse him of playing small-time — he aims to sum up the birth of hip-hop and the triumph of disco, with plenty of poetic musings. ("The paleface media tells us we're all going to hell. But maybe we're just the first ones to light the fire!") Justice Smith is the teen hero, who finds his superfly Afro and disco threads just get him in trouble at the nascent rap shows. He heads up a cast of newcomers, as well as eternally cool icons like Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito.