If you gaze out the window of whatever home you're currently quarantining in, you'll see that it is indeed summer. The sun is out, the birds are chirping, barbecue grills are firing up in the midst of socially-distant gatherings, and if you're into TV (which: duh), it's time for summer TV season, which -- thanks to the proliferation of streaming platforms and 365-day-a-year Peak TV -- now has a different meaning than used to. Back in the day, summer was the domain of reruns and burned-off seasons of TV shows the networks had no intention of renewing. But every once in a while, something would show up in the desert of summer programming and become an oasis of captivating new TV. In the best cases, they came to help define their respective summers, dominating the cultural conversation and launching multi-season runs.
Defining which shows to qualify for this list was something of a nebulous undertaking. Certain series like Succession (2018) and America's Next Top Model (2003) were indeed summer premieres and indeed became cultural landmarks, but they took more time to captivate audiences. Mad Men (2007) came closest to breaking out, but even that show was a critical darling in its earliest days and didn't really dominate pop culture until the fall. HBO also holds a particular place in the history of summer shows, since historically they were the least tied to traditional broadcast programming calendars. Both Sex and the City and Oz were late-summer premieres, while Six Feet Under was an acclaimed summer series that was always just shy of breaking out into full "sensation" territory.
As for the shows that did…
Aaron Spelling's definitive teen soap of the 90s didn't invent summer event programming, but for a generation, it perfected it. Instead of airing reruns between seasons 1-2 and 2-3, 90210 went to the beach for the summer, with mini-seasons revolving around the Beverly Hills Beach Club, where Brandon (Jason Priestley) got a summer job. The first summer was great for the novelty of it all, a proof of concept that the show's teen fanbase would watch even in the warmer months. But it was the next year, the so-called "Summer of Deception," where the top truly popped off. Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Dylan's (Luke Perry) tumultuous relationship was interrupted by her trip to Paris with Donna (Tori Spelling), so Dylan turned to Brenda's best friend Kelly (Jennie Garth), a betrayal that went on to fuel the entire third season. It was teen soap plotting at its most riveting, and it was the best reason to stay home on early-'90s summer nights.
A decade after 90210, FOX found its next teen TV obsession in The O.C., creator Josh Schwartz's drama about a sullen boy from the wrong side of the tracks (Chino!) who is taken in by a wealthy but good-hearted Orange County family. Who could forget the promos, where bully Luke (Chris Carmack) punched our hero Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and sneered "Welcome to the O.C., bitch!"?? The increasingly elusive youth market flocked to the Orange County dramatics in August of 2003, and FOX saw no need to slow down come fall, having the first season run clear through May, at a whopping 27 episodes.
No reality show has ever defined a summer quite so completely as Survivor did in 2000. Pretty much from its very first episode, Survivor had the whole nation talking about alliances and rat-eating and Colleen and Greg's jungle canoodling. While the show has remained a hit for twenty (!) years, nothing will ever compare to the fervor over that first season. For some in the media, it marked the death of culture, ushering in new buzz terms like "voyeur TV." But for a huge chunk of the TV audience, it was a summertime obsession, right up until that final episode, where Sue Hawk dressed down Kelly Wiglesworth with her infamous "snakes and rats" speech.
With the dawn of Netflix, summer programming had already begun to lose its novelty, and that would only continue. But the big red streaming giant would still manage to captivate the TV audience at large. One of its first original series was Orange Is the New Black, the serio-comedy from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan set at a women's medium-security prison. Netflix had already made its original-series debut with House of Cards, but the binge-viewing mantra was still new enough that OITNB, with its episodic focus on one inmate per episode, felt novel and exciting. It was THE buzzy show of summer 2013, outpacing even the revived Arrested Development, which was also on Netflix.
One of the more common threads of the summertime sensations is that they generally seem to emerge out of nowhere. So it was with creator Sam Esmail's Mr. Robot, a paranoid thriller about technology, the surveillance state, class warfare, and the mind of an unstable protagonist played with star-making peculiarity by Rami Malek. Mr. Robot actually debuted in the same summer as another basic cable series that captured viewers' attention: Lifetime's UnREAL, which peered behind the curtain into the sordid production manipulations behind a Bachelor-type TV show. But it was Mr. Robot that had viewers picking clues apart and speculating wildly about what exactly was going on. Like almost all shows that are heavy with plot and mystique, Mr. Robot couldn't keep up the momentum, but we'll always have that summer.
Netflix's biggest summer obsession came in the summer of 2016 with this weaponized dose of nostalgia for genre fiction, Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King. Following a pack of Indiana kids looking for their missing friend, the show had binge-watching audiences obsessed with the Upside Down, demigorgons, the enigmatic Eleven, and Winona Ryder's ace-level wide-eyed terror. Netflix was already in the driver's seat when it came to guiding the TV-viewing public's attentions before Stranger Things, but this show took things to a whole new level. Summer television may not be as densely populated as the rest of the year, but just as the songs of summer stay wedged in our brains, forever bringing us back to specific points in time, so do these defining summer TV shows. Such is the case with Stranger Things, which eventually became the nostalgia it was seeking to emulate.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.