Not too long ago, summer TV offered audiences the chance for a much-needed breather. As broadcast networks mostly phoned in their June-to-August programming, viewers could watch a few cable series, catch up on the shows they missed the previous season and give TV a bit of a break before the new season began in September.
But now, as outlets like Netflix and, at long last, the broadcast networks, have jumped into the fray, the summer TV season has become just as crowded as the other nine months of the year. While many networks are going for broke this summer with everything from VOD to binge-watching experiments, not all the new shows are essential viewing (we're looking at you, Aquarius). But, make sure you save time for these 12 new and returning shows—the absolute best of what TV has to offer this summer—in order of their debuts:
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, May 31)
With so many terrific TV shows fighting for attention, it's become harder to stick with a promising new series in its first full season as it tries to find itself. But, sometimes that patience pays off in a big way as it has with AMC's drama about the '80s PC revolution, which returns for a Season 2 in which all its pieces have finally gelled into something wonderful. The rebooted, reinvigorated series flashes forward 20 months to March 1985 and smartly shifts the two female characters (Kerry Bishe's Donna and Mackenzie Davis' Cameron) into a more central role as their online gaming company, Mutiny, is slowly stumbling into what will eventually become the Internet.
Season 2 premiered Sunday night, but you can watch the first episode on AMC.com. While all of Season 1's episodes are streaming on Netflix, only the last few are necessary to adequately get you up to speed for Season 2.
UnReal (Lifetime, June 1)
Finally, a version of The Bachelor that even Bachelor-haters will enjoy. This new drama, co-created by former Wieden + Kennedy content producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, goes behind the scenes at a Bachelor-like reality dating-competition show called Everlasting and shows the stomach-churning lengths to which producers will go to manipulate the on-screen action. The show could have easily gone wrong—after all, hasn't The Bachelor already become a parody of itself?—but Shapiro and Marti Noxon have devised something far more compelling—and darker—than satire as they puncture the show's manufactured fairy tale. Even if you don't usually watch Lifetime dramas (or The Bachelor/Bachelorette, for that matter), this one is well worth your time.
Hannibal (NBC, June 4)
When a broadcast drama really means business, it likes to bill itself as having cable-level quality, but Hannibal is the only show that is truly worthy of that epithet. For three seasons, audiences have been treated to the most visually and aurally arresting series on TV—and the most disturbing—as creator Bryan Fuller has finally restored the luster, which had been sullied by the post-Silence of the Lambs movies and Thomas Harris' later books, to Harris' characters.
Season 3 of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter's pas de deux ups the ante with an international setting. (Lecter is now in Italy after the events of last season with his former therapist, played by Gillian Anderson, in tow.) I still have no idea how a show this audacious and cerebral is able to exist on network TV, but I'm eternally grateful that it does.
Catch up with the first two seasons on Amazon Prime.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, June 12)
As Netflix drops new seasons of content every couple of weeks, it has became impossible to keep up with the deluge, (I'm still woefully behind on Daredevil and Bloodline.) But Orange Is the New Black, returning for a third season, once again cements its status as Netflix's best show—and one of the finest on all of TV—and should immediately jump to the top of your Netflix queue.
What's most impressive about Orange's continued reign is that creator Jenji Kohan traditionally tends to lose focus after a couple of years; it's why she rebooted Weeds, her last series, several times over that show's run. But Orange's extended cast offers such a rich tapestry of still-unmined characters' storylines that she should have several seasons to go before needing to shake things up.
As she burrows ever deeper into the inmates' lives, Kohan improved the series by excising its deadweight: Larry (Jason Biggs), the ex-fiancé of Piper (Taylor Schilling), who ran out of storyline a season ago, is nowhere to be seen in Season 3's first six episodes. Now that the show's sole dead-end plot has been eradicated, Orange is firing on all cylinders.
Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix.
True Detective (HBO, June 21)
Original stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson won't be back for this season, which follows a new story and with new characters (played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn), but the show that launched a thousand #TrueDetectiveSeason2 memes is finally ready to debut.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto has assembled another fantastic cast, and if he comes close to hooking us like he did in Season 1, we're in for a rewarding summer.
Catch up with Season 1 on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Another Period (Comedy Central, June 23)
This list could have been packed with Comedy Central entries—Andy Daly's Review returns July 30, while new Key & Peele episodes are set for July 8—but I'm most excited about this new series, a hilarious spoof of Downton Abbey starring Christina Hendricks, Jason Ritter and Michael Ian Black. Another Period follows the filthy-rich Bellacourt family and the servants who tend to their every need. Packed with cameos, it could be the funniest show you watch all summer.
Mr. Robot (USA, June 24)
USA has struggled to find suitable replacements for signature dramas like Burn Notice and White Collar. It's best hope yet is Mr. Robot, about a possibly unstable cyber-security engineer for the world's largest conglomerate who moonlights as a vigilante hacker. The pilot is much darker than typical USA fare and might end up repelling the audiences searching for its "blue skies" programming. But, it also promises the network's best drama since Suits.
There's no need to wait until June 24 to see if you're on board with Mr. Robot. In what USA is calling one of the broadest-reaching, prelinear distribution plans in cable television history, it has already released the full pilot online:
Zoo (CBS, June 30)
Based on the James Patterson novel in which animals revolt against humanity, Zoo is the third consecutive summer event series for CBS after Under the Dome and Extant. Both of those series started out spectacularly before running out of steam (though CBS has brought both of them back this summer). I'm hoping the network has finally learned its lesson and fixed its longevity issues for what seems like its most compelling summer drama yet. And its star, James Wolk, deserves to finally land on a show that makes it to Season 2. (Lone Star, Political Animals and The Crazy Ones did not.)
Rectify (SundanceTV, July 9)
There's no quieter, more introverted a show on television than Rectify, and few that are even remotely as moving. Entering Season 3, this drama focuses on an inmate (Aden Young) recently released from Death Row who is trying to readjust to society and his family. You've never seen anything on television before like Rectify, which is the perfect antidote to the noise and bombast you'll find on almost any other channel. Instead of discovering this show on Netflix in a few years and wondering why you never heard of it before, start watching it now.
Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix.
Masters of Sex (Showtime, July 12)
Season 2 of the drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson's groundbreaking sex research was a rockier ride than the euphoria of Season 1, given the time jumps necessary in that part of their story, but when the show is locked in—as was the case during "Fight," one of the best hours of TV last year—it's peerless. Ray Donovan might attract the lion's share of attention, but this is the Showtime show you should really be focusing on this summer.
Catch up with the first two seasons on Showtime Anytime.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix, July 31)
The summer camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer became a cult classic soon after its 2001 release, and now the entire superstar cast—including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and David Hyde Pierce—has reunited for a prequel series set earlier that same summer.
The original film is available on Netflix.
Playing House (USA, Aug. 4)
Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair's hysterical comedy's chances of getting renewed for a second season were slim until USA devised an innovative VOD windowing strategy to bring it back for another season (episodes will be available on VOD a week before they air on USA). But don't just watch it because of what it means for the future of VOD; watch because it's really funny.
While no Season 2 footage is available yet, here's a funny video that Parham and St. Clair recorded for last month's NBCUniversal cable upfront. (If you missed Season 1, it will return to VOD and usanetwork.com in early July.)