I know, I know, you’ve been outside all summer living your best life. You didn’t see the compelling anti-stand-up stand-up of Netflix’s “Nanette,” nor did you laugh with TNT’s colorful “Claws.” But maybe you’ve watched a little TV, too, and come up with a list of summer favorites, disappointments, and observations? Here is mine.
Just when I thought I was out
I’d written off Showtime’s “The Affair,” after season three took a deep, dull, unnecessary turn into Noah’s post-prison delusions. The episodes with Brendan Fraser and Irene Jacob left me screaming into the canyon. But this fourth season has brought a renewal of the show’s original focus and thematic strengths — the impossibility of objectivity, the conflicting notions that life is short and long, and the unending ripples of the important relationships in our lives. It has also brought in a pair of rich plot twists, both involving death, that have given all of the leads plenty to work with. Next season, the fifth, will be the show’s last.
The reality about networks
I know I’ll hear from readers who’ll expect to find network shows on this list. But the networks have pretty much given up any old notions of summertime quality, filling their schedules with daft game shows, feather-weight dramas such as ABC’s “Take Two” with Rachel Bilson, and exhausted reality series including “Big Brother,” which is currently in its 20th season. Yup, that’s two decades of fake drama, attention-getting offensive outbursts, and Orwellian creep. The season’s bigshot has been NBC’s stalwart “America’s Got Talent,” a multigenerational entertainment that is the highest-rated show of the summer.
And the winner of summer is . . .
Take “Dynasty,” lop off the good guys and the mud fights, add in self-satire, viperish amorality, and great acting, and voila: HBO’s most crazily entertaining new drama in some time. “Succession” is not for everyone, since its characters are so vile, but for the rest of us it is an amusing voyage to the bottom of the barrel. Watching filthy rich people act filthily — it’s a treat, especially when written with such profane black humor and such psychologically astute self-owns. And the show veers into timeliness, as the Roy family presides over a politically controversial media empire and as the children crave the father’s approval to the point where they might do something incriminating. These one-percenters, you gotta love to hate ’em. Bonus credit for a soundtrack that perfectly serves both the drama and the humor.
Speaking of “Succession,” how about that cast? They’re all good — in particular Brian Cox as the alpha magnate, Jeremy Strong as his needy middle son, and Matthew Macfadyen as his peculiar son-in-law. But my favorite ensemble of the summer was on FX’s “Pose,” with its remarkable trans-heavy cast. Individually, each performer is extraordinary, including Mj Rodriguez as new house mother Blanca, Dominique Jackson as the flawless Elektra Abundance, and the amazing Billy Porter as the witty, cutting ball emcee Pray Tell. And then when they interact, on the runway or not, they create sparks, generate waves of fabulousness, and, at moments, inspire tears. Yes, they’re terribly dramatic, but that goes with the ballroom territory. Ryan Murphy’s show has been renewed for a second season, by the way.
The sharpest turn
HBO’s “Sharp Objects” can be hard to watch, since its themes, including self-cutting, child murder, alcoholism, and suppressed memories, are rather heavy. But Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction, with its cuts forward and backward, brings a seductive sense of the porousness of time. And Amy Adams, as the lost heroine who is back in her hometown dealing with her harsh mother (perfectly played by Patricia Clarkson) and memories of her late sister, is brilliant. She’s hard to look at, and hard to look away from. The only way Adams’s character can heal is by walking through her pain and coming out the other side. Adams is giving the deepest, darkest, and best performance of the summer.
Less than expected
I enjoyed season two of Netflix’s “GLOW,” so please don’t interpret this as a full-on slag. I just find it less than it could be — after two entire seasons, I still feel as though I’ve only seen two or three episodes. There’s so much potential in the large cast, and yet the show has hardly explored it. Likewise, I’ve grown underwhelmed by Amazon’s “Castle Rock”; it’s just fine. But with a cast led by Andre Holland, Melanie Lynskey, and Sissy Spacek, and storytelling possibilities from all of Stephen King’s work, it ought to be more addictive and original than it is. If you don’t follow the insider references to King’s stories, all you’re left with is a mediocre, and familiar, story line.
Mellow but harshed
The low-key, lovely“Lodge 49” on AMC deserves to develop an audience. It makes me think of “Baskets” and even “Wilfred” in its commitment to idiosyncratic characters, the foibles of human nature, and small moments. Wyatt Russell stars as a laconic surfer dude in Southern California whose life has fallen apart, until he stumbles across the tight community of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx and begins a kind of spiritual education. The laid-back Russell is perfectly cast, and so is Sonya Cassidy as his twin sister, who, like almost everyone in this life-affirming show, is having financial struggles.
Amazon has released a pair of worthwhile three-part miniseries this summer. The first is the best: “A Very English Scandal,” written by Russell T. Davies (“Doctor Who”) and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), is based on the true story of closeted British MP Jeremy Thorpe and his attempt to have an ex-lover murdered in the 1960s. Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw give star turns as the two exes, while the script takes on homophobia, stiff upper lips, and the way justice tips toward class and money. “Ordeal by Innocence” isn’t nearly as fresh — it’s adapted from an Agatha Christie novel — but it’s a lot of well-acted fun, with Bill Nighy, Matthew Goode, and Eleanor Tomlinson on hand for a fevered game of whodunit. The ending, by the way, has been changed from the book.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.