Remember the old days? We sent letters in the mail, and walked to school uphill both ways. An ice-cold Coke cost a nickel, and the only tweeting we heard came from the birds in the trees. The air was sweeter, the roads smoother, and the White House never had to answer questions about autofellatio! And summer? Summer was a bad time for television. Those days, my friends, are long since past.
That’s not to say that the relentless onslaught of television doesn’t continue. It’s just a little smaller in scale – less “Battle of the Blackwater,” more “that Euron guy descends in the dark and there’s a big fight or something and then Theon bais.” Outside of the five outstanding episodes that follow, this month saw great installments from Orphan Black and Broadchurch — both in their final seasons — as well as the continuing insanity of Zoo, the addictive Claws, and the promising if uneven Snowfall. It also, unsurprisingly, saw solid moments in the land of Late Night, including Tiffany Haddish’s (Girls Trip) Groupon swamp tour, Colbert’s Russia week, the return of Luther the Anger Translator, and most particularly comedian and transwoman Patti Harrison’s electric appearance on Fallon. All are worth a look (and seriously, Zoo is insane).
Still, outside of Game of Thrones, this month was dominated not by what’s on, but by what’s coming next. With fall on the horizon, you can’t open a new tab without facing down a trailer, premiere date, or beguiling tease about returning favorites and new hopeful gems. In just the last few days, we’ve gotten word of a Bollywood comedy with Priyanka Chopra, a dark alien abduction comedy from Rainn Wilson, and a documentary adaptation of Shea Serrano’s essential Rap Yearbook (produced by The Roots, because those guys really don’t have much on their plates). Lest you think all new series announcements have been greeted with huzzahs, this weekend also marked a dramatic uptick in the furor over HBO’s Confederate, led by #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, among others (for more on that, start here.)
There was one other big figure on this month’s television horizon, however, and it’s a figure from the not-so-distant past — one with an arm draped over a sofa and a cigarette burning in perpetuity. July marked the 10-year anniversary of Mad Men’s premiere, and while television has changed a lot since “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, some things remain the same. Great characters and great writing matter more than any battle, than any punchline or mystery or “watercooler moment.” Those things are far from worthless, but they’ll always take a backseat to the good stuff, to a moment shared between long lost friends (welcome back, Hot Pie!) or a small, confused smile after a fucked-up moment with an ex. We watch television because we love good stories, populated by great characters, and in that respect, July had plenty to offer.
It also had Zoo, and seriously, you should give Zoo a whirl. That shit is nuts.
There are some truly great ensembles on the air at the moment — some represented elsewhere on this list (Preacher), some not (Broadchurch), and some that are pretty much just Tatiana Maslany playing 97 different people (Orphan Black). For my money, however, it’s tough to beat Issa Rae’s Insecure, which features a trio of the most dropped-in, low-key, funny, and heartbreaking performances out there. Better still, the second season of HBO’s thoughtful gem makes a point of opening new circles for Issa (Rae), Molly (the terrific Yvonne Orji), and Lawrence (Jay Ellis), with each character confronting new realities in their personal lives and new territory narratively. After spending a season carefully coaxing its audience into a serious level of investment in these characters and their relationships, we see them scattered, facing down the unknown, whether in the form of a therapist, a series of bad (and unwanted) dates, and the world of casual sex. Now you know us, the series seems to say, so let’s have a Wine Down and really get into the shit.
As good as Rae, Orji, and Ellis are — and they’re real damn good — they also benefit from a terrific supporting cast, each member of which seems molecularly incapable of wasting a second of your time (welcome back, Thug Yoda!). New this season: David Hull, a standout on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (on which he plays the unforgettably named White Josh), as Travis, a guy at Molly’s law firm who is making a hell of a lot more money than she for what seems like no good reason. We can probably expect a lot more heartbreak in Insecure’s sophomore season — the final moments of the episode and the confused, frighteningly hopeful smile on Issa’s face all but guarantee that — but it looks like we can also expect a good, long look at workplace inequity, too. If that sounds dull to you, it’s only because you haven’t started Insecure yet. Do yourself a favor and correct that, right now. –Allison Shoemaker