Summer is the cruelest season: Though the amount of #content keeps increasing, the kinds of success stories do not. Roughly, the most successful TV shows this summer have always been successful. Your Big Brothers, America's Got Talents and Bacheloretteses. Except. Dig past the upper strata of summer TV and you find a small cavalcade of oddities and victories that actually gets larger as you inspect it.
Love & Hip Hop Atlanta
It's not that you're lazy for dismissing Love & Hip Hop Atlanta as a base Bravo rip-off. It's that you're misunderstanding what it gets right. The show regularly out-rates almost all other competitors in the 18-49 demo. (This week's episode more than doubled the demo rating of RHOC, from which it was spawned, bastardly, and which it has now consumed.) Andy Cohen approached but could not capture this disruptive genius: Take a city, take some people, take some nonwhite people because they exist! and watch TV! Ignore all other complications. Like a bellows, keep pumping until a fire roars.
The Night Shift
The Night Shift sounds like it was dreamed up by somnambulant machines: ex-Army personnel work at a Texas hospital while battling their inner demons; created and produced by the guys who wrote Life As We Know It. It's the latest in a proud tradition of lightly serialized, highly streamable, de-frills procedurals. TV not for what it is, but when it is (after a particularly hard Tuesday or when your Sunday morning brunch plans fall through). Some episodes have even been out-rating 24, which at one time was America's most audacious statement about itself and which now is mostly about screaming.
The Last Ship
This is the other kind of reliable summer TV product: facsimiles of the newest in industrial blockbusterdom. Sometimes it's aliens (Falling Skies) or zombies (The Walking Dead) or, like now, a species-devastating plague. The Last Ship is comfortingly conservative even as it is violent, even moody. The funny thing about shows like this is their wonky inverse internal arithmetic: The Important Men still outnumber the Important Women, though Eric Dane is beefier than you have ever remembered him and many of the background players are not white. For every bit of spectacle, the story must correspondingly remind us of its safeness. The second episode was set at Guantanamo Bay and everyone battled terrorists.
MasterChef's success, I think, has much less to do with its format than with its star, Gordon Ramsay, who you may think is only as well known as he is reviled. But you would be wrong! I cannot even remember the number of people who have come up to me and remarked upon Ramsay's rapport with children; and who then immediately inquire about this new show called MasterChef Junior, which maybe I've seen? We are all being converted.
Attack on Titan
You have probably never heard of Attack on Titan unless you have also heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Full Metal Alchemist in which case you already know everything about the anime series, in which a society on the brink of postapocalypse battles giant, frighteningly debonair humanoids. Before I ever knew Attack on Titan had begun airing on Adult Swim (which it did in May, now out-rating syndicated staples like Family Guy), I knew all about it from Tumblr, where the show's English-language fans are fruitful. The TV industry sometimes likes to say that we are entering a post-television age, but this is something else. Not the collapse of a medium, but the collapse of the boundaries (language, location, genre, etc.) around which that medium has thrived. Tracing the popularity of Attack on Titan leads you endlessly to the obvious answer: It found the audience it was meant for.