What to read, where to go, what to watch: Summer can be rather bossy, culture-wise, but it’s still mostly a no-pressure proposition where TV is concerned — especially since “Game of Thrones” isn’t expected back until next year.
Aside from a few big-ticket temptations like HBO’s “Sharp Objects” (premiering July 8), the networks seem to regard this summer as a time to worry less and experiment more. The new shows won’t necessarily garner high praise or Emmy buzz (although that’s always nice); they simply have to be diverting enough to keep up with the churn.
So, in the spirit of low-stakes diversion, here are 10 new series and specials that I think are worth looking at between now and Labor Day. Relax and enjoy.
(Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on DirecTV/AT&T Audience Network; premiered June 6) The novel “Six Days of the Condor” became the 1975 Robert Redford movie “Three Days of the Condor” and is now just “Condor,” which, at its start, employs the usual espionage/action moves. Within minutes, however, it turns into quite the little pulse-pounder — the sort of thing “24” fans can eat with a spoon. Max Irons is a bit of a blank (but capable) slab as Joe Turner, an idealistic CIA contractor-tech whiz on the run for his life, but a supporting cast of bad guys (Brendan Fraser, Leem Lubany, Bob Balaban and Mira Sorvino) easily lift this story into a taut choice for summer viewing. William Hurt is also good as Joe’s uncle, an intelligence officer surrounded by traitors. Washingtonians will appreciate seeing some legit D.C. and Northern Virginia locations for once, including Georgetown foot chases we haven’t seen the likes of since the 1987 film “No Way Out.”
(Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network; premiered June 7) Although it’s not really anyone’s idea of a good TV show, this half-hour dramedy (inspired by the 1970s childhood of a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” participant) is an intriguing study in potential, crying out for some “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”-style irony. Alicia Silverstone, 41 and loving it, stars as Bonnie, a wife and mother who kicks her cheating husband out of the house and soon discovers how easily her world shuns a bankrupt divorcée with no job skills. Bonnie’s uphill climb (with help from pals, played by Mena Suvari and Jennifer Bartels) is peppered with feminist dawnings, but the show struggles to reconcile its message with its barely comic tone. Although I wish it could follow its instinct for a ’70s sense of the surreal, it’s definitely a garish delight when it comes to the Me Decade’s idea of ambiance — a set direction that never gets old.
(New episodes Thursdays on CBS All Access; premiered June 14) CBS’s subscription streaming service has been slow to add original content, but so far I like the unexpected risks it is taking. After all, who would make (or watch) a drama based on the true story of a 1930s college dropout named Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor) whose obsession with space travel leads him to jump-start Southern California’s rocket science industry and join a kooky cult that conducts sex-magic rituals? It might not work as an elevator pitch, but Reynor’s brash performance keeps the fuel flowing long enough for a viewer’s curiosity to take over. “Homeland’s” Rupert Friend co-stars as the neighbor who introduces Jack and his unhappy wife, Susan (Bella Heathcote), to a choosy clique of occultists who rock their world.
(Paramount Network at 9 p.m. June 20) Since January, this reorganized cable channel (formerly Spike) has yet to launch the standout original content it promised (“Waco,” anyone?). But “Yellowstone,” a family drama starring Kevin Costner as a powerful cattle rancher with mountains (and valleys) of worry and woe, is a slight improvement. Costner gives a leather tough yet effective performance as John Dutton, keeper of the nation’s largest contiguous ranch, under siege from real estate developers, aggressive tribal politics and others who would, rightly or wrongly, impede on his empire. Add in the acrimonies and resentments among his adult children and you’ve basically got a “Dallas” in the making, but the series shuns some of its soapier tendencies for deadly serious authenticity. Shot on location in Montana and Utah, it’s certainly something to look at. Read the full review here.
“A Very English Scandal”
(Amazon, June 29) This three-part miniseries from director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), which just aired in the U.K., recounts an almost comically corrupt chapter in British politics. Set in the 1960s and ’70s, Hugh Grant is devilishly twisted as Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party’s leader in Parliament, who tries to cover up his secret affair with a shifty, obsessive young man named Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw). When Norman escalates his demands and threatens to take the details of their tawdry, abusive relationship public, Thorpe (who was eventually acquitted) conspires with another member of Parliament (“The Crown’s” Alex Jennings) to have Norman killed. It’s a fascinatingly sordid story, and yet somehow instructive, showing how attitudes have changed — not only toward homosexuality but also in the way victims of powerful predators were judged.
(CNN at 9 p.m., July 1) TV viewers have had ample opportunity to understand the nation’s mass incarceration crisis and its racist origins, from projects as serious as Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” to incisively outrageous reports from “Daily Show”-style correspondents. At first, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams doesn’t seem to break much news in “American Jail,” in which he returns to his home town of Easton, Pa., to discover that just about all the black men he grew up with wound up in the penal system, starting with the jail perched on a bluff overlooking the city. After realizing that the homophobia that drove him out of town probably spared him from a similar fate, Williams takes up the anger of old friends and neighbors and asks how an entire community can seem so fated to imprisonment.
(HBO at 9 p.m., July 8) Easily the summer’s most anticipated drama series, this eight-episode thriller (from “Unreal” creator Marti Noxon and “Big Little Lies” director Jean-Marc Vallée) adapts Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel about Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a burned-out, alcoholic newspaper reporter from St. Louis who is assigned to go back to her small home town of Wind Gap, Mo., and write about the murder of one girl and the disappearance of another. The cast includes Patricia Clarkson, as Camille’s genteel yet emotionally unstable mother, and Chris Messina, as the town’s newly arrived police detective. Vallée employs his trademark style to edit between past and present as Camille begins to confront some of her worst childhood memories. The show is instantly addictive.
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”
(HBO at 8 p.m., July 16) Marina Zenovich’s documentary about the legendary comedian and actor, who died by suicide in 2014, is everything a fan could want — an immersive dive into Robin Williams’s life story that is rich with old pictures, clips and recordings of his earliest work. As he finds success (and cocaine), the film zips along at an equally frantic-manic pace. But thanks to the memories of dear friends (Billy Crystal, Bobcat Goldthwait and David Letterman among them); Williams’s first wife, Valerie; and his eldest son, Zak, viewers get a deeper glimpse of Williams’s quiet side. There’s a core insecurity, seeking a comfort that comes from audience approval (“hugs from strangers,” Crystal calls it). Less is said about Williams’s final years and the exact circumstances of his death, but there is a sense of a life lived fully and wildly.
(Hulu, July 25) Once more to the unhappier parts of rural, woodsy Maine — the fictional town of Castle Rock, to be exact — where J.J. Abrams and Stephen King (plus a canoe full of other executive producers) have come up with a series that makes use of settings and situations in King’s considerable collection of stories. At the present-day Shawshank State Penitentiary, a guard (Noel Fisher from “Shameless”) discovers a feral young man (Bill Skarsgard) living in a cage beneath the prison. The stranger seems mute, except for his raspy request to see Henry Deaver (“Moonlight’s” André Holland), a defense attorney who, as a boy in 1991, briefly vanished from Castle Rock, causing a sensation. More mysterious than terrifying (at least in a preview glimpse), the show has a strong ensemble cast — Sissy Spacek, Terry O’Quinn, Melanie Lynskey (“Togetherness”), Scott Glenn, Frances Conroy — and looks like a suitable, summertime stand-in for ghost stories around the campfire.
(Netflix, Aug. 17) A new Matt Groening series doesn’t come along often, and perhaps “Disenchantment” will do for medieval lore what “The Simpsons” did for suburbia and “Futurama” did for notions of Tomorrowland. A preview glimpse of the show from Netflix at least confirms that Groening’s sensibility and dark humor are both quite intact, maybe more so without the constraints of broadcast TV. “Broad City’s” Abbi Jacobson voices the main character, Princess Bean of Dreamland, whose resistance to an arranged marriage leads her to pal up with an itinerant elf (Nat Faxon) and acquire a personal demon (Eric Andre). In concept it may sound a tad “Shrek”-like, but the genre is still plenty fertile.