USA's 'Mr. Robot,' HBO's 'Ballers' Among Picks For Best Summer TV Series

Jul 1, 2015
Originally published on July 21, 2015 2:15 pm

Summer's here, and the time is right for sunscreen, trips to the beach — and loads of new TV shows.

Sure, that last item may sound a little incongruous, but this summer is proof that the TV business has fully stamped out the old traditions that saw hunks of the industry hang up a Gone Fishin' sign when the weather got warm.

By my count, at least 120 new and returning series are coming to broadcast, cable and online outlets from June to August, including some high-profile shows that are sure to land on somebody's year-end top 10 list.

It feels like a collision of many trends: cable's tendency to ramp up when the broadcast networks slow down; broadcasters' realization that slowing down for summer makes no sense in a modern media world; and online players' — like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix — gleeful disruption of old-school TV industry conventions.

Sure, there are holdouts. The big broadcast networks still save their best series for the fall or spring — the traditional heart of the TV season — rather than give them up for the summer season. And even big cable players like AMC and FX seem to have their biggest guns holstered until the leaves start falling from the trees.

And there is plenty of promising summer TV coming up that I haven't yet seen, including the third Sharknado movie (which has 100 percent more David Hasselhoff than the first two); the new Comedy Central series Why? from Hannibal Buress (the African-American comic whose biting take on Bill Cosby got everyone to take another look at Cosby's rape allegations); the surprisingly sophisticated-looking Spike TV miniseries Tut; NBC's Mr. Robinson, a sitcom starring Craig Robinson, an alum of The Office; and the new comedy with Patrick Stewart on Starz, Blunt Talk.

But, out of all the series I have gotten a chance to see, here are my four picks for which new summertime shows to watch. And remember: With a trusty tablet or smartphone, you can keep up your binge-watching habits with these shows even while working on your tan.

Mr. Robot, Wednesdays, USA Network

On paper, it sounds like a snooze: a drama about a withdrawn technician at a cybersecurity company recruited by a group of hackers (led by Christian Slater) to bring down the technician's biggest client. It doesn't help that one of the show's themes — the idea that people are controlled by a network of corporations in a way they don't realize — feels suspiciously like a TV-sized version of The Matrix. But star Rami Malek brings an amazing depth and detached charm to the role of technician Elliot Alderson. Unable to relate to people, Alderson's good at understanding them anyway because — he says — he just imagines people at their worst. Alderson's insights and curious passions, including a penchant for certain controlled substances, adds a fresh veneer to a story you might have thought you'd seen many times before.

Humans, Sundays, AMC

This is another show that tells a story we think we know in an innovative way. AMC invents a world which looks a lot like modern times, except the place is filled with "Synths" — synthetic people who look a lot like humans but for their glowing eyes and a detached bearing. Much of the series explores what might happen to humans if such a thing existed. There are no janitors, dish washers, nannies or cooks needed anymore; teenagers wonder what to study, since Synths can do anything from surgeries to piloting a plane. And a mother with a career wonders if the family Synth will take her place in her daughter's heart. Most Synths are blank automatons with no emotions. But one rogue figure is palling around with androids who have consciousness, raising questions about whether humans have actually created a slave race. It's a series that covers familiar ground for sci-fi fans, but it's presented in a new way, with the added bonus of William Hurt as an eccentric scientist with fatherly feelings for an obsolete Synth.

Ballers, Sundays, HBO

The new season of True Detective may have gotten more press than Ballers, but the latter is my favorite fictional HBO series of the summer. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is smoothly charming as Spencer Strasmore, an ex-NFL star starting a new life in retirement as a financial planner trying to land his football buddies as clients and save their fortunes. The series offers a heightened take on life in the NFL and the ease with which 20-something athletes can blow through their high salaries and wind up with little or nothing after a storied playing career. But the real find here is Johnson, whose years in film give him a surprisingly warm and relatable charm on TV. The world of blockbuster movies might write bigger paychecks, but The Rock may have missed his calling as a television star with the skill to keep a character compelling week after week.

The Jim Gaffigan Show, debuts Wednesday, July 15, TV Land

Consider this the anti-Louie. Gaffigan, a longtime standup comic with a checkered TV past (his CBS sitcom in 2000, Welcome To New York, was canceled in its first season), plays a standup comic named Jim Gaffigan with five kids living in an apartment in New York. In the same way Louis C.K.'s FX series fictionalizes circumstances from his life, with an emphasis on parenting and feeling like a goofball through much of life, Gaffigan's show also takes inspiration from his offstage experiences as a married father of five in the city. But Gaffigan's world is a little more G-rated than Louie's, with plots centering on the problems which surface when Gaffigan accidentally gives an embarrassing drawing made by his son to the administrators of an exclusive school, or when news footage of him holding his wife's Bible turns him into an unwitting spokesman for religious causes. It's all knitted together by Gaffigan's doughy charm into a funny family comedy that still feels contemporary and fresh, with cameos from Chris Rock and other stars.

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Come summertime, broadcast TV networks used to pretty much hang up a gone fishing sign - re-runs ruled. But today's media world has no down time. This summer brings on an explosion of new TV shows. Here to talk about what shows go best with sun tan lotion and 90-degree weather is NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans.



WERTHEIMER: So how much choice do you think there really is on offer this summer?

DEGGANS: Well, I actually did the count, and I found that there's at least 120 new and returning shows. And no matter what your tastes are, there's something out there for you. So if you love thrillers, for example, AMC's got this great drama about androids called "Humans" that just debuted, while CBS has got a drama coming from James Patterson called "Zoo" about the world's animals turning on humans. And if you're into comedy, two of my favorite stand-up comics are getting great new shows. On Comedy Central, Hannibal Buress - the guy whose jokes about Bill Cosby made everybody take another look at the allegations against Bill Cosby - he's got a new show coming called, "Why?" And TV Land has a show with Jim Gaffigan, this great stand-up comic, it's called "The Jim Gaffigan Show," and it's about his real-life huge family that's also kind of religious and church-going, and how odd that is to be a stand-up comic and also have this very sort of busy family life.

WERTHEIMER: So why is there such a huge quantity of television this summer?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, cable always used to bring more TV in the summer because that was when the broadcast networks would traditionally kind of ramp down. But nobody watches re-runs on broadcast television, or what we call linear television anymore, so the networks have had to step-up their game too. Every network has new scripted and unscripted series coming this summer, even though most of them are not as good as the stuff that they're going to put on during the fall or the spring. And online platforms like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, they got into the act too, so the result is this TV cycle that just never slows down very much.

WERTHEIMER: HBO would seem to be a good example of that. They debuted three new shows in late June, including a second season of the hit show, "True Detective." How's that going?

DEGGANS: Well, I hate to say it, but "True Detective" is kind of a bust. I mean, everyone was kind of looking forward to seeing what they would do with the show because they're totally reinventing it. It's not that compelling. I really like, instead, another show that debuted on the same day, called "Ballers," with Dwayne The Rock Johnson as a former NFL player-turned financial advisor who's trying to keep his buddies from going broke. We have a clip where The Rock has promised that he'd signed one of his friends from the NFL to a contract with this financial services company, and he's trying to explain to his boss why he hasn't signed the contract. So let's check it out.


ROB CORDDRY: (As Joe) Let me see the paperwork.

DWAYNE JOHNSON: (As Spencer) We're working on it.

CORDDRY: (As Joe) You don't have it?

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) It's not a problem. He's checking in with his guy.

CORDDRY: (As Joe) His - you just said you're his guy.

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) I am almost his guy. Look, Vernon and I have an understanding. It's all good.

CORDDRY: (As Joe) You have an understanding with a 24-year-old defensive lineman, Spence. That's not something we can bank on.

DEGGANS: So what I love about this is, I think The Rock is a TV star in the making. I love watching him here.

WERTHEIMER: What else should we have our eye on?

DEGGANS: Well, the Sundance Channel has a series called "Rectify" about a guy who confessed to a murder but was exonerated by DNA evidence and has to come back to the small southern town where everything happened. I think it's a great drama and it's really strong. And USA just debuted this great cyberpunk drama called "Mr. Robot." It's about a computer whiz who works for a security firm who's recruited by this group of hackers to take down his employer. Now, the star, Rami Malek, is amazing as this zoned-out prodigy who sees everything but really doesn't communicate it to the people around him. We as viewers get to hear about it through voiceover, and it might be the most unexpected creative hit of the summer.

WERTHEIMER: OK, a lot to watch. NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans, thank you very much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.