Ranked: The Best Summer TV Series of All Time

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  • Publish Date: June 8, 2011

Those summer nights

ImageThe dog days of summer?

Summer: a time for long days at the beach, and nights doing anything but watching television, according to conventional wisdom. As a result, TV programmers have traditionally forfeited the season running from May through August, choosing to air a steady stream of reruns, failed pilots, and new shows with no viable prospects for the future.

Such a strategy only worked in the days of network domination, however. Fledgling broadcast networks like Fox in the early 1990s, and cable networks like HBO later in the decade, realized that they could attract more attention for their newer shows by airing them during the summer months when there was little competition. Over the past two decades, the summer season has seen an increasing amount of first-run programming, and several of those shows have turned out to be among the best that TV has ever given us. Even some of the unwanted programs dumped in the summer months by the traditional big three networks over the years have turned out to be surprisingly great -- and, in several cases, even more surprisingly long-lived.

While the upcoming summer may not bring any new programs that rise to the level of greatness -- the best chances for critical success appear to rest in FX's odd man-in-a-dog-suit comedy Wilfred (starting June 23rd) and TNT's Steven Spielberg-produced alien invasion series Falling Skies (starting June 19) -- past seasons have seen plenty of terrific summer series. Below, we take a look at 20 such examples, starting with the best summer shows to air on broadcast television.

10 best summer TV shows: Broadcast

1. Seinfeld Add to Netflix Queue
Pilot debuted Wednesday, July 5, 1989 on NBC
Series debuted Thursday, May 31, 1990 on NBC

If it had debuted at any other time of the year, one of TV's all-time greatest comedies may never have lived to see a second season. Given that most NBC executives were less than enthusiastic about the show first known as The Seinfeld Chronicles, it is unlikely that the sitcom would have received such a plum timeslot after the high-rated Cheers if it had premiered during the fall or the winter. As it was, Seinfeld was almost banished to Saturday nights, and it was given the shortest season order (just four episodes, plus the pilot) in television history. While today, that first season -- especially the Elaine-less pilot, which feels unlike everything that followed -- suffers in comparison to subsequent years of the show, there are many funny moments, and the structure and subject matter were groundbreaking enough at the time to begin to earn attention from critics, as well as a Writers Guild Award nomination. Seinfeld retained enough of the Cheers audience to merit renewal, and the rest is television history.

2. The Prisoner Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Saturday, June 1, 1968 on CBS

The Prisoner was not a summer series when it aired on Britain's ITV in 1967. But though it secured the rights to broadcast the show in America, CBS was unhappy with star/creator Patrick McGoohan's refusal to film more than one season, and the un-renewable show was thus banished not only to the summer, but to Saturday nights, where it filled it for The Jackie Gleason Show. Far removed from anything else on television (then, or even now, for the most part), the 17-episode series blended cinematic production values with a mysterious and surreal sci-fi -- but, unusually for its time, serialized -- storyline that managed to incorporate paranoia, humor, and thrills, and keep audiences guessing. Many modern shows from Twin Peaks to Lost are in its debt, and The Prisoner holds up well today on DVD. Just ignore the recent remake.

3. Survivor Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Wednesday, May 31, 2000 on CBS

Given the genre's prevalence now, it is hard to believe that just over a decade ago, the "reality competition" show was absent from American television. That changed with the arrival of Survivor in the summer of 2000. Based on the Swedish series Expedition Robinson (which dates back to 1997), Survivor was an instant hit on a scale almost unheard of these days, and a shocking 51.7 million viewers tuned in to the finale, in which contestant Sue Hawk delivered a speech that stands as one of reality television's most memorable moments. CBS quickly ordered a second helping for its winter schedule (where it ranked first among all shows), and today Survivor is just that: its 23rd season will air this fall.

4. American Idol
Debuted Tuesday, June 11, 2002 on Fox

American Idol has become such a midseason institution that it is easy to forget that its first season emerged on Fox's summer schedule in 2002. Based on the UK series Pop Idol, American Idol: The Search for a Superstar (as it was then known) averaged just over 12 million viewers that debut season -- excellent by summer standards, but well off the show's current first place numbers. Still, by the end of the season, the show was a definite hit, and it made a star of that year's winner, Kelly Clarkson, if not of the first season's co-host, Brian Dunkleman. By the time the dominant second season wrapped up the following spring, every network wished they had an Idol.

5. Northern Exposure Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Thursday, July 12, 1990 on CBS

CBS's answer to ABC's surprise hit Twin Peaks was also an hourlong drama about the quirky residents of a small town in the Pacific Northwest (in this case, Alaska, though filming actually took place in and near some of the same Washington locations used for Twin Peaks). But where David Lynch's series explored darker territory, Northern Exposure was content to mine its fish out of water story -- about a New York doctor (Rob Morrow) adjusting to life in Alaska -- for warmth and humor. The well reviewed series managed to overcome its meager eight-episode first-season order and remain on the air for six years, earning 27 Emmy Awards and a pair of Peabody Awards along the way.

6. The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd
Debuted Thursday, May 21, 1987 on NBC

Not knowing what to make of a quirky 30-minute show that was part comedy, part drama, NBC delayed its premiere eight months from its original September 1986 date, leaving the show to find an audience in the summer following reruns of Cheers (much as Seinfeld would do a few years later). Groundbreaking for its time, the Jay Tarses-created show had no laugh track, used a single camera rather than a conventional multi-camera sitcom setup, and was willing to stretch its storylines -- about a divorced New York City woman (played by Blair Brown) who can't hold on to a job or a relationship -- over multiple episodes. Many critics loved it, and the series (and Brown) earned multiple Emmy nominations. To the network's surprise, the public liked it too; the show spent much of that summer in the top 10 among TV's highest-rated shows. Though Molly Dodd couldn't match those numbers when it returned for a short second season the following spring, and was cancelled by NBC as a result, the cable network Lifetime picked up the program and aired an additional three seasons. No DVD release is planned.

7. Fernwood 2 Night
Debuted Monday, July 4, 1977 in first-run syndication

While its predecessor Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman parodied the world of soap operas, Norman Lear's Fernwood 2 Night set its sights on the talk show format, to hilarious effect. As the talk show in question was set in Mary Hartman's fictional small town of Fernwood, Ohio, the caliber of guests who would appear on the low-budget set in front of smug host Barth Gimble (Martin Mull), dim-witted sidekick Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard), and the woefully misnamed band Happy Kyne and His Mirthmakers were "celebrities" only on the local level, though Tom Waits did stop by when his tour bus broke down. The show would return for a second season as America 2 Night, following a move to "the unfinished furniture capital of the world," which allowed a broader range of guests, including Robin Williams and Milton Berle. Sadly, neither version of the show has ever made it to DVD.

8. Doctor Doctor
Debuted Monday, June 12, 1989 on CBS

Following his starring role on the sci-fi series Max Headroom (as well as a related cable talk show and Coca-Cola advertising campaign), Matt Frewer landed a role tailor-made to his skills -- earning raves from critics in the process -- on the wacky medical farce Doctor Doctor. Wrote the New York Times of the actor's performance as a physician at a small private practice with a side gig as a TV commentator, "Frewer dazzlingly flits in and out of whatever personality the occasion warrants. He can switch instantly from routines suggesting Pee-wee Herman or Martin Short's Ed Grimley to serious moments as a disappointed lover or frustrated doctor. Even the other actors seem unsure of what's coming next. This particular territory is no longer the private preserve of Robin Williams." Created by Norman Steinberg (best known for writing the screenplay for Blazing Saddles), Doctor Doctor was a six-episode summer replacement series for CBS in 1989, but performed well enough to earn an immediate return to the schedule that November, and again the following fall. If it's as good as we remember it, Doctor Doctor is easily one of the funniest shows not on DVD.

9. The Johnny Cash Show Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Saturday, June 7, 1969 on ABC

Beginning as an experiment in the summer of 1969, ABC turned over a Saturday night timeslot to the soon-to-be Man in Black to host his own hour-long variety show. The Johnny Cash Show would perform well enough that summer to merit a return -- in a better Wednesday slot -- each of the next two winters, for 58 episodes in all. Taped at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, that first summer season kicked off with performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in addition to Cash himself; later episodes would feature an impressive array of guests ranging from Roy Orbison and Linda Ronstadt to The Monkees and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

10. Buffalo Bill Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Tuesday, May 31, 1983 on NBC

There's a reason Jay Tarses' sitcoms were burdened with summer timeslots: they were just too different from everything else on television. Though it wasn't quite as trailblazing as Molly Dodd would be four years later, Buffalo Bill boasted something that few TV comedies had: a wholly unlikable lead character. Played perfectly by Dabney Coleman, the mean, bitter, and egotistical Buffalo, N.Y., talk show host at the center of Buffalo Bill made life miserable for his guests and staff, but in a way that generated laughs for fans of dark, intelligent comedy. The show featured Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), Max Wright (later of ALF), and Charles Robinson (later of Night Court) in supporting roles, and also marked the first major TV role for Geena Davis. Though it only aired for two short seasons, the series scored a whopping 11 Emmy nominations.

10 best summer TV shows: Cable

Unsurprisingly, the cable list boasts a much stronger collection of shows, including some of the best series ever to air on television, in any season. And they're even not all from HBO (though many are).

1. The Wire Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Sunday, June 2, 2002 on HBO

It may not be light, breezy summer entertainment, but it is the greatest TV show in the history of the medium, according to its still-growing list of fans and many professional critics. Unlike any cop drama before or after -- though it has echoes of The Corner, a Baltimore-set miniseries also created for HBO by David Simon -- The Wire is a novelistic examination of various institutions that make up modern Baltimore -- especially, in that first season, the opposing sides in the city's ongoing drug war. While the show requires you to pay careful attention, your patience is rewarded with dazzlingly complex storylines, riveting drama, insightful and at times heartbreaking writing, and some of the most memorable characters ever to grace the small screen ... not to mention one of TV's all-time great crime scene investigations, where the detectives involved use only one (definitely NSFW) word. While the series had a few detractors when it debuted in 2002 -- Newsday's Diane Werts called it "disjointed, dispassionate, [and] ultimately unpleasant" -- by the time the second season rolled out a year later, more reviewers shared critic Tim Goodman's assessment that it was "the finest show on television."

2. Mad Men 77 Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Thursday, July 19, 2007 on AMC

Though it briefly experimented with original scripted series in the 1990s with period dramas Remember WENN and The Lot, AMC was airing an all-movie schedule in 2007 when it took a chance on a drama about 1960s-era advertising executives from Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner that both HBO and Showtime had passed on. That bet paid off in a big way; Mad Men became the first basic cable series to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, a feat it repeated after each of its first three critically acclaimed seasons. Though the show seems to attract more publicity than actual viewership -- it averages around 2 million viewers per episode, well below the ratings for HBO's biggest hits -- Mad Men paved the way for its network to become a major player in the world of original programming, and it continues to be named by critics as one of the best shows on television.

3. The Real World
Debuted Thursday, May 21, 1992 on MTV

MTV didn't invent reality television -- not only does The Real World owe a debt to the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, it borrows heavily from the Dutch series Nummer 28 which debuted a year earlier -- but the network introduced the genre to modern American audiences with this iconic series, kickstarting a fascination with watching the lives of everyday people that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Of course, today's reality TV focuses on minor celebrities (or people desperate to become minor celebrities), with participants knowing exactly what is expected of them; the seven young strangers picked to live together in a Soho loft for three months in 1992 didn't have a formula to follow, and weren't seeking lifetime employment in the reality television industry. As a result, that first New York season feels refreshingly honest and -- dare we say it -- "real" compared to contemporary examples of the genre. Though some critics were far from impressed when it debuted, The Real World changed both television in general and MTV (which, then, aired few original programs) in particular, and continues to be a staple of that network's schedule 25 seasons later.

4. Oz Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Saturday, July 12, 1997 on HBO

Before The Wire, before Deadwood, and before The Sopranos, there was Oz, HBO's first original drama series. Created and almost exclusively written by Tom Fontana, a TV veteran best known for his work on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, the prison-set Oz was and is groundbreaking television for any network, with its bleak, extremely violent, and often shocking -- but always involving -- storylines revolving around an ensemble of prisoners, guards, and counselors (played by the likes of Ernie Hudson, J.K. Simmons, Eamonn Walker, and Harold Perrineau) with few decent traits among them. Praised by critics, the series ran for six seasons and 56 episodes, though it didn't earn the Emmy nominations and high viewership levels that would come to HBO's next original drama, The Sopranos.

5. Night Flight
Debuted Friday, June 5, 1981 on USA

On August 1, 1981, programmers at MTV Music Television flipped a switch, and suddenly music videos were airing on cable TV for the first time. That would be true if fellow cable network USA -- then, known mainly for its sports programming -- hadn't beaten MTV to the punch several months earlier with its own music video showcase, a four-hour Friday and Saturday night program called Night Flight. But the long-running Night Flight was far more than just an outlet for music videos; it was a variety show like none that came before it, featuring stand-up comedy, odd counter-culture programming, documentaries, snippets of early Cold War-era TV footage, cartoons, vintage commercials, interviews, entire cult and B-movies ranging from animated sci-fi film Fantastic Planet to Reefer Madness to the Kentucky Fried Movie, and live music showcases like the legendary New Wave Theatre. While no TV programmer would dare to put such a bizarre, eclectic mix together in a single program today, in retrospect, it may just be the coolest show ever to air on television, and it remains a cult favorite, with fans circulating bootleg recordings of old episodes.

6. Six Feet Under Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Sunday, June 3, 2001 on HBO

HBO's third original drama series was a dark, soapy dramedy about the members of a family of undertakers created by American Beauty's Oscar-winning screenwriter, Alan Ball. The well reviewed series was a hit out of the gate, scoring a then-record (for HBO) 5.1 million viewers when it debuted in the summer of 2001 after the season premiere of hit comedy Sex and the City. Though it struggled a bit with ratings and quality in the weeks that followed, Six Feet Under quickly developed a strong following and a more consistent storytelling approach, and eventually earned nine Emmy awards over five seasons that culminated in one of TV's all-time best series finales.

7. Louie 70 Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Tuesday, June 29, 2010 on FX

Few people actually watched Louie when it debuted last summer, but many of the 700,000 or so viewers who tuned into each episode realized they were witnessing something special. On paper, comedian Louis C.K.'s eponymous show sounds like Seinfeld: comedic situations drawn from real life, interspersed with portions of a stand-up routine performed at a comedy club. In execution, however, Louie is unlike any show we've ever seen, a series of short films both funny and fearless, unafraid to jump into dramatic territory, experiment with different styles and formats, and ignore continuity when needed to better tell its stories. Much of that results from its star's total involvement (he writes, edits, and directs in addition to appearing in nearly every second of footage), and many critics rewarded Louie by placing the show on their year-end top 10 lists. The show's second season arrives on June 23.

8. Sex and the City Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Saturday, June 6, 1998 on HBO

Before Beverly Hills, 90210 creator Darren Starr approached HBO with an idea to adapt Candace Bushnell's book, the network had dabbled from time to time in scripted comedy series, with results ranging from phenomenal (The Larry Sanders Show) to how-is-this-still-on-the-air? (Arliss). But Sex and the City proved to be the network's most iconic and successful comedy series, while also doing wonders for the cosmopolitan. While SATC's first season is almost unrecognizable now to fans of the show -- Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw character talks directly to the camera, and the episodes are filled with (wo)man-on-the-street interviews of "real" people about their sex lives -- the series ultimately discovered a winning formula and became a summer staple, running for six seasons, earning nearly 50 Emmy nominations (winning 7), moving successfully into syndication, and spawning two theatrical movies of varying degrees of terribleness.

9. Damages 75 Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Tuesday, July 24, 2007 on FX

If you are looking for a summer series to watch in the background while you are otherwise occupied, then Damages isn't the show for you. Indeed, the first episode alone of the twisty legal thriller seems to have more plot than entire seasons of other shows, and each episode jumps back and forth between different time periods in a way that pays off beautifully as the first season progresses. But more than anything else, it was the performances of stars Glenn Close (in an Emmy-winning role as cutthroat attorney Patty Hewes) and Ted Danson (playing against type as a scheming, unethical billionaire) that elevated Damages above much of its summer competition. A fourth season will debut on the show's new home on DirecTV beginning July 13.

10. Flight of the Conchords 68 Add to Netflix Queue
Debuted Sunday, June 17, 2007 on HBO

We can think of few better ways to spend a summer evening than with the low key comedy and hilarious music videos of the New Zealand duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, whose too-short HBO series Flight of the Conchords ran for two seasons beginning in the summer of 2007. While the offbeat, deadpan comedy on display in the series -- which also featured Rhys Darby and Kristen Schaal in memorable supporting roles as the duo's overmatched manager and only fan, respectively -- may be an acquired taste for some, people who like the show (including many critics) tend to really, really like it.

Honorable mention

Other solid cable shows that debuted in the summer months include It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Entourage, Burn Notice, Rescue Me, Brotherhood, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Reno 911!, Stella, Nip/Tuck, Monk, and Nurse Jackie.

What do you think?

What are your favorite and least favorite summer series? Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (14)

  • Joshua  

    Where the heck is True Blood?

  • Fred  

    "where iz “friends”"

    Umm friends didn't air in the summer.

    Anyway great list. I LOVE seinfeld

  • Leeve  

    I actually think the first two seasons of "SATC" are the only ones worth watching... maybe the third too.

  • mostafa  

    where iz "friends" and "prison break" ?!!

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