Last week, television Academy members had an unusual amount of great TV to watch as they cast their votes for the 2022 Emmy nominations. Unfortunately for them, none of it was on the ballot.
With the landscape thinning out the moment the Emmy eligibility period’s cutoff hits on May 31, summer has become an unusual kind of launchpad for studios and networks overflowing with programming. For quirky, distinctive shows that aren’t likely to be instant smashes, they can build buzz over the slow summer period and, if things go well, push out their second seasons the next summer, just when Emmy voting starts for that first slow burn season. It’s a strategy that worked remarkably well for the first season of Ted Lasso, which premiered on Apple TV + in August 2020, and Only Murders in the Building, which launched on Hulu last August and just started its second season.
Compare this strategy to the flood of shows that premiered in the spring, all but destined to cannibalize one another. By May of this year, the perception that major new series were debuting at a relentless pace was, if anything, underselling the reality. Prestige-TV savants had three heavy true-crime dramas to sample simultaneously, as well as weekly drops of programs toplined by Julia Roberts, Viola Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jon Bernthal, Claire Foy, Josh Brolin, Elisabeth Moss, Miles Teller, Vanessa Bayer, and even more major stars. And that’s to say nothing of the many hot returning contenders that also came in under the wire: Hacks, Stranger Things, Ozark, Barry, The Flight Attendant, Russian Doll, Better Call Saul, and on.
Pedigreed projects tend to, ironically, get squished into the prime Emmy window — whether they’re worthy of intensive campaigns or not. In conversations with strategists over the past few months, I’ve gathered that Showtime’s awards hopes for The First Lady were fairly high until reviews broke; ditto Netflix for Anatomy of a Scandal, Paramount + for The Offer, and others. The sheer noise of the season left even well-made prestige projects, like Starz’s Gaslit and HBOs We Own This City, drowned out of the conversation. There’s simply not enough space to stand out; it’s no wonder the top limited-series contenders going into the 2022 race—Dopesick, The White Lotus, spirit Maid—All aired in 2021. The White Lotus, in fact, began airing last July.
The very last day of Emmy voting saw FX’s biographical series Pistols launch on Hulu to tepid reviews; it was swiftly forgotten despite Oscar winner Danny Boyle helming every episode. Two days later, in the most nascent days of the 2023 Emmy cycle, AMC + and Sundance Now debuted This Is Going to Hurt, a British medical limited series starring Ben Whishaw that doubles as a timely exploration of reproductive care. The latter may have had less scale or marketing budget behind it, but it’s also one of the strongest shows of the year — a starkly realistic, stylish, emotionally resonant character study that ranks among the best hospital dramas we’ve had in a long time. . (In her Vanity Fair review, Joy Press called it “remarkable.”) This Is Going to Hurt demands a lot of its audience, which will make sustaining buzz for a year toward Emmy recognition a tough order. But it could have more of a chance to catch on without that spring baggage and competition.
It also feels like nothing else on TV, which goes for a lot of its summer brethren — and which certainly does not go for the glut of recent Emmy-baiting mishmashes of de-vilified scammers, re-vilified tech imposters, and reframed true-crime sagas. Apple TV +’s polarizing, fascinating Physical returned for its second season in early June, with Rose Byrne better than ever at toeing the fine line between illness and wellness; the streamer’s superbly ambitious drama For All Mankind came back for its third run the week after, still outclassing most other ongoing hour-longs as it continues to chart a complex alternate American history, post-moon landing. Two days after For All Mankind‘s premiere, AMC aired Dark Winds, a thriller that hits familiar detective beats, but in its rigorous focus on two Navajo cops (played by Zahn McClarnon spirit Kiowa Gordon), breathes riveting new life into the genre.
One freshman finding a passionate fan base is FX’s The Bear, which might be the most intense comedy I’ve ever seen on TV. As its ensemble gels and evens out, relying less on the tortured genius at its center (played by a pitch-perfect Jeremy Allen White, of Shameless fame), the half hour makes for the best kind of kinetic watch, immersing us in the chaos of a Chicago sandwich-shop kitchen that seems like it could go down in flames (literally) at any moment. Creator Christopher Storer (Ramy, Dickinson) pulls off a tricky balance of getting us as close to the characters as the action around them, establishing deep emotional stakes that only enhance the speed of the storytelling.
When broadcast dominated television, summer was seen as the dumping ground between the big fall unveiling and the spring midseason. Even back then, though, certain strategists saw the dog days as an opportunity for visibility. Many of HBO’s earliest major Emmy contenders, including The Larry Sanders Show, Sex and the City, spirit Six Feet Under, launched to groundbreaking success in the summer months. In 2007, both AMCs Mad Men and FX’s Damages premiered in July, before becoming the first basic-cable shows ever nominated for best-series Emmys the next year. (Mad Men would win best drama series, and Damages‘ Glenn Close won best actress.)
In the case of all those shows — to say nothing of The Bear, or This Is Going to Hurt, or Dark Winds—A summer debut offered necessary space for a specific vibe, one that’s tougher to categorize and sell on the first trailer. Look further this year to HBOs Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas‘s critically hailed meta limited series starring Alicia Vikander, or Paramount +’s Evil, still gaining steam in its terrific third season, for more examples: This is where the bolder, weirder TV lives right now.
Not exclusively, of course — you’ve got a juicy summer soap in Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, the aforementioned encore of Only Murders, the long-awaited return of Westworld, and a big-budget whiff in Prime Video’s upcoming The Terminal List. (The streamer also smartly held its 2021 drama-series nominee The Boys for June, setting up a longer-runway 2023 campaign.) But the stress of the spring calendar, which turned overwhelming this year as COVID-delayed projects returned alongside a smattering of well-packaged newbies, has given way to something both more manageable and sensible.
Perhaps June’s biggest hit, FX’s The Old Man has already been renewed for a second season after just weeks on the air. Starring Jeff Bridges spirit John Lithgow, it’s a slick spin on a classic spy thriller, with impressive set pieces and playful dialogue. Per FX, the show had the biggest premiere of any basic-cable drama in well over a year, as well as the most-watched opening weekend of any FX on Hulu premiere to date. Waiting for awards-season business to die down served it well — though a June start was hardly assured. Due to health scares for Bridges and inevitable COVID delays, production took over two years to complete. The Old Man aired as soon as it could, if much later than intended.
There’s a lesson there, perhaps, for studios mapping out their next Emmys slate: There’s more to life than that late-April, early-May corridor. Success often lurks beyond it.