The Best Summer Television Shows of the 21st Century, Ranked

In the not-so-good old days, summer used to be a break for more than just students. It was time off from great TV, as broadcast networks aired reruns, sports, and reality competitions while they assumed people were outside having fun. But since the new golden age began, all these TV shows have had to fit in somewhere, and many networks chose to run them during the less competitive summer months.

That’s led to a boon of TV’s best shows popping up when no series dared debut before. So, to honor the latest summer sensation — Netflix’s “GLOW” — we’ve gathered the elite qualifiers below and ranked the seasons by overall quality, summer spirit, and re-watchability. To be eligible, seasons needed to be released in the months between June 1 and August 31 during the 21st century. After all, there’s plenty of new options to consider, but sometimes you want to beat the heat by bingeing the best.

READ MORE: ‘GLOW’ Review: The Series of the Summer is Netflix’s ’80s Wrestling Comedy

15. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – Season 2

Debut: June 29, 2006
Episode Highlights: “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare,” “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom,” “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass”

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is an ideal summer show in that heat drives people crazy, and no one is crazier than this gang of drunken hooligans. Plus, Season 2 was when the gang fully came together — Danny DeVito joined the cast — and a number of iconic, endlessly re-watchable episodes were released. Grab a cold one and go a little cuckoo.

READ MORE: ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Supercut Brings Together Every ‘God Dammit’ From All 134 Episodes — Watch

14. “Mr. Robot” – Season 1

Debut: June 24, 2015
Episode Highlights: “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov,” “eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v,” “eps1.8_m1rr0r1ng.qt”

When you’re laying in a field watching the fireworks or catching some rays on the beach, you need something to talk about. Few shows fueled conversation as well as “Mr. Robot” in its debut season, with its intriguing mysteries, striking visuals, and oh-so-juicy twist(s). “Mr. Robot” put Sam Esmail, Rami Malek, and USA Network on the map. Dark skies on a hot summer’s day have never been such a welcome sight.

READ MORE: ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 3: Why Sam Esmail Couldn’t Ignore Trump’s Victory When Writing New Episodes

13. “Californication” – Season 1

Debut: August 13, 2007
Episode Highlights: “Pilot,” “California Son,” “The Devil’s Threesome,” “The Last Waltz”

The dark knight of California relationships was never more honorable than in his first season, as Hank Moody’s (David Duchovny) valiant efforts to win back his departed wife and daughter were charming, sincere, and not-yet-overstretched. In fact, the arc of Season 1 is ideal for the three months of summer: 12 episodes, an endearing start, and an ending more fitting than the series finale.

READ MORE: ‘The Larry Sanders Show’: Want to Understand Its Genius? Start With David Duchovny

12. “Review” – Season 2

Debut: July 30, 2015
Episode Highlights: “Brawl, Blackmail, Gloryhole,” “Curing Homosexuality, Mile High Club,” “Catfish, Haunted House,” “Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination,” “Conspiracy Theory”

Honestly, “Review” Season 2 is a highlight from start to finish. Forrest MacNeil’s quest to evaluate an array of experiences from being buried alive to granting wishes has applicable lessons for every season, but creative possibility peaks during the long days of summer, and no one grabs a hold of life like the man who reviewed happiness itself. Let his sacrifices inspire you, and don’t let his ending become yours.

READ MORE: ‘Review’ Review: One of TV’s Best Comedies Kicks Off Its Farewell Season with Some Greatest Hits

11. “Six Feet Under” – Season 5

Debut: June 6, 2005
Episode Highlights: “Singing For Our Lives,” “Ecotone,” “All Alone,” “Everyone’s Waiting”

For some, all the life on display during summer’s green, glowing months brings to mind the opposite: the dark release of death. “Six Feet Under” embraces these ideas in imaginative ways, encompassing the frustrating and the fascinating elements of what we’ll all face one way or another. And the final season is oft-heralded as the best finale of any series — a fitting end for a show about the ultimate goodbye.

READ MORE: ‘Six Feet Under’ Anniversary: The 7 Episodes Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall Remember Best

10. “You’re the Worst” – Season 1

Debut: July 17, 2014
Episode Highlights: “Pilot,” “Sunday Funday,” “Constant Horror and Bone-Deep Dissatisfaction,” Fists and Feet and Stuff”

After a season of wedding after wedding, it’s healthy to take a skeptical look at monogamy from a couple who can’t help but embrace it. Stephen Falk’s modern romantic comedy can be the perfect goodbye to summer love, or a healthy perspective to push new coupledom into fall, winter, and beyond. Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) may not be the most well-adjusted individuals, but it’s hard to find a pair better suited for one another; love may be a fool’s game, but it’s one you can’t refuse when asked to play by the right person.

READ MORE: ‘You’re the Worst’: Why Sunday Funday Had to End, According to Aya Cash, Kether Donohue and Stephen Falk

9. “Louie” – Season 3

Debut: June 28, 2012
Episode Highlights: “Miami,” “Barney/Never,” “Late Show: Part 2,” “New Year’s Eve”

Summer in New York is very much its own thing, and few are better suited to guide you through its limitless possibilities than the free-thinking mind of Louis C.K. Whether you’re taking a vacation during your summer vacation or walking the streets of a city flush with noise, movement, and life itself, “Louie” offers a tweaked, inviting perspective thanks to stories like Louie’s peculiar Miami adventure and auditioning for the “Late Show” gig at home in NY (with special guest David Lynch). Everywhere you turn, there’s something new — embrace it.

READ MORE: ‘Better Things’ Finale Review: Pamela Adlon Dedicates a Perfect Season to Her Daughters, But It’s For Absolutely All of Us

8. “The Leftovers” – Season 1

Debut: June 29, 2014
Episode Highlights: “Pilot,” “Guest,” “The Garveys at Their Best,” “The Prodigal Son Returns”

Like a combination of the crazy from “It’s Always Sunny” and the darkness of “Six Feet Under,” Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s initial whack at the novelist’s work feels like a meditative recovery through persistent insanity. Summer is meant to be a time of leisure, for family vacations and group barbecues. But when tragedy strikes at the worst time, as it’s prone to do, the hot months’ relaxing vibes warp into unending anxiety. A long day is stressful; a calm night is a mind-trap. Who better to sweat them out with than a sweaty Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and an uncensored Nora Durst (Carrie Coon)? Manhattan vacationers can’t escape a mad New York summer in Mapleton — nor should they try.

READ MORE: ‘The Leftovers’: The Best Shots of the Final Season, Chosen by Director Mimi Leder

Continue reading for the top seven series of the summer.

7. “UnREAL” – Season 1

Debut: June 1, 2015
Episode Highlights: “Return,” “Fly,” “Two,” “Future”

The summer of 2015 saw two new dramas break out on two networks. No one expected “Mr. Robot” and USA Network or “UnREAL” and Lifetime to be the hottest series/channel pairings of the hottest months of the year, but both shows earned their buzz. “UnREAL” was as fun in its celebration of reality TV as it was smart in condemning its falsities. Both exciting and enriching, it hit all the right buttons.

READ MORE: ‘UnREAL’s’ Shiri Appleby is a Way Bigger Badass Than Rachel, and Here’s Why

6. “The O.C.” – Season 1

Debut: August 5, 2003
Episode Highlights: “Pilot,” “The Escape,” “The Secret,” “The Telenovela,” “The Strip,” “The Ties That Bind”

Spanning from August 2003 through May 2004, the elongated first season of Josh Schwartz’s impeccable nighttime soap hits all the hotspots of a summer series: hot drama with hot people in a permanently hot climate. Perhaps that’s what makes even a Chrismukkah episode feel appropriate year-round, even during the summer months, and what makes “The O.C.” worth revisiting every time that California sun comes to mind.

READ MORE: ‘The O.C.’ is Still Relevant, Bitch

5. “Orange is the New Black” – Season 2

Debut: June 6, 2014
Episode Highlights: “A Whole Other Hole,” “You Also Have a Pizza,” “It Was the Change,” “We Have Manners, We’re Polite”

Seasons may not feel the same, or even exist, from inside a federal penitentiary, but “Orange is the New Black” has become an annual summer kick-off. The Piper Chapman chronicles have dipped further and further into their dramatic side over the last two seasons, but Jenji Kohan’s hour-long Netflix original remains associated with freedom despite its strikingly opposite setting: freedom of expression, choice, and love.

READ MORE: ‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 5 Review: A New Star Emerges In the Show’s Darkest Season Yet

4. “Breaking Bad” – Season 4

Debut: July 17, 2011
Episode Highlights: “Shotgun,” “Salud,””Crawl Space,” “Face Off”

Only the final two seasons of “Breaking Bad” qualify, based on release date, as summer series, and Season 5’s year-long break between Part 1 and Part 2 seems like a bit of a cheat, so we’re sticking with Season 4. Plus, let’s not be dismissive here: Season 4 is great. Starting with Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt (Bryan Cranston) held captive by Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and ending with the crime lord of chicken’s assassination, the penultimate season of “Breaking Bad” saw Walt’s deep moral bend break beyond repair. It’s an exciting, irreproachable season worth admiring on its own.

READ MORE: Giancarlo Esposito is Invisible on ‘Dear White People,’ But It’s His Best Performance of the Year

3. “BoJack Horseman” – Season 3

Debut: July 22, 2016
Episode Highlights: “The BoJack Horseman Show,” “Fish Out of Water,” “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” “Best Thing That Ever Happened,” “That’s Too Much, Man!”

Another L.A. story that feels like a summer story, even though it takes place largely during Oscar season, “BoJack” reached new (literal) depths in “Fish Out of Water” while finding the figurative variety all season long. Sharply funny and aggressively adventurous, “BoJack” brings the best qualities of an edifying summer experience to the forefront.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Animated TV Shows of the 21st Century, Ranked

2. “The Wire” – Season 1

Debut: June 2, 2002
Episode Highlights: “The Target,” “Old Cases,” “The Wire,” “The Cost” “Sentencing”

To be clear, only two seasons of David Simon’s crime classic qualified: Seasons 1 and 2 were released during the hottest time of year, while the latter half of his saga came out in the fall or winter months. That makes the choice fairly simple, even though the much-discussed year on the docks is more than pristine TV to us. But Season 1 is as iconic as they come, and there’s something about life on the streets — even when the characters are wearing stocking caps — that makes “The Wire” feel like a show meant to be watched in warm weather. That it’s always worth checking out — summer, winter, hot, cold, the first time or the 50th — only bolsters its case.

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1. “Mad Men” – Season 4

Debut: July 25, 2010
Episode Highlights: “The Good News,” “The Suitcase,” “The Summer Man,” “Blowing Smoke,” “Tomorrowland”

Another show with limited options, “Mad Men” was nevertheless an instantly iconic summer series. The smoke. The sweat. The rolled up sleeves and buttoned-up collars. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) covered all the essentials, but it was the interpreted appreciation of summer that puts this season above the rest.

Season 4 features more time in sunny Los Angeles than ever, taunting Don with trips to a destiny he won’t discover for years to come. Moreover, this was the season that saw Don delay happiness by repeating his past mistakes: abandoning a challenging but fruitful relationship with Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) to marry his secretary, Megan Calvet (Jessica Pare). Sunshine became the ultimate representation of contentment when “Mad Men” came to a close (that or Coca Cola), and Season 4 saw Don reject the blonde locks of freedom for a familiar dark hue of easy temptation. (We like Megan, for the record, but obviously their relationship was flawed from the get go.) Summer loving, Don had a blast. Summer loving, over so fast.

Honorable Mentions: “Sex and the City” (Season 4 — gah, it killed us to leave this one off!), “Flight of the Conchords” (Season 1), “Rescue Me” (Season 3), “Hannibal” (Season 3), “Halt and Catch Fire” (Season 2), “Rectify” (Season 2), “Deadwood” (Season 3)

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