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The Ultimate Summer Binge Guide: Where to Stream The Best Summer TV, Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey

Summer isn't just a time; it's a state of mind. Top TV critics pick their favorite shows to kick back to when it's hot outside.

"The OC," "Stranger Things," "Burn Notice"

“The OC,” “Stranger Things,” “Burn Notice”

Fox, Netflix, USA

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the perfect summer show? Why? (Note: This doesn’t have to be a current show)

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

When you’re picking the perfect summer show, you first have to define your terms. “The OC” and “American Idol” debuted in the summer, but so did “The Wire” and “Mad Men.” So your definition can be wide and varied. And with most of TV history available to us with a few clicks, almost anything can become a summer binge on a boiling day when you really need to stay indoors. That said, while some of the greatest series ever aired at times while school was out, I suspect the spirit of the question is more about what show is perfect to watch when you just need something light and breezy after either a day at the beach or a sweltering day at the office when you wish you had gone to the beach. “GLOW,” for instance, is far from the best Netflix original ever, but it’s fun and happy and easy to digest, and makes a far better summer show than, say, “BoJack.”

Looking into the past, there are plenty of great network procedurals — “Magnum P.I.,” say, or “The Rockford Files,” or “Quantum Leap” — that retroactively make for good summer streaming choices now, but those shows originally aired from fall through spring. So if I want to be a stickler about it, I’ll pick USA’s “Burn Notice,” which started out in the summer — its first season aired directly opposite the first year of “Mad Men,” in fact — and never seemed entirely at home when USA started airing half of each season in winter. In many ways the epitome of USA’s “blue skies” era, it took place under the hot Miami sun, mostly featured easy-to-follow cases, leaned heavily on the banter between its four stars, and could always be counted upon to offer a cool new spycraft lesson or three each week, like that time Michael, Fi, and Sam used a coffee can filled with thermite to melt through a bad guy’s engine block. Plus, yogurt is an excellent summer food.

“Burn Notice” is streaming on Netflix, along with “Mad Men,” “GLOW,” and “BoJack Horseman.” “The OC” is streaming on Hulu, along with “The Rockford Files” and “Quantum Leap.” “The Wire” is available on HBO NOW and Amazon Prime. 

"Animal Kingdom"

“Animal Kingdom”

Eddy Chen/TNT

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I have two. First, to define it: a perfect summer series for me is one with plenty of beachfront drama. “The OC” first premiered in the summer of 2003, and its engaging teen angst mixed with a costal California aesthetic made for a great TV vacation (plus a main character’s name was literally Summer). Even when the show moved away from the beach for certain plots, it remained a key element to the show’s charm.

Currently, “Animal Kingdom” is fitting the bill for me — so much pool time, surfing, beach bars, eye candy (for everyone!), and enough drama to keep me engaged even beyond the seaside locale (something that “Bloodline” failed to do after its first season, which notably premiered in winter). It’s a getaway in many forms, which is what I ultimately require from a great summer series: escapism.

“The OC” is streaming on Hulu. “Animal Kingdom” Season 1 is streaming on Amazon Prime, and Season 2 is airing now on TNT.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Got to go with “Alone on History.” Shark Week on Discovery seems the right answer, too, and I really want to throw in a huzzah for ABC’s rebooted “The Gong Show.” But “Alone” really captures my eyeballs in a way that most reality survival competitions do not. it’s quieter, more introspective and certainly presents interesting situations for each cast member.

Interestingly, the women always seem to be more comfortable in their skin and less mentally stressed out “alone” than the male contestants. I love the inventiveness of how they all conceptualize and construct their shelters, find and forage food and the various survival strategies they come up with in the nothingness of wherever they’ve been dropped off. This is coming from someone who would rather have a root canal than go camping in the woods, too!

“Alone” is streaming on History, Amazon Video, and Apple TV.

Stranger Things

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I still have a ratty old beach towel from the summer of 2004, when Fox decided to go all-in on originals including a lot of shows that I remember fondly but nobody else does, shows like “Quintuplets” and “North Shore” and, my favorite of course, “Method & Red.” The show that actually succeeded from that group, pointing to it as an actually appropriate summer show, was “The O.C.” The danger when something succeeds in context is that we come to think all success is the same. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” was the perfect show for last summer, a nostalgia-soaked and perfectly cast bit of generally family amenable (if not quite family *friendly*) science fiction that went down easy either in binge form or spaced over a week or two. “Stranger Things” was so perfect for its particular circumstances that awards voters have gotten a little confused and decided all perfection is created equal. There are FAR better dramas than “Stranger Things” that I would never think to praise as exemplary summer TV and there are FAR worse pieces of summer TV that are way more worthy of Emmy attention than “Stranger Things.”

“The O.C.” is streaming on Hulu. “Stranger Things” is streaming on Netflix.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

I gotta say, the way in which “Orange Is the New Black” originally launched was perfect timing. I wasn’t looking for anything extremely dramatic that summer, and the mix of comedy and drama was just the right sort of tone, one that I found quickly addictive. I’m casually rewatching the series from the beginning right now, and it’s been quite soothing; the big drama executed with a light touch is proving to be a nice come-down after weeks of covering “Better Call Saul” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Which is weird to admit, but that’s how things work.

“Orange is the New Black” is streaming on Netflix.

"The OC"

“The OC”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

I’d normally say Big Brother, but since I just named it as my guilty pleasure two weeks ago, I’ll go with “The O.C.” Summer is mindlessness, hazy, dreamy, beachy fun times, suds and sun, and “The O.C.” had that in spades. Maybe because I was a teen, but there was nothing more lazily aspirational than than watching these rich hot people hang out in the California sun. The show is the summer ideal, yet only aired once during our hottest months (when the series premiered in August 2003), and that, if you ask me, was a mistake. Nothing would’ve been better than having “The O.C.” declare “Welcome to summer, bitch!” every year.

“The O.C.” is streaming on Hulu.

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V.Club

The year-round TV calendar has made vast improvements to our viewing diets, but I do miss the frivolousness and impermanence that summer TV used to signal, the TV equivalent of an ice cream cone on a sunny day. ABC’s keeping this kind of summertime junk food alive with its Fun And Games block — now with more battling network stars! — but 18 years ago, The Alphabet perfected the form during the initial run of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” It was ideal viewing for the dog days of August, when “Millionaire”’s notoriously simple early questions represented the most I cared to mentally exert myself, and the precarious nature of later rounds conjured drama out of thin air. (Though the lighting and the music certainly pitched in there, too.) Before it had all the novelty pummeled out of it during regular-season airings, before its sci-fi coliseum set design became de rigueur for modern game shows, “Millionaire” was just a multiple-choice lark that devoured pop culture for two weeks. It was a distraction right when one was most needed, but it was also a distraction that you could completely forget about when Labor Day rolled around, bringing with it the start of the school year and other, more serious concerns. For example: How can a future television critic replicate Philbin’s monochrome “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” wardrobe for his high school’s homecoming dance? (Is the answer A: Poorly, B: Extremely poorly, C: Did someone say cream-colored blazer?, or D: Please don’t ask to see the pictures.)

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is airing weekdays across the country.

PBS

Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There’s nothing I like better in any season than “The Great British Baking Show,” but it’s a real gift in summer, a kinder and gentler alternative to American competitions with words like “grit” and “warrior” in the title. With the beautiful, green English countryside outside the tent, and creatures (lambs if we’re lucky, squirrels if not so much) scurrying around, watching is like a going to a picnic for which somebody else made the food. Best of all, when it’s too hot to turn on my own oven, I can watch earnest British bakers do it for me.

“The Great British Baking Show” is streaming on Netflix, and PBS is currently airing Season 4 on Fridays at 9 p.m.

Todd Van Der Werff (@tvoti), Vox

In the summer of 1999, ABC’s “Nightline” randomly aired an eight-episode primetime miniseries called “Brave New World,” which was hosted and curated by Robert Krulwich (who’s now one of the hosts of “Radiolab”). My only memories of this are that when I got home from a long day at my summer job, I found the whole program spellbinding, and I taped most of the episodes on VHS, tapes I long ago lost. The topics all boiled down to “What sorts of crazy bullshit might humanity get up to in the 21st century?” and as I recall, the program was much more optimistic than future events would warrant. Also, I think it was scored by They Might Be Giants?

I miss when networks used to say, “It’s summer!” and just do stuff like this. (ABC, I would totally buy a DVD.)

“Brave New World” is not currently streaming, but “Nightline” is available on Hulu and ABC.

Ben Travers(@BenTTravers), IndieWire

When I think of summer, I think of “The O.C.” Its nostalgic attachment to my youthful days spent punching jocks and boating to Catalina is overwhelming, but the older I get, the more I realize two things: I was a shy, scrawny kid in the landlocked farm country of Illinois, making those associations utterly false, and I spend more time dwelling on an embattled Don Draper than I do a brawny Ryan Atwood.

Summer is a time to kick back and take a break, but pausing for reflection only invites big, broader dilemmas that school and work typically distract us from: By the end, Don understood this better than most, and his journey is laced with sweat, summer parties, and days on the beach — all of which relate to the existential quandary at the core of Matthew Weiner’s opus. What is happiness? How do we find it? If sunshine and warmth represent lasting joy, should we all move to California and join a commune? As we age and the representation of summer changes from the promise of freedom to the temptation of it, such thoughts seem more meaningful than ever. Maybe it’s time to re-watch “Mad Men”… or maybe I’ll distract myself with “The OC.”

“The O.C.” is streaming on Hulu. “Mad Men” is streaming on Netflix.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Better Call Saul” (five votes)

Other contenders: “Twin Peaks” (three votes), “Downward Dog” and “GLOW” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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