20 Hit TV Shows That Shook Up the Summer Season

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Big Brother, Sex and the City, Mad Men

What’s Happening!!, Aug. 5, 1976, ABC

Hey hey hey! Originally based on the teen drama Cooley High, What’s Happening!! morphed into a lighthearted comedy about three friends growing up in Watts. Initially a limited series, it scored big enough with viewers for pickup, and it actually became the first series to be revived in syndication with What’s Happening Now!! in the 1980s.

SEINFELD - Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richard, Jerry Seinfeld

Seinfeld, July 5, 1989, NBC

NBC didn’t think the pilot of Seinfeld was the scheduling equivalent of spongeworthy, so it shunted it to the summer, where — Seinfeld, you magnificent bastard! — it won critical acclaim. NBC wanted to keep the comedian on the payroll, so it ordered more episodes to air the following summer, and eventually Seinfeld became master of its domain.

Northern Exposure - Barry Corbin (as Maurice Minnifield, Rob Morrow, John Corbett (

Northern Exposure, July 12, 1990, CBS

When the temperatures spiked outside, didn’t it feel good to escape to Cicely, Alaska, and cool off with its refreshing cast of oddballs and societal outlaws? Northern Exposure became a surprise hit and proved that summer could be a breeding ground for offbeat fare.

Melrose Place and Models Inc

Melrose Place, July 8, 1992, and Models, Inc., June 29, 1994, Fox

Melrose Place, Aaron Spelling's Gen X soap, didn't really take off until the arrival of Dynasty alum Heather Locklear as B-on-wheels Amanda Woodward at the end of Season 1. And Spelling's spinoff Models Inc., starring Dallas alum Linda Gray as Amanda's estranged model agent mom, was equally delirious, if much shorter-lived.

OZ - Terry Kinney and Ernie Hudson

Oz, July 12, 1997, HBO

Starting with Dream On, its first original series, HBO used the dead zone of summer as its primary launching pad. But there’s counter-programming, and then there’s counter-programming, and the raw and violent Oz, set in an experimental prison unit, was unlike anything previously seen on TV.

Sex and the City - Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristen Davis, Kim Cattrall

Sex and the City, June 6, 1998, HBO

Like HBO’s other comedies, it premiered in summer, and except for that wintry Petrovsky interlude, it seemed the frank but fizzy Sex itself existed in perennial summer. (The better for Carrie’s crop tops and short-shorts.)

Monty Brinton/CBS

Survivor, May 31, 2000, CBS

Less Robinson Crusoe than Machiavielli’s The Prince, Survivor was indeed a game-changer, with contestants embracing cunning and deceit, as perfectly captured by inaugural winner Richard Hatch. When his final opponent told him that she hoped the better person would win, he responded, “To me, instead of who’s the better person, it is about who played the game better.” Reality TV would never be the same.

Big Brother - Julie Chen
ill Inoshita/CBS

Big Brother, July 5, 2000, CBS

Another European reality TV import, Big Brother was basically a super-low-budget Survivor, cheesier, tackier and with, if possible, even more annoying people (and we’re not talking about the Chenbot, host Julie Chen). And yet it remains a summer staple.


Six Feet Under, June 3, 2001, HBO

The most honest and insightful look at grief, faith and morality (until The Leftovers came along, at least), Six Feet Under, about the lives, loves and lies of a family of Los Angeles funeral directors, was also one of the most wry and warped shows around.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy - Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriguez, Thom Filicia

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, July 15, 2003, Bravo

Before it was all Housewives, all the time, Bravo had a reputation for groundbreaking programming, and Queer Eye, a makeover show for clueless straight guys courtesy of five ridiculously likable gay men, is Exhibit A. Netflix is planning a “reimagining” set in America’s red states and with a new cast.

So You Think You Can Dance

So You Think You Can Dance, July 20, 2005, Fox

Can it have only been a dozen years since Mary Murphy screeched her way onto our screens? SYTYCD, one of the few reality shows in which contestants can’t coast by on charisma alone, was the breakout hit of the summer. Like most aging reality shows, it’s been pruned and reformatted to keep things interesting.


Hoarders, Aug. 17, 2003, A&E

The polar opposite of what a summer show is supposed to be, the grim and troubling Hoarders, with its horror show toilets and flattened felines, nevertheless struck a chord with couch potatoes and even survived a cancellation to run for nine seasons.

THE WIRE - Wendell Pierce, Michael K. Williams
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

The Wire, June 2, 2002, HBO

Another polar opposite of escapism, The Wire was a searingly realistic and largely pessimistic look at the institutions that continually let down the poor and working class of Baltimore, and yet it still managed to be utterly addictive.

Mad Men - Jon Hamm
Michael Yarish/AMC

Mad Men, July 19, 2007, AMC

A mostly unknown cast, a period setting, a cynical worldview, a repudiation of easy answers — Mad Men should have been a hard sell, but Matthew Weiner’s social history of the 1960s via a Madison Avenue ad agency earned a legion of hard-core fans. Okay, Jon Hamm’s devastatingly handsome mug might have had something to do with it.

LOUIE - Louis C.K
KC Bailey/FX

Louie, June 29, 2010, FX

Comedian and one-man band Louis C.K.’s idiosyncratic series touched a lot of nerves — loneliness, depression, desperation, humiliation — and still managed to be one of the funniest and most inventive shows on television. We’re the suckers still hoping for a Season Six.

Orange Is The New Black - Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Orange Is the New Black, July 11, 2013, Netflix

Jenji Kohan brilliantly adapted Piper Kerman’s autobiographical tale of a WASP in the federal pen by training her lens on Piper’s fellow inmates, a diverse lot with back stories and complex motivations that constantly surprise.

Difficult People - Billy Eichner, Julie Klausner

Difficult People, Aug. 5, 2015, Hulu

You wouldn’t want to invite Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner over for a summer barbecue, but at the safe remove of the television screen, these Difficult People are impossibly funny.

Halt and Catch Fire - Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace
Tina Rowden/AMC

Halt and Catch Fire, Aug. 5, 2015, Hulu

It took a while for Halt, set in the cutthroat world of early computing and later the infancy of the Internet, to catch fire, but a change of scenery and powerhouse performances, particularly by Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe, have made it an intelligent respite from summer foolishness. AMC has renewed it for one more season.

UnREAL - Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer
Joseph Viles/A&E

UnREAL, June 1, 2015, Lifetime

Bachelor Nation didn’t know what hit it two years ago with the arrival of UnREAL, a stinging satire of the competitive romance genre that was every bit as juicy and over-the-top as its target. It seriously stumbled in its second season; the third season has been delayed until early 2018.

Stranger Things - Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard
Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things, July 15, 2016,

This out-of-nowhere homage to ’80s sci-fi and vintage Stephen King became the sensation of the summer. Season 2 arrives on Halloween in 2017, which is actually much more fitting.

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For decades, summer was the province of reruns, failed pilots, and an avalanche of promotions for all the hot new shows that awaited viewers come fall. But every so often, a promising experiment that perhaps wouldn’t fly in the crowded fall season got its break in summer and broke out, such as CBS’s delightfully quirky Northern Exposure and NBC’s Seinfeld. Later, the empty summer schedule beckoned for producers of low-cost, high-drama reality shows, while HBO and other prestige cable networks used the summer to launch some of their finest programming.

Here are 20 TV classics and cult favorites that launched in summer and sizzled. (Click through the gallery above to see the full list.)

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