From May to late September, we throw ourselves at the mercy of reality shows, noble experiments, and cable. Are you in the mood for “Match Game … but with Alec Baldwin?!” You are now! (Maybe your dominant cultural memory of Match Game is the actual show and not the RuPaul’s Drag Race parody segment. If so, you’re in luck!) But summer 2016 has blessed us with a hot streak of sweaty, pulpy crime TV, and it deserves to be celebrated before it goes out in a hail of bullets.
The Euro Thrillers
On their home turf in the U.K., The Last Panthers and The Night Manager were as different as their settings: the war-torn Balkans and a billionaire’s seaside compound in Mallorca, respectively. But stateside, the miniseries were bound together as high crime — paint-assisted diamond heists and the international arms trade — abroad.
They share the inherent pleasure of an open-and-shut, six-episode arc, but that’s about it. The Night Manager is an old-school cat-and-mouse game between a humble war veteran turned, well, hotel night manager and a faux-philanthropic war profiteer. (The name is a missed spy-joke opportunity, even if the show gets the job done as a James Bond audition tape.) The Last Panthers plumbs the futility of law enforcement in the face of systemic wounds, from armed conflict in Belgrade to poverty in the projects of Marseille. Meanwhile, The Night Manager has two leggy love interests–in-peril: one to motivate Tom Hiddleston by dying in the pilot and the other to motivate him by threatening to die in the finale. (Well, three, if you count a certain pop star who’s suddenly eager to meet the parents). One show delivers fast-paced, glamorous joy. The other has the kind of counterintuitive gloom that makes this time of year perfect for, say, a season of The Leftovers.
The Basic-Cable Thrillers
In the past few weeks alone, the trend has entered its basic-cable phase, yielding TNT’s Animal Kingdom and USA’s Queen of the South. (Before that, Netflix dropped the second season of Bloodline, bridging the gap with an essential component of any burgeoning TV phenomenon: the hate-watch.) Both shows center on criminal matriarchs, offering a feminist-ish spin on the crime show. Ellen Barkin headlines the Scott Wars skirmish as “Smurf” Cody, and her name signals just how seriously this show ought to be taken. She’s an aging thief who’s bred her grown, mostly interchangeable (sorry, Speedman) sons into obedient accomplices. They get into trouble on the beach. On Queen of the South, Alice Braga plays a Griselda Blanco–style narca who flashes back via voiceover from her own coke-strewn assassination to her rise through a Mexican cartel. It’s Lady Scarface for TNT, and it’s about as enjoyable — and flawed — as “Lady Scarface for TNT” sounds. The only thing crazier than a show about trigger-happy drug lords making it onto television is a toned-down, gender-flipped version of the same show making it onto television a couple of years later.
Both shows are more serialized than a procedural and more shamelessly cheesy than premium cable. And that is the platonic ideal of summer TV: distraction as a substitute for, or even its own kind of, ambition. It’s the visual equivalent of a beach read for those of us without the time, inclination, or sunscreen budget.
The Coming-Soon Thrillers
Next Sunday, HBO’s The Night Of brings the boom right back to where it started. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s saga of a Muslim cab driver’s son accused of a murder he didn’t commit feels uniquely American in its themes, but in spirit, duration, and color palette, it’s far closer to The Last Panthers. Add to that the news that SundanceTV plans to lean further into East Texas noir with a second season of Hap and Leonard. It’s a crime wave, set to the reassuring rhythms of fluff and/or prestige. Pairs perfectly with air conditioning, a couple of streaming-TV subscriptions, and a very full glass of rosé.