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The Best Pure Summer TV of 2017

‘Claws,’ ‘Manhunt: Unabomber,’ and, yes, ‘Ballers’ — these are the escapist shows that will get you through August

Discovery/HBO/Netflix/Ringer illustration

What makes a perfect summer TV show? It’s a harder balance to strike than you’d think in 2017. A good summer show is simple without insulting the viewer’s intelligence; it’s typically on the lighter side, but with enough material to fuel a Peak TV conversation, should the need arise. The very concept of the TV calendar has been rendered obsolete by streaming and cable, which release their shortened seasons in whatever time of the year they please; Game of Thrones is technically Summer TV, as was Mad Men and the final seasons of Breaking Bad. But we are talking about a mood here: easy, distracting, the television opposite of homework. Ultimately, ideal Summer TV comes down to a know-it-when-you-see-it situation. And as I inhaled the first few episodes of Discovery’s admirably self-explanatory Manhunt: Unabomber, I knew exactly what I was seeing.

I’ll elaborate on its virtues in a moment, but the good news is that Manhunt is only the latest in a string of perfectly timed summer series. Peak TV can be overwhelming and even monotonous, but this year, it’s done a superlative job of providing solid, numerous, and fun options to last us through what’s typically the slowest stretch of the television calendar, give or take a massive HBO show. As the season heads into its final month, we’re taking the opportunity to review the highlights and collectively congratulate television on a summer well done. And if you’re in need of one last show to take you through August, consider this a guide to what you might have missed while you were at the beach.

‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

The limited series, which aired the first two of eight parts Tuesday night, revels in its minimally concealed tropes: the nerdy forensics expert who happens to look like a lantern-jawed beat cop (Sam Worthington), the wisecracking partner with a generic street-tough accent (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Created by Andrew Sodroski and directed by TV veteran Greg Yaitanes, Manhunt: Unabomber is pure FBI profiler pulp—the kind that’s been driven into the ground by Criminal Minds, deconstructed by Hannibal, and is about to get a highbrow sheen courtesy of David Fincher’s upcoming Mindhunter. But it can get away with all of its clichés because it has a ridiculously interesting true story at its center, as embodied by Paul Bettany’s unhinged and compulsively watchable Ted Kaczynski. The writing may be somewhat cringeworthy, but Manhunt always has Kaczynski’s actual manifesto to fall back on (which it does often, via voice-over). You’ll settle into a marathon, and a Wikipedia dive, in no time.

‘GLOW’

The Netflix sitcom about ’80s women’s wrestling, cocreated by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, knows exactly where to set its ambitions. GLOW is both fascinatingly subversive in its meta TV observations and also a loyal, loving exercise in a well-worn template. The A League of Their Own comparisons are obvious, and as a show about a group of women all stumbling their way into a male-dominated field under the not-so-watchful guidance of a tough-love slimeball, GLOW isn’t exactly trying to avoid them. The hairspray, leotards, and over-the-top makeup involved in making a comedy about wrestling in the ’80s added an extra layer of spectacle to a show that has a cocaine robot before it even steps into the ring. After TV’s full-frontal assault on the Emmys in the months that preceded its release, GLOW is a perfectly timed breath of fresh air: notably less try-hard, and consequently able to nail its getting-the-gang-together beats in 10 easy, breezy episodes.

‘Claws’

If it’s the hairspray that appeals to you, however, Claws makes GLOW look like a study in low-maintenance naturalism. When TNT’s nail-salon-meets-Oxycontin-ring drama first landed, I was drawn to its central performance—a long-deserved star turn for Niecy Nash—and easily absorbed aesthetic pleasures. (Think strip clubs, neon, bling, skintight jumpsuits, and, of course, acrylics.) Eight episodes in, Claws has added an absolutely bonkers Jane Adams cameo, an impressively layered supporting turn by Carrie Preston, and a subplot involving a thinly veiled version of Art Basel Miami, all while keeping its central charm as a ladies-only crime romp that reads like Elmore Leonard by way of Ryan Murphy. If you’re behind, have no fear: As fun as it’s been to follow Claws week by week, with hours of plot built up it might play even better in binge.

‘Ozark’

It’s not exactly frothy, but Netflix’s latest Breaking Bad facsimile makes for easier viewing than you’d think, bloated corpses and naked octogenarians aside. For one thing, Ozark is literally set in a vacation town, and its antihero pins his money-laundering hopes on the summer season getting busy enough to disguise his Mexican cartel cash. Mostly, though, Ozark becomes ideal kickback viewing by studiously following a pre-forged path rather than attempting to forge a new one. Transgressive art it’s not. Perfectly snackable entertainment, however, is exactly what you get when you put Jason Bateman in charge of a strip club in rural Missouri and cast Julia Garner as his ferocious rival-protegé-sidekick. Ten episodes float by like a raft on a giant man-made lake.

‘Preacher’

The second season of AMC’s newly upgraded comic book adaptation swaps the chaotic heart of New Orleans for the wide-open Texas desert. "Beautiful people kicking ass and drawling zingers" is about as low-risk and high-reward a proposition you can make for a Monday night in August, particularly when one of the beautiful people in question is (the now Oscar-nominated!) Ruth Negga. Preacher’s panel-and-caption origins shine through in vivid, easily digestible imagery like a man of the cloth throwing a punch or Hitler giving advice to a disfigured teen or a bald guy staring disdainfully at a floating pig. Even if you don’t immediately grok the context for moments like that—and you won’t be alone if you don’t—just wait two minutes and Preacher will dutifully serve up another even more perverse than the last.

‘Ballers’ and ‘Insecure’

As Entourage’s spiritual successor, Elizabeth Warren’s favorite show—that’s what Ballers is called now, legally—only makes sense in the summer months, which is exactly where HBO has parked Dwayne Johnson’s side gig since its inception. (Side note: How weird is it that "lead on an HBO show" is basically a minor footnote in someone’s career?) This year, however, Ballers is joined in the Sunday night comedy block by Insecure, a pitch-perfect, low-key look at what it’s like to live and work as a 20-something black woman in 21st century L.A. Insecure can do drama when it needs to, i.e. when Issa Rae’s hapless protagonist cheats on her long-term partner and it blows up in her face, but the warmer months feel perfectly suited to the witty banter, impromptu house parties, and occasionally what-am-I-doing-with-my-life angst that makes up most of the action. No wonder the promo image was Rae blissfully hanging out in a pool.

‘Younger’ and ‘The Bold Type’

TV Land knows a good sitcom when it finds one, which is why Younger is currently airing its fourth season despite debuting in just 2015. (It might also help that the show is an on-the-nose poster child for its network’s, uh, younger rebrand.) This year, Darren Star’s candy-colored tale of navigating the publishing industry and 21st century Williamsburg as a 40-year-old woman has been joined by The Bold Type, a not-so-subtle advertisement for the joys of working at the magazine its own executive producer used to run. Once you push past its ulterior motives, however, The Bold Type is exactly the kind of teen fluff that Freeform, the network formerly known as ABC Family, does best. With Riverdale between seasons, The Bold Type is the most reliable source of pop culture references and carefully PG sex scenes around. Worrying about the IRL state of the media industry can wait until fall. Summer is for watching assistants with suspiciously humane apartments trade gossip in the fashion closet.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.