By Emmy Wenstrup
This summer, just like the last, the easing of COVID-19 restrictions allowed for long-anticipated series to both make their debuts and return to the small screen. From mega-budget prequels to quieter critics’ hits, the summer certainly had plenty of options for TV lovers. Whether any of it was good is another question.
Let’s start with the headliners. “House of the Dragon” (2022–) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (2022–) both premiered at the end of the summer (Aug. 21 and Sept. 1, respectively) and served as the highly anticipated prequels to massive fantasy franchises. So far, “Dragon” has been a bit more intimate than its predecessor, “Game of Thrones” (2011–2019), focusing all its attention on the Targaryen family 172 years before the birth of “Thrones’’’ Daenerys.
“The Rings of Power” starts far earlier in the “Lord of the Rings” timeline, even before villain-supreme Sauron forged the precious One Ring. It focuses on the saga’s immortal characters, including the elves Galadriel (here played by Morfydd Clark, originally by Cate Blanchett in the films) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo, originally Hugo Weaving). So far, it’s pretty mediocre. It adopts the “Thrones’” approach by having multiple characters in completely different places doing completely different things, which works if those characters and settings are compelling. Sadly, few of this series’ faces are. There’s a lot of brooding warriors, annoying hobbits and just-OK fight scenes. It’s a tragedy for the viewer and for Amazon Prime Video, who took on the show’s billion-dollar budget (making it the most expensive TV show ever made). It’s not a swing and a miss, it’s more of a huge swing and getting maybe a single.
Not all follow-ups are doomed by the shadows of their former glory. “Reservation Dogs” (2021–) made its return on Aug. 3, and it’s a home run. Picking up right after the events of season 1, this new iteration of the dramedy turns a bit more towards the drama, though it’s not without moments of lightheartedness. The parodic “spirit-guide” William Knifeman hilariously provides actually good advice to the show’s band of Indigenous teenagers as they take on young adulthood on a reservation in Oklahoma. One especially brilliant episode (called “Decolonativization”) pokes fun at the inadequacies of ‘woke’ language to address real suffering. It’s easily the best show of the summer and one of the best currently airing.
Another subdued critics’ hit, also produced by FX, is “The Bear” (2022–), which was released on June 23. It’s an anxiety provoking half-hour dramedy about a chef running his family’s restaurant as he deals with some (you guessed it!) family trauma. The show was pretty good, but no slam dunk (doing basketball now!). Perhaps the hype was due to the otherwise dry summer.
“Stranger Things” (2016–) returned for season 4, released in two parts: part one on May 27 and part two on July 1. With nine episodes, the storyline was bloated and the ending frustrating. All of the child stars are bad now, except for Sadie Sink, who’s actually very good. Steve’s nice guy schtick is getting a bit annoying, though he remains super endearing. Still, it was probably the show’s best season since its first, and was culturally the show of the summer.
“Hacks” (2021–) came back too, for its second season. It was, like “Reservation Dogs,” leagues better than its already strong first. Hannah Einbinder’s performance shifted from (intentionally) insufferable millennial to sympathetic and funnier insufferable millennial. Megan Stalter is hilariously annoying and problematic. Jean Smart is, and has always been, a superstar, and that Emmy (and this one!) is hers once again. One standout episode saw the group of showbiz misfits on a cruise, in which Margaret Cho makes an appearance.
Quantity of content is overwhelming, quality is middling. Some Hail Mary passes (football, anyone?), a few standout hits. “Westworld” (2016–) season 4 was bad, but “What We Do in the Shadows” (2019–) season 4, still currently airing, is its best and most ridiculous yet. “Better Call Saul” (2015–2022) wrapped up for good. With the HBO Max / Discovery Plus drama still brewing, the future of streaming TV is certainly in question and honestly looks a bit dreary. A general rule of thumb is that if incessant TikTok ads are telling you to watch it, probably don’t. If a writer for your collegiate newspaper is, do!
Anyway, watch “Reservation Dogs!”