Tradition holds that fall is the time of year to focus on TV. The networks make all their biggest debuts in the fall, supposedly, and old favorites come back for new seasons. Meanwhile, summer TV has been perceived as a lull. As the story goes, the time of year when reruns and cheap cable fare dominate the lineup. But summer has a better track record than the legends might suggest. To make the case for TV’s secretly great season, here are three shows that went on to become major successes despite making their debuts in the summer months. Ignore summer TV at your own peril: You might be missing out on the next hit show.
In fairness, there wasn’t much reason to pay attention to Survivor before it premiered on CBS in the summer of 2000. Derived from a Swedish show called Expedition Robinson, Survivor’s stranded-on-a-desert-island premise seemed like another novelty in the then-nascent reality TV trend. But the Survivor castaways grabbed audiences’ attention, and by the end of the summer, new airings were greeted by viewing parties around the country, with fans eager to see whether their favorite contestants would stick around for one more episode. The week-by-week elimination format was hugely influential, and it would show up on countless other reality series, from The Bachelor to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
And the format also persists, naturally, on Survivor, which debuted its 30th season in February. The show has featured countless cutthroat players and flashy contestants over the last 15 years, but the cast of that first season was something special, establishing the template for so many reality-show casting “types” in one fell swoop. There was the cantankerous rabble-rouser, Susan Hawk. The sympathetic grizzled grandpa type, Rudy Boesch. And of course there was the scheming villain, Richard Hatch, whose alliance-forming strategy became the default tactic for every Survivor contestant to come.
Before reality TV got a little bit too real, MTV launched The Real World, in which some people who didn’t know each other got chosen… Aww hell, it goes like this: “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. To find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real. The Real World.” (You can add all the dramatic pauses yourself.) The show has been blamed for starting a downward trend in reality TV, but it actually lived up to its promise: Most of its casts have been regular folks facing regular problems, rather than Hollywood wannabes treating “reality” like another audition.
It’s probably best to start with the original New York season, which spawned such stars as angry David and exercising Eric. From there, all bets are off. Past season 20 you can only see the seeds of the original, as the casts got a little more self-aware—and entertaining in entirely different ways.
Louie might be the platonic ideal of a summer-debut show. With its artful, idiosyncratic storytelling style, Louis CK’s semi-autobiographical anthology defies the standards and rhythms of typical network fare. Had it launched in the fall, it might have been lost amid the flash and star power of big-ticket network premieres. Instead, the limited competition of the June TV schedule allowed viewers to discover CK’s sometimes quiet, sometimes surreal comedy—and it also gave CK the freedom to develop that style.
Unlike the other shows on this list, Louie has largely stuck to its summer schedule (although season five kicked off in the spring this year), allowing Louie to evolve the show’s form without having to compete with the juggernauts of network primetime. When the show began, each episode was essentially self-contained, but by the third season, CK was experimenting with multi-episode arcs, most notably in the “Late Show” trilogy that saw Louie audition to take over David Letterman’s job. Anyone who turned their TV off for summer vacation missed out on one of the most innovative and funny TV comedies of the past decade.
Catch up on all these shows this summer at Hulu.com and with the Hulu app on your set-top box and mobile devices. Plus, check out the shows making their Hulu debut this season, including Wayward Pines, Aquarius, and The Bachelorette.