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So Much Summer Drama

The drama building this summer for a potential nuclear weapons summit between the United States and North Korea, the continuing discovery of malfeasance related to the #MeToo social movement, and a U.S.-less FIFA World Cup will have a tough time measuring up to the sizzling, dramatic tales in new series that cable networks and streaming services are set to unveil over the next few months.

Dominique Jackson as Elektra in FX's upcoming drama series Pose.

Dominique Jackson as Elektra in FX's upcoming drama series Pose.

Cable networks have traditionally used broadcast television’s summer hiatus to launch new drama series, but this year, there are more such offerings on the docket than in the past.

And most of these new shows are not traditional, garden variety dramas with clear-cut winners and losers, obvious heroes and villains or plot lines that tie up neatly at the end of each episode.

Shows Get Topical

The unique new scripted dramas reflect many of the issues facing society today. For instance, AMC’s Dietland is the story of an overweight journalist learning to love herself and her body amid a string of vigilante murders committed in the name of women’s empowerment. FX’s Pose follows characters set in the 1980s New York glamour scene, with a cast that includes an industry-first five transgender actors in starring roles.

“We are definitely living in a time with a lot of drama,” Jason Smilovic, executive producer for AT&T Audience Network’s new espionage-themed drama series Condor, said. “I think that it’s certainly timely with regards to what’s going on in the world. A lot of these shows are asking the big question of our time: Can we find common ground with each other, or are we going to fall back to the tribalism that will ultimately destroy us?”

In June alone, 10 new scripted drama series are set to premiere just on cable networks, with an additional nine launching on OTT services.

Last year, cable networks debuted 17 drama series from June through August.

Added to June’s new shows is a batch of returning drama series, including final episodes of Freeform’s teen-targeted series The Fosters; Syfy’s fantasy series 12 Monkeys; AMC’s artificial intelligence-based show Humans; Showtime’s Golden Globe-winning limited series The Affair; Netflix’s superhero series Marvel’s Luke Cage and women’s wrestling-themed GLOW; and TNT’s salon-set drama Claws.

TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly said the summer still presents the best opportunity to generate the most noise for high-profile cable drama series, even as TNT, for one, has employed a strategy of launching shows on a year-round basis.

“It’s not like the broadcast shows are intimidating ratings-wise — because they’re not — but there is a lot of messaging [when shows premiere in the fall], so it becomes a lot harder to get people’s attention,” Reilly said. “We’re starting to push a little more toward the fall, but we continue to heavy up in the summer with our drama launches.”

In an era when a successful drama series can go a long way in defining a network’s brand, National Public Radio TV critic Eric Deggans said cable networks and streaming services this summer are tackling new, dramatic themes they hope will catch fire with viewers. This summer’s lineup also comes at a time when broadcast networks are dialing back on shows that deal with heavy subject matters in favor of more emotional dramas that almost serve as comfort food for viewers.

“There are a lot of shows coming to the fore where cable networks are taking a chance and trying to do something unique and different,” he said. “The summer is a good time for an HBO, AMC, Netflix or Hulu to try some unconventional dramas during a time when there’s less competition from the broadcast networks.”

Network executives said the summer is also a fertile time to generate strong ratings returns, particularly in delayed viewing, as viewers tend to be out of the house more enjoying the warmer temperatures.

Last year’s most-watched scripted cable series on a Nielsen live-plus-7 basis, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and cable’s top new scripted series, The Sinner on USA Network, debuted between June 1 and Aug. 31.

While the summer months can provide opportunities to launch new shows, network executives said the increase in new shows from cable and streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon has made it more difficult to break through the clutter.

“I think we’ve known that the idea that there could be a safe space to launch something doesn’t exist anymore between broadcast, other cable networks and the OTT services — there’s no place where you have free rein anymore,” FX co-president of original programming Nick Grad said. “We’re less competition-focused with regard to when we launch shows. Right now, it’s just make a great show, market it really well, and let the chips fall where they may.”

For many networks, that means delivering content with a unique perspective or storyline that will capture viewers’ attention or super-serve a targeted demo. AMC is hoping to accomplish both tasks with Dietland, based on the novel by Sarai Walker.

The series is set in the world of high fashion and beauty, and stars Joy Nash as Plum Kettle, an overweight ghostwriter for a fashion magazine, struggling with her self-worth, who gets caught up with a bizarre vigilante group that violently targets people who mistreat women.

Dietland executive producer Marti Noxon said the series is timely, given the #MeToo and women’s empowerment movements. The show addresses such topics as misogyny and body-shaming while depicting an unlikely heroine who ultimately seeks personal comfort and acceptance within her own skin.

“It’s like Devil Wears Prada meets the Fight Club,” said Noxon, who has served as executive producer for such hit series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, E!’s UnREAL and Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. “For these characters, no matter how out of the world they are, you can relate to them, and you see the world through their eyes.”

Other dramas set to debut in June tackle themes of big, out-of-control government, as well as hot-button social issues. Epix’s Deep State is about a family man fighting to escape his past and the dark excesses of government and corporate power; Paramount Network’s Yellowstone stars Kevin Costner as a rancher trying to protect himself, his family and his land from border fights and attempted takeovers from large oil and lumber corporations; and Facebook Watch’s Five Points, in which five Chicago high-school students tell the story of a life-changing event from different perspectives, delves into gun violence and bullying.

Epix president Michael Wright said the network is betting Deep State, which stars Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty), will provide viewers relevant and appealing content that will stand out in a crowded summer marketplace. 

"I think you’re hoping that anything you put on today has something relevant about it,” Wright said. “In this era, whatever you put on has to be loud and it has to speak to people. We’re hoping with Deep State there is a contemporary relevance to the subject matter that gives it something that will pop and help people notice it.”

Audience Network will look to capitalize on a reboot of a successful espionage-themed movie with Condor, based on Three Days of the Condor, the 1975 thriller starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

The series follows a low-level CIA employee who seeks to find out who killed his co-workers while uncovering a plan that threatens millions Along with fans of the movie, Condor’s Smilovic said there are numerous similarities between the show’s plot and the events developing around the world that will intrigue younger viewers who are unfamiliar with the film.

“Characters are getting more complicated and gray, whereas they used to be black and white, and good and bad,” he said. “In Condor, our supposedly good characters do bad things, and our supposedly bad characters do good things.

“Television for a long time was unable to tell stories with that type of complexity of character,” Smilovic added. “Now audiences demand it.”

FX’s latest Ryan Murphy project, Pose, is a dance/musical series set in the ball culture of 1980s New York. It features transgender characters in lead roles, a rarity on television.

Grad said Pose provides an inspirational storyline that the network hopes will play well with traditional as well as underserved audiences. “It feels really different and unique and it’s incredibly inspiring,” he said. “It really takes the marginalized, underdog characters … and puts them in the lead.”

More Room for Storytelling

The arrival of new distribution outlets has afforded show producers new opportunities to tell differentiated, unique stories, even if it has also become more difficult for content to break through the clutter.

“It’s both wonderful because there is more opportunity, but it’s also harder to break through,” Noxon said. “People’s attention is so pulled in different directions — they have their phone, video games, television and movies — so the exciting thing about Dietland is that I can’t imagine anyone saying, ‘I’ve seen that story before.’ ”

Added Condor’s Smilovic: “Five years ago, we were still talking about brands, and now we no longer think about brands but about content. People will migrate to any platform for the right content, and so, being given that opportunity, I think there are way more opportunities than there were four or five years ago.”