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QUARTZY THE NEWSLETTER

A blockbuster-free shortlist of excellent summer TV and movies

By Adam Epstein

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Happy Friday!

‘Tis I, Quartz entertainment reporter Adam Epstein, taking over for Jenni this week to highlight some of the best and most under-appreciated TV shows and films that this summer has to offer.

Once upon a time, summer was known as the season where TV shows went to die—the time when network executives would release series they expected to wither while audiences hit the beach and frolicked in the sun.

That’s no longer the case. Netflix—along with other streaming services and platforms—has turned summer into fertile TV ground. With literally too much content to air during the spring and fall, some of it has to spill over into summer. And TV execs have learned that’s not such a bad thing: there’s less competition, lower stakes, and ample room to experiment. (Remember Stranger Things? It had a July release.)

It’s good news for viewers too. The recent spate of niche, indie films provide refreshing counter-programming to the blockbuster bombast of dinosaurs and superheroes. As an avid pop culture consumer (and one who doesn’t do that well out in the heat), I welcome these increased opportunities to sprawl out on the couch, crank the AC, and get lost in entertainment.

Small town TV mysteries

One emerging theme this summer is a revitalization of a classic genre: the small town mystery. Following in the path of shows like Twin Peaks and films like In the Heat of the Night, two shows have brought back the delicious intrigue that you can only find in a small, sleepy American town where something is just not right.

hbo sharp objects
HBO

The first is Sharp Objects, an HBO limited series directed by Big Little Lies filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée and based on the debut novel of Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn. Amy Adams is Emmy-worthy as a journalist who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the murder of a young girl. Everything about the show—from its acting to its haunting, dreamlike aesthetic—is incredibly well done.

And it’s the sweatiest show of the summer (literally)—perhaps the sweatiest show ever. Seriously, it’ll make you happy to be inside with the AC on blast. The third of eight episodes airs this Sunday, and you can watch the first two on HBO Go.

Decidedly less reality-based but still super compelling is the new Hulu series Castle Rock. Set in the universe of Stephen King’s horror writings, the story unfolds in a fictional Maine town, where the discovery of a young man locked in the basement of Shawshank State Penitentiary (yes, that Shawshank) brings the town’s long-buried history of evil back to the surface.

castle rock
Hulu

The ensemble cast, anchored by André Holland (The KnickMoonlight) is as terrific as it is big. The first three installments of Castle Rock premiere on Hulu this Wednesday (July 25). If you liked streaming the supernatural-horror mystery of Stranger Things from the comfort of your couch, consider Castle Rock.

Return of the doc 

Perhaps because viewers are seeking a positive message amidst the barrage of depressing geopolitical headlines, four inspiring documentaries are wowing critics and landing with audiences this summer:

These films are a great way to spend an afternoon at the theater. Plus, since many are playing in smaller independent cinemas, tickets are often cheaper than your average summer blockbuster.

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

A24 can’t be stopped 

A24, the indie film distributor best known for releasing award-winning films like Moonlight and Lady Bird, is having a stellar summer. Since May, it has released three films with 90%+ ratings on Rotten Tomatoes: religious thriller First Reformed, horror nightmare Hereditary, and middle school dramedy Eighth Grade. All three are great (and very different)! Prepare to hear their names more come Oscar season.

Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of 27-year-old comedian Bo Burnham, was my favorite of the bunch. The film will resurface all your repressed, awkward memories from middle school, but it’s more than just a coming-of-age story. It’s a film about teen anxiety that adults can still very much relate to, and is as perceptive and thoughtful as it is hilarious.

eighth grade
A24

These movies, and other indies released this summer, mostly fall into one of two categories. Some, like Hereditary, double down on the real anxieties of this moment, making our earthly problems seem tame by comparison.

Others, like Eighth Grade, are simpler, relatable stories, that remind us it’s still possible to enjoy a good, lighthearted story well told. Both are escapist in their own ways.

Have a great weekend!

A24

PS: And now for something completely different

Actor Paul Rudd was the guest on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast earlier this month, and their conversation makes for both an enlightening and hilarious 84-minute listen. They trace Rudd’s childhood and career up through this summer’s superhero film Ant-Man and the Wasp, in which Rudd once again plays a Marvel character who can shrink to the size of an insect. Maron is no fan of superhero movies, and playfully ribs Rudd about playing the ant-sized hero. They also provide listeners with what amounts to an awkward and amusing sound bath, using only their voices.

Marvel