New summer television series offer variety to viewers

Nivea Serrao and Ife Olujobi

This year’s summer television was a mixed bag in terms of quality and content. Returning series like “Masters of Sex” and “Orange is the New Black” impressed critics and audiences alike, but a whole batch of freshman series also found success and even captured the cultural zeitgeist.

First up, ABC Family’s “Chasing Life” tells the story of April Carver (Italia Ricci), an aspiring journalist who is diagnosed with cancer. April struggles to accept her disease and tries to balance her treatments with her burgeoning love life, her family and her friends. In a rarity for television, Ricci’s stellar performance in this family drama offers a glimpse into some of the real struggles cancer patients face.

Another excellent family-themed summer series is “Married,” the new FX show following married couple Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) as they struggle to raise their children and present a front of normalcy while staving off unhappiness and bankruptcy. While the show’s setup reads like a clichéd sitcom, “Married” takes its conventional and sometimes broad plot points and consistently subverts them, presenting off-kilter situations with realistic solutions while highlighting the absurdity, mundanity and sadness of everyday life. With a stellar supporting cast rounded out by actors and comedians Jenny Slate, Brett Gelman, John Hodgman and Paul Reiser, “Married” is a quiet but surprising treat.

For those who enjoy their sitcoms without gravitas, NBC’s familiar but charming “Undateable” fits the bill. From “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence, this NBC sitcom focuses on Danny (Chris D’Elia) as he offers his roommate Justin (Brent Morin) dating advice. With a cast of seasoned improvisers and stand-up comedians, the show’s fresh jokes allow its actors to cash in on their collective chemistry and charisma. 

On the other end of the spectrum is more serious fare, like CBS’s sci-fi drama “Extant.” The Steven Spielberg-produced series centers on Molly Woods (Halle Berry), an astronaut who returns home to her engineer husband and android son, only to find herself mysteriously pregnant. While the series’ various elements sometimes feel familiar, Berry offers up a compelling lead, while the plot throws out enough twists and surprises to keep viewers interested.

Another show that involves elements of science fiction is Starz’s “Outlander,” which has a decidedly more historical bent. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling series of novels, this series finds World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) transported back in time to 1743 Scotland, where she meets a handsome Highlander named Jamie Frasier (Sam Heughan). Developed by “Battlestar Galatica” producer Ronald D. Moore, the series looks stunning and feels original, especially because of its distinctly female point-of-view. “Outlander” stands alongside Cinemax’s Steven Soderbergh-directed “The Knick” as one of two promising historical shows this summer.

Finally, Netflix’s British import “Happy Valley” follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a Yorkshire police sergeant struggling to raise her orphaned grandson while also trying to take down the man responsible for her daughter’s suicide. Lancashire’s fantastic performance, coupled with the show’s brilliant writing, makes the six-episode season worth every minute.

While only a sampling of what summer 2014 television had to offer, these seven shows should give you more than enough to binge on before fall shows start, or before classes get too demanding.

 A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 2 print edition. Email Nivea Serrao and Ife Olujobi at [email protected].