The Great Summer TV Cram (2014 Edition): 8 Sophomore Series to Catch Up On Now

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Grab your remote and bring up your DVR's list of "scheduled recordings" real quick—what's on it? 'Cause ours is looking pretty barren these days. Seriously, late May is one of the only times of the year where that magic little time-shifting device isn't at 99 percent capacity. Sure, we've still got Game of Thrones to fill our Sunday evenings, and summer will bring all sorts of new programs to look forward to, but right now, the best thing about the current TV schedule is that its lack of enticing programming is really getting us jazzed about what's ahead. And that means now is the perfect time to ease yourself into the warmer months by kicking back and binge-watching shows that don't have anything to do with singing, dating, or wiping out on national television. Below, we've compiled a checklist of eight soon-to-be sophomore shows that deserve your eyeballs before they return for Season 2; fluff up the sofa pillows, pour yourself some lemonade, and start cramming!


The Bridge

Season 2 premieres Wednesday, July 9 at 10pm on FX


COMMITMENT: 13 hour-long episodes of intermittent bilingual brilliance and inexplicable insanity

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: With settings for modern TV dramas, you can't do much better than the U.S.-Mexico border, and that's the backdrop for FX's The Bridge. An adaptation of the Danish/Swedish series BronThe Bridge initially set out to examine the striking dichotomy between two worlds and two cultures when a serial killer started working both sides of the divide between the two very different countries. In fact, the killer's first victim was found right on the border, with one half of the body in America and the other in Mexico. And since jurisdiction a messy thing, an American cop with Asperger's (Diane Kruger) and a rugged Mexican cop with personal problems (Demián Bechir) team up to hunt him down. But it's The Bridge's odd cast of characters and examination of cross-border relations that's the most entertaining part of the series—and that's an important thing to note, because two thirds of the way through the first season, it plummeted into more typical slasher serial-killer territory. There's still plenty to enjoy here, though, and with a revenge arc, a new case, and new showrunner Elwood Reid (Homeland's Meredith Stiehm left the series between seasons) in place, here's hoping for more consistency in Season 2.

CHEAT SHEET: The Bridge is a heavily serialized drama, so you're best served watching the entire thing (even the bad parts). However, if you must jump around, watch the following episodes: "Pilot," "Maria of the Desert," "Destino," "Vendetta," and "Take the Ride, Pay the Toll." —Tim Surette


Defiance

Season 2 premieres Thursday, June 19 at 8pm on Syfy


COMMITMENT: One season of 12 hour-long episodes, plus five minisodes that take place after the Season 1 finale

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Following a big war over Earth as a collective of seven alien races known as the Votan arrived, things went to hell and the planet was accidentally and horribly terraformed so as to be dangerous to humans and the various alien immigrants, who must now all live together or die alone. The town of Defiance is the microcosm of that struggle, as the alien races seek to co-exist (or not) through cultural clashes, political scheming, natural disasters like razor rain, and hallucinatory visions. While the series' big ongoing Season 1 plot about an alien force/god/entity/something wasn't all that interesting, its various culture clashes among the humans and the Votan races contain enough sizzle to yield good drama when the show wants to dig into them. And with the largely human-run Earth Republic moving into the frontier town of Defiance, those clashes may need to be put aside for the greater good, and for the town's outlaw spirit to survive. 

CHEAT SHEET: Not every episode of Defiance is a winner, so here's what you need to see to be in the loop for Season 2: "Pilot," "The Devil in the Dark" (which is dull but important), "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," "The Bride Wore Black," "Past is Prologue," and "Everything is Broken." —Noel Kirkpatrick


The Fosters

Season 2 premieres Monday, June 16 at 9pm on ABC Family


COMMITMENT: One 21-episode season filled with well-executed teen angst and family drama (plus five webisodes, if you want them)

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Do you miss the more innocent days when The WB aired low-key but still engaging family dramas? Do you often find yourself bemoaning the lack of diversity on television? The Fosters follows a blended family led by two gay women, one of them biracial, whose brood includes two teens of Latin descent—and instead of ignoring these racial and cultural cues, the show makes them a part of the characters' identities. Sounds pretty good, yeah? Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum) are raising a house full of adopted kids and one biological kid from one of the women's previous marriages. You've got your teen romance (forbidden love!!!) and your love triangles, but you've also got your tension between adopted parents and biological parents, and the struggles of parents who have yet to full accept their daughters' sexualities. Sure, The Fosters sounds like every Very Special Episode of a teen show from the late '90s, but it generally works thanks to strong performances from an amazing ensemble and writing that (for the most part) doesn't allow the melodrama to overtake the characters. 

CHEAT SHEET: Thanks to ABC Family's "Hey, we'll do broadcast-length seasons on a cable schedule!" strategy, you're looking at a lengthy marathon of 21 hour-long episodes, and given The Fosters' heavy serialization, you kind of need to watch all of it. I know, I know. The show doesn't forget anything, and and events from the first half of the season return to haunt everyone in the second half of the season, so you need to be in the know! If you want a sampling to decide whether the show is for you, I'd recommend the first seven episodes; if you're grooving on those, keep going until the Season 1 finale! —Noel


Graceland

Season 2 premieres Wednesday, June 11 at 10pm on USA


COMMITMENT: One season of 12 hour-long episodes

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Graceland is a prime example of USA's experimentation with "darker" and "grittier" shows. It's not without its lighthearted moments, but the show's sleeker production values, heavily serialized backstabber-of-the-week format, and sexy sexiness all point to a more grown-up, more "dramatic" drama for those of us who've tired of the network's endless buddy-cop dramedies. The basic premise follows the exploits of a great and terrible federal agency experiment featuring the best and brightest agents of the FBI, DEA, and Customs: The group lives and works together, Real World-style, in the ultimate undercover assignment to catch bad guys and work on their tans in Southern California. Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) and Aaron Tviet (Les Miserables) headline a talented ensemble cast, and they spent the first season caught in a vast conspiracy that threatened to burn the whole house down (literally, of course). If you crave a little darkness with your exotically located crime-solving antics, Graceland's got your back. 

CHEAT SHEET: The storylines are pretty overarching and the "obvious bad guy" changes week after week, so I don't recommend skipping around. Yet, here are the essentials, "Graceland," "Guadalajara Dog," "O-Mouth," "Hair of the Dog," "Smoke Alarm," and "Pawn"—and at that point, you're halfway through the first season, so you should just suck it up and watch it properly. —MaryAnn Sleasman


Masters of Sex

Season 2 premieres Sunday, July 13 at 10pm on Showtime


COMMITMENT: A single season containing a dozen hours full of history, outdated gender and sexual politics, and countless tremendous performances

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: The TV gods have given us so many great shows in the past few years, but Masters of Sex is near the top of the list. Sure, there are times when the series' desire to quickly cover a lot of ground leads to big jumps in time and somewhat disappointing stops and starts, but it handily makes up for that with sharp writing, a real investigation into the emotional impacts of sex and sexual relationships, and plenty of powerhouse acting performances from an absolutely excellent cast. For a show that's top-lined by a man—and Michael Sheen is fantastic, no doubt—Masters of Sex is full of great women: Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Heléne Yorke, Julianne Nicholson, Rose McIver, Ann Dowd, Annaleigh Ashford, and most importantly, the goddess herself, Allison Janney. They're all awesome, and in a variety of roles.

CHEAT SHEET: Ugh, this is the hard part. I would strongly encourage you to watch all 12 hours. Nearly all of them are great, and the story covers quite a bit of ground in each. If you skip a few episodes, you'll come back to the show a little confused about certain character arcs, or even bodily changes. Those who are absolutely pressed for time should watch the first two, "Pilot" and "Race to Space," skip Episode 3, Episode 4, and Episode 5, and then go whole-hog from Episode 6 onward. Trust me though, you're missing great stuff if you take this route. —Cory Barker


Orange Is the New Black

All 13 episodes of Season 2 will premiere Friday, June 6 at 12am Pacific on Netflix


COMMITMENT: A single, binge-able season of 13 episodes, with each one shining a light on a character you didn't realize you liked so much

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Forget that overrated drama House of CardsOrange Is the New Black is Netflix's most notable achievement to date. Simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, this extremely well-written dramedy is about putting life on hold, starting over, and the surprising community that forms behind bars. Created by Weeds' Jenji Kohan and adapted from Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, OITNB follows an accidental criminal who's thrown in jail 10 years after committing a crime during her post-college experimental years. Dropping a white girl with a liberal-arts degree into a women's prison has its obvious gags, but OITNB's real strength is in the way it illuminates the colorful cast of inmates and employees of Litchfield Penitentiary, where nearly all of the action takes place. The characters' fascinating individual stories unfold as the season progresses, often through individual "spotlight" episodes that will leave you both enlightened and eagerly anticipating who might be up next. 

CHEAT SHEET: I could tell you to be sure not to miss "I Wasn't Ready," "Tit Punch," "Lesbian Request Denied," the brilliant four-episode arc of "Moscow Mule," Fucksgiving," Bora Bora Bora," and "Tall Men With Feelings," and the incredible finale "You Can't Fix Crazy," but it won't matter because you'll find it impossible to skip a single hour of this addictive series. —Tim


Rectify

Season 2 premieres Thursday, June 19 at 9pm on SundanceTV


COMMITMENT: Six heavy-yet-beautiful hour-long tales about life outside of prison for a man who barely recalls what it's like.

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Usually the bait phrase "from the producers of [show you love]" is a load of bullhonky, but when Rectify tells you that it's "from the producers of Breaking Bad," it ain't no snake oil. There isn't any meth, there aren't any crazy Mexican drug lords, but there IS the same considerable attention to detail in the dialogue, the cinematography, and the pacing that elevated the story of Walter White to high art. Rectify is relentlessly beautiful, like a perfect summer day, even when it's exploring the tumultuous and dark dichotomy of life. Ostensibly about a man (Aden Young) who's released from Death Row nearly two decades after being accused of raping a teenage girl, Rectify is about the joy of breaking through, the pain of being held back, a family drawn together, and a community broken apart. The series was made for TV viewers with patience, but the rewards are bountiful.

CHEAT SHEET: What, you don't have time for six measly episodes? No cheating here. Just watch 'em. —Tim


Under the Dome

Season 2 premieres Monday, June 30 at 10pm on CBS


COMMITMENT: 13 hour-long episodes of head-scratching science-fiction absurdity

WHY YOU SHOULD CATCH UP NOW: Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Under the Dome was a gamble for CBS that paid off greatly. No one else was airing event television during in the summer, and with little competition, Under the Dome drew record ratings for CBS in a dry season. But just because a lot of people watched doesn't mean the show is good. The reason Under the Dome is on this list is that it's a spectacle of nonsense that makes for great .GIFs and captioned photos (many of which you'll find in my weekly reviews). Ostensibly about a impenetrable dome that isolates the town of Chester's Mill from the rest of the world, the series' first season wobbled between a disaster-of-the-week formula, terrible kid characters, idiotic unnamed masses, and underground fight clubs. This is must-see bad TV that we can all be confused by together.

CHEAT SHEET: The pilot was actually great, and it gave us one of the memorable shots of the 2013 when a cow was bisected by the descending dome. But there's really no point in telling you which other episodes to watch, because very few of them make sense. You could view them out of order and you'd probably be fine. Of course, if you're serious about trying to decode this silly sci-fi drama, don't miss the Season 1 finale, which thoroughly confused me and left me both excited and terrified for Season 2. —Tim


Which returning summer series are you most looking forward to? What's on your personal "shows to catch up on" list?


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