When it comes to summer TV, the time for an apocalypse is now.
Taking a page from the movies, TV has turned to escapism in the summer, with original dramas offering a relatively light, popcorn-y garnish to augment the annual onslaught of unscripted shows. And one of the recurring staples of that formula has been programs that deal with the end of the world.
As a consequence, this week brings a fresh existential threat, with a giant meteor hurtling toward Earth in CBS’ “Salvation.” It’s joined a few days later by the kickoff to the final season of FX’s “The Strain,” in which the vampire-like Strigoi have overrun the human population.
The attraction for networks to such programs is pretty clear. CBS, for example, has struck lucrative licensing agreements with Amazon on its summer dramas, making them profitable even if they don’t draw much of an audience.
Whether audiences steeped in polarized politics and blaring real-world headlines — from North Korean nukes to terrorism — want to escape into such TV fare nevertheless remains an open question. Yes, “The Walking Dead” is one of TV’s most popular (and therefore most imitated) commodities, but programs emulating its formula generally haven’t fared nearly as well, including AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” which covers the zombie outbreak in a different time and place.
CBS has been especially keen on sci-fi-tinged drama with high-stakes overtones. In addition to “Salvation,” which gives those aware of the danger six months to find a solution. The government, naturally, hides the bad news, leaving it to a tech billionaire and grad student to try to save the world.
“Zoo” — in which animals revolt against humans — also returned last month. Both follow CBS’ not-so-excellent alien adventures with “Extant” and the Stephen King adaptation “Under the Dome.”
Alien invasion has been a recurring TV theme, from ABC’s “V” revival to USA’s “Colony.” For whatever reason, several of those shows have found a toehold in recent years playing during the summer, including TNT’s “Falling Skies” and “The Last Ship.”
NBC, meanwhile, will introduce a less-Earth-shattering form of escapism this month, “Midnight, Texas,” a series about a small town populated by vampires and other supernatural inhabitants that bears a resemblance to HBO’s “True Blood.”
As noted, the networks are dabbling in a genre established by disaster movies like “Meteor,” “Armageddon” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” The main challenge is prolonging those dangers over an arc of episodes, a proposition that becomes even thornier in success. (By happenstance, this week also brings the latest installment in the revived “Planet of the Apes” films, in which the world’s human population has been decimated by plague.)
Admittedly, the sheer abundance of original series creates pressure to concoct arresting scenarios, and there’s nothing more serious than a giant meteor. Still, the most comforting thought is that history shows if the ratings are good enough, humanity usually finds a way to muddle through.
“Salvation” premieres July 12 at 9 p.m. on CBS. “The Strain” returns July 16 at 10 p.m. on FX.