tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part two

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows you may not have watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (they have all finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

Mr. Robot (56). I read on more than one occasion that Mr. Robot lost its buzz after the first season. As far as I can tell, this is based on a reveal about the nature of the title character, as if once you know who Mr. Robot is, there is nothing left to watch. That's just silly. Yes, it matters than Elliot, the lead character played by Rami Malek, has dissociative identity disorder ... in fact, at the end of four seasons, you realize Elliot and his relations with others is the core of the entire series. (Malek received an Emmy for his performance, three years before he won an Oscar playing Freddie Mercury.) But Mr. Robot was also a complicated, if fictional, study of the possibilities of anti-capitalism, and the stylistic quirks of creator Sam Esmail were usually fascinating and rarely self-indulgent. (This clip, from late in the final season, needs a spoiler alert if you're into that.)

Rectify (26). One of the great TV shows of all time, Rectify somehow ran for four seasons even though no one watched. It's impossible to sell ... Death Row prisoner is released on DNA evidence and tries to make his way back into society, in one of the slowest-moving shows I've ever seen. Rectify was created by actor Ray McKinnon, known for Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Ford v. Ferrari. It was truly remarkable, and the only way you'll ever find out is if you set aside the time to watch it. It would be a star-making performance for Aden Young, if anyone had seen it.

Justified (21). The best-ever representation of Elmore Leonard on television. It ran for six seasons and featured a terrific extended cast, including Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies, who both won Emmys for their work here. But even with all the talent on screen, the essence of the show was the relationship between Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder. And don't forget the shout out to Karen Sisco.


tv in the 2010s: binge these in the 2020s, part one

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about some shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

These are shows I don't think you watched. You have all the time in the world now to catch up with them (all but one have finished their run). Numbers are their place in the AV Club poll.

Penny Dreadful (76). Three seasons, 27 episodes. Interesting, off-the-wall premise: bring together figures from classic Gothic fiction, like Dorian Gray, characters from Dracula and Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and the like. Nominated for a handful of Emmys in categories like makeup and hairstyling, which missed the point entirely. Despite the often ludicrous plots, Penny Dreadful was made more than watchable by its actors. Rory Kinnear was the best Frankenstein's monster since Bela Lugosi, but the show was carried by its star, Eva Green, whose fearless performance was both grounded and over the top. Green was a highlight of TV in the 2010s. Apparently a sequel is coming, but without Green, it is unlikely to match the original.

Terriers (54). The winner of my first-ever Karen Sisco Award for series that were cancelled too soon. Terriers only lasted one season, and no one watched (I wrote about the series finale, "Seriously, how many of you have even heard of this show?"). I wrote, "The acting was strong across the board, and the chemistry between leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James was perfect. Though it was a buddy show, the female characters had depth … they were more than just time-killers, and the show didn’t just take the guy’s side, the buddies were flawed and the show didn’t try to apologize for their behaviors. The ending was very satisfying, and worked whether or not the show is renewed."

GLOW (45). There is a running theme with these shows, which all sound like they might suck. GLOW is the fond tale of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an actual series from the 80s. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, and it is a complex study of women's empowerment. It's the one show here that is still running (there's one more season to come). A great ensemble of characters and acting, with special mention to Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, who play former best friends who are enemies in the ring (Brie's wrestling character is the Russian "Zoya the Destroyer" while Gilpin's is the American "Liberty Belle"). I love this scene, and wish there was a better video that didn't include people at home watching. Brie describes a match between Zoya and Belle by acting out the wrestling by herself.

Halt and Catch Fire (29). Good enough to deserve a separate post. Since I wrote one in September, I'll just link to it here. A show that got better every season, especially once they figured out the main focus needed to be on the female leads.


tv in the 2010s: sense8

Sense8 (#84 in the AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s"). Sense8 was as ambitious as any series, ever. It was also fairly costly for Netflix, which felt the size of the audience didn't warrant the expenditures. That audience was vocal enough to get an extra, movie-length episode to wrap things up. Some of the expense came from location shooting ... Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, San Francisco, Seoul, and Reykjavík. The concept, of eight people linked psychically ("sensates"), was often confusing, although the commitment of creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski was remarkable, and even when the plot didn't make sense, you could luxuriate in those diverse eight, which included a closeted actor in Mexico, a female Hindu pharmacist, an African bus driver, a trans woman and her girlfriend, and a kickboxing woman from Korea. The series emerged from its fumbling in its fourth episode, one of many times Sense8 featured set pieces of the sensates interacting:

It made no sense, but it felt right, and we understood for the first time what the eight were living through. Of course, their connection made it possible for plenty of sex scenes with multiple participants ... if you don't have to actually be in the same place geographically, you can have some great group sex in your heads. The feeling of community among the sensates was extraordinary.

Part of being a member of a sensate "cluster" was that you all had the same birthday:

And somehow, you could help each other:

I loved this show. I honestly never really cared about the underlying plot, didn't care what sensates were or why they had enemies. I just loved the characters and the way they were presented. And when Netflix agreed to give one last episode:

I'm not usually impressed by fan attempts to bring back cancelled series. But there was something about the nature of Sense8 and its celebration of difficult positivity in hard times that made the show matter more to me than most others, and made its one-more-episode return special.


tv in the 2010s: the half-hours, part three

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

There are so many excellent half-hour series nowadays. Something about the format allows the creators to delve deeply into characters, infusing the shows with humor but always about more than just the jokes. Most of these series make room for people who are usually shunted to the side, when they turn up at all. Here are a few more that made the AV Club list (numbers are their place in the poll). In reverse order:

Russian Doll (28). Almost too easy to describe: Groundhog Day only with Natasha Lyonne. But that limits the appeal ... it should read "with NATASHA LYONNE!" Earlier in the year, I wrote:

Pretty much everyone I've read who offers up an introductory review of Russian Doll says the same thing: the less you know going in, the better. The trailer, which you can find at the bottom of this post, does a decent job of making you believe you know what the show is about without actually telling you, so it's safe. But for the most part, it's true: you don't want to know anything before you watch Russian Doll. So what I say here will be purposely vague and fragmented.

I could mention the cast, which includes Charlie Barnett, Elizabeth Ashley, Dascha Polanco, Burt Young, and Chloë Sevigny, all of whom are great. (When Ashley and Lyonne get together, it's a marvelous blend of two wonderfully scratchy voices.) I'm not usually a fan of stories that are complicated enough to confuse me, but Russian Doll moves so quickly and Lyonne is so watchable that I didn't mind in this case. And I can't say I understood the ending, but it brought me to tears of joy. Go figure.

30 Rock (9). I've long maintained that our response to comedy is more subjective than it is for other works. 30 Rock is a comedy ... there isn't much else. You can extract contextual meaning if you want, but it's unnecessary. It is much more "normal" than Russian Doll or Atlanta. For me, it was consistently funny over 7 seasons and 138 episodes, with the kind of fine ensemble cast that is very important if you want your sitcom to last for 7 seasons and endless reruns. There were a few other sitcoms that critics loved during the same period (late-00s through early-10s). 30 Rock is the one I became attached to.

Atlanta (3). I gave the episode "Teddy Perkins" its own post. It was one of the most amazing episodes of television I've ever seen.

Wikipedia tells us "Atlanta is about two cousins navigating their way in the Atlanta rap scene in an effort to improve their lives and the lives of their families." It seems to fit into a popular type of series today that offers up the lives of people who aren't a part of the televised mainstream ... think Master of None or Insecure. Atlanta allows room for all the main characters to have their episodes, and we get to know them in depth. The show has taken some odd turns ... there was one episode that featured Justin Bieber played by a black actor. And Donald Glover called his show "Twin Peaks with rappers", which is both too easy and quite accurate. But more often than not, Atlanta gives us slices of life with an odd tinge.

Not the most recent episode, though. In "Teddy Perkins", we're introduced to an extremely eccentric man who looks like ... well, I don't know, like a man who used too much bleach on his skin. At one point, reference is made to Sammy Sosa (Vulture had a piece devoted specifically to all the pop-culture references in the episode). When Darius, who has met Teddy Perkins, tries to describe Teddy's face, he tells his friends to Google "Sammy Sosa hat". This is what I got when I did the search, although I knew what to expect:

Sammy sosa hat

It helps to understand that Sosa is a dark-skinned Dominican who uses bleaching cream.

Anyway, this is what Teddy Perkins looked like:

Teddy perkins

The story unfolded in such a way that you were never quite sure if we were seeing Darius having a dream. But the conclusion, with two dead bodies and a freaked-out Darius, seemed to suggest this all really happened. It will be interesting if next week makes any reference to this.

Oh, and the person playing Teddy Perkins? The show's star and creator, Donald Glover, who also appeared in his regular role as Earn.

One other thing ... the show ran over by five or so minutes (not all that unusual for an FX series), and had no commercial breaks. The latter added to the overall weirdness.


tv in the 2010s: the half-hours, part two

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

There are so many excellent half-hour series nowadays. Something about the format allows the creators to delve deeply into characters, infusing the shows with humor but always about more than just the jokes. Most of these series make room for people who are usually shunted to the side, when they turn up at all. I wrote earlier about Fleabag ... here are a few more that made the AV Club list (numbers are their place in the poll). In reverse order:

Better Things (62). Has gotten better in each of its three years, and since Pamela Adlon is the only one in charge now, she finally gets credit for what she always deserved. The setting (a divorced actress raising three daughters) mirrors Adlon's own life, although the show is not meant to duplicate that real life. But it informs the show in the way Adlon is so connected to the situations that arise.

Girls (61). In some ways, Girls never recovered from a line in the very first episode: "I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, voice of a generation." The second sentence shows a strong understanding of the young heroine's place, but it's the first sentence that people remember, and without the second sentence, the first sentence sounds extremely arrogant. Since Hannah Horvath had many similarities with creator/writer/star Lena Dunham, many assumed Hannah was Lena. Girls had many flaws, but the relationships between the four girls of the title felt real. And it was the introduction for many of us to Adam Driver.

Broad City (34). This show would rank much higher on my own list. Always funny, Broad City was one of the best portraits of women's friendship to ever appear on TV or anywhere else.


tv in the 2010s: the half-hours, part one

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

There are so many excellent half-hour series nowadays. Something about the format allows the creators to delve deeply into characters, infusing the shows with humor but always about more than just the jokes. Most of these series make room for people who are usually shunted to the side, when they turn up at all. I wrote earlier about Fleabag ... here are a few more that made the AV Club list (numbers are their place in the poll). In reverse order:

Vida (90). The formerly marginalized group here is Mexican-Americans. Showrunner Tanya Saracho put together a crew of all-Latinx writers (mostly women) and expanded this into the crew in general. Vida has a strong queer feel, and won a GLAAD media award. It introduced new-to-me actors Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, and Ser Anzoategui. Season Two took the groundbreaking of the first season into a better series overall.

Master of None (87). Deserves to be on this list because of the phenomenal Season Two episode "Thanksgiving", featuring Lena Waithe, who won an Emmy.

Catastrophe (78). Sneaks up on you. Four seasons, 24 episodes, about an Irish teacher in London (Sharon Horgan) and a visiting American executive (Rob Delaney) who have a brief fling that leads to pregnancy and eventually marriage. Sounds blandly generic, but in the hands of Horgan and Delaney, it is anything but. Also features a solid supporting cast, capped by Carrie Fisher in her last TV role.


tv in the 2010s: david simon, phoebe waller-bridge

I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100, Lights Out, Agent Carter, Sweet/Vicious, Outlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

The David Simon Decade (numbers are their place in the poll):

Show Me a Hero (100). A six-part miniseries, typically underestimated by everyone but critics. This is based on the true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko and the fight to desegregate public housing. Oscar Isaac starred, and the usual bunch of top actors were happy to take part in a David Simon show. Treme (68) was, to me, Simon's best show since The Wire. A story of the resilience of New Orleans residents in the face of natural disaster and governmental neglect, it was also a musical showcase, featuring great music every episode. Notably absent from the list: Generation Kill, about soldiers in the Iraq war that worked Simon's favorite theme of institutional incompetence preventing good people from doing their job, and The Deuce, about the sex industry in the 1970s and 1980s that had more problems than is normal for a Simon series, but had some great acting. [Edited because Generation Kill was actually 2008.]

All Hail Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

She was not the best thing about Broadchurch (91), but she was in the second season. You should binge that show, and not just because of Phoebe. Her great triumph, of course, was Fleabag (10), one of the defining shows of its time, the thing that put Waller-Bridge over the top. Killing Eve (59) featured fascinating acting from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, and Waller-Bridge was in charge of the first season. She had less to do with Season Two, and it wasn't as good.

The jump suit that took over the fashion world:


halt and catch fire

Halt and Catch Fire was an AMC series that ran four seasons, from June 2014 through October 2017. That it lasted long enough to get 40 episodes is notable in itself. The premiere episode gathered 1.2 million viewers, which might sound like a lot, but, as Wikipedia notes, "It was the least-watched drama series premiere in AMC's modern history". It didn't get better. Wikipedia again: it "was the only episode of the series to surpass one million viewers during its initial broadcast." AMC gave it a second season ... the ratings were worse. They gave it a third season ... again, the ratings fell. Why not give them a fourth season? The two-part finale drew 394,000 viewers. (Time shifting raised the ratings a bit.)

We watched a couple of episodes when it began in 2014, and gave up soon afterwards. AMC was riding high ... Mad Men still had a season to go, Breaking Bad had just finished, and ratings giant The Walking Dead was rolling strong. Legend now says that those first two shows were a reason why Halt and Catch Fire got off to a poor start, for the damaged anti-hero was the standard of the day. Halt and Catch Fire, which told the story of the personal computer revolution and subsequent move to the web, had such an anti-hero, Joe MacMillan, a charismatic entrepreneur who had a knack for bring people into his orbit. There were two problems: Joe wasn't as interesting as Don Draper, and Joe was the least interesting of the main HACF characters. So no one was watching, and critics were only moderately impressed ... the Metacritic score for Season 1 was 69.

But then something happened. Novice series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers got their feet wet and seemed to better understand what they had. What they had was a strong ensemble cast: Lee Pace as Joe, Scott McNairy and Kerry Bishé as a married couple involved in tech, and Mackenzie Davis as a wunderkind programmer. In particular, they figured out that the most interesting relationship on the show was between the two women, Donna Clark and Cameron Howe. For two seasons, the two worked together, creating a business, fighting industry sexism, and establishing a basis for a much better series. When they fell apart (most of Season 4), it was heartbreaking, because we loved them together. By that time, though, all of the characters had depth, all of them interested the audience, even Joe MacMillan. Side characters added to the mix, and the real-life history fascinated, as our characters found themselves on the cutting edge time and again, only to be cut out, again and again.

For Season 2, the Metacritic score was 73.

For Season 3, the Metacritic score was 83.

For Season 4, the Metacritic score was 92.

I don't know, but this seems like a pretty big turnaround. And it's why, two years after the series ended, we watched all four seasons on Netflix over the course of just over a month. And now, Halt and Catch Fire goes on my life of series I can recommend. The improvements, after the big one between the first two seasons, were gradual. But they were impressive, and with a satisfying finale, I'm willing to say that it was worth getting through that first season. Check it out on Netflix.


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


euphoria

There is a lot of excess in Euphoria. At times it is the best of shows, at times it is the worst, at times it is both simultaneously. It demands our attention ... the only way to avoid it is to refuse to watch it in the first place. Metacritic collates the reviews for Euphoria and assigns a rating of 67 out of 100, meaning "generally favorable reviews". But of the 25 critics it includes, only 14 give positive reviews. 10 are mixed, and one is negative. Tim Goodman wrote that Euphoria featured "An early career-defining performance from Zendaya, who is an absolute revelation here; a similarly fantastic breakout performance from trans actress and model Hunter Schafer in her first major role; and strong work from [Sam] Levinson, who created, wrote and directed (five of the eight episodes), getting the vehicle that emphatically announces his arrival." Jen Chaney wrote, "What I can’t ascertain after watching these initial four episodes is whether all the nudity, drug use, and sometimes violent sexual activity is justifiable.... I also find while watching Euphoria that I can’t stop myself or look away." And Willa Paskin said "Euphoria frames itself as showing us the real experiences no one else has the heart to show, the unvarnished, gnarly truth, and there’s something sticky and queasily self-punishing about this vision of a world where everyone is empty and miserable and they’re only 16." All those critics were writing about the same show, and none of them are very far off target, if they are at all. Euphoria is a mess. I couldn't get enough of it.

At first, I assumed that this was a career-changing performance by Zendaya, and it's true, she is playing against her image here. But in truth, I had barely heard of Zendaya before the series began, and she is so great as Rue that I thought she was some out-of-nowhere acting savant (she is, of course, already a big star, a 22-year-old woman out of Oakland who has starred in a Disney series, appeared on Dancing with the Stars, played Spider-Man's girlfriend in the most recent movie version of that story, and sung on charting singles and albums). So I didn't know her, but nonetheless, she is great.

The out-of-nowhere star I thought Zendaya was does exist on Euphoria, though. Her name is Hunter Schafer, making her acting debut. Schafer, who is herself a transgender woman, plays Jules, a transgender teenager. The relationship between Rue and Jules is delightful and intense and wonderful ... and also toxic, as befits this damn show. The shippers are out in force for "Rules", and it's true, virtually every scene between the two is heartbreaking. They also break our hearts in solo scenes, as when Zendaya/Rue goes online to ask, "Can a bipolar person tell that they’re bipolar?"

There is a lot of fine acting on Euphoria ... I don't know who to start with after the two stars. But one person in particular deserves special mention, Angus Cloud, who like Zendaya is from Oakland and like Schafer had no prior acting credits. Cloud's drug dealer, Fez, develops into the cliched dealer with a heart of gold, but Cloud makes it seem real, and he has become a fan favorite.

I said the show is a mess, and it is. It is far from perfect. The entire plot line surrounding Nate, a star quarterback who is a standard villain, is dumb. But just when you think you're going to give up, Euphoria pulls you back in.