What a strange, transitional year TV is having! So far, we’ve seen Netflix falter and CNN+ flop. A lot of fantastic old shows have recently returned from extended pandemic hiatuses—but, for me, the pleasures of getting reacquainted with Atlanta, Better Call Saul, et al. have been tempered by an awareness of how lacking we are in fantastic new shows. Especially ones that, like Barry and Better Things, originated on the small screen. If this spring’s barrage of mostly mediocre docudramas is any indication of what’s to come, we may well be months, rather than years, away from glimpsing the creative limits of intellectual-property-based storytelling on TV. And if that’s the case, the great streaming reckoning can’t come soon enough.
Abbott Elementary (ABC)
Just when you thought the network sitcom was dead, the best new example of the format since The Good Place arrives fully formed on ABC’s Tuesday-night lineup. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, an alum of A Black Lady Sketch Show who got her start making funny Instagram videos, Abbott Elementary follows the eccentric but sincerely committed faculty of an under-resourced primary school in Philadelphia. The show, which often pits the teachers against a scammer principal (Janelle James) determined to skim off any funds Abbott does manage to secure, uses the mockumentary format to strike a canny balance between warmhearted classroom scenes and gallows humor that satirizes the injustices of public education in the U.S. Best of all, it does what it does in the kind of breezy, economical, 21-minute broadcast prime-time episodes that have become so rare since the advent of streaming.
There has been some complaining, since it returned in March from a four-year hiatus, that Donald Glover’s rule-breaking experimental comedy isn’t funny anymore. I get that; if you tuned in to any given season 3 episode hoping for another invisible car gag or Florida Man riff, chances are you came out disappointed. Its creator evidently anticipated a backlash as well, if official episode descriptions written in the voice of a frustrated fan (“I think everybody knows blackface ain’t cool anymore, we get it. They be trying too hard to go viral”) are any indication.
But the best thing about Atlanta has always been the way it surprises and challenges its audience. So it was inevitable that Glover would respond to its success by frustrating viewers’ appetite for easy entertainment. (See also: his Childish Gambino video “This Is America.”) Ambitious, uneven and sometimes downright unrecognizable, season 3 finds a show grounded in the Black experience interrogating whiteness. Set amid freshly ascended headliner Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) European tour, but also incorporating whole episodes that sideline the regular characters in favor of parable-like vignettes populated by unfamiliar faces, it offers an outsider’s closeup view of an in-group whose relationships, consciences and worldviews have been shaped by privilege. As messy as the results can be, Glover is still bringing new insights on race, identity, and white supremacy to a medium that too often just recycles the old ones.
A show about a hitman who catches the acting bug could’ve been the broadest of fish-out-of-water comedies. Instead, three seasons in, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s far-fetched premise has transformed Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler, still great) acting class into a lens through which to view life trajectories of all sorts. When you’re a preternaturally talented assassin who yearns to be a nice, normal guy, which role reflects the person you really are? As the story keeps expanding to dissect more of the characters that surround Hader’s Barry, from thoughtful, mild-mannered Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) to Barry’s girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a domestic violence survivor who has unwittingly chosen another partner with a dark side, we see how everyone strikes some kind of compromise between their interests, instincts, abilities, and circumstances. Meanwhile, for TV fans, season 3 has the added bonus of an absolutely savage story line about the streaming economy.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
Less than midway through the final season of what has long been TV’s best crime drama—but also so much more—the connections between Breaking Bad and its somehow-superior prequel are slowly solidifying. Meanwhile, Better Call Saul has given us more beautifully shot action scenes, noble deaths, wild schemes, and even the origin story of Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) strip-mall headquarters. On an even more impressive, thematic level, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have used five seasons’—or, in the case of characters like Saul and Jonathan Banks’ Mike, two discrete series’—worth of patient, subtle character development to craft some of the most compelling moral dilemmas ever seen on TV. There will surely be more to say as the two-part season approaches its conclusion, this summer. But no matter how it ends, Saul has already more than earned a place as one of the greatest shows of our time.
Better Things (FX)
When the credits rolled on this spring’s series finale of Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical quasi-comedy about an actor who also happens to be a single mom, all I could feel was gratitude. Gratitude for its meditative tone. Gratitude for its embrace of mess, flux, uncertainty. Gratitude for its patience in letting themes and relationships develop, rather than over-explaining them for the purpose of moving a plot along. Gratitude for its representation of cool women over 40—an inspiration to those of us who are fast approaching that milestone. Gratitude for its empathetic portrayal of young people in all stages of growing up, from childhood bullying to wrestling with gender identity as a teen to dropping out of college when what you’re looking for can’t be found in any Ivory Tower. Gratitude for Adlon’s interest in life’s big, philosophical questions, even if she would never be so presumptuous as to pretend she had all the answers.
Better Things emerged from the downfall of its since-departed co-creator, Louis CK, during the hiatus between its second and third seasons, not just a morally cleansed show, but also a stronger one, fueled solely by Adlon’s auteurist vision. By the time it wrapped, it had been her project—with help from an excellent young cast and a rotating group of talented writers—for longer than it had been their shared one. But even before that, she was committed to every aspect of its look and feel; starting with season 2, Adlon directed every single episode. And it seems fitting that she left her character, Sam Fox, just as Sam was making her first moves behind the camera. Great finales tend to suggest new beginnings as well as offering closure, and in the end, Better Things left us with the thrill of imagining the Fox family’s limitless future.
Conversations With Friends (Hulu)
Many viewers adored Normal People, the first Hulu adaptation of millennial novelist laureate Sally Rooney. I was not one of them. Happily, Conversations With Friends—another 12-episode, half-hour Rooney drama from the same team that made People—is both a better book and a better show. Stretched languidly over the short timeframe of a Dublin summer, it pairs two precocious college women (played by Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane) who used to date but are now best friends with a 30-something married couple (Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke) enjoying enviable careers in the arts. Infidelity ensues, between Oliver’s naive Frances and Alwyn’s depressive Nick. But at its sensuous heart, Conversations is a coming-of-age story about learning to address rather than avoid problems and discovering how adult relationships, in all their complexity, work. It’s a page-turner for the eyes, and a beach read for the screen.
The Girl From Plainville (Hulu)
If I never have to see another true-crime docudrama, it’ll be too soon. That said, they aren’t all as broad, pointless, and trashy as your Candys and your Joe vs. Caroles and your The Thing About Pams. A few are actually quite good—and none more so than this muted account of the tragic Michelle Carter “texting suicide” case. What could easily have been a Lifetime melodrama about an evil girl who bullies her boyfriend into killing himself becomes, thanks to creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, a heartbreaking case study in which two teens’ brain chemistry, hormones, and the everyday stresses of smartphone-era adolescence collide, with disastrous results. The sense that the circumstances leading to Conrad Roy’s death were not, in fact, so distant from the lives of regular teens gives the show haunting subtext that’s reinforced by understated performances from Elle Fanning as Michelle and Chloë Sevigny, in the role of Conrad’s mother Lynn.
Made for Love (HBO Max)
It’s been a hard few months for shows unveiling their second seasons. Russian Doll, Starstruck, Undone, Girls5eva—they’ve all returned recently, with solid follow ups to promising-to-excellent debut seasons, and struggled to gain traction in a streaming news cycle dominated by the many new titles platforms rushed out to meet this year’s Emmy deadline. This is a particular shame in the case of Made for Love, which built on a fun but watered-down first season with new episodes that truly do justice to author and series creator Alissa Nutting’s hilarious and subversive novel.
A dark comedy that follows Hazel (Cristin Milioti), the wife of control-freak tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), after she escapes from his top-secret headquarters the Hub, Made for Love spent most of its early episodes developing the relationship between a heroine who’s been sequestered away from the real world and her cancer-stricken dad (Ray Romano). Themes of consent burbled in the background as she re-established herself in her hometown and struggled to evade surveillance by a husband who, unbeknownst to Hazel, planted an invasive chip in her brain. With that groundwork laid, season 2—which is set mostly at the Hub—has launched wholeheartedly into the questions of love, technology and personal agency that animate the book. Nutting manages to engagingly explore, through complex characters and smart humor, the kind of difficult, timely ideas that are usually relegated to high-level academic papers.
Search Party (HBO Max)
From Lost to Game of Thrones, shows that send viewers down ever-deepening rabbit holes of plot, world-building and weirdness tend to have trouble with endings. Not so with Search Party. What premiered in 2016 as a mumblecore dramedy about an aimless millennial, Alia Shawkat’s Dory, who seeks purpose through investigating the disappearance of an acquaintance, wrapped this winter with one of the most gloriously bonkers TV seasons ever made. Cultists, zombies, influencers, miracle drugs, a psychopathic little boy offered up for adoption by John Waters, a Willy-Wonka-meets-Elon-Musk entrepreneur played by Jeff Goldblum—these episodes truly had it all. Yet the show’s embrace of absurdity made perfect sense as the real world that Search Party satirized kept descending further into the absurd, particularly for the overeducated, underemployed young adults who were both its main characters and its core audience.
Severance (Apple TV+)
Severance is the best new show of the year—and it’s not even close. Set at the mysterious megacorp Lumon Industries, this dark sci-fi drama imagines a workplace where employees undergo a procedure that “severs” the person they are at the office (a.k.a. their “innie”) from the person they’ve always been and will continue to be whenever they’re off the clock (their “outie”). Aside from the many thorny ethical and existential quandaries implicit in the act of subcontracting out a newly created self who happens to share one’s body, the question is: what are Adam Scott’s Mark and his team of desk jockeys actually doing that’s sensitive enough to require such extreme information-security measures? Chillingly, even their innies, and viewers, have no idea as to the real-world impact of the rote, computerized tasks they’ve been assigned.
For a premise this heady, execution is what distinguishes a classic from a mess. Severance’s near-perfect debut season is a credit to first-time creator Dan Erickson, whose tightly focused scripts establish a compelling and eerily plausible alternate universe; to director Ben Stiller, who perfectly calibrates the pace and mood of each scene; and to a stellar cast that also features Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Christopher Walken and, in an especially haunting performance as a new hire at Lumon, rising talent Britt Lower. Season 2 can’t come soon enough.
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