Look, I am quite aware of how frivolous it is to discuss the absurd amount of television I watch while people are dying in hospitals due to the pandemic, or marching in the streets due to the longest running show in America (currently in its 401st season) known as “Institutionalized Racism”, most notably doled out in our current culture by the police on the African American community. This dawned on me as I was creating the main graphic for this post…and I thought that it’s sort of paramount for those who write public things to consistently and constantly reinforce that Black lives ALWAYS matter – and always have.
Okay, back to our regularly (and LOOOONG overdue) scheduled post…
I haven’t published anything since March 12th. You’d think I would have…I mean, didn’t we all have tons of time? So what the hell have I been doing? Well, a lot actually. In fact, I’ve never been as productive as I have been over the last five months +. I kept most of my psychotherapy clients (almost exclusively through Zoom), interacted with friends far and wide more often than I have in a very long time (almost exclusively through Zoom), learned Final Cut Pro (almost exclusively through YouTube tutorials) and edited and directed a bio-doc about my band, The Nubile Thangs, and its 30-year history (hence the need for the tutorials). You can watch it here. Oh, and there’s the twenty pounds I put on (hard work!).
I also had the personal torture of watching my brother get very, very sick and survive COVID-19 from afar and, oh yeah, was tested three times myself (all negative).
BUT, more to the point as it relates to this missive, I also found time to watch over EIGHTY-ONE seasons of SIXTY-SIX different programs which equates to 705-ish individual episodes (and over 35 films or docs along the way, as well), all since March 10th. I KNOW! Sleep is utterly over-rated. Thus, it’s only fair that I share some thoughts about each to aid y’all as you sit there, overwhelmed by the thousands of choices, trying to decide what to watch as you mindlessly point the remote at your streaming thingee (that did not come out the way I intended). So I present to you here a one-paragraph review of everything I watched – well, the TV shows, anyway.
Now, normally I hate a ratings system like thumbs or stars or tomatoes. People tend to miss the guts of a review when those markers exist, and the guts are where you ACTUALLY find out if it’s for you or not. However, I don’t think I can discuss 66 shows without some kind of rating system to keep me succinct, so I’ll use a 5-COVID system, with 5 being a must-watch, and 1 representing something almost as bad as the virus itself. Here are all the shows I’ve sat through since this awful mess began…
(the best of the best)
Gang of London – 9 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠 +, (tied for best of the bunch)
Soon to be on Cinemax (season 2 will be on AMC in 2022)
A show created and written by Gareth Evans, revolving around the world of London’s most powerful gangs, with brilliant actors, a sky-high production budget, possessing the best action sequences seen since…well…the “Raid” films, in a brilliantly tidy nine episodes, with a satisfying ending AND a brilliant feed in to the next season? Yes, please. I’ll have some more of that! Warning…this might be the most violent show I’ve ever seen on TV, but even so…cover your eyes, because the rest of it is fantastic. The relational psychology, the dialogue (with one or two exceptions) and the intricacies of the plot are all magnificent. More proof that Gareth Evans knows how to make amazing media. And, if you don’t mind that over-the-top action-packed blood-work – and especially if you prefer it – this will honor your time commitment many times over. Side note: Episode five, which spends its entirety on a side-plot and leaves all the main characters behind, feels like its own action film – and would land in my Top 25 action films by itself. Yes, it’s that good.
The Great – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠 +, (tied for best of the bunch)
So if you liked “The Death of Stalin” (one of my top films of the decade) you’ll love “The Great”. Likewise, if “The Favourite” was a favorite of yours, chances are pretty, pretty good you’ll dig “The Great,” since it was conceived and written by Tony McNamara, who wrote that film. BUT, while it FEELS like “The Favourite”, it’s written with Ianucci’s flair for translating historical context into an absurdist confection. I’m not usually an Elle Fanning fan, but she’s amazing in this. Who knew she had such comic chops? And Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox and Sacha Dhwan are great. And, of course, the brilliant British character actor Adam Godley is spectacular. Easily my favorite comedy during the pandemic, thus far.
Bordertown (S3) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
A cross between “Monk”, “Broadchurch” and “Mindhunter”, not only is “Bordertown” the best Euro-serial-killer-caper that’s out there, it’s also one of the best written shows on TV. And while, like most shows, its sophomore effort struggled to maintain the high quality of its debut, THIS season, the third, beat them both. More specifically, while still mysterious in all ways, it is easier to follow and connective to our hero, Kari (played SO bizarrely by Ville Vertanen). The oddest show of the bunch is one of the best.
Bosch (S6) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Okay, While I don’t think “Bosch” deserves top honors overall, it is easily the best and most consistent modern noir going. This latest offering won’t win any awards (seasons 3 and 5 get those), but it remains the most adult (read: smart) mystery out there. It’s longevity is due to possessing a series of characters, that, like “The Wire”, seem familiar and comfortable – even if the dialogue is literally torn from the pages of Michael Connolly’s books upon which they are based. Don’t get me wrong, that dialogue is delicious, especially when coming from the mouths of such restrained actors successfully playing everything small (including Titus Welliver, Amy Aquino, Jamie Hector, Lance Reddick, Madison Lintz and Troy Evans), but it is pretty classic noir-level dialogue. All in all, terrific stuff.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (S7) – 13 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
The longtime reigning champ of the single camera sitcom, “B99” is still as funny today as it was seven years ago. While this season had a pinch of sensitivity, which was noticeable and ever-so-slightly annoying, the character work, writing and timing are still spectacularly funny. To me, the best sitcom of the decade.
Homemade – 17 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
I accidentally stumbled across this gem a couple months ago. It is a series of seventeen short films (all under 13 minutes) that deal specifically with the different ways in which we interact with the quarantine…all by well known and terrific directors, including Pablo Larrain, Ana Lily Amirpour, Ladj Ly, Rachel Morrison and many others (including Kristin Stewart). Not all are successful (hello, Kristin Stewart), but they all are extremely human, some hilarious, some very sad, and some a bit pretentious (did I mention Kristin Stewart?). So, you know, as inconsistent as any festival shorts program. But since each are so quick, you might as well see art by people who know what they’re doing about something we’re all living.
Killing Eve (S3) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Oh, thank god. Season 2 was so misguided and unaware of what made the show click to begin with, I almost chose not to watch this season. So glad I did. Season 3 is funny, heart-breaking, so well-written and filled with brilliant performances – none better than last year’s Emmy winner, Jodie Comer. This season the focus shifts almost completely to her character (Villanelle) with the remaining emotional heft swung toward Fiona Shaw, who gives the performance of her life. This is great television and more than continues the promise of the first season.
The Last Dance – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Unleashed at the beginning of the quarantine, this doc celebrates and unveils the life of Mr. Jordan in an engaging way. Now, it is heavily biased to make him look strong, but most of the time it feels honest. More importantly, it’s a brilliant time capsule for Chicagoans, or anyone who lived here during his dynastic reign. If you love basketball, you’ve already watched it. But what you may not know is how much it will bring back memories, sensations and physiological feelings of who you were at that time. I loved it.
Middleditch & Schwartz – 3 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Interestingly, many improv artists have been crushing this show. No idea why. It is utterly brilliant comedy. The three episodes are devoted to one long-form improv sketch each. The two of them (one the star of “Silicon Valley” and Verizon commercials, and the other, one of the driving forces in the hilarious, “House of Games”) are so comfortable with each other, there’s not a moment of worry that they’re going to fall off the balance beam that is long-form improv. Instead, they take us on a ride that is both non-stop hilarious and the genuine warm fuzzies you from observing great friends be just that…a la “Diner” or Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. If you need to laugh until you cry…episode one should do it.
Midnight Diner (S1-5) – 50 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Netflix (note: Seasons 1-3 are called “Midnight Diner”, seasons 4 & 5 are called “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”. There are also two full-length movies based on the show)
Okay. It’s imperative that you watch “Midnight Diner” first…not “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”. The latter is seasons 4 and 5 of the whole. If you do it the other way around, you’ll miss much of the character knowledge that brings to life many of those season’s stories. Very Japanese, very much written under the rules of Japanese attitudes toward sexuality, and sometimes kinda jerky in its storytelling, “Diner” is, nonetheless, mostly beautiful in its relationships, rich in its humanity and emotion, and best of all, each episode is (not counting the opening credits) 21 minutes long. You can blow through this. Sometimes the stories don’t work, but mostly you’ll laugh in the middle and cry at the end of each episode. It never tries to do anything more than simply reveal to us the stories of people who wander in to a tiny eatery between midnite and six in the morning. Love, love love this show.
Ozark (S3) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
You’ve seen it. If you haven’t I don’t know what to tell you. Season 3 does not reach the emotional heights of season 2 (mostly because Julia Garner’s Ruth isn’t featured with quite as much prevalence), but the storytelling and the steadfast ability of its characters to both stick to that story in an honest and human way, are what make the show go. That requires Bateman, Linney, Janet McTeer and, especially Lisa Emery (as Darlene) to be brilliant. and they are. Just watch it, fer crissakes.
Rake: AUS version (S1-5): 50 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Okay. There was a one season show called “Rake” with Greg Kinnear that was pretty awful. It was based on the Australian version of the show, that, if you discount the fifth season, is pretty friggin’ brilliant. Really funny, utterly absurd, but anchored in real human response and emotion, this show revolves around the rake-ish fuck-up, criminal defense attorney, Cleaver Greene (played with abandon by co-creator Richard Roxburgh). Granted, much of the humor feels very Australian (re: British but less embarrassing), but it is, indeed very funny and features incredibly well-drawn and performed characters. The first four season are amazing. The final season feels like a completely different show as EVERYTHING about it is fantastically over-the-top, but even here, the performances almost make up for it. Almost. Give it a shot. It’s on Netflix and I think you’ll latch on to it pretty quickly
The Trip (S4 aka “The Trip To Greece”) – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
Not available currently in the US (season 1 available to rent)
For the uninitiated, “The Trip” is a collection of six half hour episodes per season in which we are privy to the travel and dining companionship of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who spend most of their time trying to make each other laugh – or compete over who does a better impersonation of, say, Michael Caine or David Frost, among millions. It is hilarious throughout. Michael Winterbottom, in a seemingly rare of moment of clarity, just lets the cameras roll as the two gambol on about different locales under the guise of writing restaurant reviews for some unknown magazine. Keep in mind, they are playing themselves…and I mean playing. They are performing a combination or their real emotions and how we assume they behave based on their public personas. The first season is on Amazon and revolves around the English countryside. The second edition focused on Italy, then Spain, and this season it’s Greece Where season three tried a little too hard to build in a plot-line – especially in its ridiculous final shot – this season goes back to basics and we are all the better for it. Yes, they made movies of the same name, taking a “best of” approach and paring the total running time in half. It does not do the shows justice. The more time we spend at each table, the better we are for it. Watch the first season, you’ll see. Here’s a taste!
The Umbrella Academy (S1 & S2) – 20 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
If season 2 were not as good as it was, this show would not have made it to the lofty heights of its five-COVID categorization, but it just squeezes in, mostly because it possesses very strong characters, saying and doing things that only these characters could, and almost completely avoids sentimentality unless absolutely called for – very important in a graphic novel-based show. The show is engaging, looks gorgeous, is often hilarious and never, ever dull. Season 1 isn’t bad, per se, it’s just not as complete…or, rather, in stride…as its follow-up. A blast.
Unorthodox (S1) – 4 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠🦠
I had actually not heard a word about this show and chose it by chance from my “new on netflix” row. Imagine my surprise when I started extolling its virtues and everyone I told was like, “wait…you’re just watching it NOW?!” I’ve been in a quarantine. What do you want from me? Anyhoo, it’s really lovely and you most certainly don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate how wonderful it is. Orthodox Judaism (well…any ultra-patriarchal family system) is the antagonist of the show, but not a cultural pre-requisite for the viewer. The lead, Shira Haas, has an incredibly haunting aura that makes it impossible not to be mesmerized when she’s onscreen. And her journey is beautifully written, as are the performances of the pieces around her, including a brilliant young actor, Amit Rahav, who has basically been in nothing until this. It’s only four episodes…four emotion-walloping episodes and it deserves your time.
(Warning: If you watch “Unorthodox”, be prepared for Netflix to push every Jewish-centric show in their library in your face as “suggestions”…and, believe me, there are quite a few)
(an excellent way to spend some time)
After Life (S2) – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Many of you know I wildly championed the first season of this show as a sort of male version of Fleabag…ie handling death in a 30-minute six episode multi-camera dramedy. However, something happened in the interim and the second season, while having moments of absolute hilarity, and real drama, is additionally filled with thirty tons of morose marmalade. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much worth your time and worth four COVID’s for the episode with the talent show, if nothing else. Oh, and the bar scene. And, again, the entire season will take you three hours. And the addition of Ethan Lawrence (seen in the first season as the kid playing the recorder) as a main character is genius.
The Alienist (S2) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
I was not a fan of the first season. Much as I love a good period murder mystery/thriller, I felt it was trying way to hard to create atmosphere. And the stilted nature of the acting, while befitting of the period and standing in society, was brutal to watch. I swore I wasn’t going to watch the second season, and then, I realized that, other than Perry Mason, there wasn’t much new and TNT was nice enough to give two episodes a week. And, man, did they fix it. Now told from the perspective of Dakota Fanning’s character instead of Daniel Bruhl’s over-restrained (and sometimes vastly over-acted) performance, and done as a proper private detective mystery which actually includes the deep chasm that existed between the Gramercy Park hoi polloi and The Five Points and Lower East Side impoverished in the NYC of 1896, it was terrific and often quite suspenseful. If you can get through the first season and like your mysteries told in another era, this is a terrific option. It’s no “Ripper Street”, but the second season is not far off.
Endeavour (S7) – 3 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
I friggin’ love this show. However, it has been getting awfully maudlin the last couple seasons. DCI Friday mopes around a LOT – and the need to force late sixties teen activity gets tiresome after a while. At least he’s lost the moustache (read: caterpillar). Oy. But, as long form mysteries go, it’s about as good as you’re gonna get from the UK right now. It avoids the “wink wink nudge nudge” that comes in to play with most Brit mysteries like “Midsomer Mysteries”, “Vera” or the great “George Gently”. It DOES stay true to the journey of each of these characters, sometimes in the most subtle, but accurate ways. In other words, they aren’t afraid of a little drama mixed in with their search for the bad guys/gals. Just barely misses the FIVE COVID level due to its general Eeyore-ness.
Great Asian Railway Journeys – 20 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Not available currently in the US
You’re never gonna find this series, but I’m hooked on Michael Portillo’s journeys across the globe in trains. Mostly due to his utter embarrassment when having any real interaction with local people during his journeys – even as he fearlessly throws himself in to every activity under the sun…from folk dancing to sausage making. Great British Railway Journeys is the father of the series with 10 seasons under its belt. I think season 1 is available on AmazonPrime. But he has toured, and has dedicated series, for trips all over the European continent, Canada and the US. This Asian trip is so informative and destroys many of the myths and assumptions we have of some of the very out of the way places in Asia.
Great Australian Railway Journeys – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Not available currently in the US
(see above for background) Not quite as informative or effective as the Asian series, this, nonetheless, has PLENTY of Portillo magic as we traipse from the West to the East on the massive continent of OZ via rail.
The Great British Bake-Off (S1-10) – 94 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Seasons 1 & 2 not available in US, Season 3 on Netflix as “GBBO: Beginnings”, Seasons 4-10 on Netflix but labeled as season 1-7. Got that?
Yep. Watched them all in the last month and a half. All ten seasons. Almost every season has a character I chose early and who made it to the finals…except Season 5 (on Netflix – Season 8 overall). Regardless, it is so well edited and directed, it’s kind of a marvel. I mean, we’re watching people bake things. Not all that far away from watching paint dry. BUT, with the UK TV documentary team and expertise in full force, it’s never dull. And the music is terrific, in fact, I use two of Tom Howe’s themes from the show as my alarm in the morning (“Fresh Ingredients” and “Signature Cakes”). A joyful waste of time that can be paused and picked up anywhere within the many folds of it’s rough puff pastry. So why only 4 COVID’s? Because the 2018 episode (Netflix season 6, overall season 9), is so good, so connected, so engaging, that it makes the rest of them look less than in comparison. I mean… “Rahul…give me one word to describe yourself!” “Depressing”. Come ON! I LOVE that guy!
(note: on Apple Music and elsewhere, some guy named Jack Hallam has made an album of the music from the show that is not the actual music, so make sure you choose Tom Howe’s album)
Hanna (S2) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Showing a consistency I didn’t think it could, the second season of “Hanna” actually takes the promise of the first and improves on it. Not going to pretend it’s not a complete ripoff of the Bourne canon (as was the film it’s based on), it nonetheless has enough action, twists and turns and terrific performances from its lead, Esme Creed-Miles, or secondary lead, “The Killing’s” Mireille Enos to recommend it. And it’s always fun to watch my old college chum, Dermot Mulroney chew up some scenery when he is asked to. This is a fun way to spend some time, and well deserving of its FOUR COVID status.
Lance – 2 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Not gonna lie. Lance Armstong, when I was prepping for AIDS Rides and cycling everywhere, was my hero. Even after he admitted he doped, I thought, well, of course he did. Everyone did – which was obvious if you followed cycling’s grand tours like I do. However, I don’t think I really thought about him at all after that. So with the same amount of trepidation (that he would be in charge of the doc and try and make himself a sympathetic character as evidenced by “The Last Dance”), I was pleasantly surprised to see that, while kind of an asshole, he has no problem being portrayed as on. The reason I didn’t give it a FIVE COVID rating was that I felt it tried a little too hard get him to admit he is an asshole on the director’s terms at the end of the film. Armstrong, in fact, does a pretty good job of doing that all on his own and, further, seems to own his part in it. So, yeah, a little too much gotcha seeking… unnecessarily. Regardless, hate him or hate him, he is a fascinating subject. A terrific doc that is really well made and researched. Fascinating.
The Last Kingdom – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
This dead and buried show was rescued by Netflix right after season 2 and, I, for one, am grateful. It’s got all sorts going for it…unintelligible accents, “huge” fight scenes that actually involve about twenty people, and storylines that heap seeming hundreds of antagonists upon our hero, Uhtred…who is the son of Uhtred, apparently, as we’re reminded over and over and over. Almost as often as we were reminded that Daenerys was the Mother of Dragons. And Alexander Dreymon, who plays Uhtred is a German actor, playing a Dane, surrounded by hundreds of actors with British accents. Might be worth watching just to hear his crazy, and first of its kind, dialect. BUT, it has been quite engaging since Netflix took over in season 3. I’m a total sucker for historical adventure dramas, even if they aren’t perfect. This is one of them. Not perfect, but better than most when it comes to actually caring about the characters and staying true to historical fact, in this case the creation of a unified England under King Alfred.
Laurel Canyon – 2 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
Not as good as the David Crosby doc last year (“Remember My Name”), but still very enjoyable. Using photographs (both of the neighborhood and the era) of longtime Laurel Canyon residents, Nurit Wilde and Henry Diltz, the doc effectively puts you in the action as it describes through those photos and home movies, just how vibrant and alive the scene was before the Manson murders and how different it was after. With words and music from pretty much every artist that you can think of from that time, it is dense as hell…and doesn’t make the same mistake Linda Ronstadt’s doc made by omitting the importance of Lowell George and Little Feat to the Larel Canyon scene. And going beyond the Crosby doc, Epix’ doc mentions bands you might not have thought of as part of the Laurel Canyon scene, like The Monkees. Yes, The Monkees. Well worth the four hours if you hold any of the music inspired by the Summer of Love dear to your heart.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (S7) – 13 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
The very definition of a guilty pleasure, Agents of SHIELD spent this season tidying up the THOUSANDS of ridiculous loose ends while still managing to further deepen the characters humanity. It’s like they thought, “oh, crap, this is the last season, and all our characters are two-dimensional…we should fix that!” Well, they actually did. And why they couldn’t find a way to bring “Agent Carter’s” Agent Sousa, played with an almost unbelievable earnestness and depth, by Enver Gjokaj, earlier in the show’s life is beyond me. He draws the dimension out of his other actors. It was a brilliant maneuver and softened…well everybody. The only characters who have managed to be three dimensional before this season were Jemma (Elizabeth Henstridge) and of course, Coulson played by the vastly underappreciated Clark Gregg. And the last couple seasons featured one of the great Star Wars knock-offs of modern television, its own C3PO, a droid named Enoch played with Spock-like drollness by the brilliant Joel Stoffer. Most importantly, the series finale was lovely…crazy, yes, but lovely. They wrapped it up in a way that honored both the show and the larger Marvel universe. I, for one, will miss it. SHIELD was one of the few shows that didn’t care how absurd its underlying premises were…they stuck with it…while still having the kind of innocence that gives most Marvel films their heart
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
At first I thought this would simply be a ripoff of “Silicon Valley”. And that is exactly how it initially comes across. But as you get more invested in its characters and rhythms, you begin to see that MQ is its own thing. In fact, a very, very funny thing with some terrific young comic actors, chief among them, co-creator, Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, David Hornsby, Jessie Ennis, and the never-before-as-funny, F. Murray Abraham. And, not fer nothing, their quarantine episode, which aired a couple months after the initial season, was the best and most on-point description of the psychological trauma many felt at its outset. It’s really a beautiful episode that somehow manages to maintain its funny, while being utterly relatable.
Pennyworth (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
“Pennyworth” could have been really bad. REALLY bad. But by casting Jack Bannon as our young hero, Pennyworth, the man, becomes a Blitz-era Bond, granted, without any of the high tech, but with all the cool. The plot is historically accurate, believable, and prescient, and the characters are excellent. Add to that terrific action sequences, and you have one of the very few good things to come out of the DC universe.
PUNK – 4 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
So, it’s not COMPLETELY accurate – and leaves a lot out, but this doc about the rise of punk rock, post-punk, CA punk, DC punk and the third (fifth?) wave is still massively entertaining, if for nothing else than the interviews with Johnny Lydon (Rotten), and Marky Ramone. If you’ve ever listened to any of the music, this is a must watch. I gotta say, EPIX has offered mostly terrific offerings (PUNK, Laurel Canyon, Pennyworth, Berlin Station). Get the free trial and pick a couple. But a good start is PUNK.
Snowpiercer (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
So, while not great, and having much less to do with the original film’s brilliance than I had hoped, it is, nonetheless, a pretty fun way to spend a few hours. With the exception of terrific work by Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Murphy and Alison Wright (who has escaped her banishment to Moscow from “The Americans”!), the other lead performances FEEL like network TV – very “Lost”-like. That doesn’t mean it suffers because of that…but the distinction between those that REALLY know what they’re doing and those who are relatively new at this is noticeable. However, the plot is well thought out and gets better as it continues. I guess I’m just so happy that it’s better than it I thought it would be, I might be giving it more credit that it deserves. Still, there are worse things to watch, and the IDEAS behind it, an American caste-system as first explored by Joon-Ho Park’s original film, are essential.
Somebody Feed Phil (S1-3)- 13 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
So this travelogue works like a whimsical counterpart to “Parts Unknown”. But with Bourdain, you always wondered what was simmering just below the surface as he experienced other cultures through food. Phil Rosenthal, who is best known for creating “Everybody Loves Raymond”, is the polar opposite. There isn’t a dash of feeling that doesn’t fly out of his brain – mostly joy, sometimes sadness. In the end, however, both shows serve the same purpose; teaching us that no matter how different our customs, beliefs and cooking styles, we are all the same when sitting at a table enjoying the tastier things in life. It’s lovely, often funny, often tear-raising and, well, very Jewish in both its humor and its underlying sense of community. His skype talks with his parents are highlights…and, coming as they did before we started to do that all the time in reaction to the pandemic, more relatable than they may have seemed before all this.
Stumptown (S1) – 13 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
This new rookie effort from ABC in 2019 is, for a network dramedy, much more layered and nuanced than most, especially while still keeping its humor intact. Dealing with substance abuse, PTSD, post-convict life, the struggles adults with Downs Syndrome must deal with, and how native-American reservations, and its inhabitants, must interact with its bordering, larger white communities – all are part and parcel to this lovely show. Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson and Cole Sibus are all terrific and their relationship to each other is what makes this thing fly. Sure, it gets sentimental once in a while, but usually manages to bring it all back as soon as it becomes aware of itself. I look forward to seeing where it goes…especially as it takes place in Portland.
(UPDATE: The show has been cancelled “due to COVID”, but really because it takes place in Portland and they would have to incorporate BLM in to the story. Don’t think the execs/sponsors were too excited.
Ugly Delicious (S2) – 4 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” is a terrific, and quite different take on the usual cultural exploration of food. Instead of going TO a culture and exploring its food, Chang goes to a food and explores how different cultures regard, cook, and enjoy it. Season one’s high point was the Fried Chicken episode and how our culture has distorted and misshapen what it means culturally, versus how it is regarded in other places. Unfortunately season two is just not as good. Or, rather, it feels much more family-centric, now that he has his own children. As a single guy who likes to be shown adventure wherever and whenever, last season felt more eye-opening and personal to Chang, and thus to me. Regardless, a terrific show about big ideas and gorgeous food.
Warrior Nun (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠🦠
There are TONS of problems with this show. ESPECIALLY the ending, GRR! BUT, the dialogue is so much better than a show about a sword-wielding sect of nuns who, for millennia, have had as their sole purpose, the task of protecting a glowing thingamabob that keeps devils from overtaking the globe, deserves. Yep. It’s fun, kinda creative in its premise and features Chicago’s own Toya Turner (who happens to give the best performance on the show). “Warrior Nun” is a show that has more to offer within its scene work and performances than its YA plot would suggest and, as a result, its worth your time if you like ancient crossword puzzle plots.
(oh, so close to really good)
The English Game – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠 1/2🦠
Julian Fellowes first of two new offerings this year (the other being the massively disappointing, “Belgravia”), “The English Game” documents how the sport of football (soccer) went from being the sport reserved for the elite to the beginning of football as the Everyman’s game. It’s a lovely illustration of the moment sport became a possible way out for those in the very bottom-most bottom of the English caste system. “English Game” features all the illustration of the inequities of the age Fellowes’ Downton does, but without all the gloss and shine. An interesting show that never quite lives up to its enormous premise, but still holds one’s attention. And the acting is mostly superb.
Perry Mason (S1) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠 1/2🦠
Style. Style. Style. Alas, substance only gets one mention, and a 3:1 ration of style over substance makes for a disappointing show, ESPECIALLY when it has all the support from its network that “Mason” has. With a budget big enough to make downtown LA actually look like downtown LA from the late twenties, terrific photography from two of television’s best cinematographers (Darran Tiernan & David Franco), and a cast of thousands including, but not limited to Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Juliet Rylance (Frances Ha), John Lithgow (everything), Chris Chalk (When They See Us), Stephen Root (Office Space – and Mr. Romy Rosemont), Andrew Howard (Watchmen, Hell on Wheels), Lily Taylor (Six Feet Under) and the great Shea Whigham (Homecoming, Boardwalk Empire), you have a right to expect greatness. But they seemed to have forgotten that in their determination to get the look and feel right, they forgot to put any there there. Maslany and Taylor’s entire storyline is utterly misguided, superfluous and seems to have no connection to the court-room drama that it purports to be. Rhys, Lithgow, Chalk, Whigham…they’re all fine. But the women’s characters are so poorly written (save for the few moments we see Veronica Falcon, and Molly Ephraim), it’s kind of maddening. Rylance (his daughter if you’re wondering) tries like hell and mostly succeeds in overcoming her script shortcomings. But Maslany is simply, and terribly, miscast. Such a shame. I give it a half star over average because it looks so good, Rhys is god, and I have high hopes for season two. Oh…don’t get me started on Terrence Blanchard’s uber-intrusive score. Ugh!
The Split (S2) – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠 1/2🦠
Season 1 was so great. Listen, I’ll watch Nicola Walker read the phone book (if there even is such a thing anymore). But this better-acted, British version of “Brothers and Sisters” (only here it’s all sisters), was one of the best written shows about women and sisters (outside of “Fleabag”), you were bound to find. But season 2 only brings one word to mind – maudlin. Yes, the performances are still exceptional…especially from Walker, Annabel Scholey, the great Stephen Mangan (“Episodes”), and Rudi Dharmalingam…and it FEELS right. But, damn if it isn’t just simply depressing. Catch the terrific season 1 on Hulu, and by the time you’ve finished, season 2 will probably roll around, as it’s only available in the UK, currently.
(not bad, but not great)
Babylon Berlin (S3), 12 episodes: 🦠🦠🦠
Budget went higher, content and emotional heft went lower. And no surprise appearance of Bryan Ferry. Harumph. Story was fine. More on point dealing, as it does with the shifting social and political structures in Germany as fascism started to take root. And I could watch Liv Lisa Fries stare into the distance for hours and that alone would make it better than most shows. And Volker Bruch’s Inspector Rath is still a terrific protagonist. It just doesn’t feel like it has the weight of the first two seasons, though the life of the condemned Greta is magnificent storytelling (mostly thanks to the performance of the terrific Leonie Benesch). This is still a show worth watching. My hope is that the new season, which debuts in mid-October, will feel like a continuation and, hence, fill in some of the missing stuff, since it was shot at the same time. We’ll see.
Belgravia – 6 episodes: 🦠🦠🦠
What an incredible disappointment. The “next big thing” from Julian Fellowes, “Belgravia” was our chance to see his Dickensian flourish – and it is definitely a visual feast with terrific performances. The problem is the story is Jane Austen-light, with a little Dickens caste-system reality. So, in effect, after the first episode, instead of allowing the parents to be the story, it instead becomes a will they or won’t they love story/whodunnit…and I don’t care. When the brilliant Tamsin Greig (“Episodes”), chameleon-like Harriet Walter (who is at least 30% of what made this season of “Killing Eve” so great) and the always amazing Philip Glanister (uh…everything) are on camera, it sizzles! Alas, everyone else comes across as whiny or insipid. But, those three plus the production values make it worth watching…and you may find the story more to your liking.
Brave New World – 9 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Engaging and occasionally very interesting, NBC’s adaptation of “Brave New World” bares almost NO resemblance to the novel. In its attempt to make something new and shiny as the debut original series on Peacock, they decided to go sexy. Lots of sexy. Lots and lots of sexy. Far be it from me to downplay sexiness, however, and alas, the plot devolves in to a slightly less confusing version of HBO’s “Westworld”. Most of it stretches our suspension of disbelief well beyond that which we can grok (yes, I’m mixing my dystopian-novel metaphors here, but you get my point). The performances are fine. As usual, the best belongs to the always good Harry Lloyd (who is possibly the only secondary Game of Thrones performer to go on to great things with consistency). But, really, other than seeing Alden Ehrenreich without clothes and Demi Moore making a really impressive cameo comeback bid, there’s just not a lot here. But it is very sexy, so…
Brockmire (S4) – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Hoo boy, did this show fall off a cliff or what?! Seriously…the JOY of this show was watching Hank Azaria’s multiple addictions get in the way of everything he tried to do (yes, I know addictions aren’t funny – but the predicaments they place someone in can be – see “Loudermilk” or “Californication” for other successful versions of this). Somehow we are now to enjoy the show with him being the picture of self-awareness and sobriety. It’s a terrible fit. Amanda Peet’s return is fantastic and her presence is there to give us all the awful, car-crashiness we’ve grown accustomed to. Also, the show’s depiction of baseball ten years hence is pretty funny. But the addition of Reina Hardesty as Brockmire’s daughter, brings absolutely nothing to the table. The story-line she is saddled with is actually kinda cringe-worthy, and not at all in the way the show’s previous cringe-worthiness made it great. No, it’s dull, out of place, and SO not funny. BUT, it has moments that are better than most sitcoms right now, and you really should watch the previous three seasons….so I give this an empathetic three COVIDs.
Cursed (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
A retelling of the Arthurian legend that includes fairies and elves and other minorities. Does it work? Sort of. First, yet another Skarsgard lad is the reason to watch. Gustaf, as Merlin, is interesting, committed and heads and tails above everyone else in the show. Devon Terrell, as Arthur, is also quite good and it’s nice to see some color-blind casting. But Katherine Langford, as our heroine, is simply too lightweight an actor to carry the ENORMITY of the weight of this script (I felt the same way about her in “Knives Out”, although I hear she is quite good in “13 Reasons Why”). It’s a beautiful show (in spite of a budget that means huge armies are more CGI than impressive) and features the strangest telling of this tale ever. Also, if you have adolescent kids, it might be fun to watch it with them. But otherwise, it’s merely meh and you can probably skip it.
Doc Martin (S9) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
You know Doc Martin. It’s always pretty good. Never great, but NEVER awful and the characters stick to their guns with clenched hands. Consistent. Kinda like Doc Martin.
The Flash (S6) – 10 episodes (second half of season) 🦠🦠🦠
Something happened to this show about four years ago. It went from guilty pleasure fun to maudlin, melancholy, seriousness. It hooked me early on as a guilty pleasure, so I’ve stuck with it, but it’s simply not all that enjoyable, and certainly not fun. Complex, complicated, sometimes REALLY confusing…I keep watching hoping for its underlying warmth to re-emerge. We’ll see.
Hidden (S2) – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Another disappointing sophomore effort, the Welsh murder mystery doesn’t offer enough of a mystery to mystify us this time around. Granted, this is a show that, in both seasons, let us in on the culprit early and then drew us in and out of the discovery and capture. Alas, this time around, it’s just feels like less is at stake. That said, the fact that they film every scene twice, once in English and once in Welsh, is mind boggling to me, and a reason to support the show. Listen, it’s still better than most and possesses a theme song so good, it’s been my alarm sound for a couple years now. It just wasn’t as good as season 1. Maybe the third will be just as creepy as the first.
High Fidelity – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
So much to hate about this show, it squeaks in with three COVIDs because of the performances of Da’Vine Joy Randolph (brilliant), David H. Holmes (spot on) and Jake Lacy (adorable). But, man, couldn’t care less about our fourth wall-breaking lead character. At its core, the book is about a self-absorbed whiny kid we nonetheless relate to. It has only ever worked because of the words on the page (or the compactness of the film version). Ten episodes of Zoe Kravitz asiding us like we’re in on some lifestyle that everybody has actually lives kinda just makes you annoyed. Can’t relate. But those three actors…yeah. They’re worth a couple episodes for sure. Cancelled with good reason, so no commitment beyond these episodes.
High Score – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
This light and informative six-part documentary about the very beginnings of video games doesn’t quite know the difference between whimsy and cutesy, and, unfortunately, there is a little too much of the latter. It is very clever, but the direction gets exhausting after a while. And, as someone who has voiced several video games in his career, it was really cool that they used Charles Martinet as the narrator. But while he is a legendary voice performer who has been responsible for voicing almost every classic Nintendo character, he’s not the best narrator and only adds to the cloying nature once we get in to the later episodes. Still, if you’ve ever enjoyed video games, especially at the beginning, you’ll find a lot to learn here.
Homecoming (S2) – 7 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Yet another second season that doesn’t live up to the promise of the first. The conceit of the show is great, the payoff is pretty good, the seven episodes are each 30 minutes long, so it’s a quick watch, and Stephan James is back. Janelle Monae and Chris Cooper are nice additions. But Sam Esmail was not involved in this season and as a result, it’s simply not as intriguing, nor as visually sumptuous. Certainly not without Julia Roberts or Shea Whigham.
Hunters (S1) – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Alas, I saw the twist ending coming around the second episode, and I kept watching because I hoped I’d be wrong. I wasn’t. The premise is terrific and often the dialogue is blistering. But it seems just this side of trying too hard to provoke. Josh Radnor is worth watching, as is Saul Rubinek – and no one is bad. I suppose it’s always fun watching Pacino chew up some scenery – or burn it to the ground. But otherwise, an interesting shrug.
The Least Expected Day: Inside the Movistar Team 2019 – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
If you’re not a cyclist who follows the Tour de France, you can skip this. If you are, what are you waiting for? A fascinating look in to the in-race mindsets of the world’s best cyclists – including my favorite, Nairo Quintana
Star Trek: Picard – 10 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
Pilot episode is genius as it manages to bring up the same emotional connections we felt in “Logan”. It’s a lovely hour. Then the “adventure” starts and it loses almost all of that. Simply doesn’t live up to the legend of Cpt. Picard. BUT, it is Star Trek, and it is so nice to put those shows comfy shoes back on.
Stargirl (S1) – 13 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
I know, I know. What am I doing? But once I saw Luke Wilson and Amy Smart were adult leads, I was certainly going to TRY it out. And, it’s not bad. Wilson keeps it in an earnest and humorous place, Smart keeps its connective tissue intact and Anjelika Washington is a treasure. Is it good? Maybe? I mean…it’s entertaining. That’s enough for now.
The Test – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
So, you say, “Jason, is there a really good doc about cricket out there?” Well, yes, yes there is. Focused on the rebuilding of an Aussie national team that became mired in a cheating scandal, this doc proves comeback stories work no matter what the sport. Also there is the curiosity of the game itself. Listen, I personally produced not one, but THREE cricket matches between the Aussie and English national teams when I lived in LA – and I STILL don’t understand the game. Doesn’t make this any less interesting to watch.
Tommy (S1) – 12 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
I REALLY wanted to love this show. And who doesn’t love Edie Falco (who’s very good on the show). And the idea of a show centered around the first female police chief in L.A. (who also happens to be white and gay) is one of the best one sentence pitches around. But, it’s on CBS…so while they aren’t afraid to tackle actual issues, they also keep it “in the family”. Alas, her family and her closest colleagues are just not all that interesting, with the exception of Russell G. Jones, and possibly Vladimir Caamano. It’s just this side of safe, and it can’t be to make the promise of that pitch come through.
War of the Worlds (S1) – 8 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
An interesting take on a very old subject. Alas, what starts out as a thrilling show becomes extremely repetitive…and the season finale…just…WHAT?! But it is really well made and the French actors (and language) are delightful. It drove my dog, Dewey, nuts, however, as I think they used dog barks playing backwards to indicate the aliens.
(not bad, not terrible)
His Dark Materials – 8 episodes 🦠🦠 1/2🦠
Not terrible…but pretty close…is this fantasy offering from HBO. It WANTS to be a cautionary tale about excluding (or much worse) the other in society. But while fascism may be at the core of its story, the production decides to infuse it with cutesiness and gloss. It would not even have made it in to this category if it weren’t for the performance of Ruth Wilson. She is magnificent, touching, vicious, cruel and sorrowful. It might actually be her best work. So, you could watch it for her…but otherwise…nah.
Oulander (S5) – 12 episodes 🦠🦠 1/2🦠
The opening theme tells a story of how the Highlands of Scotland were lost in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden – and the show’s premise was half-scifi, half romance novel, half travelogue for the Highlands (which happen to be my favorite place in the world). So, naturally, the last two seasons take place in North Carolina before US independence. And that’s the least aggravating thing about what this show has become. There is also no more sci fi, very little romance, and certainly no travelogue element. The show used to have lots of sexy-time featuring really beautiful people (kind of like the Skinemax of yore – y’know, soft-porn), which gave it its romantic fun. But in fact, it is now simply a tale of brutality. Yes, the first season had brutality as well, but, other than the violent nature of its homo-eroticism (and subsequent character’s shame over it), the violence fit the period and the circumstance. Now it’s simply horrible things happening to our characters and…well…it’s exhausting, not very well written, and frankly, who cares? Rape is now a regular plot device. And our characters so predictably come back from sure doom, it borders on ridiculous. There is one episode where Richard Rankin is superb. Of course, he doesn’t say a word. And the photography is gorgeous…even if it isn’t “Over the Sea To Skyeeeeeeeee…” Ugh. All that said, can’t wait for season six! (what’s the matter with me?!)
(shoulda, coulda, woulda)
Blacklist (S7) – 19 episodes: 🦠🦠
I’m not sure why I still watch this show, other than to watch my pal, Harry Lennix. Some of the dialogue is still pretty snappy, but at this point, it’s all so convoluted and so far from its initial brief, that I don’t really know who I’m supposed to be rooting for or why. And while I absolutely applaud their attempt to finish up this pandemic-ally interrupted season by mixing what scene-work they had in the can when production stopped, with some not very good, and kinda downright creepy animation, it was truly a mess of a finale. As a result, I have NO concept of what awaits us next season…and not in that satisfying cliff hanger way. No, more of a “huh?” way. I suppose that’s the scripted television result of the pandemic in a nutshell.
Deadwater Fell – 4 episodes 🦠🦠
Okay. At some point they are going to have to let David Tennant do something other than “Broadchurch” wannabe’s like this. Sure, it’s well acted, I mean the Brits do know how to play death-instilled drama, but this could have easily been a movie, not a four episodes marathon. It’s just a long slow march to the capture of the bad guy…a bad guy we’ve figured out in episode one. Cush Jumbo, Anna Madeley and Lorn Macdonald are all fine…maybe better than fine. But overall, as excited as I was for this, I was equally disappointed throughout. Skip it. Watch “River” on Netflix instead for a good one-season Brit-mystery.
The Letter for the King – 6 episodes 🦠🦠🦠
A young adult fantasy adventure that never quite works, but might be fun to watch with your kids (of all ages, methinks, m’lady).
Manifest – 6 episodes 🦠🦠
Oy. This show is worth watching for one reason…to watch Josh Dallas sigh before every line. I swear, in spite of it being the worst acting tick of all time, it makes for a helluva drinking game. Also, “I don’t want you to die” makes it in to every episode at least five times…and yet, they never die. An interesting initial concept has become a show about characters speaking context out loud to fill in the ENORMOUS spaces between plot points. Forget it.
Quiz – 3 episodes 🦠🦠
If you know me, you know I LOVE Matthew Macfayden. Never seen him do anything but good work, and usually exceptional work. But not even Laurence Olivier could help this dog of a three-part true story about an instance of possible cheating on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” It’s a terribly told story that goes in a million directions OTHER than the one we want it to, and, worst of all, it’s dull as dirt. I mean, Sian Clifford is the female lead…yes, the actor who so perfectly played Claire to Ms. Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag…and even SHE is dull in this. Not her fault. There is simply no there there. At least it’s only three episodes. Oy vey.
Space Force – 10 episodes 🦠🦠
Oof. Why take a great premise for ridiculous, comedy-rich situations like “Space Force”, infuse it with a great comic performer like Steve Carrell, and then saddle it with family sentimentality? WHY?!?! The result is something close to putrid and a final episode that almost feels like an ABC Afterschool Special. Such a huge disappointment.
Westworld (S3) – 7 episodes 🦠🦠
I give up. I have no idea what the fuck is happening on this show or why or when or how or who. Looks pretty. Some of the action is fun. Some of the actor’s try hard. But, seriously…wtf is going on?!
American Idol (S18), 14 episodes: 🦠
Well, I watched because they continued the show through the pandemic and I wanted to see how they would handle that. The best I can say is that they handled it. It was not exciting. Or dramatic. Or even good. But the two finalists were a young economically disadvantaged African-American woman from Harlem and a Nepalese immigrant who sounds like John Fogerty with an accent. There. You’re all caught up. Oh, she won! Yay.
(someone needs to get fired)
The Bachelor Presents: Listen To Your Heart, 6 episodes: “the room is spinning…hold my hair back!”
So I watched this for work. I know you don’t believe me, but I did. I’m very sorry I did.
Very, very, very sorry. <sigh>