The Top Five Television Shows You Should Be Watching. Five is one of my lucky numbers, and a great place to start. (Well, I tried ten and it was a novel, so…)
The Last Man On Earth
Fox Sundays; Hulu; Fox.com
“I love comedy where there’s a lot of tension and even though it’s very far-fetched, it seems very relatable.”
– Will Forte, creator and star
I have to admit that when I first heard the plot, and then saw the Super Bowl ads for Fox’s comedy The Last Man On Earth, featuring Will Forte’s character Phil Miler alone in the world, I did wonder how the concept was going to work. Yet by the time I reached the end of the first episode when Phil finally runs into another human, Carol, played by the great Kristen Schaal, I was almost disappointed his alone time had ended. Maybe this has to do with the talent of Will Forte to keep an audience engaged for a full twenty-odd minutes, but The Last Man On Earth is also an example of the greatest unwritten rule of television: execution over concept wins every time.
When The West Wing went on the air in late 1999, television executives said, and still say today, that political dramas don’t work. And think about it? How many successful political dramas can you count that aren’t the other two you are thinking of right now. The Last Man On Earth is just another example of how execution is the most important piece of the pie. Not that this comedy, which covers ground where only dramas have dared to tread—the aftermath of a world pandemic (without Zombies), is unique. Far from it. But in the hands of a less talented group than Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, known for The Lego Movie and upcoming Han Solo prequel, and the creator of one of my favorite recent SNL players, Will Forte (Please watch Guy in a Box—a lesser known skit that is genius), the concept alone wouldn’t have worked.
A touchstone of what makes the comedy on The Last Man On Earth so wonderful is the stakes. The one camera sitcom takes place in 2022, starting in the aftermath of the above mentioned virus that appears to have killed almost the entire world’s population. To talk about specific instances from the show would spoil the series, but, suffice to say, this world has consequences and the fact that Phil has lost his entire family is not ignored.
What excites me the most about The Last Man On Earth is that it is the first comedy series in a long time that surprises me. The Last Man On Earth isn’t just a silly comedy based in a pretty scary situation. Or just a sitcom about a pretty flawed character (Phill) making comical mistakes as he strives to find his humanity in a world where humanity is on the verge of extinction. Every time you start to feel safe in each new world of Phil’s or you think we’ve met the final person on earth some unexpected twist jolts you out of your seat and makes you wonder what could possible happen next.
It is, again, really hard to talk about specifics in terms of performances and moments (and wonderful cast) without ruining these surprises. And in a world of twenty-four hour spoiler coverage and casting announcements posted as news, it is so rare to be able to be surprised by a show—and this one does it.
“We wanted to capture something that showed the beauty of a growing relationship but we wanted to put it in a pressure cooker and make sure terrible things happen to them from the outset… like in real life.”
– Rob Delaney, co-creator & star
I would seriously renew my subscription for Amazon Prime for U.K’s Catastrophe alone. Witty, funny and adult, this slice into the concept that just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you hold all the answers about love, parenthood, and sharing your life with a partner, feels refreshingly new. Rob Delancy and Sharon Horgan (who co-wrote the series together) play Sharon Morris and Rob Norris respectively. Two single adults in their almost to early forties, who are thrown together in what, on the surface, looks like a traditional 90s romantic comedy.
Rob plays an American in London on a business trip and Sharon an Irish school teacher, who, after a no strings attached week together find themselves surprised with the results of some shoddy birth control. Figuring they aren’t getting any younger, the two decide to make it a go and Rob transfers his job to London so they can raise their baby together. Season One (only 6 episodes) is Rob and Sharon fitting into each other’s lives and friends, while planning the arrival of their child and spending the rest of their lives together. From the get go you see how well suited these two are for each other, often being the only two in the room who understand each other. Bantering off one another in public and in honest, funny, sex scenes. Catastrophe is about the swirling storm of life, family and love, but also about how complicated relationships and parenthood are to navigate.
In Season Two (which according to a panel I attended at the TriBeCa Film Festival was meant to be most of Season One originally) we time jump to Sharon and Rob as parents a few years later. And I’m glad we got the season one that we did because I feel without the backstory of their relationship you wouldn’t be rooting for these characters to make it—and root for them you do.
Now don’t get me wrong, Catastrophe is laugh out loud funny, but from truth—the core of which all comedy stems from. We laugh because we recognize. Being a parent and being married is hard—it’s human. It’s complicated. I’m personally not a parent nor married, and I still found ways to laugh and understand the situations Sharon and Rob find themselves in.
One of the most defining moments of Season Two for me was when Sharon, during a fight with Rob, says she doesn’t have to be liked, and she’s okay with that. A lifelong struggle for many women who live in a society that tells them being liked is the one quality they must possess to be a good mother, wife, sister or woman. Hearing a female character say this out loud (you can also see this as a theme in Season Two of Kimmy Schmidt) felt as good as laughter itself. With both Rob and Sharon at the helm, creatively and on screen, what you get is both points of view, male/female, American/Irish, and two actors writing to their strengths (and from experience).
Oh, did I mention Carrie Fisher (plays Rob’s Mom) and her dog Gary Fisher show up? Catastrophe become my favorite new show from last year and I audibly sigh when I’m done with a season. Bring on Season Three!
My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
CW, Hulu, CWTV.com
“The whole show is about deconstructing stereotypes and deconstructing people and finding the truth beneath tropes. And so that’s why the title is so, kind of, provocative in that way.”
– Rachel Bloom, co-creator & star
Every Late August/early September in New York City, and most big cities, you start to see the crop of posters for the new network fall television programs. On buses, subway cars and platforms. For those of us who have embraced the streaming culture to the hilt, it can sometimes be the first introduction to the new crop of shows, that is, if you don’t follow Deadline religiously as I do, but still.
Nowadays, there is so much television (and thank God!) that as an actor based in NYC I have to admit I pay more attention to the NYC filmed pilots during the upfronts in May (when most commercial based networks officially announce their season) and then ease my way into fall television as it gets closer so as not to have an extreme television nervous breakdown.
I bring this up because I was familiar with the name Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before I knew exactly what the show was trying to accomplish, or was about, which meant my first real introduction to the series was seeing this (see photo below): a sparse white paper sign attached to a “MCEG” subway poster that read: “My Femininity owes you nothing. #enoughnyc”
The cast and creative team of MCEG were greeted with much of the same attitude at their TCA (Television Critics Association) panel, before the show aired, much to their own shock and dismay. After all, Rachel Bloom had already established herself with her irreverent YouTube musical channel of original content, and as a writer on shows such as Robot Chicken.
She and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna — who took on the screenplay for the The Devil Wears Prada, where her aim was to explore what it meant to be called a “Devil” or a “bitch”—were both not new in terms of reputations to this crowd of reporters. I remember reading about said panel on Deadline, still not sure I would be watching this show, (I was never much a CW type gal) just keeping up with the industry (or maybe it was the headline), but it was reading the participants flabbergasted responses to the fact that not one reporter seemed to get what they were doing, made me want to watch more than just the pilot of this show.
I felt like an idiot — of course the title was part of the joke, in a way. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and in fact Rachel Bloom herself, would be the first one to tell you don’t forget there is not a “My”, is in fact a feminist show, hell bent on exploring the pejorative language thrown at woman since the dawn of time… and also have fun musical numbers in between. If you don’t like musicals, I might move on to the next recommendation, but I also think that shouldn’t deter you from watching this show. Much like the modern classic musical Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway right now, Pulitzer winner and multi-Tony Award recipient, the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (all parodies) include such a mix of musical theater and modern music references, both camps can enjoy the songs equally without feeling left out.
A little about the plot: Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) is a Type A, Ivy League educated, highly successful lawyer in Manhattan. On the surface she is happy, appearing to most to have it all, about to be made partner at her firm before she turns thirty, but of course Rachel isn’t happy and she is panicked. After a chance meeting with her theater camp ex-boyfriend, Josh, Rachel has a revelation—she was her happiest with Josh at musical theater camp. And bingo, she quits her job, movies to his hometown West Covina California (“Two hours from the beach, four with traffic.”), and in no particular order stops taking her medication and begins seeing herself in lavish musical numbers. Like the “Sexy Getting Ready Song” about the ridiculous lengths women go through to ready themselves for going on a date with a man (which ends with rapper Nipsey Hussle no longer having it with this “nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit”) or “Gettin’ Bi” a Huey Lewis like pop ballad about coming out as bi-sexual and the Astaire and Rogers-esque ballad “Settle For Me” about having no problem being a lover’s second choice.
Rebecca is not in a good place in her life, and like most women… make that people… is assuming love will bring her to a happy place. Girlfriend is a comic depiction of what love does to us and about finding your bliss-within. It isn’t that Rebecca hasn’t found love because she’s crazy, it’s because her idea of happiness, perhaps even society’s idea of happiness, has made her act “crazy”. And she isn’t alone.
Each character has their own issues to deal with, from her white boss with an American Indian name looking for his identity, Josh and his self-absorbed controlling girlfriend, Greg (#TeamGreg) whose love issues could get his own series, and her new best friend, over-forty Paula who is living her life through Rebecca like Rebecca is a celebrity in one of her People magazines. You will fall in love with all these characters, played by Broadway veterans like Santino Fontana (yeah he was in Frozen but I’ve seen him in New York Theater more times than I can count — tell me his John Adams or Moss Hart isn’t superior.) Donna Lynne Champlin (I can never forget her in Hollywood Arms as a young Carol Burnett facsimile—and see her now in NYC at The Public’s Taming Of the Shrew!!) and the new to you Pete Gardner as Darryl Whitefeather (Rachel’s Boss) and Vincent Rodriguez III as Josh Chan.
Josh Chan being a rare character on television, or in entertainment in general these days, an Asian character whose ethnicity doesn’t define him. Not only that, but something that is also rare, an object of desire. I have to admit this was something I didn’t even notice was unusual in entertainment until it was brought to light by one of the creators of Netflix’s Master of None, Alan Yang, who posed the question, and I paraphrase: “Have you ever seen an Asian man kiss anyone on screen?”
Even better, this isn’t an example of open ethnicity casting — Josh was written to be Asian-American. I can’t image what this must mean to Asian-Americans watching this series. I know how much it means to me to have a Jewish character I can relate to on television, and that isn’t as rare. Not that you (or I) should relate to Rachel one hundred percent, she has a long way to go and grow (Did I mention even the episode titles are obsessed with Josh and not one is missing his name?) Rachel Bunch is a mess, but in her exaggerated flaws and jazz hands, we can all see shards of ourselves in the broken mirror that reflects back. In all the characters, in fact. Regardless of if we laugh more at the Music Man or the Katy Perry references.
FX, Hulu & FXnetwork.com with a cable subscription
“The Americans is at its core a marriage story. International relations is just an allegory for the human relations.”
– Joe Weisberg, creator, and former CIA
While putting this list together a friend of mine was shocked to discover The Americans was even on it. Not because it wasn’t a good show, but because she assumed it was a big hit. And that had me questioning it.
Was I mistaken? But after a quick Google search I was sorry to discover I was, in fact, correct.
Maybe it’s the premise? Influenced by the sleeper cells of Russian agents known as the Illegals Program that were busted by the CIA in 2010, The Americans transplants the story to the higher stakes 1980s Cold War era America. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings appear to be average Americans on the surface, but their children (Henry and Paige) don’t even know that their parents work for the KGB. I have to say I wasn’t sure myself about the series. After watching just the teaser of the pilot I was hooked.
Its mix of music, editing, character and action was visceral from the start. The Americans has many moments of excitement, sex and life or death situations, terrible cliffhanger, but at its core is the relationships each character has with one another and not exclusively through the Jennings family. These relationships include the FBI agent (the finally no longer under-utilized Noah Emmerich) and his family (who moves next door in the first episode) his cohorts at work, the Russian diplomats working in the Russian Embassy, as well as the contacts and the marks Elisabeth and Philip use to achieve their goals.
Headlined by amazing performances from Kerry Russell, Matthew Rhys, respectively as Elizabeth and Philip, the supporting cast of Richard Thomas, new standouts such as Alison Wright as one of Phillip’s marks Martha, and Annet Mahendru as Nina, a Russian secretary caught up in a world she never counted on, make the show shine even further. The inclusion of stalwart character actors like Frank Langella, Dylan Baker, and one of the character actresses of my heart Margo Martindale as Claudia, is just icing on the soviet cake.
The Americans does what television does best: character exploration. Many will say the reason people feel more attached to television characters is because they come into our homes and aren’t displayed on the big screen like gods, television is something more intimate. And I think that is part of it, but in today’s culture where one is far more likely to stream the bulk of their movies than see them in theaters, I think the answer is far more obvious. Where most movies are mostly about plot, television has the luxury of more than two hours to delve into character, deeply and emotionally, you don’t just let them into your home, but into your heart. Television is the character study of all character studies, because of time. Today more than ever, during what many call a new golden age of television, episodic filmmaking is connecting with film audiences as well. Franchised action movies appear to be universal between cultures and gender, reliable money for Hollywood, and escapism in bad times, but maybe the connection with the audience (especially via comic books) is more about the familiarity of a returning friend. On the surface, The Americans may appear to be all action, but it is a story about the human condition… with big hair, trickle-down economics, and a Fleetwood Mac Soundtrack.
BBC America, Netflix
“If you are playing someone who is investigating a crime and the crime is actually unfolding as you go from an acting point of view, that’s very helpful as you can’t second guess…You can be as exasperated about the mystery of the characters as the audience will be.”
– David Tennant,co-star
If you’re an anglophile like myself or a Doctor Who fan… also like myself, the title Broadchurch is not foreign to you. However, for those who have just discovered David Tennant from his glorious and terrifying performances in the amazing Netflix series Jessica Jones, I have a feeling the title eludes you.
A short time ago you may have seen Tennant, with an American accent, on Fox’s limited series Gracepoint playing Detective Emmett Carver, alongside Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn (Detective Ellie Miller). Gracepoint is an American version of the ITV U.K. Series Broadchurch, also starring Tennant.
However, like most direct to American remakes of British television without finding a new point of view (I reference classics such as The Office and All In The Family) the British version is far, far, superior. This may not be the American version’s fault, as the original series, literally has the advantage of being first because of the organic nature in which it was produced therefore making it unrepeatable.
Created and written by Chris Chibnall, former Doctor Who and Torchwood writer and the next showrunner of Doctor Who, Broadchurch had such secrecy surrounding the mystery of the story even the final reveal of the killer was kept from the actors themselves. Believing the shroud of mystery the characters felt would in turn help the actor’s performances, the actors were kept in the dark until the final three scripts. And even though Chibnall had a final endgame in place, he used what the actors were doing on screen as he wrote the final episodes of the series and even had an alternate ending in case the reveal was leaked to the public.
The concept behind Broadchurch is a story of a small town after the murder of a young child, and how in that aftermath a well-knit community deals with the media scrutiny and suspicion on/of them. The intriguing who-done-it drama and its themes are thrown into full gear not long into the first episode by the murder of twelve-year-old Danny Latimor.
Tennant plays Alec Hardy, a hardened Scottish Detective Inspector, new in town, with a chip on his shoulder. He is paired with Detective Inspector Ellie Miller, a townie who had been promised Hardy’s job only to return from vacation to discover her new promotion had been given to the more experienced, big city, male counterpart. Miller and Hardy are the core of the series as they work together to find Danny’s killer. Is Miller to close to the town to think clearly and is Hardy too much of a stranger to do the same? Complicated by the fact that the little boy was Miller’s son’s best friend, it becomes a portrait of two families and their matriarchs in juxtaposing situations. Two mothers; two detectives.
In a performance that won the superb Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, Rev., mostly comedy) a BAFTA award, Colman is sympathetic and heart wrenching. Alongside Tennant who is almost unrecognizable as Hardy, disheveled inside and out, dealing with the memories of a past that plagues him. Pushing himself, often too hard, to not make the same mistakes he has made before. Miller and Hardy appear on paper to be two mystery archetypes, yet in the right hands, of actor and writer, have become new and fully formed. Not to mention that it is refreshing to hear Tennant’s natural Scottish accent, which he rarely is given the chance to use.
Tennant puts in one of his greatest performances as Hardy, mostly because of the kind of character he is. While Jessica Jones is a close second in this critique, what Broadchurch does to surpass what are both equally rich performances, is that Hardy gives us a side of Tennant most of us are not accustomed to—the opposite of charming. Hardy is troubled and it bleeds through him without any pretense, without a filter. Jodie Whittaker (Attack The Block, Cranford) as Danny’s mother fills the screen with her heart-wrenching performance all the way through season two.
While Hardy and Miller, as well as the Miller and Latimor families, are the centerpiece of the series, the other characters, a town filled with suspects, are set up as perfect foils to the plot. More archetypes are brought to the surface as three dimensional characters: the town priest (played by Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill), the ambitious reporters (local and otherwise), co-workers and friends to the woman who runs the local hotel and newspaper. Everyone, including Danny’s family, are suspects. What you get is the Agatha Christie framework for the modern age.
The conclusion of season one is chilling and is what all great drama (to quote Alex Dinelaris’ Ted Talk) should be: surprisingly inevitable. Meaning it is an ending that is both shocking and believable, in retrospect. Season two takes place in the aftermath of the killer’s trial and, in a smart transition, changes from more of a beat-by-beat who-done-it-to to a different kind of mystery as well as delving into both sides of a U.K. murder trial.
What you get with Broadchurch is great performances, intriguing interpersonal relationships, and a gripping mystery that has captured your attention throughout the entire tale.