With the glut of TV shows, and some extra time to try to catch up with things, I'm making these TV Roundups monthly from here on. As always, I find watching an episode or three a brain-cooling tonic after a film screening, so I prefer comedies of course. But a great drama works too. There were some terrific ones over the past two months...
LOVE AND LAUGHTER
From Ireland, this half-hour drama has a visceral realism to it, which is one of director Lenny Abrahamson's strong suits. It's also resolutely mopey and overserious, which makes it difficult to get into. But sticking with it is rewarding, as it traces an on-off relationship from school days into young adulthood, touching on some enormous issues along the way. The point, of course, is that the word "normal" doesn't mean what we like to think it means. Everyone has deep issues that alter their lives in unexpected ways. And this couple is so beautifully played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal that both have deservedly become global stars as a result of this quiet, introspective series. (BBC)
A spin-off from the film Love, Simon, this series takes the same super-soft approach to a teen's coming out. Michael Cimino is cute in the title role, a character who is very easy to root for as, instead of coming out as gay, he opts for the easy route of having a girlfriend, which is much more acceptable to his religious Latina family. Ana Ortiz and James Martinez are terrific as his parents, but the show's scene-stealers are Isabelle Ferreira as his surly sister Pilar and Anthony Turpel as his goofy new pal Felix. The show is full of great moments, and some complex interaction. But like the film it's a bit too gentle for its own good. (Hulu)
There's a great idea behind this show, but the writers oddly hedged back from making it a full-on sitcom, instead giving it the tone of a drama with amusing humour woven through it. There are a lot of funny things and silly characters, but the script never quite breaks through with either a laugh-out-loud joke or pointed satire. Steve Carell is likeable as always, playing it straight as the head of the new military branch, but John Malkovich steals every scene from him. Meanwhile, Lisa Kudrow is oddly wasted. It's engaging enough to keep watching (it's better than the similarly underpowered The Orville or Avenue 5), but the premise cries out for more edge than this tepid treatment. (Netflix)
Set during lockdown, this knowing sitcom features Michael Sheen and David Tennant as exaggerated versions of themselves as they decide to rehearse a play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, so they're ready to go on stage when theatres reopen. It's sharply written and played, peppered with hilarious gags about life in the covid era as well as witty waves of insecurity and arrogance. Both actors are superb, playing on their public personae, the rivalry between Wales and Scotland and little power games. Their wives pop in from time to time, pointedly, as does their director Simon Evans and shameless scene-stealers like Samuel L Jackson and National Treasure Judi Dench. (BBC)
Josh Thomas is likeably hapless (see also his earlier sitcom Please Like Me), but he certainly shouldn't be trying to get away with playing a guy in his mid-20s anymore: he's 33 and looks it. Still, the show has a nicely unhinged premise, as his lively character assumes guardianship of his two teen half-sisters after their father dies. The ensuing antics refreshingly steer clear of the usual TV cliches, giving the comedy, drama, emotion and sexuality a real-life jolt that's both topical and never predictable. It's all rather brittle and sometimes squirm-inducing, but there's a sweet undercurrent to all of it. (Freeform)
Anna Kendrick is terrific in this intriguing series, which explores her character's romantic life from high school until she meets her true love. Terrific support from Jin Ha, Nick Thune, Scoot McNairy and the always awesome Hope Davis adds intriguing textures to each episode, as does the gorgeous voice of Lesley Manville as the omniscient narrator. It's packed with clever ideas and powerful moments, although the overall series feels a bit over-constructed, and one episode is completely superfluous. And as it slides through the years, it's like a more obvious American variation on Normal People. (HBO)
Cate Blanchett is a force of nature as the terrifying Phyllis Schlafly, the fiercely independent woman who inexplicably squashed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and essentially created the "family values" movement that still holds sway with right-wing evangelicals. Blanchett's Schlafly is so iconic in this fiendishly well-produced series that the supporting cast almost fades into the background, including the equally majestic Tracey Ullman (as Betty Friedan), Rose Byrne (as Gloria Steinem) and Margo Martindale (as Bella Abzug). This is a riveting look at an early clash between politics and populism that still resonates strongly today. (HBO)
Adapted from the documentary The Institute, this show has a surreal, Gondry-esque approach with eye-catching in-camera effects and characters who continually reveal added details (including animated backstories). It's a little loose and rambling, making a very obvious point about how people thrive through connecting with each other and taking on challenges. But the deliberately too-clever scripts are nicely written to draw us into the intrigue, and the cast is wondrous (including Richard E Grant, Sally Field and series creator Jason Segel). The problem is that it's not easy to care, especially as the show crawls up inside itself. (AMC)
With eight stand-alone but interlinked episodes, this series paints a fascinating bigger picture about a town in a quirky alternate 1960s. But the show's languid hour-long pace is far too indulgent, and each of these episodes would be improved by being edited to a sharp, provocative 30 minutes. Even the strongest episodes would have been much more engaging with less wistful gazing. Still, the filmmaking is beautiful, and the excellent actors (including heavy-hitters like Jonathan Pryce and Jane Alexander) create complex characters with messy internal lives and a surprising capacity for cruelty as the supernatural touches their lives. But the mopey tone undermines the potential. (Prime)
A fascinating exploration of the nature of religion this series centres on a man (the quietly charismatic Mehdi Dehi) who appears in the Middle East and goes on to build up thousands of followers in America with his miraculous works, challenging theology and refusal to recognise borders. Of course the CIA takes notice, led by Michelle Monaghan's operative. The show is lavishly produced in terrific locations, although it's more than a little distracting that they've over-styled this Messiah to look like a storybook Jesus, albeit one who speaks Arabic and tells his Palestinian followers to throw away their weapons. As the show references religious traditions, it's both inventive and provocative (Netflix)
This four-part documentary series is not easy to watch as it delves into the organised paedophile ring Epstein got away with for decades, simply because he bought his way out of the justice system. The opening episode alone is deeply chilling, as it chronicles people who tried to stop him 20 years ago but failed because of his money and powerful connections. These women are brave and definitely believable. Strikingly well-assembled, the doc carefully maintains its focus on Epstein, but it's impossible not to see the men who are so frequently photographed alongside him, sharing private jokes and clearly part of a system of abuse that's terrifying. (Netflix)
Superbly shot and edited, this series of five British shorts looks great, boosted by natural screenwriting and a willingness to get very dark as each centres on a young men at a pivotal point in his life. Since they relate to sexuality, the stories are full on, sometimes overplayed by an inexperienced cast. But it's easy to root for the characters as they face different fears, and there's a strong sense of panic and isolation, identity issues and the echoing repercussions of bad decisions. This makes each episode rather grim and cautionary, with ironically little lightness. But all of them offer something pointed to think about. (Prime)
BACK FOR MORE
Jumping ahead a few years, this series continues the political climb of Payton, played by Ben Platt firing on all cylinders. This season traces his campaign for New York state senate, taking on an incumbent and her loyal assistant, fabulous roles for Judith Light and Bette Midler, who effortlessly steal the entire show. Meanwhile, Payton's mother (a storming Gwyneth Paltrow) is testing the political waters herself in California. This colourfully lively show's outrageous characters completely overshadow the lower-key gang around Payton, which leaves their subplots feeling somewhat melodramatic and irrelevant. But the show's overall trajectory is fascinating. Bring on season 3. (Netflix)
The ongoing mock-doc (based on the 2014 movie) about a group of vampires living on Staten Island is a constant stream of hilarious gags, plus cleverly understated effects. Despite living for centuries, their cluelessness knows no bounds (like their excitement about being invited to a "Superb Owl" party - think about it). The gifted actors deliver each ridiculous joke with a straight face, often improvising something sublimely absurd. And the over-arching plot is surprisingly involving too, pushing each of these colourfully loveably dopey vampires in unexpected directions, largely due to the understated genius of their familiar, played to perfection by Harvey Guillen. (FX)
The tone has changed for this third season, which feels more like a straightforward action thriller than the quirky character-based mayhem of seasons one and two. It still has its moments, and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are still terrific as the spy and the assassin who are inexorably drawn to each other. So is Fiona Shaw as Eve's jaded boss, plus the always great Harriet Walter. But merrily maiming and murdering side characters has depleted the show's emotional undercurrent, which frankly is always what holds the interest. It's beginning to feel rather cold and calculating, which is fitting but not as clever. And the last moment in the final episode missed a trick. (BBC)
At its new home on Pop, this series just keeps getting better, anchored by terrific mother-daughter roles for Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, plus side roles that somehow manage to be goofy, topical and complex at the same time. Each character is likeable, even as they're fully ridiculous. And the smart scripts feel as fresh as ever, unafraid to be very silly as they touch knowingly on a wide range of very big issues relating to Latin families and the LGBT community, without ever getting too political. Which makes everything resonate much more widely. Sadly, the season was truncated by the pandemic, wrapped up with a witty animated episode. (Pop)
JUST LIKE REAL LIFE
Comedy news shows have come to life during lockdown, as the hosts have done some of their best work from home, even as their frustration shows. Each has found innovative ways to keep up with the headlines. As always, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight strikes the best balance, picking apart the big stories with astute humour. Trevor Noah has shone brightly with The Daily Show, offering especially powerful commentary on things like the Black Lives Matter protests. Bill Maher has maintained Real Time's balance of viewpoints, edgy opinion, big-name guests and witty gags, plus hilarious inserts of vintage audience reactions. And Samantha Bee went into the woods for Full Frontal, raging hilariously and pointedly at the growing sense of injustice in society.
The fifth series of Queer Eye (Netflix) maintained the terrific line-up of make-overs that carry emotional punches (it's not easy to get through an episode dry-eyed). Four of the Fab Five are fascinatingly deep, while the scene-stealing fifth is a bit of a cartoon. There was only one weak episode: why make over an 18-year-old who hasn't yet found her style? Meanwhile, the second season of fast-paced, car-crash doc series Putting On (Revry) picks up two years later with the likeably overconfident On Mekahel, working on his underwear brand. On is still a breathtakingly oblivious control freak who can't understand why his designs don't appeal to men who aren't gym-ripped. And he insists his fiance Dave, a felon who can't get a passport while on parole and still hasn't divorced his wife, must travel to visit On's family in Israel before getting married in Paris. Sure enough, On gets his way.
RuPaul has had four drag queen competition series over the past few months: the 12th season of Drag Race (Netflix), the fifth season of Drag Race All Stars, and the first seasons of both Celebrity Drag Race and Canada's Drag Race. That's a lot of drag, but the producers are great at keeping these shows fresh with gimmicky innovations and lots of twists. And their real strength is assembling hugely entertaining casts for each series. Meanwhile, the second season of Werq the World (WoW) continues to insightfully document backstage at the Drag Race tour. Its structure also makes it an empowering look at how each performer overcomes resonant obstacles in pursuit of their dreams. And We're Here (HBO) is like a mash-up of Queer Eye, Drag Race and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, as three drag queens take on small towns across America. The observations are fascinating and often strongly moving, and the drag is properly transformational.
I don't watch many game shows, but I sampled a few while in lockdown. Floor is Lava is a genuinely great idea staged in an entertainingly epic way. The sets are amazing, and the contestants gung-ho. But it's beaten to death by the editing, which repeats everything that happens at least 10 times. Stop treating audiences like idiots. Adam Scott is superb as the host of Don't, an under-imagined stunt-based quiz show that's only watchable because of Ryan Reynolds' snarky narration. And The Wall UK is another quiz show, but at least it's hosted by Danny Dyer, who offers some fun even if each game is ham-fistedly stretched out over an hour.
NOW WATCHING: Snowpiercer, I Will Destroy You, Luminaries, I Know This Much Is True, Homecoming (2).
COMING SOON: Brave New World, Wandavision, Down to Earth, Muppets Now, The Umbrella Academy (2).