Tuesday 14 September 2021

Screen: September TV Roundup

There have been some great shows on lately to offer some distractions when I'm not watching movies or getting outside to enjoy the sunshine. I continue to avoid any shows centring on murder or injury - just not what I want to watch, aside from the movies I have to see for work. Give me comedy, social satire, edgy drama or something original that combines all of that....

The White Lotus
From writer-director Mike White, this series cleverly slices through middle-class respectability with its edgy soap-style plot threads about wealthy people on vacation at a Hawaiian resort. Everyone has secrets, and the breadth of the approach is impressive, with a wonderful array of vivid characters ranging in age from teens to retirees. It's easy to get lost in the various stories, as each person is fully fleshed-out by a terrific cast that includes Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Murray Bartlett, Fred Hechinger, Jake Lacey and Alexandra Daddario. The show's astute social satire is bracingly pitch-black, and it's so complex that getting to the end feels a lot like finishing a particularly satisfying novel. (HBO)

The Chair 
Sandra Oh is terrific as the lead in this wry comedy about faculty and students at an Ivy League university in New England. Both political and personal issues rear their heads along the way, as characters clash and unite in unexpected ways, while the tide of cancel culture swells ominously and the university's administrators fail to grasp what's happening or even begin to know how deal with it. There are also wonderful roles for Jay Duplass, David Morse and the always fabulous Holland Taylor. So while the over-arching narrative seemed to stumble along the way, future seasons might be able to bring some more focus to the larger issues and resonant interpersonal drama. (Netflix)

Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong have a lot of fun as a happy couple whose relationship is put through the wringer when they're trapped in a mystical realm that's overrun by the trappings of a stage musical. The exaggerated Victoriana is hilarious in the design, dialog and morality, while the musical numbers hilariously riff on a variety of classics. In addition, the starry cast includes musical-comedy theatre superstars like Jane Krakowski, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. So even if it all feels a little corny and obvious, and if each song is a bit too much of a pastiche for its own good, it's a terrific show for clicking off your brain for a silly laugh. (Apple)

Brand New Cherry Flavor
Refreshingly audacious, this crazed series takes the audience on a freaky odyssey that has strong echoes of Lynch and Cronenberg. Set in the early 1990s, it follows aspiring filmmaker Lisa (the superb Rosa Salazar) as she encounters a slimy director (Eric Lange) long before #MeToo and sets about getting revenge with the help of the mystical, shamanic Boro (Catherine Keener). What this costs Lisa is deeply twisted, as is pretty much everything about this show, which dives into the nastiness without hesitation. The boldness of the writing and directing feels like a tonic when most shows are trying so hard to please. This is challenging, disturbing and absolutely riveting television. (Netflix)

Rose Byrne shines as a 1980s housewife emerging from the shadow of her underachieving (and thankfully never villified) husband as she finds that she has what it takes to become an aerobics star. The series takes its time to build this foundation, expertly layering in details that are both funny and rather bleakly chilling. While several of the side roles feel like rather random dimwitted TV series cliches, Sheila is a stunningly complex character, a woman who finally realises that she she will need to break the rules to achieve anything at all in a man's world. Her every move is transgressive and dangerous, but we can't help but root for her. And where the show goes is boldly unexpected. (Apple)

Kevin Can F**k Himself 
After Schitt's Creek, Annie Murphy cleverly adapts her wonderfully perky screen persona to this gimmicky series that combines brightly overlit sitcom silliness with darkly shaded drama. It's a daring experiment that pays off in unexpected ways, revealing shades of suburban angst beneath the chuckleheaded idiocy. And as the lead character's journey to self-discovery and independence gets increasingly intense, Murphy helps us identify with how it feels to continually be underestimated as the ditsy wife to a relentlessly cruel husband everyone sees as a dopey nice guy. The overall series pacing is a little uneven, and the final episodes pay off in a way that's unexpectedly provocative. (AMC)

The North Water
This is a big swerve for Andrew Haigh (Looking, 45 Years), set on a 19th century whaling ship in the Arctic where bristle-haired men are up to all manner of shady grisliness. It's gorgeously designed and shot in spectacular locations, although the relentlessly underlit cinematography can get somewhat annoying on the small screen. The first-rate cast is led by Jack O'Connell, Colin Farrell (against type as a seriously nasty piece of work) and Sam Spruell, with added Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay. So even if the moral lines are a bit too clear, there's plenty of gristle in the story's riveting depiction of masculinity and control. It also leaves us feeling like we need a bath. (BBC)

Zippy and extremely ridiculous, this animated spy comedy adventure takes in serious themes as it goes along, playing with issues and stereotypes without making pointed comments. This carefree approach adds a provocative angle to the rampant bigotry that swirls around a group of queer spies who have been sidelined for a decade but are now taking their shot at the big time in an international mission that has unexpected repercussions. It's riotously sexy and violent, and animated with a properly adult sensibility, which means the humour is more ironic than expected. And the voice cast is first-rate, including Sean Hayes, Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch and Stephanie Beatriz. (Netflix)

M O R E    M O R E    M O R E

Dave: series 2 
Continuing his intriguingly blurred autobiographical adventures, Dave Burd goes much darker this season, often dipping into pitch-black comedy and even darker emotions to skewer the show business industry in ways that continually take the breath away. There's a bleakness that makes these episodes less exhilaratingly enjoyable than the first series, but the ideas in the mix are even stronger. And Burd digs into his own offhanded personality to explore some properly pungent feelings as an unlikely rising star who is shaken by interaction with his colleagues, idols, family and friends. His oblivious confidence takes on a whole new meaning this time around. (FX)

Never Have I Ever: series 2
Inspired by Mindy Kaling's childhood, this series continues the adventures of Devi (the fabulous Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a character who is bravely written and played in ways that aren't always likeable, mainly because we're watching her create most of her own problems. Her various relationships evolve in unexpected directions this season, including with two boyfriends, her best pal and her family members. The female roles are particularly well-written this season, including Devi's mother, cousin, closest friend and a rival Indian teen at her school. And John McInroe's witty voiceover adds such a random perspective that it brings everything to unusual life. (Netflix)

I Think You Should Leave: series 2
It's difficult to describe this sketch show starring Tim Robinson as a comedy, since the scenarios it sets up are based on aggression, awkwardness and absurd conflicts. The main reactions to these scenes are nervous laughter and gasps at both how ridiculous it all is (many hinge around something flatly surreal). But there's also a chilling recognition of human nature laced through everything, picking at our insecurities and those niggling annoyances that get under the skin. That Robinson and his talented cast and crew approach this in such a boldly in-your-face way is properly remarkable. It's one of those shows that feels uncomfortable to watch, but leaves us wanting more. (Netflix)

Lucifer: series 6 
The final season of this nutty show spent most of its time wrapping up story threads involving each of the central characters, while contriving an elaborate conclusion. Thankfully, this included some properly bonkers twists and turns on the way to a protracted, wildly indulgent final act that clumsily strained to be both epic and sentimental. The angels-and-demons premise kept things far more entertaining than the usual murder-of-the-week structure, and Tom Ellis' devilish charm so buoyantly held the entire show aloft that it will be fun to see what he does next. He perhaps spends a bit too much of these 10 episodes singing and dancing, but it's unlikely anyone would complain. (Netflix)

Grace & Frankie: series 7a
The first four episodes of this final season suddenly appeared in August (the rest will follow next year), and they're just as ridiculous as always, centring on the ongoing clashes between these two awkwardly merged families and their long history together. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin continue to build on their astonishingly strong chemistry, having fun playing their actual ages while making jokes that poke fun at their real-life images. And Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston and the ensemble cast of kids and spouses are becoming more grounded with each episode. There are still some loose ends to tie up, so however many episodes are left, we'll be happy to giggle along with them when they turn up. (Netflix)

NOW WATCHING: Only Murders in the Building, Mr Corman, Ted Lasso (2), The Other Two (2), What We Do in the Shadows (3), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (8).

COMING SOON: Foundation, The Big Leap, The Morning Show (2), Succession (3), Sex Education (3), The Conners (4).

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