Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: If you could pick one show – old or current – that you could champion/discuss more, but haven’t for whatever reason, what would it be? Why?
Tuesday’s Emmy nominations make the answer much simpler than I would’ve hoped: “Better Things.” Pamela Adlon’s excellent FX comedy is made with such a potent combination of artistry and heart. Each piece is carefully crafted, from Adlon’s sweeping direction to the intimate vignette storytelling to the sparkling soundtrack to each individual performance and more. There are so many layers here, sliding in so smoothly one on top of the other, you don’t realize just how rich the personalities, story arcs, and overall experience is until you spend time with the series. While never a ratings juggernaut, “Better Things” always felt like it was reaching the most passionate TV fans out there, but clearly that’s not the case. So tell your friends, tweet up a storm, and make sure to track down each lovely episode. Once you start watching, I can guarantee you won’t want to stop.
The show I’m constantly urging people to watch is “grown-ish,” now in its second season on Freeform. Set on a college campus, it’s a coming-of-age show with a contemporary, multi-cultural, “woke” point of view. Though Yara Shahidi’s Zoey Johnson is the center of the friend group, the show does a superb job of servicing the entire ensemble. There are discoveries about gender fluidity, sexuality, biases, and value systems. The group’s conversations are honest and often awkward, and while there are lessons learned, the writers avoid preaching or outright speeches. Another element I admire is how “grown-ish” shows how social media affects how each person handles their personal business and the many pros and cons of sharing everything about one’s life.
The second show I’d love more people to see is Carla Gugino and Sebastian Gutierrez’s drama “Jett” on Cinemax. I was a fan of Gugino from ABC’s “Karen Sisco” and “Jett” renews that fervor as Gugino plays a strong, intelligent character who excels at thinking a few moves ahead. It is a revelation to watch a woman in her late 40s use all her mental and physical skills to make a living, outwit criminals and cops, and keep her daughter and friends safe. Gugino plays the role with a deft touch, and she’s shot so beautifully by Gutierrez (her real-life partner) that even when she’s unclothed, it’s never gratuitous or skeevy. I’m already hoping “Jett” gets a second season order.
I’ve always wished that I championed HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness” more when its first season aired. This is a delightfully subversive series from creator Terence Nance which takes the afro-absurdism that Donald Glover dabbles in on FX’s “Atlanta” and elevates it to exhilarating heights. From Jon Hamm filming a commercial for a product that eliminates white thoughts to a black man wishing shea butter could be installed in all public restrooms, this series is a giddy trip through a set of ambitiously provocative scenes centered on black/white issues – like “Saturday Night” live meets Parliament-Funkedelic. The other show I truly regret not speaking up more for was Robin Thede’s excellent news satire for BET, “The Rundown.” Lampooning the week’s headlines from the perspective of a pop culture savvy black woman, “The Rundown” was a distinctive voice in a sea of late night Jimmys, Seths and Stephens. I kept meaning to find a way to write about it, but BET, always ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, canceled Thede’s show in July 2018 before I had a chance to really talk about it and well before she had a chance to get anywhere near the program’s full potential.
The first show that popped into my head was “Harper’s Island,” but since I have long been beating that drum, I will wave the flag for “Lights Out,” FX’s engrossing and forgotten boxing drama that more than punched above its weight (just let me have this one) but was tragically canceled before the first season was even over in 2011. Holt McCallany was superb, and the show teed up a second season with a salivating cliffhanger, though it also works as a brutal perfect ending. Like “Terriers,” which FX axed months before, and “Harper’s Island” (don’t @ me), “Lights Out” was ahead of its time. There is no doubt in my mind that had it premiered a couple years later, it could’ve “Americans’d” its way to a respectable multi-season run.
The show I wish I could have championed more or even just covered better is Netflix’s “The Society.” It was such an odd mix of teen drama and Stephen King and “Lord of the Flies” with an interesting but mostly awful group of teenagers who come back from a failed class trip to find out that all of the adults have vanished and it’s very possible that their town is actually a replica on an alternate universe. It randomly showed up on Netflix without much fanfare or promotion and I ended up watching the entire thing in two days. But since I didn’t see anybody talking about it and didn’t have any major stars, it kind of just happened and then I moved on. But I never stop thinking about it and some of the scenarios that it positioned the characters in by the end of the first season.
Like I said, it kind of felt like a non-event so I didn’t expect it to get renewed for a second season like it did. But now that it has, I fully intend on at least drumming I’ve some conversations on Twitter about it when I comes back.
Based on this morning’s Emmy nominations, I’m just gonna have to keep repeating over and over again that “Ramy” and “America To Me” are two of the best things to air on TV in the past year and they’re both getting repeatedly overlooked and people need to stop that. I would love to write more here about why these shows are getting overlooked, but I have to write something else about these two shows getting overlooked for Emmy nominations. Oh and “Baskets,” too. That’s my vote for the best show currently on TV!
Technically I have championed “Justified” a lot over the last decade. I bring it up on Twitter like once a month. I reference it in articles whenever I can. I somehow managed to talk my editor into letting me write a story about how it was the best thing I watched in 2018 after a complete series rewatch. But I still feel like the show is never championed enough. The fact that it aired during the same period as “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” meant it was often overshadowed during the so-called Golden Age of TV. The fact that it overlapped with “Sons of Anarchy,” which got the ratings, and “The Americans,” which got the awards attention, means it was often overshadowed on its own freaking network. So I guess what I am saying is: I’m never going to talk enough about “Justified” even if it sometimes feels like that’s all I do. But I think that’s true about most of the shows that I love. I champion “Banshee” and “Kingdom” a lot too, but neither found the sizable audience they deserved, either because of their networks or because of viewers’ preconceived notions about what they were. So I guess I’m ready to discuss them as much as humanly possible right now too. How much time do you have?
Though the “Anne of Green Gables” adaptation starring Megan Follows gets a lot of love (rightfully so), lesser known to many fans is the Canadian spinoff series, “Road to Avonlea.” Also based on the novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery, “Avonlea” (as it was later known) takes place after the events of “Anne” and focuses on Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley), a spoiled Montreal schoolgirl who was forced to live with her late mother’s rural relations after her father is embroiled in legal troubles. The lustrous rolling hills of Prince Edward Island serve as a stunning backdrop, as Sara (whose wild imagination leads her to be called “the story girl”) is our window into a turn-of-the-century farming community, with all of its warmth, joys, sorrows—and of course pettiness and silliness.
The series aired in the U.S. on The Disney Channel for seven seasons in the ’90s, as family-friendly programming that investigated the lives and loves of the King family and their many quirky neighbors (including some “Anne” familiars like Rachel Lynde and Marilla Cuthbert). Though it wavered in narrative quality a bit as it went on, there was still so much to love about these characters that it could have comfortably continued forever. It certainly had a major impact on my own TV-watching childhood and formation, and it remains a warm series that I continue to return to as Comfort TV.
However … it’s a difficult series to recommend, because for decades it was only available via very expensive DVD sets, and even now is only available to stream on its own paid service (it is, however, available on Netflix’s DVD subscription service). Because of that, perhaps, it’s remained a niche topic (though there are, or at least were, conventions held on PEI for many years). It’s a series that feels lost to time, which is a shame, because there really isn’t anything else like it. The production values—especially the commitment to filming at Golden Hour—makes the series such a lush and beautiful watch. “Avonlea” is heartwarming in the best of ways, and worth seeking out.
I’m both shocked and not shocked that Netflix actually gave “Lost in Space” a second season. Personally, I loved the first season of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ reboot of the classic Irwin Allen TV show, flaws and all; the Robinson family was updated to a more equitable, flawed familial unit (with Molly Parker’s Maureen Robinson being the clear leader of the pack), and Parker Posey’s cagey, calculating take on Dr. Smith was almost as sharp as her practical-yet-fashionable space rompers. But apart from that brief period of time when everyone on Twitter was talking about how they’d definitely smash the new, Zaddy version of the Robot, the new “Lost in Space” fell out of the cultural conversation after about a week or two. I did my best to hype it up (I wrote a piece for Consequence of Sound praising the STEM-focused women of the Robinson family), but I fear that the show won’t get enough attention to save it from getting the axe after a second season. After all, it’s a move that Netflix is apparently all too willing to do, even to much more culturally-relevant and popular shows like “One Day at a Time”.
It’d be a shame, though, because good space-based science fiction is too hard to come by these days (“The Expanse” excepted, of course). “Lost in Space” didn’t start on the most solid footing, to be fair: the Space Family Robinson spent virtually all of the first season stuck on a single planet, playing up the “Lost” part of “Lost in Space” to somewhat mixed results. But now that the ensemble is firing on all cylinders, and the show has finally reached the original series’ dynamic in its closing minutes – the Robinsons and Dr. Smith, all on their own in the Jupiter 2 as they hop from planet to planet – I’d love for the show to get a nice long run. I just hope that the Internet remembers its thirst for the Robot long enough to keep it up.
I wish I had more opportunity to write about my all-time favorite series, ABC’s “Homefront” (1991-93), a soapy period piece before period dramas became more acceptable on primetime broadcast television. Set in a small Ohio town after World War II, “Homefront” had the best mix of interpersonal drama, storylines around social issues, romantic/comedic character interplay, music, and dancing. “Homefront” offered an “Upstairs, Downstairs”-style mix of characters: a wealthy white family that owned the town factory; their African-American servants (Hattie Winston, Dick Anthony Williams) and a white, middle class family. “Homefront” gave Kyle Chandler and Kelly Rutherford their starts. “Mom” co-star Mimi Kennedy played the judgmental busy-body wife to the factory owner (Ken Jenkins, “Scrubs”). A pre-“Mad Men” John Slattery joined the cast as a union leader. “Homefront” wasn’t as ground-breaking as plenty of serialized shows that followed (“The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” etc.) but it is and probably always will be my sentimental TV drama favorite.
I don’t think I can pick any one show beyond a general sense that I should talk much more about older TV – shows that debuted before the 2000s, or even shows that debuted before I was born. Television is such an inherently disposable medium that it often seems as though it disappears down the memory hole as quickly as it’s made, and there are so many potentially great shows from the medium’s history that I would love to tell more people about. And even more that I would love to see for myself. But alas. The click machine must be fed. (Seriously, though, watch the early ’60s drama “Route 66” -– it’s so beautiful.)
I was on vacation when “The Bisexual” dropped, and once I finally got a chance to watch it, I was furious that I had missed my chance to write about. The most obvious and specific reason this is frustrating is because I, like creator and star Desiree Akhavan, am an Iranian-American bisexual who went to Smith College. We obviously don’t have the same lives, but these spooky parallels do make me more in tune with the specific dynamics that “The Bisexual” depicts within the lesbian/bi community that can be extremely fraught. Her struggling to accept her own bisexuality while her lesbian friends scoff at the idea of it existing at all is the kind of conflict that TV — so often caught up on stories about queer people coming out to straight people — has rarely touched with anything approaching nuance. I’m grateful for Akhavan getting the chance to, and will be marking Season 2 down in my calendar so I don’t make the same mistake twice!
“One show” – I am sticking to that. “Fleabag” with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who captures a wonderful snapshot of a woman before her prime living in London with a steamer trunk full of secrets, betrayals, and lies just waiting to be unpacked. Her character Fleabag is witty and gorgeous while grieving and self-medicating with meaningless sex. She is all the regret one could possibly have – lost loved ones, unspoken apologies and suffering a torturous existence with the ones left behind, namely her father and sister. Waller-Bridge is a consummate physical actress too as she breaks the fourth wall over and again, giving great expressive glances directed at viewers with perfectly parsed quips.
Come for the brilliant tour-de-force that is Phoebe as Fleabag, and stay for the genius secondary and guest casting that includes Olivia Colman as her stepmother, plus Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve) as a therapist and Kristin Scott Thomas as high-powered businessperson. Bonus: In season 2 the unlikely yet intense chemistry Fleabag shares with a priest, Andrew Scott, is the hottest TV romance out there, they are 100 percent believable on film. Not enough people have seen this incredible effort.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “Baskets” (two votes), “The Bachelor,” “Euphoria,” “Holey Moley,” “Los Espookys,” “Perpetual Grace LTD,” “Pose,” Wimbledon, “Years and Years”
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.