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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

I started out 2008 as a paid TV critic with a happily stable and sedate personal life that rarely edged into something all that exciting. After a series of corporate maneuvers seemingly designed to leave me weeping in the street early in the year and a last week of the year that spent most of its time beating the hell out of me, I’ve been more than ready to leave 2008 behind and stride off into the untamed wildness of 2009.

Normally, as bad shit was going down, I would find my solace in the world of television, but television pretty much sucked in 2008. The long, hazy hangover of the strike that we began the year still dealing with cast its pall over the rest of the year with a dread efficiency, and after a while, I just didn’t even want to turn on the TV anymore to watch something like Sons of Anarchy fight its way through its growing pains. Also, I spent a couple of months working for Barack Obama’s election (yay!), inadvertently setting in motion events that would reverberate through the rest of my life, and I just didn’t watch a ton of TV in that time period. So I’m maybe not as caught up as everyone else, but that’s why we have special awards.

Anyway, 2008 was a terrible year for TV. Sweet little shows I actually enjoyed were canceled (Pushing Daisies) while Dancing With the Stars’ ratings hegemony grew ever stronger. One network ceded a WHOLE HOUR of primetime to Jay Leno. JAY LENO! The writers strike shortened seasons of just about everything. Some shows returned and had a problem matching their pre-strike heights (30 Rock), while others went away for nine or ten months and returned when no one could even remember they existed (Pushing Daisies again). Some STILL aren’t back (my beloved Big Love returns in January). I mean, not ALL television was bleak—Mad Men ignored the industry-wide memo and gave us one of the best seasons of television ever, while Lost and Battlestar Galactica each hit new creative highs—but the fact that The Wire and The Shield both wrapped up, with BSG and Lost soon to follow, made things SEEM that much bleaker. Mad Men can only take us so far, especially with Matthew Weiner getting stiffed on a new contract deal.

So rather than make a list of shows that had SEASONS I found uniformly excellent in 2008 (because I get to six or so, and then I just start giving out lower slots to shows I’m effectively patting on the head for just trying so darn hard), here’s a list of 20 episodes and TV moments I unquestioningly enjoyed this year, followed by a few special awards for shows that maybe never pull it all together but offer up a fun element or two for the discerning TV fan.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien during the strike (January through February): See? Here I go. Cheating already. But the difference between the increasingly strained comedy of Conan O’Brien WITH writers and the sheer, daffy anything-for-a-joke brio of Conan O’Brien WITHOUT writers was so palpable that I’m loathe to single out an episode. While other late night talk shows struggled without writers (The Daily Show, outside of Jon Stewart’s bitterness that the WGA wouldn’t grant him a waiver like they did with David Letterman’s production company, mostly kinda sucked), O’Brien just went for broke, bringing to mind the heady days of Letterman in the 80s. He zip-lined from the audience onto stage. He got in a fight with Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He wandered his offices and settled in to play Rock Band against a bunch of backstage personnel. It was glorious. And then his writers came back, and he settled in for more of the same-old, same-old. Oh well.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “Reedickyoulus” (Feb. 10): Aqua Teen has succeeded over the years by taking the age-old comedy formula of the very smart guy (Frylock) paired with the very dumb guy (Meatwad) and tossing in a personality type that can only be described as “cable news anchor” (Master Shake). While the show’s absurdist streak can occasionally grow a little TOO hard to take, the underpinning comic engines are as old as cinematic entertainment itself, and the Master Shake twist keeps the show from getting TOO old, as he antagonizes Meatwad mercilessly and irritates Frylock with his bullheadishness. I almost didn’t include this because if you don’t get Aqua Teen, you won’t get this, and it’s not exactly the most shining example of the televised form, but this 11 minute tale of Meatwad’s attempts to protect his kittens from Master Shake’s malevolence probably made me laugh more than anything else this year.

Breaking Bad, “… And the Bag’s in the River” (Feb. 10): Breaking Bad does pretty much everything I say I want a great television series to do, and yet I, like other TV critics, kept underrating it while it was on the air, largely because it was on AMC, and AMC has Mad Men, and the TV critics’ charter says, “THOU MUST LIKE ONLY ONE SHOW PER CABLE NETWORK IF THAT CABLE NETWORK IS NOT HBO.” It’s true. Look it up. But, to be honest, I’ve probably spent more time turning this particular episode, brilliantly scripted by Vince Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein with a fine sense of suburban claustrophobia, over and over in my head than anything else broadcast this year. Bryan Cranston’s work as a man pushed to his limit by financial difficulties has ratcheted up in poignancy thanks to world events (seriously, I think this and How I Met Your Mother were THE ONLY TWO FICTIONAL SHOWS to deal, however obliquely, with the credit crunch), and the show’s creation of a whole KIND of world (the raw exurbs of the American Southwest) we haven’t seen before is much appreciated. Here, Cranston’s Walter contemplates the murder of a man he’s keeping locked in a basement, seeing how far he’s willing to go to protect his family and, OK, himself. It was riveting. I can’t wait for the DVD release, so I can find out just how much I underrated this.

Lost, “The Constant” (Feb. 28): Lost is, at heart, a puzzle box mystery. For all of the series’s pretensions and beliefs in its own grandeur, it’s really just a lean, mean update of The Twilight Zone, only with recurring characters. What’s missed, I think, in pieces that grapple with Lost’s inconsistency is just how much the growing pains of the second and third seasons are about executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse trying to throw off the goofy restraints placed on them by the original concept and characters dreamed up by J.J. Abrams and Lindelof and make the show they always wanted to make (which is, apparently, a batshit insane series about confronting your worst fears). Season four finally saw Lindelof and Cuse able to DO that for the most part (they still had to toss a bone to that insipid Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle occasionally, and Jack and Kate, the ostensible leads, remain the least compelling characters—Abrams’ curse remains!), and they never proved it more than in this puzzle-box-y hour that took the character best exemplifying the show’s deeply romantic soul (Desmond) and sent him on a quest through time and space for a lost love. It sounds overwrought until you watch the thing, and it, improbably, works so damn well.

The Wire, “-30-” (March 9): Now we come to the HBO section of the list, as we see what the once ever-dominant pay-cable channel tossed up for us in 2008. (And, before you ask, I didn’t have HBO for most of the year, so I still haven’t caught up with Generation Kill. Mea culpa.) By now, everyone knows that The Wire is the best series in the history of television, etc., etc., etc., and I’m supposed to talk about how the episode BEFORE this (“Late Editions”) was REALLY the show’s finest hour because the penultimate episodes always are and blah, blah, blah, but I think “-30-” is one of the most daring things I’ve ever seen done on television, so I’m honoring it here. It’s less an attempt to bring an end to a long-running series and a group of much-loved characters (on the part of its small audience, at least) and more an attempt to create something that really resembles the rhythms of life as it’s lived. Those two audacious montages of Baltimore, a city bleeding and breathing, that break the episode proper from its coda and wrap up the whole thing, are so full of great filmmaking that I feel like I’m STILL unpacking them.

John Adams, “Join or Die” (March 16): Whether or not you liked John Adams was one of those big TV questions of 2008, and there was little-to-no room for wafflers. Well, watch me waffle. I thought John Adams started and ended really well, but mostly lost its way in the middle, thanks to an occasionally overly literal script and some hapless direction (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney remained fine throughout, and the portrayals of the other founding fathers—Tom Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin excepted—were pretty solid). Still, the whole thing started off excellently, with Giamatti’s Adams getting drawn, almost against his will but in line with his reason, into a revolution. I’ve rarely felt as cognizant of the stakes in Colonial America as I was in this piece of TV, and it’s a shame much of the rest of the series lost that sense of urgency.

In Treatment, “Alex, Week 8” (March 18): In Treatment baffled me for three or four weeks. It wasn’t as smart as it thought it was, and the storylines for the various patients were terribly inconsistent (in general, Sophie and Alex good, other patients … there but for the grace of God). I also didn’t like the way everybody kept stating baldly what they were feeling (and, yes, it goes with the psychotherapy territory, but, GOD, it could be on the nose). But, little by little, the series wormed its way under my skin as a portrayal of one man’s strengths and failings (something that television does as well or better than any other medium). Viewed less as the story of a variety of patients and more as the story of a doctor treating them, the series works (and earned Gabriel Byrne an unexpected and welcome Emmy nomination), even if the filmmaking, confined as it is to one set, usually felt a little stage-y. The finest hour was this episode from late in the series’s run, as Glynn Turman (who actually managed to WIN the Emmy, again unexpectedly) stopped in for one week to talk with Byrne’s Paul about his son, Alex, one of Paul’s patients. Turman’s performance and the quiet theatrics of the script elevated the series beyond its usual trappings, and Byrne’s elegant underplaying managed to show Paul’s search for his soul without yelling about it.

The Office, “Dinner Party” (April 10): Here’s an episode that divided even diehard Office fans. In general, in the latter half of The Office’s third season and the first half of its fourth season, the series got too in love with being as wacky as possible (and sacrificing the character moments that made the show work). After the strike, though, the series righted itself, homing in again on the huge roster of great characters, and giving them all moments to build on the series’s established history (Stanley’s explosion in “Did I Stutter” seemed like a lifetime in coming). “Dinner Party” established the welcome return to this dynamic with a half-hour of dark, dark comedy that played like “Virginia Woolf” condensed into a sitcom episode. Without gimmicks (like field trips to the great outdoors) to fall back on, the series delved into the collapsing coupling of Michael (Steve Carell) and Jan (Melora Hardin) with squeamish efficiency, alienating many fans but winning just as many back. Since this one, the series has been back in a big way, easily retaking the crown of Best Comedy on Television from 30 Rock.

Zero Punctuation, “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” (April 23): The boomlet in Internet-only series felt like it came into its own this year (see later for the best example), as people finally figured out how to use the limitations of the form to create superior short entertainments. Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw vaulted to the top of the very, very tall heap of online video game criticism this year, mostly by having very definitive opinions of what makes a good game and what makes a bad game, expressing those opinions in a crystal-clear manner and being very, very funny. Croshaw can fall back on pseudo-homophobia too much for my tastes, but there’s no question that he’s randomly become one of the two or three best video game critics out there (admittedly, not as tall a heap), and this episode, viewable here, is a good example of why. It punctures fanboys, lazy game concepts, the Wii and the idea of multiplayer gaming as the be-all and end-all of video games in under five minutes. And it’s funny!

Battlestar Galactica, “Revelations” (June 13): Galactica’s fourth season was its best yet (and the final handful of episodes, coming in a couple of weeks, promise even better, if everyone is to be believed), building on seasons worth of tension between the characters to create something raw, human and aching. It all ended in a magnificent piece of television (maybe the best of the year) that I’ve already written about extensively.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, “Act 3” (July 19): Joss Whedon is one of our great, perpetually out-of-work filmmakers, always trying to make his visions conform to major network or major studio visions and failing miserably to the tune of box office and Nielsen flops. Despite all of this, the guy has a huge fan base, always ready to check out his latest project (even if it sounds like an outright debacle like his upcoming Dollhouse). He harnessed all of that and his considerable Hollywood connections to make the Internet-only Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog during the strike, and in the program’s third act it becomes one of the two or three best things he’s ever done and an exemplar of what you can do with Internet series. I can’t really explain too much without going into spoilers here, but the third act revives Whedon’s traditional fascination with story structure and narrative as it asks why we identify with the characters we identify with, gives us everything we’ve ever hoped for and then mocks us for having those hopes in the first place. Oh, and it’s apparently also about how the writers lost the strike.

Mad Men, “Three Sundays” (Aug. 17): I toyed with putting “Mad Men’s second season” on the list, but that REALLY felt like cheating. It was the only series that barely took a misstep this year, as Matthew Weiner chased an elusive dream of America that was and finally managed to land it in the end. It was, as mentioned, one of the best seasons of American television ever, right up there with Deadwood season two or The Simpsons season four or that fabled first season of The Sopranos (don’t make me pick a Wire season). The series grew into a modest hit (at least by AMC standards), won an Emmy and spawned a healthy backlash, but here’s an episode that shows why the backlashers are just wrong. Unfolding over three Sundays (surprise!), the series shows us a marriage in disintegration, a young woman struggling to cope with her guilt and an ad agency facing an uncertain future, all without having a character monologue about any of it. What makes Mad Men so great is how UNEXPECTED all of it is, even though absolutely every story turn and twist seems perfectly predictable in retrospect. It’s a hard trick to manage, but “Three Sundays” is proof that it’s so satisfying when it comes together.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cover the conventions (August/September): There’s rarely a better example of eye-rolling American political theater than the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and there’s never been a better example of comedy programs not knowing what to do with a political figure than Barack Obama. The Daily Show and Colbert managed this first feat in the week of the DNC by both mocking the man’s movement (that bio video featuring Obama’s face superimposed over Simba from The Lion King kills) and subtly condescending to him (mostly in the case of faux-blowhard Colbert). But it was the week of the RNC when both shows turned loose. As much as everyone talks about Tina Fey cementing the image of Sarah Palin in the eyes of the American public, it was Jon Stewart and the team at The Daily Show who first managed to savage the right-wing media fawning over the deeply contradictory figure with whole features that played up clips of right-wing talking heads and showed their double standards. Colbert then landed the punchline by overpraising her ridiculously. Despite my card-carrying Obamabot credentials, I found Palin a fascinating figure, but deplored the right’s attempts to make her a Messiah and the left’s attempts to make her a two-bit hillbilly. The reality lay far more in the realm of media creation, and Stewart and Colbert found that soft underbelly, as they so often do.

How I Met Your Mother, “Shelter Island” (Oct. 20): Playing with narrative again (though that’s this show’s raison d’etre). This wasn’t Mother’s funniest episode of the year (that honor goes to “The Bracket” or “The Naked Man”), but it was unexpectedly poignant, in the way that only a sitcom episode can be. In its denouement, it also suggested something that other works of art get at but rarely express so well: We’re ALL living out our own stories, and we rarely realize how those stories interact with other people and can devastate them until it’s too late. It’s all well and good when we’re the protagonist, and everyone smiles down upon us, but the second reality intrudes, and we have to consider the collateral damage, we stop and reconsider. Or we don’t. And so it goes. And, of course, Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson is the great comedic creation of our decade, so let’s give him some awards soon please.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “The Tower Is Tall, but the Fall Is Short” (Oct. 20): I never quite know which Sarah Connor Chronicles is going to show up from week to week. Will it be the lugubrious, boring show where boring people complain about boring problems? Or will it be the unexpectedly tight SF/action showcase with compelling characters who fret about hard-SF concepts rarely aired on TV, like what effect traveling through time has on the future or whether or not machines can feel and think? This episode, the last addition to this list, makes a good case that, given time, the series could find its way into being the latter on a weekly basis. Focusing on a robot from the future forced to take care of a very human child when she takes that child’s mother’s place, the episode also sends the aforementioned boring leads into therapy (a hackneyed device, but hear me out) and starts to get into ideas of how you act when you know the apocalypse is just around the corner that are rarely aired outside of Big Love. But it was the terrifying mother-child scenes that made this episode work. They make you think there’s something more to this series, something good enough to keep you coming back week after week.

Obama is elected (Nov. 4): The kinda-bullshit-but-trendy pick to put atop your TV of 2008 list is “the election” or “the election coverage,” but outside of a few weeks there when everyone wondered how, exactly, Obama or McCain would confront the growing economic catastrophe, the televised news coverage of the election was woefully inadequate, veering as it did from bullshit personality issues (like, say, lipstick on a pig) to bizarre fawning (over Obama or over Palin or, briefly, over Hillary Clinton or … you name it). All it did was highlight how terrible TV news really is and how much better newspapers and (now) blogs do it anyway. I mean, if I want my election news with a heaping helping of opinion-based personality, I know how to find Daily Kos or Red State online, thank you very much, and they won’t yell at me. But damned if it didn’t all lead to this, a moment that, at least symbolically, said that America is still what it says it is, even to the right wingers who called Obama a communist moments before (“Only in America,” they said, to a man). The talking heads mostly stayed out of the way of those delirious moments from when they called it for Obama to when McCain gave a terrific concession speech to when Obama stepped up for his speech. I watched it in a bar in Indiana, surrounded by newfound friends. We cheered and cried. I ate a fish sandwich. Where were you?

Pushing Daisies, “Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic” (Nov. 19): The writers strike was based on some very solid issues, but the way it was carried out and the results that the writers got were all pretty stupid. The writers won only very minor concessions, and it increased network TV’s reliance on reality (though an unexpected benefit was the ratings resurgence of the sitcom). Oh, and Pushing Daisies got canceled thanks to it. Daisies was a show that most of my friends found teeth-grindingly irritating, but they were, of course, wrong. The series really grew into its own in the second season when most of America had forgotten about it (again, thanks, strike!). The mysteries were stronger, the emotional centers were more resonant and the series’s examination of what it means to confront your own death grew only more fascinating. This hour, which reunited series’s lead Ned (Lee Pace) with his half brothers and sent them all into the world of magic, combined a mostly satisfying mystery (still the show’s weakest link) with an acutely observed story about what it means to find a new family when you are an adult. ABC plans to burn off the final three episodes at some point. Set your TiVos!

The Shield, “Family Meeting” (Nov. 25): I’ve always held The Shield at arm’s length, sort of convinced that it wasn’t as good as it thought it was and got by mostly with breakneck plotting and pushing forward through implausibility. The show’s seventh and final season, though, convinced me, by showing that everything in the show’s run could, more or less, be tied up in a way that was satisfying on both a plot level and revealed the essential nature of the characters (both needed elements for the finale of a serialized drama). Some compared the period placed at the end of this episode favorably to the semicolon at the end of The Sopranos finale, but that’s missing the point. The Shield was as much about finding a fitting climax as The Sopranos was about avoiding one. So if this isn’t as audacious as The Sopranos’ finale, it’s still pretty great in its own way, with one of the most haunting setpieces in recent TV memory (you’ll know it when you see it) and an ending that’s as ambiguous about the future as The Shield ever gets.

30 Rock, “Reunion” (Dec. 4): 30 Rock struggled all year long with how to recapture the sheer vim and vigor it displayed before the strike in its second season (only one pre-strike second season episode aired this year, and while I liked it, I liked this one better). It was kind of the opposite of The Office, which rediscovered everything that made it enjoyable once it resumed after the strike. 30 Rock has always been a show that’s less a coherent whole than a collection of very funny parts, and it relies on all of those parts being very funny, with only the relationship between Liz (Tina Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) being reliably so. It also, depending on the week, is a different KIND of show with every episode, which will likely keep it from ever being a huge hit. But here’s an episode that takes the age-old sitcom plotline of the lead returning for a reunion and turns it on its head (the bullies Liz wanted to show off to secretly feared HER wisecracks and putdowns) AND ties in Jack’s occasional desires for a normal life. It’s as perfect a sitcom episode as you’ll ever see, and it bodes well for the future.

Chuck, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” (Dec. 15): In one of the rare bits of good TV karma this year, Chuck returned after the strike and somehow became a very good show (it had been promising, but all over the place in an abbreviated first season). Of course no one watched it. But then, week to week, it grew in audience, until it was challenging the ever-more-idiotic Heroes in audience share. Granted, a lot of that was people giving up on Heroes, but it was also viewers somehow finding Chuck against all odds. Every light, fluffy genre show needs an episode where it makes the leap from just trying to be a goofy good time to when the characters take on the emotional resonance for us to want to stick with them for years to come. On Buffy, for example, this came in the season two diptych “Surprise/Innocence.” And on Chuck, hopefully, it came here, in an episode that had one hell of a great twist midway through the episode and concluded with some emotionally solid beats that put everything the series had so carefully built in ruin. The show’s still a little overstuffed, but there are few I look forward to watching more week to week.

Some (hopefully brief) Special Awards:

Best comedy on TV: OK, yeah, I said The Office was up above, but Grey’s Anatomy OBVIOUSLY is? I mean, most critics are disgusted by Izzie sexing Ghost Denny, but I THINK IT’S HILARIOUS.

Socks folding TV, drama division: A good socks-folding show is one that you can sort of pay attention to and enjoy. It’s generally well-crafted, but not especially ambitious. Chuck used to fall into this category. Now it doesn’t. My picks this year are the goofy rapscallions of Bones (outside of that terrible third season finale) and Supernatural, which scratches that old X-Files itch in completely ridiculous fashion (but does so winningly).

Socks folding TV, comedy division: CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine and The Big Bang Theory each have terrific performances (from Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jim Parsons, respectively) and generally solid scripts.

Great soundtrack for a middling show: Life on Mars tries too hard to be the second coming of Twin Peaks and fails a lot of the time, but the soundtrack is killer.

I’m never gonna get it so shut up: Especially in the current economic climate, I find myself having trouble giving a shit about Gossip Girl, a show that basically rehashes the superficially enjoyable things people pretended to like about 90210 and other teen soaps without an ounce of emotional realism. At least The O.C. had irony!

Probably should have included this episode, but I stopped caring: House’s two part finale, “House’s Head”/“Wilson’s Heart,” was just about the best example of traditional TV finale-craft out there, but the show completely lost it in the fall, and I stopped caring. Similarly, Ugly Betty’s “When Betty Met YETI” was a pretty good example of how to do a Very Special Episode, but it was on a show that has gotten so obsessed with having “heart” that it has none anymore, so I had stopped caring.

Probably should have included this episode, but I forgot: I really did mean to put Doctor Who’s “Midnight” on there. It was the best Twilight Zone in decades. My mistake!

Best “News” show: TV news has mostly disappeared down a rabbit hole of personality journalism, but if it’s going to do that, it may as well embrace compelling personalities like Rachel Maddow of The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is unfailingly (sometimes kneejerk) liberal, but her opinions are well-expressed, and her fights with Pat Buchanan are awesome.

I probably would have put it on here, but I didn’t see it: Friday Night Lights’ third season is, reportedly, pretty darn good, but it’s on DirecTV, and illegally downloading it and then avoiding the NBC rebroadcasts seems like kicking a low-rated show when it’s down. Also, I just haven’t caught up with Sons of Anarchy.

Great performances in weak shows: Ray Wise’s Devil is so good he makes Reaper watchable some weeks, and JoAnna Garcia is making me keep up with Privileged in the hopes that the inconsistent scripts will eventually match her awesomeness.

What?: Dexter’s third season veered from awesome to awful so rapidly and with such little warning that I’m still not sure what to make of it. Ask me in a year.

And yet …: Michael Emerson’s Ben grieving over his daughter, the smoke monster crackling along behind in Lost’s “The Shape of Things to Come,” Ted’s two-minute date with Stella in How I Met Your Mother’s “Ten Sessions” (makes me tear up every time), Snoop’s final moments in The Wire’s “Late Editions,” the look on Vic Mackey’s face as he prepares to talk in The Shield’s “Possible Kill Screen,” Michael chewing out corporate in an airport in The Office’s “Business Trip,” Peggy telling Pete the truth in Mad Men’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” Walter blowing up the bad guys in Breaking Bad’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” the freeze ray song in “Dr. Horrible,” Joe Biden’s mom tottering along, Sarah Palin unleashing howls in the convention hall, David Tyree catching a pass against his friggin’ helmet, those Opening Ceremonies!, Usain Bolt apparently not being human at all, the Doctor flying to save the day in Doctor Who’s “Forest of the Dead” and everybody joining in for “Midnight Train to Georgia” in 30 Rock’s “Episode 210.” I can’t really untangle any of them from my mind, despite 2008 being such an awful year for TV. Here’s to better 2009, and more moments we care as much about.

House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019

Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.

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Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the medium’s consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.

The year’s best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered “issue-driven.” Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBO’s Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the network’s crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.

The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the year’s many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bob’s Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the year’s best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the medium—all of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis


City on a Hill

25. City on a Hill

When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Bacon’s casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife


Years and Years

24. Years and Years

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan


On Becoming a God in Central Florida

23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida

Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife


Big Mouth

22. Big Mouth

Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown


Euphoria

21. Euphoria

Sam Levinson’s Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” Scaife

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Review: Truth Be Told Is Uninterested in the Malleable Nature of Truth

The series attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances.

1.5

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Truth Be Told
Photo: Apple TV+

As Octavia Spencer’s journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell leads her listeners through the shadowy histories of gruesome criminal cases in Truth Be Told, the actress perfectly mimics the warmly grave vocal delivery that’s a hallmark of the true-crime podcast genre. Yet, while the Apple TV+ series understands this genre’s allure, it fails to replicate the enduring insights of podcasts like Serial—insights which pertain to the opacity of fact and the idea that the truth can be shaped by the whims of institutions, such as jury selection and the preservation of crime-scene evidence. Truth Be Told eschews the fixations of the nonfiction works that it apes, focusing on lurid gossip and incredulous plot twists and, as a result, proving uninterested in the malleable nature of truth itself.

Truth Be Told follows Poppy as she reassesses a grisly suburban murder from 20 years ago—one she mined for professional success at the time, penning a series of columns which helped turn the public tide against Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the teenager who was convicted of the crime. A nagging flaw in Truth Be Told emerges early on, as the series fails to elucidate exactly why Poppy is convinced of Cave’s innocence. Reference is made to a key witness who may have been coached, but that inconclusive new development seemingly confirms Poppy’s long-harbored suspicions, which exist for reasons that are never made clear.

The show’s contrived central mystery, then, pertains to who really killed Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). It’s a question that’s far less complex than that of many high-profile true-crime mysteries, and Truth Be Told attempts to derive excitement solely from its overly calibrated performances. Indeed, the direction given to a majority of the actors seems to have been to glower more, act shiftier, or seem more agitated. The series suggests Buhrman’s killer could have been any of the figures Poppy encounters, but because they’re all so obviously creepy, a pervasive sense emerges, unintentionally, that they’re all engaged in some kind of conspiracy.

Paul bizarrely plays Cave as a feral presence, growling and tilting his head during his character’s interviews with Poppy. Incarceration, the series unsubtly suggests, has made him an animal. Likewise, Buhrman’s daughters, Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzie Caplan), are a pair of incessant liars who’re still grappling with the trauma of their father’s death. Other characters seem to simply be evil, none more so than Cave’s father, who’s the show’s plainly obvious red herring. All of these figures are suspects, yet the persistent suggestion that that we might also empathize with many of them results in Truth Be Told vacillating between conflicting viewpoints: one that sees these characters’ flaws are the resultant damage of Buhrman’s murder, and one that sees their flaws as inherent and may have led them to kill. But the series lacks the tact or nuance to investigate the idea of inherent evil, and what’s left is a rather muddled whodunit in which the answer ceases to be very interesting.

While the show’s reliance on easy misdirection and incredulous plot dynamics are an understandable hallmark of its genre, Truth Be Told similarly fails to distinguish itself in cinematic or thematic terms. Shot in an exceedingly workmanlike fashion, the series is designed to offer boatloads of information and little else. Every conversation unfolds in rote over-the-shoulders shots, and exteriors are plagued by the copious drone shots that have become a kind of shorthand for high production value in prestige television. Even the rare bursts of action unfold mechanically, with twists telegraphed by the show’s performances and scenes either being marred by slow motion or shaky-cam obfuscation.

Coherent cinematic flourishes would have been a welcome addition, because much of what’s being captured here seldom exceeds matters of exposition. For instance, every discussion between Poppy and her private investigator, Markus (Mekhi Phifer), includes clumsy references to their past romantic history, as if we might forget. Seemingly every conversation that Poppy has with anyone includes a statement of their current emotional dynamic. While Spencer’s warmth and wit hint at Poppy’s skill as an investigator, the actress is too often left delivering dialogue that merely states what’s happening around her or in her head.

Throughout Truth Be Told, Poppy constantly explicates her guilt, yet the series doesn’t seem sure what exactly is prompting those feelings. The show flattens its performers’ unique personalities, utilizing them simply in service of engendering suspicion. Ostensibly about the nature of fact and the spiraling effects of dishonesty, Truth Be Told is actually much less thought-provoking than all that, and simply erects a byzantine rumor mill around one man’s death and then mining those rumors for cheap thrills.

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzie Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ron Cephas Jones, Nic Bishop Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Joe Pera Talks with You Digs Into the Truth About Our Preoccupations

Season two of the series explores how our preoccupations bring us comfort when we might need it most.

3.5

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Joe Pera
Photo: Adult Swim

As a comedian, Joe Pera is a bit of an enigma. With a hunched-over, ambling gait and a slow, soothing voice, he may be the youngest old man on TV. How much of this is an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt is an open question; Pera is certainly committed to not totally breaking character even outside his TV series Joe Pera Talks with You, as he sustains his grandfatherly persona through stand-up routines, promotional interviews, and appearances on the local news. His website provides a form for fans to guess his age. He’s almost painfully polite and modest, brimming with a shy, nervous energy, using pauses and stumbling over words to disarm viewers right before he jams in some unexpected joke.

In other words, how much of Joe Pera the man is in Joe Pera the performance art character, and which parts are specifically turned up for comedic value? Watching Joe Pera Talks with You is to simultaneously ponder this question and be so taken with his sweet, earnest persona that the answer seems not to matter. The show’s 11-minute episodes are ostensibly structured around the middle-school choir teacher’s interest in mundane objects and activities: speaking directly into the camera, he discusses beans, hiking, shopping at the grocery store, and other things around his home in Marquette, Michigan.

Other topics and concerns inevitably creep into each episode, whether because Pera is easily distracted by things like the effect of jack-o’-lanterns on one’s soul or because other forces—a boisterous co-worker, an awareness of consumerism, or a disagreement with band teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone)—briefly throw him off course. Following from the previous season, he and Sarah are newly dating, though their viewpoints sometimes differ as Pera’s apparent frivolity clashes with Sarah’s status as a committed end-of-the-world prepper with a fortified basement and a handgun; in one episode, she asks him if he’s willing to kill to defend his garden.

In another type of series, Pera might be some wacky side character or otherwise relegated to the butt of a joke to contrast a more cynical protagonist, but the brilliance of Joe Pera Talks with You is how he instead provides the dominant perspective. No matter how seemingly insignificant, Pera and his interests are presented with complete sincerity through gentle music and loving close-ups of objects and processes, creating an atmosphere of reserved but infectious passion through his dedication and attention to detail. With a mix of serene images, oddly well-researched facts, and understated visual comedy, episodes play like a mix of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ASMR videos, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

An extreme self-awareness fuels the show’s comedy, from the subtle tics and timing of Pera’s speaking style to the use of subtitles and careful compositions that do such things as gradually reveal that he’s wearing shorts. He walks silently in one episode, and as soon as that silence begins to feel awkwardly too long, he begins his monologue about hiking to reveal, simply through impeccable timing, that the silence stems from a weird, adorable belief that before he can discuss hiking, he must first demonstrate what it is. He’s thorough, this guy. And he makes sure to inform you that he’s just kidding when he says cold beer is nutritious.

Joe Pera Talks with You never feels like it’s making fun of Pera’s demeanor. Though the character is almost childlike in his perpetual wonderment, the parts of him that initially come off as absurd also feel truthful and even aspirational, in how this man has thought long and hard about things like the societal value of beans. He’s a master of conveying miniature stories in just a few words, like how he has “been devastated in the past” by experimenting in his garden or how classifying Easter as “the third most romantic day of the year” suggests a considered ranking of dates by such values.

Many of Pera’s observations ring true for their cutting, hilarious simplicity, though much of the comedy comes from how he’s not some inaccessible guru or unsung sage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some of the show’s funniest lines are when Pera brings up something his outward naiveté suggests he might be ignorant of, like American interventionism. He has his own worries; they’re just often about whether his beans will grow properly around the wire arch in his garden. He focuses on the beauty in the mundane, the things that bring him quiet joy. Employing warm cinematography, gentle narration, and its lightly absurd portrayal of everyday life, Joe Pera Talks with You digs at a larger existential truth about our own preoccupations and how they bring us comfort when we might need it most.

Cast: Joe Pera, Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley, Pat Harris, Jo Scott Network: Adult Swim

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Review: Servant Is an Unrelentingly Strange Examination of Grief and Denial

The show’s control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the story’s mystery itself.

3

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Servant
Photo: Apple TV+
Editor’s Note: This article contains plot spoilers.

On paper, the premise of Apple TV+’s Servant sounds simple enough: New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to take care of their infant son in their Philadelphia home. It’s a ritzy place, with a fully stocked wine cellar and a spacious kitchen for chef Sean to test out his elaborate recipes. When coupled with the show’s musical score of discordant, jittery strings and atmosphere of uneasy stillness created by long takes and peculiar camera angles, however, everything simply feels off, even before it’s revealed that the child, Jericho, is dead.

What lays motionless in the crib is actually just a silent, unblinking doll meant to placate Dorothy, who suffered a psychotic break following Jericho’s sudden death. Beyond a handful of instances throughout the season where she stares listlessly into the distance as if on the cusp of some revelation, she treats the Jericho doll as though it’s alive and well. The bitter, curmudgeonly Sean plays along, but when he’s alone, he’s content to drop the thing on the floor or knock its head against the crib. Hiring Leanne is just one more part of the charade, until one night Sean finds a living, breathing, crying infant in the doll’s place.

Much of the series follows Sean as he tries to figure out what’s going on, and with the help of Dorothy’s high-strung, perpetually wine-drunk brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). They investigate where the baby could have possibly come from and dig into the background of the prim, devoutly religious Leanne, whose presence coincides not only with the return of the new Jericho, but with Sean getting splinters from nearly every surface he touches. Dorothy resumes her work as a newscaster none the wiser, but her bright, outgoing demeanor—an extreme contrast with the sullen, dickish Sean—keeps putting their newly living baby at risk of discovery when she invites people over or insists on bringing him to work.

It’s a supremely weird setup for a series made only weirder by the way it builds atmosphere through the use of jarring sounds and an austere visual language. Though most of the season’s episodes noticeably lack the ambitious directorial hand of M. Night Shyamalan—who’s an executive producer on the show and helmed two episodes—cinematographer Michael Gioulakis maintains an unnerving mood through close observation of seemingly mundane actions. By holding so long on faces and often employing overhead angles, the camera lends a sort of voyeuristic, almost alien-like tinge to the proceedings.

And the close-ups are uncomfortably close, particularly with the constant focus on Sean’s cooking that finds him meticulously pulling apart the flesh of eels, lobsters, and squids. At other times, he’s seen tugging splinters out from his neck or inside his mouth. Whether something actually does happen when the camera lingers on Sean shoving something into the garbage disposal, the potential for disaster always seems to loom large. In such moments, it’s as though grief, denial, and pain coalesce into one suffocating presence.

Servant’s mystery unfurls at a satisfying clip, since it’s broken up into brisk half-hour chunks that always present some new complication. Episodes rarely leave Dorothy and Sean’s home, locking us inside to watch everyone seethe and fall apart. In the absence of traditionally horrific imagery, the show emphasizes an unrelenting strangeness not only through Sean’s increasingly odd recipes, but through things like a man vigorously dabbing sauce from his slice of chicken before, for no apparent reason, wrapping it in napkins and then squeezing the food between his fingers. The season ends, perhaps expectedly, with more questions than any particularly satisfying answers, but in similar fashion to shows like Twin Peaks, its control of tone and atmosphere soon becomes even more engrossing than the mystery itself.

Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Phillip James Brannon Network: AppleTV+

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Review: Season 3 of The Crown Makes Progress Look and Feel Wearisome

The series homes in on the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms.

2.5

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The Crown
Photo: Des Willie/Netflix

Season three of The Crown lacks the urgency that previously made the Netflix series so engaging. This is partly due to the more subdued relationships between the older members of the House of Windsor, now settled into their various roles as sovereign, husband, sister, and wife. Only a few years have passed between seasons, but Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), her husband Philip (Tobias Menzies), and sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) have accumulated a deep weariness that can be enervating to behold.

This season, the countercultural politics of the Swinging Sixties nurtures a new sense of awareness around the myriad hypocrisies and criticisms of aristocratic life. The series homes in on both economic inequality and the growing chasm between royal expectations and public norms, with the British crown’s traditional nonpartisan position becoming increasingly detrimental to its image. The antiestablishment spirit of the time seeps into Buckingham Palace via the small rebellions of Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), now a miniskirt-wearing, David Bowie-loving young woman. And it’s through her that the monarchy makes small but significant steps toward changing its perception as an outdated institution.

The Crown’s first two seasons tapped into the allure of a world insistent on formality. The ‘60s, though, bring a new set of societal challenges that redefine the relationship between the Windsors and their American counterparts, especially in the episode “Margaretology,” in which Margaret takes a tour of the States. Her spontaneity and charisma—the very qualities that make her a liability to the monarchy’s rarefied image—help Elizabeth to win over President Johnson (Clancy Brown), who dreads the codified etiquette that dictates their countries’ “special relationship.” Johnson doesn’t care about exclusive invitations to Balmoral Castle; he’s happy with dirty jokes and drinking contests that fly in the face of royal protocol.

The crown’s relationship to the British people is also changing, as highlighted in “Bubbikins,” which chronicles the impact of the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family. One of Philip’s public relations projects is to make the Windsors seem more appealing to the masses, but in his vanity, he fails to understand the importance of mystery and ritual to their public image. Royalty is the ultimate spectacle, and The Crown valiantly attempts to illuminate the psychological and emotional toll it takes on those who have little control over their lives. But it’s more than a little difficult to feel sympathy for the royals when the prince consort is seen trying to explain why the queen deserves more taxpayer money.

Despite Philip’s efforts to sweeten their image, the Windsors’ most likeable member is as un-royal as it gets: his mother. At turns fragile and fearless, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is a welcome mid-season addition, providing a much-needed contrast to her son, who’s still itching to find meaning in his life. Where Alice is selfless and warm, Philip is consumed by the need to micro-manage everything around him. As the younger Philip in the show’s first two seasons, Matt Smith was palpably angsty, but in Menzies’s hands, the neurotic prince is drawn ever inward. And a highlight of the new season is an entire episode concerned with his midlife crisis. Set during the events of the 1969 moon landing, “Moondust” is a sensitive exploration of masculine insecurities, and in no small part for the way Menzies calls upon reserves of pathos to chart his character’s miserable descent into self-pity and spite.

The most prominent thread running through The Crown’s third season is the dualities in people’s lives. It’s in the juxtaposition of the royals’ public and private selves, the ever-present chasm between aristocratic and common society, or the much more personal struggle of characters reconciling individual desires and duties. There’s plenty of fertile ground to explore this dynamic, as almost every character is in a state of conflict, from Elizabeth, who struggles to show genuine humanity to her people, to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), who reckons with his destiny as the future king. Within their rigid world, the royals pursue their desires in their own little ways—Charles with his love of the performing arts, Elizabeth with her beloved racehorses at Sandringham, Anne with a casual fling that surprises her family.

Toward the end of the season, even Margaret has a fleeting taste of happiness outside of the public eye, before getting sucked back into the vortex of her unhappy marriage. It’s impossible for the Windsors to fully escape the demands of the crown; several extended family scenes see even the most individualistic characters obediently falling in line. Elizabeth is ultimately the only character who digests and accepts this reality without much drama. Colman brings a hard-won confidence to the queen, who weathers changes and hard decisions with the mettle of a ruler who recognizes the importance of self-reliance and stability.

The title of the season’s first episode, “Olding,” is a play on Elizabeth’s age (and the code name of a K.G.B. spy), setting the tone for the queen’s private musings on the trajectory of her reign. The episode is an exploration of appearances and what they conceal, with a number of pieces of fine art and literary metaphors hammering that point home. During a pivotal moment in the season premiere, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), gives an overblown lecture about the layers of deceit and multiple meanings lurking within Renaissance art—and the moment is followed by a longwinded scene that overcomplicates an otherwise simple allegory about hidden identities and trust.

The Crown presents a network of relationships that are more meaningfully connected by ringing telephones, newspaper headlines, letters, and electric buzzers than face-to-face communication. The show’s royal family is “alone together,” settled in their identities and the demands of their station. Philip only reconciles with his mother after reading an article about her in the papers, and one of the season’s most heartening scenes depicts Alice and Philip walking arm-in-arm together in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Young Elizabeth once confronted Philip about what he does and where he goes, but she’s since risen above these small concerns. Given the queen’s inability to show her feelings, it’s fitting that the season closes on a note of solitude and isolation. In her own words, “One just has to get on with it.”

Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Ben Daniels, Marion Bailey, Josh O’Connor, Charles Dance, Jane Lapotaire, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell, Gillian Anderson Network: Netflix

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Review: For All Mankind Prioritizes Cynical Alternate History Over Character

The series suffocates its promising characters with the tedium of backroom politics.

2

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For All Mankind
Photo: Apple TV+

According to For All Mankind, if the Soviet Union had landed humans on the moon before the United States did, the space race would have continued at full speed, escalating from moon landings to the building of lunar bases to cosmic subterfuge. But the Apple TV+ series, created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, sluggishly leads to little of interest. For All Mankind prioritizes its alternate history’s tedious political maneuvering over its characters, suffocating their development and deflating emotional payoffs.

Navy veteran and astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is the primary focus of the series. In an early scene, set in 1969, he’s sitting in a bar in Houston, watching on TV as a Russian cosmonaut steps on the moon. Ed was on Apollo 10, a trial run for Apollo 11, which in the show’s alternate history is a footnote in the space race. Now, he and crewmate Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) strive to get back to space and break new ground.

Most of the show’s supporting characters come and go as if at random. For one, steely astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her endearing hippy husband, Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) become central figures and then inexplicably, and disappointingly, disappear. Often, characters exist less to provide a human perspective on the space race than to represent issues, a problem that’s more acute when it comes to the show’s women. Some of them—like astronaut Danielle Pool (Krys Marshall) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Gordo’s wife—propel more substantial narratives whose social commentary informs, rather than supplants, their personhood. But others, such as engineer Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Ed’s wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), are merely stand-ins for forces and experiences like sexism in the workplace and the trials that servicepeoples’ families endure.

After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, President Nixon—who’s depicted via archival footage overlaid with recordings, both authentic and fabricated—wants to do the same, which sets up an episode about the training of female astronauts. When the Soviets are expected to establish a military presence on the moon, Nixon and the Pentagon move to ramp up their own, which cues an arc about the creation of a lunar base. Throughout For All Mankind, NASA higher-ups, beholden to the president, ceaselessly relay his demands to Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) over in mission control, but all their exhaustingly repetitive policy debates siphon attention away from the human beings whose lives they shape.

As For All Mankind proceeds, however, it shifts its focus from broad political mandates to the specificities of its characters. One episode that centers around three astronauts penned up in a claustrophobic lunar base is among the show’s most evocative. The astronauts spend nearly half a year sleeping in cramped bunks, pickaxing moon rocks, and eating goo. When they intently and gravely tinker with an off-screen item, the stakes feel life-or-death, but a cut to the subject of their concern reveals a damaged VHS tape, one of their six episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. The crew watches the episodes on repeat, eventually reenacting one in a welcome act of catharsis. But later, when an astronaut feverishly acts out all three parts in a scene from the Newhart series, we see how much these people have given up, how profoundly it can hurt to be so far away from home.

One of the show’s notable revisions of the historical record is its portrayal of Ted Kennedy having succeeded Nixon as president, along with the former’s triumphant push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Kennedy initially wants to bring the moon-marooned astronauts home—a relief crew is repeatedly delayed from replacing them—but he ultimately tolerates their stranding because the lunar outpost distracts the nation from his ongoing sex scandal. These and other dynamics fuel the show’s deeply cynical framing of the space race not as a struggle for key geopolitical advantage or a fight for national principles, but as a conflict as fruitless and myopic as a dog’s quest to catch its own tail.

Cynicism suffuses the series both subtly, with its framing of NASA as a pawn of the
president’s administration, and overtly, with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore), the German aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V, saying that “every political system is flawed, and every bureaucracy is corrupt.” Soviet points of view are almost entirely absent from the series, but the American cronies on hand justify his mistrust.

Such disenchantment occasionally generates intriguing reflections on imperialism, discrimination, PTSD, and more. It also renders the earnestness of a side plot about a young girl, Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), and her father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), jarring in contrast. The pair immigrates to the U.S. from Mexico, and Aleida develops a fascination with rockets and space, as well as formidable skills in math. She’s poised to become an engineer, maybe even an astronaut, one day. The suggestion, here, is that the American dream is alive and well. But it seems that Aleida will have to leave Earth to find it.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Sarah Jones, Colm Feore, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, Nate Corddry, Eric Ladin, Rebecca Wisocky, Arturo Del Puerto, Olivia Trujillo, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, Wallace Langham Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Apple TV’s See Feels Startlingly Uncommitted to Its Bonkers Concept

The series struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of its post-apocalyptic feudalism.

1

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See
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV’s post-apocalyptic drama See will undoubtedly be sold on the credentials of those involved, from director Francis Lawrence to star Jason Momoa to writer-creator Steven Knight. Knight is best known for TV dramas like Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but his most relevant credit is one that will certainly go unmentioned in trailers and other marketing materials for the series: the stupefying, bonkers Matthew McConaughey fishing-centered noir Serenity, as See suffers from a similarly bizarre, overreaching concept.

In See’s vision of the future, only a couple million people are still alive, almost all of them blind. Society has, for some reason, gone feudal, with everyone decked out in furs and living in huts and broken up into different tribes. They call the sun the “god flame,” and, at the behest of tyrannical Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), they burn heretics who espouse the mostly forgotten idea of vision. The three-months pregnant Maghra (Hera Hilmar) is taken in by a remote community headed by Baba Voss (Momoa), who marries her. When she gives birth, it’s to twins who can see just fine. This, of course, being heresy, Baba Voss and the rest of the village flee from Kane’s witchfinders, building a new home in a remote location to keep the children safe.

The show’s opening credits display wispy yellow shadows of things like horses and spiders to suggest recognition even through blindness. Beyond that, though, See feels startlingly uncommitted to its gimmick of a blind world. The series is filmed in bog-standard fantasy style, all wide vistas, expansive greenery, and ominous smoke in the distance with seemingly no concession for how its characters’ perception of the world might differ from the audience’s. There’s a near-total absence of subjective camera work here, a sense of how the characters might have to rely on touch, sound, or smell to navigate. Barring a person’s occasional stumble to find their footing or moving a hand along a guiding rope tied across the top of the village, everything unfolds so expectedly that it’s easy to forget the show’s concept entirely.

Even with interminable amounts of exposition in the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere, Knight struggles to sensibly lay out the particulars of this post-apocalyptic feudalism in terms of government, social hierarchies, and basic navigation between settlements. Everyone is incongruously well-groomed and color-coordinated, even going so far as to wear hoods when burning people at the stake despite no one being able to see their faces. Gory battle scenes include someone like Voss groping around for a handhold only to swing his blade to perfectly meet an enemy’s throat the very next moment.

See is at its most engaging when it allows itself to get truly silly and weird: A naked woman in white paint follows people unnoticed because she’s said to purge herself of thought, and Queen Kane prays via masturbation, concluding each invocation in the throes of orgasm. But the majority of Knight’s series is a self-serious dirge, where sight-based wordplay like “So they just walk around with their eyes closed?” is delivered with a straight face. In the end, See’s myriad absurdities somehow add up only to a run-of-the-mill dystopia, where the children are the “chosen ones” and the tyrant must be overthrown.

Cast: Jason Momoa, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Alfre Woodard, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper, Yadira Guevara-Prip, Josh Blacker, Christian Sloan Network: Apple TV+

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Review: The Morning Show Boldly Navigates the Nuances of the “Me Too” Era

The series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our current moment.

3

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The Morning Show
Photo: Apple TV+

In the third episode of The Morning Show, two disgraced men sit down after a spirited tennis match and chat over scotch and Chinese takeout. One, a film director of apparent renown (Martin Short), tells the other—Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), a TV anchor recently accused of sexual misconduct and fired from his job co-hosting the nation’s most beloved morning show—that he feels bad for people coming of age in the #MeToo era. “There’s nothing sexy about consent,” he says. When Mitch responds with visual discomfort, the director revises his statement: “I guess what I’m saying is, humanity happens in the unspoken moments.”

Mitch claims that his only sin was engaging in consensual “extracurricular sex.” But while the three episodes provided to press ahead of the show’s premiere don’t confirm exactly what Mitch did or didn’t do, and while he expresses genuine contempt for unequivocal predators, we’re granted hints of the unspoken moments he may have orchestrated. At one point, Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a producer on Mitch’s former show, enters Mitch’s abandoned dressing room and presses a button under his desk, which automatically closes the door.

Earlier, Mitch receives a surprise visit from Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), his longtime co-host. He’s been cooped up in his house, surrounded by reporters, for days. The two clearly adore each other, and when Alex starts to leave, Mitch begs her to stay. His pleas are unnervingly murky: They may be the innocent symptoms of his loneliness and isolation, or they could be glimpses of the tactics he uses to keep women where they don’t want to be.

Alex is furious at Mitch for leaving her on her own, at executive producer Charlie Black (Mark Duplass) for keeping her in the dark about the allegations, and at the network itself for the bitter contract renegotiation it’s putting her through. The network is represented largely by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), an executive who’s dismissive of hard news and devoted to entertainment. He’s a delightfully odd highlight of the series, less traditional suit than android: unblinking, unreadable, and teetering on the edge of going haywire.

The rage that Aniston summons as Alex is beguiling. She slams her fists on conference tables and roars at her staff, achieving a catharsis that’s at odds with the passive aggression that permeates The Morning Show. But when she interviews Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a firebrand reporter from West Virginia who’s gone viral thanks to a candid video of her passionately telling someone off at a protest, Alex demonstrates a subtler wrath; thinking that the viral video was part of a scheme for fame, she asks increasingly antagonistic questions. Bradley, though, stands her ground, and the electrically pointed but within-bounds exchange escalates like a polite knife fight. Bradley’s resolution, verve, and popular appeal catch Cory’s eye, making her, unknowingly, a candidate to replace Mitch.

Bradley is predominantly limited to her outsider-ness—being a moderate conservative from a rural locale—and clichés about both-sides journalism that undercut her supposed radical streak. But Witherspoon infuses the character with scrappy charm and complexity, namely in Bradley’s uncharacteristically tender interactions with her brother, a recovering drug addict. Mitch, meanwhile, is thoroughly ostracized. Carell delivers bursts of pathos that disconcertingly temper Mitch’s grotesque rants, but the series uses Mitch as too broad a stand-in for the fallen man. A conversation between him and Charlie feels as though it’s meant purely to squeeze in boilerplate talking points about “McCarthyism” and “the court of public opinion” (and to make the insufferable Charlie even less sympathetic).

In its introductory episodes, however, The Morning Show mostly avoids trite, glib, or otherwise thoughtless writing. The series takes on the risky goal of humanizing Mitch—albeit inconclusively, for now—and carefully navigates the minefield of its sensitive subject material. Propelled by its magnetic performances, the series is an uneasy, sometimes nauseating, and often fascinating examination of our still-unspooling current moment.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Janina Gavankar, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Victoria Tate, Tom Irwin Network: Apple TV+

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Review: Season 2 of Jack Ryan Leans Hard on Generic Action and Stale Plotting

The occasionally thrilling series relies on generic action cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction.

1.5

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Jack Ryan
Photo: Jonny Cournoyer/Amazon

Early in season two of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) lectures a rapt audience of college students, defining for them the meaning of the term “failed state,” and warning them of the looming threat of economic collapse in Venezuela. Ryan has an easy charisma, owing to the amiable presence of Krasinski, and he describes the South American nation in overly simplistic terms that fit the show’s polarized, good-versus-evil worldview: Its strongman president, Nicolas Reyes (Jordi Molla), is “an asshole,” and the country is destined for ruin. And so begins the new season, with the series in thrall to its title character—and, by proxy, America—and concerned with its South American setting mostly as one more Banana Republic to be saved from itself.

Pitting moral opposites against one another for an occasionally thrilling eight episodes that place the fate of a nation in the balance, Jack Ryan harkens back to the anodyne action thrillers of the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s also clearly influenced by the Reagan Doctrine of interventionism, which encouraged guerrilla wars against left-wing governments. The show’s paternalistic vision of Venezuela, like season one’s notion of the Middle East, leans toward portraying the nation as one inherently incapable of self-management—thus necessitating the help of Jack Ryan, a character who moves, frustratingly, into messianic territory here.

Ryan finds himself in Venezuela on a diplomatic mission to question Reyes regarding a mysterious shipment deep in the jungle, which is being guarded by notorious weapons traffickers. His earlier warnings about the country are quickly justified, as he’s ambushed by a mysterious hitman after the meeting with President Reyes seems to ruffle political feathers. The season’s winding plot spins out from this point, as Ryan and C.I.A. colleague Jim Greer (Wendell Peirce) must attempt to find out who ordered the ambush and what’s in the jungle.

Jack Ryan’s loose grasp of U.S. foreign relations, while providing a poor representation of our history in Latin America, is a feature of its action-hero formula. Yet because the series has little unique to convey about the world Ryan inhabits, it’s composed solely of the brand of generic action and manipulative reliance on cliffhangers cribbed from other, more distinct espionage fiction. Jack Ryan is the Bourne series without the well-honed, if pummeling, stylistic brio; it’s James Bond minus the elegance; Mission: Impossible without the gonzo stunt work. What joys can be derived from it come mostly from Krasinski’s affability and his character’s prickly chemistry with Greer, to whom Pierce lends a warm grouchiness.

Throughout Jack Ryan’s new season, its relatively meaningless story doubles back over itself with a number of twists before, inevitably, the “good guys” win. Right out of the gate, you sense the show’s creative regression, as Ryan has transformed from a fish-out-of-water C.I.A. analyst to a natural superhero—one comfortable liberating prison camps in the jungle, spying on weapons caches, and invading foreign government buildings. The season stretches credulity even by the show’s own standards, culminating with Ryan and a small band of black-ops cohorts invading the Venezuelan presidential palace on election day—and its laughably unrealistic final climax includes Ryan fist-fighting with President Reyes.

Though Ryan is sketched loosely, and strictly in terms of his heroism, Krasinski’s everyman persona and knack for sarcastic comedy assures that he’s believable as a smart guy with hidden ambition and untapped potential, as well as a dash of ego. But despite Krasinski’s effort, the series remains most engaging when the season’s action turns away from Ryan. A secondary plot, involving a foursome of American black operatives invading the jungle, provides some of the season’s most suspenseful action sequences—and its most potent source of pathos, when Marcus (Jovan Adepo), one of the young soldiers, is lost alone behind enemy lines.

As in its first season, the series is still better at assigning motivation to its antagonists than it is at developing its title character, as the palace intrigue between Reyes and his chief advisor, Miguel Ubarri (Francisco Denis), efficiently gets at their motivations, revealing the history of their corruption and foreshadowing a dark fracture in their alliance. In stark contrast, Ryan is merely good, and his goodness is seen as a function of his profession, blank personality, and nationality. While season two is never boring, the series nonetheless has little new to say about Jack Ryan or the world, and while it doesn’t lack for suspense, the fate of the latter is never really in doubt. The season’s length strains the effectiveness of its throwback sensibilities, passable action choreography, and formulaic characters—attributes which may be better suited for standalone feature films.

Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, John Hoogenakker, Jordi Molla, Eduar Salas, Francisco Denis, Michael Kelly, Cristina Umaña, Jovan Adepo Network: Amazon

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Review: His Dark Materials Is a Coming-of-Age Tale Dressed in Retro-Futuristic Garb

The series underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

2.5

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His Dark Materials
Photo: HBO

HBO’s His Dark Materials is a beautifully orchestrated reminder that there’s life after Westeros, albeit with airships, science, and sensible sweater vests. The first of Philip Pullman’s iconic trilogy of novels springs to life in the show’s first episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” effectively erasing the memory of Chris Weitz’s 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass, which failed to embrace the depth of the universe Pullman created.

Dafne Keen slips naturally into the role of orphan Lyra Belacqua, who’s eager to explore beyond her home at Jordan College in an alternate version of Oxford. The actress brings a bristling restlessness to the young girl, who’s much more into stealing wine and sliding down rooftops than reading books and doing chores. In this world, all humans have talking daemons, physical manifestations of their souls that exist outside the body as animal companions. Children’s daemons don’t take on a fixed form until their humans reach puberty, so Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), constantly morphs between a moth, wildcat, ermine, and a blur of other creatures. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for coming of age, but it lays a crucial foundation for the story’s existential exploration of knowledge, individuality, and truth.

A visit from Lyra’s absentee uncle, Lord Asriel (James MacAvoy), throws her life into chaos. Asriel is cold and calculating, showing cool indifference even when Lyra saves his life. However effective MacAvoy is in his five minutes of screen time, though, he’s ultimately forgettable—unlike Ruth Wilson, who unfurls like a carnivorous plant as Marisa Coulter, a powerful “friend of the college” who hires Lyra as her assistant and takes the girl to London. Wilson’s performance is a study in expertly controlled layers barely concealing a well of rage and cunning; there’s also the inscrutable face of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon, an unnerving extension of her formidable will. In episode two, the full thrust of this relationship is on full display in a traumatic incident involving the monkey and Pan, while in episode four, a wickedly primal scene blurs the line between Coulter and her daemon.

Jack Thorne, who adapted the series from Pullman’s trilogy of novels, takes a balanced approach to world-building without drowning the audience in minutiae. The version of Britain imagined by the series is ruled by the Magisterium, the theocratic government that clashes with colleges that provide traditional academic sanctuary. Given the anti-intellectual inclinations of current real-world politics, it’s frustrating to watch the long arm of the law curl around those that would challenge it, even within its ranks. Thorne generally does well at crafting dialogue that reveals thoughtful bits of backstory, as well as the sociopolitical context of the characters’ struggles. Given that there are so many elements to cover—such as the concept of Dust, which consists of subatomic particles that tend to gather around adults, which the Magisterium views as controversial, even heretical—Thorne pares down the novel’s science-magic descriptions without diminishing their importance.

Expository scenes detailing the history, science, politics, and arcana of the show’s alt-Britain might be necessary to understand the machinations of this world, but they’re at times weighed down by clunky dialogue, as in a scene in which Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal circles around a Magisterium priest, threatening to reveal his depravities if he doesn’t help him. But where the writing can drag, the show’s visual style is efficient, as in the warm, earthy textures associated with the downtrodden and the sleek jewel tones that mark the powerful. Familiar motifs, from the foreboding pseudo-Brutalist architecture of London to classically framed scenes depicting the apron-clad laundrywomen and busy servant class at Jordan College, succinctly key us into the power dynamics of this universe. And while the show’s retro-futuristic setting hews to a mainstream steampunk aesthetic—a genre that’s historically rife with European colonial associations—it’s encouraging to see a diverse cast, including Bakare, Clarke Peters (as The Master), and Lucian Msamati (as John Faa), playing characters in positions of power.

The main catalyst for the story of the show is the kidnapping of the children of Gyptians, a semi-nomadic people who live in houseboats, bringing simmering class politics to a near-boil, especially when evidence leads back to the Magisterium. In its timely depiction of a grassroots investigation into the disappearance of vulnerable children, His Dark Materials invites comparisons to the banal acts of evil that flourish in a corrupt system. At one point, Mrs. Coulter visits the children to help them write cheery letters to their loved ones before they’re brought northward, and the camera follows their slight frames down a dank, narrow hallway. In this moment, the visual allusion to concentration camps is unmistakable.

Thorne’s character development falters slightly in the scenes set in Trollesund, a gateway port to the north, home of armored bears and as-yet-unseen witches. Throughout, Lyra’s small victories here are almost effortless: She wins over the exiled bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) a little too easily, and Byrnison, while suitably gruff and jaded, comes off as a one-dimensional outcast with little at stake. And it’s in Trollesund where the audience is introduced to the tedious theatrics of Lin Manuel Miranda, thinly disguised as a Texan aeronautist named Lee Scoresby. It’s an ongoing struggle to get past Scoresby’s overcooked Texan accent and constant rambling, and he ends up more caricature than comedic relief.

His Dark Materials underlines the loss of creativity and boldness that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. As Lyra intuitively learns to read her alethiometer—an arcane truth-telling device that requires years of study—she starts growing into her own identity. Keen shines when she’s at her most defiant, giving stubborn, righteous life to a child struggling to understand the complexities of the real world. At the end of episode four, the series has barely begun to unpack its more fantastical elements, instead choosing to draw us into its well-rounded interpersonal relationships and emotional connections, all of which add an extra sense of profundity to an otherwise straightforward coming-of-age story.

Cast: Dafne Keen, James MacAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Clarke Peters, Lucian Msamati, Ariyon Bakare, Archie Barnes, Kit Connor, Joe Tandberg Network: HBO

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