Peak TV Overload
The current era of Peak TV started with The Sopranos in 1999. Since then, I’ve watched a sizable number of critically acclaimed shows from across the spectrum of cable channels and streaming platforms — plus my fair share of guilty pleasures.
For anyone who feels lost about which shows to watch, below is a long list of shows I’d recommend as well as a few to avoid. As I mentioned in my post, Peak TV Show Recommendations, where I introduced this list, my tastes gravitate toward comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic dramas.
I’ve broken my recommendations into several different categories. Within each category, the shows are listed in alphabetical order.
The first category consists of shows that stand out in the crowd as truly exceptional. Some are considered to be among the best series in the history of television.
A road rage incident in a strip mall parking lot leads two divers into an escalating feud that will forever shatter their lives. That premise sounds like a superficial high-concept thriller.
Although Beef is indeed full of twists and turns, the show, in actuality, is a surprisingly deep and nuanced black comedy/drama — one that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.
As one of the two drivers (an upwardly mobile entrepreneur), Ali Wong is a revelation and demonstrates where-did-that-come-from acting chops. She is adept at conveying rage and melancholy in both big moments and small. (To be fair, her dramatic performance is not a complete surprise if you’ve watched the little-seen Paper Girls on Amazon Prime.)
Steven Yeun is equally compelling as the other driver — a struggling handyman/contractor who is desperate to raise funds to move his parents from Korea to Los Angeles. His performance is just as noteworthy but less surprising given his previous roles.
Nearly every character in the show is Asian, and although the Asian immigrant experience informs and enriches the show, the core premise and themes are universal.
Overflowing with sharp social commentary and unexpected character turns, Beef offers a wild ride — one which I didn’t want to end. (Netflix)
This anthology series features imaginative, insightful, and sometimes frightening cautionary tales about how technological advances may threaten or damage humanity in the future. Like any anthology series, the episodes are inconsistent, but the best ones are true masterpieces. A word of caution: the series premiere (episode 1) is not representative of the show and scares some people off, so you may want to skip it and come back to it later if you become a fan. (Netflix)
Breaking Bad is a slow-burning comic drama in which the stakes escalate exponentially each season for its protagonist. Walter White is a chemistry teacher suffering from terminal cancer who begins manufacturing methamphetamine to support his family. Bryan Cranston turns in one of the greatest TV performances of all time in the lead role, and the supporting cast is sterling.
The first time I tried the series I gave up on it after a handful of episodes because I thought its pace was too slow and deliberate. The second time I tried the show (after the hype around it exploded) I persisted, made it through the first season, and became absolutely hooked. If you have not tried it yet, watch the entire first season before you pass judgment. (AMC)
The progenitor to The Wire in which producer David Simon provides a hyper-realistic glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the residents of an inner-city. If you didn’t know better, you would probably think this show was a non-fiction documentary. (HBO)
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David (who co-created Seinfeld) plays an exaggerated version of himself in this improvised comedy in which his selfish and insensitive nature leads to inspired comic mayhem. David populates his life with colorful regulars and guest stars, and he brings out the best in his terrific cast. The show is wildly inconsistent from episode to episode and season to season, but at its pinnacle, nothing on TV is funnier. For anyone who jumped off the train at some point, the 10th season in 2020 was a return to form. (HBO)
Game of Thrones
I don’t think I need to say much by way of introduction for this one. Arguably the show was over-hyped, but even so, it stands as a stunning evolution of television spectacle, exceeding the scale, impact, and artistry of typical cinema blockbusters. At the end of the day, despite the dragons, witches, white walkers, and giants, the show was a soap opera following the political machinations of the power-hungry. The show was probably too leisurely in its storytelling in early seasons and too rushed towards the end, but it always provided a gripping and absorbing ride with iconic characters representing good, evil, and everything in between. (HBO)
Halt and Catch Fire
“Halt and Catch Fire” is a remarkably accurate portrayal of the tech industry — and also a surprisingly addictive and compelling drama. The show gets so many details right about startup culture and software development. With one caveat: the Atlanta shooting locations sometimes struggle to stand in for the Bay Area. The story spans a long stretch of time — starting in the early 1980s at the dawn of the personal computing era (in Dallas, Texas where hardware was king). By the end, it’s the mid-1990s, and the characters are in software in Northern Cal during the early days of the web.
Compared to HBO’s Silicon Valley (also excellent and a biting satire of startup culture), Halt and Catch Fire is a hard-edged drama. The characters are rich and complex and suffer non-stop emotional anguish. I didn’t think the tech milieu would make for compelling drama, but I was wrong. I binge-watched all four seasons (40 episodes) in less than a month. Note: the show starts off well in season 1 but kicks into a higher gear for seasons 2-4 when it increases the focus on the female leads. (AMC, streaming on Netflix)
I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You is an intimate and devastating portrait of the consequences of rape and various forms of sexual assault. It also provides a vibrant glimpse into the contemporary lifestyle of black Millenials in London. The premise sounds heavy (and it is), but the show is instantly absorbing and not without humor. Creator Michaela Coel, who wrote all of the episodes and also stars, establishes herself as a formidable creative force — and someone to keep an eye on. (HBO)
The Larry Sanders Show
Back-stage show biz comedy does not get more sublime than The Larry Sanders Show. Garry Shandling plays a late-night TV host who competes with Jay Leno and David Letterman. In probably their most iconic roles, Jeffrey Tambor plays his nebbish sidekick and Rip Torn his bombastic producer. A gaggle of gifted comic actors is in supporting roles as writers, office staff, etc.
On each episode, the action cross-cuts between video footage of the fictitious late-night show and (filmed) behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the show’s production office and Larry’s personal life. Real-life celebrities appear as themselves as guests making appearances on the show. (HBO)
The first season of Legion may be my favorite entry in the entire Marvel universe of movies and TV shows. More psychological horror-thriller than superhero yarn, the show (set loosely in the X-Men universe) is aimed squarely at adults. The second season did not quite live up to the stunning first season, but it was still excellent. The third and final season brought the show to a satisfying conclusion, but I felt that the rich supporting characters were sidelined and given too little to do as compared to previous seasons. The show is weird, trippy, and psychedelic at times but in a much more effective way than something like the Twin Peaks reboot. Surprisingly, Legion also features a genuinely compelling love story at its core. (FX)
Many TV critics and fans would probably put this series in the top five hall of fame. Mafia stories are not really my cup of tea, so it took me two tries to finally get into this series. It’s a great show which adeptly mixes comedy and drama, but your mileage may vary depending on how much you invest in the anti-hero characters. (HBO)
Bold. Audacious. Daring. I wish I could think of even more synonyms to describe Squid Game.
The drama from South Korea is wildly unpredictable — full of unexpected twists and turns. The less you know about the plot the better. So, I won’t reveal much except to say that the series explores people in poverty and the extremes they’ll go to to escape their desperate straits.
The storytelling is clever and imaginative, not to mention riveting and gruesome. The showrunners could have executed the basic premise as a superficial high-concept thriller. But instead, they take a more sophisticated approach and add more complexity and heart than you’d expect.
Squid Game has some congruity with the movies Snowpiercer, Parasite, and The Platform. But even so, it feels like something I’ve never seen before.
Warning: you should avoid the show if violence and gore trigger you. (Netflix)
Maybe my favorite binge-watch of all time, 12 Monkeys is also likely the best time travel story I’ve ever seen. The series, which originally aired on Syfy from 2015-2018, is loosely based on the 1995 movie starring Bruce Willis and directed by Terry Gilliam. I remember liking that movie but have no vivid memories of it. Hence, I came to the TV series with fresh eyes.
The Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes indicates that season one premiered to mixed reviews whereas the next three seasons earned raves. I liked the show from the jump, though it does grow more creative and unpredictable as the seasons progress.
The story has multiple timelines, loops, and “cycles” — as well as ever-shifting character dynamics. Allies at one moment suddenly are at odds in the next. And yet, the plot is never confusing, at least not if you binge-watch episodes in quick succession. If I had needed to wait weeks between episodes and months between seasons, my viewing experience might have been different.
Trigger warning: the goal of the protagonists is to revise history and prevent an apocalyptic worldwide pandemic. After living through COVID, that premise may sound like a turnoff. However, the plague aspect isn’t as prevalent as you might expect, and recent world events didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the show.
The core cast includes Emily Hampshire (Stevie on Schitt’s Creek) in a knockout, once-in-lifetime role that lets her run wild with different personas. In the lead roles, Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull anchor the series as characters in an impossible love story who must balance the weight of history against their personal desires. Barbara Sukowa, Todd Stashwick, Kirk Acevedo, Alisen Down, and Brooke Williams round out the regular cast and all bring nuance to their roles. The rich supporting cast includes a couple of familiar faces from Battlestar Galactica in fun parts.
In the end, though, the star of the show is the infinitely clever circular storyline whose twists and turns bring endless surprises. (Hulu)
The Walking Dead
Few TV critics would classify The Walking Dead (TWD) as a television classic, but I would. I have no special affinity for the zombie movie genre (or graphic novel) which inspired TWD, but I find the show to be an absolutely gripping survival tale in which the secret sauce is not the zombies but the compelling living characters (both heroic and villainous). I like the show despite the zombies, not because of them, although I have come to appreciate walkers as a persistent threat.
TWD is an addicting serial and its creators do a masterful job of varying the pace of the show, mixing together fast-paced action-packed episodes with more leisurely paced ones that focus on character development. The show is more suspenseful than most because any character can die at any time, even fan favorites. In fact, the high mortality rate in the zombie apocalypse means the show has frequent cast turnover, and the producers keep the show fresh by regularly introducing new characters. (AMC)
If you’re not intimately familiar with the source material (a graphic novel from 1986), Watchmen might prove to be a confusing viewing experience. However, if you’re already steeped in Watchmen mythology, then the show is an ambitious, thrilling, and ultimately satisfying “sequel” to the original story. As the 9-episode first season gets rolling, the show seems only remotely connected to the original mythology, but as the story progresses, the series integrates more and more elements from the original in clever and unexpected ways. Regina King is riveting in the lead role. (HBO)
We Are Lady Parts
For most of history, shows from white, heteronormative creators dominated the TV landscape. But in recent years, the industry has entered a new era of representation where it produces series from a far more diverse group of storytellers (whether from overseas or from minority groups in the U.S.).
The cost of progress taking so long has become abundantly clear. We’ve missed many potentially great series from creators who couldn’t find platforms for their voices.
Now we have Squid Game, Lovecraft Country, Reservation Dogs, P-Valley, Ms. Marvel, Ramy, Mo — to name just a few shows that illustrate the riches available to TV viewers today. To the front of this list, I would add “We Are Lady Parts” — a comedy about a punk rock band in London whose members are all Muslim women.
Many comedies take a season (or more) to find themselves and hit their stride. “We Are Lady Parts” is an exception. It’s fully formed from its first moment and blasts off with a huge jolt of energy, chemistry, and charm.
“Pure joy” is how I’d describe watching each of the six 25-minute episodes of the first season. The show moves like a rocket ship but somehow finds the time to include an impressive amount of character development. While each band member may be Muslim, they are diverse in their personalities and backgrounds and face unique challenges in their personal lives. Some of the themes and storylines may be well-worn, but everything about the show feels fresh and vibrant. I can’t wait for more.
p.s. The music (which features both original songs and covers) is fun and infectious. (Peacock)
I usually am not interested in crime dramas. However, The Wire (from genius TV producer David Simon) is an extraordinarily nuanced and realistic portrayal of the lives of criminals and law enforcement officers in an inner-city (Baltimore). Nothing is black and white in The Wire. The cop characters are not all “good guys,” and the gang members are not all “bad guys.”
Each of the five seasons focuses on a different theme. The first season examined Baltimore’s illegal drug trade and was followed by seasons exploring the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system (maybe my favorite), and the print news media (my least favorite). Many of the characters appeared in multiple seasons, and the cast of the show was uniformly outstanding. Idris Elba is particularly memorable as Striker Bell, second-in-command to a drug kingpin, but whip-smart with ambitious plans of his own. (HBO)
Years And Years
This series projects how the world might change in the next twenty years if the worst of today’s trends continue (e.g. climate change, xenophobia, government corruption, social conservatism, etc.). The story is filtered through the lens of one extended family living in Manchester, England and chronicles how local, national, and world events impact their everyday lives. The limited six-episode series is absolutely stunning, gripping, and horrifying, but — thankfully — ends on a hopeful note. The large cast is outstanding across the board, and the evocative musical score is haunting. (HBO)
You can’t go wrong with these shows, which achieve consistent excellence.
This gripping drama revolves around a typical family of four living a suburban life near Washington D.C. in the 1980s during the Cold War. The parents in the family (played to perfection by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are travel agents and also, unbeknownst to their kids, natives of Russia and lethal spies. On top of the travails of raising teenagers and running covert operations, their lives become even more complicated when they befriend their new neighbor (the excellent Noah Emmerich) who turns out to be an FBI agent.
The show provides periodic action and thrills as the spies execute their missions for Mother Russia and play cat and mouse with their FBI pursuers. But overall, the show is deliberate in its pace, and the nuanced and deeply developed characters are the hallmark of its excellence. (FX)
The A Word
This British drama revolves around a family in a small town (in the Lake District near Manchester) who must face the reality that their five-year-old son, Joe, is on the Autism spectrum. A big appeal of the show is that it expands beyond this premise to include a large cast of supporting characters who face their own personal challenges unrelated to Joe. By the show’s third (and possibly final) season, the story becomes so rich — with deep characters and impeccable performances — that I didn’t want it to end. (BBC – first two seasons streaming on Amazon Prime)
A wild mix of comedy and drama about a tortured army vet turned assassin who accidentally falls into acting while on a hit in Los Angeles. (HBO)
BBC Nature Documentaries
Life / Planet Earth / Blue Planet / Dynasties – these extraordinary docu-series set a new bar for nature documentaries every time the latest mini-series is released. Be sure to watch them on a large screen in full HD at minimum and in 4K HDR if possible.
After reading great things for years about this series, I binge-watched the first four seasons on Hulu. Pamela Adlon created this semi-autobiographical “dramedy” with Louis C.K. — about an actress and single mother raising three daughters in L.A. A dynamo, Adlon writes the show, directs it, and stars in it. I was a fan of her work from Californication and Louie, but her subtle, natural performance in Better Things is a revelation. Louie C.K. stepped away as Adlon’s co-writer after the first two seasons. I enjoyed those seasons, which were more story-driven, more than the later seasons, which feel more like mood pieces. Nonetheless, this unique series is unlike anything else on television, at least that I’ve seen. (FX)
An under-appreciated dramatic gem from HBO revolving around a bigamist family that has broken away from a fundamentalist Mormon sect. (HBO)
From producer Judd Apatow, Crashing is a charming story about a devout Christian (Pete Holmes playing a loose version of himself) discovering his true self while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy in New York. The show features fun cameos by and guest-starring roles for a ton of notable stand-up comics. (HBO)
I came to Dave late, long after its second season had concluded. So, the show already had a ton of hype around it. I was a bit hesitant to check it out because the premise (a suburban white dude tries to break into the music industry as a rap artist) wasn’t innately appealing to me.
After slow bingeing two seasons on Hulu, I’m a convert. Dave blew away my expectations and more than lived up to the buzz.
I wasn’t aware the series is based on a true story. Dave Burd portrays his own rise to fame as the rapper Lil Dicky, and GaTa, his hypeman in real life, plays the same role in the show. Dave has an air of authenticity (and includes tons of fun cameos).
For a comedy, the show has more character depth and heart than you might expect. Burd certainly gets the lion’s share of the spotlight. But the rich supporting characters also get compelling story arcs and sometimes even their own “special” episodes. The biggest surprise is GaTa, who steals nearly every scene he’s in with his magnetic screen presence and soulful performance. Christine Ko also stands out as Emma, Dave’s acerbic photographer. Along with Taylor Misiak as Dave’s girlfriend, Ally, these are all characters you welcome spending time with and relish getting to know better.
TV has offered innumerable behind-the-scenes showbiz series, but Dave feels like something new and fresh. Also unpredictable. Especially during the second season — which is more ambitious and experimental (and also more uneven) than the first. (FX on Hulu)
David Simon shines a light on the nascent porn film industry in Times Square during the late 1970s. As is customary for a Simon show, The Deuce features a huge cast of colorful characters from all walks of life, including pimps, prostitutes, barkeeps, cops, social reformers, and the mafia. (HBO)
Eastbound & Down
I would have predicted Danny McBride’s humor to be too broad and crude for my tastes. And yet, so far, I have found his TV series to be comedy gems with a surprising amount of heart. This one revolves around a washed-up baseball player trying to make his comeback in the minor leagues. (HBO)
An under-the-radar and under-appreciated drama from director Mike White which stars Laura Dern as a woman driven to a nervous breakdown by the emptiness of the corporate world. (HBO)
If you are a fan of The Walking Dead, then you’ll likely enjoy this underrated show which has basically the same premise, themes, and pacing, except that the characters fight for survival in an alien-invasion apocalypse instead of a zombie one. (TNT)
Fear the Walking Dead
The first spin-off series in the Walking Dead universe got off to a slow start and paled in comparison to the original during its first couple of seasons. But over time, the show has consistently improved to the point where the characters are nearly as iconic and the show is arguably fresher and more imaginative. (AMC)
This series chronicles how a group of angels, demons, witches, witch hunters, and regular human kids conflict (or collaborate) with one another to either fend off the end of the world or precipitate it. The tale sounds ponderous, but, in fact, the series is delightfully whimsical, and the intricate, interweaving storylines are mostly played for comedy. The cast is superb and features Michael Sheen, David Tenant, Adria Arjona, John Hamm Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, and Frances McDormand (as the omniscient and almighty narrator). (Amazon)
The Good Place
I initially abandoned this series about the afterlife after watching a few episodes and concluding it was too conventional for me. However, after the hype continued to build around it, I tried the show again. If you’re going to try The Good Place, you should definitely watch the entire first season before passing judgment. Without spoiling any specifics, the first season concludes with a major twist, and, in fact, unexpected twists and turns are a hallmark of the wildly creative series. The show features a large ensemble cast, with the core parts delectably played by Kristen Bell, newcomer Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson (in perhaps his best role since Cheers), William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacito, and D’Arcy Carden (who is remarkably inspired as an AI-based character). (NBC).
For me, the British series Humans, and not Westworld, is the superior show about how artificial intelligence in the form of human-realistic androids may impact the future of humanity. The cast is excellent and features Gemma Chan in a breakout performance (AMC).
In the Flesh
This British series is set after a zombie virus outbreak, but unlike most zombie stories, the dead retain their full mental faculties and integrate back into society. The show is not a thriller but instead a contemplative drama. (BBC America)
After seeing mixed reviews, I didn’t expect to like this Showtime series starring Jim Carey as a beloved but deeply troubled kids TV star. But with a deeply nuanced performance from Carey and a sublime supporting cast featuring Judy Greer, Catherine Keener, and Frank Langella, the show is a masterpiece of comic melancholy. The second season is perhaps more inconsistent but also even more daring as the show steps further into magical realism. (Showtime)
Lovecraft Country is a unique mix of horror, occult mythology, magic, social commentary, and pulp fiction. The extended black family at the center of the story must contend with not only the rampant racism of 1950s America but also powerful supernatural forces beyond their wildest imagination. Although the story is mostly serial, each episode has its own tone, including one that plays like an entry in the Indiana Jones series. I don’t gravitate towards horror, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this series. However, its immersive world-building, endearing characters, and solid performances quickly won me over. (HBO)
An adult version of the Harry Potter movies mixed with a healthy dose of Narnia. That’s how I’d describe The Magicians, which follows a diverse group of horny graduate students enrolled at a university that specializes in the study of magic. The additional twist: these students discover that their favorite childhood book series about a fantastical land called Fillory is not strictly fictional. Even though the premise sounds derivative, The Magicians is wildly inventive and very much its own beast.
On my initial watch, I rated the show merely as “fairly good.” I mostly enjoyed it, but I eventually grew tired of the soap opera twists and turns. I bailed after the first two seasons. That was a mistake. A big one.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, running low on things to watch, I decided to give the series another try and picked it back up at season 3. According to Rotten Tomatoes, The Magicians really hit its stride in the subsequent seasons. In this case, Rotten Tomatoes is not wrong!
The Magicians grew and improved exponentially in seasons 3 through 5 with scripts that were exceptionally clever and innovative in their character development and world-building. The show became bolder as it progressed. Many episodes took big creative swings, including several musical episodes (in which characters broke out into song and dance). More often than not, the risks paid off.
Somehow, even with multi-verses, time travel, time loops, and imminent apocalypses, the storylines remained coherent and character-driven. Finally, I appreciate that despite the fantasy setting, the characters in the show very much live in our world and frequently spout fun pop culture references such as Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Avengers, The Terminator, etc.
Thanks to the charming cast and the creative team behind them, the show succeeds in concocting a truly magical potion. (SyFy)
I’m not a big enough Star Wars fanatic to have watched the previous TV series in the franchise (the fairly well-regarded animated shows, Clone Wars, and Rebels). However, the first live-action Star Wars TV series, from a super talent like writer/director Jon Favreau … well, that is another matter altogether. I binge-watched the show over a few nights with my kids, and it not only lived up to its hype but exceeded my substantial expectations. The storytelling is simple, spare, impactful, and entertaining. The production values easily meet what you’d expect from a prestigious streaming show in the era of peak TV. The musical score is stirring. The characters are endearing, particularly “Baby Yoda” who is an amazing feat of puppetry. It’s hard to ask for much more from popcorn entertainment. (Disney+)
Maybe I’m just a sucker for Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, but I fully bought into this sci-fi love story which explores themes of memory and mental illness. (Netflix)
Man Seeking Woman
I originally gave up on this fantastical satire of love and dating after the first season, as I found it too inconsistent. After taking it back up years later and binge-watching its second and third seasons, I would now name this creative masterpiece as one of my favorite comedies of the last decade. (FXX)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I normally don’t like period pieces, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is too charming to resist, partially because I have a predilection towards showbiz stories and a soft spot for stand-up comedy. Also, the characters are larger than life (maybe sometimes too much so), and the cast is generally excellent. But the biggest revelation is Rachel Brosnahan, who is a force of nature (dare I say a “marvel”?) in the title role. Even if I didn’t like the rest of the show, I would watch just for her bravura performance. (Amazon)
Master of None
Stand-up comic Aziz Ansari either rubs you the wrong way or not. If you are a fan of his comic persona, then this show in which he essentially plays himself is a comic gem about love and dating in the current age. The second season features one of the most gripping love stories I’ve ever seen on TV. Note: I have not watched the third season. (Netflix)
Ms. Marvel serves up a rich drama that revolves around a Muslim family living in the Pakistani community of Jersey City. One of the show’s central themes is how the partitioning of Pakistan from India (after the British occupation ended) caused generational trauma. It also happens to be a superhero show.
If Ms. Marvel doesn’t sound like your garden variety Marvel show, you’re right. It’s not. And that is a good thing. Like Lovecraft Country and Watchmen, the series is another welcome milestone in representative genre storytelling.
Like any classic hero’s journey, episode one (of six) introduces us to the everyday world of our hero, 16-year-old Kamala Khan (a high school junior). I initially feared the show might be too much of a high school melodrama for me. But high school life is not a big focus, and as the plot unravels, Ms. Marvel widens its scope to include Kama’a’s family, the Muslim community they belong to, and their extended family back in Pakistan.
The plot points about Kamala gaining her powers and learning how to use them are formulaic, as is the climactic conflict with the Department of Defence. But everything in between is vibrant and surprisingly provocative. Episodes 2-5, in particular, are riveting. I had planned to only watch a series recap of Ms. Marvel just before watching the forthcoming Marvels movie (scheduled for release in July 2023). I’m glad I decided to watch the series instead. (Disney+)
This slow-burn sci-fi drama really gets under your skin as you get to know the characters and the mythology slowly emerges. The first season ended on a note of delicious ambiguity, which left me frantically searching the web for the meaning of it all. The second season answered most of the core questions, expanded its world-building, and set the stage for even wilder new horizons. Unfortunately, in August 2019, Netflix canceled the show. (Netflix)
Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages. That is certainly the case with One Mississippi, the dark comedy starring the incomparable Tig Notaro. Each of the series’ two seasons is a mere six episodes. I would have happily watched longer (or additional) seasons, but the show’s limited run made me savor every moment.
Notaro plays a loose version of herself. The series opens with her recovering from cancer treatment and returning home (from L.A.) to a small town in Mississippi where her mother had just died. As it’s focused on death and loss, season one is filled with melancholy. By contrast, season two explores love and new beginnings. It’s lighter and often laugh-out-loud funny, even though it takes on tough subjects like child abuse, sexual molestation, and homophobia.
The show is full of idiosyncratic characters and standout performances, including Noah Harpster as Tig’s unlucky-at-love brother, John Rothman as her on-the-spectrum stepfather, and Stephanie Allynne as her radio producer and love interest. Sherly Lee Ralph pops up in season two in a fun role.
I’ve become a pretty big Tig Notaro fan in recent years, due to her recurring role on Star Trek: Discovery, her Don’t Ask Tig podcast, her Under a Rock TV series, and her supporting role in Army of the Dead. One Mississippi solidifies her as someone I’ll gladly watch in anything. (Amazon)
Orange Is the New Black
This show, set in a women’s prison, is great for its rich and diverse characters and incredibly talented cash. On the downside, the show is sometimes tough viewing, and watching it eventually started feeling like homework to me. After the slow-moving fifth season, I lost my patience and abandoned the series. I sat out the sixth season but resumed watching for the seventh and final season. Season seven was a return to form and reminded me why I loved the show so much during its initial few seasons. If you similarly gave up on the show somewhere along the way, I highly recommend reading or viewing some synopses for a catchup and then watching the final season. (Netflix)
Mix together Dr. Frankenstein (and his monster), werewolves, witches, and Dorian Gray in Victorian London and you have a moody horror thriller, but one focused more on character development and psychological anguish than on plot machinations or blood and guts. (Showtime)
The Righteous Gemstones
Danny McBride strikes again with a black comedy about a family of famous televangelists in South Carolina. McBride assembles many of his regulars (e.g. Walter Goggins) as well as some newcomers (e.g. John Goodman) to spin a delicious tale of blackmail and family squabbling. As with many of McBride’s series, the show improves significantly as the season wears on. So, if you’re not sure after the first episode or two, keep watching. (HBO)
Schitt’s Creek is a fun and tasty trifle and the twenty-minute episodes go by in a flash. The talented cast, from the leads down to the smaller supporting roles, creates inspired lunacy on a consistent basis (although, for me, a little of Catherine O’Hara’s cartoonish character goes a long way). Over the course of the six seasons, the characters become more nuanced and more endearing, and they all grow substantially. (Pop/Netflix)
Along with Squid Game, Severence may be the most original (and deliciously bizarre) series I’ve watched in the past few years. Also, like Squid Game, Severance is audacious in concept and provocative in its social commentary. But by comparison, Severance is slower-burning and more deliberate in its storytelling. Normally, I prefer faster-paced shows, but Severance got under my skin with its mythology, mysteries, and quirky characters.
The show imagines a world where a company called Lumon has pioneered a brain implant technology that enables complete work/life separation for its employees. Their “severed” minions have “innies” who while at the office cannot remember anything about the personal lives of their “outies.” Likewise, after work, the outies can’t remember anything about their jobs, even what they do. Beyond this core premise, the less you know about the plot the better, as it contains numerous twists and turns.
Compared to his previous parts, Adam Scott gives a subdued performance in the lead role (which is apropos for his character). The supporting cast (which includes Britt Lower, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Zach Cherry, and Christopher Walken) get to have more fun with their parts. Tramell Tillman pops off the screen as the pleasant yet ominous office manager.
Season one ends on a cliffhanger and whets your appetite for more. (Apple TV+)
Sex and the City
I’m not sure if this comedy about four thirty-something girlfriends living and dating in New York City will become a timeless classic (like Seinfeld or Friends) or whether it will feel dated to future generations. Either way, the show was great fun to watch and a must-see, water cooler show in its day. (HBO)
This Netflix original chronicles the lives and loves of students at a rural British high school and features plenty of classic coming-of-age themes (especially around sexual maturity). The premise sounds generic, but the series is 1,000 times more inspired than you might expect it to be. The characters are quirky and endearing, and the young, diverse cast is extremely appealing. As a huge added bonus, Gillian Anderson shines in one of her juiciest roles as the sex therapist mother of the show’s main protagonist. (Netflix)
A spot-on satire of tech industry culture about a start-up competing with a Google-like competitor for talent and technological supremacy. The show features a cast of inspired comic actors, both young and old. (HBO)
Star Trek: Prodigy
As of its tenth episode, the animated series Star Trek: Prodigy is off to a fine start. The show’s core mission is to introduce kids (and any other newbies) to Star Trek mythology. At the same time, it’s great fun for long-time fans due to the tie-ins with characters from Star Trek: Voyager. Notably, the return of Kate Mulgrew as the voice of Kathryn Janeway.
From episode one through its midseason finale, the show fired on all cylinders. Stunning computer animation. Endearing characters. Enthralling storylines. Stirring music. The Hageman brothers (Ninjago, Trollhunters) clearly know how to craft thrilling adventures for all ages. (Paramount+)
Star Trek: Picard (Season 3)
I’m rating the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard separately from the first two seasons, since it was almost a complete reboot of the series and featured a new showrunner and a different tone.
Terry Matalas (who was the mastermind behind the excellent time travel series 12 Monkeys) took the reigns in season 3 with the intention of reuniting the entirety of The Next Generation cast for a final adventure and proper sendoff. To achieve this vision, he wrote off most of the series-regular characters from the first two seasons (except for Raffi, Seven, and, of course, Jean Luc Picard). That change created space for him to reintroduce Beverly Crusher, Worf, Jordi LaForge, Data (sort of), William Riker, and Deanna Troi (those last two appeared as guest stars in the previous seasons) — as well as to introduce several new supporting characters. The result is a rich mix of legacy characters, who have evolved in unexpected ways, as well as fresh faces who may carry the franchise forward. Plus, as a bonus, we get several impactful cameos from the Rick Berman era of Star Trek.
The season 3 storyline leaves behind most of the plot strands from seasons 1 and 2 and revolves around a new galactic threat with the potential to obliterate the Federation — a threat that may or may not have its roots in earlier Star Trek lore. The plot is consistently gripping, with an intriguing mystery at its core and compelling character arcs, although it does retain some of the storytelling sloppiness from the previous seasons (e.g. loose ends and plot points that don’t hold up to close scrutiny).
Storyline quibbles aside, the cast is in peak form. Matalas gives each cast member plenty of meat to chew on — and each character gets ample opportunity to shine. For me, the most delightful surprise is Worf (Michael Dorn). Worf was never my favorite character in TNG (or DS9), but he has evolved in fascinating ways and provides a good portion of the comic relief in the otherwise dramatically intense series. Dorn has great chemistry with Michelle Hurd (as Raffi) who he teams up with during the early episodes of the season. Also noteworthy: a novel plot twist gives Spiner some new dimensions to play on a familiar character. New cast members include standouts Todd Stashwick (as the uptight Captain of the Titan) and Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut as Ensign LaForge (a Helmsman on the Titan bridge).
The season is cinematic, with big villains, high stakes, a rousing score, and plenty of suspense and action. It lives up to the streaming cliche of a “ten-hour movie.” As with Star Trek: Discovery, Picard finally became the show it always should have been in its third season. Better late than never, but I’m sad we won’t see more of this type of storytelling (unless Matalas gets his wish for a Star Trek: Legacy spinoff series).
- If you skipped or aborted seasons 1 and 2, you can jump right into season 3 without missing any critically important context.
- For my review of seasons 1 and 2, see the Fairly Good section below.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Strange New Worlds is the most satisfying modern-era Star Trek series. At least among the live-action shows (I’d put the animated Prodigy in the same league). For the uninitiated, SNW chronicles the adventures of Captain Pike, Science Officer Spock, and a crew of new and familiar faces aboard the Enterprise, about seven years before Kirk’s five-year mission. This makes it a spin-off from Discovery and a prequel to the original series.
Unlike Discovery or Picard, the storyline is not serialized, and its producers have pitched it as a return to episodic storytelling. In reality, it’s more of a hybrid. Each episode is mostly self-contained. However, the character arcs are serialized over the course of the season. This approach offers the best of both worlds — and it allows the show to adopt different genres from week to week.
The series features an appealing cast, cutting-edge production design (thanks to AR wall technology), top-notch visual effects, and a stirring musical score. It all adds up to a show that should satisfy everyone, from old-school curmudgeons (who only worship at the alter of the original series) to Trek newbies.
I enjoyed nearly every episode of the first season. The only major misstep, in my book, was the finale (episode 10). No spoilers, but the episode fell flat due to some unfortunate storytelling decisions and casting choices. (Paramount+)
A creepy horror tale and loving homage to the 1980s set in a small town which turns upside down when supernatural disruptions start happening. (Netflix)
Ted Lasso is a quirky comedy about an American football coach who moves to the U.K. to coach a London football (“soccer”) team. The series received a ton of buzz during the COVID-19 pandemic as a feel-good tonic for troubled times. I got around to it late, well after the hype and a couple of months before its second season premiere date. My reaction: the show easily lived up to its reputation. The characters are lovable, including the bit parts and even the ostensible villain. The show has fun with its fish-out-of-water themes. And the protagonist is relentlessly positive without becoming cloying. Plus, the show offers just enough sports drama for football fans but not too much for viewers who tune in for the comedy. (Apple TV+)
Danny Bride and Walter Goggins play rival school administrators and frenemies in this audacious and inspired comedy about greed, ambition, and love. (HBO)
Based on the Michael Crichton novel, Westworld revolves around an amusement park where lifelike androids engage human visitors in Wild West cowboys and Indians fantasies. Morality becomes a central theme for both the hedonistic human patrons and their android hosts especially when the latter begins to exceed the intended limits of their programming. The show is sometimes a bit ponderous and pretentious, but it’s also incredibly ambitious in the scope and spectacle of its storytelling. (HBO)
What We Do in the Shadows
The first season of this vampire mockumentary (based on the 2014 movie of the same name) was uneven but offered inspired satire and juicy characters. In its second season, the series hit its stride and offered consistently delicious lunacy over the course of all ten episodes (not a clunker among them). To its benefit, season two expanded the presence of human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). The third season introduced fun new story twists and remained remarkably consistent. TV comedies modeled after The Office have become a tired trope. But rather than sucking the genre dry, Shadows breathes vital new life into it. (FX)
These series are well above average and worth your time, especially if you like the show’s genre.
Duane Johnson plays a football star turned sports agent in this slick, breezy and funny comedy. (HBO)
Better Call Saul
Like many critics and fans, I rank Breaking Bad as one of the all-time great TV series. After it concluded, I felt satiated. I wasn’t hungering for more stories set in its cinematic universe. So, I was dubious when AMC announced a prequel series revolving around a secondary character (shady lawyer Saul Goodman).
Despite my hesitation, I tried out all ten episodes of the first season. My verdict? The show was not gelling for me, and I found it a bit of a slog to get through. Neither the deliberate pace nor the characters were drawing me in. I stopped watching.
During the pandemic, most of my shows went on hiatus because of COVID shutdowns. In the middle of a TV drought, I decided to give Saul a second chance. I binge-watched four seasons on Netflix. Obviously, this time, the show hooked me. I watched the sixth and final season in “real-time” on AMC+.
The show eventually established its own identity and offered a vast array of vibrant characters. Some tried and true (Saul Goodman, drug kingpin Gus Fring, and henchman Mike Ehrmantraut). And some new (attorney and love interest Kim Wexler, her boss Howard Hamlin, and mafia underling Nacho Varga). The biggest standout among the new cast was Tony Dalton who’s magnetic as the main villain, Lalo Salamanca.
As with the original show, dynamic character arcs were the hallmark of Better Call Saul. If you appreciated Walter White’s journey from meek teacher to ruthless gangster, you’ll likely enjoy Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman.
Maybe it was the show’s intent, but one character rubbed me the wrong way: Chuck McGill, Saul’s brother. He was a central focus of the earlier seasons, which was one reason I had trouble warming up to the show. No shade on Michael McKean (whose acting was solid).
I feel satiated again, but if the showrunners decide to return to this world for another series, I’ll be more open-minded next time. (AMC, Netflix)
Big Little Lies
After initially avoiding this show, I enthusiastically binge-watched it and found it to be surprisingly compelling. Regardless of how much you get into the central murder mystery (in which the victim is kept secret until the end), the all-star cast of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgård (along with lesser-knowns, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz) is a pure joy to watch. Overall, the second season was less compelling but still worth watching — especially to see Meryl Streep disappear into a juicy character who creates fireworks with the heroines from season one. (HBO)
Bored to Death
A comedy about a struggling writer who pretends to be a private investigator. This gem had the delectable cast of Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson and should have lasted more than its precious three seasons on HBO.
The Boys puts a unique spin on the superhero genre. In this Amazon original, superheroes work for the benefit of their corporate overlords and most are more interested in their approval rating than in the public good. Profiting from movie tie-ins and merchandise is a higher priority than crime-fighting or world-saving. The show offers heaping servings of social commentary and character development whereas action sequences take a back seat. The Boys is undeniably addicting and absorbing; however, while I binge-watched the show, I found the relentless cynicism of the series to be overwhelming. For this reason, the show may be better suited for weekly viewing than for binge-watching. My other criticism: the pace is sometimes too deliberate which slows down the momentum of the story. Still, the series lingers in mind and after two seasons, I’m eager to see where it goes next.
Update – Season 3 offers more of the same which is both good and bad. My main frustration with the show is that the Butcher and Homelander characters have grown tiresome. Breaking from formula would help rejuvenate the show. (Amazon)
David Duchovny seems to be playing a loose version of himself in this comedy about an adulterous writer struggling to keep his family together. The character could not be more different from Ducovny’s iconic role as Fox Mulder on The X-Files and that is part of the fun. With Evan Handler and Pamela Aldon in key supporting roles and an endless stream of inspired guest stars (e.g. Maggie Grace in one of her best roles), the show has a breezy charm that is hard to resist. (Showtime)
This comedy offers a realistic view of the ups and downs of marriage (between and Brit and a Yank). The show is funny and the cast is charming, but I didn’t love it as much as many TV critics. It’s perfect for binge-watching while traveling, which is how I watched it. (Amazon)
Before watching Community (about the misfit students and staff at a small community college), I had always assumed it was a garden variety network sitcom. Little did I know that the show was actually one of the most inventive and imaginative comedies of all time.
At its peak (seasons 2-4), Community served up one delectable pop culture parody after another as well as heaps of compelling character development. An eclectic cast deftly brought to life the diverse denizens of Greendale Community College (including Chevy Chase in maybe my favorite screen role of his career).
On the downside, I can rate Community only as “Very Good” and not as “Exceptional” because the other seasons were a mixed bag.
Season 1 was fun and showed promise, even though the writers and actors were still discovering the essence of the series.
On the other hand, with Season 5, Community started to seriously decline. Original cast members began to leave the show and the writing quality started to drift downhill. In the sixth and final season, the show fell off a cliff. New cast members joined the show, and they didn’t jibe with the existing cast. The writers ran out of story ideas and also had no clue what to do with the characters after they graduated from Greendale. Stagnation and contrivance set in and the last season left a sour taste in my mouth.
My recommendation is to watch Community until a few episodes into season 5 when Troy (Donald Glover) leaves the show. One way or another, I’d skip the final season. (NBC)
Da Ali G Show
Sacha Baron Cohen perfected his most famous characters — Ali G, Borat, and Brüno — on this comedy which was groundbreaking at the time for its ambush interviews where politicians and other guests were not in on the joke that their interviewer was an actor. I was never a big fan of the Brüno segments, but some of the Ali G and Borat sequences are among the most hysterically funny things I have ever seen on TV. (HBO)
Dear White People
Dear White People is set at a fictitious ivy league university and based on the 2014 movie of the same name. The satirical series explores the themes of racism, sexism, and identity, as it follows a cohort of mostly black college students.
I thought the movie was just okay. By contrast, the TV series is a knockout due to its vivid characters, outstanding cast, and clever storylines.
Seasons 1 and 2 of the show were the sweet spot for me. The series hit its “sophomore slump” belatedly with Season 3. While still compelling, that season failed to reach the same heights.
In Season 4, the producers shook up the formula and took some creative gambles. 1) The season is a musical. 2) The storyline cross-cuts between the future and the present. Neither of those story elements worked for me, in part because I’m not the biggest fan of musicals.
One more thing about the last season. The closing credits of each episode hint at an ominous and imminent event on campus. This adds an underlying tension to the entire season that I found distracting. And it hindered my enjoyment of the season.
For a show about college students, four seasons was just the right length for Dear White People. Still, I was sad to say goodbye to these characters. (Netflix)
Doom Patrol is another entry in the ever-growing genre of off-beat superhero shows made for adult audiences. My favorite entries in this category so far have been Legion and The Boys. Doom Patrol is another fine example, with its own unique vibe. Like Legion, it sometimes gets surreal and trippy but not to the same extent and without as much emphasis on horror. Instead, Doom Patrol adds a meta (break the fourth wall) dimension where the show knows it’s a TV show and is self-conscious about it. In comparison to The Boys, Doom Patrol delves deeper into character development, sometimes at the expense of action and narrative momentum. The series places equal weight on the five “heroes” in the patrol and some of their backstories and internal conflicts are more interesting to me than others. Your mileage may vary depending on which cast members and characters you gravitate towards — and how much the show’s dark themes weigh you down. (HBO Max)
Dead to Me
Inspired performances from Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini anchor this dramatic comedy about grief, friendship, and betrayal. Some critics knocked the plot machinations of the first season, but I quite enjoyed the twists and turns. The second season becomes even more contrived and outlandish. But if you went along for the ride the first time and are invested in the characters, then you should enjoy the sophomore season nearly as much. (Netflix)
The End of the F***ing World
A romance of sorts between two teen social outcasts, both psychologically damaged in various ways, is at the heart of this exceptionally dark “dramedy.” The first season has the couple on the run from the law after a tragic event further shatters their already broken lives. The somewhat less intense second season deals with the psychological aftermath and introduces a third major character with her own compelling backstory. Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther are outstanding in the lead roles, and the show’s writers give them substantial character arcs to portray. (Netflix)
I’ve sometimes characterized Entourage as Sex and the City for men. The show revolves around the love lives and careers of four men (a famous actor and his entourage) in Los Angeles. The show is light and entertaining with endearing characters and a surprising amount of heart. For added fun, Jeremy Piven hams it up as a bombastic Hollywood agent. (HBO)
Part space adventure, part political drama, part supernatural mystery, I really enjoyed the complexity of this sci-fi drama for its first season or two. I was not fully on board for some of the plot direction in season 3, but I was still disappointed when SyFy canceled the show. Happily, Amazon rescued the series, and its fourth season (as an Amazon original) marked a return to form with gripping storylines for its multitude of characters. Season 5 was another off season for me, but everything came together in a mostly satisfying way in the sixth and final season (despite several loose-ends). (Amazon)
This short-lived cult classic is a fun sci-fi yarn about the misadventures of a group of space mercenaries trying to make a buck while evading law enforcement and avoiding warring political factions. (FOX)
I was not sure I liked this British series because initially, I found the main character unappealing. But I stuck with it and the show eventually got under my skin, thanks to appealing performances from the entire cast. In two short seasons, the show evocatively explores themes of grief and maturation and also offers a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how sisters can love and hate each other at the same time. (Amazon)
Freaks And Geeks
I finally got around to binge-watching this cult classic almost 20 years after its debut on NBC. The show (which lasted just one season) portrays the daily drama of high school life in a small-town in 1980. Freaks And Geeks centers around a nerdy Freshman boy and his older sister (a smart Junior in an identity crisis who starts hanging out with the stoner losers at the school). Freaks And Geeks deftly mixes comedy and drama and is fun for its nostalgia factor. However, the most remarkable thing about the show is its ensemble cast, nearly all of whom became luminaries in later shows and movies. Regulars included Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps. Look out for guest star appearances from Lizzy Caplan and Rashida Jones. (NBC)
You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling (which I’m not) to succumb to the charms of this fun and sometimes dramatic series which tells the true story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. WTF fans should note that Marc Maron is excellent as the seedy director recruited to oversee the league. (Netflix)
His Dark Materials
I am a big fan of the Philip Pullman book series of the same name, which was the source material for this series. The show is set in a world where a religious theocracy rules over humans, where human souls are external and take the form of talking animals, and where the opposition movement includes witches and polar bear warriors. Beyond that, the less you know about the plot specifics the better.
Season 1 (which covers book one, “The Golden Compass”) was well-executed with solid acting and high production values. I enjoyed the season but felt it was missing some x-factor that would make it a great show. The most obvious shortcoming is that His Dark Materials lacks a certain urgency or momentum in its storytelling as compared to Game of Thrones or other fantasy shows in the peak TV era. I liked Season 2 (based on book two, “The Subtle Knife”) as much if not more than its predecessor. I found Season 3 (based on book 3, “The Amber Spyglass”) to be disjointed and my least favorite season — not surprising since I had the same opinion of the book. (HBO)
Adapted from a popular podcast (which I never listened to), this haunting psychological thriller is about a secret government research group pioneering a new form of post-traumatic stress therapy for returning war veterans. The show mines solid performances from Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Bobby Cannavale and gets better with each episode. (Amazon)
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is the HBO prestige-TV version of a zombie apocalypse show. Based on a popular video game (which I have not played), it’s got a famous lead (Pedro Pascal), solid acting (including from co-star Bella Ramsey), and impressive makeup, visual effects, and production design.
As a fan of the genre, I thoroughly enjoyed the first season. At the same time, as someone who has watched every episode of The Walking Dead (and all of its spinoffs), I can’t say that The Last Of Us adds anything particularly novel to the genre. The fungal-based, fast-moving zombies certainly are different from those in TWD, but otherwise, the themes and storylines in The Last of Us are standard genre tropes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. With the number of zombie TV series and movies Hollywood (and other countries) have churned out over the years, any new entry in the genre would have trouble forging a new path.
So, in the end, the success or failure of a zombie show comes down to the characters. And in this area, The Last Of Us is a resounding success. As they trek across the U.S., meeting other survivors and trying to avoid zombies and other dangers, I invested in Joel and Ellie’s personal journies and the growing bond between them. Their relationship arc is the beating heart of the show more so than any villain of the week or zombie action sequence. I’m eager to see how it develops in the second season. (HBO)
A comedy that follows the misadventures of a struggling stand-up comic, his muscular dystrophy-addled brother, and his recently divorced best friend. I don’t recall the series all that vividly, but I do remember increasingly appreciating the show with each new episode and desperately wanting more after its short two-season run (FX)
Prior to Loki, Wandavision impressed me and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier left me cold. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Marvel’s third Disney+ TV series. Happily, Loki turned out to be highly imaginative and far more engaging than I had expected.
I came into the series with no predisposition towards the Loki character, but by the end of the first season, he emerges as a compelling (if unlikely) hero — thanks in large part to Tom Hiddleston’s charming performance. The supporting cast, particularly Owen Wilson, enriches the show. In fact, the chemistry between Hiddleston and Wilson is far stronger than what we saw between Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in Falcon — a show that was supposed to be a buddy comedy.
Loki does fall down in one area. It violates the screenwriting best practice of “show don’t tell” and relies too heavily on long discussions (and big exposition dumps) between characters sitting around. In other words, too much tell and not enough show. Nearly the entire season one finale falls into this trap and the story momentum rapidly deflates as a result. (Disney+)
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
This prequel to The Lord of the Rings is touted as the most expensive TV series ever. A portion of the cost for Amazon was acquiring the rights from the Tolkien estate. Even so, the money is on the screen. The Rings of Power is absolutely gorgeous, especially on a large 4K HDR TV.
Overall, I really enjoyed season one. The characters, both old and new, draw you into the story. Although I can’t say anyone in the cast gives a towering performance, the acting is solid. The story is expansive in scope but not at the cost of small character moments. In fact, the action scenes, though rousing, are fewer than you might expect.
My main quibble: the pace of the storytelling is a bit too leisurely. I watched with my teenage son, and our reaction was often, “that was a slow episode.” Hopefully, the narrative momentum will increase in season two. For anyone curious about how The Rings of Power compares to The House of the Dragon, I found the latter to be even more glacially paced and full of dull characters. In my book, The Rings of Power is far more engaging. (Amazon)
While seeking revenge and retribution for an injustice from his childhood, a gentleman thief in modern-day Paris takes on the persona of Arsène Lupi, a classic character from French literature. Full of twists, turns, cons, and heists, the show provides fun escapist entertainment, with just enough character development and social commentary mixed in to provide some substance. (Netflix)
WTF podcast host Marc Maron plays himself in his first real (and sometimes awkward) foray into TV acting. If you enjoy Marc’s persona from his stand-up or podcast, or from his excellent performance on GLOW, then you should like this show. (IFC)
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
This show provides good popcorn entertainment for fans of the Marvel cinematic universe. The show does not find its footing until towards the end of the first season. After that, it shifts into serial storytelling about the ongoing adventures of a ragtag team of misfits and Inhumans who battle villains of all kinds. Each season usually offers two story arcs and some of them are more fun than others. By season 6, the show had long since started feeling monotonous and I hopped off the plane. (ABC)
If you’re a fan of the TV series Ramy, you’re already familiar with Mohammed Amer, who stands out in his recurring supporting role as one of Ramy’s friends. Ditto if you’ve seen his standup comedy specials on Netflix. What you may not know is that Amer also stars in his own dramedy on Netflix, one that he co-wrote and co-produced with Ramy Youssef.
Mo (the show) has a vibe and flare distinct from Ramy (which airs on Hulu). It’s set in the melting pot of Houston, and Mo’s character moves seamlessly between the city’s different cultures: his girlfriend is Mexican American, his best friend is black, and he is also a member of the Palestinian immigrant community. He and his family are refugees, and one of the plot strands follows the drama of their unusual immigration status. Many of the themes and plot incidents are from his excellent 2018 comedy special “The Vagabond.”
Like many streaming series, Mo takes some time to find itself and hit its stride. But in the second half of its eight-episode first season, the show cranks up the dramatic stakes as Mo gets himself tangled up in increasingly complicated predicaments. By episode eight, I was on the edge of my seat and crossing my fingers for a second season. (Netflix)
One of the few network comedies I’ve watched during the Peak TV era. The show was fresh, fun, and charming in its first few seasons. I stopped watching it after the show because too predictable and formulaic. (ABC)
On the spectrum of live-action Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi falls between Boba Fett at the low-end and The Mandalorian at the high-end, at least in my book. While I enjoyed the series and felt the tug of Star Wars magic here and there, I preferred the first three or four episodes over the last couple.
(Spoiler alert.) Set ten years after Revenge of the Sith and ten years before A New Hope, the story involves Kenobi (played again by Ewan McGregor) flying around the galaxy to rescue a ten-year-old Princess Leia from kidnappers. Along the way, he meets new allies and adversaries and must face down an old foe (Darth Vadar).
While it’s fun to see McGregor reprise his iconic role from the prequels, the jewel of the show is child actress Vivien Lyra Blair who plays Leia. Oddly, Blair seems younger than ten, but — on the other hand — she perfectly embodies the spirit and spunkiness of the Princess Leia we know from the original trilogy. Young Leia is the heart of the show that makes the whole thing tick.
As mentioned, I liked the setup better than the payoff. Also, I found the storyline to clash with previous Star Wars canon. The plot features previously unknown encounters (and light saber duels) between Kenobi and Vadar. For me, this retroactively diminishes the resonance of their final showdown on the Death Star just ten years later.
I could be excited for the inevitable second season of this “limited” series, but it’s hard for me to imagine it being as compelling without little Leia at the center of the story. (Disney+)
Only Murders in the Building
Three strangers come together to solve a murder in their apartment complex in this fun murder mystery and parody of true crime podcasts. As the amateur sleuths, Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez develop real chemistry and also benefit from the support of a solid (and sometimes surprising) supporting cast.
I became invested in the murder mystery as the episodes progressed, although I was a bit disappointed by its resolution. I figured it out ahead of time and in retrospect, the killer is pretty obvious if you’re familiar with the conventions of the genre. (Hulu)
The Orville, from Seth MacFarlane, is a loving homage to Star Trek. Behind the scenes, many members of the show’s creative team are “veterans” of the Rick Berman Star Trek era. The series ran for two seasons on FOX before becoming a Hulu original in its third season in 2022.
During its first two seasons, the 42-minute episodes tried (not always successfully) to balance broad comedy with sci-fi drama. In season three (entitled “New Horizons”), The Orville adopted a more dramatic and thoughtful tone — reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. No longer confined by broadcast network runtimes and budgets, MacFarlane supersized the episodes to 60-90 minutes each and amped up the production values and visual effects. I don’t recommend jumping straight into season three, though, since nearly all the storylines are “sequels” to previous episodes.
As an homage to Star Trek, The Orville is a resounding success. If you enjoyed the movie Galaxy Quest, you’ll likely dig the show. As a stand-alone sci-fi series, divorced from the lens of Star Trek, I think the show also works. But, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I can’t be sure. (Hulu)
Amazon Prime Video released Paper Girls without much fanfare in July 2022. I vaguely heard about it but didn’t pay much notice. Two months later, Amazon canceled the show. Six months later, I came across the series while looking for a new show to watch and scanning over “the best shows on…” lists for my various streaming services. I decided to give it a try.
Paper Girls is a character-driven thriller that revolves around four tween girls who accidentally get mixed up in a time-travel war. The girls come from diverse backgrounds, and the heart of the story is how they bond and become friends during their misadventures. On their jumps to the future, they also see their future selves (one of whom is played by Ali Wong) and confront how much (or how little) their childhood dreams have come to fruition.
The four leads (Sofia Rosinksy, Riley Lai Nelet, Fina Strazza, and Camryn Jones) are all standouts and easily hold their own against the adult actors in the cast. The show keeps the background mythology to a minimum and focuses more on character conflicts and personal struggles as the yarn unfolds. Even so, the story is absorbing and not without thrilling moments.
I’d recommend Paper Girls to anyone who likes either science fiction or coming-of-age stories. The eighth and final episode ends on a cliffhanger. I’m hoping the producers can find a new streaming home where they can continue the story. If not, then I’m invested in the characters enough to read the comic books to find out how it all turns out. (Amazon)
Parks and Recreation
Looking for something fun to binge during the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally decided to try out Parks and Recreation which I had heard raves about for years. I had always resisted the show, even though I was a fan of the British version of The Office as well as the early seasons of the American adaptation. More recently, I’ve become a huge fan of What We Do in the Shadows (which uses the same documentary style as all of these shows).
Even though I am generally tired of the documentary sitcom format, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Parks and Rec. The show creates a universe of people and places that is more expansive and far richer than its forerunner, The Office. I’m not the first to make this comparison, but the show is in some respects like a live-action version of The Simpsons. The amazingly talented ensemble cast is supported by a huge collection of recurring bit characters (oddball residents of the fictitious town of Pawnee, Indiana), not to mention tons of fun cameo appearances (by politicians and other celebrities).
My main knock on Parks and Recreation is that, for me, the series too frequently crossed the line from inspired caricature and satire into the realm of cheesy, cringe-worthy network sitcom exaggeration. My other criticism is that the cruelty of the Parks and Recreation staff towards their coworker Garry Gingrich was too mean-spirited and uncomfortable to watch (and would likely constitute hostile environment harassment in a real workplace). I think the relentless mockery of his character was a major misstep by the producers. (NBC)
This is a relatively obscure comedy, which I accidentally stumbled upon much to my delight. The show, which lasted two seasons, revolves around a bunch of wannabe Hollywood misfits who share the day job of working for the same catering company. The incredibly lovable cast included Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Martin Starr, and Lizzy Caplan with guest-starring roles from the likes of Kristen Bell and J.K. Simmons.
Nearly 13 years after season 2 ended, as a gift to fans, most of the cast reunited for a third season of six episodes. Seeing the gang back together again was fun, and about half the episodes provided the comic inspiration I came to expect from the original run of the show in 2009-2010. The other episodes — not so much. Annoyingly, Jane Lync appears mostly via Zoom on an iPad. And, sadly, Lizzy Caplan was busy filming other projects and could not participate. I missed her presence and her chemistry with Scott. To compensate, the show introduces a new love interest played by Jennifer Gardner, who does her best to fill the void. (Starz)
People of Earth
An understated and under-rated comedy about a support group for alien abductees and a journalist assigned to write a piece about them. Their alien abductors provide much of the humor as they are essentially low-level worker bees caught up in “office politics.” The show ran for just two short seasons but creatively had enough inspiration to run for several more. (TBS)
How much you like Poker Face will likely depend on how much you like Natasha Lyonne and how much you enjoy old-school Columbo-style TV murder mysteries. For me, that calculates to a huge amount divided by not so much. So, I fall somewhere in the middle.
The gimmick of the show is that Lyonne’s character, Charlie, is a human lie detector and can sniff out bullsh*t with uncanny accuracy. This gift makes her the ultimate amateur sleuth. Charlie’s on the run from some Las Vegas mobsters, and in each episode she happens across a murder as she stops in small towns and takes on odd jobs.
The show is from Rian Johnson, and unlike his Glass Onion movie series, we, as viewers, are in on the who-done-it — and the fun is in watching Charlie put together the pieces.
Poker Face is a showcase for Lyonne, and the role of Charlie allows her sarcasm, quirkiness, and sincerity to shine. Despite the loose thread of the mobsters trying to track down Charlie, the show is mostly episodic and each episode features notable guest stars. I got impatient with the formula in the middle of the season, but enjoyed the first few and last few episodes quite a bit. (Peacock)
A popular strip club in a small Mississippi town is at the center of P-Valley. The show provides a humanizing and sympathetic portrait of the women who perform at the club — and also of its non-binary owner (the excellent Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford). The drama was written and directed by women creators — and, as a result, its purpose is to illuminate rather than to titillate. Notably, virtually all the characters in the show are people of color. (Starz)
Egyptian-American stand-up comic Ramy Youssef explores the identity confusion around being a young Muslim man in current-day America in this Hulu original. The show is as much drama as comedy and proves to be increasingly compelling as the first season progresses. Season two builds on the strengths of its predecessor and avoids the sophomore jinx. (Hulu)
Reboot is a behind-the-scenes comedy about the revival of a (fictitious) network TV family sitcom from the early aughts (called “Step It Up”). An up-and-coming writer (Rachel Bloom) envisions updating the cheesy show as an edgy contemporary comedy with complex, nuanced characters (with the original cast returning). As an added wrinkle, she happens to be the estranged daughter of the original showrunner (Paul Reiser). When he insists on returning as her co-producer, their family history and creative differences cause tension and jeopardize the reboot.
Showrunner Steve Levitan, the creator of Modern Family, certainly knows a thing or two about TV sitcoms. Accordingly, Reboot knowingly and lovingly skewers the eccentric Hollywood personalities involved in reviving “Step It Up,” from the actors to the crew to the writers to the studio executives.
As a fan of showbiz stories, I took to the show from the jump. It reminds me of a previous favorite, The Larry Sanders Show, although that series was far more cynical and biting — and lingered in memory longer.
By contrast, Reboot is disposable and more mainstream. It’s light and breezy popcorn entertainment that is often laugh-out-loud funny. The large cast of comedy sharpshooters has too many standouts to name but Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Knoxville, Calum Worthy, Krista Marie Yu, and the incomparable Judy Greer exude charm in the key roles. Their inspired performances make for a good time, whether or not you gravitate toward backstage comedies. (Hulu)
Reservoir Dogs is unlike any other show I’ve seen — and that’s a good thing. Set in rural Oklahoma, the dramedy chronicles the misadventures of four native American teens as they meander around their reservation and the nearby town. The show captures an authenticity of energy and spirit that could only come from an indigenous cast and crew. Some episodes feature all four leads, but others focus on a single character as they interact with the quirky residents of the community. The pace is deliberate, but the teenagers’ goal of moving to California serves as a loose narrative thread holding everything together. (Hulu)
In a variation of Groundhog Day, Natasha Lyonne keeps reliving the last few hours of her life in a continual loop and must figure out how to break the cycle. Despite the well-worn premise, the show feels fresh and inventive — and offers a compelling character study of a woman trying to find herself. Note: my recommendation is only for season one which has a self-contained storyline. Lyonne tried to continue the story in the second season by introducing a time travel theme. I disliked season two enough that if I could go back in time … I’d skip it. (Netflix)
The Sandman is a beloved comic book series by Neil Gaiman that ran for 75 issues from 1989 to 1996. Back then, I was a recent college graduate, and except for a few outliers (like The Watchmen), I was oblivious to current-day comic books and graphic novels. So, I approached the Netflix screen adaptation as a newbie to Sandman mythology. I’m also unfamiliar with Gaiman, except for his Amazon original series, Good Omens.
The two shows clearly share similar DNA. Both build an intricate web of supernatural and spiritual mythology — full of gods, demons, witches, and more. Both shows straddle the line between episodic and serialized. Both have disparate but interlocking storylines. The core difference: whereas Good Omens is light and whimsical, The Sandman is dark and brooding.
The Sandman drew me into its world building, but not so much into its main character (the lord of dreams). I had trouble warming up to Morpheus (aka Dream) and the actor who plays him (Tom Sturridge). I place most of the blame on the writing. Dream is so stoic and subdued that I wanted to jump into the screen, grab him by the shoulders, and wake him up from his stupor. Fortunately, everything around him (including the supporting characters, the imagined worlds, the visual effects, etc.) offers intrigue and compels attention. (Netflix)
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
I’ve been a fan of Tatiana Maslany since she blasted onto the scene in the sci-fi series Orphan Black in which she played multiple roles. I soured on the plot shenanigans after about three seasons (and bailed on the show), but I never tired of Maslany. So, I was curious to see what she would do with the role of She-Hulk. Not surprisingly, she knocks it out of the park with her charismatic performance and comic flair.
Maslany plays Jennifer Walters, an attorney in L.A. who also happens to be the cousin of Bruce Banner (better known as The Hulk). After she becomes infected with his blood, she becomes a Hulk herself. But unlike Banner, she can control her rage and switch back and forth between her two states at will. Over the course of the season, she strives to continue her law career and have a romantic life as she struggles to integrate her two identities.
She-Hulk is an unabashed comedy and is more interested in laughs than in superhero antics. The show frequently breaks the fourth wall and includes a lot of knowing meta-commentary about (and takes plenty of jabs at) the Marvel superhero genre. Maslany is not the least bit self-conscious when talking directly to viewers and her charm sells the storytelling device. She-Hulk is a welcome addition to the Marvel family and further illustrates Marvel’s ability to tell superhero stories effectively in nearly any genre.
Like any TV comedy, the episodes are hit-and-miss — some grabbed me more than others. But throughout, Maslany is a magnetic on-screen presence. In addition to Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, standouts in the supporting cast include Jameela Jamil (as a rival), Ginger Gonazaga (as Jessica’s paralegal assistant), Renée Elise Goldsberry (as a fellow attorney), Tim Roth (reprising his role as Abonimation), Griffin Matthews (who was also standout in The Flight Attendant), and a few other familiar faces from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who thinks we are drowning in a glut of superhero stories, but I do credit Marvel with taking bold chances and breaking from formula with shows like Wandavision, She-Hulk, and Ms. Marvel. (Disney+)
Based on a series of novels (that I haven’t read), Slow Horses follows a group of down-on-their-luck M15 Agents who have been assigned to the dog house of the British Secret Service. Unlike the sleek, modern headquarters at Regent’s Park, Slough House is a ramshackle and dreary office building where f*ck-up agents bide their time doing menial intelligence work.
The gimmick of the show is that these agents (sometimes inadvertently) end up getting involved in high-stakes intrigue and usually save the day even though their counterparts at “The “Park” take all the credit. Gary Oldman anchors the cast as the disheveled head of Slough House and Kristin Scott Thomas is deliciously dour and conniving as his more polished counterpart (the “second desk” back at headquarters).
The pilot episode starts with a fast-moving action sequence and then slows down to introduce the characters and do some world-building. In episode 2, the show picks up and starts speeding like a bullet train as the main storyline kicks in — it involves MI5’s efforts to thwart some white nationalists who have kidnapped a Pakistani hostage and have set a countdown clock to execute him on YouTube. Although the story does not take place in real-time, the relentless tension reminded me of the show 24 (which I was a fan of during its first few seasons).
Season 2, which revolves around intrigue with various Russian agents, does not have quite the same narrative momentum. But on the plus side, we do get to know the Slough House agents more deeply, especially some of the supporting characters. The plot is a bit convoluted and to follow the story, you have to keep track of a few too many names. But in the balance, it’s still great fun and left me hungry for more. Happily, Apple has already renewed the show not only for season 3 but also for season 4. (Apple TV+)
Snowpiercer is an American TV adaptation of the 2013 South Korean movie from director Bong Joon Ho (Parasite). As a fan of post-apocalyptic drama, the premise intrigued me. An “ice age forces humanity’s last survivors aboard a globe-spanning supertrain. One man will risk everything to lead a revolt for control of the engine and the future of the world.” (source: Rotten Tomatoes). Despite my predisposition, I thought the movie was mediocre (for reasons I can no longer remember).
Since I wasn’t a fan of the movie, I initially skipped the TV show (also because TV critics gave season 1 mixed reviews). But then, a friend who has similar tastes recommended it to me. After watching the first two seasons, I can say that I like the TV series decidedly more than the movie.
Snowpiercer is absolutely gripping with edge-of-your-seat tension that is unrelenting. The characters rarely get a respite as they move from one crisis to another. Consequently, Snowpiercer may be too intense for some viewers; violence, cruelty, and suffering are recurring themes. Yet, as with The Walking Dead, I find the show compelling and insanely addictive.
Season 2 adds a new wrinkle: a riveting villain who engages the protagonists in cat and mouse tactics to gain control of the train. The large cast is diverse and uniformly appealing — standouts include Daveed Diggs, Jennifer Connelly, Alison Wright (The Americans), Sean Bean, Steven Ogg (The Walking Dead), and Mike O’Malley (Glee).
Maybe I’ll revisit the movie someday, but for now, I’m on board for the ride for season 3 and beyond. (HBO Max)
I usually shy away from shows where most (if not all) of the characters are unlikable. Succession is an exception. This tale of an uber-rich family that runs a media conglomerate (think the Murdochs and Fox) is strangely compelling. Over its first two seasons, the constant corporate maneuvering grew a bit tiresome, but the family dynamics remained riveting. I binged watched the show, but I think I would have enjoyed it more in smaller doses had I watched week to week as it initially aired. Update: for season 3, I did watch week to week, and I savored the show more. (HBO)
Star Trek: Discovery
As a lifelong fan, I have a hard time being objective about Star Trek. Even so, I can easily recognize that the first season of Discovery was a deeply flawed show, with a dubious premise (inconsistent with previous canon) and oftentimes sloppy storytelling. On the plus side, the debut season was highly entertaining with cinematic production values, lovable characters, and a diverse and talented cast. Happily, the series improved quite a bit in season 2 and then took a quantum leap in season 3 and finally became the show it should have been from the start. (Paramount+)
A comic drama from the Duplass brothers that explored marriage, family, friendship, and love. Not a top-tier HBO show but one which was consistently improving before HBO canceled it after two seasons. (HBO)
The first few episodes of Undone were a bit slow-moving for me. But eventually, I got hooked on the characters and story. The show features rotoscope animation where live-action actors are overlayed by animation. The technique is particularly effective for the story, which explores the thin boundary between mental illness and mystic abilities as a young woman (Rosa Salazar) tries to solve the mystery behind her father’s death (Bob Odenkirk). Season two also started sluggishly for me. But it eventually expands the wordbuilding and raises the emotional stakes in satisfying ways. (Amazon)
In order of success, the series Upload is one part romance, one part satirical vision of the future, and one part murder mystery. The show (from Greg Daniels, one of the creative forces behind The Office and Parks and Recreation) has an engaging and novel premise: people can choose to upload to virtual worlds before they die and stay in communication with friends and family who are still alive in the real world. In the lead roles, Robbie Amell and Andy Allo have genuine chemistry. Allo, in particular, is immensely appealing and gives a breakout performance. The supporting cast is also fun, even though some of their characters are rather one-dimensional. (Amazon)
WandaVision is the first Marvel TV series that integrates with the Marvel cinematic universe. The story follows the events of the last Marvel movie (End Game) and sets the stage for future Marvel movies (e.g. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). The good news is that the show is great fun and lives up to the production values of the Marvel movies. Another bonus: casual fans may enjoy the show as much as die-hards since its core premise (gimmick) involves paying homage to classic TV sitcoms from the 1950s to today. So, if you’re a fan of situation comedies, you’ll likely enjoy the show, even if you don’t pick up on all the canonical references. The bad news? Well, none really. However, I did enjoy the early and middle episodes better than the final few during which the plot became more traditional. (Disney+)
A struggling widow living in a cookie-cutter housing community with her two sons becomes a marijuana dealer in this comedy. The first two seasons were fabulous before the show spun wildly and increasingly out of control. Still, I watched to the end because I had invested in the characters and enjoyed the cast. (Showtime)
The White Lotus
Writer-director Mike White vacillates between commercial Hollywood projects and quirky independent fare. His well-known hits include School of Rock and Pitch Perfect 3. His hidden gems include many indie films and HBO’s all too brief TV series, Enlightened. His new series The White Lotus falls somewhere in the middle. The soapy and satirical story is set at an exclusive Hawaiin resort where the beleaguered hotel staff serve wealthy white guests. It’s got a big cast and glossy production values but feels unconventional. The show straddles the line between comedy and drama and serves up a healthy dollop of social commentary. Most of the characters are spoiled and unlikeable (much like Succession which explores similar themes). But watching their selfish dramas is like a car wreck; you can’t look away. The performances are solid, especially those from Murray Bartlett and Natasha Rothwell. But for me, the most memorable aspect of the show is the moody musical score.
Update: I liked season two (set at a coastal resort in Sicily) even more than season 1. (HBO)
These shows without question have merit but most of them have some profound flaws. In some cases, they just weren’t my “cup of tea.”
In season one of this Blade Runner-like sci-fi thriller, the visuals were superior to the story. I watched partially to enjoy the 4K HDR picture quality on my OLED TV. Season two was an improvement, with a more cohesive storyline, deeper worldbuilding, and a new actor (Anthony Mackie) in the lead role. However, overall, the series still is stronger on style than substance. (Netflix)
The Book of Boba Fett
A spinoff of The Mandalorian, this series is on the bubble for me between recommend and misfire. For the boy in me who saw Star Wars on the big screen during its original release as an impressionable nine-year-old, I’ll err on the side of recommend — but just barely. The show cross-cuts between three story arcs. One, the back story of Fett’s resurrection (after seemingly dying in Return of the Jedi). Two, trade war intrigue in present-day Tattoine — which isn’t inherently compelling. Three, a two-episode interlude with The Mandalorian and Grogu. Overall, the series feels a bit messy and disjointed. Even worse, much of the action falls flat. The show’s worst crime: it wastes the talents of Ming-Na Wen (in a lead role as Fett’s deputy) and gives her character virtually nothing to do. On the other hand, the series offers a fun Western vibe and many colorful supporting characters, both old and new. (Disney+)
Brockmire is an engaging character study of an alcoholic baseball announcer (played by Hank Azaria) who finds his way to recovery. I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I do enjoy the occasional baseball-themed movie or TV show (e.g. Eastbound & Down). I’m also not the biggest fan of stories centered around alcoholic or depressed characters. Even so, Brockmire slowly won me over during its first couple of seasons before becoming something truly special in its third season (in which the character achieves sobriety). Sadly, the show lost my goodwill in its ill-conceived fourth and final season. The show flashes forwards ten years from the present-day and provides a horrifying glimpse of the future. I’m all for dystopian fantasies and satires, but I think it was the wrong choice (and felt out of character) for this series. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show “jump the shark” so badly. (IFC)
Gillian Anderson plays a detective pursuing Jamie Dornan as an elusive serial killer in this British crime drama. As mentioned, I am not a fan of this genre which is why I have not rated this show higher. (Netflix)
Although it was a little too slow-moving for me, I appreciated the first season of the TV reboot of the classic Coen brothers’ film. But I did not find it compelling enough to stick with it for its subsequent seasons. (FX)
Fleishman Is In Trouble
Even if I didn’t know that Fleishman Is In Trouble is based on a novel, I’d be able to tell from its narrative structure and character depth. The limited series is set on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and chronicles the troubled marriages and mid-life crises of white, privileged, upper middle-class characters — ones who are remarkably self-absorbed.
I tend to like self-absorbed characters in comedies (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Crashing, Woody Allen movies, etc.), but I have a hard time investing in them in dramas. I didn’t find myself rooting for any of the three main characters: a doctor, his wife (a theater agent), and his college friend (a writer turned stayed-at-home mom) — despite excellent performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, and Lizzy Caplan (who also narrates the story).
And yet… While I sometimes wasn’t sure whether I was enjoying the series, at the end of each episode, I couldn’t wait to watch the next. On reflection, I concluded that Fleishman Is In Trouble is a thriller, but the suspense is based on character-motivation rather than plot.
The show is billed as a limited series. I’m glad I watched, but I got my fill of this world and likely would opt out if Hulu decides to bring it back for a second season. (Hulu)
The Flight Attendant
Season 1 – The Flight Attendant provides slick pulp fiction thrills, seasoned with some humor and a modicum of character depth. The show dishes up more style than substance and the storyline is absolutely implausible. However, as long as you don’t scrutinize the plot holes too closely, The Flight Attendant is a fun ride with story strands that come together in the end in a satisfying way.
Season 2 – In its sophomore season, The Flight Attendant lost its charm, at least for me. The formula grew irritating and tiresome, and I stopped caring about any of the outlandish storylines. The trips into Cassandra’s inner psychology, a gimmick that mostly worked in season one, became monotonous and tiresome. Megan’s peripheral storyline seemed half-baked and an unnecessary distraction. Oh, and you’ll likely see the ending coming from a mile away. I won’t be boarding for season three. (HBO Max)
This series is a prequel to Batman and chronicles Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a teen into the caped crusader, as well as the origin stories of many of his classic villains. That said, the main character is actually James Gordon, and the show portrays his days as a new Detective on the Gotham police force. The first season was stylish and entertaining, but it didn’t leave me with an appetite for more, in large part because Ben McKenzie (as Gordon) rubbed me the wrong way as an actor. (FOX)
I was late to the party, but I became a big fan of Jean Smart after she had key roles in two of my favorite shows from the last few years, Legion and Watchmen. So, naturally, I was curious to check out her new series Hacks. Smart plays a legendary stand-up comic (a boomer with a Vegas residence) who hires a Gen Z writer (played by Hannah Einbinder) to punch up and modernize her jokes.
This was one of those series that took me two tries to get through, but the show gets decidedly better as the season progresses. Smart is great throughout as the acerbic seen-it-all showbiz veteran. But at first, I didn’t find Einbinder’s character remotely appealing. She (and the show) eventually won me over, but I do think the critical reaction to Hacks has been a bit overblown.
My main problem is that the stand-up comedy we see is not particularly funny. Moreover, there’s not enough of it (especially the new material the two characters collaborate on). But I grew up watching a ton of live stand-up comedy in my formative years, so maybe my standards are higher than the typical TV viewer. (HBO Max)
The Handmaid’s Tale
If nothing else, this post-apocalyptic drama set in the former U.S. after environmental collapse and a totalitarian coup is worth watching for the exceptional performance from Elisabeth Moss. Overall, the show is slow-moving but gripping — and also so relentlessly bleak that it can be excruciating to watch. Lauded in season one, the show experienced some critical backlash in season two for its monotonous misery, and I am undecided whether to watch season three and beyond. (Hulu)
I was on the fence about whether to try the animated superhero yarn Invincible. On the plus side, the writer is Robert Kirkman — the creator of The Walking Dead. On the minus side, I usually don’t like 2D animation. Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted to plunge into yet another cynical superhero universe. I get my fill for that from The Boys and Doom Patrol. But I gave the show a try after a friend recommended it, and I’m glad I did.
Invincible is not the most cohesive show. It bites off more than it can chew, with more storylines than it can do justice. Also, the mystery at the core of the story is somewhat ineffective. I could see the big twist coming from miles away. Even so, the show offers great popcorn entertainment and is an addicting binge-watch. It creates an immersive world with surprisingly cinematic action and engaging characters. The stupendous voice-over cast adds to the charm. (Amazon)
I binge-watched both seasons one and two on Hulu and really enjoyed the fast pace, intriguing characters, and cat and mouse antics between an MI6 operative (Sandra Oh) and an eccentric assassin (Jodie Comer). The two lead actresses are phenomenal, and both have been nominated and/or won several well-deserved awards for their performances in the show. Killing Eve is popcorn entertainment at its best but with more character depth than you might expect. I did not enjoy the third season nearly as much and feared that the series may have “jumped the shark.” The fourth and final season was a marginal improvement, but the show did not “stick the landing” in the finale for me. The series left me feeling deflated. (BBC America/streaming on Hulu)
The main reason to watch this show is to savor the tour de force performance by Tatiana Maslany who plays multiple characters in this sci-fi series about cloning. For me, the twists and turns of the conspiracy-mystery plot eventually grew tiresome, and I bailed out after three seasons in the show’s five-season run. (BBC America)
For its first two or three seasons, Search Party is a super dark comedy about four twenty-something friends in NYC who get in way over their heads while looking for a missing acquaintance. Arguably, all four characters are unlikable in various ways. Usually, I’m not a big fan of TV shows with anti-heroes. However, here it mostly works due to the quality of the performances. In seasons 4 and 5, the twists and turns of the storyline grow increasingly outlandish. The show devolves into a wild soap opera, while still trying to provide biting social satire. As a result, I enjoyed the series less and less over time. You might consider checking out after season 3. (HBO Max)
The cast is great in this modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery series, but I have found most of the storylines disappointing. (PBS)
The joy of watching Harrison Ford do comedy is enough reason to watch Shrinking. The comedy — about a trio of shrinks and their community of patients, families, and friends — has a large and appealing ensemble cast that includes Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Christa Miller, Lukita Maxwell, and Luke Tennie. All are game performers but Ford is the standout as the senior psychotherapist who’s gruff on the surface but a big softie inside (and who’s also suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease).
My daughter, who watched a couple of episodes with me, remarked, “why are the characters so stupid, like they’re in a Disney Channel sitcom?” Her query is a valid one, and I don’t entirely disagree with her observation. The comedy and situations in Shrinking can be a bit broad for my taste. On the plus side, it’s from the creators of Ted Lasso and shares some of that show’s charm and pathos. One of the panelists on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour noted that the characters’ lives are so intertwined and storylines so insular that the show starts to feel claustrophobic. I agree with this criticism and it’s one reason I enjoyed Shrinking less as the season unfolded.
Other than Ford, my favorite part of Shrinking is the evocative theme song (which was co-written by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard). It’s often my favorite part of an episode. (Apple TV+)
Star Trek: Picard (Seasons 1 & 2)
Star Trek: Picard is a gift for fans of The Next Generation. The series revisits one of the most beloved characters in Star Trek history and updates his story and character arc in satisfying ways. Patrick Stewart is at the top of his game and everything you would expect (and more) in the title role. The series introduces several intriguing new characters and also features guest-starring roles for some familiar faces. Although the episodes are uneven, the villains are cartoonish, and some of the storylines are questionable, the journey is worth taking and the final destination is one that most fans should greatly appreciate.
Season 2 was a slight improvement over season one but not the quantum leap forward that I hoped for based on the trailers. While the time-travel premise was compelling in theory, the storyline was disjointed and sloppy. As a Star Trek fan, I can’t complain too much about seeing iconic legacy characters (Picard, Seven of Nine, Q, Guinan) on an adventure together, but more generally as a fan of serialized TV, the series just doesn’t hold up so far. Even so, I still look forward to season three as it will bring a brand new storyline and reunite the entire TNG cast (sans Wil Wheaton) for a final adventure together.
Note: For my separate review of Season 3, see the Excellent section above.
I don’t have a history of watching DC Comics television shows. I read DC Comics as a kid, but on screen, I’ve tended to prefer the Marvel cinematic universe. The exception: the gritty made-for-adults series on HBO Max. A friend recommended Doom Patrol to me (see separate review). And that led me to Titans — the first live-action adaption of the famous DC title. I read some Teen Titans as a kid, but I’m not too conversant with the Titans mythology which is long and deep.
I generally like the series — especially the cast — but I do have a bunch of quibbles. The show puts too much weight on the Dick Grayson character. I get it. He’s the leader of the Titans and the most famous hero of the bunch. (Grayson’s best-known alter ego is Robin, Batman’s first sidekick.) I could understand if his character got 30% of the screen time. But it seems closer to 50%, which sucks the oxygen out of the room for the other characters. I’d like to see more of them and a better balance.
Of the four seasons, the first is my favorite. The central storyline is compelling and it slowly but effectively introduces the various Titans. Season 2’s storytelling is more disjointed with several loose ends. On the plus side, it does have a great villain (played by Esai Morales). It also introduces Jason Todd, my least favorite character in Titans. The is-he-good-or-is-he-evil storyline, which spans seasons 2 and 3, grows tiresome fast.
Season 3 introduces a new villain (Scarecrow) who is more tedious than scary. He nearly sinks the season, but — luckily — the secondary storylines are more interesting. Season 3 also disappointed me by relying so heavily on Batman mythology and relocating the characters from San Francisco to Gotham. Enough with Gotham — give us something fresh.
Sadly, the fourth and final season is a big step backward. The plot, which revolves around magic villains, is not engaging and the show is a lot to watch. If it weren’t the final season, I would have aborted the season four mid-stream.
Overall, Titans is a series I can barely recommend, and I think the best viewing experience would be to watch only seasons 1 and 2. (HBO Max)
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that over the years, I’ve watched a few seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette as guilty pleasures. For anyone who is a fan of those shows, UnREAL is great fun and highly entertaining. The show provides a humorous (and sometimes dramatic) behind-the-scenes look at “Everlasting” — a fictionalized version of The Bachelor. I tremendously enjoyed the first season (particularly Constance Zimmer’s performance as the main showrunner). The second season was less inspired, and I jumped ship after the first episode of season three. (Lifetime)
Veep is a well-crafted and very funny workplace comedy. However, for two reasons, I don’t rate the show higher: 1) I don’t gravitate towards shows set in the political milieu; 2) I think the show “jumped the shark” to some extent in the sixth season after Selina Meyer left office and the characters dispersed to separate (but overlapping) storylines. Even so, the large, ensemble cast gives uniformly inspired comic performances (particularly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in iconic roles). (HBO)
The Walking Dead: World Beyond
The limited series World Beyond is worth watching if you’re a hardcore fan of The Walking Dead. As the third series in the franchise, it’s the least original and isn’t on the same level as its predecessors. Even so, I warmed up to most of the new characters and ultimately invested in their stories. The first season, which can be slow going, is mostly a setup for big payoffs in season two.
The main appeal of the show is that it expands the world-building of the universe. Notably, it provides a deep look into the Civic Republic and its military arm the CRM. This huge survivor society interconnects to plot strands in both the original “mothership” show and its first spinoff, Fear The Walking Dead. World Beyond introduces characters and plot points that will likely be significant in future series.
Another reason I’d recommend the show is for the performance of Annet Mahendru — who made a big impression on me as Nina on The Americans. In the ensemble of characters, her role of Huck is the most complex and conflicted, and she has the largest arc. Plus, she gets to square off against someone who crosses over from the original Walking Dead show. I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s a great twist. (AMC)
Wellington Paranormal is a spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 movie mockumentary about New Zealand vampires. The show follows two minor characters from the film, bumbling police officers O’Leary and Minogue.
Unfortunately, the series didn’t become available in the U.S. until after FX had already released the first two seasons of its American TV adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows. That show quickly established itself as a comedy gem. By comparison, Wellington Paranormal is a light trifle — easy to digest but also easy to forget.
The show chronicles the misadventures of the two officers as they investigate supernatural events in Wellington, with the help of their eager beaver Police Chief. After watching the first season, I’d categorize the show as mildly amusing. Not bad as filler while in-between seasons of Shadows, but also not must-see TV. (HBO Max)
Yellowjackets is a survival tale that chronicles how a girl’s high school soccer team survived in the wilderness for 19 months after a plane crash. But that’s only half of each episode. The show also crosscuts to the current day where it explores the aftermath of the tragedy 25 years later — and how the ordeal still affects the characters who survived.
The show nails the casting — the older versions of the characters convincingly match their younger counterparts. The performances in both timelines are natural and assured.
How much you like the show will depend on how compelling you find each timeline. I’m all in on the survival tale (which may or may not involve the occult and supernatural). The current day storylines, which play more like a melodrama or soap opera, grabbed me less. (Showtime)
You’re the Worst
This is a show I always wanted to love but which I enjoyed only in fits and starts. Some episodes are absolutely brilliant but too many are forced and eventually, the characters wore thin for me. (FXX)
I recommend these shows, even though I haven’t spent the time to analyze them deeply or to write a capsule review.
- Back to Life – In the same vein as Fleabag and This Way Up, this is a dark and quirky British character dramedy from Daisy Haggard (who also stars) about a woman returning to her small hometown after serving 18 years for murder. (Showtime)
- Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – inconsistent but fun to watch if you are a fan of Jerry Seinfeld or the world of stand-up comics. (Netflix)
- The Queen’s Gambit – I generally dislike period pieces, and I’m no fan of chess, and yet I found this series surprisingly compelling, in large part due to Anya Taylor‑Joy’s mesmerizing performance in the lead role. (Netflix)
- This Way Up – a British character dramedy similar in sensibility to Fleabag. (Hulu)
- Abbot Elementary – In the spirit of The Office and Parks and Recreation, this mockumentary-style comedy follows the quirky staff at an inner city elementary school. I enjoyed the first season (especially quite a few of the performances), but it’s a bit too broad for my tastes and not quite on par (so far) with other mockumentary shows. (ABC/Hulu)
Overrated & Rejects
These are shows which I have found overrated after watching a substantial number of episodes or which I rejected after sampling just a few.
Precocious high school students investigate an indecent graffiti crime in this satire. For me, the premise would have worked better as a comedy sketch or short film. After three episodes, the joke wore thin, and I lost interest in the series. (Netflix)
A show I liked more in spirit than execution. This zany comedy was occasionally brilliant but hit the mark only about 10-20% of the time and was often tedious to watch during the rest. (FOX and Netflix)
What can I say? I expected to like this critically-acclaimed comedy from Donald Glover about life on the streets in Atlanta. As hard as I tried, the show did not click for me, and I could not make it to the end of the first season. (FX)
Brand New Cherry Flavor
I’m not a big horror fan, but I decided to watch this series for two reasons. 1) I like Hollywood showbiz stories. 2) I’m a fan of Rosa Salazar from her work on Man Seeking Woman, Undone, and Alita: Battle Angel.
Unfortunately, this trippy limited series from Netflix goes in the loss column for me. I did watch it to the end, but I found very little to like. My biggest problem is that none of the characters are likable. For example, I had a hard time rooting for the lead character, an aspiring filmmaker played by Salazar.
My other annoyance was the baffling behavior of the supporting characters. The show seems to be set in the “real world” where witches, curses, demons, and zombies aren’t commonplace. And yet most of the characters barely raise an eyebrow upon encountering supernatural entities and events. For example, in one scene, a mother encounters her catatonic (and zombified) son for the first time. A normal reaction would be to have him medically checked out immediately. And how convenient for her: they’re already at a hospital. Instead, her decision is to take him home and feed him dinner. (Netflix)
This sci-fil thriller seemingly had all of the ingredients to pique my interest: an intriguing premise, a compelling actor in the lead role (J.K. Simmons), ample critical acclaim, and a cult following. I watched two episodes before the Starz channel dropped from my DIRECTV contract. Surprisingly, the first two episodes left me cold and without motivation to seek out the rest of the series. (Starz)
My brother and nephew highly recommended Dark to me, especially since I like Stranger Things. Unfortunately, I found the first two episodes tedious to watch, and the characters were not appealing to me. Sometimes I give a show more time to win me over, but in this case, I trusted my instincts and aborted. (Netflix)
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
I am at best lukewarm on “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — the second Marvel TV series on Disney+. I found half the episodes gripping and half of them somewhat tedious. I appreciated some of the show’s themes (especially around race) but most of the storylines didn’t quite gel for me. Some of the action sequences were effective (and impressive for television) but others seemed perfunctory and were tiresome. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you already care about these characters from their film adventures. For context, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of my least favorite entries in the Marvel cinematic universe. Finally, one last bias: I watched this series right after WandaVision and concurrent with Doom Patrol, both of which have far more personality and quirkiness by comparison. (Disney+)
I stuck with this show for two seasons before concluding that Lena Dunham’s sensibility is not for me. I wanted to like the show but could not glom onto it. That said, I don’t think I was remotely in the show’s intended demographic. (HBO)
At best, I was on the fence about watching Hawkeye. While I am a fan of the Marvel cinematic universe, I’m indifferent about the character and had been debating whether watching every series is really necessary. (I had already skipped Moon Knight.)
However, a friend of mine liked Hawkeye, so I gave it a try. And regretted it. For me, nothing about the show is appealing, except for its connection to the Black Widow movie (which is a secondary storyline). Hawkeye is not bad — just bland. It feels rote and perfunctory. (Disney+)
House of the Dragon
Meetings. Bedchamber talk. More meetings. Incest. More meetings. A bit of leprosy. More meetings. Family squabbles. More meetings. Some dragon foo. More meetings.
That about sums up House of the Dragon (HOTD), a remarkably tedious and lethargic prequel to Game of Thrones (GOT). The original series was a rich tapestry of politics, sex, supernatural menace, iconic characters, and expansive storylines. By contrast, House of the Dragon tells a contained, narrow tale full of dull characters. I had trouble finding anyone in HOTD to root for or against with any real zeal. Even the show’s most intriguing characters would struggle to stand out if you threw them into the original series — which was chock full of memorable heroes and villains (and everything inbetween).
I easily could have dropped HOTD after two or three episodes. But I perserved through all ten episodes to participate in the cultural zeitgeist and for rare moments of GOT magic. The final two episodes set up “the dance of the dragons” which should result in more drama and conflict in season two. I’ll take a cautious look, but I’m more excited about other GOT spinoffs that HBO has in development. (HBO).
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
What am I missing here? I don’t get it. Why does this show have scores above 95% on Rotten Tomatoes for its first two seasons? I’m a fan of sketch comedy, but I have to admit that I’m pretty hard to please and haven’t gravitated towards many shows in this genre in recent years. I do like the premises of many of the sketches, but I find their execution irritating and tiresome — and I rarely laugh at them. Also, as is the bane of most sketch comedy shows, the sketches often go on for way too long. (Netflix)
I watched the first season but generally found the show to be pretentious and over-clever. Plus, the big plot twist at the end completely turned me off. (USA)
Somehow I made it through the first five seasons of this show despite conflicting feelings about whether I liked or hated it. The performances are outstanding even though many if not most of the characters are unappealing. In particular, the central character of Ray learns so little from the consequences of his alcoholism and violent temper that he becomes completely repulsive. (Showtime)
An atmospheric French zombie mystery that moved too slowly and did not offer enough payoff for those who had the patience to make it to the end of its second and final season. (Netflix)
This post-apocalyptic drama portrays life in the former United States after a permanent worldwide power outage. The mystery thriller was fun at first but eventually became repetitive and monotonous. (NBC)
Tales of the Walking Dead
- Hated it.
- Boring / don’t care.
- I’d rather play Angry Birds.
- Yawn – fast forward.
Those are my reactions to the six episodes in season one of the anthology series Tales of the Walking Dead. I usually gobble up anything in the Walking Dead Universe, even lesser entries like World Beyond. But I found Tales to be a complete waste of time.
The series features new characters we’ve never seen before, except for one episode — a prequel with Alpha (who I was thoroughly tired of and never wanted to see again). The modest, contained storylines do nothing to advance the overall mythology or to shed light on what might be happening in other areas of the country or world. My overall reaction is a word I thought I’d never associate with The Walking Dead: BORING!
This acclaimed comedy from Amazon never lived up to its hype for me, and I stopped watching after the first two of its five seasons. (Amazon)
I watched and enjoyed the first season despite my usual aversion to crime dramas. The abysmal reviews of season 2 scared me off, and I have no motivation to check out the reportedly improved third season. (HBO)
Twin Peaks: The Return
The original incarnation of this show was one of my all-time favorites when it initially aired on ABC (even the maligned second season). I enjoyed only about 25% of the Showtime sequel which was mostly incoherent and tedious. (Showtime)
I’d love to hear your comments about any agreements or disagreements you have with my list, as well as suggestions for any shows you think I should check out. (Please note: I moderate all comments.)