In recent years, it has been virtually impossible to keep up with the onslaught of new TV shows, but now that the world has hit the giant pause button there’s finally more time to make sense of the peak TV landscape. What’s worth watching, what’s not, and which shows have you maybe not even heard about yet? To help with this, I’ve offered individual recommendations for some recent – and not-so-recent – shows. Today, I’ll give you my take on five different shows.
I Want Something Somber
When Ozark debuted in 2017, critics greeted it with polite applause, praising the performances while also accusing the show of succumbing to two of prestige TV’s biggest cliches: bloated runtimes and oppressively dark lighting. Audiences didn’t seem to mind, though, embracing the Byrde family (headed by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) and their ultimately hopeless attempt to escape a money-laundering scheme gone wrong. As their tale of moral quicksand progressed to working with a ruthless Mexican drug cartel, the “Isn’t this just Breaking Bad: Ozark Edition” of it all became harder to deny, but it’s Jason Bateman and Laura freakin’ Linney! Your eyes can adjust to dark lighting if it means getting to watch two great actors share the stage.
The third season recently landed and is still hanging on in the Netflix Top 10, ranked #5 in the US as of this writing. It’s easily the show’s best season yet. Laura Linney’s Walter White arc ranks with the actress’s best work. Julia Garner’s perpetual scene-stealing as the Byrde’s foul-mouthed assistant Ruth gains several new layers. The addition of Iron Fist’s Tom Pelphrey to the cast as Linney’s bipolar brother results in the show’s most heart-wrenching storytelling. The shocking finale will leave you asking the same thing we always end up asking about this family: how are they going to get out of this one? The vice is forever tightening around the Byrde family, which makes for some damn compelling television.
I Want Something Silly
Seth Rogen – most recently known for watching Cats while super high – executive produced this recently-concluded action-comedy series that is best described as what you get when a couple of 80s kids who long ago wore out their VHS copies of Timecop and Back to the Future suddenly got their own TV show and a bottomless supply of weed. The result is 3 seasons and 34 total episodes of insanity, plowing through every time travel sci-fi trope imaginable and maybe also making up a couple of new ones along the way.
In the pilot, you meet Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson), a manchild janitor who finally clears his favorite video game only to then have two of the game’s characters – Wolf (Derek Wilson) and Tiger (Eliza Coupe) suddenly appear in his room. See, the game was actually a test sent back through time to find a chosen one who could lead the rebels to victory in their war against the machines. Except he is clearly no chosen one, something Wolf and Tiger pick up on along the way. Together, though, they’ll screw up just about every insane time travel trick they try, to the point that by the third season starts they’ve broken time and don’t seem especially down about it.
It sounds more confusing than it actually is. Mostly, the show is a hodge-podge of time travel movie storylines and stoner humor elevated by supremely committed over-the-top performances from Derek Wilson (as a future soldier who eventually realizes his true dream is to run a casual-dining restaurant chain) and Eliza Coupe (as an alpha-female always itching for a brawl). It’s surprisingly easy to imagine Rogen – who actually cameos throughout the third season – watching this while high, and like everything else Rogen attaches his name to you probably already know if you’re the audience for something like this.
I Want Something Weird
When Adventure Time’s Pendelton Ward signed up to create his first Netflix series, he turned to comedian and friend Duncan Trussell for inspiration. Since 2013, Trussell has hosted a podcast featuring free-wheeling conversations with friends and colleagues, with the topic often circling back to psychedelic drugs and meditation. Ward wanted to build a show around the podcast. Trussell went back and forth on whether that sounded like a good idea. Tired of waiting, Ward took one of the podcast episodes and animated a zombie apocalypse around it, juxtaposing a high-minded conversation about drugs with imagery of a little man in Neil Sedaka glasses fending off a zombie army. This proof-of-concept, with Trussell’s approval and participation, is now the pilot of Midnight Gospel.
The premise of the series: a futuristic podcaster travels to various worlds on the verge of apocalypse and interviews a local to understand how they’re coping. (Too close to home these days?)
The accompanying psychedelic imagery? A never-ending WTF-generator.
The conversations? Wholly existential.
Is it for you? Maybe, maybe not, but if you ever watched Adventure Time and imagined whoever created that was clearly dying to go even further and experiment far outside the restrictive confines of Cartoon Network, Midnight Gospel proves you right.
I Want Something Optimistic
It’s really just been in the last two years that Schitt’s Creek morphed from a pleasant Canadian sitcom with a goofy name into an internet obsession and subject of various hyperbolic “one of the best TV shows ever” arguments. What changed? Like You, the show absolutely blew up on Netflix, just in time to surprisingly waltz into several Emmy nominations. So, with all the momentum in the world, Schitt’s Creek decided it was time to end things, wrapping its 6th and final season earlier this year.
Putting the wisdom of that decision aside, I’m a late-adopter here. I’m actually still finishing up season 3. Ever since the quarantine went into effect, I’ve been watching a single episode of Schitt’s Creek at the end of every day. All the built-up stress and anxiety just washes away for half an hour while I check in on the Rose family’s latest misadventure and farcical attempt at self-improvement.
The premise of the show – a super rich family loses everything and ends up living in a small town motel – has obvious riches-to-rags, Queen of Versailles/Green Acres elements in its DNA, but the Rose family (Eugene Levy, Dan Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy) quickly proves surprisingly lovable – as opposed to merely pitiable. If you’ve also somehow slept on this show, it’s worth a look. Just know: the more sitcom-oriented early seasons morph into something a tad more nuanced, with more depth and drama elbowing up next to the comedy.
I Want Something Enlightening
America’s current 8th graders significantly trail prior classes in their proficiency in American history, civics, and geography. This is according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which earlier this week announced the country’s latest test scores in those categories have plummeted to a level not seen since the 90s.
Depressing, but not shocking. Adults hardly fare any better. According to a 2018 survey, only 13% of Americans know when the U.S. Constitution was ratified and less than a quarter of Americans know why we fought the British during the Revolutionary War.
Given this sorry state of affairs, no wonder most people were left supremely confused this past January when Virginia became the 38th state to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, thus finally meeting the threshold needed to legally codify gender equality in the Constitution. (Not that this actually means it will be ratified. The why is complicated.)
The Equal Rights Amendment? What’s that?
Well, wouldn’t you know it, FX (via Hulu) has a show perfectly timed to answer that question. Executive produced by Cate Blanchette and Captain Marvel’s Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and starring an All-Star team of highly recognizable, supremely talented actresses, Mrs. America chronicles the multi-year fight between the left and the right over the ERA.
In the early ‘70s, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and other prominent members of the women’s liberation movement are marshaling the ERA toward inevitable ratification when suddenly a housewife/failed politician from Missouri named Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchette) emerges to mount a conservative opposition. Schlafly and her endless stream of shameless misinformation, the show not-so-subtly argues, is a precursor political figure as well as a key to understanding what became of the political right in the latter half of the 20th century. Somewhat controversially, however, Mrs. America also lends Schlafly a partially sympathetic lens.
The show’s mission statement, in general, is to give all of the women three dimensions, elevating each one out of the history books and back into flesh-and-blood humans with flaws and limitations all their own. That’s why every episode is designed as a showcase piece for one of the women. Schlafly takes the spotlight in the first ep, Steinem in the second, failed presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba) in the third. Schlafly, we see, is actually a rather well-read foreign policy wonk who only gloms on to the ERA fight because it’s the only fight the Republicans will let her have. When she’s in a room with powerful conservative men, they treat her like a secretary. Fighting those who seek to empower women is, paradoxically, Schlafly’s only path toward gaining any real power of her own.
Not everyone is cool with that interpretation. But, Mrs. America isn’t just the Phyllis Schlafly show. The first 4 episodes capably illustrate the sacrifices and mistakes made by competing groups of women, regardless of political affiliation, when forced to navigate a world where men ultimately hold all the power.
So, argue over the show if you must. Six in 10 Americans don’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Uphill battle here, people. Maybe because of Mrs. America, some of them will finally know the name Shirley Chisolm.