It’s past mid-year 2019, and it’s time to assess. TV across multiple platforms has been good, often great. Nobody can watch everything, so crowded is the field. But it’s time for a handy catch-up list.
This list is not the definitive, best-of scorecard. It’s what you need to see now, in the summer, if you missed it. And it’s a diverse list – some serious-minded content, some fun and some overlooked gems. All are available on streaming services, specific online sites you might need to subscribe to or on demand from cable outlets. Choose your nourishment or escapism, and enjoy.
After Life (Netflix)
Infuriatingly difficult to define, it is by turns outrageous, uplifting, unflinching, sad, hilarious and angry. Mostly, it’s an exercise in melancholy, and I adored it. Ricky Gervais plays Tony, a middle-aged man who is surly, rude and suicidal. Why is he in this state? His wife died, that’s why. Tony watches videos of his late wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), who gave him detailed instructions about everyday things, such as feeding the dog and using the dishwasher. But not how to live a new life. He’s hopeless in his grief – and angry. Then, he isn’t. After Life really divided viewers. It’s that different.
An instant classic of great TV, Chernobyl is hard to watch not only because of its grim, realistic depiction of what happens to those exposed to radiation. It’s tough to consume because it’s not just about the notorious nuclear disaster. It’s about the relentless campaign by those in power to deny mistakes, deny the existence of chaos and harm, and then spread misinformation. That part of it is as intense as the frightening dramatization of the first hours of the nuclear disaster at a town in Soviet Ukraine in 1986. Jared Harris is magnificent as a nuclear physicist who knows the truth. A miniseries that will linger in your mind a long, long time. (Note: HBO shows are available to Crave subscribers on demand, and through some cable on-demand services to HBO Canada subscribers.)
Ravishing, demanding and one of the great depictions of life in the performing arts. The non-linear storyline that flits back and forth over several decades of showbiz-life triumphs and failures persuades you to care deeply about Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), the celebrated New York choreographer and film director, and his on/off relationship with the great dancer and actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), a woman who was Fosse’s often unaccredited collaborator and muse. Fosse/Verdon is about love and hate and collaboration and the damage done by ego and success. (Look for FX Now Canada online and subscribe. It’s also on demand on cable if you subscribe to FX Canada.)
A blistering take on the referendum that brought the Leave campaign a narrow victory in Britain’s vote on EU membership. The movie isn’t fiction – it’s about the real figures that pulled off the upset victory. Mainly, it’s a lethal farce that becomes chilling. Brexit focuses on Dominic Cummings, the “geeky analyst” who called the tune in the Leave campaign, and he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s brilliant as the neurotic, arrogant geek who, it turns out, knew how to manipulate gullible voters and social media. The tone seems flippant at times, but in its comedy it has soul-destroying perceptions about the weakness of traditional institutions. Watch right to the closing credits.
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
High-grade escapism with some lovely scenes and performances. The Umbrella Academy is a different kind of take on the whole superhero thing. And, being made in Toronto with a large cast, it also features many, many Canadian actors. The two lead roles are played by famous Canadians and a small army of local actors turn up in supporting roles. Also, the use of Toronto settings, in what is a highly stylized and gorgeous production, is stunning. Rarely has the city looked so splendid. The starting point for the surreal story is in 1989, when 43 babies were born to mothers who were not, as far as anyone knew, pregnant. Seven of them were gathered and raised by an eccentric billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), who trains them as “The Umbrella Academy” to fight crime and such-like.
Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video)
The series – two seasons available – is acclaimed for its unique, assertory candour and wit. And part of the surprise element is the central character, the young woman known as Fleabag, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a theatrical device rarely used effectively in TV, with the notable exception of the original version of House of Cards. In Fleabag, the woman’s frailties, urges and rages come straight from her mouth while she’s looking you, the viewer, in the eye. That female-centric bluntness is a rarity on screen and that’s where the show’s power and shock value lie.
Russian Doll (Netflix)
It’s fiendishly clever, this very binge-worthy creation by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. It is about virtue and mortality, and it’s delivered with a vicious sense of pungent humour. It’s a brace-yourselves, genre-breaking journey. At first, it feels like another variation on Groundhog Day as Nadia (Lyonne), an acid-tongued, chain-smoking woman, celebrates her 36th birthday. This celebration happens over and over, but as the layers peel back Russian Doll is less about this woman than it is movingly about her community and her mother.
When They See Us (Netflix)
Superbly made, startling in its invective and bluntness at just four episodes. The point of the title of When They See Us is that nobody actually saw the boys who became known as the Central Park Five, as who they were. They saw black youths and wanted to convict them for the rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park. The swift movement from the conviction to imprisonment to justice being served is deeply impressive. But this is not presented as a story to feel good about in the end. It invites you to be very angry.
Black Summer (Netflix)
This is an overlooked little masterpiece of the zombie-apocalypse genre. Don’t be put off by “zombie apocalypse.” Black Summer is not like The Walking Dead or any of its spin-offs. It’s formally brilliant, politically loaded, terse and terrifying. No less than Stephen King recently took to Twitter to point to it and call it, “existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone.” The stripped-to-the-bone element is one reason why it’s breathtaking. Some episodes are 20 minutes long. Others come in at about 45 minutes. Dialogue is often sparse and the pacing is relentless.
The second season of Barry is even more darkly funny and shrewd than the first Emmy-winning season was. It’s still a comedy and a twisted-assassin drama, but it has Barry (Bill Hader), an ex-soldier and hired killer who longs to become an actor, trying to put his assassin life behind him. He tries to set aside the darkness of his real life even while the other budding actors around him remind him daily of the pleasures of pretending. Henry Winkler almost steals the show as the bewildered acting teacher Gene. There are magnificent scenes that are so astute about the politics of showbiz and acting.
Das Boot (CBC Gem)
The eight-episode series Das Boot (in German, French and English and with English subtitles) is more of a sequel than a retelling of the original movie’s narrative. About half the storyline is set on land. And that’s what makes it at first intriguing, especially to anyone who knows the movie; then it becomes a first-rate, top-drawer wartime thriller. It’s set in 1942 in the German-occupied French port town of La Rochelle. The German navy is rapidly building and launching more U-boats. Too many are being lost because the Allies can find and destroy them, or mechanical failure is making them useless. A radio operator on a new boat involves his sister in his secret spying activities and a hornet’s nest of resistance and thuggery is stirred. (Find CBC Gem online and sign up.)
Pen15 (CBC Gem)
An underappreciated gem from Hulu – and picked up by CBC Gem – this odd and sometimes incandescent comedy follows a pair of 13-year-old best friends starting middle school in the year 2000. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play adolescent versions of themselves. Every other youngster on the show is played by an actual teenager. This is cheekily emphatic, but it’s not a gimmick. There is a dissonance, seeing them in the roles, but also a heartfelt lugubrious quality. Rarely has the maddening insecurities of being a teenager been so ably mocked but utterly understood with sympathy.
Sex Education (Netflix) was much misunderstood by some critics. An eight-part drama/comedy, it’s saucy and sometimes absurd, but ultimately it’s a deeply felt coming-of-age story. The main character, teenager Otis (Asa Butterfield), is finding his way through life and love at a British school, with advice from his mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson), a famous and divorced – and now-dating – sex therapist. It’s very brazen and deadpan.
True Detective’s Season 3 (Crave/HBO) is not the incisive, disturbing masterpiece that was Season 1, but it’s very, very good. It’s done with great precision and perceptiveness. It broods again on moral decay, the fragility of memory and the elusiveness of verifiable truths about events that are soul destroying – in this case the disappearance of two children and murder of one of them. Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays is played with a rare, thrilling confidence by Mahershala Ali, who won best-supporting-actor Oscars for the movies Moonlight and Green Book.
Save Me (CBC Gem) is a knock-out Canadian short-form series. Each episode comes in at about 10 minutes and some are remarkably dense for all the brevity. A wry, sad take on the strange traumas that can befall anyone.
Knock Down The House (Netflix) is starkly cogent. The doc set out to follow four women who were challenging incumbent Democrats in the primaries ahead of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. They didn’t all get elected, and, as the whole world knows by now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the one who seemed to embody the entire unlikely movement. What you see when you watch this doc is not adulatory or fawning. It’s a rousing story about ordinary people rising up to challenge establishment figures and aiming to change establishment politics.