I’ve been watching quite a bit of television this spring, and some of it has been quite good! Read on for more about the highlights as well as my thoughts on a couple of mixed bags.
Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet plays a dumpy detective in suburban Pennsylvania who is struggling to process the death of her son while also dealing with a lot of other family drama. And Jean Smart plays her mother as a secret ice cream eating, Fruit Ninja playing, kind of angry widow… who is also hilarious. There’s a murder and some abductions. And then there is the inevitable cop sent from county police to intervene in the investigation (played by Evan Peters), who turns out to be respectful, funny, and sympathetic rather than being an arrogant show boater. And that’s just the beginning of the list of characters who are all drawn so well that you get sucked in to the community and really feel invested in their social web as well as the actual crime investigations that are taking place over the course of the show. Mare of Easttown pulls off a very tricky balancing act of edge of your seat plot developments and effective character-based drama, and Winslet is totally invested and affecting in the role of Mare. A small miracle of a show.
The world of BIPOC gay/trans NY ballroom competition in the late 1980s, when AIDS was ravaging the community and anti-gay sentiment was even more widespread and harsh than it is today. I had heard a lot about this show over the years, so I am embarrassed to admit that I started watching it only because I learned that Evan Peters (from “Mare of Easttown”) was in the first season. Boy, am I glad I found my way to it! Evan Peters ended up being a somewhat underdeveloped character type (a sexually confused greedy capitalist who is not convincing at all as a Trump employee!), but no matter: Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) are the heart of the show. Like the world of ballroom culture it depicts, the show is not afraid to go big and extravagant – there are epic poses, soul-withering put-downs, moments of triumph, and heartfelt reconciliations that stretch plausibility from time to time. But underneath the dramatics is always the reality of a community under stress who have only themselves to fall back on when it comes down to it. Their ability to support one another when it’s most important is truly inspiring.
The Underground Railroad
An adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel, this show depicts a relentless series of brutalities perpetrated against the main character, Cora, as well as her relations and friends in the latter days of slavery in the United States. It is very disturbing viewing. But while it depicts many atrocities that occurred in some form in this country’s history, it is not a strictly realistic story, but an alternate history… or perhaps magical realism? The most obvious sign of this is that the Underground Railroad in the story is not a metaphor but a literal railroad under the ground, but there are numerous other counterfactual elements of the narrative that made me wonder what the author was going for. My best guess is that he was trying to depict, in a travelogue format, the expression of racism in the United States over time. Not all of these flavors of racism were experienced in the 1850s or 1860s, but all of them are based on real things that have happened, and I think the intent is to show the enormous emotional burden that this history of oppression has placed onto the psyches of Black Americans. To be Black in America means that it’s very likely your ancestors have suffered many of these indignities and privations, or you have heard/seen stories, or you have understood how they could happen to you if you don’t behave *just so* (and sometimes even then). It is a harsh reality to deal with, but despite that, there is still fellowship, enjoyment, and love. Barry Jenkins has a special ability to show how people can reach out to each other at moments of need and receptivity, and there are many examples of that here. There is also visual beauty and music even at the worst of times.
Jean Smart again! Hooray! In this show, she plays an aging Las Vegas stand-up comic (clearly based on Joan Rivers) whose agent assigns a younger comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder) to punch up her act for a modern audience. They don’t really get along… at first. In one sense, it’s a traditional story of two strong personalities (not to say “jerks”) warming up to each other and becoming more human in the process, but in another it’s a commentary on the history of stand-up comedy and its entrenched tradition of sexism, a history that Debra was on the front lines of, and Ava is entering into much later. I was reminded on more than one occasion of Emily Nussbaum’s wonderful essay for The New Yorker about Joan Rivers, “Last Girl in Larchmont“, which quotes a poem by Sharon Olds called “The Elder Sister” near the end. “But then she learned to see that the harsh marks on her older sister’s face (her wrinkles, the frown lines) were ‘the dents on my shield, the blows that did not reach me.’ Her sister had protected her simply by being there, facing the abuse, first – not with love, “but as a / hostage protects the one who makes her / escape as I made my escape, with my sister’s / body held in front of me.” I honestly wonder if the creators of this show read that essay and thought, “Let’s make a show based on this!” But maybe that makes the show sound depressing… it’s not! I swear!
This show surprised me. Not at the beginning, but at a very specific moment late in season 1. Up until then, the main character (played by Jason Sudeikis) has been portrayed as an almost pathologically genial and hapless sports coach who has inexplicably taken on a job as a soccer coach in the UK, despite being American and knowing nothing about soccer. His approach to all life challenges seems to be wearing down others with self-deprecating humor and relentless niceness – including a daily delivery of home-baked cookies for his evil boss (who has set him up to fail). From this, I took it that the show was planning to prove how American optimism and a stick-to-it mentality would win over British meanness and cynicism. I’m not really down for that message… so it was tough to continue on in the early episodes. Honestly, I only did because my trial subscription for Apple TV+ (acquired just so I could watch “Wolfwalkers” to prepare for the Oscars) was supplemented by a free year for getting a new MacBook Air. In any case, I persevered, and I was rewarded in episode 7 by one of those rare moments in a TV show that blows my head off when I was not expecting it at all. I was astonished and I cried. And in retrospect, I see how the show was setting it up from the beginning. Well done, Ted Lasso.
What if the events of Misfits happened in Victorian-era London? Even if I hadn’t known ahead of time that this was a Joss Whedon show, I probably would have been able to guess it, given how many of his go-to elements are present: supernatural powers; lots of fight scenes; subterranean secrets; found families; women being underestimated and treated badly, only to have them prove over and over how they are superior; evil people with Southern accents (yes, it’s a thing with Whedon). Back when these were in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the combo was groundbreaking and revelatory, and BtVS is one of my favorite TV shows to this day. But 20-plus years later (with Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse happening in the interim), it’s starting to seem a bit uninspired. Whedon’s career imploded while this show was in production, and he bowed out several months before the first episode aired. If only that meant that its flaws were addressed… as it is, it is mildly intriguing, but very messy and uneven.
Shadow & Bone
An adaptation of YA fantasy novels by Leigh Bardugo, produced by Netflix. I slurped it down over the course of two days, which means… I liked it? I guess? But I ended up thinking of it as slightly better than junk food as storytelling goes. Too many elements similar to other works, very samey and problematic romantic developments across characters, and a protagonist who acts in a way that makes no sense given her background. She’s an orphan living in a war-torn country who has experienced quite a bit of suffering, yet she acts like a privileged and oddly passive American teen obsessed with boys for much of the season. I did like some of the other characters (Jesper and Inej, especially), and some of the grisha abilities were intriguing. I really wanted to know more about the heartrenders, for example. But those flashes of originality were not as frequent as I would have liked.