The end of the year and the decade means that it is list time, and I have enjoyed reading many published lists put forth out there naming names.
But my list of ten will be different. Rarely do I fly in the strict V formation of the TV critics’ feathered flock, and I am okay with that. What that means is the much-ballyhooed Watchmen on HBO did not make my year-end list.
Despite the earnestly penned thesis papers and enthusiastic reception of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s racially charged interpretation of author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbon’s epochal DC comic, it was not one that grabbed me, despite what I could see were great turns in acting and the crafts and production qualities.
The ebb and flow of overt/hidden racism is the engine in this Watchmen, akin to an ocean’s red tide with its microorganisms laying quietly in wait for the optimal conditions to spring up and engulf the shore with its foul odors (much like the stinking squid falling like rain), poisoning everything in its path. We’re in the red tide season worldwide, as ugly sentiments and worrisome politics feed this noxious bacteria. Watchmen hit too close to home in the ether for me.
This doesn’t mean I am discounting its importance as a TV series calling attention to this, but my year-ender is a summary of TV that I actually looked forward to watching. That HBO effort, as critically lauded as it was, induced anxiety.
His Dark Materials, another fantastical HBO show highly touted, I just could not stay focused upon. I prefer Ruth Wilson in a steely eye-lock with Idris Elba (Luther) or an illicit embrace with Dominic West (The Affair).
HBO’s Game of Thrones was my absolute fantasy limit, where I drew the line. The dragons got a pass thanks to the series’ intense revenge-filled adult drama that unfolded.
There were an abundance of shows that told important stories, some harder to watch than others in their gravitas, that pulled me in and refused to shake me, more the viewer and less a critic.
For 2019 and in no particular order, I recommend you catch up on the following (if you have not watched):
Barry – HBO
This second season was everything and a hundred times more from the first.
We saw incredible performances from Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, and Sarah Goldberg as we mourn the loss of Paula Newsome’s character, Detective Janice Moss.
A standout episode is the otherworldly “Ronny/Lily” episode 5, where the grief-stricken tae-kwon-do schooled daughter of an intended hit that went south has a full-on Kill Bill Beatrix Kiddo revenge moment.
During this sophomore run, Winkler guts us as his character Gene Cousineau is processing his grief, devastated about the whereabouts of his beloved Janice.
The eleventh hour save Barry affords his mentor by planting the Chechen token on her discovered body, taking the police heat off of Gene, thanks to the treachery of Fuches (Root) who turns on him (and exposes the truth to Gene at the finale) sets up the next season.
Truths about Hollywood, auditions and rejections and the schadenfreude that fellow actors experience are an interesting backdrop for Barry, who guilelessly lives as an acting student and then must pay his bills as the hitman for hire. He carves a complex path beset by obstacles at every turn in his life.
Hader makes it all look effortless and his character’s transformations this season are something to watch.
This is as complex and unpredictable as they get in the realm of comedy with many tragic overlays about reinvention and redemption that will stay with you. Hader and Winkler deserve an award for this season’s work.
When They See Us – Netflix
Writer and director Ava Duvernay brings us back to the scene of a crime committed against many. When They See Us is the story of The Central Park Five, the five teenagers arrested in 1989 for the rape and attempted murder of a 28-year-old female jogger. The story about how their lives were upended is an enraging watch, all fueled by a city that was baying for justice at any cost.
Duvernay pulled off an incredible feat of storytelling, bearing witness to truth, injustice and the flawed political climate and misdirected will of a city. When They See Us featured knockout performances from Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, Jharrel Jerome and Ethan Herisse.
The supporting cast featured Dascha Polanco, Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, and John Leguizamo as parents with Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, and Christopher Jackson as defense attorneys with Vera Farmiga as a district attorney. This is an important one to watch and kudos to all who took on this project.
Ramy – HULU
What does it mean to be a first-generation Muslim in America? Laconic and wry, comedian Ramy Youssef plays Ramy Hassan, a millennial Jersey Boy who plays it a bit loose on the religious front but feels a strong desire to also stay true to his cultural roots.
His best buddy since grade school is American kid Stevie (Stephen Way), severely disabled and as big a smartass as they come. Not since Legit (Jim Jefferies’ excellent FX series) has a TV series featured a disabled actor who steals scenes with such flourish.
Stevie and Hassan are an unlikely pair brought together as kids by Hassan’s odd-man-out status post 9/11. His Muslim friends Mo (Mohammed Amer) and Ahmed (Dave Merheje) give him hilarious dating and life advice while Hassan lives with his conservative parents and his sister, Dena (May Calamawy) in New Jersey.
The series is touching, genuinely funny and shows a lesser-known world to average non-Muslim viewers. Youssef is a subtle but powerful new voice in storytelling.
Unbelievable – Netflix
This unbelievable retelling of an actual rape (one of many in a string of connected assaults) and subsequent botching of the initial investigation will enrage and grip the viewer. The Netflix limited series is based on ProPublica’s 2015 investigative report titled An Unbelievable Story of Rape, written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong.
Award level performances are given by both Toni Collette cast as Colorado police detective Grace Rasmussen, and her crime-fighting foil, Merritt Wever cast as detective Karen Duvall.
In 2008, the story of “Marie” (exceptional work by Kaitlyn Dever) and of her terrifying sexual assault in Lynnwood, Washington is retold. Her initial interview was mishandled and the detectives made her doubt her own memory.
As a result, she recanted her story and then was criminally charged for making a false report, publicly shaming her and forcing her out of her housing.
As Duvernay’s When They See Us shows the blatant flaws in the system for African Americans, this too will ignite your anger and show how easily it is for the criminal act of rape to be mishandled by the police, allowing for crucial evidence to fall through the cracks and for other unwitting women to face unnecessary peril.
Vikings – HISTORY
Showrunner Michael Hirst’s epic drama is based on historical events that emanated from Norway as he traced the Viking invasions into England and France. It is wrapping up and is rarely found on any TV Critic lists, but it should be.
Katheryn Winnick is cast as Lagertha, the shield maiden of note who was Ragnar Lothbrook’s (Travis Fimmel) wife. She is now in her golden years but will not fade into oblivion. Her remaining step-sons Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), Hvitserk (Marco Islø) and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) and her biological son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) eat up a great deal of the action but she steals the show.
The world Hirst filmed on location in Ireland was created with an intense cinematic flourish thanks to his professional below the line crew creating this Viking world with astounding authenticity.
These forward-thinking ancient folks were more advanced and daring in their sea travels and warfare than many of their time, and the personal stories that are embellished by Hirst have made this series one to never miss.
Vikings will be missed after Season 6 wraps.
Succession – HBO
I had a much tougher time with Succession’s Season 1, but Season 2, like Barry, was off-the-charts great.
The Roy family is damaged goods and watching this ensemble act out Shakespearean levels of treachery in this modern setting is a true guilty pleasure.
The antics of perpetually sad-faced Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), his brother, the kinky-yet-repressed loquacious Roman (Kieran Culkin), salty and sly sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), her regrettable choice of a husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), and her straight outta Scotland mega mogul father, Logan (Brian Cox) was a nonstop familial train wreck.
It had everything! Hunting trips and humiliations galore, an oddly placed honorific rap song, NRPI (no real person involved) corporate CYA lingo, strange bedfellows (Gerri and Roman) and Kendall showing daddy he is a killer in the twisted end of the season.
Who knew that the “Ichabod Crane” of the clan, Greg (Nicholas Braun) would turn out to be the Machiavellian genius that he was, replete with “SECRET” folder in hand?
In all, a delightfully wicked adult Dallas-styled soap opera howler which was pulled off with impeccable performances by all.
Mr. Inbetween – FX
Mr. Inbetween needs a bigger audience and more people tuned into the deeply complex dramedy that hails from down under, courtesy of Scott Ryan.
Ryan’s Ray Shoesmith is an antihero for the ages. Ray is trying to be the best father and boyfriend to Brit (Chika Yasumura) and Ally (Brooke Satchwell) respectively, but his day job leaves a mark, and they perceptively pick up on it.
Ryan’s Ray will smile in such a way that scares the living s**t out of you, yet he is morally attuned to doing the right thing by women and children, he’s no indiscriminate killer.
This contract hire from a farm somewhere in the outback has a coterie of very funny mates, a cast of notables including Damon Herriman as Freddy, Ray’s main employer. Also cast are Justin Rosniak playing his best mate Gary who works with him on complicated hits and his brother Bruce, played by Nicholas Cassim, who is facing a painful degenerative ending and now lives with Ray, his new caretaker.
There is a good bit of ultraviolence in this series, but rest assured it goes down for the really bad people who had it coming. How Ray justifies this extreme existence and sleeps at night is the gist and the heart of the series.
Fleabag – Amazon
I devoured two seasons of Fleabag in one day, it’s that good. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was already on my radar for delivering us Killing Eve (BBC America), a list entry from last year.
Fleabag is many things, it is the inner monologue of women rarely heard. It is introspective, deeply sentimental and moving, riotous and personal in its revealing format. It is a percolating, beautifully edited narrative that takes us along for the daily and nightly life of Fleabag, as we never know her true name.
Season 2 saw guest star Kristin Scott Thomas, who portrays a lesbian power suit, and who Fleabag is briefly smitten with. Killing Eve’s Fiona Shaw is cast as a withering therapist in no miss moments. Sian Clifford was the perfect sister, Claire, married to the slimiest of men, American Martin (Brett Gelman), the worst of the worst.
Fleabag is still processing the guilt over the death of her best friend, business partner and guinea pig lover Boo, keeping her small cafe business afloat, resolving her feelings about her mother’s death and father’s remarriage to her libertine artist Godmother (Olivia Colman).
She does this while losing herself a bit in unrewarding sexual relationships and hilarious acts of passive-aggression against her step-mother until she crosses paths with the hot priest, Andrew Scott, the breakout star of season 2. Waller-Bridge is an entertainment industry savant.
The Righteous Gemstones – HBO
Have you heard? Kanye West and Joel Osteen are touring together, which means we’re in end times.
Seriously, it’s been a long time coming for a comedy to accurately take the mickey out of the profit prophets of ‘Murica and expose the horses**t as only Danny McBride and Walton Goggins can effortlessly accomplish.
Interesting that Goggins played a snake handling church leader in the film Them That Follow, where he was cast as a frightening devotee to the lord.
In The Righteous Gemstones, he turns that spittle and furor on a dime and is so over-the-top in his “hollah hollah dollah” Uncle Baby Billy role, it oddly rings with validity. We’ve seen this bouffant-coiffed cat on late-night TV selling his Jesus wares with his preternaturally white veneers.
McBride has an ear for authentic dialogue and the cast delivers the goods. Especially John Goodman, cast as the patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone, who plays less for laughs and is the thoughtful anchor to keep this comedy from running away with itself.
It takes a few episodes to settle in but once the engine is revved on this one, you can’t quit it.
The Terror: Infamy – AMC
The sophomore season of AMC’s anthology series, The Terror: Infamy brought a chill to August as the premiere season did the year prior.
America had their own version of concentration camps during the WWII years. This shameful era of Japanese-American internment camps are often times incorrectly referred to as “Japanese internment camps” according to series star and show consultant George Takei.
Portraying the character Yamato-San, Mr. Takei spoke with Monsters and Critics at length ahead of this chilling atmospheric series that combined true events with supernatural Japanese lore.
Mr. Takei was a five-year-old child when his family was taken away, first to a filthy Santa Anita race track where his family were put in horse stalls during a waiting period prior to their permanent placement in a cold Arkansas camp, far away from their home in California.
As a historical drama, The Terror: Infamy did a good job of depicting this shameful chapter in American history with unflinching veracity. The Asian American co-creator and writer, Alexander Woo, steered this tale of unimaginable trauma endured by these American citizens imprisoned by their own country.
The build of the shocking supernatural events that unfold to the all-American kid, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) were perfectly rendered by a mysterious and beautiful Japanese woman, a yūrei with a fluid demonic nature (Geisha, nurse, Chester’s birth mother Yuko) over time in heart-stopping moments.