Friday, September 10, 2021

Capsule Reviews in the Time of Coronavirus — or How I Survived the Pandemic (9)

Like many people, I’ve binge-watched both new and old series television shows throughout the period of stay-at-home lockdown. Although it’s not clear whether the pandemic is close to over yet, here are a few personal favorites that sustained and hooked me over the past year-and-a-half:

Sex Education

I remember seeing this dramedy dropping on Netflix in 2019—though I watched a few minutes of it early on, I quickly checked out, feeling it wasn't for me. Earlier this year, however, when I saw a popup promoting the second season, I gave it another shot and ended up getting totally hooked and bingeing it!

According to online coverage, it is a modern-day homage to classic John Hughes films—but a lot more edgier and diverse. So much so that, though the series is set in England, students at the fictional Moordale Secondary School have lockers and letterman jackets, though that’s not the norm there—it is an American conceit the showrunners used to appeal to a larger (and U.S.) audience.

The initial premise involves a main character, Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), teaming up with a fellow (semi-outcast) student named Maeve, to dispense sex advice at their high school. Otis feels that he has some expertise because his own mother, Jean (played by Gillian Anderson), is herself a sex therapist. Though the show’s main characters are Jean, Otis and Maeve—with Otis and Maeve’s hot-and-cold relationship serving as the heart of the series—it’s actually an ensemble piece, with various storylines tracking the arc of diverse characters dealing with a wide range of teenaged (and adult) issues and uncertainty related to sex, love, relationships and life. This context also provides the opportunity to explore a wide range of sexuality in the series, often very explicitly, with heart and a bit of raunchiness.

Resident Alien (Sci-Fy)
A loose adaptation of a comic-book series of the same name, this is another show that I made a note to watch but didn’t until after the whole series had already aired on SyFy. I ended up bingeing it on our cloud DVR with my wife, who also was won over by the series.

A comedy-drama that is somewhat of a cross between a dark E.T. and the television show Northern Exposure, Alan Tudyk plays an extraterrestrial sent on a mission to destroy Earth who then tries to assimilate (after assuming human form) when he inadvertently crash lands and gets stranded in the remote (fictional) town of Patience, Colorado. Learning English (and police work) through the tv show Law and Order, he becomes the town doctor and gets embroiled and gradually deeply invested in both the lives of the townspeople who soon become friends as well as a murder mystery involving the previous town doctor that provides much of the arc of the first season. (One of the funny running gags is the fact that some earthlings—in this case, a young boy—possess a rare mutation that allow them to see him in his true lizard-like alien form. But nobody believes the boy.)

As the show progresses, predictably, the alien slowly comes to embrace and understand the quirks and humanity of the people he has been sent to exterminate. As the show draws you in and invests you in the arc of the main character and the lives of the people he encounters, the sci-fi aspects of the show kick into high gear as more people learn his secret and rather ruthless government “Men in Black”-like agents show up and close in on him, turning the show into a low-fi action series.

The first season of Resident Alien ends on an uplifting note, with the possibility of continuing. Indeed, the series was quickly renewed for a new season.

Mythic Quest (Apple+)
Even after watching a few episodes of this single camera sitcom series, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was all in—co-created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creator and star Rob McElhenney, the show features some of the same kind of “unlikable” and politically incorrect characters as his other show. However, as I watched more episodes, my appreciation for the series deepened.

A workplace comedy set at a video game company that produces an online role-playing game called Mythic Quest, McElhenney plays the company’s creative director. Both a talented visionary and a narcissist, he is surrounded by a rich cast of characters played by talented comic actors that include his co-creative director Poppi (played by terrific Australian-Filipino actress Charlotte Nicdao); washed up fantasy writer C.W. Longbottom (a hilarious F. Murray Abraham); the wishy-washy put-upon game producer David; the ruthless head of monetization Brad (Danny Pudi) and his even more sociopathic executive assistant, Jo; and Rachel and Dana, two game testers who fall for each other in a sweet romance.

As I said, it took a few episodes to get into the series—like  McElhenney's other show, episodes often involve terrible people doing terrible things to each other. But then the stories and characters redeem themselves with moments of genuine heart and self-awareness that, at times, really hit it out of the park. Deepening the series were several one-off episodes that did not even feature the main characters: one is a flashback to the 1990s featuring Jake Johnson, about the journey of a couple developing a video game and the sacrifices and compromises they make (and the impact on their marriage) to make the game a success (the episode does at one point subtly tie in to the series); the other is a flashback episode featuring the “origin” of F. Murray Abraham’s hack fantasy author character Longbottom (played by a younger actor) that is set in the 1950s—which pays off in the next episode when the modern-day Longbottom faces off against his colleague and rival from those early days, played by William Hurt! It’s episodes like these that show you the the show occasionally tries to aim higher.  (Another terrific one-off “bonus episode," referencing the pandemic and lockdown, was produced remotely and through Zoom, using it as a platform for how the gaming company itself was operating during the pandemic.)

I found this show extremely bingeable and give it kudos for its diverse casting and storylines. Thouh the cast is outstanding, Charlotte Nicdao, ostensibly the co-lead as Poppi, is a standout.

Ted Lasso (Apple+)
Like a lot of people, I discovered “Ted Lasso” late in the game, well into the pandemic in spring 2021, following its premiere in the late summer of 2020. (A nice perk of upgrading our iPhones was a complimentary Apple+ subscription.)

It’s everything as advertised—about an American football coach hired to coach an English football (soccer) team called AFC Richmond. Co-created by comedian and former SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, the actor plays the titular lead who, despite his inexperience and lack of familiarity with soccer, gradually wins over the team owner, staff, players and fans by his relentlessly positive attitude and ability to help people be the best version of themselves. The show embraces and takes advantage of its English setting, exposing audiences to the unique devotion and obsession of English football fans to their teams. The show is a terrific amalgam of American and British comedy and acting styles.

Much has been written about the goodness and positive vibes of the series, especially during a time of great division that has, of course, been exacerbated by the pandemic. Far from being syrupy or treacly, however, the show wins you over and the audience's emotional investment through solid heartfelt writing and an understanding of it characters.

Schmigadoon! (Apple+)

Though ostensibly a parody of classic American musicals, down to many of their conventions and clichés, Schmagadoon! turned out to be as much of an homage that also stands as its own as a musical, in strong numbers that both convey character and push the story along, as well as addressing social issues as many past musicals did. 

The cast is led by Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong as an engaged couple whose relationship seems to have gone off the rails and who become trapped in a magical town called Schmigadoon where everyone seems to be in a musical from the 1940s, ready to break out in song. They will only be allowed to leave when they find true love.

They are helped by a strong ensemble of Broadway veterans, including Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski and Alan Cumming (who, of course, have also done film and TV). Another standout was Ariana DeBose, next to be seen in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Westside Story. 

This is a show that took me by surprise and improved every episode. 

The Deuce (HBOMax)
Running 2017-19 for three seasons, The Deuce is a drama set in 1970s and ‘80s New York City about  Times Square which, during this era, was notorious for its seediness, particularly as a center of  prostitution, drugs and crime. While Times Square has since then been cleaned up and re-invented as a family-friendly tourist destination, the series covers the period when sex work began to evolve and impact the area and its denizens, particularly with the rise and legalization of the pornography industry; at the same time, we are offered brief glimmers into the city's beginning efforts to reclaim and re-gentrify the historic area. (Rudy Giuliani played a prominent role in the transformation of Times Square and is name-checked in the series.) 

Although the cast is led by Maggie Gyllenhaal (who also produces) as a prostitute who transitions to directing porn and James Franco playing a set of twins who operate on the fringes of organized crime and also get involved in the sex work industry, the series is an outstanding ensemble showcase, featuring a wide range of characters and their various arcs as the years progress, ranging from prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, mobsters, cops both good and on the take, encompassing government and police corruption, the violence of the drug epidemic and the real-estate booms and busts that came with the change.

The show is compelling and extremely bingeable—while I can sometimes take or leave Franco, he does a terrific job delineating two very different twins to the point that you forget it is the same actor. It is a true ensemble piece that very much captures the era, as you follow the transformation not just of New York City and Times Square, but also the diverse cast of characters who for the most part exist on the fringes of society.

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Aside from being a show that works on so many levels—comedy, murder mystery, podcast satire—it is the incredible chemistry and performances of the show’s three leads Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez that make this show work as well as it does.

As much a love letter to New York City, as well as to the loneliness that sometimes comes with life in the big city, the three characters are residents of an upscale co-op who bond over their shared love of true crime podcasts and embark on a podcast of their own when someone in their building turns up dead. As the show expectedly exposes the layers of mystery surrounding the murder, it also slowly reveals the characters and private secrets of the main players.

In some sense, the show shouldn’t be a surprise—much of Martin’s work always has had a streak of intelligence and intellectualism behind it, and his chemistry with Short is well known. But as some reviewers have noted, Gomez is a delightful revelation. I was somewhat aware of the actress’s early work since I have children who were at the right age to see her Disney work, but I was recently wowed by her on-screen presence and sardonic and deadpan comic chops in the Woody Allen film, A Rainy Day in New York. Having been charmed by her work there, I looked forward to seeing her in this role and can say she delivers—indeed, her character in many ways anchors and carries much of the emotional weight of the show.

The show is still dropping episodes weekly as I write this, but it already seems to be a winner.

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