Be excited: Sex Education
Netflix (Dropped Jan. 11)
At the beginning of Sex Education, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is a high school wallflower by choice. He likes to observe and stand off to the side. He is also too mortified to masturbate, and hates getting erections.
Otis's shyness is partly his nature, and partly a willful reaction to the people closest to him, who can be brash. His forthright mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a therapist who specializes in sex, and is unembarrassed while talking about it. She also frequently — and casually — takes different men to bed. At school, Otis's gay best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), wants to be as social as possible as they begin another year at their large high school in the British countryside. (Sex Education was filmed in Wales, but according to Netflix, the fictional town of Moordale is supposed to be South West England.)
Through some contrivances in Sex Education's first episode, and though he has no sexual experience of his own, Otis ends up giving helpful advice to Adam (Connor Swindells), the dim, bullying son of the headmaster, who has...well, he takes a lot of Viagra on school grounds. Otis talks Adam through this lamentable situation within earshot of Maeve (Emma Mackey), the smartest girl in school. Maeve, a schemer in need of cash (she lives in a trailer park), decides there's a market for Otis's skills among the sexually inept students at Moordale Secondary. They go into business together, and become friends.
It's taken me far too long to say that Sex Education — created by Laurie Nunn — is wonderful. It's raunchy at times, but never exploitatively so, and it handles sex and sexuality with complexity, humor, and intelligence. It is also effortlessly feminist and inclusive.
Eric — who is black, flamboyantly gay, and has grown up in a quiet, religious family that worries about him — is a revolutionary character. He is a loyal friend to Otis, expecting the same in return, and when Otis lets him down, the results are anxiety-provoking, then heartbreaking, then— Well, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say, Eric is one of the most well-drawn teen characters I've ever seen — like ever — and Gatwa is gifted. Mackey's Maeve is also a character I haven't seen before. She's brilliant and cool, but also vulnerably aware of how precarious her life is without any parents around, and without any money. The supporting characters are all distinct, like Maeve's popular (but secretly anxious) boyfriend, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling); the hapless Adam; Otis's disparate clients; and the popular kids — I loved them all.
And at the center of the story are Otis and Jean, who have things to work out. Anderson and Butterfield are utterly believable as mother and son, and have an easy chemistry that can quickly turn to vexed and humiliated when the scene calls for it (as it does often).
Sex Education is eight episodes long, which is usually enough, but I wanted it to be 22. Or a hundred. Or a million. It made me laugh a lot; I also cried several times. And I really must insist you watch it.
CBS, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 10)
Nina Dobrev, always a laugh riot on The Vampire Diaries, is Clem, and Tone Bell is Nick, Clem's fiancé. They have just gotten engaged when Shannon (Odessa Adlon — yes, she's Pamela Adlon's daughter), Clem's half sister, shows up at their house, having run away from their father's house. The trouble is, Clem has told Nick that both of her parents are dead, because she hates her dad so much. She worries the revelation will alienate her from Nick's parents, Rose (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Walt (Brian Stokes Mitchell). She's also afraid about her sister, who seems to have no redeeming qualities, moving in with them. But she need not worry, because there is no tension in Fam.
Nor are there any funny jokes. In the year of our lord, 2019, there is something almost mind-blowing about watching an old-fashioned bad sitcom like Fam. Its rhythms — joke, pause, audience laughter — are ingrained in our DNA at this point. But with the multiplicity of comedic options out there — and I'm not even talking about Hannah Gadsby's genre-bending Nanette right now, I'm referring even to a great network comedy like NBC's The Good Place — the hacky jokes on a comedy like Fam aren't merely unfunny, they feel downright Twilight Zone–y. Run screaming.
Be excited: Good Trouble
Freeform, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 8)
I watched a few episodes of The Fosters during its five-season run, but if you had asked me who Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Callie (Maia Mitchell) were, I would not have been able to identify them from among its large cast. Yet now, after watching the first five episodes of Good Trouble, the spinoff of The Fosters, I am deeply attached to their futures.
Good Trouble takes place after Mariana and Callie have completed their degrees and are launching into their adult lives — with Callie as a law clerk for a conservative judge, and Mariana working at a successful tech company. We see their workplaces, both of which have small, but potentially perilous, hazards. Mariana, a gifted coder, is undermined by her male colleagues, and Callie is flanked by two other clerks who seem to want to stab her in the back. Their dilemmas — how honest should they be with their bosses? — feel real.
They live in a communal apartment — a commune, actually — in downtown Los Angeles called the Coterie. In a converted space above an old theater, Coterie members share a bathroom and kitchen, but each gets their own studio apartments (Mariana and Callie share a large room). It's supposed to look like a scary shithole at first, but it becomes clear soon enough that it's a fantasy living situation — there's even a pool! It's there that Callie meets Gael (Tommy Martinez), a hot bisexual guy she can't resist. She also meets Malika (Zuri Adele), an activist with an interest in one of Callie's court cases, which is going to get her in trouble at work. All of these characters were introduced so confidently, and the story moved along so assuredly, that Good Trouble is one of those spinoffs that has immediately found itself (like Better Call Saul after the end of Breaking Bad). It's not an easy thing to do, I don't think!
I'm sure I'm missing some callbacks to The Fosters, and a few characters from that show have popped up already. But that's what Wikipedia is for: I was fine. As my colleague Alanna Bennett wrote, Good Trouble asks the question, "What if Girls were about people who were good inside, and had a mostly nonwhite cast?" The answer is, me setting a season pass for it on my DVR.
Give it a chance: Lindsay Lohan's Beach Club
MTV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 8)
I'm a longtime fan of Lindsay Lohan's acting — I even thought she was good in the disastrous Paul Schrader movie The Canyons — and I've also been interested in (and often worried about) her as a person. For many years, she wrecked her career and her life. She has made various attempts to right herself, including the fascinating 2014 docuseries Lindsay on OWN, which followed her efforts to fix her life, to paraphrase what they say on OWN. Lindsay was not only a riveting character study of a troubled person, but an inside look at the nuts and bolts of the celebreality genre. It was also a ratings flop; people just weren't interested in it.
Now, Lohan has a new show — Lindsay Lohan's Beach Club — that she's fully on board with, portraying her new life as an American expat and a businessperson abroad. Lohan, 32, has opened this beach club in Mykonos, she says in the show's premiere, because it's the same beach where her former fiancé, Egor Tarabasov, was filmed by paparazzi assaulting her. (Google it if you want, I'm not going to link.) She's reclaiming her life, it seems.
And if Lohan were in this show more, it would be more interesting. Instead, the show's actual stars are the young, telegenic "ambassadors" whom she (the show) has hired (cast) to work for the beach club for the summer. They're bartenders and club staffers from different parts of the United States, and they live together, work together, and drink together. Through two episodes, only one of them — Brent — stands out: because he's an asshole. In the second episode, Brent gets so drunk that he rages against Sara, the woman in the house he's been flirting with, saying cruel things about her. Later, we see him with puke on his face.
Unfortunately, that's how this show is most of the time; it's not actually about Lohan's life. She's tried to fashion a Lisa Vanderpump–inspired persona, alternately scolding, inspiring, and Mama Bear–ing these idiots. But, as opposed to Lisa — who is consistent in her self-interested management style of her own idiots' lives and careers on Vanderpump Rules — Lohan is unpredictable (though her accent seems to have stabilized). To her right-hand man, Panos, who is the show's scene-stealer, she compares herself to Putin. Which actually would make for great reality TV, but instead just reminds you of Lohan's increasingly weird politics, such as her relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, her recent defense of Harvey Weinstein, and her seeming attempt to kidnap two refugee children in Moscow a few months ago. The drama's heavy lifting mostly falls to Panos — a club kid with eyebrows that could cut a bitch — but so far, no one has been fired. Oh well! Maybe next week. I'm in for the duration on this one. Your mileage may vary.
Avoid: Project Blue Book
History, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 8)
In the era of Peak TV, the projects that are the most puzzling to me are shows like Project Blue Book — a derivative series executed with mediocrity. Aidan Gillen, fresh off the best role of his career as Game of Thrones' Littlefinger, plays Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an Ohio State professor conscripted by the Air Force into Project Blue Book. It's a 1950s government operation designed to investigate — and disprove — UFO sightings. He's partnered with a by-the-book Air Force pilot, Capt. Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey). Just imagine if both people on The X-Files were Scully — but if Scully were a boring man in ’50s America. There's a larger conspiracy going on over their heads, but honestly, just trust me that you don't want to know.
Give it a chance: Schooled
Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 9)
To be honest, I found the first episode of Schooled, the spinoffs of The Goldbergs, to be terrible. I did not laugh once during this 1990s-set comedy, in which The Goldbergs' Lainey Lewis (AJ Michalka), returns to William Penn Academy to teach music. It was painful, even — with Coach Mellor (Bryan Callen) and Mr. Glascott (Tim Meadows) also flopping alongside Lainey.
But The Goldbergs itself was a slow burn for me, and when I see it now, I laugh. And the Schooled premiere held on entirely to the ratings of The Goldbergs, which ABC has scheduled before it, so I think this will be on for awhile.
Avoid: Valley of the Boom
National Geographic, Sundays at 9 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 13)
This six-part limited series follows the inception of three different internet companies: Netscape and two I'd never heard of, TheGlobe.com (an early attempt at social networking) and Pixelon (which aspired to stream video). It's mostly a scripted series, created by Matthew Carnahan, but it also uses documentary elements, with talking heads like Netscape's cofounder Jim Clark (who is fictionally portrayed by John Murphy) and observers like Mark Cuban and Arianna Huffington (an executive producer of the show).
This gonzo format fails entirely, especially when Valley of the Boom tries to break narrative rules further, such as when John Karna, the actor who portrays Netscape's Marc Andreessen, appears in the talking head portion, or when fictional characters break the fourth wall and act like they're in a documentary. Bill Gates appears as a puppet at one point.
I will admit that I bailed after two episodes, even though NatGeo put up all six, so I missed the part of Valley of the Boom that Ben Travers' IndieWire review used to illustrate its excesses. Halfway through the series, according to Travers, three characters are assassinated to show how the dot-com explosion was coming. It's a metaphor; it didn't happen — and I'm thrilled not to have seen it. I could go on about what a mess Valley of the Boom is, and if I did, I would write that Steve Zahn's con man character Michael Fenne, who founded Pixelon, should have been axed at the script conception stage. Even in an over-the-top series that throws out all the rules, Zahn's clownish, fat-suited performance doesn't work. Nor does the narrative device of Lamorne Morris playing a composite character of the bankers who descended on Silicon Valley after Netscape's hugely successful IPO. Oops! I wrote about those things after all.
Give it a chance: The Passage
Fox, Mondays at 9 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 14)
The Passage is based on Justin Cronin's dystopian horror trilogy, which started out strong with the first novel, and then utterly fell apart with the second two books, becoming a rat's nest of different timelines and characters and ugh. Three episodes in, this adaptation is pretty straightforward: It's about how the "virals" (vampires, essentially) are going to end life on Earth as we know it, and the fight against them. The resistance is led by federal agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Amy (Saniyya Sidney), a little girl who was meant to be a test subject, but Brad gets a conscience, goes rogue, and kidnaps her.
The virals are situated — and are gaining power — at a bucolic estate, where the ill-conceived experimental facility Project Noah is headquartered. It's there that doctors are trying to come up with an antidote for whatever is going on with patient zero, Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane), who has become a monster after a medical expedition where he contracted hemorrhagic fever. These scenes are creepy and effective, particularly as he gains the power to get into people's dreams.
In a note sent out to journalists with the screeners for the show, The Passage creator Liz Heldens says she came to the adaptation as a fan of the books — to me, this read as a warning sign. But I can tell she's already doing better streamlining the story than Cronin did, and I have hope that this show can be a Walking Dead–esque (early years, please!) horror drama for broadcast television.
Avoid: Temptation Island
USA, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 15)
On Temptation Island, couples that have reached some sort of impasse — about taking another step in their relationship, about their compatibility, or in the case of one couple, because they fight every second of the day — go to a resort where they are surrounded by single people. They are free to date those people, in theory, but it's also a test of their love.
As someone who watched every minute of the original Temptation Island when Fox originally aired it in 2001 — including the second and third seasons, which pretty much no one watched — believe me when I say this: There is no need for this show to exist in 2019. There's currently a mini trend of reviving early reality trash: Fox recently announced it's bringing back 2003's Paradise Hotel. I assume the massive international success of Love Island is to blame for these reboots. But what if we all just agreed to watch the American version of Love Island when it airs on CBS, presumably in the summer? Or even more immediately, watch Love Island on Hulu now!
Reality television is better every day in every way than it did in the early 2000s. And it can also get grosser and worse if that's your thing! If you want a relationship show with catty fighting, and maybe some romance too, just watch The Bachelor, Bachelorette, or Bachelor in Paradise (that last one especially ripped off Temptation Island). If you want doomed couples while you also feel morally compromised, watch TLC's 90 Day Fiancé.
Did I devour the first three episodes of Temptation Island after USA put them up on its press site? I did. Did I hate myself every second? I did! Learn from my mistake.
Give it a chance: Roswell, New Mexico
The CW, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 15)
My memories of Roswell are pretty hazy, and I didn't watch it after it moved from the WB to UPN, so I read the original show's Wikipedia page. And now I have to ask Roswell diehards, did this really happen in Season 3? Because wow: "Knowing the alien is a shapeshifter and in the film industry, Max tries out acting and auditions for a role in Star Trek: Enterprise." Desperate times called for desperate synergistic measures, I guess! (No surprise that it got canceled after that season.)
Roswell, New Mexico — developed by Carina Adly Mackenzie (The Originals) — derives a lot of its story and characters from its earlier incarnation, but has aged the characters up. They're all 10 years out of high school instead of being in high school, as in the original show (and in the book series it was based on, Roswell High). The lead, Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason), did everything she could to get out of Roswell, but has to move home to save money. And here's where the Trumpian twists begin — her father is undocumented, and the funding for her experimental medical study was cut "because someone needs money for a wall," she says. Max (Nathan Dean Parsons), who yearned for her in high school, is a cop — and a literal alien. So are Isobel (Lily Cowles) and Michael (Michael Vlamis), and yes, all of this is like Roswell — as is the reason Max tells Liz he's an alien in the pilot. (I won't spoil for those who don't know.)
One main change (at least through the first three episodes the CW provided): Liz's troubled older sister, Rosa (played in flashbacks by Amber Midthunder), died 10 years earlier, and everyone thinks she caused the deaths of two other young women — further fueling hatred toward the Ortecho family. But of course, things aren't what they seem with Rosa's death, and Liz is determined to find out what really happened.
I await more depth in the plotting about undocumented characters, about the hatred and divisiveness in the town, and about the queer characters' stories. But those things will come, I hope. I already cried a bit during one romantic scene between two men. Supergirl is doing a lot of work in the alien-as-metaphor area, and has been both praised and criticized for it. But it's a big topic, and these days there's always something new to rip from the headlines. Updating this story for the Trump age is a good idea.
Also, when she was 18, Mason won So You Think You Can Dance during its fifth season, possibly the show's apex, and I have rooted for her ever since. There's something about watching a charming reality contestant go on to a successful career — Mason was recently on Grey's Anatomy too — that makes me feel like I had an active role in their success. Go, Jeanine!
Avoid: Deadly Class
Syfy, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. (In progress, premiered Jan. 16)
I come to this show with no knowledge of Rick Remender and Wes Craig's Deadly Class comic, which seems to be well-liked. What I can tell you is this adaptation is nihilism at its worst.
In San Francisco in 1987, Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth) is a homeless kid on the run from the police because everyone thinks he burned down his group home. He's conscripted into a prep school for assassins called Kings Dominion, where second-generation criminals are brought to "master the deadly arts," he's told. Master Lin (Benedict Wong from Doctor Strange) is in charge of Kings Dominion, the textbooks are things like Faces of Death and The Anarchist Cookbook, and the school is divided into vicious cliques.
There was one part of the pilot I almost enjoyed — when one of Marcus's potential friends explains the social map of the cafeteria: the Preps, the Dixie Mob (Nazis), the Hessians (stoners), Final World Order (the black students), and Kuroki Syndicate (Japanese kids). But then they anachronistically call the neo-Nazis "white nationalists," and it was ruined for me. (Lana Condor, the terrific lead in To All the Boys I've Loved Before, is in the Kuroki Syndicate, and boy, does she deserve better than this show.)
There's plotting with a heavy hand, and there's plotting with a sledgehammer: Guess what Deadly Class does. Marcus hates Ronald Reagan because Reagan cut funding in programs for people with mental illnesses, and his mother was killed by a woman with a mental illness who landed on her after jumping off of Coit Tower. One of Marcus's teachers, played by Henry Rollins no less, agrees with him about wanting to kill Reagan. If this subplot comes to any sort of fruition, I won't be around to find out.
The notes I kept while watching the first four episodes (what Syfy provided) are filled with outbursts like "This show is so unpleasant!" and "These are awful human beings!" and "The villain is someone who fucks goats? Really?" and "Any moment of sweetness seems insane."
Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of several very good Marvel movies, are executive producers, and there are three credited showrunners — comic co-creator Remender, Miles Orion Feldsott, and Mick Betancourt. (Hi, men!) Yet no one was able to stop some very, very bad acting in Deadly Class. No names; what I have to say is too mean — you can easily guess if you are unlucky enough to watch this show.
There might be people who find Deadly Class edgy or incisive or smart of even entertaining. I would like those people to reveal themselves to me so I can block them on social media.
Give it a chance: A Discovery of Witches
Sundance Now and Shudder (Drops Jan. 17)
In A Discovery of Witches, Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is an ambitious Yale history professor, and a witch in denial (she does not know about her witchy powers). For her academic work, she calls up a much sought-after magical manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford that no one has ever been able to retrieve: the Book of Life. The book itself is powerful, and freaks her out so much that she quickly puts it back in the discard pile. But because of some enchanted Dewey Decimal System, every supernatural creature has been psychically alerted to its removal, and now they're all after Diana.
Some of the creatures are handsome, charming, and rich (vampire Matthew Clairmont, played by Matthew Goode) and some of them are evil and killed her parents (witch Peter Knox, played by Owen Teale).
I read Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy, the source material for this series, but frankly — these books are not good! After the first half of the first one, I was reading just to find out what happens — and they're slow as hell. (Between this and The Passage, you may be questioning my reading taste, and tbh, you may be right — I get easily obsessed with bad horror book series.) But here I was lured in by the idea of academic witches and vampires in cozy Oxford and wealthy vampiric France (you've been, right?). Those settings do go a long way. It goes even further in an eight-episode season that looks absolutely gorgeous. And Goode is able to play Matthew without the stalker creepiness his character sometimes has in the books.
This show can't escape its source material, though, so it's inherently silly. Matthew takes Diana to one of his homes, and she asks him literally two things, and he says, "You ask a lot of questions, don't you?" in a flirtatious way. I also could have done without Alex Kingston, whom I usually adore, having perhaps the worst American accent I've ever heard. (She plays one of Diana's lesbian aunts — could she not have just been British?)
Matthew and Diana fall in love, and they run afoul of the Congregation, the governing body in charge of magical world, so their love is forbidden, blah blah blah. So if you like shows with vampires in opulent settings (Venice too!) — and I don't think this audience subset is small by any means — you may love A Discovery of Witches. Sky in the UK has already renewed it for two more seasons, so you're not going to be left hanging. And you may just be carried along by its featherbrained entertainments, and watch all eight episodes.
Like, uh, I did.
Be excited: Black Monday
Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. (Starts Jan. 20)
The humor of Black Monday is a delicate balance. The conceit of the show is that it takes place in the year leading up to the stock market crash of Oct. 19, 1987. (I imagine something the characters do will cause it?) Black Monday is absurdist, with Don Cheadle leading an over-the-top ensemble as Maurice "Mo" Monroe, a coke-snorting Wall Street trader who's made a business of being on the outside of white-shoe firms with his own renegade (and shady) company. Mo is driven around 1986 Manhattan in a stretch Lamborghini, simply because it's ridiculous. And Ken Marino plays twins, the "Leighman Brothers," who are defensive about whether they've had sex with each other.
There are also elements of traditional comedy, with Andrew Rannells costarring as the hapless square Blair, a genius trader who gets blacklisted from the top firms after he literally runs into Mo on the stock exchange's trading floor, causing Mo's bag of cocaine to explode everywhere. Blair then has no choice other than to work at Mo's firm, and is a disappointment to Blair's striver girlfriend (Casey Wilson). Regina Hall, playing Mo's right-hand-woman, Dawn, gets to be funny, but also brings in a more realistic element at times. There's also a twist at the end of the first episode that I did not see coming! This tonal mixture — by co-creators David Caspe (of the beloved Happy Endings) and Jordan Cahan — mostly works, and the show gets more sure of itself over the course of the first three episodes.
On top of the show's overall promise, there is a joke in the second episode that Cheadle delivers, and Hall receives, so perfectly that I'm still laughing weeks after I first saw these screeners. You'll have to watch Black Monday to see what it is.
Be excited: The Other Two
Comedy Central, Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. (Starts Jan. 24)
In The Other Two, Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) are the considerably older brother and sister of Chase Dreams (Case Walker), a 13-year-old pop phenomenon in the vein of Justin Bieber. Cary is a struggling actor, and Brooke, well, she talks about having gone to dance school years ago. The Other Two was created by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who used to be the head writers of Saturday Night Live, but let's not hold that against them — this show made me laugh so much!
There's certainly a plot, but mostly Brooke and Cary are along for Chase's wild ride, which involves going to movie premieres, being set up in fake relationships, and being the subject of one of Chase's songs ("My Brother's Gay"). Brooke becomes Chase's assistant, which she is, of course, terrible at. Through the five (of 10) episodes I watched, The Other Two achieved a difficult tone: Cary and Brooke are funny characters, though they're also grounded in reality. Everything and everyone around them is over-the-top wild. It reminded me of Julie Klausner's wonderful Hulu show Difficult People, in which she and Billy Eichner played best friends who were also hilarious assholes. (It ran for three seasons and I miss it every day — shakes fist!)
The Other Two's recurring characters (particularly Molly Shannon as their mother, and Ken Marino as Chase's idiot manager) and guest stars are perfect. You cannot miss Josie Totah, who costarred in Kelly's movie Other People, in the school dance episode. Just…trust me.
Give it a chance: Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
Netflix (Drops Jan. 24)
In 1980, when the prolific serial killer Ted Bundy was on death row, he agreed to talk to the journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. Over six-month period, they interviewed Bundy, producing more than a hundred hours of tapes. Several books have come out of these interviews, and now they're the basis for this Joe Berlinger docuseries. (Interestingly, Berlinger — the visionary true crime documentarian who codirected the Paradise Lost movies that helped free its subjects, the so-called West Memphis Three — also directed the upcoming narrative feature about Bundy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron plays Bundy.)
Berlinger knows how to direct a crime documentary in his sleep, and Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is certainly well-made. Putting the whole story together has value, and each hour of this four-part series moves along well. But the horrors of Bundy are pretty well-known, and I'm not even an obsessive. Also, Michaud and Aynesworth, by their own admissions, weren't really able to get Bundy to confess to anything: They had to appeal to his vanity in order to get him to speculate in the third-person about what such a bloodthirsty person would do, were he not able to stop murdering women. (As his date of execution approached — this series will drop on its 30th anniversary — Bundy did confess in horrifying detail. Not to them, though.)
What Conversations With a Killer ends up being is a primer on Bundy. And yes, the details are fascinating. For instance, it's maddening how long it took law enforcement to catch Bundy, even though Seattle police knew the suspect was named "Ted" and that he drove a Volkswagen Beetle. It's also shocking that Bundy escaped his imprisonment in Colorado not once, but twice — the second time successfully making it to Florida, to go on his final killing spree. And I had never seen Bundy's shenanigans during his Florida trial, during which he insisted on being on his own defense team. So if those things sound interesting to you, or you're a Bundy completist (yikes!), then Conversations With a Killer is for you.
Be excited: Black Earth Rising
Netflix (Drops Jan. 25)
Hugo Blick, who also wrote and directed 2014's The Honourable Woman, is skilled at distilling international politics into topical dramatic thrillers. In The Honourable Woman, his subject was the conflict between Israel and Palestine; in Black Earth Rising, it's how the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi continues to haunt its survivors. (This show aired on BBC Two in the fall to general acclaim.)
Chewing Gum creator and star Michaela Coel plays Kate Ashby, a survivor of the genocide who was adopted by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), a London-based prosecutor in the International Criminal Court. Kate works as an investigator for her mother's friend Michael Ennis (John Goodman), an American barrister in London. For reasons I will not spoil, Kate gets drawn into investigating some powerful Rwandan figures, which leads her to an excavation of her own past. It's something that Kate doesn't necessarily want to be doing — she knows she's fragile — but once she begins, she can't stop.
All the acting is superlative in Black Earth Rising, but Noma Dumezweni (who has played Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and here plays Alice, a Rwandan war hero) and Tyrone Huggins (as a Huti war criminal) are particular standouts. Blick himself appears as Blake Gaines, the world's creepiest lawyer, and boy, is he an attention-grabber. Goodman — at first glance the least likely actor to appear in a BBC drama about Rwandan politics — is quickly revealed to be one of Black Earth Rising's emotional centers. But it was Coel who blew me away the most, especially when I thought of her performance as Tracey from Chewing Gum. She is a raw nerve as Kate, and a lead actor in every way — you can't stop watching her, and wondering what she'll do. Coel herself clearly can do anything, and I can't wait to see where she leads us to next.
Knowing as little as I do about this topic, I tried to google reactions to Black Earth Rising by people who do know about it, and I want to share a few links. Here's an interesting discussion about it on BBC radio (starting at the 27-minute mark), here's an academic take on it by a British scholar, and here's a blog post from a site about international law site by legal scholar who thinks Black Earth Rising is "very intelligent, and often very powerful," but thinks its portrayal of the ICC is ridiculous.
Give it a chance: I Am the Night
TNT, Mondays at 9 p.m. (Starts Jan. 28)
Set in mid-1960s Los Angeles, the six-episode limited series I Am the Night — from executive producer–director Patty Jenkins — looks great. It's atmospheric and moody, and makes excellent use of the city as a character. Chris Pine — yes, it's a Wonder Woman reunion for Jenkins and Pine — stars as Jay Singletary, a damaged veteran of the Korean War, who has lately found debasing work as a reporter-turned-paparazzo. Jay, in disgrace because of a story that went wrong years before, is too deep in the throes of his addictions to want to seek redemption, but the opportunity for it presents itself to him anyway when he meets Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), an imperiled visitor to Los Angeles. Fauna, who grew up as Pat in Nevada, and has always thought she was biracial, recently found out that her grandfather is a rich, powerful LA doctor named George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) who paid her mother (Golden Brooks) to adopt her. (And she may just be white after all.)
Are you confused yet? Because one of the problems of I Am the Night — which is loosely based on the true story of Fauna Hodel, and was written by Jenkins' husband, Sam Sheridan — is that it's too complicated. And that's even before you throw in the 1947 Black Dahlia murder as a plot point, which is always baffling. (The real George Hodel was one of the many suspects in the still unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, but as soon as you say "Black Dahlia," my eyes glaze over.)
Fauna's story isn't as compelling as it needs to be, and there is also an asymmetry to Pine's and Eisley's acting styles, and possibly their abilities — he is layered as this seedy character who wants to do better, whereas she is listless. I Am the Night may not add up to much — TNT sent out five of the six episodes, and I'm only slightly jonesing for the finale — but it's worth watching for Pine, for its aesthetics, and for fans of LA noir.
Be excited: Russian Doll
Netflix (Drops Feb. 1)
It's hard to write about Russian Doll without spoiling crucial parts of it, but here goes: This co-creation of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland is a thrilling twist on the Groundhog Day genre. And though I certainly had other things to watch (gestures broadly at this list), I couldn't stop myself from finishing all eight episodes in a day — it was a glorious fever dream. (Blessedly, the episodes are all less than a half-hour: Shorter show trend, please continue! I love you!)
Lyonne plays Nadia, a video game developer with a death wish: She parties, she goes home with strangers, and she smokes incessantly. There will be viewers who are immediately repelled by and judgmental of Nadia's life choices, and there will be others who don't like Lyonne, who is — as usual — brash, disheveled, and heavily New York–accented. To those people, I say: Please leave. Ha! No, you can stay. (But we might disagree about things, so maybe do…leave.)
Nadia gets stuck in a time loop on the night of her 36th birthday party at a fancy East Village apartment. Every time her loop restarts, she ends up back in the highly designed, almost spooky bathroom of her best friend, Maxine (Greta Lee). As is typical of this genre, Nadia goes through different phases of experimentation within her circumscribed world, as she tries to stop what's happening to her. She wonders whether it's Maxine's building that's doing this to her, but as one character tells another, "buildings aren't haunted — people are."
And that's clearly true of Nadia. She needs to fix her problems, of which there are many, before she can hope to move forward in any sense. I can't write much more without spoiling some wonderful, unexpected twists. But I can say that Russian Doll has an excellent cast, like (to name just a few) Yul Vazquez as Nadia's tough-guy ex-boyfriend; Lee and Rebecca Henderson as Nadia's hedonistic best friends; Elizabeth Ashley as her surrogate mother; and especially Charlie Barnett as Alan, a character I can't describe to you, because it's a massive spoiler!
But I can say that Nadia and Alan are total opposites. She is a slob, he is a neat freak; she is an extrovert, he holds everything — including his pain — inside. There are some tonal similarities between Russian Doll and The Good Place, one of the highest compliments I can pay, and it's partly because Alan and Nadia reminded me of Chidi and Eleanor. Barnett made me cry a few times, and at the end of the season...well, I wept.
One more thing: As much as I loved Russian Doll, it was a bummer to see the name of Dave Becky — who is Poehler's producing partner, and was Louis C.K.'s enforcer/enabler — in the end credits of Russian Doll. (He is an executive producer on all of Poehler's shows, and is also Lyonne's manager.) Part of the evolving #MeToo movement will be negotiating how to feel about implicated men — and Becky did apologize for what he did. Among Becky's high-profile clients, only Pamela Adlon and John Mulaney dropped him. I'd like to hear what Lyonne and Poehler have to say about their decisions to stick with him, which I assume (hope?) was a complicated one. Russian Doll is wildly inventive and visually alive — and it had only women writers and directors, which is terrific. These two things can exist at the same time, but among the lessons of past year is that we need to interrogate how power and cronyism in the entertainment business works.
Sorry to end this rave on a total downer!
Be excited: PEN15
Hulu (Drops Feb. 8)
Co-created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, PEN15 stars Erskine and Konkle as their characters Maya and Anna start seventh grade in the year 2000. Erskine and Konkle are 31 in real life, but look quite young. The show's other school-age cast members are actual teens, which can be both funny and uncomfortable during PEN15's frequently dirty parts. This 10-episode show is proudly filthy — I mean, look at the title — in the spirit of Netflix's naughty Big Mouth. There's an entire episode about Maya's inability to stop masturbating.
I am a middle-aged white woman with two young children, and I'd like to think I'm self-aware enough to know when pop culture content is not designed for me — and PEN15 is so not made for me: It's for millennials and Gen Z viewers. But PEN15 is so objectively funny that I frequently laughed out loud, like when Maya, whose mother has given her a terrible bowl haircut on the first day of school, is called on in class by a teacher saying, "Young sir in the Care Bears sweatshirt." PEN15 can also get a little more serious than its setup might indicate, like in an episode called "Tolerance" when a group of popular girls make racist jokes directed at Maya, who plays along in a panic. (Her cool older brother, Shuji — perfectly played by Dallas Liu — soon shames her out of this reflex.) PEN15 always comes back to the friendship between Maya and Anna — Erskine and Konkle are best friends in real life too — and there's a sweetness to this show that will keep me around, despite the fact that I'm old AF.
Give it a chance: Miracle Workers
TBS, Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. (Starts Feb. 12)
Simon Rich's new comedy, Miracle Workers, is based on his satirical novel from 2012, What in God's Name. Here, Steve Buscemi's burnt-out God hates humanity so much that he decides to destroy Earth (sounds about right). But two low-level angels in Heaven, Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), seek to stop him, and bet God they can perform a miracle if he agrees to spare Earth. (If they lose, God wants Eliza to eat a worm.) The miracle they choose is making two people — Laura (Sasha Compere) and Sam (Jon Bass) — fall in love. God thinks it will be impossible, and is already taunting Eliza with the worm.
I wasn't screaming with laughter in the first two episodes of Miracle Workers, but that's OK: It's witty and sweet. Radcliffe and Viswanathan are good scene partners, as are Compere and Bass — Eliza and Craig watch them from Heaven, and try to manipulate small things in their lives so they run into each other. God's humor is more schticky. He hates Bill Maher, and directs his lackey, Sanjay (Karan Soni), to kill him. (RIP, Bill Maher!)
The seven-episode Miracle Workers is an anthology series, but I'm not sure what that means in this case. (I have asked TBS! And haven't heard back. But will update when I do.)
Be excited: Lorena
Amazon Prime Video (Drops Feb. 15)
Joshua Rofé's four-part documentary Lorena tells the story of Lorena Bobbitt, who in June 1993 cut off the penis of her abusive husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. The Jordan Peele–produced series examines the uproar surrounding the incident itself, the trials of John (for "malicious sexual assault") and Lorena (for "malicious wounding"), and their aftermath. All of that storytelling is compelling, and propulsive. But Lorena also digs deep into how American culture began to change in the ’90s, both in terms of new feminist understandings of women's issues — about domestic violence and marital rape in this case — and in the tabloidization of the 24-hour news cycle.
(In that way, Lorena has more than a few things in common with A&E's excellent recent documentary series The Clinton Affair, which took a nuanced look at how the Clinton impeachment unfolded, and particularly at how Monica Lewinsky was portrayed in the media. This revisionist trend is good.)
Rofé got all the principals in the story to talk, with Lorena (an intelligent, sympathetic figure, then and now) and John (an inarticulate mess) sitting down for in-depth interviews. He also talked to major players from law enforcement, the surgical team that reattached John's penis, reporters who covered the story, witnesses at Lorena's trial, and both Bobbitts' lawyers weaving the narrative. I did not need any of the reenactments — which are purely for mood-setting, and are unnecessary — but that is my one quibble. Each episode of Lorena ends on a cliffhanger, and I had to start the next one immediately. It's riveting.
The media attention from the time was, as you would expect, salacious and gross. There were a zillion jokes from comedians, as you'd expect, with only Whoopi Goldberg coming off well. Howard Stern was truly the worst then, saying to John at one point, "I don't even buy this whole thing, that he was raping her and stuff. She's not that great-looking. She's got a lot of pimples, your ex-wife." (I gasped.) John, clearly a troubled, violent person who has never gotten life right, actually became a folk hero, and Lorena — a terrorized survivor of domestic violence — was largely vilified and caricatured. Rofé's Lorena tells a fascinating, totally relevant story.
It's perhaps a strange takeaway for such a sad documentary, but I did end up thinking after watching Lorena that were the same thing to happen today, we would do better for her. And any optimism these days feels like a gift, so thank you, Lorena.
Avoid: Proven Innocent
Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m. (Starts Feb. 15)
Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre of Under the Dome) is a crusading Chicago lawyer with a mission to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. Madeline has a fire under her because she herself — with her brother, Levi (Riley Smith) — was convicted of murdering her best friend, a crime she did not commit. She runs her Innocence Project–y law firm with the lawyer who took on her case, Easy Boudreau (Russell Hornsby, who was so wonderful in The Hate U Give). The show's villain is the corrupt prosecutor Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer, in full scenery-chewing mode here), who put Madeline and Levi in prison. He really hates Madeline.
In an email to the press, Proven Innocent's executive producers David Elliot and Danny Strong said their guiding question for the series was: "What if Amanda Knox became a lawyer?" And yes, that does sound like a good idea for a legal procedural! Fox offered only the pilot of this show, and unfortunately, it does not live up to that premise. You can picture every beat in Proven Innocent if you try, and it's a waste of a good cast, which includes the always weird and watchable Vincent Kartheiser as the firm's investigator. Oh well!
Give it a chance: Flack
Pop, Thursdays at 10 p.m. (Starts Feb. 21)
In Flack, Anna Paquin plays Robyn, a London-based publicist who specializes in celebrities in crisis. She has a loving boyfriend, Sam (Arinzé Kene), and a loyal sister, Ruth (Genevieve Angelson, the star of the canceled-too-soon Good Girls Revolt), but Robyn self-destructively undermines her life by taking drugs and having sex with other men.
Flack, created by Oliver Lansley, who is also an actor, is odd. It's mostly a drama, but strives to be a workplace comedy at times, which is where it misses. Yet I was more interested in the doings in Robyn's office than I was in her personal life. At work, she's flanked by Eve (Lydia Wilson), a seen-it-all colleague, and Melody (Rebecca Benson), a naïve intern Robyn seeks to mold, and their vicious boss, Caroline (Sophie Okonedo). They're fun characters. Flack isn't especially well-written, and Robyn isn’t an original creation. The show — a coproduction with UKTV —also looks like it was shot with $5 and an old VHS camera. Yet there was something addictive about Flack that compelled me to watch all six episodes in rapid succession. And it ends on a cliffhanger, so if there's a Season 2, I'll be watching that too! Here's to trashy, digestible shows with no stakes.
Give it a chance: Whiskey Cavalier
ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. (The first episode will have a sneak preview after the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, and then will have its timeslot premiere on Feb. 27)
On this comedic spy thriller, Scott Foley plays FBI agent Will Chase, who has just suffered through a humiliating breakup, and is a weepie mess. Lauren Cohan plays an aggressive CIA agent named Frankie Trowbridge — at first they're rivals, and then they join forces! And flirt.
Created by TV veteran David Hemingson (Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and zillions more), Whiskey Cavalier knows what it is — which is a compliment, since many shows don't. And what it is is a good-looking action dramedy with good-looking people; it's aiming for a Mr. & Mrs. Smith sort of vibe. It helps that it's filmed in Europe (mostly Prague, but elsewhere too). The supporting cast is fun, with Tyler James Williams as a hacker who later joins the team, and Ana Ortiz (always so great to see her!) as Susan, a profiler in the FBI's New York office, and Will's best friend. Its biggest problem, really, is its stupid title, which Jimmy Kimmel made so much fun of the ABC upfront presentation to advertisers in May last year that Foley was reduced to saying, "Please, god, just roll the clip" as he introduced the trailer.
Give it a chance: Now Apocalypse
Starz, Sundays at 9 p.m. (Starts March 10)
When I say that Gregg Araki's Now Apocalypse is like softcore porn, what I mean is it has the pacing of a Skinemax show: Most scenes are sex scenes. It's not a bad thing, of course! Araki's material has always been highly sexualized. He directs all 10 episodes (I have seen the first two), and cowrote it with Karley Sciortino, a sex columnist.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Ulysses (Avan Jogia), an underemployed twentysomething in Los Angeles who has been having foreboding nightmares that start to leak into his real life. Ulysses' friends Carly (Kelli Berglund) and Ford (Beau Mirchoff) both have problems of their own: Carly is a cam girl who doesn't like having sex with her boyfriend, and Ford loves his girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida), who doesn't want to commit to him. Severine also has a mysterious, sinister-seeming government job that surely ties into Ulysses' dreams.
Araki, a longtime indie film provocateur, who was instrumental in creating the ’90s New Queer Cinema movement, is clearly having fun here. If you're a fan of his work, you probably will too.
Be excited: Shrill
Hulu (Drops March 15)
Shrill feels like a long time coming if only because Aidy Bryant, of Saturday Night Live fame, is so good in it that you’ll spend half your time watching the series cursing Hollywood for not giving her a meaty starring role sooner. Bryant plays Annie, a Portland woman working at an alt-weekly newspaper. The series is based on Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, but one thing that’s so notable about the four episodes of Shrill available for screening so far is that Annie is anything but loud. Instead, Shrill’s main character is shy and unsure of herself, still trying to learn how to speak up to her boss, her family, and her sexual partners.
Shrill’s first season so far tells the story of a woman slowly finding her confidence and learning to live out loud despite the pressures and stigma she is feeling about society’s relationship to fat bodies. Viewers are essentially watching Annie learn to say “fuck it” to all the bullshit in her life and take control. The series starts hitting its stride in the second episode, which opens with a great scene at a strip club. And the show really soars in Episode 4 — written by hilarious essayist Samantha Irby — when Annie attends a pool party specifically for fat women, and takes a big step toward becoming the loud woman of West’s original title. —Alanna Bennett
Avoid: In the Dark
The CW, Thursdays at 9 p.m. (Premieres April 4)
I wanted to love In the Dark, which has been shorthanded as "blind Veronica Mars," so this pains me to write.
I'll start with the good, because there is good in this Corinne Kingsbury–created show. The pilot sets up a potentially interesting mystery, with Murphy (Perry Mattfeld), who is blind, discovering the dead body of her drug-dealing, teenage best friend Tyson (Thamela Mpumlwana) — they met after he rescued her from a violent mugging, and then became close. When she calls the police to report that she's found Tyson dead, they go to investigate, and don't find a body. So yes, I'm curious about whodunnit. I also loved Brooke Markham as Murphy's lesbian roommate, Jess. And there's also a truly hilarious, moving scene in the second episode between Jess and her girlfriend, Vanessa (Humberly González), that I don't want to spoil, but made me think to myself, Geez, we have come very far in LGBT representation in recent years.
As for the rest, Murphy is meant to be seen as a huge mess: She drinks too much, she has sex with "everyone" (as she proudly declares — and without protection), and she is underemployed (her parents started a guide dog training school to create a job for her, but she barely shows up). All that is fine, no judgments — In the Dark just tries too hard. I found Murphy to be truly dislikable, and not just charmingly damaged. At one point, she tells a young blind girl who worships her — the daughter of Dean (Rich Sommer), the detective who's investigating Tyson's disappearance — that her father needs to "get laid." In the second episode (the CW offered the first three), Murphy gets a UTI and has to limp around; in the third, she and Max (Casey Deidrick) are fooling around, and she accidentally, but severely, hurts his penis. It's too much.
Those aren't In the Dark's only problems. Mattfeld is not blind, and I felt uncomfortable watching the scenes in which Murphy talks about how terrible it is to be blind. "I'm at the mercy of the world, and I hate it," she says to Max at one point. She also hates her guide dog, Pretzel — is this actually a thing? I can't speak for how blind people will feel about In the Dark, and maybe they'll embrace it. But it struck me that the push for characters with disabilities to be played by actors with those disabilities — recently reignited by The Upside — is urgent. There's also the problem in the first three episodes with the portrayal of the black characters, who are thus far either saintly and underdeveloped, such as Tyson, his mother (Leslie Silva), and Hank, Murphy's father (Derek Webster), or in one instance, a sinister criminal (Tyson's cousin Darnell, played by Keston John).
I'm assuming that as with Veronica Mars, the show will reveal Tyson's layers, and he will become a more fully developed character — we also see him in flashbacks, as well as discovering more about him as Murphy digs. But there's something creepy about a white woman finding purpose — and possibly redemption — through the vessel of a high school–age (dead?) black boy. I had high hopes for In the Dark, which is one of the CW's more unconventional offerings, in the vein of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin. But it falls far short of both of those shows. Should you check it out because it's trying to do something ambitious? You'll figure that out.
Be excited: Abby's
Natalie Morales stars as Abby, who after retiring from the military has tried to work in other people's bars, but couldn't stand having bosses, so she opened her own (unlicensed) place — in her backyard. As with Cheers, the regulars at Abby's have formed their own family by the time we meet them. And so it's fitting that Abby's the show (created by Superstore writer Josh Malmuth) has a familiar, lived-in quality from its start. It helps that the steady hand of Mike Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation) is an executive producer, and that Pamela Fryman, truly the GOAT for multicam sitcoms, is its director. (Abby's was filmed outside on the Universal lot, and during its act breaks, the camera pulls back and you can see the live audience watching from bleachers. It's fun.)
A lot of network sitcoms try to make up for their casts' early lack of chemistry by being aggressive, if not shrieking, in their pilots. Abby's does not do that. The threat to the bar — Abby's landlord has died and left the house to Bill (Nelson Franklin), a worrywart — is handled without hysteria. Bill soon becomes part of the inner circle, which includes the barfly patrons Fred (Neil Flynn), Beth (Jessica Chaffin, who, disclosure alert, is a friend of mine), and the nonconfrontational bouncer, James (Leonard Ouzts).
I laughed a bunch in the first three episodes of Abby's, which is all you can ask, really. And I was surprised once too: when it's casually revealed that Abby is bisexual. I would google to make sure of the assertion I'm about to make, that Morales' Abby is the first bisexual Latinx character to lead a network sitcom, but I don't have to — because of course she is! With stressful, shitty news everywhere we look these days, I try to appreciate small but important advances. This is certainly one.
Abby's is outside of this preview's scope since it doesn't even have an airdate yet. But I liked it enough that I'm including it. What are you going to do, not read this post? You're already at the end, sucka!
NOTE: Please read, especially if you're heading to the comments section to complain that something is missing!
These are new shows only, not returning ones. I wrote only about shows I could watch at least one episode of: CBS's The Code and The Red Line, ABC's The Fix, NBC's The Enemy Within and The Village were among the new series that didn’t have screeners available in time for consideration. There are some Netflix shows I would have included — The Umbrella Academy and Turn Up Charlie — but they were under embargo. Alanna Bennett wrote about Shrill because one of my best friends co-created it. And there were some things I had to skip, given the volume, but I may add more shows later as screeners become available and embargoes lift. Complain away about anything else!