At first, Station Eleven is bewildering, all discombobulating cuts between the present and what seems to be a desolate, sparsely populated future. Events unfurl like a runaway train: Jeevan (Himesh Patel), an anxiety-ridden mess, is attending a performance of King Lear when an onstage tragedy prompts him to intervene. In flashbacks, we see the lead actor, Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), recently surprised by someone from his past; in the present, an 8-year-old girl from the cast (Matilda Lawler, whose sweetness anchors the whole show) wanders around without a guardian. Meanwhile, outside, a crisis is mounting that might be unpalatably familiar to a 2021 audience. A “flu” is racing through cities, threatening to leave nobody untouched.
Like a kaleidoscope, this 10-episode drama, created by Patrick Somerville (Made for Love, Maniac, The Leftovers) and based on the bestselling 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, comes into dazzling focus then shifts, resolving into something else completely. But as we move between the past and the present, the common threads become clearer. This is not gory postapocalyptic action, where the main tension comes from wondering how many people might die (though there’s certainly blood and suspense). Station Eleven focuses instead on how survivors come together and rebuild, what they hold onto from before and why, and the question of what makes survival itself worthwhile. The power of this elegantly elliptical show comes from cyclonic storytelling, lived-in visuals, and performances that alternate between steely and tender. We all know now what it is to hold life and love a little closer. This show reflects that back with, yes, fictional extremity, but also heartbreaking precision. —Estelle Tang
Where to watch: HBO Max
Since watching the first episode, I have told no less than 10 people to go watch Yellowjackets immediately. “It’s super dark,” I lead with. “It’s got cannibalism,” I say, trailing off. The concept is simple. A highly competitive girls high school soccer team is set to go to nationals. Their plane crashes in the Ontario wilderness and they have to fight for survival over 19 months before they are rescued. It’s teen girl Lord of the Flies. Yes, there’s cannibalism. But what’s more interesting is the aftermath. The young girls who survive grow up to be middle-aged women who are struggling in their various midlife crises, but their midlife crises now include how they will keep the story of what really happened from coming out. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, and Tawny Cypress as the adults, this intense thriller, directed by the wildly talented Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight), will have you covering your face and screaming with equal parts shock and horror — in the very best way. —Karolina Waclawiak
Where to watch: Showtime
The Sex Lives of College Girls
The trailer for Mindy Kaling’s Sex Lives of College Girls slightly misrepresented the show, or at least didn’t highlight its appeal. In emphasizing the sex part with lazy jokes about walks of shame and nude parties, it made the 10-episode series seem cringingly pander-y, like that “How do you do, fellow kids” meme but in college instead.
But even without the most original premise, it’s actually a sweet and warm show about friendship, like Sex and the City meets The Chair. The series is a little predictable at first, as the group of titular girls of diverse backgrounds end up rooming together at fictional Essex college.
There’s Bela (Amrit Kaur), an ambitious comedy writer struggling with the expectations of her immigrant Indian parents; Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), an earnest, working-class student on scholarship wanting to catch up on the sex part; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), an accomplished athlete trying to stay out of the shadow of her celebrity Black senator mom (in a great role for Sherri Shepherd); and Leighton (Reneé Rapp), the mean white girl yearning to exist beyond her sorority-style aspirations.
As the series fleshes out the women’s romantic lives, professional ambitions, and family dynamics, they gain more dimension. Spoiler alert, but the show has one of the most specific and least cliched coming-out storylines I’ve seen in a while; nuanced portrayals of the pervasiveness of sexual assault; and it captures how intense everything can feel in the college years.
All the side characters are great, often funnier than the main ones. (Lila, Kimberly’s workmate, has some of the best lines and delivery, like when she explains, “Hot guys don’t journal; they let their thoughts drift away, it’s what makes them hot.”)
This is a lovably corny mix of friendship and campus politics that makes for a fun weekend binge. —Alessa Dominguez
Where to watch: HBO Max
The comedian Bilal Baig stars in this Canadian TV show about a nonbinary Pakistani Canadian millennial. Sabi works at a bar and nannies for a family in Toronto. The same week that the family patriarch Paul (Gray Powell) suggests Sabi’s services aren’t needed anymore, his wife Emily (Grace Lynn Kung) gets into a bike accident and suddenly Sabi is forced to help parent the kids. In addition to their work crisis, Sabi is also avoiding their mom, who doesn’t understand their gender transition, and dealing with a best friend, 7ven, who is eager to move to Berlin. Bilal’s trademark is their deadpan, wry delivery. This is an understated dramedy that made me curious about another season. —Tomi Obaro
Where to watch: HBO Max
Pen15 (Season 2, Part 2)
I’ve never seen another show like PEN15. Cringey and/or gross-out adolescent comedies have been having a moment lately — Big Mouth, Sex Education, Derry Girls, Never Have I Ever — but only in PEN15 are two grown women playing their adolescent selves, to screamingly hilarious effect. In the final season (Hulu is calling it Season 2, Part 2), biracial weirdo Maya (Maya Erskine) gets jealous of a visiting Japanese relative, whose warm welcome from her bitchy teen peers stirs up Maya’s own feelings of alienation and unbelonging. Her best friend, Anna (Anna Konkle), meanwhile, is grappling with her parents’ divorce and making out with her new boyfriend outside of her less-than-helpful teen support group.
One of the many excellent facets of this show is how expertly it captures the feeling a lot of us had in middle school: that this terrible and confusing time of life would never, ever end. Even when your family is middle-class and (relatively) well-adjusted, growing up can still be so sad and hard and lonely.
Creators Erskine and Konkle have nailed the millennial experience of coming of age in the time of AIM and low-rise jeans, as well as the more universal one of loving and codependently needing a pal to get through all these awkward pubescent transformations with. Maya and Anna can be selfish and insecure, which makes them less than perfect friends, but it also makes them beautifully typical 13-year-olds.
This season offers those of us who grew up in the early aughts even more painful memories to revisit — it might as well have been me and my own middle school friends sitting in a tent with boys and experiencing a lot of cringey sexual tension during a marathon walk for cancer on the school’s track field. I’ll be forever grateful to Erskine and Konkle for capturing such a specific slice of adolescence with their own idiosyncrasies and flair. Goodbye, PEN15, love ya, miss ya! —Shannon Keating
Where to watch: Hulu
Queen of the Universe
In the ever-expanding Drag Race franchise, Queen of the Universe delivers a Eurovision-esque punch to the competition. There is no lip-synching here. These queens can actually sing. And with a $250,000 grand prize hanging in the balance, this competition is high stakes. The show has so far been a bloodbath, with multiple contestants having already gotten the chop (forever in our hearts, Canadian yodeler!). But just a few episodes in, I'm already invested.
In true Drag Race style, Michelle Visage brings her signature tough judge love, but it's great to see her loosen up a bit and react to the incredible performances. Trixie Mattel, Leona Lewis, and Queen Vanessa Williams also bring the judging panel to life for contestants who truly put it all out there. It's drag, it's music, it's sometimes cringey, and, overall, truly entertaining. This is a show to gag on. —Jason Wells
Where to watch: Paramount+
South Side (Season 2)
This Comedy Central transport has gained some traction since moving to HBO Max last month, and rightly so. Created by Diallo Riddle, Bashir Salahuddin, and Sultan Salahuddin, the folks behind the cult comedy Sherman’s Showcase, South Side revolves around the employees of a rent-to-own center in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. There’s Simon (Sultan Salahuddin), a recent community college graduate and father of three who is always scheming for ways to up his bank account; Kareme (Kareme Young), an aspiring sci-fi novelist whose identical twin brother, Quincy (Quincy Young), manages the store; and the two cops often tasked with aiding in the return of RTO contraband, real-life husband and wife duo Zenobia Turner (Chandra Russell) and Sandy Goodnight (Bashir Salahuddin). There are a ton of other bit characters too; one of the things that makes this show such a delight is the amount of world-building packed into the show, which is also shot and filmed on the South Side and features Chicago-area talent like Lil Rel Howery and LaRoyce Hawkins. The second season kicks the absurdity up a notch; in the season opener, officers Turner and Goodnight get stuck in a literal trap house, while in other episodes, Simon decides to start his own private ambulance service and Chance the Rapper, whose name is frequently mentioned, finally makes a cameo. —T.O.
Where to watch: HBO Max ●