Disappointing season of your favorite prestige drama got you down? Let down by the big sitcom revival that promised to open up a dialogue, but just wound up taking potshots at easy (and vulnerable) targets while setting up a runway for Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing over at Old Man Murdoch’s place? A thousand Netflix originals (and nothin’ on)? Take heart: When The A.V. Club surveyed all the shows, miniseries, specials, and movies that have aired since January 1, 2018, we still came away with a hefty list of returning favorites, stellar debuts, and a few picks that managed to sneak up on us.
The Americans (FX)
Final episodes of long-running shows are fiendishly difficult to pull off, let alone final seasons, and a list of subpar TV conclusions would be long and exhausting, much like those shows’ finales. The Americans, by contrast, gave us a finale for the ages, and the last look at the Jennings family in all its flawed fragility made for a season as good as any in its six-season run. From the premiere, in which Philip (Matthew Rhys) is asked to spy on his wife—while Elizabeth (Keri Russell), in turn, is told to keep her now out-of-the-spy-game husband in the dark—things seemed fated for disaster.
Consider it a tribute to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields that the long-planned conclusion they stuck to paid off in ways that were wholly unexpected, even as it simultaneously felt like the only plausible ending to such a rich character study. The show ended by digging ever more potently into the narrative feint that created such an absorbing and moving series: using Cold War thriller trappings to tell the story of a marriage, a family, and ultimately, a relationship between two damaged people. Rarely does TV get at the messy truths of maturing matrimony so artfully. [Alex McLevy]
Atlanta’s stellar sophomore year was subtitled Robbin’ Season, a reference to a real-life period of increased crime around the holidays, but it was also a potent metaphor for this season’s general aura of unease. Just about everyone has things taken from them: Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is repeatedly relieved of his money and time, but more importantly, he loses the “keeping it real” delusion that’s been holding him back. Earn (Donald Glover) is stripped of his dignity, his relationship, and very nearly his career, but by season’s end he’s also lost the superiority that’s threatened to leave him, as he worries in the premiere, “a know-it-all, fuck-up jay that just lets shit happen to him.”
Amid all this transformative unburdening, Atlanta gave us even more allusive stories of other people being robbed—of their childhoods, their lives, even their very grip on reality—while also leaving the viewer unsettled and uncertain, with wildly divergent storytelling that could yield the Edgar Allan Poe-meets-Behind The Music horrors of “Teddy Perkins” one week, and a pot-laced existential crisis at Drake’s house the next. Atlanta was already one of the most singular series on television; Robbin’ Season just took away any last, lingering limits on what it can be. [Sean O’Neal]
They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and even though Brockmire is a show populated almost entirely by broken people, there was very little about its first season that needed fixing. And yet it plowed ahead with one of the boldest second-season reinventions in recent memory, establishing a new setting (New Orleans), new supporting cast (the shockingly professional front-office staff of the New Orleans Crawdaddys), and new watering holes while maintaining two of its three most valuable players: Pickled play-by-play man Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) and his right-hand man Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams).
Amanda Peet eventually recurs as Brockmire’s true soulmate/enabler, Jules, and that only helps Brockmire break the irksome serialized comedy habit of taking big leaps at the end of a season (Jim Halpert takes the Stamford job, Hannah leaves New York for the Iowa Writers Workshop) and then walking things back to square one in the early episodes of the next (Scranton absorbs Stamford, Hannah ditches Iowa). The second season ends with more big leaps and broken habits, and here’s hoping showrunner Joel Church-Cooper applies the type of smart decisions he made this year to whatever mistakes Brockmire makes when he starts anew anew on the West Coast. [Erik Adams]
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
On the afternoon of May 10, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was canceled by Fox. On the evening of May 11, the cop comedy was renewed by NBC. The 24 hours in between were an emotional roller coaster, but if you were watching closely after the show returned from winter hiatus, you were prepared for it: Brooklyn Nine-Nine threw a preemptive Viking funeral at the end of its fifth season, saying farewells to beloved characters like Doug “The Pontiac Bandit” Judy (Craig Robinson) and making preparations for the wedding of Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy (Melissa Fumero).
But it also played with format and tone in ways only a show with nothing left to lose would, letting Andre Braugher stretch his old Homicide muscles opposite Sterling K. Brown and staging a master class in tension and release in “Show Me Going.” (Tension: Diaz responds to an active-shooter situation. Release: Charles dresses like Speed Racer.) More Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good thing, but this wouldn’t have been a bad exit for one of the decade’s best sitcoms. [Erik Adams]
The flash-forward is difficult for most shows to pull off, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend jumped months ahead this season almost seamlessly: Valencia now had a girlfriend, Heather was about to give birth to Daryl’s baby, Rebecca and Nathaniel were hooking up. But moving past the Josh era (finally taking his name out of the episode titles mid-season) enabled the show to face the issue that it has been hinting at since CEG’s premiere head-on: Rebecca’s mental health. That led the show to a darker place, but also helped it capture an under-explored subject on a TV show originally billed as a romantic musical comedy. Sure, songs like “Settle For Me” were fun, but didn’t even come close to hitting the breathtaking pathos of “A Diagnosis,” Rebecca’s love song to the simple title that will hopefully define her problem. When she finds out that diagnosis is in fact borderline personality disorder, she realizes that her real work is just beginning—even as the show itself prepares to wrap up. [Gwen Ihnat]
Dear White People (Netflix)
Justin Simien’s incisive dramedy is rightly lauded for tackling weighty themes, including the racism on prominent display in its predominantly white college setting. But let’s not forget the considerable style it deploys in doing so, from the driving soundtrack to the fluid direction, with cameras that peek over people’s shoulders and dive into Winchester College’s nooks and crannies, uncovering its more-racist-than-anticipated past. And Dear White People’s smart, snappy dialogue and exceptionally talented cast make the hyperverbal teens from its indirect forebears look like they’re still cramming for the SATs by comparison.
The show outdoes itself in the second season; it’s both more pointed and restrained than the first. It manages to evoke ongoing efforts to normalize white nationalism without referencing a certain demagogue, because Simien and his team know racism doesn’t begin and end at the White House. But once again, black people remain Dear White People’s primary concern—not just how they survive in the face of age-old bigotry, but how they thrive in spite of it. [Danette Chavez]
The Good Place (NBC)
It’s not just that year two of TV’s wittiest and most unusual comedy lived up to the ridiculously high standard set by its stellar first season. It’s not even that The Good Place managed to deliver on the promise of that gobsmacking plot twist with which it ended its freshman season, completely reshuffling the narrative deck. It’s that the best show of 2017 continued to surprise, upend, and steamroll through plot with the momentum of a runaway trolley car (presumably on its way to mow down either one or five people) throughout its second season, all while maintaining one of the highest laugh-per-minute ratios on television. Plunking the morally challenged quartet of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and lovable dimwit Jason (Manny Jacinto) into brand-new settings, giving them wholly different goals, and even forging an unlikely alliance with Ted Danson’s deliciously deceptive afterlife manager—all of it was done with a brilliantly warped wit and precision timing. It’s a privilege to watch such sitcom savvy cut through the bullshirt of this mortal coil. [Alex McLevy]
Mozart In The Jungle (Amazon)
Mozart In The Jungle spent its entire four-season run blithely moving to its own beat, shifting TV landscape be damned. The Amazon dramedy explored the world of classical music, and the ongoing clash between tradition and innovation therein. That struggle afforded the exceptional cast, including Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Saffron Burrows, much to work with. But Mozart was often at its most captivating when it focused on the harmonizing going on between the roguish Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) and grasping Hailey (Lola Kirke). Season three might have been set in Italy (and co-starred the marvelous Monica Bellucci), but the love story that unfolds in season four is much worthier of the operatic treatment.
Under director Paul Weitz’s eye, Rodrigo and Hailey journey to Japan to learn a hard lesson—that passion won’t always make up for compatibility, or whatever else might be lacking in your relationship. That surprising down note doesn’t take any of the wonder out of season four and its trippy revelatory scenes or gorgeous travelogue episodes. But it makes Mozart In The Jungle’s final movement especially moving. [Danette Chavez]
One Day At A Time (Netflix)
ABC may have managed to rescue The Conners from the flaming wreckage of Roseanne, but shows like One Day At A Time prove we don’t have to worry about booking a return trip to Lanford. This Netflix series, a reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom developed by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, has the same biting comedy and topicality as Roseanne, with none of the Islamophobic aftertaste. There are no Very Special Episodes because every half-hour is a warm and funny treat; social issues are addressed, but the focus is on the Alvarez family, who are winsome and flawed (and working class). The predominantly Latinx cast hasn’t merely scored points for representation—anchored by Emmy-worthy performances from Justina Machado and Rita Moreno, the new One Day At A Time proves it’s more vibrant and relevant than (any of) its predecessors. [Danette Chavez]
Ratings are atrophying and an increasing number of series are working on less demanding production schedules better tailored to the stories they’re telling, but the 20-plus-episodes-a-season sitcom isn’t going down without a fight. NBC has ordered Superstore in bulk through season four, and this year the show used that extra space the same way it uses its sprawling set, finding comedy and drama in every last corner of the titular retail spot. And sometimes that involved finding spaces within the space, like the secret tunnel Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman) discover and later put to use at a pivotal moment.
The show turned into an unstoppable payoff machine without sacrificing its episodic vigor in season three, balancing threads as major as Amy and Jonah’s will-they/won’t-they or Mateo’s (Nico Santos) undocumented status with goofy running jokes like Marcus (Jon Barinholtz) developing a business that sells human cheese. It’s proof positive that making so many episodes per season need not be a quantity over quality situation—you just have to work as hard as they do down at the Cloud 9. [Erik Adams]
If only every series that’s praised for its tone was as sure of that tone as Barry is. It would need to be to pull off a premise as tricky as this one, which casts Bill Hader as a Marine-turned-hit man who’s sent to Los Angeles for a job, only to find himself entranced by the acting class he tracks his mark to. Hit men have been done to death (“My immediate reaction to that was, ‘Ugh, a hit man?’ It’s such a clichéd Hollywood thing,” co-creator Alec Berg told The Ringer), struggling L.A. actors are played out, and yet Barry makes it all fresh, with Hader as the still (and powerfully quiet) water running through a Wackyland of temperamental performers and hospitable gangsters. It’s essentially three shows in one—a gangland comedy, showbiz satire, and police procedural—bound by their inevitable collision, a penetrating psychological insight, and a dark sense of humor with a pronounced silly streak. Barry comforts himself with the promise of a new life “Starting… now!”; Barry’s had things under control from the start. [Erik Adams]
The Chi (Showtime)
After winning an Emmy for Master Of None, Lena Waithe returned to her hometown for The Chi, a sprawling, occasionally frustrating, drama. The first 10-episode season might not have always nailed the look of the South Side—what was the deal with the disappearing train tracks?—but the writing and terrific cast did manage to capture the resilience and pride of its residents. There’s an engrossing crime drama folded into The Chi, but there’s an equally compelling struggle between the neighborhood and the external forces that threaten its existence, including indifference from city leaders. And The Chi’s refreshing scenes of carefree black teens prove that its coming-of-age story has lots of potential. Which is why we hope to see as much of Kevin’s (Alex Hibbert) junior hijinks as Quentin’s ever-expanding criminal enterprise in the recently ordered second season. [Danette Chavez]
Corporate (Comedy Central)
Most workplace sitcoms depict the office as a second home, and co-workers as family. Comedy Central’s agreeably bleak Corporate, however, dares to show work as it often really is: A soul-crushing grind that forces employees to compromise their integrity and sanity in exchange for a paycheck every other week. That doesn’t sound like fodder for comedy, but it works, thanks to the show’s flights of deadpan surrealism and a strong supporting cast, particularly Aparna Nancherla’s clinically miserable HR rep Grace and Lance Reddick’s unhinged CEO Christian DeVille. [Katie Rife]
Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim)
As a stand-up comedian, Joe Pera has a way with walking his audiences down winding, unpredictable paths, like this routine about the thoughtful incompetence of the Buffalo Bills. Joe Pera Talks With You functions similarly, with its folksy title cards—“Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” “Joe Pera Reads You The Church Announcements,” “Joe Pera Talks To You About The Rat Wars Of Alberta, Canada, 1950-Present Day”—rarely describing where the show ends up. In the guise of a “soft-handed choir teacher” from Marquette, Michigan, Pera begins each episode of Talks With You by addressing a particular preoccupation, eventually getting sidetracked by recent happenings in his life, or by one of the other colorful residents of the Upper Peninsula. The switcheroo is a good joke, but never the full point of the series, which in eight quarter-hour episodes (and a half-hour finale) blossoms into a small-town comedy that feels like it’s set inside an immaculately art-directed Deep Thought. It’s the rare Adult Swim show that could be described as “gentle,” but it’s also the funniest thing the late-night block has rolled out since Rick And Morty. [Erik Adams]
Killing Eve (BBC America)
While it was expected that Fleabag creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new serial-killer series Killing Eve would contain some of her signature lacerating laughs, less anticipated was the masterful command of pulse-pounding thrills she brought to the project. An adaptation of the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, Eve creates a heady brew of murder, mayhem, and intrigue, all while retaining a refreshingly blunt and down-to-earth attitude about these larger-than-life adventures.
While much credit should go to Waller-Bridge’s behind-the-scenes orchestration, equal plaudits are due star Sandra Oh, who delivers her most magnetic and commanding performance in years as a stubborn agent working off-the-record to hunt down a mysterious assassin (Jodie Comer, making evil uproariously compelling) and the shady organization that employs her. Artfully juggling relationship drama, workplace comedy, and deadly intrigue, Killing Eve is the rare show that can turn on a dime from goofily funny to painfully somber—then back again—and it doesn’t even occur to you how rare a gift that is; you’re too busy awaiting the next clever heel-turn. (The entire A.V. Club can’t wait for more.) [Alex McLevy]
We’re only halfway into the first season, but Pose has earned its place among the best that 2018 has to offer. Expertly directed and beautifully acted, this lush period drama from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals burst onto the scene at the start of Pride Month, earning 10s across the board for its multilayered performances and introspective writing. As a show centered on and stewarded by trans people—Janet Mock is one of the writers—Pose also breaks new ground in LGBTQ representation. But what’s truly revolutionary about the show, which juxtaposes a national health crisis with the gaudiness of the ’80s, is how lovingly it looks after its characters. Pose’s opposing “households,” led by the grasping Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) and acidic Elektra (Dominique Jackson), endure a lot of disappointment and even danger. But the characters’ lives are also filled with joy—the joy of winning a walk-off, of falling in love, and most important, of having found each other. By moving away from focusing on queer suffering, Pose hasn’t just established a place of refuge for vulnerable people—it’s given them a platform to take over the world. [Danette Chavez]
Queer Eye (Netflix)
The rebooted Queer Eye is that rare incident of lightning striking twice: The new Fab Five had just as much delightful energy and chemistry as the previous quintet (Jonathan is definitely the new Carson). In its second season, the show kept scaling new heights by branching out, turning their talents to a sweet Southern mom trying to get her gay son to come back to the church, and a trans man navigating a brand new life. The most fabulous thing about these five is that they are wholly emotional, and unafraid to let those feelings out—like Bobby dealing with his own mixed feelings about religion in the church episode. Sure Antoni’s recipes aren’t exactly challenging and Bobby seems to be doing about five times the work of the other guys combined. But the transformative work this group brings into every life they touch—like helping a shy man come up with an extravagantly romantic proposal—meant that tears accompanied just about every episode of the second season. And not just from Antoni. [Gwen Ihnat]
Gentrification tales are popping up on TV like so many artisanal coffee shops in a neighborhood with rising property values, but on the ambitious Vida, the story of displacement is much more timeless. This Latinx-led series, developed by Looking’s Tanya Saracho, explores the history of one East Los Angeles neighborhood, working its way back one immigrant generation at a time. That means recognizing how “Whitinas” (white Latinas) like Emma (Melissa Barrera) and Lyn (Mishel Prada) can endanger the area they grew up in, good intentions notwithstanding. But Vida is fueled as much by its wonderful cast, playful writing, and LGBTQ storylines as its political relevance. The two sisters/leads are exceptional—Barrera’s performance captures every step of her character’s emotional growth, while Prada both subsumes and displays her queer character’s inner conflict. And at just six episodes, the first season of Vida is a model of emotionally intense, economical storytelling. [Danette Chavez]
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas (HBO)
Though the format is more docuseries than traditional talk show, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas has inspired more thoughtful conversation than most of its contemporaries. That’s because, fanciful animations and modest proposals aside, Cenac chose to explore one exceptionally glaring problem area throughout the first season: policing in America. While adhering to Cenac’s genial and inquisitive approach, the HBO series devotes nearly half of each episode to some aspect of police brutality, reform, and accountability. It’s all in the pursuit of greater understanding, something that’s further demonstrated by the sheer number of activists, former police officers, and politicians featured as talking heads. Solutions of varying practicality are deployed, but again, what the show is primarily promoting is discussion, which makes Problem Areas is one of the most empathetic shows out there. [Danette Chavez]
Miniseries, movies, and specials
The Assassination Of Gianni Versace didn’t seize the zeitgeist the way its predecessor did, but it still made for a focused tragedy told in novel fashion a visual flair fit for the late fashion icon of its title. Played with tremendous warmth by Édgar Ramírez, Versace is ultimately a supporting character here, the spotlight falling on Darren Criss, doing the best work of his career as Versace’s murderer, Andrew Cunanan. At turns magnetic and terrifying, Criss plays Andrew as a creature of pathological confidence and need, forged from the pressures of the American dream and an internalized homophobia whose external manifestations allowed his crimes to go overlooked and under-investigated for months. In the mixed-up chronology of Tom Rob Smith’s scripts, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story shows not how the monster was once a man, but how the man always had some bit of monstrousness impressed upon him, an ugliness that festered in Cunanan and claimed the lives of others, until it snuffed out one of the world’s true champions of beauty. [Erik Adams]
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block (Syfy)
The third edition of this anthology horror series doesn’t make a ton of sense narratively—and that fact couldn’t matter less. Those looking for consistent, coherent storytelling are advised to look elsewhere, because Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block had very little interest in delivering it. Instead, what it gave viewers was a nightmarish vision of mental illness and family bonds, set in a fraying contrast between decaying rust-belt urban environs and a hallucinatory Southern gothic dreamscape that consistently provided some of the most unsettling imagery on television.
In telling the story of two sisters (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden)—one who developed her mother’s mental illness, and her younger sibling who begins to fear she may fall victim to the same family inheritance—and their strange experiences in a new town, the series transcends its origins in Kerry Hammonds’ creepypasta Search And Rescue Woods and becomes much more terrifying in the process. The fears aren’t just campfire tales of mysterious doorways in the woods and the scary little monsters that pour forth from them; by explicitly becoming about the painfully real fears that come with dealing with mental illness, the show reached new heights of creepiness, and made for surreal, affecting TV that won’t be easily forgotten—especially on nights when you may need to leave the lights on to cope. [Alex McLevy]
The End Of The Fucking World (Netflix)
One of 2018’s most pleasant surprises snuck, as unassuming as its protagonists, onto Netflix while most of us were still creeping out from under New Year’s hangovers. Adapted by Charlie Covell from Charles S. Forsman’s graphic novel, The End Of The Fucking World (presented by Netflix as The End Of The F***ing World, but why bowdlerize the title of a series this unrestrained?) is the engrossing story of possibly psychopathic boy (Alex Lawther as James) meets genuinely troublemaking girl (Jessica Barden as Alyssa), boy plots to murder girl, girl suggests they run away from their unhappy home lives, boy and girl cut a bloody swath across England (but not for any of the reasons boy initially intended).
Alternating between James’ and Alyssa’s POV, The End Of The Fucking World captures with intimacy and wicked wit the time in a young person’s life when every last interaction is a big fucking deal and any stray, unwanted thought could be proof of a souring brain. The couple’s Bonnie-and-Clyde routine contains traces of 1990s crime sprees like True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but the appeal of The End Of The Fucking World is pure 2010s, the taut suspense of James and Alyssa’s exploits pulling the viewer ever forward into the next episode. A story this perfectly self-contained needs no follow-up; here’s hoping this is one coming-of-age tale where Netflix leaves well enough alone. [Erik Adams]
Howards End (Starz)
For a remake that doesn’t attempt to reinvent or update its source material, Howards End still finds plenty of new life under Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay and Hettie McDonald’s direction. E.M. Forster’s 1910 book was adapted, to critical acclaim, in 1992 with Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham-Carter in the lead roles. That’s a formidable lineup, but the new cast is refreshing and un-stodgy, with a warm and pragmatic Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel, Matthew Macfadyen as stern rubber tycoon Mr. Wilcox, and relative newcomer Philippa Coulthard as the buoyant, headstrong Helen. The smaller roles are exceptionally cast, with Tracey Ullman oddly perfect as Aunt Juley, and the aforementioned Alex Lawther brings wryness and depth to the eccentric younger Schlegel brother. This version of Howards End is all vivid sun-soaked flowers and diffused lenses, but Lonergan and McDonald tease out more of a subtext here, like an underlying feminism in Margaret, and the racist capitalism inherent in Mr. Wilcox’s chosen profession. The four-hour miniseries is compelling storytelling about three families in Edwardian London, the influence and limits of class structure, and the entwinement of love and loss. [Laura M. Browning]
John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous At Radio City (Netflix)
At first, John Mulaney looks outmatched by the size and pageantry of Radio City Music Hall. And he makes it sound like he’s outmatched, too, opening his act in Kid Gorgeous At Radio City by questioning whether he’s worthy of such a historic stage. But the comedian needn’t manage expectations: Mulaney has more than enough energy to fill a venue of this size, and the way Kid Gorgeous is shot expertly condenses the hallowed hall to living-room (or laptop, or mobile) dimensions. His stand-up has always had a hint of old-time showbiz zip to it, and here he’s positively electric in routines whose beats allow him to hit certain words and phrases (“$120,000,” “street smarts!”) again and again, to escalating volumes of laughter. In addition to exhuming new comic treasures from the Chip and Ellen Mulaney household, Kid Gorgeous has singlehandedly revived interest in the career of eccentrically mustachioed Chicago Police Department detective J.J. Bittenbinder and provided the American public with the last analogy for the Trump administration they’ll ever need. [Erik Adams]
It’s still mildly astounding that a new small-screen masterpiece from one of the country’s most interesting living filmmakers has flown so far under the radar. Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic is many things: a murder mystery, a deconstruction of narrative storytelling, a Robert Altman-like landscape of characters living their lives—but above all, it’s a damn good yarn, the kind of tale that sticks in your mind and lingers on long past the final cut to black. What begins as the tale of a grifter (Frederick Weller) hired to seduce a wealthy children’s author (Sharon Stone) as part of a plot to acquire her panoramic Utah property soon spins into a far more complicated tapestry of small-town politics, deadly intrigue, and a key plot point hinging on whether someone went to see one of the Star Wars prequels the night he claims he did.
Soderbergh coaxes superlative performances from his entire cast, including Garrett Hedlund, Jennifer Ferrin, and what deserves to be a star-making turn from longtime character actor Devin Ratray, who has come a long way from Home Alone’s Buzz to deliver a powerfully soulful performance of understated grace as the local sheriff dealing with a growing fear that the wrong man might be in prison. Mosaic is smart, challenging, and electric in its gripping narrative; this is everything you could want from limited-series storytelling. [Alex McLevy]
The Tale (HBO)
Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, an autobiographical work about sexual abuse, would be a harrowing watch at any time, but the added resonance from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements makes it a necessary one. Using Laura Dern as a stand-in, the documentarian steps in front of the camera for a change, opening up a past tragedy for interpretation—and, more hopefully, resolution. The sexual assault scenes are almost impossible to watch (hence the disclaimer about the adult body double), but they’re not the only reason why The Tale is such challenging viewing. Whether she’s played by Dern, who’s the reigning queen of HBO, or Isabelle Nélisse, a self-possessed young actor, Fox still struggles to assign blame for what happened to her instead of hoarding responsibility for it. There are plenty of tricks of the camera that create distance, but it’s Fox’s writing that lends The Tale its unsettling nuance. [Danette Chavez]
The Terror (AMC)
The lost expedition led by Sir John Franklin has gnawed at the imagination ever since the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror disappeared in the Arctic. But that gnawing has never been as visceral as it is in David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s adaptation of The Terror, the Dan Simmons novel that re-imagines Sir John’s folly as one of natural and supernatural causes. In the frozen wastes, a murderers’ row of U.K. heavyweights—Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, and Ciarán Hinds among them—are beset at first by an unforgiving winter, and then by a mysterious force known only to (and possibly controlled by) the local Inuit population. But the truest threats to the explorers are the explorers themselves, and with each new episode, The Terror finds new and startling ways to reinforce that notion. (For example: An image of bodily immolation that gives Hereditary a run for its money.)
Doom seeps from every carefully arranged frame of The Terror, with a cold, unrelenting flow worthy of the series’ foreboding setting. The question of what happened to Franklin’s men is outdone by the question of what the Arctic unlocked within them. [Erik Adams]
Tig Notaro: Happy To Be Here (Netflix)
Tig Notaro’s always been bracingly and poignantly honest about her pain and grief in her work, but she’s never appeared to wallow in it. A sense of playfulness runs through her comedy, even as she demurs at every utterance of “brave survivor” (of what, take your pick: cancer, loss of a parent, sexual abuse). And yet, knowing the hell that Notaro’s been through is part of what makes the elation on display in her new special, Happy To Be Here, feel so deserved. Her latest Netflix special gives “Tig the survivor” a break to reintroduce us to “Tig the prankster.”
With a broad smile and dry delivery, Notaro spins all kinds of entertaining yarns (including one that’s literally about a kitten and string), showing the same knack for characterization that made One Mississippi so special. The comedian takes viewers expecting to be walloped with another one of her misfortunes for a ride, stretching out setup after setup, only to deliver another charming anecdote about married life or her twin sons. That Notaro is able to maintain tension throughout what’s ultimately an hour-long set about contentment is proof that she’s part of the grand tradition of Southern storytellers. Happy To Be Here’s joy is infectious, and its last 10 minutes are like nothing else in stand-up. [Danette Chavez]
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
At its most basic, Wild Wild Country is the story of the Rajneeshpuram community—some would say a cult—that transplanted from the founder’s home in India to a remote part of Oregon. What happened to the Rajneeshees there is fascinating enough, but what gives this six-part documentary its invaluable entry point and context is the participation and commanding presence of Ma Anand Sheela, an architect of the project. She’s a better antihero than any TV writers’ room has dreamed up, and the cult’s rise and fall in the United States comes to life through her emphatic, one-sided perspective. Other Rajneeshees, nearby locals, state and federal agents, and journalists expand the narrative, but it’s Sheela’s through-line, and the copious home-video footage from within the “utopian city” and archival newscasts, that tell this already interesting story so well. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
Let’s get the criticisms out of the way up front: Judd Apatow’s The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling is messy, sprawling, overlong, and nakedly partisan in its treatment of its subject. But those same qualities can also be seen as precisely the point of the producer-director’s impassioned tribute to his late friend, a two-part documentary whose grieving filmmaker is intentionally trying to leave no stone unturned in his effort to create a rich and all-too-human portrait of a brilliant and complicated comedian. It’s a strategy that pays off, as Zen Diaries ends up making a far better case for Shandling as a deeply relatable soul than Shandling—to judge by the countless testimonials of friends, family, and fellow comedians recounting how distant and unknowable the Larry Sanders creator often was—could ever have made himself.
Delving into Shandling’s private journals to look at the private fears and spiritual needs behind the public wit, Apatow traces the comedian’s entire life without trying to create a smooth through-line or reducing the multifaceted personality to an easy designation of nice guy or bastard, instead letting others share their honest and unvarnished experiences to bring him, ever so briefly, back to life in our minds. That Shandling was a comic genius is the impetus for this engaging bio-doc; that he was ultimately just another restless, confused spirit looking for something meaningful in this world gives it resonance. [Alex McLevy]