Beyond 'Game of Thrones': Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Debate the Best Spring Shows

There's no denying the HBO drama's dominance, but viewers have other gems to choose from this season, according to Daniel Fienberg and Tim Goodman — including a Louis C.K.-less 'Better Things,' a pair of groundbreaking Hulu comedies and a different HBO swan song.
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Daniel Fienberg: There's a massive, dragon-shaped shadow looming over the fertile television landscape this spring. The specter of the end of HBO's critical and popular juggernaut sent several networks scurrying into hiding and taking their usual Emmy hopefuls with them rather than getting caught in the belching flames emitted by Game of Thrones, while the critical community has spent weeks huddled in dark corners churning out pieces about our respective rewatches, hopes for the final occupant of the Iron Throne and more.

Tim, before we get to the pressing matter of whether Game of Thrones has left any oxygen in the room for other spring TV to flourish, let's address that other urgent question: Through its opening two episodes, one-third of this final season, has Game of Thrones been worth the thought expended on it?

Tim Goodman: I've really enjoyed the opening episodes, while fully understanding that others will be nitpicking away. I think the time for evaluation will be closer to the end, at the earliest. When it's over would be ideal — a full season as the creators intended, with appropriate enough time for you and me to digest what happened and how well it was pulled off. I'm assuming we'll be asked to check in before that, though. I think the difficult task ahead for Game of Thrones is that the series developed a reputation for an anything-can-happen narrative approach at the beginning thanks to Ned Stark and the Red Wedding and Jaime's hand, etc., but the reality is that most of the fan favorites are still standing. Viewers loving characters and tuning in for more is the fuel of television. It's harder in your later seasons to kill them all off while keeping up those ratings. I'm just hoping the series won't flinch at eliminating important characters as the battle looms.

DF: The arrival of the white walkers at Winterfell has been so ominously built-up that fans may be miserable if fewer than five major characters reach a heroic end, which to me feels like an odd way to watch a TV show. I've been more than happy to find my pleasures in the glorious knighting of Ser Brienne of Tarth; the surprising efficiency of Jon and Daenerys learning the truth of their relationship; a dozen great reunions; and just about anything done by Arya, whose every reaction is a thing of beauty and who had some of the show's most surprising yet organically plausible moments last week. What have you been enjoying?

TG: The next time we talk about this show it will be along the lines of, "Wow, with only four main characters still alive …" so in the meantime what I'm most enjoying is spending time with characters I love for probably the last time, or until I rewatch the entirety of the series. In an epic like Game of Thrones, a lot of the joy comes from character development and being able to watch certain characters grow up and others change while others remain gloriously the same. But it's the sitting with them that's the joy, right? That said, the critic in me is always concerned about things devolving into one endless fight at the expense of these characters and their stories.

I guess I want both: cinematic battles that indicate the story's climactic ending is here and yet somehow more — more story, more plot, etc. Game of Thrones ultimately thrives on its story more than its battles. And the least interesting thing to me is who will sit on the throne. I just want a good story smartly closed, though I'm also perfectly fine with elements of ambiguity as well. Do you have lofty expectations, or are you filled with worry about sticking the landing?

DF: I am, for the most part, a journey-oriented viewer rather than a destination-oriented viewer, so I don't have a single "landing" that I'm wedded to. There are characters whose deaths would upset me, in some cases spectacularly, but that's probably the point and I probably need to make peace with the reality that if none of those deaths occur, that would be dishonest storytelling. Ultimately the resolution, which we assume correctly or incorrectly must involve the Iron Throne, just needs to feel like it fits with the previous 70+ episodes. Does it seem to you like the ubiquity of Game of Thrones in our spring conversation is reflective of a vacated playing field? Or is perhaps the most crucial aspect of our job to make sure that the other great content doesn't get lost in the cacophony?

TG: It's weird to me that everyone seemed (intentionally or not, but probably intentionally) to keep clear of Game of Thrones, which I think is silly. Die-hard fans will watch this date and time, which almost never happens anymore. In that case, they have tons of time to spend on other shows so why not give them options? It's been pretty dead out there. That said, I'm an absolute staunch believer in the fact that people are drowning in content and are not at all caught up, so maybe the relative lack of new series has been a gift to them, allowing them to catch up on stuff we were talking about a year ago. And I'm not kidding about that. But there's good stuff out there that doesn't involve Westeros, Dan. Where would you like to start?

DF: Let's start with some returning shows that didn't blink and run scurrying away from the swathe of destruction wrought by the Night King. The second season of Killing Eve has benefitted from months of word-of-mouth buzz and from BBC America's smart decision to share the show with corporate sibling AMC. I confess I have some worries about the sustainability of the show's occasionally repetitive cat-and-mouse premise, but if that's the price to pay for watching Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer at work, I'll take it. Oh completely deserved her stint as the show's designated award recipient this winter, but I hope a second round of adventures helps Comer get her recognition as well, because I'm not sure this show is designed for an endless run (though it has already been renewed).

One returning show whose longevity I don't worry about anymore is FX's Better Things, with Pamela Adlon proving conclusively this season that she doesn't need regular collaborator Louis C.K. to locate the painful truth and occasional hilarity in parenting, colonoscopies and therapy, building on its already top-notch ensemble with perfectly used guests including Sharon Stone and Matthew Broderick.

TG: Other returning series of note are three pretty spectacular ones — HBO's Veep for its final season and Barry for its all important second season, and Catastrophe, which dropped its full last season on Amazon. Right there are three can't-miss series. With Barry, it's a little more in the early going but I love what they are doing with the bleaker tone, which I think really took over definitively in the final two episodes of season one. But both Veep and Catastrophe are, I'd say, well-established greats. Veep in particular is a series that is a force of nature — a tornado of brilliant, searing jokes — and I'm loving every second (then rewinding to laugh again). Catastrophe has always been a series I've wanted more from (as in, more episodes), but I loved how this one went out, offering just enough forward momentum and evolution to make sense, plus loads of laughs.

DF: "Bleak" might be an understatement when it comes to Barry, which has made an almost full transition to becoming a half-hour drama, while still keeping just enough quirkiness — bless NoHo Hank! — as it becomes more and more confident with its darker tone. Even with the real political world seemingly falling apart all around us, Veep hasn't reached that same level of genre transition, but it has somehow become even more scathing as Selina Meyer reaches, once again, for the presidency. What may be keeping Veep from becoming too toxic is the background joy that comes from watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus healthy and spitting David Mandel's filthy dialogue once again.

Veep's got a high bar to reach when it comes to its series finale, since the spring has already seen superb conclusions from You're the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Broad City. Throw in Catastrophe, which, as you say, found a way to wrap its four-season run with heart, in addition to its trademark gleeful bile, and that's a lot of great TV that we've lost in recent weeks.

TG: Ah but the good news is what we're getting that's fresh and new. Yay! Yay? I'll mourn the passing of good comedies as much as anyone and, as we've mentioned, if you're not talking about GoT right now, you're probably not watching TV at all. But for me two of the shows that have lit up this less cluttered landscape are both on Hulu, and both are giving voice to under-represented characters and stories: the body-positive Shrill and the comedy Ramy, a fish-out-of-water story that is thankfully not what it might have been in the wrong hands (i.e., a slacker Muslim American dude turning on his religion and family as he falls in love with the secular culture he was born into). Luckily, Ramy, in the episodes I've seen, has been more layered and nuanced than that, just as Shrill hasn't been exclusively about weight. While both series have some early problems that will likely disappear as their creators grow more confident in their voices, they absolutely work and have so much to recommend them.

DF: I think Ramy is a shockingly good and assured series debut from creator and star Ramy Youssef, as sincere and smart a depiction of faith and religion as you'll find on TV, with the 9/11 episode "Strawberries" sure to place among the year's best individual episodes. From slightly earlier in the calendar, I loved Hulu's PEN15, a high-concept comedy that I know you didn't like as much, but that grew deeper and more emotional for me with each passing episode and features two great performances from co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle.

It isn't the least bit funny, but Hulu has another winner with The Act, a true-crime miniseries that boasts Patricia Arquette's second "career-best" TV performance in less than a year (following Showtime's Escape at Dannemora) and marks Joey King's arrival as a real force. Leaving Hulu behind, but keeping with the theme of strong two-handers, FX's Fosse/Verdon has earned well-deserved support for leads Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, even if it's too frequently a surface-deep look at self-destructive genius artists and the brilliant, neglected women who stand behind them. It just happens that as a Broadway fan, I enjoy that glittery, jazzy surface. FX also delivered a spring comedy that I know you enjoyed very much.

TG: Oh, I'm so in love with FX's What We Do in the Shadows. It's been a while since I've thought, "Damn, I wish this was a show I could binge completely right now." The absurdism baked into that series and also Amazon's The Tick (which dropped its second season recently) is a welcome tonic to our times. Fosse/Verdon is something I was intrigued to look at from the perspective of someone who is kinda-sorta into Broadway but really not into musicals, and I've found the performances intriguing though the conceit is a little tired. And by the way, for clarity, I liked PEN15 plenty, especially the lead performances; I just didn't love it. The series is super granular and feels like a stretched-out sketch show, but I think there's plenty of room for a second season of growth.

Those three Hulu comedies each have a unique vision, which I welcome any day. I'm less enamored of something half-baked and pointless, like The Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access. The four episodes I watched were dreadful and I'm not going back for more. Not many shows have wasted that much star power, much less the property itself. Other spring disappointments for me were Miracle Workers, The Umbrella Academy and Turn Up Charlie, which were, in a word, brutal. I'm sure you had a number of titles that cratered your will to live?

DF: I found Miracle Workers low-key charming, a reasonable extension of the trippy Simon Rich rom-com brand, which I also enjoyed in Man Seeking Woman. And I enjoyed parts of Umbrella Academy — the musical numbers and several performances, mostly — though it's yet another Netflix show suffering from a lack of necessary shaping. Maybe I'm slightly more generous because I've sat through an endless string of creatively deprived midseason broadcast offerings from the lifelessly generic The Code on CBS to the ludicrously misguided In the Dark on The CW. The crazed, righteously angry third season of The Good Fight would be easily the best drama on broadcast TV, except that CBS has hidden it on CBS All-Access, where I hope awards voters will be able to look past the disappointing installments of The Twilight Zone to at least acknowledge Michael Sheen's titanic scenery chewing.

TG: I will complain no more — your willingness to jump on the network grenades earns my undying gratitude.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.