Critic's Notebook: TV Time Summer Catch-Up, Part 2

Gentleman Jack, Chernobyl, What We Do in the Shadows and When They See Us_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of FX; Courtesy of Netflix

Here's the short version of what you were pitched on Wednesday to get you to start watching series you've put off: Now. Is. The. Time.

Seriously, there's a July lull that can't be ignored in our Peak TV times. Outside of the hoopla surrounding the Fourth of July premiere of Netflix's Stranger Things, there's an inarguable, uh, opportunity to stop wincing at the relentless slate of new premieres and realize that, well, a lot of what's coming out this month isn't super compelling. So, yeah, if ever there were a time to look at your list of TV series to-dos — oh, dear TV Gods, it's long — this is that time. Let's continue to cross them off your list and, in fairness, this batch may be more to your liking than those curated for your enjoyment on Wednesday.

Three Sobering Series With Relevance and Gravitas

If that subhead doesn't convey to you that these are not carnivals of joy, just prepare yourself to be moved (or, in some instances, to be moved to look away). Hey, they can't all be unicorns and rainbow rom-coms. They are, however, very much worth your time.

Chernobyl. HBO. Here's the thing — you know how it ends. But what you don't know is what you've forgotten, which is your own sense of how the world can end on a mistake, a misunderstanding of science, a human error couched in embarrassment. While it's often difficult to watch once the meltdown occurs (and that happens immediately), Chernobyl is exceptional in standing firm about how the world was unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and how, all these years later, not much has changed on that front. You might struggle with the decision to let the actors speak in their natural accents and not a Russian one (probably smart, but still a bit erratic), but it's a minor obstacle. Beyond that, creator and writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck are relentless in their pursuit of a truthful story. It's fascinating how many people reference this miniseries, given how difficult it is to watch at times and the distinct unease that it creates. Meaning, other people got themselves to commit and were glad they did. You can do it, too. 

When They See Us. Netflix. In 2012, PBS, Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns (who had published books on the topic) and her husband, David McMahon, made the doc The Central Park Five, based on the case of five wrongly accused young men. The hope then was that the film would finally push New York to settle the case against the city from the men involved, which it did two years later. In 2016, the United States elected a president who actively, at the time of the Central Park Five case, called for the death penalty for those wrongly accused and was relentless in stirring up discord he hasn't apologized for since. It's with this background in mind that filmmaker Ava DuVernay constructs When They See Us, pursuing her purpose of putting names and faces to the Central Park Five (a term she willfully keeps at a distance). DuVernay makes the stories of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise visceral, fueling a miniseries that fellow critic Dan Fienberg called in his review "a rigorous attempt to chronicle an epic legal failure and to help restore a sense of the men as individuals, rather than faceless members of a wrongfully accused collective."

Euphoria. HBO. The caveat here certainly won't apply to all viewers, but if you have kids — particularly teenagers — you're almost guaranteed to be triggered by this unflinching look at modern teen drug use and sex, the propulsive influence of social media and a pervasive cultural condition of too-fast and too-soon. Euphoria is boundary-pushing but steeped in realism, a series that makes 1995's shocking film Kids, from Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, seem tame by comparison (as harrowing as that sounds). However, it's easy to get caught up in how and why the series might outrage or trigger parents (because they don't want to believe or because it's too heartbreaking and scary for them to acknowledge the lives their kids could be living), which takes away from all the exceptionally real moments within the actual series. It won't be for everyone, but Euphoria is surprisingly great at many turns and never gets at its deeper truths via shock value alone. It earns everything along the way, with outstanding performances from pop singer Zendaya and trans actress and model Hunter Schafer, among others. 

Four Ridiculously Fun Series If You Can't Take Those Previous Three

Yes, we just let you off the hook. If you don't want to eat your vegetables or explore some painful stories and topics, well, there's always this bunch of hilarious, goofy and massively entertaining offerings. No shame in that. 

What We Do in the Shadows. FX. Absolute, unapologetic absurdity is the power that fuels this hilarious docudrama about a house full of vampires in Staten Island. Based on the acclaimed cult film, the series has a different cast but is still shepherded by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also made the movie. It is relentlessly creative and easily outsteps the traps you'd think it would set for itself (as in, where does the joke go after you realize it's a docudrama about lazy, eclectic vampires?). Oh, does it continue to evolve and surprise. Easily one of the funniest and most inventive shows of the year. 

Los Espookys. HBO. Speaking of oddball, how about a Spanish-language horror comedy?  Despite the presence of co-creator Fred Armisen (Portlandia), Los Espookys is not an American show with a Latin flavor; it's a full-on Spanish-language series that, like other international series here, just wants you to follow along and, because this one is also absurdist, laugh while doing it. Fellow THR TV critic Dan Fienberg, in his review, reveals that the joy in just saying the name is almost reason enough for the show to exist. But as he also noted in his quite positive review, Los Espookys is conceptually inventive and viewers will figure that out and get hooked beyond the fun title. 

Barry. HBO. Another HBO series that knows a little something about the dodge and weave of the unexpected is Barry, a tonally jarring comedy and drama that was frantically, brilliantly all over the map in season one until it was — oh holy hell — very much a drama in the last two intense episodes. While the second season keeps pushing slightly more toward drama, the balance is perhaps more manageable and the laughs as funny as ever. Deranged assassin/wannabe actor Barry (Bill Hader) is a complex guy. It's best to leave it at that so as not to spoil anything, but Barry seems absolutely to fall into that category of "I'm dying to watch that." Meaning that, more than a lot of shows on this list, people seem to already know about it. They know other people love it. There is pre-existing buzz. So for them (and you) it's discovery time. The episodes rush by; don't forget how much vision went into making it.

Legion. FX. No other series on this list (and only Line of Duty from our Wednesday list) has a history beyond two seasons. Part of that is freshness — to stay current. Part of that is making it easy for you to catch up. But in the case of Legion, maybe your willingness to put it off until later will actually pay off if you binge it all right now. Here's why: Season one was great — super triptastic. Season two was ... lots of fun, but slower and more mind-altering and that got people griping about what it all meant and where it was all going (hint: that's not why you should be watching this show — just go with the visual brilliance and fugue state dance scenes). This new third season is fantastic and will eventually, possibly with some clarity, wrap up the whole story. It moves with precision and just feels more directed (plus, as it gets freakier and more stunningly ambitious, you just appreciate being in the moment more).

Three Series With No Connective or Catchy Theme But That You Shouldn't Sleep On

That's my way of saying these are unlikely to be your first choices as you use July to get ahead. But they're worthy and shouldn't be tossed aside just because they're not sexy.

City On a Hill. Showtime. The deal here is pretty simple with this epic Kevin Bacon-led cops and corruption series: You're going to need more than a few weeks in July to invest in it. In fact, as I wrote in my review, the series is pretty clearly asking you to watch for the next five seasons. That's how it's built. City On a Hill is a little retro in that regard, but it's got a strong cast (Aldis Hodge is a standout next to Bacon as co-lead), executive producer pedigree (Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon) and it makes no bones about being novelistic. 

Catch-22. Hulu. On the opposite spectrum, this six-part miniseries is a pretty quick one to get through and you probably read the book at some point, but it's grouped here because it didn't generate the kind of buzz one might have thought with George Clooney, Kyle Chandler and others involved, yet it remains very worthy of your time. There's a reason few have tried to film Joseph Heller's book, but in this Hulu original there's real success in getting the tone right. Give it a shot. 

Gentleman Jack. HBO. How about we close out on a real surprise? A true-life lesbian love story out of Britain and set in 1832 didn't burst out of the gates as HBO's buzziest offering, but there's something about Anne Lister, who suffered no fools back in the day and was generations before her time as an out lesbian, that hooked viewers (it was recently renewed for a second season). Lister was partially famous for the diaries she left behind — a portion of them written in code about what had really happened in her circles. The project was a dream for Sally Wainwright — and if you've seen her terrific series Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax you'll understand part of why Gentleman Jack works so well (the other is a fantastic star turn from Suranne Jones in the lead). The duo makes Gentleman Jack stand out and demand not to be overlooked.