Critic's Notebook: TV Time Summer Catch-Up, Part 1

Good Omens-Years and Years-Russian Doll-Killing Eve-Publicity-Split-H 2019
Courtesy of Amazon Studios; HBO; Netflix; BBC America

No one has been allowed to say "there's nothing on" for close to a decade because, well, that's just ridiculous in what we now call the Peak TV Era but back then was just called "I'm drowning in options and it's fun?" 

And yet, if you look at the calendar and then look at the upcoming premiere calendar, you may have noticed something really strange.

There's a... lull.

Outside of Netflix's Stranger Things premiering its much-anticipated third season on the Fourth of July, it's kind of a dead zone for a good portion of the month, no disrespect intended to the others (okay, fine, maybe a little). But the best way to look at this little gift of a window is as one big opportunity — either to catch up on the myriad shows you've started or start the ones that have been on your to-do list or stuck in the dark recesses of the brain. "Oh! Gentleman Jack, yes! I wanted to see that, I think." 

Don't be too hard on yourself. Peak TV makes us all crazy to feel lazy about not starting shows (or, for that matter, finishing them). But here's a hopefully helpful selection of series that will prompt you to get started. (Part 2 will follow on Friday.)

Three Brilliantly Creative New Series: 

These are fresh, there are only a limited number of episodes to absorb and you'll be right into (or likely ahead of) the zeitgeist. 

Years and Years. HBO. It's on right now. It's unbelievably original and great, particularly if you didn't vote for Donald Trump and you think the world has become stupid and awful and you want to watch something really smart tackle that notion with Emma Thompson in it. Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Doctor Who) absolutely kills it here, and the level of ambition and execution, from concept to writing to acting, is truly something special. This is a miniseries that overcomes so many obstacles it feels absolutely essential to watch. And isn't what this list is about?

Perpetual Grace, LTD. Epix. This is probably only second because you're going to have to put in more effort to find it. As long as everyone understands that agreement going in, we're all good — and you, dear viewer, will be great once you discover this one. It's from Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris (Patriot) and watching this is like finally reading that novel everyone raved about for its bright, pungent originality — you can't believe where the story is taking you and why it took you so long to even pick it up. That's true here, even if Perpetual Grace, LTD just started. You can get the Epix app to stream this for a fair price and, look, this is either going to be at the top or very near the top of my best of 2019 list at this point so you should jump in. Oh, and you really haven't seen Ben Kingsley like this and once you see Jimmi Simpson, you'll be all "Oh, that guy!" and he'll be even better than whatever you remember him in. 

Good Omens. Amazon. Thinking that recent and ongoing news events already have you on the edge of despair and/or sanity and even something brilliant from the Brits like Years and Years would cause you too much distress? Then how about something funny and sweet and amazingly creative and also British, from Neil Gaiman (based on the book he wrote with Terry Pratchett), featuring Frances McDormand as the voice of God? Trust me, it's ineffable (and if you watch, you'll know what that means). This is a tidy miniseries that brings a lot of entertainment value and is arguably one of the most completely enjoyable series this year.

Three Series You Should Already Have Watched But We Will Spare You The Guilt:

Look, these three are all highly touted, irrefutably entertaining and you can't claim never to have heard of them. But this isn't about shaming, it's about enabling. These are fail-proof, must-see shows, so start right now.

Russian Doll. Netflix. Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) stars in, wrote and created this (along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) and it's a tour-de-force, an updated and darker Groundhog Day, set in New York and riffing on Lyonne's headstrong abrasiveness and how that might react to a series of ever-changing but ever-familiar moments. This is a series that starts out familiar and gets cleverer with each episode. Then somewhere near the midpoint of its eight episodes it becomes an aggressively creative, challenging experiment, vastly removed from where it started, even while the familiar elements remain intact. Any more extrapolation of that will probably ruin it, but the guess here is that you've at least heard you should watch this and it's been on your list for a while. Now is the time.

Fleabag. Amazon. The first season was fast and brilliant and the long-delayed, almost-didn't-happen second (and final) season is fast and mostly brilliant (the plot is less interesting and less believable than the first, but creator, writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge remains everything and carries it). Waller-Bridge was in the enviable position of having absolutely nailed the first season and, being British, had no real desire to keep doing the same thing which is more common on American television. But she also had a fantastic character in the hilarious but sad and damaged Fleabag, plus an audience that wanted more. (And oh, see below — she also created yet another hit show and was busy doing movies.) The argument here is that Waller-Bridge focused more intently on closing some stories for surrounding characters and took an idea about religion and turned it into a meet-cute, which works because the character, with fourth-wall breaking glances and Waller-Bridge's amazingly telling and elastic face, can do anything. Whether the dalliance with a hot priest ended up being the best and most rewarding storyline can be left to you (I'm saying no in my review), but this much is undeniable: The character is still exceptional and she will be missed.

Killing EveBBC America. So, as noted above, Waller-Bridge took a series of books of the same name by Luke Jennings — based on a female assassin named Villanelle — and completely ran with it. She developed not only a great new role for American actress Sandra Oh as the newbie spy who catches the attention of her target, Jodie Comer's Villanelle, but arguably reversed the expected result: Audiences loved Oh and the awards recognition followed, even though it's Comer's wonderfully, lovably deranged assassin at the core of the series. In season two, which is heavily Villanelle and thus Comer-centric, Killing Eve has managed to elevate both actresses to odds-on nominees (and winners?) in pretty much all remaining awards, including the Emmys. That's just a long-winded way of saying, wow, both of them are exceptional, devouring material that Waller-Bridge gave them to fuel their characters, and meshing with a strong supporting cast to create what amounts to thrilling, easy-to-digest candy. While plowing through Russian Doll (eight episodes, 30 minutes each) and Fleabag (12 episodes, 30 minutes each) is like bingeing ice cream compared to Killing Eve's 16 hourlong episodes, don't let time be your sole guide. For a twisty, character-saturated drama, Killing Eve just flies by. There's a reason most of the people you know have already seen it and are holding back spoilers while socializing with you.

Three Excellent Series From Elsewhere:

Well, that's concise at least. Look, nobody expects you to fall behind on a bunch of must-see shows and then randomly detour to several that you've never heard anyone talk about from outside this country. But know this: These shows are different, they bring a unique viewpoint and they're compelling, high-quality finds. 

Das BootHulu. There are a couple of notable American actors here — Lizzy Caplan and Vincent Kartheiser — but this is a resoundingly international affair, with German, French and English mixed in creatively as the story behind Wolfgang Petersen's acclaimed 1981 film of the same name gets continued rather than remade. It picks up roughly nine months after the movie ended, in 1942, in German-occupied La Rochelle, France. If you're thinking, oh, subtitles, cramped German submarines and heavy themes, well, you're only partly right and you'd be wrong to think that's a struggle to endure. Das Boot is nimble and riveting and surprising at more turns than you can imagine. Don't think of this as an eat-your-vegetables affair, but rather a TV offering that stands out in a crowded field for being surprisingly thrilling and addictive, a real find.

Line Of Duty. Acorn. If you're a British cop show aficionado, and there are many, you either know of this already or you're standing there slack-jawed thinking, "Wait, what?" (You'd be shocked at how large the latter group is, especially in this country.) No show five seasons into its run is a huge secret, but if you haven't followed the series you can easily access it starting now. You'll miss some long-con gambits from series creator Jed Mercurio (he did the recent hit Bodyguard, which, come to think of it, probably should be on this list), but will still get a fully realized story in which you won't feel lost. The attraction here is how stunningly well Mercurio weaves a tangled web of plotlines. Line of Duty is fueled in every season by some twist you didn't see coming — or several. The fact that Mercurio is still so damned good at that is quite the accomplishment. And yes, Acorn, like Epix, can be found as a rather affordable streaming app, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by what's in its vault.

Informer. Amazon. OK, this is going back to the beginning of the year and that might be a stretch for some, but know these two things: 1) The whole point of this list is to get you turned on to things of value; and 2) I'd argue that Informer will absolutely make my best of 2019 list. (Not all of these will, by the way.) Amazon and the BBC have crafted a superb take on race, class, immigration and terrorism, and in Britain this series was a huge hit, rivaling the aforementioned Bodyguard. And as I noted in my review, this one is vastly more believable. I loved how creatively this was constructed and how it becomes something unexpected as a deep-cover counterterrorism officer (Paddy Considine) enlists — okay, twists — a young Pakistani man in East London to help him inform. Imagine one idea blowing out into something much bigger and more dangerous and you've got Informer. It might not be as much fun as, say, Killing Eve, but it's damned good.