America to Us: Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Pick 11 Great Shows to Celebrate the Fourth of July

6:45 AM 7/3/2020

by Daniel Fienberg and Inkoo Kang

An epic doc exploring race and education, comedies about immigration and mega-store workers and a classic high-school-football drama are among first-rate series that reflect the best — and honestly grapple with the worst — of America.

From left: 'America to Me,' 'Friday Night Lights' and 'One Day at a Time'
From left: 'America to Me,' 'Friday Night Lights' and 'One Day at a Time'
Starz; Photofest; POP TV

For a few months, we’ve been curating these lists of high-quality content for viewers living under some level of confinement. While parts of the country have been relaxing restrictions, others are tightening them.

That means that many people this holiday weekend will be in places where traditional activities, like open-air concerts, fireworks, baseball games and BBQs in the park or at the beach, are out of reach — relics of a not-so-distant past.

So we decided to celebrate America, TV critic-style, in as clear-eyed a way as we can: by selecting 11 shows that embody, reflect or examine American virtues and failings — and, in many cases, convey a measure of optimism about the American Experiment. Also, they’re all great shows.

  • 'America to Me' (Starz)

    'America to Me'
    'America to Me'
    Courtesy of Starz

    Steve James’ Chicago-set public school docuseries was my favorite show of 2018, and I’ve been going on about it ever since. If you want to start a real, ground-up conversation about modern America — both its potential and the places and people it’s failing every day — every topic you’d ever want to invoke plays out here, all with an endearing, inspiring, funny and emotional backdrop worthy of a John Hughes movie. Sincere apologies if I’ve made this one sound like homework over the years. Oh, and if you don’t have Starz — America to Me is back behind that paywall — but crave non-fiction Americana, might I recommend Hulu’s new Taste the Nation, which brings up many of the same parts of the national tapestry, only with more food and Padma Lakshmi? — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens' (Comedy Central) / 'One Day at a Time' (Pop TV)

    'Awkwafina is Nora From Queens'
    'Awkwafina is Nora From Queens'
    Zach Dilgard

    Sometimes a show just feels like home. That’s certainly the case for me when I watch Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and One Day at a Time, both of which center on working-class intergenerational immigrant families — invisible on TV for so long — wisecracking under one roof. Nora From Queens revolves around a Chinese-American clan in Queens and One Day at a Time around a Cuban-American one in Echo Park, but the cultural specificities borrowed from the creators’ own biographies endow each show with an unmistakable warmth and sense of rootedness. — INKOO KANG

  • 'Betty' (HBO)

    'Betty'
    'Betty'
    Alison Rosa/HBO

    If you slept on HBO’s skateboarding dramedy when it premiered this May, the first thing you need to know is that it’s all about the mood. Yes, there are little (and not-so-little) dramas in the lives of this group of young New York City women who want nothing more than to hang out, occasionally get high and gleam the cube (yes, I’m old). And yes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the performances from Dede Lovelace, Kabrina Adams, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Rachelle Vinberg and the rest of the cast. But mostly, it’s a mood — and that mood is multicultural, unrestricted by economic status and free to love whomever you want to love. Directed by creator Crystal Moselle, this is a six-episode burst of freedom and joy. Pair it with FX’s Pose for a glimpse at what New York City can be. — D.F.

  • 'Friday Night Lights' (NBC)

    'Friday Night Lights'
    'Friday Night Lights'
    Photofest

    If America to Me sounds too much like homework, might I interest you in a scripted show that’s just like America to Me, only with more football and a season-two body-disposal arc? (Note: America to Me only aired for one season. It’s entirely possible the second season would have included a body-disposal arc.) From racial friction to religious fundamentalism to (Taylor) family values to border-adjacent immigration struggles to the nourishing power of sports, it’s all here and delivered by one of the most photogenic casts in television history. And it’s on Hulu. — D.F.

  • 'From the Earth to the Moon' (HBO)

    'From the Earth to the Moon'
    'From the Earth to the Moon'
    HBO/Photofest

    Most of our selections here are pragmatic and paradigm-shifting, but here’s a chunk of wholesome, clean-cut American exceptionalism — albeit one that doesn’t always know how to include the contributions of women and people of color, which probably makes it even more representative of our painful current moment. (One exception: the Sally Field-directed “The Original Wives Club,” one of the 12-episode series’ standouts.) One can’t go wrong, honestly, with any of HBO’s Tom Hanks-produced miniseries, including the masterful Band of BrothersThe Pacific and John Adams. But this one, with its nuanced and beautifully structured depiction of the Apollo program, is the first, possibly still the best and now on HBO Max. — D.F.

  • 'Little America' (Apple TV+)

    'Little America'
    'Little America'
    Courtesy of Apple TV+

    Each episode of this quietly powerful anthology drama from executive producers Kumail Nanjiani and Alan Yang is dedicated to dramatizing a real-life immigrant’s journey. Together, their stories illustrate that the concerns, priorities and joys of immigrants can’t be reduced to a formula or cliché. It’s vital — and revitalizing — to view America from the perspectives of the outsiders who might be able to see it most clearly, be they a Syrian refugee fleeing war and homophobia, an Indian-American teen suddenly thrust into hotel management or a lonely Nigerian graduate student finding a community by embracing his cowboy fantasies. — I.K.

  • 'Orange Is the New Black' (Netflix)

    'Orange is the New Black'
    'Orange is the New Black'
    Netflix

    One thing that unfortunately distinguishes America from the rest of the world is our enormous prison population, which has too often suffered from being “out of sight, out of mind.” Orange is the New Black is enormously important in this regard; no other series has managed to so thoroughly humanize inmates while exposing the institutional rot and daily injustices of our carceral system. The Netflix favorite gets at something of the absurdly different experiences of women in America across race, class, creed and geography, even when they’re all behind bars, while consistently managing to be one of the funniest shows ever made. — I.K.

  • 'Superstore' (NBC)

    'Superstore'
    'Superstore'
    Eddy Chen/NBC

    America likes to think of itself as a middle-class country, but as news reports have been reminding us for years, the American middle class is disappearing. Perhaps that’s why Superstore, which follows the workers at a Walmart-like mega-store, feels more like a statement on today’s America than, say, its obvious predecessor, The OfficeSuperstore doesn’t glorify its characters; there’s always a screw-up of the week. But it’s the rare sitcom (on a broadcast network, no less) to tackle workers’ issues that affect tens of millions of Americans — and the small triumphs that minimum-wage employees routinely treated as dispensable or interchangeable can still find on the job. — I.K.

  • 'Underground' (WGN America)

    'Underground'
    'Underground'
    Courtesy of WGN America

    I’m still angry at WGN for so badly botching its foray into scripted originals that this badass blending of history, action and hip-hop couldn’t find traction. Misha Green and Joe Polaski’s look at the Antebellum South and the Underground Railroad puts a lie to any claims that celebrating the Confederacy is a “heritage” thing. This is a proudly American series, and the proud Americans featured in it spend two seasons kicking proto-Confederate butt. It’s packed with great performances from the likes of Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Amirah Vann and Chris Meloni. And definitely stick around for Aisha Hinds’ second-season turn as Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest performances ever ignored by Emmy voters. — D.F.

  • 'The X-Files' (Fox)

    'The X-Files'
    'The X-Files'
    Courtesy of FOX

    Years before QAnon and the launch of the current anti-vaccine movement, The X-Files captured something ineradicable about the paranoid style in American politics, culture and everything else. In the ‘90s, during the sci-fi series’ heyday, it was the sexual tension between improbably attractive FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) that made viewers tune in en masse to a show about alien-abduction coverups by what we’d now call the Deep State. In hindsight, though, it seems clear that The X-Files also struck a nerve by finally getting Americans to admit, even in the relatively peaceful and prosperous Clinton years, that there was a lot to distrust about those entrusted with power. The X-Files is out there — on Hulu. — I.K.