Critics' Conversation: 'I May Destroy You,' 'P-Valley' and Other Summer TV Greats, Groans and Guilty Pleasures

I May Destroy You (HBO), P-Valley (Starz) and Selling Sunset
HBO; Starz; Netflix

THR's TV critics break down the delights and disappointments of Summer 2020's small-screen offerings, including 'I May Destroy You,' 'P-Valley,' 'Lovecraft Country,' 'Perry Mason,' 'Immigration Nation' and — yes — 'Selling Sunset.'

Daniel Fienberg: As the world became a strange, shut-in place in the spring, quarantined viewers turned to the small screen for solace or escape — always with the concern that, even in the midst of Peak TV, we might eventually run out of programming. Well, we've made it through an equally bizarre summer, and we haven't scraped the bottom of the TV barrel, even as the world outside has become an even-more-uncertain landscape of protests, electoral neuroses and fit-and-start returns to normalcy.

Maybe our TV offerings slowed slightly these past few months, but television still provided opportunities for escape, as well as the chance to confront the underlying problems of modern life. 

For the purposes of this discussion, we're defining summer as "anything after the last Emmy window closed on May 31," starting with Michaela Coel's HBO dramedy I May Destroy You — a show that wasn't actually about a global pandemic, but otherwise stood as the most 2020 series imaginable with its probing looks at sexual assault, consent, social media and the healing power of telling one's story to the world. 

Inkoo, even if it's hard to know how many people watched it, I May Destroy You sure feels like the show of the summer, right?

Inkoo Kang: If we had to anoint a current series as the show of the summer, sure! Not to be a total downer, but pretty much all the civilians (i.e., non-critics) I talk to seem to be using their quarantines not to check out current shows, but to rewatch or catch up on shows of the recent past. (Sorry not sorry, but I’ve been doing my small part to push along this trend by relentlessly recommending Halt and Catch Fire, easily one of the best dramas of the past decade and a show that many of the civilians I talk to have never heard of.)

But if we’re talking about a current program, yes, Coel’s far-sighted exploration of the aftermath of sexual assault — among so many subjects — definitely feels like the show of the summer. Coming on the heels of #MeToo, it’s certainly an urgent and timely series, tackling so many of the ways we’ve neglected to talk about sexual assault by exhaustively cataloguing rape in its nauseatingly manifold incarnations. And yet, at least for homebound American viewers, it’s inevitably a bit escapist, too, since creator/writer/star Coel wanted to position her characters not just as survivors of sexual assault, but also as struggling creatives who feel joy and triumph as boundlessly as they feel pain and hurt. Set among a too-rarely-represented Black British, second-generation-African-immigrant milieu in London with occasional trips to a postcard-ready Italy — and, perhaps most notably, as an incredibly, subversively funny show that's primarily about rape — I May Destroy You is probably the most creatively accomplished series this summer.  

And that makes HBO’s far more lavishly produced, far less compellingly plotted big-splash show, Perry Mason, feel like even more like a dud. Do you agree, Dan?

DF: To me, the production values of Perry Mason are too exceptional and the cast too deep for it to be worse than a minor disappointment. So I don't know if it makes Perry Mason look like more of a dud, but it certainly makes the aspirations of Perry Mason seem more limited. The general problem with Perry Mason is that it has this big, ultimately meaningless brand name and this big, Emmy-winning star, but it's a show in which almost all of the interesting elements — Chris Chalk's Paul Drake reimagined as a Black cop increasingly disillusioned with the LAPD, Veronica Falcon as the lone representative of the Latino population of 1930s L.A., etc. — started off pushed to the side when they probably should have been front and center. Perry Mason is tentative on all of the social undercurrents that I May Destroy You tackles with gusto. Perry Mason is a show that can be appreciated and even respected, but I May Destroy You is a show that needs to be absorbed on a cellular level. 

I've loved the adulation Coel has gotten for this show, and it's a huge pity that her previous show, Chewing Gum, went off of Netflix a month before I May Destroy You premiered. Coel is fantastic, and she's part of a summer trend in which an unprecedented number of the most significant and buzzed-about shows were created by young, Black women. If Coel, Katori Hall (P-Valley) and Misha Green (Lovecraft Country) are the present of TV, it only makes me more excited for the future.

I'm here to wax poetic about the pungent, theatrical authenticity of P-Valley and the outsized genre craziness of Lovecraft Country, but I know you don't have equal warmth for them.

IK: Did you leave out Tatiana Maslany as a version of Aimee Semple McPherson on purpose? I only lasted three eps with Perry Mason — the handsome dark woods of the production design and noir-inspired lighting couldn’t make up for the sluggish writing and self-conscious grittiness  — but, at least early on, Sister Alice seemed by far the most intriguing character.  

I called P-Valley one of the year’s best shows in my review, and I stand by that endorsement. Like Perry Mason, it borrows liberally from film noir, but it also reinvents many of the genre’s tropes. Set in a Mississippi strip club under threat by developers, it goes even further than Hustlers did in recasting stripping as work, while celebrating the inventiveness and entrepreneurship of the most ambitious dancers. It also features some of the most gorgeous dialogue anywhere on TV, uttered with ebullience and verve by a cast of largely unknown but fantastically self-assured actors. 

Lovecraft, again, is a much more moneyed and star-studded affair, and one where I wished the storylines were anywhere near as solid as the production design (or even just Jurnee Smollett’s exquisite mid-century wardrobe)! The premise of a trio of Black friends and family — played by Jonathan Majors, Smollett, and, at least initially, Courtney B. Vance — road-tripping across America and encountering the horrors of both 1950s racism and supernatural monsters holds such promise. But I’m certainly not alone in being let down by the execution of the few episodes thus far allotted to critics, which have been plagued by pacing issues and unsatisfying thematic throughlines. And as someone new to H.P. Lovecraft, I have yet to be convinced by the show why his stories have endured all these decades (though I recognize the re-appropriation project of centering Black characters based on a racist sci-fi author’s creations).  

But you’re a much bigger fan of sci-fi than I am, Dan. I think we’re in pretty strong agreement on P-Valley. What’s your take on Lovecraft Country

DF: Lovecraft and his brand of dimension-bending horror is just the hook for Lovecraft Country. Subsequent episodes are more about the appropriation of a variety of pulp-fiction genres that have typically excluded Black stories and Black protagonists, and it's a tremendous amount of fun watching how a haunted-house ghost story plays out as a representation of suburban white flight, or seeing how an Indiana Jones-style adventure yarn amplifies the themes of colonialism when the formerly colonized get to be front and center. And I love the way Green and her team are all-in on the genres they're playing with. The fifth episode shovels on the gore with a glee that I found both provocative and hilariously gross. 

But we are, indeed, in agreement on P-Valley, a show with a language and rhythms and aesthetic that's all its own, even if it's also, as you say, playing around with some recognizable genre tropes. It's profane and naughty and transgressive. 

It should be noted that you don't have to upend genre to have fun with it. Something like Teenage Bounty Hunters on Netflix has a straight-up exploitation title that is probably alienating some people who would really like a show that's pretty clever and does some tricky things fairly well. Or look at how completely Apple TV+'s Ted Lasso just says, "Here's Major League, only with soccer" and then does it with affection and heart (compared to the coarse awfulness of Netflix’s underdog sports failure Hoops). I appreciate their spirit after suffering through the more leaden genre exercises that HBO Max (Love Life, Raised By Wolves) and Peacock (Intelligence, The Capture) have made so central to their roll-outs.

IK: I’d add to your list of winsome shows that have no interest in reinventing the wheel The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix, which is totally fine being a gentle and pastel-themed preteen-aimed show that’s extremely faithful to the book series, with some smart updates to its ‘80s-forged core. 

But summer is also the season we associate most with reality TV, no? Nothing has quite captured the Zeitgeist like Love Is Blind, which happened to debut just as lockdowns were starting on the coasts. But this summer has given us its share of buzz-worthy reality programs. Netflix's Indian Matchmaking proved a popular but polarizing watch, with viewers either appreciating a greater understanding of the marriage-arranging process or repelled by the show’s casual acceptance of the social dynamics (like caste discrimination and colorism) at play. I also saw a lot of debate on my social-media timelines over who the “real villain” of the show was, which to me speaks to the detailed and complicated portraits that we got of the series’ participants. 

The other reality juggernaut of the summer was Selling Sunset, a show I initially wrote off as a Bravo knock-off that combined real-estate porn with Housewives-style endless, artificial bickering, but then was quickly and irreparably sucked into. The female realtors that make up Selling Sunset’s cast certainly aren’t the most interesting women who’ve ever existed, and yet their planet-sized pettiness — and the added peek into This Is Us star Justin Hartley’s divorce from real-estate agent Chrishell Stause on the most recent season — have proved shockingly fascinating. 

But the reality series that gave me the most life this summer was Canada’s Drag Race, which somehow injected new, Alanis- and Celine-soundtracked blood into the long-running, airwaves-saturating, frankly fandom-exhausting Drag Race franchise. Much of the credit goes to Brooke Lynn Hytes, the runner-up on Drag Race’s eleventh season and the closest thing that Canada’s Drag Race has to a RuPaul replacement. (It helps that Hytes has some killer improvisatory chops.) The quarantine has encouraged even half-way adventurous TV viewers stateside to try more international fare, and this small foray into non-American programming has me itching for more. 

DF: Yes! Thank you so much for mentioning The Baby-Sitters Club, which absolutely should go on that list of shows that don't upend genre, but simply do it right. Truly one of the surprise pleasures of the summer.

And it has indeed been a terrific summer for either "reality" or "unscripted" TV, a line that has blurred so much that I barely know how I'd differentiate one from the other. Definitely Netflix's Immigration Nation is as "real" as it gets, but it seems wrong to put it in the same category as, say, Love Island. It's harrowing and unpleasant and filled with a well-earned righteousness about America's broken immigration system, placing a lot of the blame on Donald Trump, but being sure to distribute it liberally. It's essential viewing, even if it's not always easy to watch. 

I'd also single out the latest season of Netflix's Last Chance U, which made a welcome change of location to Laney College in Oakland, with a new season that was much more a piece of urban anthropology than previous seasons, which were often a lot of obscenity-spewing coaches. They say this will be the last chance for football to be central on Last Chance U (a basketball season is upcoming), but I hope they eventually reconsider. 

Hulu's Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi maybe hasn't gotten quite as much buzz as Netflix's reasonably OK Down to Earth with Zac Efron, but it's an absolute winner in the celebrity-driven travel/food/cultural-understanding genre. 

Here's hoping we've given you enough shows to catch up on if you've been spending your summer doing other things, or just watching Halt and Catch Fire, which I join Inkoo in thoroughly recommending!