Critics' Conversation: 'The Queen's Gambit,' Ethan Hawke and Other Fall TV Faves and Fails

The Good Lord Bird, The Queen’s Gambit and The Boys
Courtesy of Showtime;Netflix;Amazon

From left: 'The Good Lord Bird,' 'The Queen's Gambit' and 'The Boys.'

THR's TV critics break down the highs and lows of fall 2020's small-screen offerings, including 'The Queen's Gambit,' 'The Good Lord Bird,' 'The Vow,' 'Ted Lasso' and new seasons of 'The Crown,' 'The Mandalorian' and 'The Boys.'

DANIEL FIENBERG: Most years, when critics gather to discuss the highlights and lowlights of fall TV, the conversation at least initially revolves around the launch of the traditional broadcast season in the aftermath of the Emmys.

Little known fact: This is not a normal year.

Thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which torpedoed pilot season in the spring, this has been an autumn almost completely devoid of new broadcast shows. Since Fox's Filthy Rich and NEXT were both pre-COVID holdovers (and both were bad and have been canceled already) and NBC's Connected … hardly felt like a real show at all, broadcast's only truly new offerings this fall were CBS' B Positive and ABC's Big Sky. I'm a defender of B Positive, which boasts a great cast led by Annaleigh Ashford, and a detractor of David E. Kelley's Big Sky, which attempts an interesting genre subversion and fails. But I don't think a conversation focusing on those shows is going to take us very far.

Inkoo, with broadcast networks largely forced to only partially participate in what's normally their season to shine, what has dominated fall TV for you?

INKOO KANG: Is it too soon to bring up the election again? In our post-monoculture media landscape, no TV event since the Game of Thrones finale seems to have captured the country’s attention like what became Election Week. Sure, it didn’t unite the country the way Bran Stark’s utterly anticlimactic ascent to the throne did, but it did make unlikely heartthrobs (or as L.A. Times TV editor Matt Brennan would say, “chartthrobs”) out of the wonks at CNN and MSNBC.

But before we get to the fall’s buzzy shows (The Crown! The Vow! The Boys! The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City!), it’s worth considering all the other ways COVID-19 has upended or inspired programming. We got several attempts at making sense of, if not wringing some romance out of, lockdown with Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, Netflix’s Social Distance and the aforementioned Connecting … All of those shows were filmed on spartan, makeshift sets or in actors’ homes, as were HBO’s monologue-driven stage-to-screen specials Coastal Elites and Between the World and Me. Save for the latter, I can’t particularly say I fully enjoyed any of them, but they are, as New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik called them, “fascinating first drafts of pop history.”

And, of course, the enormous but necessary costs of COVID testing and personal protective equipment on sets — on one series, between $300,000 and $500,000 per episode — meant the cancellation of several beloved shows that had previously been renewed, most notably Netflix’s GLOW and The Society, ABC’s Stumptown and Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida.

Has the pandemic led to any positive developments or silver linings this fall, Dan?

FIENBERG: Yeah, that $300,000 to $500,000 figure for PPE came from Lesley Goldberg and my TV’s Top 5 podcast interview with Alex Kurtzman, and it has been fascinating having those conversations with producers about unplanned stoppages and extended schedules and all of the complications and nightmares of COVID production. Lots of kissing through plexiglass and sitting in directors' chairs surrounded by plexiglass or getting makeup done by people basically encased in plexiglass.

Have there been any silver linings or positives? Well, no. As you mentioned, the minimalist lockdown programming has felt born of necessity or possibly desperation rather than anything creative, and it has shown in the lack of innovation or introspection. And the ways in which shows have subsequently tackled COVID-19 since production has haltingly restarted have been a mixed bag. I think Superstore and a couple medical procedurals have approached it smartly, but the majority of shows have either been perplexingly evasive or, in the case of the Chuck Lorre CBS shows, in an odd kind of fantastical denial.

Then again, if our other conversational choice is the election and its aftermath, even if we're going to celebrate Steve Kornacki and the rest, I can see the value in fantastical denial. Or in the radical optimism of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, which premiered in August, ran through October and then has become something of the binge show of the fall as viewers have looked for escapism in large doses. That a British soccer comedy heavily inspired by Major League has picked up the mantle of Schitt's Creek as the exemplar of upbeat TV maybe wasn't predictable, but I understand the instinct.

KANG: I concluded after two episodes that Ted Lasso is aggressively Not My Thing, but it’s unsurprising that a show that foregrounds big-heartedness (qualified with some undeniable doofiness and familial melancholy) became the sleeper hit of the season. Is Ted Lasso the Joe Biden of fall TV?

And while we’re on the subject of aggressively Not My Thing, I really did not anticipate getting so utterly sucked into Amazon’s bleak superhero parody The Boys, whose gory, edgelord sensibility is far from my usual cup of tea. But I binged both seasons within a week, impressed by its poison-dipped political satire, which presumes that if superheroes are real, a superhero-industrial complex won’t be far behind. And in a year when fans and creatives alike were forced to reconsider how some of our most familiar TV genres — the cop comedy, the police procedural, law-enforcement reality — skewed our understanding of the criminal-justice system, The Boys went much further in connecting the dots between authority figures, capitalism, religious institutions and political demagoguery. It’s certainly the most exciting political satire I’ve seen during the entire Trump era.

FIENBERG: It's funny you start by mentioning The Boys, because there's no question it was one of the fall's buzziest shows — and you can pair it with Ted Lasso as streaming shows that, in theory, benefited from format-defying weekly airing, rather than just giving in to the binge model. The Boys drew out its place in the conversation by not dumping all of its episodes at once, a choice that was initially controversial. With its emphasis on glib violence and somewhat on-the-nose satirizing of the commodification of superheroes, The Boys would normally have made a big splash and been gone in two weeks, but instead generated trending topics for two months. I'd argue that Ted Lasso went from being genially appreciated during its regular run to beloved once viewers were able to embrace its unfolding heart, silliness and optimism in a 10-episode gulp.

Ultimately, I don't think either show "proves" anything about the ongoing binge/weekly debate. Something like Disney+'s The Mandalorian absolutely illustrates that a purely episodic show can get people talking about each new adorable Baby Yoda adventure every weekend. But I don't think Netflix is disappointed when a show like The Haunting of Bly Manor has exactly one or two weeks of frantic appreciation and then vanishes until next Halloween.

There's just no one-size-fits-all logic to it. A smart, thoughtful, grown-up show with literary pretensions (of the best kind) like Netflix's The Queen's Gambit is still being discovered and absorbed in its totality several weeks after its premiere, whereas a smart, thoughtful, grown-up show with literary pretensions (of the best kind) like Showtime's The Good Lord Bird doesn't feel like it snowballed as its weekly airings went along. I think both shows are great in their own way and I hope Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke are in awards conversations, yet I don't know that there's a logic as to which release model would have most behooved either show.

KANG: I found the first half of The Queen’s Gambit to be much stronger (i.e., less repetitive) than its second half, but it did make me happy to see a miniseries about a female chess champion and the gendered nature of tranquilizer addiction attain its sleeper-hit status in real time.

And was there any doubt that The Crown’s fourth season would be a sensation, fitting with its most anticipated character, tabloid magnet Princess Diana (played by an excellent Emma Corrin)? I got several inquiries from friends asking if they could just start the show with the season four premiere — to which the answer is an unreserved yes — and now my Twitter timeline is full of hot takes about Diana vs. Charles, giving me a glimpse of what social media might’ve looked like if it had existed in 1992.

Watching along with Twitter also enhanced the viewing experiences of HBO’s The Vow and Starz’s Seduced. The NXIVM docs were always going to be social-media bait, but it was fascinating watching the target of the audience's anger shift from cult leader Raniere to Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s nine-part series, which has now been renewed for a second season that will focus on the trials of Raniere and his deputies. In recent years, the prestige-TV audience has gotten a lot smarter about — and fed up with — bloated nonfiction treatments, and it’ll be interesting, as a critic and industry-watcher, to see if networks respond with shorter episode orders or, more likely, a shrugging acceptance that viewers will probably force themselves to finish the shows they’ve started. (My timeline’s argued for weeks that Seduced is the better doc, and it’s hard to disagree.)

Any buzzy fall shows I’ve missed, Dan?

FIENBERG: On a level of craft and storytelling, Seduced is, for me, far superior to The Vow, and I wish it had come out when the bloat of The Vow hadn't left me punch-drunk on NXIVM content. I could only make it through one episode of Seduced and I may need to revisit it with a clearer palate — assuming I ever feel a renewed appetite for rich white people being duped by grotesque gurus and rapists.

Of course, election over-saturation didn't impact my appreciation of National Geographic's City So Real, another Chicago-set nonfiction winner from Steve James, or the nonstop churn of true crime docs on FX (A Wilderness of Error) or HBO (Murder on Middle Beach), or even the trashy delights of Netflix's Deaf U, with its heavy influence from early Real World and The Hills.

There's a lot of sameness when it comes to TV docs, and maybe that's why I loved HBO's How to With John Wilson so much. The Nathan Fielder-produced comedy is all about expanding the world around you from a different, quirkier perspective and I found the six-episode, half-hour series to be strangely hilarious and unexpectedly moving. The finale, which brought Wilson's fly-on-the-pavement look at New York City up to the arrival of COVID, is astonishing.

The fall has been plagued by disappointments like Disney+'s shiny, hollow The Right Stuff, Amazon's poorly timed and poorly toned Utopia and yet another dismal The Walking Dead spinoff. So I've tried my hardest to relish the things that have lived up to expectations — like the pandemic-truncated second season of Pen15, somehow cringier and yet more watchable than the first, and the aforementioned The Crown, even if I haven't figured out how I feel about Gillian Anderson's take on Margaret Thatcher.

Anything else you want to mention before we hunker down for winter, Inkoo?

KANG: I was initially stumped by Anderson’s performance, too, although I eventually decided I was into it.

I’ll certainly echo your endorsement of The Good Lord Bird, a beautifully lyrical and unnervingly funny bio-drama about the violent abolitionist John Brown that feels like it has few if any precedents in pop-cultural depictions of slavery. Hawke’s performance is jaw-droppingly go-for-broke, and the series’ irreverent but exceedingly human take on Frederick Douglass feels like nothing I've seen before.

I hope We Are Who We Are (HBO), Luca Guadagnino's sensitive coming-of-age tale of American teens living on an Italian military base, finds the audience it so fiercely deserves. And I’m rooting for FX on Hulu’s A Teacher, an emotionally sophisticated adaptation of its source material, about a female teacher (Kate Mara) having an affair with her high-school student (Nick Robinson). But with the holidays approaching, the show I most want to cozy up with is Bravo’s just-premiered and superbly cast The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, with its promised collision between prim Mormon values and the usual Housewives-ian screaming circus. Winter is coming, but it’s already plenty chilly in this corner of Utah.