Critics' Conversation: 'It’s a Sin,' Omar Sy and Other Winter TV Wonders (and Blunders)

Courtesy of HBO;LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX;Brooke Palmer/CBS; CURTIS BONDS BAKER/NETFLIX; Courtesy of FX; Ben Blackall/HBO Max; Courtesy of Netflix

THR’s TV critics break down a sleepy small-screen season that still offered treasures — including Omar Sy, Fran Lebowitz, 'It's a Sin,' 'The Lady and the Dale' and 'The Great North' — for those willing to seek them out.

INKOO KANG: It's been nearly a year since the first COVID lockdowns went into effect — and with them, the mass shrinkages in the entertainment industry. Winter 2021 saw Sundance go online, awards-season content migrate to various tech platforms and new TV offerings greatly diminished by corona-related production struggles. Unsurprisingly, then, the state of television, compared to, say, a year ago, feels anemic. That doesn't mean that Winter TV — roughly defined here as last year's holiday season to now-ish — completely lacked for buzzy programming. The period soap Bridgerton, Netflix's first Shondaland series, and slow-burn Marvel mystery WandaVision, Disney+'s first major hit after The Mandalorian, became veritable cultural phenomena. (Coincidentally, both series play heavily and fascinatingly with genre.) Two nonfiction shows also captured the zeitgeist, or at least the attention of the chatterati: the "Framing Britney Spears" episode of FX's The New York Times Presents and the four-part Allen v. Farrow on HBO, by documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (who chronicled institutional failures when it comes to sexual assault in On the Record, The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War).

WandaVision is the most ambitious of these shows, and, I think, the one I find least compelling. As someone who's watched a lot of Marvel movies but has rarely gotten emotionally invested in them, I'm feeling a lot of that familiar numbness and detachment here. The conceit of Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch cycling through various decades' sitcoms is fun, but, at least thus far, the gimmick is getting in the way of the emotional beats. (Did we really need to watch two entire episodes' worth of even-more-magical-Bewitched?) Like everyone else, I'm enjoying Kathryn Hahn's performance, but I just keep waiting for the show to give her more to do (though it's likely it will in future episodes with that recent Agatha reveal). Dan, are you enjoying WandaVision more than I am?

DANIEL FIENBERG: As befits my occupation, I'm a TV nerd, so as long as it’s done in half-hour increments, I can enjoy the decade-by-decade sitcom homages — the plays on Malcolm in the Middle and Family Ties were especially good — as well as the impeccable performances by Olsen and Paul Bettany. There's some rueful bemusement in seeing Hahn getting this much attention for what probably isn't even one of her 20 most interesting performances, but if this is a gateway to the stardom she's always deserved, I'm here for it. I admit that I get bored when the show leaves the "hex" and becomes by-the-numbers Marvel conspiracy stuff, though Kat Dennings and Randall Park soften the blow. Oh, and where was all of this appreciation of Olsen's excellence at playing serio-comic grieving when Sorry For Your Loss was on? You missed out, people!

You called the current TV landscape "anemic." I'd push back on that a bit. It's true that it doesn't feel like there are as many shows aspiring to a vast, mainstream sweet spot. At the moment, WandaVision really does seem like the only series anybody is talking about regularly, and it has relaunched the recurring debate about the benefits of airing weekly vs. the dangers of disposability inherent in the binge model. Those dangers didn't seem to hamper Bridgerton; star Regé-Jean Page went from relative unknown to SNL host in almost record time. Plus, airing weekly and mining some of the biggest or most familiar intellectual property imaginable hasn't helped recent broadcast shows about Clarice Starling, Walker (the Texas Ranger), Superman or The Equalizer; if anybody cares about those series, they care in a perfunctory way, like, "Well, it's big and it was advertised during the Super Bowl, so I have to watch." One need look no further than American Idol, once the juggernaut of all juggernauts, now limping into a new season so devoid of hype that they had to latch onto troubled social media favorite Claudia Conway, daughter of Trump stooge Kellyanne, for a kind of Pyrrhic buzz.

Instead, the current TV landscape is ripe for discovery, and for buzz to be created organically, via word-of-mouth, rather than by desperate promotion or hollow branding. Quirky and bizarre things are catching on these days, like Martin Scorsese sitting and laughing at Fran Lebowitz's snark in Netflix's Pretend It's a City. And maybe it isn't surprising for a glossy, international heist thriller like Netflix's Lupin to become a hit, but it's entirely in French and the star, the magnificently compelling Omar Sy, isn't a household name in the U.S. It’s not exactly the type of show you’d imagine American viewers falling for, but here we are. What have you been discovering?

I.K.: Lupin probably is the purest example of a show I only checked out this winter because of the enthusiasm for it on my social-media timelines, and I’m really glad I did. It’s far from perfect, but it’s got enough elements for you to happily lose an afternoon or evening to its debut half-season. Sy — who won a César Award for his role in 2011’s The Intouchables, which was remade into the terrible 2017 Bryan Cranston/Kevin Hart vehicle The Upside — is indeed magnetic as a second-generation Senegalese-immigrant “gentleman thief” who uses his Blackness as an invisibility cloak around his white upper-crust targets, who only see him as “the help.” Plus, at a time when we can’t (or shouldn’t) travel, those Parisian cityscapes are an absolute delight. 

The two shows I haven’t been able to stop raving about are HBO Max’s miniseries It’s a Sin and HBO’s four-part bio-doc The Lady and the Dale. Created by Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Years and Years), the former sweeps across the '80s in a remembrance of not just how many lives and how much potential were lost to the virus, but also of the freedom and joy that so many queer people and their loved ones did get to experience before, and even amid, the AIDS crisis. It’s an astonishingly exuberant show given the gravity of the subject matter. The Lady and the Dale is just as well-rounded in its portrait of a trans con woman who tried to sell America a car that didn’t exist (made of bulletproof plastic, which isn’t a thing). I love these two shows for spotlighting marginalized communities — and for being candid about the often messy humanity within them. 

I want to know which shows you’re excited about the most right now, Dan, but I also want to know which has been the biggest disappointment for you. I think my answer would be NBC’s Mr. Mayor, which has squandered its excellent cast week after week with its painful genericism. I don’t think I would’ve guessed before its debut that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock would come up with something so toothless and indistinct. 

D.F.: Mr. Mayor isn't good, but it has become a Golden Ratio show for me; I laugh exactly enough — usually at Bobby Moynihan or Vella Lovell — to keep me watching the next week. Never more. Never less. Given the talent involved, that's a disappointment. And yet how many shows are even worse disappointments? If we're going back as far as December, there's CBS All Access' adaptation of The Stand, a confusing piece of episodic structuring that completely drained the propulsive momentum of Stephen King's book; it's a series about a global pandemic that somehow didn't feel the least bit timely. I wish CBS' Clarice was less beholden to its broadcast format. I wish NBC's Young Rock had fewer obtrusive cameos from the, um, old Rock. And I wish Allen v. Farrow had been more tightly edited to avoid distracting and overreaching digressions that undermine the intellectual heft of Dick and Ziering's argument.

It's a Sin and The Lady and the Dale are two of the shows I've been trying hardest to push on people. They're both great examples of how to do sensitive, dark storytelling with exactly the right amount of levity. As somebody who considers documentary reenactments to be akin to a personal nemesis, I loved the cheeky, partially animated approach The Lady and the Dale took to fill in narrative gaps. They’re barely even guilty pleasures, but I’ve also enjoyed spoiling the ludicrous ending of Netflix's Behind Her Eyes and the absurd twists of Starz's The Luminaries, though Eve Hewson was a standout in both. 

I'm also trying to get folks to watch The Great North, Fox's new animated comedy from a gang of Bob's Burgers veterans featuring a great vocal cast — Jenny Slate! Dulce Sloan! Nick Offerman! — and ample offbeat charm. I wish people gushed about it as much as they do about Cobra Kai, which definitely got an audience boost from airing its third season on Netflix. Based on the cheapness of some of those Vietnam flashbacks, it could stand to get a budget boost for the fourth season.

I.K.: Being stuck at home all the time has made me even more attuned to which shows give me the right kind of claustrophobia, and which give me the wrong kind. For the most part, I’ve bristled (unfairly) at shows that exhibit overt mid-COVID production strain, like the first Euphoria special, which was mostly a (well-acted but ultimately forgettable) diner conversation between Zendaya’s Rue and her sobriety sponsor (Colman Domingo). The follow-up, centered on Hunter Schafer’s Jules, felt a lot closer to an actual episode of Euphoria, with scenes between the characters intercut with the hour-long therapy session between Jules and her new psychologist (played by the always welcome Lauren Weedman). 

In contrast, I loved the claustrophobia of the first half of Search Party’s fourth season, which found Dory (Alia Shawkat) in a vaguely Oldboy-esque prison apartment, captive to a violent psychopath (Cole Escola) who just wanted to be her friend. It’s not really fair to compare the season, which wrapped in February 2020, to the spate of mostly drab “chronicling the coronavirus” shows we got last summer and fall (like Social Distance and Love in the Time of Corona), but I do wish creators stuck with limited resources were able to harness our collective trappedness in ways that feel more resonant. 

A whole other kind of trappedness was chronicled in “Framing Britney Spears,” an ostensible overview of the #FreeBritney movement. Directed by Samantha Stark, the 74-minute documentary feels both important and insufficient, mostly because it dips a toe into the cultural reexamination of Britney (as we’ve done with Monica, Tonya, Marcia, et al, in recent years) when what’s needed is a deep dive. The episode’s reductive dichotomy of Spears — as an adolescent star who used to be in control of her image and career and a now-39-year-old mother of two who’s lost her autonomy — doesn’t take into account the fact that, especially in her early years, the MTV staple felt to many like a commodity “being sold to [girls] by a group of men in a room somewhere,” per podcaster Sarah Marshall’s memorable phrasing. It’s not the doc’s fault that it’s one of the first mainstream projects to relitigate the gender dynamics and power structures behind Spears’ “not a girl, not yet a woman” star image with two decades’ hindsight, and that first drafts seldom get it all right straight out of the gate. But it certainly leaves a lot of material untouched for future commentators to pick over. 

D.F.: I've been trying to offset my own claustrophobia with shows like Pretend It's a City, HBO's miraculous How To With John Wilson and its very solid Painting with John, series that blend travelogue with internal journeys of the mind. There's always room, of course, for less insular, more straightforward travel shows like CNN's endearingly self-explanatory Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, which has already been renewed for a second season of mouthwatering adventures. 

Peeking ahead, March looks like a bit of a TV wasteland; hopefully that’s not a sign of how far and wide we’ll need to search for Spring TV’s discoveries.