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It was a glorious spring for small-batch comedies (running between six and 10 episodes) that balance tricky tones. I’m singling out Josh Thomas’ Freeform series — a bittersweet, snarky and sincere portrait of a gay 20-something Aussie and his American half-sisters — for the performances by Kayla Cromer and Maeve Press. (But see also Betty, Feel Good, and the lightest and frothiest one, Starstruck.)
Ongoing TV dramas haven’t been entirely usurped by limited series. Case in point: Ron Moore’s meticulously unfolding space race alt-history on Apple TV+, a top-notch example of the pleasures of slow-burn storytelling, character-driven suspense and emotional catharsis that’s beginning to call to mind AMC’s late, great Halt and Catch Fire. Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones and Shantel VanSanten are standouts in the deep ensemble.
Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky’s Vegas-stand-up-comedy-themed HBO Max half-hour started out feeling like a pinnacle in The Spring of Jean Smart. And as good as Smart is — that outstanding lead actress in a comedy series Emmy feels like it’s in the bag — Hacks came into its own midseason, when newcomer Hannah Einbinder settled into her comfort zone and the show became a tremendous two-hander about female mentorship.
Travel/food shows were my salve for the first nine months of quarantine, but for logical reasons their number dwindled in early 2021. Netflix’s exploration of the Black diaspora and its impact on global culinary traditions is more history-anthropology docuseries than food show — CNN’s Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy is more purely culinary — but it never sacrifices good eats as it makes smart and provocative connections.
After becoming TV’s preeminent sports documentary franchise while focusing on community college football, Netflix’s Last Chance U proceeded to leap to basketball. Turning its lens on East Los Angeles College, Coach John Mosley and the 2019-20 season, this new season was full of the usual big personalities and thrilling sports drama — and, owing to the arrival of COVID-19, reached new levels of universally relatable gravity.
Combine Omar Sy’s indisputable star swagger with flashy Parisian locations and our need for twisty escapism in the waning months of an ongoing quarantine, and you get a true global sleeper hit — a show so entertaining, it motivated some Americans to actually read their TV. The Netflix saga about a gentleman thief out for revenge may not be endlessly sustainable (the recently released second season started to show some signs of wear and tear), but it’s just what 2021 ordered.
The main thing writer Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel pulled off with their HBO mystery — capturing the texture and maturity of a British crime series without losing their own distinctive Pennsylvania regionality — was hard enough. The dramatically solid, thematically consistent ending was even rarer. Kudos to the outstanding cast, starting with Kate Winslet as the titular detective, Jean Smart as her live-in mother and Julianne Nicholson as her longtime best friend.
I’m a sucker for wonky docuseries about big-city politics and institutional struggles — see City So Real and America to Me — and PBS’ look at Larry Krasner’s attempts to fight Philadelphia’s entrenched bureaucracy from inside the district attorney’s office was complicated, nuanced and far from simple “Everybody check out the plucky progressive outsider!” hagiography.
Barry Jenkins’ Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an epic 10-episode mass of artistically assured contradictions: harrowing yet uplifting, cumulative in its heft yet almost reassuringly episodic in its storytelling, and as much a celebration of life as a grueling exposé of slavery. Every actor, from Thuso Mbedu to Joel Edgerton to William Jackson Harper and into the deeper reaches of the ensemble, soars.
After a lackluster launch last year, Peacock had a very strong spring with the extremely funny Girls5eva, plus the smart and representationally savvy Rutherford Falls. Nida Manzoor’s comedy about an all-female, all-Muslim punk band in London combines all those qualities, boasting catchy songs (“Bashir With the Good Beard” will get stuck in your head), a great young cast and stereotype-upending energy.
This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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