Fleabag begins with arsefucking, but don't let that put you off! It's not like it begins with pigfucking. Don't look at me like that.
Instead, look at Fleabag, who is looking at you. Fleabag—who is never referred to by name, which is true of many characters like "Arsehole Guy" and "Bus Rodent"—invites you into her story, constantly addressing the viewer, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is so incredibly deft at what should be a gimmick that she breathes new life into the whole idea of breaking the fourth wall. She will make comments to you in the middle of a conversation, switching back and forth—it's a testament to the rest of the cast that they never react to it—as if you're best mates. Oddly enough, I was actually glad I watched this show on my phone because it made that connection even more intimate. Fleabag needs someone to talk to, she needs someone to say things to that she won't say out loud, she needs to not feel so alone.
And the way she tends to not feel so alone is sex, as the beginning of the series makes clear. Pretty much every episode features one or two sex scenes (without nudity), which is why I watched this show in the privacy of own phone. But the sex scenes are never sexy; they are awkward and funny, especially since, of course, she cracks jokes to you during them. But this isn't simply some show about a woman sleeping with a bunch of men. The relationships that truly matter here are those with her sister, Claire, and her best friend/business partner, Boo (and to a lesser extent, her godmother-turned-stepmother and her father). She isn't the best sister (or the best friend, for that matter), but you can tell she loves them both so much, even if she doesn't show it or say it. Also, however, this show is about sex, and female sexuality in particular, explored in a uniquely honest fashion not often portrayed onscreen.
Fleabag is a hard show to describe, as it initially appears to be a comedy with the requisite tinge of angst and sadness but then proves itself to be far more emotionally rich than that, as the second half begins to pay off elements in the first half in unexpected ways, leading to the finale that stabbed me in the gut. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is compelling every second she is onscreen, and her performance in the finale, just, goddamn. But the show is also laugh-out-loud funny, with an offbeat sense of humor, especially with how it delivers its title card and end credits. If you have Amazon Prime and the time to watch six <30-minute episodes, it's absolutely worth your time.
Donald Glover is certainly having a Cultural Moment, what with Solo and "This Is America" and Atlanta. Troy Barnes sure has come a long way. But what's the deal with Atlanta, anyway? What is Atlanta?
Ostensibly, Atlanta is a show about down-on-his-luck Earn, who decides to manage his rapper cousin Paper Boi just as he's hitting it big. He is so down on his luck he doesn't have an actual place to live, though he tends to stay with his girlfriend, Van, with whom he has a daughter, Lottie; they are...sort of in an open relationship but sort of not, their relationship status is definitely "It's complicated." Also Paper Boi's friend Darius exists on his own weird plane.
In order to enjoy and appreciate this show, however, you must understand that it is not the heavily serialized narrative we've come to expect from Prestige TV. Each episode functions as a short film, centered on one particular story, as it were, and the next episode will be something else, like the previous episode never happened. Which is not to say that there's no continuity; everything in every episode did happen and occasionally gets referenced. Sometimes a character from a previous episode will return, or a plot point will come back in subtle or major ways. The second season displays more of this than the first season, which frustrated me in the way it seemed to tease narrative (the second episode does result directly from the first episode, but the show abandons that flow immediately); the second season is more ambitious in its commitment to creating powerful stand-alone episodes but also more conscious of how these characters are changing, even if the big character moments aren't always onscreen (or if they are, the emotional fallout occurs offscreen).
Working both for and against it is the show's marvelously understated tone, cultivated both in the writing and acting but also in the direction (primarily by Hiro Murai, director of "This Is America"). Though it's categorized as a "comedy," it is only occasionally funny, as it's not about jokes but characters either being kind of absurd or reacting to other characters being absurd, but all with a grounded tone that paints a surreal picture of black life in America. I did laugh out loud sometimes, though, usually at anything Darius said or did. But mostly I was drawn in by the various character conflicts, like Earn and Varn trying to suss out what their personal relationship is or Earn and Al (Paper Boi) trying to suss out what their business relationship is. I liked when supporting characters got spotlight episodes, showing they had their own lives apart from Earn.
And then there's fucking "Teddy Perkins." Fuck. Motherfuck. Goddamn. Shit. "Teddy Perkins."
Atlanta is a hell of a show. It is not entirely my thing, since I do gravitate more toward serialized narratives, but I admire the craft behind the individual episodes, unsatisfying as their own open-ended narratives might be, because I just enjoy spending time with these characters. It challenges a lot of typical conventions, but it almost never comes off as pretentious, which is a feat. It's doing its own thing, and when it hits, it hits hard.
Back in the nineties, BoJack Horseman was on a famous TV show. The show? Horsin' Around. The role? Horse. Twenty years later, he's all washed up.
BoJack Horseman is about an anthropomorphic horse who lives in a world filled with similarly anthropomorphic animals, and somehow it's one of the most brilliant television shows airing right now.
On the surface, BoJack Horseman appears to be a simple Hollywood satire centered on a horse version of Rick Sanchez. BoJack is a drunk asshole who verbally abuses his dimwitted roommate, Todd (human). His ever-persistent agent, Princess Carolyn (cat), tries to help his career by hiring a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (human), to write a book about him. Diane starts dating Bojack's old "pal"/professional rival, the happy-go-lucky Mr. Peanutbutter (dog). None of this sounds particularly compelling on paper, but Raphael Bob-Waksberg takes these characters on rich emotional journeys through the course of the series, with each character trying to discover what they truly want out of life and how they can get it...and how they deal with their constant failure to get it.
Also the show is full of so many animal puns, visual gags, callbacks, and running gags you can't possibly catch them all on a first viewing. This is the wonderful dichotomy of BoJack Horseman and the fact that it balances this tonal mishmash so well is a testament to the skills of everyone involved. Even in a devastating flashback episode, you'll have some cute metahumor about flashback episodes, that's the kind of show this is. I love how unabashedly silly the show can be, and I love the show's obsession with rhyming and alliteration. There is a monologue in season four that strings together twenty-three rhymes in fifty-two words, and Amy Sedaris nails that tongue twister just like she nailed an earlier sentence with seven rhymes in eleven words. There's such a love of wordplay and language on display, not to mention a dedication to running gags I haven't seen since Arrested Development.
BoJack Horseman tackles lots of serious topics and goes to some very dark places, and it's able to deliver gut-punches so effectively because the animated format—and the absurdity inherent in the premise of this world—lulls you into a false sense of security. There's one standout sequence in the penultimate episode of the first season, but after that, the show regularly gets creative with animation styles and narrative formats. The first half of the first season is just okay, but the second half reveals what the show can do, and then it keeps doing that. The storytelling is excellent on both an episode level and a season level, with strong seasonal stories with emotional payoffs, some brutal and some hopeful and some a bit of both. What's truly astounding is that for a show where more than half the main characters are animals, it's deeply human.
Of course I'm gonna watch a show called The Indian Detective! It's about an Indian detective! Played by Russell Peters, oh well, I could think of many other South Asian men I'd rather see playing an Indian detective, but there are so few shows with Indian protagonists that I thought I could give four 45-minute episodes a whirl.
So Constable Doug D'Mello becomes a laughingstock in Toronto and gets suspended just in time for his dad in Mumbai to pressure him to visit, so away he goes...only to end up investigating the murder of a swami and then getting caught up in the machinations of a vicious crime lord. Also crushing on his dad's neighbor.
When it comes to the crime plot, The Indian Detective is fairly by-the-numbers, with obvious clues, weird leaps of logics, and ridiculously clichéd dialogue for everyone involved in the machinations of a vicious crime lord, including William goddamn Shatner, randomly here to be occasionally menacing. But because the show only has four episodes to get things done, it's refreshingly swift, meaning every single mystery Doug looks into is tied to the overall mystery (I say "mystery" but there's no mystery). Bodies keep piling up! Corruption abounds in both Mumbai and Toronto! Who can Doug trust?? (I say who can Doug trust but it's pretty clear who he can trust.) Hamza Haq shines as crime lord Gopal Chandekar and his twin brother Amal (he's so good I didn't realize it was the same actor for a couple episodes), and there are seeds of his being a truly fascinating villain with compelling motivations (he wants to raze the slums of his birth to build a skyscraper and prove how far he's come, which we know because he literally tells us his motivations several times). But, you know, this is not Breaking Bad, okay.
And what of the rest of the cast? They generally acquit themselves well, with Meren Reddy as Inspector Devo being my favorite secondary character. Russell Peters seems to be going for a Shawn Spencer vibe, but he is no James Roday. His jokes almost never land, but it kind of works in that it makes him doofily endearing (for instance, there is a running gag where he reminds people that Toronto is in Canada and it is never funny but the fact that he keeps doing it eventually charmed me). Mishqah Parthiephal as his bland love interest/Indian partner in detectiving is...consistently dull, especially compared to his other love interest/Canadian partner in detectiving, Christina Cole (also none of the romance plots work). Anupham Kher as Doug's dad provides both comic relief and pathos.
When you get right down to it, The Indian Detective is not a great show by any means. It's maybe not even a good show. But it's quite an okay show that does its job, even if it's a bit of a mess and it's flawed as hell. When I watched the first episode, I guessed that I'd make it to the end and be done. By the time I finished the last episode, I found I'd grown fond of most of the characters, and I'd even watch a second season.
In the late seventies, FBI agent Holden Ford has a revolutionary idea: why not interview unusually violent murderers and figure out what makes them tick? He ropes in seasoned veteran Bill Tench (and later on, professor of psychology Wendy Carr) and lo, a special subgroup of the Behavioral Science Unit is born.
Based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, Mindhunter chronicles the early days of said unit, before we even had the term "serial killer." Nowadays, we take a lot of the psychology behind these people for granted, but this show is set during a time where they felt like a new kind of criminal. And so Ford posits that you need a new kind of FBI agent, a new way of thinking. If he can understand why they do what they do, maybe he can develop ways to identify them before they hurt anyone.
Not unexpectedly, Mindhunter is at its most compelling when the characters are in the room with serial killers, most notably Ed Kemper, Ford's personal Hannibal Lecter. Much of the dialogue in these scenes is taken directly from real interviews, and the actors (Cameron Britton in this case) deliver chilling performances of men driven to kill, who feel no remorse. No two are alike either; though they sometimes share commonalities that help categorize them, each killer feels like a distinct individual rather than a general sociopath. Ford and Tench try to get what they need from their interviewees, but often their subjects are less than forthcoming, so they must resort to...unorthodox methods. It's fascinating to watch them—with the help of Dr. Carr—attempt to get into the heads of these men and use what they learn to solve some other crimes as they travel the country.
While Mindhunter succeeds in occasional moments with serial killers, it is less than compelling as a serial narrative. It does not give the audience much to grasp onto in terms of a long-term plot arc or any sort of narrative momentum. It rarely builds to anything in any given episode, let alone the season. Hell, the cryptic cold opens following an unidentified man—I did not even realize it was the same man for about half the season, that is how obtuse these scenes are—do not build to any satisfying punch. It is as if the show does not care about sustained tension or audience investment. Plotwise, I suppose the focus is on the trials and travails of the unit itself and Holden's relationship with his girlfriend, but only in the last few episodes did I ever feel into the story, truly wanting to know what would happen next. That's also when the strongest thread begins to reveal itself, as we see how much Holden Ford has been affected by his work.
Mindhunter has an excellent cast and atmosphere to burn, but it doesn't seem to know what story it wants to tell, if it wants to tell a story at all.
American Vandal is a show whose central mystery can be summarized in four simple words: Who Drew the Dicks?
American Vandal is one of the best, smartest, most well written, most well acted shows of 2017.
On the afternoon of March 15, 2016, someone spray-painted penises on twenty-seven cars in the faculty parking lot at Hanover High School. The security camera footage was deleted, but everyone knows who did it: Dylan Maxwell, the fuck-up with a history of drawing dicks.
But Peter Maldonado thinks he's innocent, and he's making a documentary to find out the truth.
Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, with showrunner Dan Lagana, took inspiration from popular true-crime series like Serial and Making a Murderer, but it is absolutely not necessary to have seen or listened to any of their multiple inspirations because this is not a two-minute joke trailer painfully stretched out over eight episodes that alternates between dick jokes and references/homages to other things. It is a genuinely riveting mystery that's better constructed than those of some serious mystery shows, with twists and turns at every corner and dramatic cliffhangers that make the show incredibly binge-able (you're going to want to just sit down for four hours because, trust me, you'll want to know who drew the dicks). Peter and his co-documentarian, Sam Ecklund, dig through mounds of evidence, from text messages and Instagram posts to Snapchat videos and, yes, sometimes even actual regular photographs. They plot their theories out on a whiteboard, they attempt to reconstruct events, they do all the things you would do if you were investigating something far more dire than dicks on cars. And I assure you, the show never attempts to artificially raise the stakes with an actual murder or some shit. The brilliance of the series is how it treats this low-stakes crime with all the same gravity, and it fucking works.
Everyone fully commits to American Vandal as a legitimate documentary, and so much of the comedy comes from the fact that the people in the show don't realize they're in a comedy. There are only a couple jokes that break the fourth wall a little and point out the absurdity of what they're doing, and the show itself usually eschews the rhythms of an actual comedy, without obvious setup/punchline scenes, although there are some wonderful running gags. Instead the show finds humor in the characters themselves and the high school environment, which it portrays more accurately than, say, 13 Reasons Why (which I also really liked, by the way). People say funny things in interviews, sometimes regrettable things. High school kids sometimes act like silly high school kids. And Dylan Maxwell himself, well, Dylan is a fucking comedy goldmine and Jimmy Tatro deserves to be recognized for his incredible acting, not only because he's funny as hell but because he actually has a hell of a character arc. Some of his scenes in the finale, goddamn.
Because this show isn't just about drawing dicks. It's about the way we judge people and bend the truth to fit our preconceived notions. It's about how the search for the truth can uncover things you never wanted to know. It's about how making a documentary makes you part of the story. The finale of American Vandal packs an emotional wallop that actually feels earned amongst its array of dick jokes. It's thought-provoking and incisive, the show walking a precarious tonal tightrope and never so much as losing its balance.
American Vandal was three thousand times better than I expected it to be. I cannot believe they pulled that off. Like Dylan Maxwell, it's more complex than you'd ever think to give it credit for.
But also like Dylan Maxwell, it draws a lot of dicks.
Sometimes I barely hear about a show and then suddenly it is getting award nominations and being constantly mentioned by television critics and friends, and it is only two seasons of eight half-hour episodes, so watching Insecure seemed like a good idea. And it was!
Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, Insecure follows three characters navigating personal and professional relationships in Los Angeles while black. This is definitely not a show where characters "just happen to be black"; their race and culture are integral to who they are. As a non-black person, I cannot speak to the level of authenticity in its portrayal, but given its writers and its reception by black critics, I am guessing it's pretty accurate. But this is not A Show About Being Black any more than Master of None is A Show About Being Indian; it survives on the strength of its characters and stories.
Issa works at a youth outreach program called We Got Y'all, which is run by white people and staffed almost entirely by white people—she is the one black person. Fun for her! She gets to present the black perspective and then still be whitesplained about what's best (or what looks best) to serve these "urban youth." Meanwhile, her best friend, Molly, works at a law firm where she has to code-switch to fit into a predominantly white male environment and fight for her considerable skills to be recognized. Finally, Issa's longtime boyfriend, Lawrence, doesn't have a job but does have a great idea for an app he's been working on for a while.
The basic storytelling engine of the show focuses on relationships, primarily romantic (heterosexual) ones, although Issa and Molly's friendship forms a strong emotional anchor. I love that they can fight and have real conflict with each other, but they still ove each other. They call each other on their shit all the time, sometimes playfully, sometimes hurtfully, yet they respect that they are two different people with different priorities. Even if both of them are still trying to figure out what those priorities actually are. Issa is feeling like her relationship with Lawrence is a bit stagnant and eyes an old flame, whereas Molly envies all her attached friends and longs to find someone to settle down with. If there is one constant in this show, it is that all three of these people make bad decisions. It's incredibly frustrating to watch, yet very human. People fuck up, people do stupid things, people forgive or they don't or they do and then they don't.
Luckily the show is also quite funny and charming, in ways both genuine and uncomfortable. Issa and her friends trade barbs like baseball cards, and one of them, Kelli, is particularly boisterous (though not always endearingly). Issa expresses her emotions by rapping at a mirror, and it's not always clear if it's a fantasy or she's actually doing it, which leads to some amusing moments. Nearly every scene at We Got Y'all has some cringeworthy moment, sometimes courtesy of Issa's white colleague, Frieda, who's lovable and awkward as hell as she tries not to be That White Person while working with Issa.
Insecure treats its characters like complex, flawed people, who want love and/or sex and/or success but don't really have their shit together in any of those departments, whether it is their own doing or not. It is a refreshing counterpoint to the predominantly white television landscape that doesn't feel the need to explain itself to its non-black viewers. And the season one episode titles are all "[Blank] as Fuck" and the season two episode titles are all "Hella [Blank]," and I love any television show with episode title naming themes.