What We've Been Watching (in 50 Words or Less)

In the grip of COVID-19 lockdown, days run together, bored children drive you to drink evening cocktails, weeks are measured solely by the Wednesday mornings when the lawnmower man visits, you find the elementary school online learning platform more confusing to operate than the recording timer on a 1985 VCR, and the kitchen table becomes the place where you eat and also the place where you work.  

The Cheese Fry has recently ramped up television consumption and we've been musing about how long the list might be if we looked back at the shows we've been regularly watching (or fully binged) since the fall season started back in 2019, all of them full of people touching and hugging and standing very close to each other.

Here's a rundown.  Each title gets only fifty words.

American Housewife (ABC) is a funny family comedy about classism in spite of the grating lead character - the titular "American housewife" - played by Katy Mixon.  We can't tell if she's insufferable because of the way she's written or the way Mixon plays her.  She's the worst part of the show.

Black-ish (ABC) is very much a descendant of the great Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s. So determined to use humor to explore complex issues of race, the show can be preachy, but there's a fun absurdist bent that leavens any heavy hand. Essential viewing.

The Conners (ABC) finds black humor amid financial hardship. It's shocking to see this kind of gritty realism on network television when most shows feature ruggedly perfect hero cops, paramedics, and doctors.  But more people in America are like the Conners than the folks on the endless Chicago shows. 

Ellen's Game of Games (NBC) is a good one for the kids, a series of elaborate games that treat the contestants - most hysterically, inexplicably in love with host Ellen DeGeneres - pretty badly, dunking them in goo or yanking them up into the rafters or dropping them through trap doors.

Emergence (ABC) is one we almost gave up on. We worried it was making it up as it went along and we're still recovering from the trauma of mistakenly believing Lost knew what it was doing. This show ended strong. Bonus points for quirky lead Allison Tolman.

Evil (CBS) is a 21st century spin on The X-Files, pitting a believer (theology student Mike Holter) and a skeptic (psychologist Katja Herbers) together to investigate mysteries for the Catholic Church. Like the producers' previous show, The Good Wife, this ingenious series is too good for CBS.

Jack Ryan (Amazon) is like an eight-hour Jason Bourne movie, all exotic locations,  sweaty foot chases, and shocking shoot-outs. We can't stop thinking about the production budget.  It may seem impossible to think of The Office's schlub Jim Halpert as a spy, but John Krasinski pulls it off.

Lego Masters (Fox) is awesome, a reality show contest that pits Lego builder teams against each other in increasingly complex "builds." The show is nudged along by the strangest TV co-hosts we've ever seen: two geeky Lego masters who are hilariously self-serious and often seem impossible to please.

Lost in Space (Netflix) may share flavors of the dystopian Battlestar: Galactica reboot, but it's most definitely a family show: it regularly showcases the power of teamwork and resourcefulness to solve any problem. Is it just us or is Parker Posey's villainess Dr. Smith just a little too much?

The Mandalorian (Disney+) has the zip and zing that The Rise of Skywalker could never truly muster.  Characters you care about, high stakes, smart plotting, and a phenomenal score.  Best of all, it leans way into the Western outlaw vibe that partially inspired George Lucas in the first place.

Modern Family (ABC) stopped being genuinely funny years ago; now it's just coasting on reputation. Expect a couple of smiles each episode, but they've exaggerated the characters now to the degree that they're no longer real people. This was their last season.  It was time.

The Outsider (HBO) is adapted from a recent Stephen King novel.  We stopped reading King 20 years ago, but this is all very familiar to us: small town besieged by a supernatural evil that commits unspeakable violence. The great cast and the stylish cinematography elevate everything.

Stumptown (ABC) is fun mostly because of rough charms of stars Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, and Michael Ealy. The seedy world of private eyes, ex cons, dive bars, and blue-collar cops recalls the work of our favorite novelist Elmore Leonard, which is sometimes all you need.

Superstore (NBC) has been accurately described as The Office at Walmart what with the oddball characters and the workplace setting. But there's more meat to this show in the way it explores the struggling working class.  It's not as funny as it used to be, but it feels kind of important.

Survivor (CBS) maintains a special place in our heart.  Since debuting in 2000, we have only missed a single cycle. This season features past winners and the show has changed so drastically over the years that there is a noticeable difference in game play between "old school" and "new school."

The Unicorn (CBS) feels genuine, filled with real people who happen to be funny rather than zany "characters." It's strange to see the usually villainous Walton Goggins - playing a widower dad - as a comedic family man, but his dramatic chops add edge. We hereby confess our crush on Michaela Watkins.

Watchmen (HBO) is a masterpiece of television. We were skeptical of the producers' intent to extend the mythology of the landmark 1986 graphic novel, but they delivered. A layered, rich tapestry of characters grappling with race and power, boosted by genius plotting and slick style. Not a single misstep.

Will and Grace (NBC) is a throwback sitcom driven more by sharp one-liners than characters that resemble real people, especially when it comes to the absurdity of Jack and Karen. They almost seem to belong in another, totally nuts show.  Even so, we find it hilarious.

Young Sheldon (CBS) is far more nuanced than The Big Bang Theory, the overrated set-up/joke, set-up/joke show that spawned it.  It would work if it didn't feature the Sheldon character, though it probably wouldn't be as popular. Bonus points: Annie Potts and Wallace Shawn.

We sampled 911: Lone Star, All Rise, Carol's Second Act, The Masked Singer, and Single Parents. One episode was enough.

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