So, it’s come to this. Between broadcast networks, basic cable, premium channels and an ever-expanding list of subscription streaming options, there is now such an enormous amount of television being generated that annual roundups can only scratch the surface. With that in mind, and because it’s my job to watch as much TV as humanly possible, I’m kicking off a new column aimed at keeping you apprised of the very best new shows I encounter each month. In this first installment, for February 2020, you’ll find excerpts from my earlier reviews of High Fidelity, Gentefied and Katy Keene, plus recommendations of two less-hyped but equally worthy releases—one a smart, laugh-out-loud funny comedy set at a video-game company from the team behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the other a scintillating docuseries on the history of black cinema.
High Fidelity (Hulu)
This reimagining of the 2000 film casts Big Little Lies star Zoë Kravitz in the role John Cusack made famous. The character’s name is still Rob (now short for Robin); she’s still a former DJ who owns a record store (in Brooklyn, rather than the film’s Chicago); and she still drowns her romantic woes in sad, obscure songs and self-pitying reminiscences of the ones who got away. But with her birdlike bone structure, boyish wardrobe and braids, Kravitz (who’s also an executive producer of the show) looks almost identical to her mother, Lisa Bonet, when the latter appeared as one of Rob’s conquests in the original. And while it’s hard to imagine rooting for Cusack’s dour, womanizing man-child 20 years later, this revision works. [Read TIME’s full review.]
They’ve Gotta Have Us (Netflix)
Distributed by Ava DuVernay‘s ARRAY collective, this three-episode documentary on black cinema arrived on Netflix to coincide with Black History Month—but it’s never the wrong time to dig into this rich, often frustrating history. British filmmaker Simon Frederick uses his own thoughtful narration to guide a cerebral yet always engaging, mostly chronological exploration that traces black people’s relationship to popular entertainment from minstrel shows to Black Panther. The list of interviewees, from Harry Belafonte and the late Diahann Carroll to Whoopi Goldberg and Barry Jenkins, is stellar. It’s fascinating to hear anecdotes like the one in which late filmmaker John Singleton recounts seeing Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing and feeling inspired to make Boyz N the Hood. Frederick balances out the obvious blockbusters and mega-stars with considerations of influential independent films, like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Beyond its celebration of black artists’ successes and sobering reminders of Hollywood’s racist history, They’ve Gotta Have Us offers rare nuance: Belafonte notes that he didn’t envy his friend Sidney Poitier for becoming the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, citing the burden of positive representation that Poitier subsequently faced. Goldberg recalls some NAACP backlash to aspects of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Alice Walker adaptation The Color Purple. This isn’t a simple story, but it’s a crucial and lively one, made all the more relevant by the current renaissance in black filmmaking.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+)
Dickinson is wilder, Little America is more poignant and The Morning Show has more stars, but Mythic Quest is the first Apple TV+ show that I truly love. Created by Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Megan Ganz of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it’s a half-hour comedy (which has already been renewed for a second season) set at the offices of the company behind a mega-hit multiplayer game in the World of Warcraft vein. While Silicon Valley comparisons are inevitable, Mythic Quest is a subtler, slightly kinder, more character-driven series. McElhenney’s creative director Ian has the arrogance of T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman, yet he doesn’t need to be a total buffoon to clash with a colorful staff that includes put-upon lead engineer Poppy (Australian actor Charlotte Nicdao, playing the series’s secret protagonist), creepy fantasy-novelist head writer C.W. Longbottom (the great F. Murray Abraham) and a weirdly intimidating assistant, Jo (Jessie Ennis of Better Call Saul, hilarious). The show manages to acknowledge the sad state of women in tech without erasing female characters; instead, they work mostly in thankless or low-level jobs, like the sweet duo of game testers who might be falling for each other (Ashly Burch and Imani Hakim), grimly aware that they’re being undervalued. For Community fans it’s a treat to see Ganz, that show’s best writer, reunite with star Danny Pudi—in a role as the company’s sociopathic “monetization” guy. And an episode in which the Mythic Quest team attempts to purge neo-Nazis from their platform may be the single funniest thing I’ve watched this year.
This dramedy about gentrification, family and identity identifies a catch-22 inherent in the American Dream: when you suffer to secure your kids a better life in a new country, that better life—shaped as it is by the possibilities and values of a different culture—will probably look different from the one you imagined. And that might feel like a betrayal. This has been a theme of nearly every recent series about the children of immigrants, from Master of None to Fresh Off the Boat to One Day at a Time. What’s unique about Gentefied is the way it pulls back to situate that intergenerational conflict within a larger community. [Read the full review.]
Katy Keene (The CW)
On paper, Katy Keene sounds kind of cloying. But the breezy Riverdale spinoff is essentially a fairy tale—and every fairy tale needs its princess. Thankfully, Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars) makes an unusually appealing one. A stylized update of a World-War-II-era Archie Comics character, she’s also every idealized TV career woman rolled into one: Carrie Bradshaw without the empty philosophizing, Midge Maisel without the baggage, a Mary Richards for our time. [Read the full review.]
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