The 5 Best New Shows Our TV Critic Watched in May 2020

6 minute read

Summer is, at least theoretically, almost upon us. Which helps to explain why even the platforms that have enough seasons stockpiled to last through the pandemic have begun their previously scheduled transition from the cerebral fare that kept us nourished through the first four months of this impossible year. Along with slapped-together reality junk from broadcast networks on autopilot, May has offered an impressive array of sunnier entertainments. My favorite new shows this month include an animated comedy from the Bob’s Burgers folks, a dreamy series about downtown skater girls, a trip back in time to Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and more. For additional recommendations, check out my picks from April, March and February.

Betty (HBO)

The teenage map of New York City—with its parks, public pools, takeout joints and cramped dive bars that don’t card—is a landscape in constant motion. That parallel realm is the setting of HBO’s Betty, a half-hour dramedy adapted by Crystal Moselle from her wonderful 2018 indie film Skate Kitchen. With macho skate culture as its backdrop, it follows five young women from a variety of backgrounds as they claim space at the skate park, party, pursue crushes and get in trouble. The show inherits both its cast (members of a real all-female skate crew) and its loose, kinetic vibe from the movie. Each character has the authenticity of a real person: Kirt (Nina Moran) is the goofy, extroverted lesbian Casanova. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) hangs with male skaters but is starting to doubt that they have her back. Like so much coming-of-age fare, it chronicles self-discovery through friendship; everyone’s unique set of privileges and struggles slowly comes into focus. But it is Moselle’s eye for the gritty beauty of the teenage city and the youthful energy of its inhabitants—specifically the free-spirited girls who roam its sidewalks with boards in hand—that makes Betty a breath of fresh summertime air.

Central Park (Apple TV+)

A sense of civic pride suffuses Central Park, a delightful animated comedy created by Bob’s Burgers team Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith with Josh Gad (Frozen, Avenue 5). Like in Burgers, a family of lovable oddballs does the thankless work that gives their lives meaning. A sweet nerd in head-to-toe khaki, Owen Tillerman (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.) manages the titular New York landmark, where the family also lives in a scruffy castle. His wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) writes for the city’s “most-left-on-the-subway paper” and longs to move on from fluff pieces to hard news. Their children nurse their own obsessions: comic artist Molly (Kristen Bell) with a certain boy, and her brother Cole (Tituss Burgess) with animals. [Read TIME’s full review.]

The Great (Hulu)

It’s kind of a funny story: a penniless teenage girl (Elle Fanning’s Catherine) bides her time in a terrible arranged marriage until she’s positioned to hijack an empire—and actually triumphs. Tony McNamara, who co-wrote Oscar darling The Favourite, certainly sees the humor in it. As creator of The Great, he offers another droll, raunchy, yet sneakily insightful account of 18th century court intrigue. It isn’t quite the perfectly paced masterpiece that movie was; some episodes drag, including a smallpox romp that’s more tiresome than timely. Still, its witty dialogue and lively performances from Fanning and Nicholas Hoult (who plays her ill-fated husband Peter III) yield a sharp, fun dramedy. [Read the full review.]

Laurel Canyon (Epix)

Baby boomers’ nostalgia for the pop culture of their youth can be a noxious, ahistorical thing, yielding too many uncritical celebrations of figures and events that look a lot more complex in retrospect. That is, in large part, what makes Laurel Canyon such a welcome surprise. As someone with little patience for ’60s supremacism, I was surprised at how much I got out of the two-part docuseries (airing on May 31 and June 7). Director Alison Ellwood doesn’t just take a comprehensive look back at one of the 20th century’s most mythologized music scenes; she also complicates that mythology, reckoning with the many failures of the era’s utopian youth culture and pulling in voices that never made the jump from the canyon to the popular imagination. Ellwood includes a telling vignette about how the visionary rock band Love, who arrived on the scene long before many of their contemporaries but whose racially integrated makeup prevented them from touring in the South, saw their fame eclipsed by acts like The Doors. Under-recognized women such as photographer Nurit Wilde talk about carving out niches as artists rather than groupies. On a less politicized note, Ellwood paints a fuller picture of the canyon’s musical community—where, for instance, Alice Cooper and The Monkees were known to rub elbows at Frank Zappa’s house—than most gauzy remembrances of an enclave known for its folk-rock singer-songwriters have conjured, without sacrificing the doc’s sense of intimacy.

Legendary (HBO Max)

The HBO Max launch has been something of a mixed bag. While the new streaming service has a superlative catalog (I might’ve teared up a bit at the sight of every Studio Ghibli movie in one place), many viewers have expressed frustration that those titles aren’t yet accessible through Roku or Fire TV. Max’s initial lineup of original shows also feels like a bit of an afterthought. The exception is this reality competition that finds ball culture—whose late ’80s/early ’90s New York heyday is the backdrop for FX’s Pose—alive and well and thriving all over the world. Real-life houses go head-to-head in categories judged by boldface names that range from extremely appropriate (ballroom icon Leiomy Maldonado) to straight-up random (The Good Place alum Jameela Jamil). And while the show raises some tough questions about the mainstreaming of queer, trans, black and brown subcultures, the fun, fierce, resourceful artistry on display and the moving bonds the show captures between members of each house make Legendary well worth watching.

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