Cable and streaming have been eating away at the traditional TV season for decades now, but as recently as last year, September still meant something. It was the month when each of the Big 5 broadcasters sent out a new batch of sitcoms and procedurals to compete for primetime supremacy, whether a nation that preferred to binge on Game of Thrones and Stranger Things was paying attention or not. But 2020 might break that norm once and for all, now that production schedules interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic have dispersed what would normally be a couple of weeks’ worth of premieres throughout the whole of autumn. Which might explain why great new shows have been relatively tough to find on any platform this past month. In large part because so many high-profile projects (Gillian Flynn’s Utopia, Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are, Ryan Murphy’s Ratched, Trump-Russia docudrama The Comey Rule) have proven disappointing, I’ve mostly enjoyed lighter stuff this September: a funny talk show with a righteous core, a nighttime soap starring Kim Cattrall, a comforting British detective redux. For more serious picks, here are my favorites from August, July, June and the first half of the year.
Agents of Chaos (HBO)
HBO’s Agents of Chaos resists the temptation to turn American politics, surreal as they can be, into mustache-twirling melodrama. The series from documentary institution Alex Gibney (Going Clear, The Inventor) dissects the much-debated but still poorly understood topic of Russian election meddling in all its intricacy—and when the filmmaker hits a wall with easily available information, he investigates. Crucially, he doesn’t hide his confusion. Narration has gone a bit out of style for documentaries; blame Michael Moore. But Gibney (who shares directing credits on the second episode with Javier Alberto Botero) uses it to great effect, talking viewers through his own search for clarity and making his process transparent enough to preempt some of the accusations of media bias that are inevitable in the current political climate. [Read TIME’s full review of Agents of Chaos and Showtime’s The Comey Rule.]
The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock)
Amber Ruffin should’ve gotten her own show years ago. A comedian and writer with credits on A Black Lady Sketch Show, Drunk History, Detroiters and her current home, Late Night With Seth Meyers—where her segments “Amber Says What” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” are consistent highlights—she’s a ball of kinetic energy with a keen mind for social commentary. That rare combination of effervescence and insight yields a uniquely electrifying brand of humor.
And that’s why I feel so confident endorsing her new Friday talk show after just one half-hour episode. Ruffin is the only TV host who could pull off a bit on “things people need to know that aren’t being said” that pairs timely, earnest affirmations (“You matter, even though there are protests against having you around or making sure you’re cared for or have rights”) with observational jokes like: “Old women in New York City, stop cutting in line and being like, What? Me? I didn’t know! I know you know. You’ve been on this earth a thousand years and you don’t know what a line is?” Wisely eschewing guests in favor of sketches amid a late-night landscape overcrowded with celebrity interviews, The Amber Ruffin Show finds the host bantering with her announcer pal, Tarik Davis, and creating her own delightful characters. (The premiere introduced Fun Auntie, a warm, gossipy condo owner who says things like, “My Playboy money ran out in the ’90s.”) Trust me: she has enough personality to keep things interesting. [Read TIME’s interview with Amber Ruffin.]
Filthy Rich (Fox)
Six months into the pandemic, comfort TV is trending, Netflix subscriptions are soaring and new streaming services like HBO Max and Peacock have unlocked decades’ worth of nostalgia viewing. All that’s missing is the kind of primetime soap opera that once united the nation in some much-needed frivolity. A Dallas. A Dynasty—the original, not the CW’s mediocre reboot. Even a Desperate Housewives or a Melrose Place would do the trick. Sadly, the past decade saw scripted soaps overshadowed by Kardashian Kontent, as an explosion of viewing options fragmented audiences to such an extent that consensus hits are now rare. But the format isn’t entirely extinct. On the heels of 2010s efforts like Revenge and Empire—both of which began as good fun but ran out of ideas after a few seasons—comes Fox’s Filthy Rich, whose Sept. 21 premiere kicks off a sparse, delayed network premiere season that will stretch into November. A smartly cast chronicle of a super-rich televangelist family in crisis, it’s executed with just the right mix of self-aware sudsiness and addictive drama. [Read the full review.]
The Third Day (HBO)
Jude Law paces on a bucolic road, shouting into his phone about money and police. He hikes through sun-dappled woods, cues up “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine, sits down next to a waterfall, sobs operatically for a while, then gently places a child-sized striped T-shirt in the bubbling river and watches it float away. On the way back to his car, he stumbles upon a teenage girl and a younger boy, arriving just in time to see her hang herself from a tree branch and her companion run off into the forest. He saves the girl’s life and drives her home, to Osea Island, whose eccentric residents are preparing for a festival. If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you can probably guess that things only get weirder once they arrive.
Yet for all its familiarity, The Third Day, an eerily beautiful psychological thriller co-produced by HBO and Sky UK, rarely comes across as derivative. Creators Felix Barrett (who founded Punchdrunk, the immersive theater company best known for their long-running Macbeth riff Sleep No More) and Dennis Kelly (who created the original, British Utopia) seem keenly aware of the mysterious-island trope. More than a pastiche, their story accesses layers of emotional resonance in centuries’ worth of lore, encompassing The Tempest and The Island of Doctor Moreau as well as more contemporary tales like Lost and Shutter Island. [Read the full review.]
Van der Valk (PBS)
A British drama about a jaded, sardonic detective isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but this Masterpiece Mystery (which debuted this spring on ITV in the UK) is an especially enjoyable variation on the old formula. Based on a series of novels by Nicolas Freeling, as well as a long-running ITV adaptation from the ’70s, this reboot casts the icily handsome Marc Warren (The Good Wife, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) as Piet van der Valk—a stubborn, brooding, but talented and ultimately goodhearted police investigator in Amsterdam. Van der Valk says things like: “I think politicians should be shot.” He’s got a loyal partner, Lucienne (Maimie McCoy), who matches him quip for quip; an unwanted, eager-to-please new assistant (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) whose competence Van der Valk is loath to acknowledge; a skittish boss (Emma Fielding); and a pathologist (Darrell D’Silva) who always seems to be nursing a nasty hangover.
Yet the show’s greatest pleasure might be its setting. Our hero lives on a boat in the city’s canals, traverses its cobblestone streets, hosts meetings at its hole-in-the-wall pubs and indulges his love of art—a recurring theme in the series—at its legendary museums and galleries. Particularly in pandemic-stricken times, this sophisticated portrait of Old World city life makes for some pretty solid prestige-TV escapism. And although this first season runs just three episodes, at 90 minutes apiece, each one feels like a self-contained movie.