October is for horror, which probably means that my monthly roundup of the best new TV should be crawling with ghosts and ghouls. Alas, the recent crop of spooky shows hasn’t done a whole lot for me—maybe because the news has been serving up all the real-life jump-scares my poor heart can take.
Instead, I’ve been digging into some all-time great performances from Ethan Hawke and Anya Taylor-Joy, in two of the year’s best historical dramas. And I can’t get enough of unique twists on nonfiction formats, from a panorama of America’s Second City to a reality soap set among deaf college students to the philosophical comedy of How To With John Wilson. For more suggestions, here are my favorites from September, August, July, June and the first half of the year.
City So Real (Nat Geo)
This essential five-part documentary about Chicago, from the great nonfiction filmmaker Steve James, debuted on the National Geographic Channel and is now streaming on Hulu. At its center is the city’s 2019 mayoral election, in which 14 candidates ended up on the ballot to replace the controversial Rahm Emanuel, who announced the previous year that he wouldn’t seek a third term. But James always has more on his mind than an isolated event; his last docuseries, 2018’s America to Me, profiled a diverse high school whose many failings spoke volumes about racial inequality across the country. City So Real, which spends four episodes chronicling the election cycle before jumping a year ahead to the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, turns out to be a portrait of an iconic metropolis—and a nation—teetering precariously on the brink of ruin. [Read TIME‘s full review.]
Deaf U (Netflix)
Netflix has found much success of late with serious, sensitive documentary series that profile groups of people whose daily lives may be poorly understood by outsiders: college cheerleading champs in Cheer, physicians in Lenox Hill, autistic young adults looking for love in Love on the Spectrum. Deaf U is, well, not exactly that. It is, by Netflix’s own description, a docusoap set among the deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. As in so many MTV reality franchises, the cast is attractive, articulate, self-dramatizing and exceedingly fond of partying and hooking up. We meet a budding Instagram influencer and a young woman who so aggressively plays the field that it’s hard to imagine how she finds time for homework. There’s even a guy who kinda, sorta purposely impregnates a girl he’s afraid he won’t be able to keep. Yet despite—or more likely as a result of—all the gossip, Deaf U also offers a fascinating introduction to the deaf community at its most rarefied, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and those with significant ties to the hearing world are often looked down upon. Clocking in at just eight 20-minute episodes, the show can feel a bit rushed; the structure could certainly be tighter. But if you’re a fan of this format and can’t stand to look at another Real Housewife, you could certainly do worse.
How To With John Wilson (HBO)
A weirdly specific hybrid sub-genre of television has emerged over the past several years, one that blends documentary and comedy, and is hosted by an awkward, nebbishy or otherwise hapless man whose adventures tend to meander from the mundane or the silly to the accidentally-on-purpose profound. Equal parts Jack Handey and mumblecore, the format seems ripe for empty gimmickry. Yet somehow, all of the most prominent examples have turned out great: Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You, Comedy Central’s Review and Nathan For You—the latter of which prompted nonfiction filmmaker par excellence Errol Morris to question the very nature of reality.
Nathan For You mastermind Nathan Fielder is an executive producer of the newest entry in this canon, How To With John Wilson, which casts the eponymous documentarian in a series of ostensible instructional videos: “How To Split the Check.” “How To Improve Your Memory.” “How To Put Up Scaffolding.” But Wilson, whose presence is almost always limited to a disembodied voice behind a camera in motion, is no YouTube tutorial pro (in fact, sometimes he trains his own lens on YouTube tutorials). His endeavors are messy and discursive, sending him all over New York City and beyond on each quest for knowledge. And if the show’s conceit is somewhat insincere, the connections he forms are surprisingly genuine. In “How To Make Small Talk,” he befriends a lone-wolf partier at spring break, and the two men end up bonding over their experiences with grief. The six-episode season concludes with the sweetest installment of all, “How To Cook the Perfect Risotto,” which sends Wilson on a quest to surprise his kindly old landlady with a home-cooked batch of her favorite dish and finds him blindsided by this year’s universal complication: the pandemic. It’s a fitting final note for a series that doubles as the perfect antidote to COVID-19 isolation. As each inquiry unfolds, he observes people from all walks of life going about their daily existences, unaware they’re being filmed. You won’t find a better B-roll game on TV—just ask Kyle MacLachlan.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
Few actors could step into the shoes of the real-life walking contradiction who was abolitionist revolutionary John Brown: a Christian minister who embraced Old Testament justice, a loving father who sacrificed several sons to his cause, a violent extremist on the right side of history. So let us now praise Ethan Hawke, who co-created this adaptation of James McBride’s celebrated 2013 novel about Brown with Mark Richard (Fear the Walking Dead) on the heels of his career-highlight performance as a priest driven mad by contemporary tragedies both personal and global in Paul Schrader’s core-shaking film First Reformed. Hawke is clearly fascinated by zealots—characters locked in existential struggles with faith and morality and their duties to a world that falls egregiously short of their ideals. Merciless with enslavers, scarily fervent on the abolitionist lecture circuit and prone to temperamental outbursts on the frequent occasions when his plans go awry, Hawke’s kinetic Brown is breathtakingly patient, kind and generous with his family and followers. If he’s a bit of a holy fool, too quick to trust anyone who claims to share his convictions, then he can also be surprisingly insightful; he perceives the complacency of progressive Northerners and realizes that many, many people will have to die to liberate Black Americans from bondage. [Read the full review.]
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
At this point, any hour-long drama that forsakes intellectual property, narrative histrionics and expensive special effects in favor of psychological realism represents a welcome change of pace. And one as excellent as The Queen’s Gambit feels very rare indeed. An adaptation of the novel by Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth), the absorbing seven-part miniseries is first and foremost a character study. Its hero, orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (a phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy), may not be the typical mid-20th-century girl. But hers is essentially a coming-of-age story—one that asks what awaits a brilliant, precocious loner in adulthood. The show’s suspense comes less from the question of whether she’ll grow up to become the world champion, and more from the question of whether she’ll grow up to be reasonably stable and happy. [Read the full review.]