If my memories of 2019 are correct, March tends to be a month of anticipation even in relatively normal times. The snow has melted, but the trees are still bare. The temperature’s rising, but not consistently enough to put your winter coat in storage. All of that nervous early-spring energy is heightened this year, as we wait our turns in the vaccination queue and cross our fingers that the variants won’t halt our progress toward herd immunity. My favorite new TV shows of the month—a detective story set in Northern Ireland, a pulpy Spanish thriller, a mouthwatering kids’ show, a docudrama filled with ecstatic musical numbers and a nostalgic blast from reality TV’s primordial past—probably say a lot about how I’m dealing with that impatience: through the pursuit of big, bright, unapologetically entertaining distractions. Maybe you’d like to do the same?
Bloodlands (Acorn TV)
Although they officially ended in 1998, the decades of political conflict known as The Troubles cast a long shadow over Ireland and the UK—and particularly the relationships between factions within UK-controlled Northern Ireland—that still hasn’t faded. Bloodlands, a four-part BBC crime drama that broke ratings records in Northern Ireland and has since been renewed for a second season, awakens the ghosts of that sectarian violence. The great James Nesbitt (who British-thriller fans will remember from his harrowing performance in the first season of The Missing) stars as Tom Brannick, a Belfast police detective whose investigation of a car that was pulled out of a lake also dredges up the darkest period of his history. This slow-burning but not overlong mystery contains no wild, subversive stylistic flourishes; it’s just a chilly, thoughtful, well-written and superbly acted story that connects specific, personal grief with the larger understanding that it takes more than a peace treaty to heal the scars of civil war.
Genius: Aretha (Nat Geo)
It is the push of Aretha Franklin’s incandescent talent and tireless ambition, and the pull of her complicated past that animate the third season of National Geographic Channel’s docudrama series Genius and its first to spotlight a woman or person of color. Created by Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer-winning, MacArthur-anointed playwright who scripted the recent film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Aretha is an uneven yet largely thoughtful, gripping and visually stunning portrait of a generational talent. Its sensitive, though not hagiographic, narrative illuminates a superstar with a widely beloved body of work but a poorly understood biography and inner life. [Read the full review.]
The Real World Homecoming: New York (Paramount+)
If it seems hyperbolic to mention The Real World in the same breath as Rimbaud, then maybe it’s time to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with the show’s groundbreaking first season. A hybrid nighttime soap and social experiment inspired by the explosive 1973 docuseries An American Family, its underlying question was: what if, instead of moving in with friends of the same class, race, gender and level of education, a handful of creative young people in downtown Manhattan had to live with peers from a wide range of backgrounds? The answer turned out to be not just surprisingly complex, but also uniquely absorbing.
As a result, we’re now living—perhaps paradoxically—in a world The Real World: New York helped create, to an extent that its cast never could have predicted. Which makes The Real World Homecoming: New York, a reunion series whose March 4 debut coincides with the launch of ViacomCBS streaming service Paramount+, more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. Revisiting the original season before screening the premiere, I found myself imagining a better, alternate version of reality TV that could’ve emerged from its example, one with fewer bachelors, housewives and narcissists, and more people who did come here to make friends. [Read the full review.]
Sky Rojo (Netflix)
On the opposite end of the crime-drama stylistic spectrum from Bloodlands you’ll find this adrenaline rush from Álex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato, the duo behind Netflix Spain’s international hit Money Heist. In Sky Rojo, the wickedly addictive genre those creators have named “Latin Pulp” meets the women-get-revenge-on-their-sexist-boss comedy of 9 to 5 and the campy, femme-powered capers of Claws, with additional Thelma & Louise fugitive-road-movie and Breaking Bad desert-noir vibes, as three sex workers go on the run from the club where they’ve essentially been imprisoned. Stories about sex work are hard to get right. Give the characters too much agency, and you can erase some grim realities; allow them too little, and you’ve contributed to the widespread depiction of women (especially disadvantaged ones) as helpless and submissive.
Pino and Lobato aren’t what I’d call careful in this lightning-paced thriller, whose tone vacillates between darkly comic and sincerely tragic. So, of course, think pieces debating its feminist credibility have flown. But for me, what makes Sky Rojo more than a blood-and-lipstick exploitation fest is its commitment to giving its lead characters personalities, desires and depth. Our most frequent narrator is Coral (Verónica Sánchez), a smart, loyal alpha with a drug problem. Pop star Lali Espósito plays Wendy, a secretly tenderhearted spitfire from Argentina. Sweet, naive but determined Gina (Yany Prado) was trafficked from Cuba by a man who promised to set her up as a waitress. Everyone here had some trauma to run from long before the trio was forced to hit the road. But this isn’t any kind of social-realist drama, and it doesn’t make sense to judge it as such. It’s pulp—very good pulp—and its modest achievement is making heroes out of characters too often reduced to window dressing.
Waffles + Mochi (Netflix)
Waffles + Mochi, an adorable kids’ show about food from the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, feels like a perfect way to pass the seemingly interminable final weeks of lockdown. But neither the timeliness of its debut nor the prestige of its producers is what makes this an instant classic of children’s television; the magic is all in the imaginative, endlessly flexible premise and its outstanding execution. Just one season in, it’s not an exaggeration to call Waffles the Sesame Street of food TV, or Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Jr. [Read the full review.]