Finally: the sun is shining, the weather is warming, COVID-era regulations are relaxing as infection rates plummet and vaccination numbers (slowly) keep ticking upward. It may not be time to hang the “mission accomplished” banner—is it ever time to hang such a banner?—but as immunity sets in, May 2021 has seen America’s masked, distanced millions begin to venture out of our living rooms and back to some semblance of in-person social life. So, of course, this is the month that the TV gods chose to deliver the year’s biggest and best selection of new programming to date. Isn’t that always the way?
It was a struggle to narrow down the list to just five highlights. I also suggest checking out Starz’s Run the World, Apple TV+’s 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, Showtime’s Ziwe and HBO’s rebooted In Treatment. For even more recommendations, here are my favorite new and returning shows of the year so far.
Flatbush Misdemeanors (Showtime)
Brooklyn has not exactly been underrepresented on TV in the past decade, but to watch most recent comedies set there, you’d think the borough of 2.5 million was populated solely by overeducated, underemployed, creative-class, white millennials (approximately 90% of them, for some reason, women). Flatbush Misdemeanors marks a refreshing break from that trend. Adapted from a web series of the same name, it stars creators Kevin Iso and Dan Perlman as childhood friends living in the eponymous, relatively un-gentrified section of Central Brooklyn. Kevin, an artist fresh off the plane from New Orleans, delivers food for a local Caribbean joint—an apparently straightforward job that just keeps getting him into trouble. Dan, who teaches at a local high school, grew up privileged and relies on his savvier stepfather, Kareem (Kareem Green), to help him navigate his new neighborhood. (Kareem, for his part, just wants his adult stepson to call him “Dad.”) Each stuck under a personal cloud of malaise, Dan and Kev find themselves slowly drawn out of their own heads as they’re increasingly drawn into their community.
It’s always a pleasure to see a show capture the particular look and vibe of a place that rarely makes it onto TV executives’ extremely selective map of an overexposed city like New York. The gags are low-key but funny. In one scene, two feuding teens rip into each other via text message while sitting silently in the same room, as the adults who are supposed to be mediating their conflict get distracted by their own wants and needs. But what I appreciate most about Misdemeanors is that it’s a hangout comedy that doesn’t limit its cast of characters to a single workplace, social clique or even age group. Within the first few episodes, Iso and Perlman take us into the lives of Flatbush residents ranging from Dan’s vice principal Jess (Sharlene Cruz) and teenage student Zayna (Kristin Dodson, in what should be a breakout role) to Zayna’s belligerent uncle Drew (Hassan Joseph), in what comes across as a genuine cross-section of the neighborhood.
I’ll be frank: I was worried that this Peacock original, from creator Meredith Scardino (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, was going to be terrible. A musical comedy about a forgotten girl group that reunites after a Gen Z rapper samples their one TRL-era hit (the instantly-dated “Famous 5eva”)? It sounded kind of like a middle-aged, female rehash of MTV’s boy-band parody 2gether. I was not wowed, either, by a series premiere that emphasized the characters’ broader traits and leaned hard on the same old jokes about the indignities of being a woman over 35 in the entertainment industry that Fey had been making since SNL and 30 Rock.
But I’m glad I stuck with Girls5eva. Though, as in 30 Rock, each episode is its own rabbit hole, a satisfying season-long arc forms around the broken friendship between the two strongest characters: Renée Elise Goldsberry’s secretly struggling diva Wickie and regular-lady protagonist Dawn, played by Sara Bareilles. The pop-culture parodies are on point (see: American Warrior Singer, “the first show created entirely by a ratings algorithm”). The superb list of guest stars includes Bowen Yang, Vanessa Williams, John Slattery and Fey herself, appearing, incredibly, as an apparition of Dolly Parton. Best of all are original songs that range from the devilishly catchy “Famous 5eva” to note-perfect Simon & Garfunkel pastiche “New York Lonely Boy.” I’m still not entirely convinced by Busy Philipps’ Summer, an archetypal bimbo whose elaborately coiffed, long-distance, boy-band-alum husband (Andrew Rannells) may or may not be gay. A second season would need to give the character a bit more depth. The show packs so much fun into every episode, though, that one weak link is easy to overlook.
Hacks (HBO Max)
Jean Smart can do anything. In almost half a century on stage and screen, she’s played serial killer Aileen Wuornos and Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles, done Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wilde. From cult films like I Heart Huckabees to hit TV action thrillers like 24, her range appears to approach infinity. And now, at 69 years old, she’s a doyenne of prestige drama, with memorable runs in Watchmen, Fargo, Legion and this spring’s Mare of Easttown. But if Smart has a natural habitat, it might be the sitcom; she got her big break as Charlene in the classic Designing Women and won Emmys for Frasier and Samantha Who? Which makes it extremely gratifying to see her get the late-career lead role she so richly deserves in the very funny, occasionally quite dark showbiz comedy Hacks.
Although Smart shares certain attributes with her character, Deborah Vance,—prolificacy, staying power, an origin story that involves a popular sitcom—Deborah is more of a Joan Rivers type. Ensconced in a Las Vegas residency that began sometime in the late 20th century, the brassy, sequin-encrusted comedian flies around in her private plane, hawking bath caddies on QVC and doing silly photo shoots, in between workmanlike standup sets for an audience she describes, not unkindly, as “people from Florida.” Deborah lives in a flashy Vegas mansion, where her only daily companions are paid employees and two dogs for whom she apparently reserves her every ounce of warmth. Her best quality is her remarkable work ethic; her worst is a five-way tie between crankiness, pettiness, self-indulgence, hauteur and, of course, hackery. [Read TIME‘s full review.]
The problem with making art that aims to represent any community of millions is that it means doing justice to that community’s vast diversity. More than anything else I’ve seen on TV, FX’s excellent Pride nails it. The six-episode docuseries traces the history of LGBTQ civil rights from the 1950s through the 2000s, with an hour devoted to each decade. But instead of entrusting the entire project to the same director, producers from VICE Studios and Killer Films—a venerable independent production company that was pivotal in the New Queer Cinema movement of the ’90s—recruited a different notable queer, trans or nonbinary filmmaker to make each episode. The decision to let those smartly chosen contributors tell stories that resonate with them, in styles that reflect each director’s unique voice, yields a history that is artful, complex and vital without being monolithic. [Read the full review.]
The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
Barry Jenkins‘ (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) 10-episode miniseries The Underground Railroad certainly qualifies as a faithful adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, but it’s neither a reverent nor a timid one. Whitehead and Jenkins are very different kinds of artists, the former a minimalist whose spare prose conceals allegories of remarkable depth and the latter an expressionist, infusing trenchant ideas into sounds and images laden with emotion. Through its stylistic restraint, the novel touches on just about every major theme of American history, from eugenics and the double-edged sword of Christian faith to utopian communities and the conflict that so often arises within liberation movements, between respectability politics and radical idealism. At the center of this web is slavery, the original sin. [Read the full review.]