The year is off to a promising start, at least when it comes to television. Along with a Yellowjackets finale I can’t stop thinking about and the never-ending flood of new streaming stuff, January has brought first-rate entertainment from sources as surprising as Syfy (a.k.a. the Sharknado channel) and even that relic, network prime-time. So bountiful were TV’s offerings this month that I just couldn’t limit myself to five highlights. From a serious and sometimes painful examination of Bill Cosby’s legacy to a murder comedy that’s pure pleasure, here are the six new series I couldn’t stop watching. For more recommendations, check out my 10 favorite shows of 2021.
Abbott Elementary (ABC)
It’s been a surprisingly decent midseason for broadcast networks—especially where sitcoms are concerned. After a depressing dearth of comedies last fall, January has brought a handful of auspicious debuts, with relatively original premises and better-than-average writing, from Fox’s Pivoting to NBC’s American Auto and Grand Crew. But the clear standout is Abbott Elementary, a workplace mockumentary that arrived with a stellar pilot and has only improved since.
Creator Quinta Brunson (A Black Lady Sketch Show) stars as Janine Teagues, an idealistic but frustrated young teacher at an extremely under-resourced Philadelphia elementary school. Among her colleagues are an overqualified substitute who trained to be an administrator (Tyler James Williams), a flamboyantly sketchy faculty fixture (Lisa Ann Walter) and a crusading history teacher (Chris Perfetti)—each frustrated for their own reasons, and all of whom look up to Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a veteran kindergarten teacher who can keep her classes happy and disciplined without breaking a sweat. Their foil, and the show’s funniest character, is the narcissistic, incompetent principal (Janelle James), whose greatest asset seems to be her knack for making emotionally manipulative Instagram videos. Abbott Elementary strikes a tough balance, wringing humor out of the sad state of public education in disadvantaged communities while still celebrating all that committed educators manage to achieve within a broken system.
The Afterparty (Apple TV+)
There’s nothing original about the show’s setup. It’s Agatha Christie via the Clue movie—an old murder-mystery format that got its latest A-list makeover in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. (The Afterparty also calls to mind last year’s Hulu hit Only Murders in the Building, a quieter but similarly lighthearted streaming crime comedy built around charismatic leads.) Miller, who’s known for collaborating with Phil Lord on innovative franchise fare like The LEGO Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, also leans hard on his cast of comic actors. From John Early and Ike Barinholtz to Ben Schwartz, Ilana Glazer, and Jamie Demetriou, these are some of the funniest people on TV, and it’s a treat just to watch them play off one another. As the cop whose investigation gives the show its structure, Tiffany Haddish strikes a balance between eccentricity and insight. [Read the full review.]
Astrid & Lilly Save the World (Syfy)
Relative newcomers Samantha Aucoin and Jana Morrison play the eponymous best friends—two witty teens thrown together by the cruel calculus that so often relegates big girls to the sidelines of social life. Timid, sweet, and self-conscious, Aucoin’s Lilly takes refuge in a bedroom plastered with posters of her pop-culture faves. Astrid (Morrison) is the bold, confident one, with a hyper-critical mom and a white-hot crush on gothy fellow outcast Sparrow (Spencer Macpherson).
Together, the girls undertake nightly spy missions, prowling their suburban hellscape by car to keep tabs on their peers. So when they finally end up at a cool house party and resident jerky jock Tate (Kolton Stewart) declares them the “Pudge Patrol,” they retreat to do what any teen weirdo worth their Doc Martens would do in their place: ritually burn various items associated with him while howling at the moon. They think they’re just blowing off steam, but then Tate doesn’t show up to school the next day and a hunky stranger named Brutus (Olivier Renaud) materializes to inform them that their spell, such as it was, opened a portal to another dimension. [Read the full review.]
As We See It (Amazon)
After decades of ignoring the autistic community, pop culture is making strides toward inclusion. But as affirmed by controversies surrounding shows like Atypical and movies like Music, mere representation isn’t enough. It’s still rare to find a story that resonates with autistic viewers rather than mining their differences for material that neurotypical audiences will find funny or moving.
For Jason Katims, the father of an autistic son, the drive to do better is personal. He built Parenthood around a family like his own. And his new sitcom As We See It follows a trio of 20-something autistic roommates—played by actors who identify as being on the spectrum—and their devoted caretaker (Sosie Bacon). Jack (Rick Glassman) is a cynical programmer. Violet (Sue Anne Pien) flips burgers and schemes to get laid. For Harrison (Albert Rutecki), just going outside is a challenge.
In taking such care to avoid offense, the show can err toward blandness or slip into the sentimentality that is Katims’ default mode. But by spotlighting three distinct characters, and in hiring many neurodiverse crew members, this humane comedy succeeds at framing autistic identity as more than a punch line or a sob story.
Somebody Somewhere (HBO)
In New York’s alt-cabaret stratosphere, there is no brighter star than Bridget Everett, whose sultry alto offsets raunchy, hands-on humor. Although she’s also popped up onscreen—in Netflix’s Unbelievable and various Amy Schumer projects—Everett has yet to fully cross over. Until, maybe, now. HBO’s Somebody Somewhere casts the larger-than-life performer as directionless, middle-aged Sam, a Kansan mourning her beloved sister’s death. Amid family tensions, she connects with an old high school classmate (Jeff Hiller, also great) who remembers Sam as the local teen singing sensation she was in their youth. What follows is a slow, tender, beautifully acted meditation on finding connection and meaning decades into adulthood. Plus, Everett sings, which is reason enough to watch.
We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime)
Perhaps, like me, your immediate response to the title of this docuseries is: do we really? Have we not spent the better part of a decade listening to nauseating reports from dozens of women who say he drugged and raped them? Have we not sighed with relief at his conviction, only to see it overturned and Cosby released from prison just a few years later? What could possibly be left to say about this guy? And, in a broader sense, haven’t we pretty much exhausted the “separating the art from the artist” debate since #MeToo swept through the entertainment industry in 2017?
As it turns out, what makes comedian, producer and TV host W. Kamau Bell’s four-part reconsideration of Cosby’s legacy worthwhile is the deftness with which it juxtaposes art and artist. Featuring interviews with journalists, scholars, and a handful of the subject’s co-stars (but, tellingly, few other famous comedians), Cosby takes the form of a detailed biography, tracing his career from early, boundary-breaking appearances on late-night shows that rarely hosted Black comedians through The Cosby Show and into his post-incarceration present. Such scrupulous accounting means allowing Cosby credit for his positive impact on Hollywood; if you only know him as “America’s Dad,” you’ll probably be surprised to learn that his insistence on hiring Black stunt doubles changed that field forever. But instead of relegating the accusations against Cosby to a final episode on his downfall, Bell incorporates the accounts of survivors, several of whom he sensitively interviews, into the same timeline. And he doesn’t exclude the voices of those who still refuse to turn their backs on their friend or idol. Viewers have no easy option to either disregard what Cosby meant to his fans, especially within the Black community, or dismiss his accusers as an unfortunate postscript to a distinguished life. [Read W. Kamau Bell’s essay on why he made We Need to Talk About Cosby.]
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