It’s the circle of life: February was a slow month for TV, but in March—as many remained rightly, if helplessly, preoccupied by one of the scariest and most devastating geopolitical crises since World War II—we had more worthwhile new shows than seemed practical. So many, in fact, that there’s no room in this top 5 for quite a few series that would normally have ranked among my favorites: Minx, Shining Vale, Phoenix Rising, Winning Time. That’s without even mentioning some of the most-anticipated returning shows of the year, from the second season of Bridgerton to the long-awaited third season of Atlanta. Or the depressing spectacle that was the 2022 Oscars. Or HBO’s excellent feature doc How to Survive a Pandemic, which traces the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines over two years of scientific triumphs and public-health nightmares. All of the above deserve attention, in the unlikely event that you have some to spare, but in my humble opinion, the five series below represent the very best of what’s new.
The Andy Warhol Diaries (Netflix)
Among his fans as well as his critics, the image of Warhol as an impenetrable enigma has persisted for as long as he’s been a household name, from his Pop heyday in the 1960s to his untimely death in 1987, all the way through the present. Certainly, the artist played that part to the hilt, constantly appearing in public with an expression of glassy-eyed enchantment and some faux-naive musings to dispense in a breathless near-monotone: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”
But just because an artist denies the public access to their interiority, doesn’t mean they are unknowable. Beyond the obfuscation, there is a personality, a perspective, and, most of the time, a constellation of authentic interpersonal relationships. That private side is the focus of the sprawling, brilliantly executed Netflix docuseries The Andy Warhol Diaries, from director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times) and executive producer Ryan Murphy. [Read the full review.]
The Dropout (Hulu)
Most people who are likely to watch The Dropout already know plenty of facts about Theranos. They’ve read John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, watched the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, listened to the ABC News podcast from which The Dropout was adapted, or simply followed seven years’ worth of news about the company’s downfall. Meriwether seems to understand what the creators of many other recent docudramas, from Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber to Hulu’s own Dopesick, do not—that no one comes to these shows for a summary of what happened. What we want is to understand the people behind the headlines.
To that end, The Dropout takes on three intertwined questions: Who is Elizabeth Holmes? What could she possibly have been thinking? And how did she get so many rich, powerful, and accomplished people to believe her lies for so long? Whereas previous portraits have fixated on Holmes’ beauty, her youth, her artificially lowered voice, and those black Steve Jobs turtlenecks she appropriated as a uniform, Meriwether and the show’s star—Amanda Seyfried in her most challenging and perhaps greatest role to date—probe beyond that incongruous surface. [Read the full review.]
The Girl From Plainville (Hulu)
Two very good docudramas in the same month, from the streamer that recently brought us such dire examples of the form as Dopesick and Pam & Tommy? Believe it! Like The Dropout but subtler in its storytelling and more tragic in its subject matter, The Girl From Plainville rises to the significant challenge of offering novel insight into the psyche of a young woman whose widely discussed actions seemed not just indefensible, but also inexplicable to the public. This time, the subject is Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a judge determined that she had goaded her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad “Coco” Roy III into killing himself when she was 17.
Nicknamed the “texting suicide case” after the story broke in the mid-2010s, the ordeal centered on a series of text messages between Carter and Roy in which she encouraged him to follow through on his obsession with suicide. Beyond the legal issue of whether a person should be held accountable for pressuring someone into ending their own life—even if said defendant wasn’t physically present at the time—The Girl From Plainville takes up an even thornier psychological question: Why would a girl do that to a boy she supposedly loves? It would be easy to depict Carter as the devil incarnate or, in keeping with the trend of revisionist portraits of women who’ve been pilloried in the media, a misunderstood victim. As portrayed by Elle Fanning and written by co-showrunners Liz Hannah (Mindhunter) and Patrick Macmanus (Dr. Death), however, Michelle emerges as something messier and more real: a lonely, self-dramatizing, potentially irrational teenager battling profound mental-health issues of her own. Along with probing the private agendas of many the show’s adult characters, including ambitious lawyers and expert witnesses on a mission to curb the prescription of psychiatric medication, the eight-episode miniseries overflows with compassion for Coco and his devoted mother, Lynn (Chloë Sevigny, authentic as ever), who’s forced to keep it together for the sake of her grieving family.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)
It’s a rare pleasure, these days, to encounter a premise that feels genuinely original. One such story is The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, the absorbing six-part Apple TV+ miniseries that creator Walter Mosley adapted from his own 2010 novel. Samuel L. Jackson embraces vulnerability in his portrayal of the title character, an elderly man with dementia who lives in urban squalor, surrounded by the detritus of a long, tough life. Most of the time, he drifts around aimlessly in his own memory, with only his visions of his surrogate father Coydog (Damon Gupton) and late wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) for company. Then, with his mental decline accelerating, Ptolemy loses his nephew and caretaker, Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), whose murder he registers only after stumbling upon the open casket at a gathering in the younger man’s honor.
At the same event, Ptolemy is introduced to 17-year-old Robyn (Dominique Fishback from Judas and the Black Messiah), an orphaned family friend who used to care for her addict mother. She is to be his new live-in helper, and she turns out to be a great one, pushing right past Ptolemy’s stubbornness and incoherence to clean up his reeking apartment and restore some dignity to his existence. They form a bond so pure and so fierce that it almost seems supernatural. [Read the full review.]
Pachinko (Apple TV+)
This atrocity that was Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, whose impact on the Korean people still reverberates in the present, forms the backdrop of Min Jin Lee’s magnificent 2017 novel Pachinko. The rare National Book Award finalist that is also a bestseller, populated by rich characters and suffused with emotion, Lee’s story comes to television in this lavish adaptation. By all accounts, it was not easy bringing the epic, multigenerational, multilingual saga of immigration and family to the small screen. Creator Soo Hugh (The Whispers), working with filmmakers Kogonada (After Yang, Columbus) and actor turned director Justin Chon, as well as a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, beautifully conveys the sweep and spirit of the novel. The only major misstep is a structural choice that undermines Lee’s carefully paced storytelling. [Read the full review.]
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