If Netflix is no longer the ne plus ultra in streaming services, as subscriber losses in Q1 and 2 have suggested, then which platform is poised to take its place? One of the strongest contenders is HBO Max. Not only did the Warner hub and its sister brand HBO rack up a combined total of 140 Emmy nominations a few weeks back, besting every competitor including Netflix, but it also topped Vulture’s annual streaming-service power rankings. So it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that my roundup of July’s best new shows is also dominated by HBO and HBO Max. From Nathan Fielder’s latest off-the-wall social experiment to Issa Rae’s latest comedy about young women struggling to realize their dreams to Ethan Hawke’s guided tour of an iconic Hollywood marriage, the streamer covered lots of tantalizing ground this month. Also on the list: two of the year’s best sci-fi offerings to date. And if you’re looking for even more recommendations, here are my top 10 shows from the first half of 2022.
The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
Hollywood has a biopic problem. There’s no shortage of movies or TV shows that chronicle the real lives of notable people—that’s for sure. But whether they take the form of documentaries or dramatizations, features or series, too many of these biographies ring hollow. Maybe they dutifully touch on each highlight of their subjects’ lives, but rarely do they move past shallow reminiscences to create a compelling, specific portrait of the icon in question. Who were they? What did they live for? How did they change over the course of decades? What did they mean to the people who loved them, and vice versa?
It’s easy to forget that such depth and clarity is possible in an onscreen biography until you encounter an exceptional one like The Last Movie Stars. Recruited by the children of Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to tell the story of their parents’ 50-year marriage, director Ethan Hawke also had access to a trove of interview transcripts from a memoir Newman had planned to write. (He burned the audio tapes in 1998 and died a decade later.) So, in the midst of the pandemic, he tapped a slew of actor pals to bring the interviewees’ words to life, casting George Clooney as Newman and Laura Linney as Woodward. We find out just how amorous their romance could be—and how capable they were of hurting each other. These revealing monologues by the couple, their friends, fellow actors, directors, and other contemporaries form the spine of the 6-part series; an episode 2 conversation with Woodward’s high school sweetheart, voiced by Steve Zahn, is a showstopper. But for all the awe he expresses over each performer’s body of work, Hawke has no interest in sugarcoating their story. Particularly through his heart-to-heart chats with their kids, Movie Stars confronts the selfishness, competition, bad parenting, and miscellaneous pain that lay beneath their perfect image. The effect isn’t to tear these idols down but to reveal their essential humanity.
Why would a person ever willingly leave utopia? For the citizens of Moonhaven, a verdant, peaceful community nestled in 500 square miles of the moon, the answer is: in order to save the world. The year is 2201. Earth has been ravaged by climate change, war, and a cascade of related plagues. Now, the only hope for humanity lies with the so-called Mooners, who’ve spent more than a century building a kinder, more sustainable society. Sci-fi thriller Moonhaven opens just two weeks before a crucial event known as the Bridge, in which the first wave of Mooners will relocate to Earth to help their terrestrial brethren heal the planet.
It’s at this moment that the lunar utopia starts to look less perfect. First, a young woman, Chill (Nina Barker-Francis), is murdered. Then, two hilariously ill-prepared Moonhaven detectives, Paul (Dominic Monaghan, a.k.a. Charlie from Lost) and Arlo (Kadeem Hardison, a.k.a. A Different World’s unforgettable Dwayne Wayne), discover a strange connection between Chill and a pilot, Bella Sway (a taciturn Emma McDonald), who has just arrived from Earth with the powerful envoy Indira (Amara Karan from The Night Of) and Indira’s bodyguard Tomm (True Blood’s Joe Manganiello, playing a sentient snarl) to aid in final preparations for the Bridge. As an Earther with a violent past and a sideline in smuggling, Bella arouses the suspicion of the colony’s leaders—including Maite (Ayelet Zurer of Losing Alice), a council chair with big mother-goddess energy who is beloved by her people. Yet in Moonhaven, a philosophical near-future epic whose ambitious ideas compensate for sometimes-flimsy execution, characters tend to be more complicated than they seem. [Read the full review.]
Paper Girls (Amazon)
Hours before dawn on Nov. 1, 1988, four suburban middle-school girls venture out to deliver newspapers and dodge threats from teen bullies slinking home after a long night of Halloween mischief. In search of the boys who stole their walkie talkie, they bust into an under-construction house, come face-to-face with a pair of apparent mutants, and flee into deserted streets under an angry, unnaturally fuchsia sky. Instead of fighting bullies, they’re caught in some cosmic war.
Paper Girls sounds a lot like Stranger Things—but for girls! And if that’s what gets you to watch, so much the better. But this coming-of-age sci-fi series, based on a comic written by Brian K. Vaughan (best known for Y: The Last Man and Saga) and illustrated by veteran artist Cliff Chiang, tells a more focused, character-driven story that is particularly refreshing on the heels of the Netflix epic’s bloated fourth season. [Read the full review.]
Rap Sh!t (HBO Max)
Issa Rae created one of TV’s realest bonds in the rocky relationship between Insecure‘s flailing heroine Issa Dee (Rae) and her high-achieving, unlucky-in-love best friend Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji). Now, just months after that show culminated in an emotional tribute to the two characters’ friendship, Rae is back with another comedy about young women chasing dreams together. Shawna (Aida Osman) is a conscious rapper who dropped out of college to pursue a big break that never came and is now working the concierge desk at a hotel in her hometown of Miami. Her high school buddy Mia (KaMillion) supports a young daughter by cobbling together makeup-artist gigs and OnlyFans proceeds. When the stars align for the formerly estranged friends to form a fast-rising rap duo, they turn out to be the perfect combination of lyrical insight and bad-bitch energy.
From the lived-in dialogue to the female-gaze sex scenes, Rae’s voice—reinforced by a writing staff that includes several Insecure alums—is unmistakable in Rap Sh!t. With JT and Yung Miami of the real South Florida hip-hop duo City Girls onboard as executive producers and The Read podcaster Kid Fury in the writers’ room, it also captures the pleasures and pain points of being a female MC in an era when more women than ever are climbing the rap charts. More surprising is the show’s insightful use of social media. By weaving self-shot videos and livestreams into the fabric of each episode, Rae evokes an existence—not just in the entertainment industry, but also as a regular 20-something—where people are always performing their allegedly real lives for an audience and surveilling lovers, friends, and rivals.
[Read an essay on Rap Sh!t and TV’s newfound love of girl bands.]
The Rehearsal (HBO)
This brilliant, brain-breaking series once again puts Nathan for You mastermind Nathan Fielder at the service of people with problems they feel incapable of solving on their own. But this time around the predicaments are more personal than entrepreneurial, and the Fielder who hosts, narrates, directs, and writes or co-writes each episode comes off as a more authentic representation of the real Fielder—or, at least, a more authentic facsimile of a real human being—than that inscrutable Nathan for You guy. In fact, the show’s conceit is that it pulls back the curtain on its predecessor, using Fielder’s over-the-top social-engineering methods to help people overcome the stumbling blocks in their lives. [Read the full review.]
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