September was supposed to be all about The Rings of Power. After years of anticipation and controversy, Amazon’s beautiful, record-breakingly expensive Lord of the Rings series finally debut just before Labor Day… and it turned out to be neither terrible nor great. While the company reported that 25 million subscribers around the globe tuned in to the two-episode premiere on its very first day, a lack of subsequent data and the relatively scant chatter about the show on social media suggest that it’s already fading from the forefront of the cultural conversation. Thankfully, as we wait for Rings to find its footing (or not), there’s plenty of superior TV to enjoy. From a cerebral sci-fi cartoon to an irreverent period drama to a crucial Ken Burns docuseries, here are my favorite new shows of September 2022. For more recommendations, check out my midyear top 10 list.
Eternal life through technology. That is the promise of uploaded intelligence (UI), also known as mind uploading, a phenomenon—one that remains, for now, within the realm of science fiction—in which an entire human brain is emulated via computer. The catch: a UI is a disembodied intelligence, without a flesh-and-blood presence in the physical world. Even if it is a “real person” (and that’s a big if) living on as a program, that person can’t snuggle in bed with a lover or kiss their children goodnight. So does their existence actually constitute human life?
Of all the many big questions that power Pantheon, a gripping, cerebral, remarkably high-concept animated sci-fi series, this is both the richest and the most difficult to answer. And it arises out of a situation so mundane, it borders on trite. When we meet 14-year-old Maddie Kim (voiced by Katie Chang), she’s constantly at odds with her mother, Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt), and is getting mercilessly cyberbullied by the mean girls at her high school. “Most of the girls in my class completely missed the moment when the world began to end, too wrapped up in their own drama, obsessed with their own lives,” Maddie recounts in an intriguing voiceover that opens the series. “Or trying to ruin mine.” [Read the full review.]
You’ve never seen Step Right Up, but trust me, you already know it well. It’s a Y2K-era family sitcom about a couple co-parenting the wife’s young son with her ex—who also lives with them. It’s Full House meets Step by Step, with a dash of Two and a Half Men boorishness. There are zany antics, slapstick gags, and a laugh track. The characters are broad but lovable and eager to learn from one another.
The fact that the show doesn’t exist hasn’t stopped it from being revived—in Reboot, a smart, perfectly cast Hulu comedy. Created by Steven Levitan, whose credits includes both family sitcoms (Modern Family) and TV shows about TV shows (The Larry Sanders Show), Reboot is meta to the max. It opens with 30-something indie filmmaker Hannah (Rachel Bloom) pitching executives from, yes, Hulu on a Step Right Up sequel starring original cast members played by Judy Greer and Keegan-Michael Key. The suits are incredulous. What, they ask, could possibly interest an edgy, young auteur about reheating 20-year-old schmaltz? “You know how, in the old sitcom, the characters always did the right thing?” she explains. “They don’t do the right thing anymore.” [Read the full essay on Reboot and TV’s obsession with reviving late 20th century family sitcoms.]
The Serpent Queen (Starz)
There are more legendary female royals in European history than there are tabloid stories about the Sussexes, and Starz seems determined to make TV shows out of every single one. The White Queen. The White Princess. The Spanish Princess. Becoming Elizabeth. (An Eleanor of Aquitaine series is also in the works, as part of a planned franchise exploring “extraordinary women in history.”) The standout, so far, is The Serpent Queen—an unconventional biography of Catherine de Medici, one of France’s most unconventional queens.
Framed as a series of conversations between a middle-aged Catherine (the great Samantha Morton) and Rahima (Sennia Nanua), a servant girl she’s taken under her wing, the show traces the Italian-born Queen’s rise from a traumatic childhood in convents to one of the most powerful seats in the world, alongside her husband King Henry II. It’s no fairy tale; plain but clever, 14-year-old Catherine (played as a teenager by Liv Hill) must prove her utility to the French court in order to preserve her marriage to a boy (Alex Heath) who’s loyal to his older mistress, Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier). Creator Justin Haythe seizes on the absurdity of court intrigue, splitting the difference between straight-faced, old-school costume drama and gleefully anachronistic romps like The Great and The Favourite. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but Morton and Hill are both up to it, in a pair of excellent, poker-faced performances that set the tone for the entire cast.
The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)
Ken Burns’ typically textbook-like but genuinely illuminating series revisits the familiar story of how the Third Reich’s exploitation of its own Big Lie led to the Holocaust. But its unique contribution is to trace the conspiracy theory’s connection to and power over the United States, where Henry Ford had published screeds against the international Jewish community that helped inspire Mein Kampf and a President as progressive as FDR, fearing a public backlash, repeatedly failed to offer asylum to European Jews fleeing Hitler. [Read the full essay on The U.S. and the Holocaust, Peacock’s Shadowland, and America’s contemporary conspiracy theorists.]
Wedding Season (Hulu)
Back in 2019, Hulu tried to reboot Richard Curtis’ classic romantic comedy Four Weddings and Funeral as a miniseries from creator Mindy Kaling. To say that it didn’t work out would be putting it kindly. Happily, the streamer has now redeemed itself with Wedding Season (not to be confused with the recent Netflix original movie of the same name), a fun action rom-com that combines the young-adult nuptial whirlwind of Four Weddings with the lovers-on-the-run thrills of Bonnie and Clyde.
When we meet the fugitives in question, Stefan (Gavin Drea) and Katie (Rosa Salazar), he’s interrupting her wedding vows to pledge his undying affection. She shuts him down immediately: “I. Don’t. Want. You. In. My. Life.” Then security tackles him to the floor. Little does Stefan, a hopeless romantic, know that just hours later, Katie’s new husband and his whole family will be dead, she’ll be the prime suspect in their murder, and she’ll have drafted him to abet her escape. As he attempts to figure out whether she’s a psycho killer or, as she insists, just the patsy in an underworld assassination plot, the twisty narrative alternates between that high-intensity flight from the law and flashbacks to their courtship on the wedding-season circuit. Sometimes the mismatched genres can lead to real dissonance; Wedding Season got a little darker than I’d hoped. But the show’s tight, propulsive episodes make it hard to stop watching. Salazar is, as always, a force of nature, and her chemistry with Drea sells even the loopiest moments.
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