February’s biggest news on the TV front—besides Rihanna headlining some little sporting event whose name escapes me—was the triumphant return of Starz’s cult-classic comedy Party Down. The rest of the month was fairly quiet. We got some OK-but-not-great midseason network debuts: Milo Ventimiglia as a sexy criminal in The Company You Keep and Gina Rodriguez vehicle Not Dead Yet, both on ABC, plus Joel McHale’s new Fox sitcom Animal Control. Two Apple series that sounded promising, Dear Edward and Hello Tomorrow!, felt a bit undercooked. So you’ll have to excuse me for bending the rules and including Cunk on Earth, which came out on the very last day of January, on this list of the best new shows I sampled in February. In my defense, it’s a short month—and Cunk is side-splittingly, spit-takingly funny.
The Consultant (Amazon)
Regus Patoff, the title character of Amazon’s deeply weird thriller, is not exactly desperate for a paycheck—nor are his cost-cutting measures the scariest items on his agenda. Played by the consistently terrifying Christoph Waltz, he materializes at mobile-game company ComWare just after a middle-schooler murders the 20-year-old founder, Sang (Brian Yoon), during a class trip. (The devil made him do it, the boy insists.) In fact, Mr. Patoff arrives at the office in the wee hours of the morning, and is greeted by two confused employees processing their feelings on Sang’s death: burned-out coder Craig (Nat Wolff) and Sang’s ambitious former assistant, Elaine (Brittany O’Grady), who’s adopted the title creative liaison as she searches for a better gig. He walks without apparent difficulty and seems otherwise healthy, but they practically have to carry him up the office staircase. So that’s odd. [Read the full review.]
Cunk on Earth (Netflix)
Step aside, Ali G. Britain’s latest interview-comedy icon has arrived. Her name is Philomena Cunk, and she has, in fact, been kicking around the UK for more than a decade, since Diane Morgan originated the arrogantly ignorant TV-presenter character on Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s BBC Two commentary show Weekly Wipe. After attaining marquee status with mockumentaries like Cunk on Christmas and Cunk on Britain, the national treasure has finally gone international with Cunk on Earth, which entrusts her with the mammoth task of surveying human society from the dawn of civilization through the present.
Is she up to it? Oh, absolutely not. The questions Cunk poses to real, bemused academics see-saw from eye-popping idiocy (“Was Beethoven good at music?”) to accidental profundity. In a segment on the theory that what we think of as reality is actually a computer simulation, she asks one patient expert: “Why do I have to actually come and film this? Couldn’t a computer just show it on the telly in the simulation—or is that where I am? Do I exist at all?” Along with Morgan’s sharp improvisational instincts and uncrackable mask of stupidity, what makes the show brilliant is the writing behind Cunk’s hilarious deadpan monologues, from her description of DaVinci‘s “reboot” of The Last Supper to the observation that, with the advent of writing, “suddenly ideas didn’t have to disappear just because the person whose head they were trapped in had died.” The too-short, 5-episode season will surely send you running to YouTube for more Philomena Cunk—and thankfully, the Internet provides.
Red Rose (Netflix)
The teen thriller space is pretty crowded these days, but Red Rose is the best example in a while. Another Netflix-BBC collaboration, the 8-episode series follows a group of working-class friends in North West England who are gearing up for a crazy summer. They get more excitement than they bargained for when one of the clique, Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth), frustrated to be stuck home caring for her little sisters while the others earn pocket money and party, receives a mysterious link to download an app called Red Rose. Seemingly omniscient, it promises to bring her wealth, power, and respect—but it also makes certain strange demands. This is a show that thrives on whiplash twists and shocking reveals, so I won’t ruin it by going too deep into the plot. What I will say is that Red Rose manages to make some keen observations about young people, social media, and surveillance without getting pedantic. It’s also a relief to see a teen drama grounded in regular kids with real problems like poverty and addiction, rather than the twee or overly glossy or, well, whatever you want to call Euphoria aesthetics that dominate the genre.
The Reluctant Traveler (Apple TV+)
Heat. Cold. Water. Flying. Trying new foods. Travel in general. These are just a few of the things that Eugene Levy has always preferred to avoid. But, as the Schitt’s Creek patriarch and comedy legend explains in the intro to The Reluctant Traveler, he’s in his mid-70s now and has grudgingly admitted that he owes it to himself to see more of the world. Lucky for us, he brought a camera crew along on his tour of destinations like South Africa, Finland, and the Maldives. The carrot, at each of these stops, is an itinerary made up of ultra-exclusive luxury hotels and elite dining experiences; a labyrinth of extreme temperatures, fearsome (at least for Levy) bodies of water, and other relatively mild adventure-travel challenges function as the stick. While our host’s many anxieties set the show apart from any number of other titles that send celebrities on expensive vacations, it’s his charming self-deprecation and tentative embrace of new experiences that make each episode a pleasure to watch.
Stolen Youth: The Cult at Sarah Lawrence (Hulu)
Within the voraciously consumed category of true crime, cults and privileged victims are reliable draws. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that this 3-part docuseries, preceded in 2019 by a widely read New York magazine investigation, about the cult that grew up around Larry Ray in the early 2010s isn’t primarily an exercise in bottlenecking. Director Zach Heinzerling (McCartney 3,2,1) takes an unusually somber, empathetic approach to telling the story of a group of Sarah Lawrence students who came under the influence of Ray, a classmate’s father, when he moved into on-campus housing with her after finishing a stint in prison. Impressionable, open-minded, and anxious about their futures as the Great Recession continued to reverberate, these young adults initially found in Ray, who cooked elaborate meals and styled himself as a powerful man, an encouraging adult ally—someone who was both eager to talk through their problems and confident in the solutions he prescribed. But within a matter of months, the conman had moved his followers into a cramped Manhattan apartment, where he slept with female protégées and controlled all aspects of the students’ lives through a regimen of starvation, sleep deprivation, paranoia, extortion, and violence.
The situation deteriorated from there, as this kind of horror story tends to do. Yet instead of fixating on the lurid details, Heinzerling really listens to the survivors—the ones who were still loyal to Ray at the time of his arrest in 2020 as well as those who’d left the cult of their volition. What emerges isn’t just a profile of an extremely sick, sadistic man. It’s a portrait of high-achieving kids made terrifyingly vulnerable by a combination of impossible expectations and depressing realities.
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