As of 12:01 a.m. this past Wednesday, the writers' strike is over. But even if the actors' contract is also settled within the next few weeks, TV schedules throughout the fall will be full of stopgap programming meant to tide us over until the production machine starts spitting out new episodes. Documentary series and Anglophone imports, in particular, have dominated streaming. Which isn't such a bad thing. Don't get me wrong: It's a relief to see fairly compensated writers back at work. Still, considering the quality of September's best new shows—two scripted titles from the UK and three quintessentially American docuseries—I wouldn't say I'm clamoring for the 21st season of NCIS.
Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court (Showtime)
If you want to understand American politics, especially in a 21st century defined by legislative gridlock, you have to understand the Supreme Court. And if you want to understand the Supreme Court, this four-part series from distinguished documentarian Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble, Philly D.A.) is an excellent place to start. Beginning with Chief Justice Earl Warren's tenure in the 1950s and '60s, when issues of individual rights began to dominate the docket and cases like Brown v. Board of Education helped pave the way for a more equitable democracy, Deadlocked traces the Court's devolution into a morally compromised tool of partisanism.
Roe v. Wade, United States v. Nixon, Bush v. Gore, voting rights, same-sex marriage, the very public sexual misconduct inquiries that preceded Clarence Thomas' and Brett Kavanaugh's ascent to the bench, are all integral parts of this story. But Porter, drawing on interviews with legal scholars and former staffers of justices on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide, also follows trends in the Court's relationship to party politics and the public square, from the rise of the Federalist Society to the advent of confirmation hearing as spectacle to the shifting tone of SCOTUS coverage in the media. Deadlocked isn't the most entertaining of documentaries; expect plenty of archival footage and talking heads. Yet it's fascinating, if also depressing, because it synthesizes so many worrisome political and cultural shifts into a single striking narrative. And the stakes couldn't be higher. As one expert sums up our current predicament: "The only power the court has is its legitimacy. And if it loses that, well then, the question becomes: Well, why obey?"
Dreaming Whilst Black (Showtime)
Kwabena wants to kick off his filmmaking career with a short that dramatizes his Jamaican-immigrant grandparents' love story. But the project is easier conceived than executed for a young, broke Black writer-director with few connections in the industry and an excruciating day job to make rent on the apartment he shares with his cousin and the cousin's pregnant wife. A perceptive comedy of errors ensues, as Kwabena—played by co-creator and co-writer Adjani Salmon—navigates the many indignities of fundraising, meets powerful creators who steal his ideas, and encounters all manner of racism within an overwhelming white industry that believes itself to be progressive. Meanwhile, his friend Amy (Dani Moseley) questions why she ever left a nascent producing career in Nigeria to take an assistant job at a British production company where she's the only Black employee and her bosses would rather see her fetch coffee than make movies.
In its depiction of a Black protagonist's struggle to make headway in a creative marketplace controlled by white gatekeepers, Dreaming Whilst Black shares many themes with another worthwhile September release: Hulu's adaptation of Zakiya Dalila Harris' publishing satire The Other Black Girl. But Salmon's series is the sharper, funnier, more concise and stylistically confident of the two, balancing a deeply pessimistic read on the British film industry with characters whose ambition, frustration, and talent feels authentic.
The Gold (Paramount+)
On the morning of Nov. 26, 1983, six armed South London gangsters broke into the Brink's-Mat warehouse, near Heathrow, expecting to make off with around £1 million in currency. What they found in the facility's vault, instead, was £26 million worth of gold bullion (which would today be the equivalent of about $137 million). That surprise jackpot presented a major problem: How would the robbers transform so many bricks of solid, serial-numbered gold into money they could actually use? The solution opened the door for decades of financial crime to come.
The Gold, a kinetic, six-part BBC crime drama that's currently rolling out on Paramount+, fictionalizes the heist and its long aftermath. Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville leads the expansive cast as DCI Brian Boyce, a tenacious, incorruptible veteran lawman following the money. His white whale is Kenneth Noye (Jack Lowden from Slow Horses), the wily fence who connects the robbers with white-collar money launderers. Fascinating characters abound, from an ambitious detective (Charlotte Spencer) who's the daughter of a gangster to a social-climbing solicitor (Dominic Cooper) who's increasingly disturbed by his own soullessness. At the heart of the story is the tension—and affinity—between the "old London" of smugglers and outlaws, and the Thatcher-era, greed-is-good Establishment types busy gentrifying it. If creator Neil Forsyth presses a bit too hard on British class dynamics, in earnest monologues that spell out themes viewers can easily glean without them, it's all in service of a stylish procedural that's gripping from beginning to end.
Savior Complex (HBO)
In 2019, a devastating news story ricocheted around the digital-media echo chamber. As one headline summarized it: “American Woman Accused of Letting Hundreds of Ugandan Kids Die at a Fake Clinic.” Her name was Renée Bach, and she faced a lawsuit on behalf of two Ugandan mothers who alleged that their children died after being treated at a malnutrition clinic where Bach practiced medicine without a license. (The case was settled in 2020.)
The three-part HBO docuseries Savior Complex—premiering Sept. 26, with the remaining two episodes set to air the following night—revisits the thorny affair, previously dissected by The New Yorker and in the podcast The Missionary, adding updates, on-camera interviews, and nuance without sacrificing accountability. Filmmaker Jackie Jesko’s disinclination to paint Bach as a bloodthirsty butcher or her detractors as heroic racial-justice crusaders is sure to rankle some viewers. But what emerges instead are revelations more astute and more disturbing, forged in a crucible of race, religion, money, and global politics. [Read the full review.]
Greg Whiteley's riveting seven-part documentary follows the regional pro wrestling league Ohio Valley Wrestling through a pivotal season, as CEO and WWE alum Al Snow clashes with new co-owners and the future of the league hangs in the balance. Whiteley is known for the humane Netflix community-college sports docuseries Last Chance U and Cheer. Yet his latest project for the streamer frames its subjects less as athletes than as outsider artists, devoting their lives to captivating their dwindling audiences and preserving what might be a dying lifestyle. Each match skillfully combines choreography and improv. The line between self and persona blurs. Wrestling may not be your passion—it isn’t mine—but Wrestlers resonates beyond the ring. It’s about the scrappy vitality of independent entertainment in a world where it’s direly undervalued. [Read the full review.]
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