Search Party (Season 4, HBO Max)
From my review: Shawkat continues to give the best performances of her career so far. Physically she has a shaved head (forced upon her by the Twink), and there’s a disconnect in the way she moves. She cowers continuously, compared to last season, where she played the seductress, using her sexuality to manipulate. By the end of season four, she is genderless in many ways. She walks with a gait that could never be considered “feminine” by American cultural standards. I think this is important because it notes that Dory has played several roles as she’s dug herself deeper into the predicaments in her life. Now she’s reached a point, having convinced the public of her innocence while feeling the enormity of her guilt, that she is no one. The Twink takes full advantage of this and further breaks Dory down throughout the season.
Reservation Dogs (Season 1, FX)
It’s not a giant leap to state that the perspectives presented in the media are primarily white people’s. Unfortunately, one of the most criminally underrepresented groups in American media are Indigenous people. Taika Waititi has lent his filmmaking cred to help boost Sterlijn Harjo and a magnificent cast of Native performers. Set approximately a year after the death of their mutual friend Daniel, a group of indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma commit petty theft and hustle to try and save up enough to move to California. The series highlights all four of our leading players plus several fantastic side characters. The kids are amazing, but it’s with the talented adult actors that the show truly shines. Dallas Goldtooth plays a Native warrior who died by accident at Custer’s Last Stand and tries (while failing to help out) Bear, one of our protagonists. Gary Farmer is unforgettable as Uncle Brownie, a braggart and pothead whose knowledge of the old ways is more valuable than they seem at first. And, of course, Zahn McClarnon as Officer Big is one of the best things about the show. This is a series that we’ve been waiting for, and we hope to see much more.
Pen15 (Season 1 Part 2, Hulu)
The women of Pen 15 (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) have created one of the best coming-of-age television series ever made. This ranks up there with classics like The Wonder Years or Freaks & Geeks. What makes the whole series work is that while Erskine and Konkle are playing their 13-year-old selves, they are playing it entirely seriously. We have episodes where we laugh along with them, reflecting on their youthful embarrassments, but just as significantly, they never undercut their past selves’ sadness at the time going through first crushes and subsequent break-ups, parents divorcing and grandparents passing away. Then in this final run of episodes, they deliver one of the best things I’ve ever seen, focusing entirely on Maya’s mother, Yuki (played by her real-life mom Mutsuko Erskine). This single entry into the series works as a stand-alone short film, both emotionally and technically a piece of superb work. It was a loss for everyone that these two women chose to end the show, but it is one of the most satisfying send-offs I’ve seen in years. I’ve got these creators on my radar and cannot wait to see what they do next.
Squid Game (Season 1, Netflix)
From my review: I think the first half of the season works better than the second. The mystery being set up around the games, seeing the grotesque games play out, and watching players try and find some way to stomach what they’ve been forced into is excellent. However, the subplots and the time spent on the management side of the event are not so great. There are wealthy VIPs who are the worst part of the show, in my opinion. They are played by English-speaking actors, and I’m unsure what went wrong, but their dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural. Despite the flaws in the show, I think the emotions experienced by its main characters really resonate with viewers. It really cuts through the absurdity of so much of what we passively accept under capitalism. It also highlights how we go along with it, choosing to dehumanize our neighbors for the promise that we might get a few crumbs one day. I’m also wondering about the inevitable second season and what direction they will explore the games from. I can think of some predictable ways it could go, but I’d rather they surprise us with something unexpected.
I Think You Should Leave (Season 2, Netflix)
Tim Robinson was always too good for Saturday Night Live. He blossomed with the now-canceled Detroiters with collaborator Sam Richardson. But the moment Robinson truly got the world’s attention was with the first season of I Think You Should Leave on Netflix. He returned this year with many familiar faces to deliver an even better selection of sketches. The core of Robinson’s comedy is an examination of modern anger in America. People in his sketches are continually frustrated with the world not living up to their expectations. In this season, there seems to be a greater level of pathos given to characters that might typically be the butt of a joke. An over-enthusiastic hidden camera prank show host suddenly realizes how foolish he looks and goes through a range of emotions. A stranger at a coffee shop helps out a dad trying to tell his child a playful fib but then begins weaving their own stories to help them out of a series of misfortunes. The show is at its best when characters realize they are wrong about something yet refuse to budge or admit their error. Watching them dig their holes deeper is so painfully relatable you’ll end up crying and in tears.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)
Based on the novel by Colson Whitehead, this mini-series was brought to life by the master filmmaker Barry Jenkins. From the very first scene, a stunning slow-motion shot of our protagonist falling into the dark while images from things-to-come flash before our eyes, it’s clear this is going to be a sprawling, monumental work. The premise is that the famous Underground Railroad is literally that, a series of railed tunnels that help runaway slaves escape to the North. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) has spent her whole young life in Georgia, but love and yearning help her escape. She’s pursued by the relentless Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and their conflict is at the heart of the entire narrative. Cora’s odyssey through America leads her to places where slaves are glorified lab rats, slavery has been made illegal out of a hatred of black people, and even a farm that might be the utopia she was searching for. The Underground Railroad is a dense work, profoundly literary with high expectations of its audience. Unfortunately, the series did not get as much acclaim as I had hoped and is very much worth a watch if it missed your purview this year.
Succession (Season 3, HBO Max)
You think you have things figured out and know where the story is going, and then…you get a season finale like that! Succession is the creation of British screenwriter Jesse Armstong who co-created the brilliant Peep Show and co-wrote one of the best political satires of the 21st century, In the Loop. With the third season of this hit HBO series, he has managed to create something that is, no exaggeration, Shakespearean. This is King Lear starring Rupert Murdoch, a brutal takedown of the wealthy media class and confirmation that they are petty children vying for a “kiss from daddy.” The stand-out this season is Matthew McFayden as Tom Wambsgans, a man willing to put his head on the line if it pleases his father-in-law, the Zeus-like Logan Roy (Brian Cox). The cracks that formed two years prior are laid bare here, the petulance and rancor of the Roy siblings overflow, and it once again leaves us wondering, “Where the hell does it go from here?!”
The Sopranos (HBOMax)
One of the best American television shows ever made. The Sopranos was a blind spot for me for twenty years, and I am so glad I have finally gotten to see it all. It’s not just a show about Italian organized crime; it’s a meditation on the ascendant Baby Boomer generation and the consumption that came along with it. James Gandolfini and Edie Falco are more than perfect for their roles as Tony & Carmela, an iconic television couple. Their performances are emotional and infuriating, delivering some of the most complex people to have graced television screens. The show never allows us to place labels on them, making them full of contradiction, both volatile and tender towards those they love. In the wake of 9/11, the show became even more meaningful, looking at the shockwaves of that event on the American psyche. Much like Succession, this is a rich narrative with a cast whose stories overlap and intersect with each other. The Sopranos is so much more than its finale, but that is a work of brilliance when you take in the whole show.
I reviewed each season this year, links below
Scenes From a Marriage (1973, Criterion Channel)
From my review: By deconstructing a marriage, Bergman is able to explore what it means to be connected to another person. We watch the couple become separated, fight and rage through a divorce, only to continually end up having sex and even cheating on their new spouses with each other. Bergman was no stranger to ending marriages, having five of them over his life and even fathering a child with Ullman while married to one of these wives. The term “marriage” seems to take on a greater meaning beyond the legal definition, a connection between two people that keeps them drifting together again despite all the destruction it can cause. Because they have been together so long, they know each other, positive and negative, better than most others in their lives. There is a sense of satisfaction in these private moments. We can objectively say they need to separate and move on with their lives, but that’s easier said than done when you aren’t one of the parties in the relationship. I think anyone who has been in a long-running relationship that came to an end can identify with how that attraction doesn’t automatically dissolve even if you feel intense anger for the other.