Best TV, Cable & Streaming – 2020 & 2021 (so far) – Part 2

Here are twelve more titles to wrap up this survey of what I’ve liked on the small screen in 2020 and so far this year.

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Miss Scarlet and the Duke (PBS Masterpiece)  Set in Victorian London of 1882, this series concerns Eliza Scarlet (played by Kate Phillips), an aspiring sleuth who takes over her recently deceased father’s detective agency. Of course, no one at that time can even comprehend the idea of a female detective. This is a constant challenge for her. She seeks support for her ambitions from a friend of her father’s, Scotland Yard Detective Inspector William “The Duke” Wellington. For the Duke, Eliza is a constant irritant who wants to help with cases that often befuddle the professional police. She’s a disconcerting presence for those around her, a smart-ass with Sherlockian powers of observation. Her relationship with the Duke has the familiar dynamic of male/female protagonists who constantly rebuff the other, and who you know should really be together. There’s a modern sensibility to their relationship and Eliza’s personality that might not be credible given the period, but overall Miss Scarlet and the Duke is very entertaining in ways I associate with Gentleman Jack (HBO) and the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series (PBS). The final two episodes of the six-episode season also raise the stakes in darker ways that I hope continue in the next season.

Also, the production design and costumes are outstanding. Eliza’s outfits always pop against darker backgrounds.

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The Morning Show (Apple TV)  Mitch Lester (played by Steve Carell) and Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) were beloved co-hosts of “The Morning Show.” As this terrific series begins, Lester is out of a job after revelations of sexual-harassment charges against him. The show and its network go into damage control overdrive as they attempt to deal with the fallout and survive the scandal. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), an outspoken field reporter with a regional news show in the south, joins “The Morning Show” as Alex Levy’s new co-host. Very timely in the MeToo reality, the show is fast, funny, and dramatic. The excellent cast also includes Mark Duplass as the harried producer of the show, and Billy Crudup as a non-traditional network executive whose agenda I was never quite sure of, though he’s one of the most interesting characters to me. Will be interesting to see if the next season can maintain the energy.

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Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)  Really great mini-series about the polarizing efforts in the 1970s to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from being ratified, led by conservative activist Phyliss Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett). There are excellent performances from all,  including Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinhem, Uzu Aduba (Crazy Eyes on Orange Is the New Black) as Shirley Chisholm, and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. Martindale is a favorite of ours. She was amazing on Justified and The Americans.  Here she lets it rip as Abzug. I was pleased to see that four of the nine episodes were directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Together they have written and directed some terrific feature films, including Half Nelson (2006) with Ryan Gosling, Mississippi Grind (2015), and a Marvel superhero film, the excellent Captain Marvel (2019). Mrs. America is very engaging and very well made. A footnote is that the ERA has yet to be fully ratified.

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Mystery Road (Amazon Prime/Acorn)  Another great Australian series. Similar to Jack Irish, the series was preceded by feature films. In this case there were two: Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2018).  There have been two seasons of the series, the first in 2018 and the second in 2020. All feature Aaron Pederson as indigenous police detective Jay Swan. To describe his character as tight-lipped and taciturn is an understatement. His cowboy hat, boots, and holstered weapon give him a Gary Cooper vibe. The features and the series are set in northern Western Australia, a vast, open landscape evocative of the American West. These are modern day westerns with strong neo-noir vibes. I recommend seeing the feature films first, which lead into the series. The first season of the series gets an added boost by having the great Judy Davis as a local police sergeant working with Jay Swan. In each storyline he gets sent to different communities to solve crimes. Tragic stuff happens.

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Ozark (Netflix)  Here’s the setup, per Wikipedia: “After a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel goes wrong, financial advisor Martin “Marty” Byrde proposes to make amends by offering to set up a bigger laundering operation in the Lake of the Ozarks region of central Missouri. Marty suddenly relocates his family from Chicago to the remote summer resort community of Osage Beach, Missouri. When the Byrdes arrive in Missouri, they become entangled with local criminals and later the Kansas City mafia.”

A terrific series with good people going bad, a la Breaking Bad (including that level of violence and duplicity). Jason Bateman and Laura Linney star as Marty and Wendy Byrde, with Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner as their children, Charlotte and Jonah. Julia Garner is especially great. She has received two consecutive supporting actress Emmy awards for her portrayal of Ruth Langmore, member of a local family of criminals. We first saw her on The Americans, and more recently in The Assistant, a feature film. Janet McTeer is also excellent, and very scary, as Helen Pierce, a lawyer for the drug cartel. We see the Byrdes continually getting backed into corners and somehow bluffing their way out, which frequently ends up with bodies on the ground. There have been three seasons so far, and a fourth is in the works. Below are trailers for season one and two.

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Perry Mason (HBO Max)  I was intrigued when I first heard HBO was doing a Perry Mason series. Matthew Rhys was terrific on The Americans, so I thought he would be interesting as Mason at a point early in his career. But it took me a couple of episodes to get into it, mainly because this was not the Perry Mason I’d grown up watching in the ’50s. Like Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Burr was firmly imprinted in my mind as Perry Mason. What I let go of that, it was no problem.  This is just another Perry Mason, a somewhat tattered, sometimes boozing private eye in early 1930s Los Angeles.

The production is, as you’d expect, impeccable. It’s interesting and satisfying seeing how other characters we know from the TV show have been reimagined. Besides Matthew Rhys as Mason, there’s Juliet Rylance as Della Street, Chris Chalk as a Black LAPD cop named Paul Drake, and the surprise appearance later in the series of Justin Kirk as Mason’s future courtroom nemesis, Hamilton Burger. These characters are being introduced on the ground floor, so to speak, as they begin to evolve into regular fixtures in the Perry Mason universe. The always authentic Shea Whigham plays Mason’s sometimes assistant, Pete Strickland. As usual, he puts an interesting spin on his scenes. John Lithgow is excellent as E.B. Jonathan, a lawyer who uses Mason as an investigator on cases, and acts as a mentor of sorts. Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice McKeegan, an evangelist with a prototypical mega-church following, seemingly inspired by the real-life Aimee Semple McPherson. Andrew Howard is Detective Ennis, a very bad cop. In the eight-part series, Mason is drawn into the case of a kidnapped baby who is murdered. He works to find the truth, despite many setbacks and the occasional beating. And before it’s over, we finally see him in court, defending the accused and finding his way to becoming Perry Mason.

One of the things I liked the most about the original TV series was the iconic theme music that played at the beginning of each episode. It’s quite obviously stripper music, and unforgettable. Yesterday I imagined Raymond Burr in flamboyant drag coming into the courtroom doing a striptease with the theme blasting away. Would like to have seen that. Terence Blanchard did the score for the new show, as well as scoring many Spike Lee films. I was thrilled that at the end of the final episode, a jazzy version of the original plays under the closing credits. Here it is:

The new Perry Mason is very different from the old, but I’d like to think they’d get along.

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Pretend It’s a City (Netflix)  This is really great, a seven-part documentary directed by Martin Scorsese about Fran Liebowitz and how she sees the world. For Liebowitz, the world is New York City. The DNA of the city is in everything she says. It’s impossible to imagine her anywhere else, though it’s fun to picture her on the Iowa farm where I grew up. Those who don’t appreciate Fran’s grouchy views on everything in sight should probably avoid this series, but we loved it. It’s especially great that Scorsese gets such kick out of her; he can be heard laughing constantly either on or off camera at something she’s said. Scorsese made a previous film about her in 2010, Public Speaking. That film had a screening at Film Forum in 2019 with Liebowitz there for a Q&A after. She’s a trip. She’s a writer who has famously had a decades-long writer’s block. Metropolitan Life and Social Studies were published in 1978 and 1981, respectively. Both are collections of essays. I was surprised to learn that she also wrote a children’s book published in 1994, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas, about giant pandas living in New York City who want to move to Paris. She’s known now as a wit and raconteur whose bark is worse than her bite. The New York Times has called her a modern-day Dorothy Parker. For those of us who appreciate her style and sense of humor, Pretend It’s a City is a gift.

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The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)  This series about a chess prodigy is amazing. I knew basically nothing about how chess is played before watching The Queen’s Gambit, and didn’t know much more after. But I found it riveting, and that’s mainly due to Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role of Beth Harmon. Her other-worldly presence (those eyes!) has got my attention in everything I’ve seen her in, which includes The Witch (2015), Morgan (2016), Thoroughbreds (2017), The Miniaturist (2017 mini-series), and Emma (2020). She’s slated to take the Charlize Theron part in Furiosa, a prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road, scheduled for release in 2023. That should be interesting.

The Queen’s Gambit, based on the novel by Walter Tevis (author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth), became one of the most popular scripted series that Netflix has done. All seven episodes were written and directed by Scott Frank, which helps ensure a consistent quality throughout. Frank is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, whose work includes Get Shorty (1995), Out of Sight (1998), and Logan (2017). The Queen’s Gambit production and acting are topnotch. I especially liked Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, the building custodian at the orphanage where Beth is sent after the death of her mother. She begins to take refuge in the basement where Mr. Shaibel, in his grouchy fashion, teaches her to play chess. As Beth grows older and gains prominence for her increasingly brilliant chess playing, she also struggles with drugs and alcohol, a result of being fed tranquilizers at the orphanage. One of the neatest things about the series is that each of Beth’s matches is presented differently, so they never get stale or predictable. Despite my knowing little about chess, each match builds in tension. The series is a thriller. It’s not about chess, it’s about Beth.

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Rake (Netflix)  And yet another great series from Australia. Richard Roxburgh shines as Cleaver Greene, a criminal defense barrister in Sydney. He’s a lovable rascal, a familiar type in film and literature. Some of the terms that aptly describe him are unreliable, outrageous, alcoholic, incorrigible, and self-destructive. One could go on. His life is a trainwreck, but he somehow manages to squeak by. If you knew someone like this in real life, he or she probably wouldn’t seem quite so charming. But there’s something quite appealing about Roxburgh, similar to Guy Pearce in Jack Irish, that makes him fun to be with. But even with his manifold faults, Cleaver does have a sense of justice, despite his claims to the contrary. Defending the little guy is important to him.

I wasn’t quite as happy with the fifth season, in which Cleaver has somehow gotten elected as a senator in Federal Parliament. I preferred him in the courtroom setting of the first four seasons. Regardless, it’s still a great series and he’s a great character.

These trailers for seasons one and four will give you a more vivid sense of what I’ve described.

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Silent Witness (Amazon Prime) This British series that follows a team of forensic pathologists has been on the air since 1996, twenty-three seasons so far. It’s fascinating, and quite addictive. We only started watching recently. We finished season 19 last night. Only four to go. At the beginning, Sam Ryan (played by Amanda Burton) is a pathologist living and working in Cambridge. At the end of season three, she takes a job as a university professor and moves to London. She leaves the series at the start of season eight. Her place as the only female member of the team is eventually assumed by Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox). There have been several cast changes since the series began, though not as many or as frequent as those on the original Law & Order in this country, which is similar to Silent Witness in terms of longevity. There’s also been a shift in emphasis. When the series began, it seemed more about the work of performing postmortems on crime victims. As it has progressed, mainly since the move to London, the team has become more involved with field work, as investigators alongside the police. The autopsies depicted are quite graphic, but not lingered on or in your face for shock value. The quality of the episodes has not fallen off  over time, which can happen, particularly with long-running shows. I’m glad to say that, so far, no sharks have been jumped. Though with four seasons left, I suppose there’s always time.

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The Spy (Netflix)  Anyone who thinks of Sacha Baron Cohen as only Borat should see him in this series and as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7.  He’s an extraordinary actor. In this six-part series taking place during the years leading to the Six-Day War in 1967, he plays Eli Cohen, an Egyptian Jew living in Israel who becomes a top Mossad spy, eventually infiltrating the Syrian Ministry of Defense. It’s very tense as he repeatedly evades detection, until he doesn’t, and as his assumed identity becomes more and more real to him, at the expense of his wife and children. In order to succeed in his undercover life, he risks failure in his real life.

A bonus is that Noah Emmerich plays Dan Peleg, one of Eli’s Israeli handlers. We got to know him well as FBI agent Stan Beeman in The Americans.

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What We Do in the Shadows (FX on Hulu)  As I wrote last year, I love this show. A small group of vampires share a house on Staten Island, where they’ve lived (so to speak) for over 100 years. They have the usual mundane domestic problems, like whose turn is it to clean the bathroom or sweep up. As with The Office, an unseen film crew is ostensibly shooting a documentary, which allows for direct-to-camera commentary by the characters. Very black, deadpan comedy. The second season was even better than the first. I love them all, but one of my favorite characters is Colin Robinson (played by Mark Proksch). Colin, a nerdish little man, is an energy vampire. He doesn’t suck blood; he drains energy and life force by boring people into a stupor. Here’s a clip collection of Colin in action.

Guest stars on the show have included Tilda Swinton, Wesley Snipes, Mark Hamill, Danny Trejo, Evan Rachel Wood, Haley Joel Osment, and Dave Bautista.

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That’s it for this wrap up. There may be a supplemental materials post, but I haven’t decided yet. Stay tuned and be safe. — Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Art, Books, Comics, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Music, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Best TV, Cable & Streaming – 2020 & 2021 (so far) – Part 2

  1. David M Fromm says:

    I have enjoyed many of these series and now have some more to catch up on.

  2. Sharon van Ivan says:

    This, too!

    ’Thank you!

    Hope you’re all doing well.

    Love, Sharon and Earl

    >

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