What I Watched This Week: 10 Jan 2021

Danger 5 – Season 1 (A- average)
An absolutely ridiculous, wildly entertaining diversion. I described it to a friend as “Inglourious Basterds meets Team America at the Matt Helm Lounge.”

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Oscar Picks: 15 Jan 2021

Da 5 Bloods
The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
One Night in Miami…
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Falling off: News of the World
Rising star: Promising Young Woman
The skinny: It’s still a little weird that only three of these movies will have a traditional rollout, and all three won’t be out until February. Half of these will have hit Netflix, and one hits Amazon Prime today. This really will be the weirdest year for film ever, and there may not be any going back. News of the World barely made any noise with its Christmas Day release, so it (and its other possible nominees) are off the board, replaced by The Father, which seems to be picking up momentum beyond its guaranteed Best Actor nomination. The only problem? Sony Pictures Classics notorious fumbling of its Oscar contenders.

Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods
David Fincher, Mank
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Regina King, One Night in Miami…

Falling off: None
Rising star: Florian Zeller, The Father
The skinny: These five remain for now, with Zhao in the lead as she’s picked up nearly every critics’ prize so far. Still seems odd a movie as small and intimate as Nomadland is the frontrunner, but here we are. Zeller’s transfer from stage to screen might be enough to propel him into the slate, but the same can also be said of George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Gary Oldman, Mank

Falling off: Tom Hanks, Steven Yeun
Rising star: Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami…
The skinny: There’s still a chance Yeun could make it, but he and A24 have had a bad run of luck with the Oscars as of late. (The studio has only earned one nomination in each of the past two years after a huge showing in 2017, and Yeun was snubbed for his tremendous turn in Burning.) A posthumous win for Boseman seems like a done deal, and he’s certainly deserving. Kingsley Ben-Adir is earning raves for his turn as Malcolm X, but Amazon will have to make an even bigger push for the film.

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Falling off: Amy Adams
Rising star: Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie
The skinny: And Hillbilly Elegy is officially dead. Amy Adams is gone, replaced by Carey Mulligan. Along with Kirby, they’ll give McDormand a run for her money. And Netflix now has another ace up its sleeve. They paid a pretty penny for Malcolm & Marie, which shot during lockdown and is earning raves. Fresh off her Emmy win, she’s a major challenger.

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2020 in Review: The Best Performances – Television

Schitt’s Creek
The four principle cast members finally got their due, each picking up an acting Emmy. But the show had a full bench of brilliant performers, including the always hilarious Chris Elliott as Mayor Roland Schitt. Most sitcoms would kill for a cast of characters this deep: Patrick (Noah Reid), the consummate straight man to David’s antics; Stevie (Emily Hampshire), the deadpan counterweight to the Roses’ eccentricities; and Ronnie (Karen Robinson) and Bob (John Hemphill), popping in with a gut-busting one-liner just when the show needs it.

Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso
Sudeikis’ ads as the titular character were charming enough. But as the lead of this show, he’s finally found a role that fits him like a glove. His indefatigable spirit made believers out of his team, his owner and the viewers.

Alia Shawkat, Search Party
We already knew through two seasons of this show that Dory was not a good person. But she goes to a new level of disassociation in Season 3 when she convinces herself that she shouldn’t face any consequences for her actions. She became so borderline sociopathic, it left the rest of the ensemble to pick up the comedic slack. But no one on-screen was quite as compelling as Shawkat.

Mark Proksch, What We Do in the Shadows
The perfect embodiment of the troll, the “energy vampire” Colin is one of the greatest expansions of the mythology established by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. In the season’s fifth episode, Proksch gets the spotlight, going mad with power as he drains so much energy from his coworkers the company goes belly up.

Phoebe Fox, The Great
The entire cast of Hulu’s revisionist history series does excellent work. But I was most taken with Fox, playing Marial, a former lady reduced to the role of servant. She doesn’t have much else to lose, but manages to maintain a “fuck it” attitude while still remaining fiercely loyal to her people, whatever the cost.

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2020 in Review: The Best Comedy Shows and Specials

Marc Maron: End Times Fun (Netflix)
Though shot in 2019, this special felt perfect for the “Why is everything on fire all the time?” insanity of 2020. Maron lays out how we got here, without being condescending or wallowing.

Middleditch & Schwartz (Netflix)
Three hours of improv sounds like it could be torture. But like the highest highs of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz came up with brilliant stories and characters off the top of their domes. Then they kept those plates spinning at three separate shows, maintaining a rarely seen level of energy and creativity.

Nate: A One Man Show (Netflix)
Natalie Palamides’ audacious hour of comedy is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever seen, which is partially the point. Her deconstruction of macho antics and consent is definitely not for everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly an hour you’ll never forget.

Tom Papa: You’re Doing Great! (Netflix)
Papa’s always been a nice guy and a solid comedian. But those traits meant even more in 2020, when the merest reassurance that we’re still doing fine as our good habits died felt like a balm.

Beth Stelling: Girl Daddy (HBO MAX)
Stelling layers gross jokes and funny anecdotes with righteous call-outs of exes and colleagues who abused women and enabled monsters. It never feels preachy or reductive, especially since it’s disarming from the jump.

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2020 in Review: The Best Shows – Honorable Mentions

No show had a bigger chance of whiffing than this revival for Hulu. But the new writers and returning voice talent made it just as funny and subversive as the original run. They jettisoned all the other segments that didn’t work, keeping just the Warner Brothers and Sister, and Pinky and the Brain. The result was 13 hilarious, if occasionally uneven episodes. The most outstanding segments of each: the NRA-skewering “Bun Control” and “No Brainer,” in which Pinky and Brain meet Edward Snowden. My only note for Season 2? Bring back Good Idea, Bad Idea.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “Valloweaster”
There’s no telling when this will return, given COVID-related production delays and grappling with what role a cop show has in a world that’s woken up to the senseless violence the police inflict on their communities every day. But 2020 at least gave us this joyous episode, which ups the craziness of their annual Halloween heist outings.

Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Insufficient Praise”
This season walked a tightrope as Larry fends of accusations of sexual harassment in a post-#MeToo world and opens a coffee shop solely to spite an enemy. The season was mostly solid, but a little too self-indulgent, especially in episodes that pushed the 45-minute mark. But this episode, in which Larry offends Clive Owen by giving him a merely positive review of his new play, hit all the Curb sweet spots.

The Good Place – “Whenever You’re Ready”
It felt a little unfair to put this in my top 10 when only four episodes aired in 2020. But I had to take time to mention its stellar finale, which fills every inch of its extended runtime with proper send-offs for all its characters and one of the most genuinely moving explorations of death ever to grace the small screen.

How To with John Wilson – “How to Make the Perfect Risotto”
I arrived late to this HBO experiment but fell in love quickly with its oddball charms. John Wilson has a disarmingly sweet and curious nature, but he’s also an obsessive documentarian, which gave him an impressive library of B-roll to use to punctuate his jokes and observations. His finale was the best, as he arrived from his latest expedition just as the pandemic began, and his quest to make a risotto for his sweet old landlord became a beacon of kindness in a country that revealed it only had selfishness on its mind.

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2020 in Review: The Best Shows

Even with the hypothetical “more time” we had to watch TV this year – given that we were confined to our homes and many new shows halted production – it still never felt like “catching up” was possible. So here are my 10 favorite shows from this wretched year.

10. Briarpatch (USA)
I’ve listened to Andy Greenwald share his (sometimes questionable) opinions on podcasts for years now, but his first foray as a showrunner (and EP, writer and director) proves the man knows how to make quality television. His adaptation of Ross Thomas’ scorching Texas-set crime novel expands the scope, with surreal touches (like a menagerie of zoo animals on the loose) and alterations to the plot handled perfectly. Hats off to his casting director, too, who found a murderer’s row of character actors to inhabit the opaque townspeople.
Standout episodes: “Breadknife Weather,” “The Most Sinful MF’er Alive,” “Most Likely to Succeed”

9. Search Party (HBO MAX)
Its first two seasons debuted on TBS what seems like a lifetime ago, and its fourth season will arrive later in January. But WarnerMedia held onto this completed season for the (bungled) launch of HBO MAX. This ended up being the perfect decision for viewers, as those who had never seen the show (like me) or those who hadn’t seen it since 2017 the chance to catch up and go straight into this wild third season, which becomes a courtroom drama that takes the off-beat show into full-blown farce.
Standout episodes: “In God We Trust,” “A Dangerous Union,” “Irrefutable Evidence” 

8. The Crown (Netflix)
One of Netflix’s highest-rated shows finally broke into my top 10. It’s not that past seasons were bad, but this season jumped up a level. How did it pull that off? By focusing on the most human (Diana Spencer) and inhuman (Margaret Thatcher) figures in Queen Elizabeth’s orbit. Emma Corrin, who had very little acting experience, absolutely nailed the magic and horror of getting sucked into the Windsors’ lives. Gillian Anderson, an absolute pro, got the inflexibility and callousness of one of the worst women of the 20th Century.
Standout episodes: “Fairytale,” “Fagan,” “48:1” 

7. The Great (Hulu)
Unlike a certain other show about palace intrigue, backroom deals and copious amounts of sex, The Great did more than stand there and look pretty. Elle Fanning cements her status as one of the absolute best young actors, playing the naively optimistic Catherine, whisked away to a world of cruelty and endless parties. Nicholas Hoult perfectly walks the tightrope between evil and doofus as her husband Peter, who rules Russia with an iron fist and an erect dick. But its magnificent supporting cast steals every scene, secretly revealing their true motives, emotions and kinks when the royals aren’t present.
Standout episodes: Pilot episode, “Moscow Mule,” “A Pox on Hope” 

6. Mrs. America (Hulu)
Taking a fragmented approach to documenting the fight to certify the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. America gives us portraits of the women who risked their reputations, jobs and political capital for the causes they believed in. On opposite sides stood Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who had to battle not only each other but also divisive factions in their own groups. It’s almost like we’ve learned nothing in 50 years.
Standout episodes: “Shirley,” “Bella,” “Houston” 

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Streaming Picks: January 2021

With so many new streaming services, I figured this year I’d expand the scope of this column again. I’m adding Disney+ and HBO MAX, so bear with me as a lot of new titles get added. I’ll still try to pick at least one thing on each service to highlight. 

Top Picks
Save Yourselves! – Hulu 1/1
Pieces of a Woman – Netflix 1/7
The Intouchables – Netflix 1/11
One Night in Miami… – Prime 1/15
The Little Things – HBO MAX 1/29
The classic of the bunch is The Intouchables. The French drama is inspirational without being corny, and more authentic than the star-studded U.S. remake (The Upside).

Prime and Netflix are getting their Oscar plays out with One Night in Miami… and Pieces of a Woman. Both should be getting, at a minimum, some acting nods, though bigger categories will depend on their campaigns.

Save Yourselves! is the ludicrous but timely sci-fi comedy that I saw at the Atlanta Film Festival this year. A hipster couple decide to do an “unplugged weekend” at a remote cabin the day before an alien invasion overtakes the Earth.

Finally, The Little Things is the first of HBO MAX’s 2021 slate to hit theaters and the service on the same day. This is the perfect test case, since it’s unlikely I would have paid to see this garbage crime movie (starring three Oscar winners!) in theaters, but will absolutely be watching Denzel Washington and Rami Malek try to catch a serial killer the weekend it goes up.

Recent Selections
Like a Boss – Hulu 1/1
Ma – HBO MAX 1/1
Piter – HBO MAX 1/1
Ready Player One – HBO MAX 1/1
A Star Is Born – HBO MAX 1/1
The High Note – HBO MAX 1/2
Mighty Oak – Hulu and Prime 1/6
Gretel & Hansel – Hulu and Prime 1/7
The Silencing – Prime 1/8
The King of Staten Island – HBO MAX 1/10
The Rhythm Section – Hulu and Prime 1/11
Promare – HBO MAX 1/12
Turtle Tale – HBO MAX 1/12
Alone – Hulu and Prime 1/14
The Secrets We Keep – Hulu 1/14
Pinkfong & Baby Shark’s Space Adventure – Netflix 1/15
Si Yo Fuera Rico – HBO MAX 1/15
Radium Girls – Netflix 1/16
No Escape – Hulu 1/17
Sightless – Netflix 1/20
Terra Willy – Hulu 1/22
Don’t Let Go – HBO MAX 1/23
Chick Fight – Prime 1/29
Mortal – Prime 1/29
Fatima – Netflix 1/31

The Minimalists: Less Is Now – Netflix 1/1
What Happened to Mr. Cha? – Netflix 1/1
Asphalt Burning – Netflix 1/2
30 Coins – HBO MAX 1/4
Ratones Paranoicos: The Band That Rocked Argentina – Netflix 1/6
Tony Parker: The Final Shot – Netflix 1/6
Charming – Netflix 1/8
Herself – Prime 1/8
Lupin – Netflix 1/8
Stuck Apart – Netflix 1/8
Tiger – HBO MAX 1/10
Double Dad – Netflix 1/15
Outside the Wire – Netflix 1/15
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise – Hulu 1/15
In & Of Itself – Hulu 1/22
So My Grandma’s a Lesbian! – Netflix 1/22
The White Tiger – Netflix 1/22
Penguin Bloom – Netflix 1/27
¡Animo Juventud! – HBO MAX 1/29
Below Zero – Netflix 1/29
The Dig – Netflix 1/29
Finding Ohana – Netflix 1/29
June & Kopi – Netflix TBD
Locked Down – HBO MAX TBD

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What I Watched This Week: 20 Dec 2020

Black Mirror – Season 2 (A- average)
I’m including the stellar “White Christmas” here, which ups the season average. “Be Right Back” and “White Bear” represent the show at its pitch-black best, but “The Waldo Moment” was full of facile political satire that didn’t work.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law – Season 2 (B+ average)
The animation is a lot smoother, but the jokes are more scattershot. Still, it’s incredibly amusing, especially when its got more bite. Stephen Colbert’s vocal performance as Phil Ben Sebben is among the very best.

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What I Watched This Week: 13 Dec 2020

The Mandalorian – “The Rescue” (A-) / season finale
A thrilling finale marred by self-indulgent fan service. Based on what happens, there should never be another episode. But God knows there will be, and I will probably watch.

Killing Eve – Season 3 (B+ average)
Is it a step down from the previous two seasons? Sure, but few shows are as stylish, funny and sexy. Another show that should end here, but I will probably get sucked right back into the next season.

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What I Watched This Week: 6 Dec 2020

The Mandalorian – “The Believer” (A)
I hope Bill Burr comes back for a death-defying mission every season.

Animaniacs – Season 1 (B+ average)
All my fears about this reboot disappeared as soon as they made a joke about urban decay in cities that host the Olympics. The show is just as funny, with just as much specific, weird and adult-aimed humor as the original run, but they’ve jettisoned all the side characters that never worked. I hope this runs for many more years.

How To with John Wilson – Season 1 (B+ average)
As delightful and weird as everyone said, with its finale one of the most touching and authentic pieces of art made during the pandemic.

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