What I’ve Been Watching

There seems to be a lot on these days. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a golden age for television (because a lot of the follow-up seasons I’ve been watching have been disappointing), after the dry spell during COVID, I am grateful for the entertainment. I thought I would drop in to discuss some of the shows I’ve been watching.

  • Call Me Kat, Season 2:
    This is a cute, dorky little show with Mayim Bialik (of The Big Bang Theory fame) as the protagonist, Kat. It’s easy watching and feels like a welcome relief from more serious themes. I didn’t think the second season has been as good as the first. A lot of what drives sitcoms of this ilk is the romantic plot, and they got that off kilter. But it’s a cute show. Innocuous, but I like if for that.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • Sweet Magnolias, Season 2:
    The second season was mostly a good follow-up to the first. The first was better, in my opinion, because there were some frustrating storylines in this new one. Most of the frustration is character-based, so I try not to complain that I don’t like where a character’s storyline is heading until I see the conclusion. But as of right now, I am a bit concerned about several things: Dana Sue’s relationship, Helen’s situation overall, and the anger management issues that seem to have suddenly cropped up in Maddie’s boyfriend (Maddie’s was a love story I particularly liked before, and this felt out-of-nowhere and unfair). There was a tendency to let side stories have too much airtime, which took away from the main stories. The setting was confined to a summer when the kids are off from school. Whereas the first season was given space to grow and be what it needed to be, this one felt like a placeholder, which was a bit disappointing. But I watched the show very quickly, and it held my interest, so I’m hanging with it. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • All Creatures Great and Small, Season 2: 
    This is a great little show, not ambitious, but so heartwarming. Season 2 was in keeping with the Season 1, which means it was good. It was a little dull, recycling a couple of storylines and dragging out a few others. But there was a reward this season, and it was quite romantic. Overall, well done, and worth it to escape into an hour of gentle, relaxing drama.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.
  • Dollface, Season 2:
    Basically, the same as the others… Not quite as good as Season 1, but not terrible. This is a show about a girl on the cusp of thirty who breaks up with her boyfriend and has to reintegrate with her friends and find what she wants from life. I really enjoyed the first season. But this recent one was another season that wasn’t given space to breathe, and I can’t remember that we actually got anywhere… There were some storylines that were obviously not going anywhere which had way too much time devoted to them. Anyway, I can’t say it was terrible because, again, I did watch it very quickly.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselSeason 4:
    I came to this show reluctantly, because it all seemed a bit musical-ish and vaudeville-y, and that really isn’t my style. But the clothes were beautiful, and I decided to stick with it. I hardly ever know what to say about this show, which has the same creators as Gilmore Girls. For instance, the first episode of this latest season is so exhausting that I had to watch it in two installments. That’s not good TV, in my opinion. It’s a little too self-indulgent sometimes (the writers explore unique interests that are just not going to resonate with an audience). It’s all over the place, and you feel like you need a tether, or something to bind the whole thing together. Half the time you wonder what the point is. On the other hand, it’s brilliant. While excessively grand in its sets and almost theatrical in its movement, it’s doggedly realistic. It’s not just concerned with romantic relationships. They’re a part of life, but no part of life is neglected. The show cares about relationships—between co-workers, between colleagues, between rivals, between friends, between exes, between ex-in-laws, between parents and children… No relationship is too small for it to absorb itself in and bestow its dignity upon. And I really like that. The cast is amazing. I like the family aspect and the depiction of Jewish life. I like the 1960s setting. I like the way that, with a few exceptions, the show relentlessly follows the mores of the era, even when they make you cringe. But…I still can’t tell you what the point is. It views like a fictionalized, involved origin story of a deeply famous person (in real life), which we all want to watch because she is that famous. Like think if it were Lucille Ball. But of course, Miriam Maisel is fictional. The creators might argue back that the show is about a young female comedian finding her footing on the comedic scene of the 1960s. But that wouldn’t really be honest. The show rambles, takes on much more expansive sidelines. The only thing that really binds it together is the beauty of the filmography, and there is, to be sure, the strong thread of Miriam’s career. On one hand, I actually like this rambling in a way. It makes it super realistic, just like life, and I like realism. Of course Miriam would have to pause her career briefly when her ex-father-in-law has a heart attack. Of course she would have grand squabbles with her parents, who are living with her. Those are the kinds of things that wouldn’t normally make it into the story. We have the fly-on-the-wall view to Miriam’s whole life. I’m just not always sure why we’re supposed to care. Again, she wasn’t a real person, and, in and of herself, while she is a good character, she’s not that compelling. And while I am a huge fan of realism, I deeply believe in storytelling, and I think that is a bit absent here. We need a thread. I had thought it was actually going to be romantic. There’s no doubt that the character of Lenny Bruce is her equal. In books, movies, or shows when a character’s love life is open-ended, I have literally never guessed wrong who the female lead was supposed to be with, her soulmate or true partner, and I thought that was Bruce for Miriam. I may have been living under a rock, but I didn’t know until this year that Bruce was a real person, who tragically ended his life about three years after when Season 4 would have taken place. So I really think the show has backed itself into a corner here by making Miriam’s chemistry so electric with a real-life character with whom she is not destined to be. The upward arc of her career along with the slow burn of her romance with a character like Bruce could have made some story-telling sense of the show. It could have explained why we were so invested in her personal life. But anyway…I actually really enjoy the show for the most part, and I’ve learned a lot. So I’ll keep watching.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Seasons 1 & 2:
    Wow. What a show. Props to my sister for discovering it because it seems to be a bit obscure. Anyway, it’s about Zoey, who is a coder at a big tech firm. Her dad is dying from a rare neurological disorder (which the writer’s dad also died from). She gains a superpower in that people, without knowing it, sing their feelings to her through popular lyrics. Okay, so technically, it has a fantasy element, which I don’t usually like. But for anyone who believes in a spiritual realm (and as a Christian, I do), it feels less like fantasy and more like a creative illustration of what happens when the Spirit reveals nuanced truths to you. We can see other people’s hurts and needs so much more clearly, and it felt like that, so it wasn’t such a stretch for me. The show has so much heart and empathy (the real kind). The love between the characters, the struggles they face, the feeling of family and community – it’s just the best I’ve seen in a long time. There is also a love triangle that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end of Season 2. I actually didn’t know who Zoey was going to end up with (although I did guess her soulmate correctly 😏)! I do have to flag one episode: Season 2, Episode 6, in which the show was more or less paused to speak to political events of that year, and it was a disaster. It completely departed from the show’s character and storyline to pursue a pretty radical theme. I feel like I beat this drum all the time in reviews, but here we go again… I just cannot say this plainly enough: this is detrimental to art and unnecessary. Shows need to be what their original writers intended and not worry about pleasing anyone. Even though the show got right back on track, I felt like viewers really never recover from being let down in that episode. In a show that is entirely about deep love and loss, which spoke so profoundly to grief, it was jarring to pause for a militant political theme that took our characters…out of character and far from empathy.  Anyway, I have almost come to expect shows self-destructing in this way, so… I did finish the show, and I was happy with the ending. Roku commissioned a Christmas special that progresses the show basically one episode beyond Season 2. That episode is free if you have Roku. It was enjoyable, but not very well-directed. A little cheesier, a little less serious… But it still wrapped everything up pretty nicely. As hard as I was on the show for its mistakes, overall, it’s the best I have watched in a really long time. It got one thing very wrong, but it gets a lot so, so right.
    Streaming on Peacock.
  • Fleabag, Seasons 1 and 2
    I had heard such glowing reviews about the literary elements of this British show that I felt like I had to watch it. Reviewers had spoken of it as being laugh-out-loud funny… I wouldn’t say that. Rather, it had a collection of unique humorous moments that stick with you. For instance, Fleabag’s sister was one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen. The first season is about a woman who is basically unhinging following the deaths of her mother and best friend, and it is actually quite dark in theme. The second season was just pointless to me. I follows Fleabag’s desire for a relationship with a priest. I have seen this sort of fascination with a priest’s celibacy from authors before, with the goal being to crack through that. As a religious person, this makes no sense and always feels disrespectful. I didn’t see how it was supposed to be brilliant when it is a theme that has been rehashed many times. Another criticism I have is about the vulgarity aspect. I am the last person to pearl-clutch over the media I consume, but I think there is a nuance to this that needs to be addressed. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the writer) was impressed with Bridesmaids, and believes it did a lot for how women are portrayed on screen. I believe this too. However, you have to be careful in this balance. If you begin to be vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar…that’s just gratuitous and may become demeaning. So overall, I was not a huge fan. A lot of people are passionate fans, however, so take my analysis for what you will.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • The Gilded Age, Season 1
    Julian Fellowes’s long-awaited American answer to Downton Abbey finally hit HBO this year. I am a little uncertain how to approach this one. On the one hand, Fellowes obviously did his research and accurately portrayed the Gilded Age for the ultra-wealthy of New York. On the other, it was boring. The Gilded Age is a tough era. I once wrote a novel set in 1903 and immersed myself in all things gilded. It is overwhelming, simultaneously fascinating and boring. The history of the time is so overbearing, so to speak, that if you don’t push back and say, as a writer, “This story is mine,” the history won’t let you have three-dimensional characters. You don’t feel you have the freedom to carve out your own stories unless you do that. That was the problem in The Gilded Age. None of the characters were super compelling. None of them had great storylines. Every once and a while, there would be a flicker, like with the Russells or Peggy Scott, but it would quickly peter out into the mundane. Marian Brook particularly was insipid as our lead. There were some aspects I liked and some I didn’t like, but I won’t go into them too deeply because the show had the pretty fatal flaw (to me) of being slow-moving. I think this may have been, in addition to the difficult era, a tough production due to the American/British differences in filming. Camilla Long, writing for The Times (UK) said, “You can feel every last torturous second of rewrites, reschedules and rethinks…” I feel bad for giving criticisms because you can tell there was a lot of earnestness put into the show, particularly by the actors. I will watch Season 2, and hope for more compelling storylines.
    Streaming on HBO Max.

What I’ve Been Watching…

It has been a while since I’ve done an in-depth film review, so I thought I would drop in to let you know what I’ve been watching! If you’re like me, you’re always looking for good options, so hopefully you will find something to interest you here.

  • Sweet MagnoliasI have to say, I wasn’t sure about this show at first, largely because the first scene included both disastrous attempts at Southern accents and a misunderstanding of how the legal system works.  Luckily, I persevered through the first scene, because…I absolutely ended up loving this show. The accents seemed to level out (or maybe I just got used to them?), and although I continued to have concerns about obvious misunderstandings of the legal system, the lawyer character, Helen Decatur, was phenomenal. She was a strong woman, convinced of her own internal worth, confident, and beautifully played by actress Heather Headley. It’s a story of three friends who are, I think, supposed to be in their late thirties or early forties: Maddie, Helen, and Dana. All have their own stories and struggles. Maddie and Dana have children, and the show accomplishes something remarkable: portraying teenagers as actual teenagers and actually making it interesting. I’m not even a baseball fan, but I enjoyed even the high school baseball drama! The kids in the show are all amazing actors. You will see some recycled storylines. Part of the way through, I thought: this is a little Reba, a little Gilmore Girls, and a little Friday Night Lights. And yet…somehow it works tremendously. The show is authentically small-town-Southern. It handles big issues and big emotions delicately. It has a natural, easy way with diversity that few shows accomplish these days. It has tons of charm. And I cannot wait for Season 2!
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Virgin RiverI have such a love-hate relationship with this show (which consists in me loving it half the time, and me hating it half the time!). The show has a lot of heart. Then it suspends reality. Then the characters are completely relatable. Then they are off the rails… I’ve watched all of the seasons. I’m not sure I’ll watch the next. I always say that; then I always do.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Never Have I EverThis is a fun teen drama. With Mindy Kaling at the helm, you are in for some laughs. The first season packed a satisfying emotional punch with the ending. The second season was slightly less satisfying, but I think the writers still have their hands on the reins, so I’ll be watching the third season.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • The Parisian AgencyThis is a reality show featuring a French family of luxury realtors (a mom, dad, and four sons). It is in French, so I used subtitles, which is, admittedly, a bit exhausting. But it was worth it to get a look at what luxury means in Paris, as well as French culture. I also enjoyed the interactions of the Kretz family and seeing common familial bonds, love, and squabbles across a culture purportedly so different from our own. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Emily in ParisSpeaking of Paris… The show is a little chick-flicky boring…and then all of the sudden turns edgy. It has the “American in Paris” dichotomy of provincial, good kid thrust into the world of Paris and all its culture and sins that has, I think, been a popular ideation since Thomas Jefferson went to Paris as Minister to France in 1785. And the idea of exploring Paris through American eyes did feel fun and accessible, as well as interesting, culturally speaking. I have to say, I did not find the main character relatable or likeable. I sometimes mused to myself that she had been miscast. However, from my admittedly limited knowledge of French culture, there seemed to be a lot that the show got right, and the writers were certainly not lazy with the plot. I’ll be looking forward to the second season!
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • 9/11: Inside the President’s War RoomThis BBC documentary ties the events of 9/11 with a timeline for President Bush and his cabinet on that day. I don’t typically watch 9/11 documentaries, but I wanted to do something to commemorate the 20th anniversary. I highly recommend this documentary. It covers the actions taken and decisions made that day and has a lot of pictures that are never-before-seen. Most of the big players, including Bush, Rice, and Powell, agreed to be interviewed, and I think that will be a huge treasure to history in the future. We don’t have, for instance, a minute-by-minute interview with FDR of his day during the Pearl Harbor attacks, which would be so illuminating. The documentary was very educational and moving without being overwhelming. 
    Streaming on Apple TV.
  • Jack Whitehall: Travels with My FatherThis is a show consisting of a young comedian who goes on world travels with his father. It is often hilarious, with the father being completely unconcerned about political correctness. He does it from the position of an elderly English aristocrat, which comes off as snobbishess, which is why I think he gets away with it when others wouldn’t. The dynamic between father and son is unique and just very funny. It was funnier to me when I just thought they were a father-son duo who were in a reality show practicing off-the-cuff banter. It became clear early on that at least some parts of it were coordinated, however. I have to say that my joy was sapped by that question of doubt as to the raw reality of the show. I enjoy scripted humor if it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and I enjoy real life humor. Scripted humor parading as real-life humor leaves me feeling ruffled and a bit cheated. In this case, the question was how reluctant to be there (a huge point of the humor) could the father really be if he had memorized a script? You can’t have a grumpy old man pretending to be a grumpy old man—that takes self-awareness and humor. That being said, I have read articles which state that their off-the-cuff banter is phenomenal, so to the extent the show is a bit rehearsed, it is definitely playing off that dynamic. And it was still funny, even if a bit cheaper form of humor, and you learn some about the places they travel. It’s excellent escapism. Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Chair: This university dramedy with Sandra Oh is almost eerily real sometimes. The writers must be very well-versed in small-major liberal arts academia. Literally, it’s like they know my professors. They also weren’t afraid to “go there” with the drama of a woke student body. I think everyone could take something away from the show. It was very insightful on the troubled family life of academics, but lovingly presented in its humanity. It will also be eye-opening to many on the subject of how, if universities can’t find an internal fabric, they are in very real trouble. There were moments of humor. There are various moments when probably everyone will be very annoyed. It could be heavy; it could be very light (hence, the “dramedy”). I think everyone, whatever their political alignment, will feel both vindicated and frustrated variously. And for that, I give the show high marks.
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Babysitters Club: This, when it stays on script, is a good little show based on the original book series about a group of entrepreneurial middle school girls who have a babysitting service. There’s a lot of depth to the show, and it gets a lot right about coming of age. Unfortunately, in Season One, there was a storyline about a trans child that was very uncomfortable to watch for various reasons, none of which have anything to do with trans storylines in general. It involved a very young child, and it just missed it in several aspects. In fact, I thought the show handled it inappropriately. Because of this, I almost didn’t watch Season Two. But because the show had proven itself in other respects, I decided that it might have just been a well-intentioned attempt to make the show inclusive which went off the rails a bit. But Season Two began, to some extent, to go down the path of Anne With an E, which I discussed here. Netflix obviously has an agenda, and it is their right to do so. It is also the right of viewers to criticize when a show’s integrity begins to be harmed by that agenda. 🤷🏻‍♀️ Look, most everything on streaming devices has a left-leaning bent. That’s not what I’m talking about. That can be art. Including long passages that are information dumps about political theories that have only the flimsiest tie to any storyline and pressing them to an insufferable degree…that is not art. That is politics. And that is fine. But it shouldn’t be parading as art. Especially, like Anne With an E, when it draws in an audience based on the reputation of a classic. And it is worth noting that the two shows with which I have seen this done to the largest extent are both shows primarily for children. Which takes Netflix’s agenda to a whole new level, and one that I can’t imagine will end well for them. We shall see. So, like Anne With an E, when the show shines, it really shines. When it strays off task, it loses the thread. So take that for what you will. 
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • Miss Scarlet and the Duke: This is a great show about a female detective in Victorian London, who often comes up against her frenemy, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. I am usually not a huge fan of detective dramas, but this one is in the old-fashioned tradition of British whodunnits, where the emphasis is on the people. The romance hits all of the right notes, the tension being superbly written and masterfully acted. It’s in another great British tradition of being of a slow-burn variety and subtle, while nonetheless being passionate. Season One aired on PBS Masterpiece a few months ago, and you may be able to catch it on PBS replays. It is streaming on PBS Passport now (their paid subscription streaming platform), and the first episode is free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.

  • All Creatures Great and Small: This reboot of the beloved classic about a small village veterinarian is very heartwarming and family friendly. It’s a good storyline with a good cast. It ran simultaneously with Miss Scarlet and the Duke on PBS Masterpiece, and it was always a debate as to which would draw me in more. This is currently streaming on PBS Passport, and the first episode free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.