As we hunker down in our homes, defying COVID-19’s malicious march as best as we can, it seems like there’s never been a better time to escape into shows that transport us into different worlds.
With that in mind, in this post and next week’s I’m sharing a personal Top 12 list of scripted shows currently available on television. And because I’m always looking for new ideas of what to watch, please send me your own faves. I’ll give the first three people who respond with shows I haven’t watched a copy of my new cyberpunk novel, THE JUICE, as a thank you.
The shows I’ve picked are a mixture of fairly new releases and some oldies that I’ve had a chance to discover. They range the gamut: sci-fi and fantasy productions, comedies, period pieces, thrillers and dramas.
In no particular order, here goes:
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT
It was far from a given that I would like this Netflix miniseries, which is about a child prodigy chess master. While chess matches are plentiful in the episodes, there’s so much more to this production, which is adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. (His other novels include THE HUSTLER and THE COLOR OF MONEY – obvious pattern going on.)
At the heart of the tale is a peculiar little orphan named Beth Harmon who transforms into a chess genius. I was captivated by the journey she takes in life – from secret chess games with a janitor in the basement of an orphanage to a world championship in Moscow as a glamorous but unstable woman.
Scott Frank, who directed the miniseries and co-wrote it with Allan Scott, gives a view into Beth’s obsessive and very gifted mind by showing imaginary chess games that show up on the ceilings of various rooms where she’s dreaming or thinking.
The adult version of Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, has the focus of a jaguar zeroing in on its prey when she turns her magnetic, big-eyed gaze on her opponents, contemplating their next move. It’s hard to look away from her.
Beth’s struggles to remain lucid and calm by way of pharmaceuticals and her memories of a dark family history counterbalance all her successes. And those difficulties make it questionable that she can possibly reach her ultimate goals. That’s the “engine” that gives this show its driving momentum.
GAMBIT also benefits from striking performances of several other actors. I particularly enjoyed a chess champion character named Benny, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster (who was just a kid when he starred in LOVE ACTUALLY).
The day after I watched this Netflix movie, I started watching it again. There’s a lot to keep track of. But it’s worth the time, because director David Fincher gives us a lot of fun and a fascinating view of old Los Angeles.
The title refers to the very witty Herman Mankiewicz, who is played by the great Gary Oldman. Mank was a legendary Hollywood screenwriter and before that a foreign correspondent and drama critic. The movie takes us into the world of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, with a huge assortment of players, including several well-known screenwriters, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (well played by Charles Dance) and Hearst’s legendary buddy, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), head of MGM.
After Mank gets in a bad car accident and breaks a leg, he’s hired by Orson Welles to write a screenplay in record time for RKO. The studio has given 24-year-old Welles total creative control. Mank is taken away to a secluded spot, with a nurse to look after his broken leg, a stenographer to take down his words and John Houseman to provide editing duties. As he battles against time and succumbs to an overwhelming need for alcohol, Mank produces what will become his crowning achievement as a screenwriter, CITIZEN KANE. (Welles did some “noodling” too, as he put it in the movie, and the writer credit went to both of them.)
Flashbacks delve into Mank’s somewhat troubled inspiration: personal encounters with Hollywood’s elite, and his friendship with Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, who is embodied by Amanda Seyfried as a tough ex-New Yorker with a radiant, smart-talking charm — strikingly different from the character in CITIZEN KANE that was patterned after her. (Seyfried is seen in the background of the picture below with Oldman, on set “burning” at the stake.)
Over the course of the flashbacks, Mank turns against the tycoon and Mayer as he witnesses how they are manipulating the public to vote against left-leaning Upton Sinclair, who’s running for governor in California. And that leads Mank to his dark view of Hearst and Davies in his script.
Set during the Depression, at a time when Hollywood was in a state of upheaval with the advent of the talkies, it gives distant echoes of the troubled times big studios are facing today — and the economic difficulties of so many Americans. Those subtle references make this movie all the richer.
This Netflix series grabbed my attention with the words “Hillary Swank.” But it kept me coming back because of its overall standout cast and some super tense quandaries that lifted me right into the story’s galaxy.
Swank is captain of a spaceship on a mission to Mars. Her crew is very United Nations-y; most of the superpower nations were represented. And there was also a diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation. You might think that feels too contrived. But AWAY got away with it (sorry, can’t help it) because the characters were all so rich, with flaws and longings and plenty of conflicts. (In the picture below, Swank is with Ray Panthaki.)
There are clashes between various crew members and the people they love back on Earth. There are arguments among the crew members themselves as they try to figure out what they need to do. And there’s buggy equipment that makes for life-and-death crises. So lots of tension, which makes for absorbing drama.
The 10-episode first season performed extremely well in the U.S. when it debuted a few months ago. It was not renewed, reportedly because the overseas audience was too slim to justify the overall budget. Don’t let that stop you from digging into this treasure if you haven’t already.
First, let me say that hillbillies, as a rule, don’t blow my hair back – the Beverly Hills sort or otherwise. But Glenn Close and Amy Adams were so transformed in this movie, I hardly recognized them at first (see photo below). When their anger is directed at each other, it’s riveting.
Based on a memoir by J.D. Vance and directed by Ron Howard, HILLBILLY ELEGY is told through the eyes of Amy Adams’ son (J.D.). He is seen in flashback as a boy and in the present as a Yale law student fiercely proud of his Appalachian roots and a tad uncomfortable among the legal elite.
To me, LOVECRAFT was like a really, really rich dish. Sometimes I was really into it; sometimes I had to put it down. This is one ambitious series.
Its creator, Misha Green – executive producer, writer and director – blends fantasy and monsters with social commentary. It’s easy to see why Joran Peele (GET OUT) and J.J. Abrams (too many shows to pick one out) would also exec produce this HBO release.
The plot is set in the 1950s and gains momentum when a young man, played by Jonathan Majors, travels across Jim Crow America with a sizzling hot young woman played by Jurnee Smollet and an uncle, portrayed by Courtney B. Vance. (That’s Majors and Smollet below, with Michael Kenneth Williams, who portrays the father.)
The story takes off from there, with some pretty strange-o twists. The title references the pulpy weird horror fiction of writer H.P. Lovecraft, who died in the 1930s. His bizarre tales influenced a slew of people, not the least of which were Guillermo de Toro and Stephen King. But he was unabashedly racist.
As an article published last August in Vox explains, “Necessarily, LOVECRAFT COUNTRY’S approach to Lovecraft’s legacy is simultaneously one of shrewd affection and resigned repugnance. For the problem with Lovecraft is that Lovecraft is everywhere. His influence is so ubiquitous within horror and fantasy that you simply can’t ignore it — nor is it always easy or simple to subvert it.”
HIS DARK MATERIALS
One of the first things that struck me about this HBO series is that the casting really meshed with how I imagined the main characters when I read the Philip Pullman novels on which the series is based. Although there certainly were a few casting choices that were pleasant surprises, like Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scorsby (seen below).
It was a tall order, to successfully adapt the beloved stories; Pullman’s prose is so masterful – as is the world that he created. I shall forever want my very own daemon, the animal beings tied to the souls of characters in Pullman’s world. Instead, I have to settle for cats. But I’m not complaining. The series is now in its second season.
That’s all my recommendations for this week. Stay tuned for part 2, dropping next Tuesday. And please share your own favorite shows with me. First three that I haven’t test-driven will get a free copy of my new book, THE JUICE.