Perhaps the biggest tragedy of These Uncertain Times is the plight of our precious film critics: With no movies in theaters, they’re reduced to covering new releases debuting … on TV. The horror—reduced to the level of a common television critic! Thoughts and prayers.
Meanwhile, over here in the TV streamverse, business is booming. You may think you’re caught up on all the shows—having been stuck in lockdown for months with nothing but a remote and your own existential dread—but no; there’s always more. (TV, that is … well, existential dread, too.)
Here are nine series that debuted recently that you might have missed, a couple of which were brought to my attention by listeners of my podcast, TV Tan. They’re a sharp dozen.
The Dress Up Gang (Season 1 on TBS): L.A. roommates Donnie (Donnie Divanian) and Cory (Cory Loykasek) have a squirmy, surreal dad/son dynamic straight out of the Very Special Episode trope of family sitcoms—and that’s the least weird aspect of The Dress Up Gang. Like a low-key Tim and Eric, their daily courtyard mundanities are hysterically high-stakes (like the terror of a doorbell ditcher, or new white sneakers). Also, for no reason, their apartment neighbor is Andie MacDowell (as herself).
The Midnight Gospel (Season 1 on Netflix): Mashing up the deep-think interviews of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast with fantastical animation (by Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward), The Midnight Gospel is utterly unique. Trussell voices Clancy, a “spacecaster” who visits apocalypse-bound worlds through the multiverse for enlightenment and kicks (and content). The combo of intellectual dialogue and acid-trip visuals should be overwhelming, but The Midnight Gospel is actually soothing.
Robbie (Season 1 on Comedy Central): Backed by a killer cast that includes Sasheer Zamata, Mary Holland and even Beau Bridges, comedian Rory Scovel turns what could have been a throwaway movie plot (small-town-youth basketball coach dreams of glory) into a charming eight-episode series with subtle, bizarre twists. Scovel’s Robbie comes off like a detached Kenny Powers (Eastbound and Down), but the show keeps the Southern stereotypes to a minimum (only one KKK-founded ice cream shop).
Mrs. America (Season 1 on Hulu): A miniseries based on a true, dark political story (the ’70s battle for the Equal Rights Amendment) shouldn’t be this fun. Likewise, ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) shouldn’t be this sympathetic, but Mrs. America pulls it off. The real-life feminists (played by Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba and more A-list actors) didn’t win on every front, but Mrs. America is a colorful-but-firm reminder to keep kicking against the patriarchal pricks.
Jamestown (Seasons 1-3 on Prime Video): In 1619, more than a decade after establishing a colony in America, the men of Jamestown are finally sent British women to marry. (They purchased them like livestock, more accurately.) Jamestown is a soap opera with beaver pelts and bonnets, a period piece that favors glossy drama over historical veracity—which is what you’d expect from the production company behind Downton Abbey. Jamestown is an engaging watch, as long as you don’t think too hard about it.
Barkskins (Season 1 on National Geographic and Hulu): For a slightly more historically accurate dramatization of young America (1690s French-colonial Canada, that is), there’s Barkskins. Leaning more Deadwood than Downton Abbey, Barkskins juggles multiple storylines of frontier intrigue, most notably those of a hardnosed innkeeper (Marcia Gay Harden) and a gonzo land baron Claude (David Thewlis, chewing all of the scenery). It’s a dark, strange and occasionally funny saga—from NatGeo, of all places.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Season 1 on Apple TV+): Not that there’s much competition, but Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is the best show on Apple TV+. (Yes, it’s still a thing.) Co-created by and starring Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the smartly scripted MQ:RB is set behind the scenes of a videogame company that makes the titular multiplayer, and the workplace is (barely) controlled chaos. What Veep did for politics, Mythic Quest does for gaming—just less profane and far more positively.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Season 1 on Showtime): Remember 2014-2016 gothic horror series Penny Dreadful? Doesn’t matter; Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is related in name only. The story is a sun-saturated tangle of Mexican folklore, crime noir, Christian evangelism, Nazi conspiracies and racial tensions (whew) in 1938 Los Angeles, but the players sell it. Nathan Lane’s LAPD cop and Kerry Bishé’s radio preacher are on point, but Natalie Dormer’s demonic Magda (among three other roles) is the reason to watch.
Fortitude (Seasons 1-2 on Prime Video): The icy beauty of Fortitude, a small Norwegian Arctic island populated with fishermen, scientists and polar bears, could carry Fortitude on cinematography alone. But there’s also a murder thriller at play here that becomes more eerie and X-Files anomalous by the episode. Everyone in Fortitude has a secret—or, at the very least, a charming accent—and the investigation shifts focus on a dime. A tidy conclusion isn’t coming, but the ride is a rush.