What have you been watching? Including #blackAF and Mrs America

Rose Byrne and Tracey Ullman in Mrs America

It’s “What have you been watching?”, your chance to recommend to fellow TMINE readers anything you’ve been watching this week

Previously on TMINE

It’s been another busy week for TMINE, but I have managed to eke out the time needed to review The Baker and the Beauty (US: ABC). Meanwhile, temporary new film review feature Covideodrome was inaugurated with Sliding Doors (1998).

Rashida Jones and Kenya Barris in Netflix’s #blackAF

Next on TMINE

Coming up after the jump, I’ll be reviewing Mrs America (US: Hulu; UK: BBC Two) and #blackAF (Netflix). But as usual, Covid-19 rules apply to the following new shows: I have every intention of watching all of them, but might not be able to, for one reason or another.

I’ve finally managed to track down The Secrets She Keeps (Australia: Ten; UK: BBC Four), which will be getting a review later in the week. Elsewhere down under, over in New Zealand, One Lane Bridge has just started, so I’ll be giving that a watch if possible.

On the streaming services, Season two of After Life will be arriving on Netflix on Friday, while Defending Jacob is Apple TV+’s new Friday show. I’ll probably watch at least a bit of them. Monday’s Never Have I Ever (Netflix) sounds a bit YA for me, but I might give it a try, too.

Lastly, in the US, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (US: Showtime) is arriving on Sunday, but despite the presence of Natalie Dormer in the cast, I’m not sure I can be bothered with this, given I wasn’t the greatest fan of Penny Dreadful.

But that looks like about it.

Sofia Helin and Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

The regulars

I haven’t watched any more Tales From The Loop, but other than that, it’s the usual regulars after the jump: For Life, Transplant, and Westworld, as well as the season/series finales of Devs and War of the Worlds.

But two previous regulars have returned this week, so I’ll also be covering What We Do In The Shadows (US: FX; UK: BBC Two) and Mystery Road (Australia: ABC; UK: BBC Four), too.

What TMINE watched this week

TMINE recommends has all the TV shows TMINE has ever recommended and TV Reviews A-Z lists every TV show ever reviewed in the past 15 years.

New shows

Mrs America

In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Two

Mrs. America is loosely based on the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the unexpected backlash led by a conservative woman named Phyllis Schlafly. Through the eyes of the women of that era – both Schlafly and second-wave feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus– the series explores how one of the toughest battlegrounds in the culture wars of the 70s helped give rise to the Moral Majority and forever shifted the US political landscape.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Kayli Carter, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson

TMINE verdict

Phyllis Schlafly is one of those names I knew but never knew much about. I figured she was simply a notorious anti-feminist – end of story. So why even make a biopic about her?

But Mrs America paints a really interesting picture of a woman who both believed in conservative ideals and used them to get to where she wanted to be.

The first episode introduces us to Schlafly (Blanchett), who read politics at university and stood for Congress in the early 60s. She tries again to win the support of the Republican party for another run, but learns that wherever she goes, either in Washington or in her home state, she’s still a woman – she might know more than anyone in the room about START and politics, but she’s the one everyone asks to take the minutes.

But with the ERA being debated in Congress, Schlafly soon realises that she can obtain a different type of power within the conservative movement, by being a female opponent of the amendment.

The first episode does little but introduce is to Schlafly, although most of the feminists of the era the show also portrays appear towards the end en masse, rather than getting individual introductions. As a result, as well as being a great dramatisation of history, it’s a fascinating and nuanced portrayal of one woman and how she both used and benefitted from feminism to further her own aims which were simultaneously at variance with her stated beliefs.

Mrs America‘s biggest problem – at least for TMINE – is its scheduling. Three episodes released in one go, followed by a new episode every week. I really want to watch them – particularly with such a great cast waiting in the wings and Amma Asante directing some episodes – but when am I going to find the time? I’ll give it a go, though, since I unexpectedly enjoyed the first episode far more than I ever thought I would.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.
#blackAF

#blackAF

In the UK: Available on Netflix

#blackAF flips the script on what we’ve come to expect a family comedy series to be. Pulling back the curtain, #blackAF uncovers the messy, unfiltered, and often hilarious world of what it means to be a ‘new money’ black family trying to ‘get it right’ in a modern world where ‘right’ is no longer a fixed concept.

Stars: Rashida Jones, Kenya Barris, Iman Benson, Genneya Walton, Scarlet Spencer, Justin Claiborne, Ravi Cabot-Conyers

TMINE verdict

There are few TV writers whom I’d called geniuses and whose work I would actively seek out but Kenya Barris is one of them. This fact has slowly dawned on me after watching the likes of black-ish, mixed-ish and even Shaft (2019), all of which have been dazzlingly smart and hilarious analyses of modern American racial culture and politics.

At least when Kenya Barris has been writing them. Not bad for a former producer of America’s Next Top Model.

Naturally, therefore, I was expecting more of the same from #blackAF, which is effectively Barris’ equivalent of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm – going from writer of top comedies (Seinfeld) to writer and star of a top comedy. Here, Barris plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself, trying to navigate the social mores of what it is to be black and rich in modern America. It’s packed full of smart, witty observations but is free of didactic answers, showing just how messy modern life is. Much as Barris demonstrated with black-ish.

But it’s also Modern Family, since the series is supposedly the university entrance project of his daughter and is interspersed with copious pieces to camera by the cast members. The show is filled with cameos but Barris is self-aware and smart enough to make his first cameo Steven Levitan – the creator of Modern Family. But at the same time, it’s a far more meta experience with, for example, Barris’ second ‘daughter’ refusing to allow her face to be shown on camera as she thinks she’ll be able to sell the rights later on, resulting in her appearance being pixelated – until Barris signs a parental waiver.

#blackAF is a combination of both satire – all the episodes have titles like because of slavery, because of slavery too, still… because of slavery and yup, you guessed it. again, this is because of slavery – and self-satire, with Barris sending himself up frequently, not just as a black man (“God I hate white people”) but as a writer. He even has his faux daughter list all his back catalogue (black-ish, et al, as well as ‘his new Netflix project’) and then say “These are all about being black. Huh, my dad’s kind of a one-trick pony, isn’t he?”

The show’s problems are, however, the same as those of Barris’ previous shows. I’ve watched the first four episodes and while the first is wonderful, the second left me cold personally, since it’s basically all about taking recreational drugs of all kind. While clearly well informed, it’s the exact reason I gave up on Mixed-ish – it’s just not within my ambit.

The other main problem in common with his previous shows is that Barris doesn’t write all the episodes. While that’s not necessarily a killer, with the third episode still standing up well with an examination of black women’s lives, the drop in quality was nevertheless noticeable.

So while #blackAF is in many ways a work of genius and I’m definitely going to catch the rest of the episodes (at some point), if you do watch it, be aware that the following episodes probably aren’t going to entertain you as much as the first, even though they still have a lot to say.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Shows I’m watching but not necessarily recommending

Devs (US: Hulu; UK: BBC Two)

1×8 – Episode 8

So, after weeks of moaning about the nonsensical nature of the show, I’m at least glad to say that episode 8 of Devs just about redeems the whole thing. True, that’s mainly by pointing out what nonsense it’s been spouting for the past few weeks, but at least it does it then leaves you thinking afterwards.

I’m also pleased to say that my predictions for the show in my initial review were almost right ((spoiler alert) okay, so we’re not all living in a simulation, but some people are ) and that my deliberations on the show’s title weren’t completed unfounded, either.

All the same, it’s effectively been eight weeks of the show raising some concerns that aren’t really concerns at all, before finally throwing its hands in the air and going ‘God, hey? What’s it all about? Am I right?’ It’s looked very pretty and it’s puzzled the mind, but ultimately, it’s all been very pointless and stupider than it thinks it is by a country mile.

TMINE rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

War of the Worlds (France: Canal+; UK: Fox)

1×8 – Episode 8

Talking of pointless, we’ve now reached the end of the first season of War of the Worlds, as well. Here, we have to ask, “Genuinely, what was the point of that?” because we’re here and we have no real idea why the aliens have attacked, we’ve not started any counter-attack and everyone’s just sitting around moping.

Now TV’s blurb for the episode says “The epic series finale sees the survivors attempt to turn the tables on their aggressors once and for all.” Which is an outright lie in every word. It’s not epic, and the survivors don’t anything more than get picked off and walk around.

To be fair, we can guess from the very final scene that the aliens (spoiler alert) are here to harvest us for our bodies or organs . But we’d already worked that out and I’m not sure we needed eight episodes to sum up what a typewriter spat out in the opening credits of UFO anyway.

All in all, following a halfway decent first episode, it’s all been an absolute waste of time. Oh well. You live and learn.

TMINE rating

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Recommended shows

For Life (US: ABC)

1×9 – Buried

For Life is proving to be a consistently good show that lives in a surprising world of greys. This week, we have our hero selfishly taking on yet another case that he hopes will further his own cause, only to be outmanoeuvred by the opposing lawyers. This marks the arrival on the scene of The Wire‘s John Dorman as an even worse bad guy who makes the previous bad guy look ethical in comparison, giving previously worst bad guy some shades of grey he previously lacked.

Meanwhile, Indira Varma’s ethical prison governess is having to get her hands dirty thanks to Fiddy Cent pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

The good guys are getting greyer, the bad guys are getting greyer and no one’s pretending what they’re doing is justifiable rather than the least worst options available to them – that’s refreshing.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Mystery Road (Australia: ABC; UK: BBC Four)

2×1 – Episode 1

It’s a welcome return this week for Australia’s finest detective drama (ssh, Miss Fisher fans), with man-mountain Aaron Pedersen once again venturing into the Outback to investigate a murder – this time supplemented by the arrival of the star of Sweden/Denmark’s finest detective drama, Sofia Helin (Bron/Broen/The Bridge), as an archaeologist investigating an Aboriginal burial mound.

We also get Callan Mulvey (Underbelly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as an ex-cop now dating Pedersen’s ex-wife, Mulvey being one of the few men around with testosterone sufficient to match Pedersen’s.

The episode focuses largely on the show’s previously strengths: Pedersen’s astonishingly self-assured performance, coupled with his occasional vulnerability when it comes to his family; top cinematography and the Australian landscape; and explorations of Aboriginal culture, racial politics and small town Australian life. This time, though, the show draws on the original film’s sequel, Goldstone, without compromising Mystery Road‘s strengths, as Goldstone itself did.

All of which makes for a very strong opening episode, as Pedersen sets to work investigating a headless body and learning of a drug gang’s presence in an otherwise sleepy town. But there are two aspects that stretch plausibility. The first is the presence of his ex-wife, which seems too unlikely a coincidence.

The second is Helin’s work as an archaeologist. Most won’t notice, but she’s acting like it’s still the 19th century. Solo digs at night? No photography? No careful mapping of the locations of items, stratigraphy? At one point, she unearths (quite violently) a highly important artefact and before you know it, she’s kissing it and opening bottles of champagne next to it.

I do hope it turns out she’s completely faking being an archaeologist and these are all big clues.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Transplant (Canada: CTV)

1×8 – Birth and Rebirth

So, I think I’m going to give up on Transplant. It’s just turned into a fairly generic medical procedural now. We’ve had a whole episode dedicated to how much time should be spent per patient but that’s about it. Which is a shame, but it looks like all the show’s writers had to say about a Syrian refugee working in a Canadian hospital ended around about episode four.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good medical procedural with good actors and good characters. I think I’ll really miss watching Hamza Haq and John Hannah, but generic procedurals are just not my thing.

TMINE rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Westworld (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

3×6 – Decoherence

So appropriately enough, given the episode’s title, I think I’m going to join with all of TMINE’s illustrious commenters and go on the record as saying, “I’m not really following this any more but it looks pretty and is entertaining so I’ll probably keep watching”.

The show now has so many twists and turns and revelations, we’re passed the point where I think anyone actually has a good idea about what’s going on and why. But the cast are great, the action scenes are exciting, the location shoots are great and the dystopian future they’ve created is fascinating to watch – even if there’s zero chance of it ever happening.

I’m just not sure there’s much point putting any intellectual effort into working out what’s going on any more.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE verdict

What We Do In The Shadows (US: FX; UK: BBC Two)

2×1 – Resurrection

And it’s a strong, cameo-filled return for the What We Do In the Shadows, as Benedict Wong shows up as a necromancer and Haley Joel Osment tries to become the vampires’ new familiar.

The twist at the end of the first season (spoiler alert) Guillermo is a descendant of the Van Helsings is breathing new life into the show, but its main USP – the mixing of mundanity and vampires while maintaining the tropes of horror – continues to entertain. Here, we get to see our largely comic vampires do some genuinely scary things, and we also get zombies, which is obviously a bonus.

All in all, a good sign that things are still on track.

TMINE Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review