What have you been watching? Including Severance and Bel-Air

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

It’s been Half-Term here in the UK, which means I’ve been taking some time off. Which was nice. But never fear, not only did a load of TV shows have the same idea, I still managed to watch a couple of new shows, as well as finish off two of the regulars

But first…

…three shows I didn’t manage to get around to watching

From (US: Epix) only started last night, so I’ve not had time to watch it yet. It doesn’t sound (or even look) very good, though, so I might skip it.

“In a nightmarish town in middle America that traps everyone who enters, unwilling residents fight to stay alive and search for a way out. But they are plagued by the threats of the surrounding forest including terrifying nocturnal creatures.”

The Fear Index (UK: Sky Atlantic) is another one of those glossy transatlantic things with big(ish) US stars that Sky makes (cf Riviera). It’s based on the Robert Harris novel of the same name and “is set in a period of roughly 24 hours from the 6 May 2010 – the date of the British general election and the Flash Crash. It follows the interactions of a group of employees at Hoffmann Investment Technologies, a fictional hedge fund operating in Geneva.”

Couldn’t. Be. Bothered.

I mean, generic or what? Although the trailer did make me hope that The Champions would show up.

Inventing Anna (Netflix), on the other hand, is simply a show I didn’t get around to watching, but which I really do hope to watch when I have time, as it stars the rather awesome Julia Garner as the eponymous Anna (The Americans, Ozark). It’s also based on a true story. So fingers crossed for next week.

“A journalist investigates the case of Anna Delvey, the Instagram-legendary heiress who stole the hearts and money of New York elites.”

The regulars

Superman & Lois (US: The CW; UK: BBC One/iPlayer) were clearly taking a couple of weeks off together to have some quality time away from their annoying teenagers, so that just left The Peacemaker and The Book of Boba Fett for me to enjoy.

The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+) managed to have a reasonably thrilling and at times touching finale, filled with fights and Boba Fett for once. Plenty of Mandalorian and tiny Yoda, though, which given the season has only been seven episodes and they’ve been the focus of three of them, hasn’t really given Boba much to do.

However, by the end of it, it was all feeling a bit… childish, you know? Sure, it’s Star Wars, but honestly, with the biker gangs, the tired western clichés, baby Yoda, the big beastie, etc, it just all felt like a kids show. I might not bother with season 2, but we’ll see.

The Peacemaker ended with a couple of not bad episodes. Some decently amusing dialogue, some really daft helmets (you’ll understand when you see it) and some decent plot twists, plus a really awesome cameo or two right at the end meant it was definitely worth the viewing time. But it felt like after a really excellent start, the show ran a little out of the bizarre steam that made the first couple of episodes so different and exciting. John Cena remained awesome throughout and Freddie Stroma’s switch from pretty boy (UnREAL, Time After Time) to idiotic psychopath was a real eye-opener. But I no longer feel totally comfortable recommended the whole season as a must-see. Maybe the first couple of episodes.

After the jump, though, let’s talk about the new shows I did watch: Severance (AppleTV+) and Bel Air (US/UK: Peacock). And I’m really glad I watched both, you’ll be glad to hear.

Severance (AppleTV+)

Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives; when a mysterious colleague appears outside of work, it begins a journey to discover the truth about their jobs.

Rob says: ‘Bafflingly wonderful’

After rather a lot of poor entries in the AppleTV+ catalogue of late – to the extent that I’d almost given up watching new shows on the whole channel (cf BBC One and UK TV in general, in fact) – it’s gratifying to see something really good and different.

Severance looks at first surmise like it’s going to be a workplace comedy, particularly since it’s directed by Ben Stiller (yes, that one) and stars Adam Scott (Party Down), John Turturro (The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink) and Britt Lower (Man Seeking Woman). A derivative one at that, since although Stiller is going big on visuals, they’re that same faux 70s/80s look in terms of design that’s now familiar from both Legion and the very similar Homecoming.

But it’s actually a real dark and interesting metaphysical tale. Rather than being a simple clumsy metaphor about keeping our work and personal lives separate that’s played for laughs, the show explores some of the existential questions that involves: who would actually sign up for such a thing and why; why would a company be allowed to do such a thing (it’s no secret it happens); at what point would you essentially become two people sharing the same body; would quitting your job be like committing suicide, since you’d no longer exist afterwards?

Pretty much every scene features something unexpected and novel: an idea, a character, a piece of satire, a consideration of existential angst. Sometimes, it’s Kafkaesque, with no one knowing why things are happening since they have no knowledge of anything beyond their work. Everyone is doing a job they don’t understand that’s almost reminiscent of Lost‘s Desmond, typing numbers into a machine every few hours to save the world. Does, indeed, the world need saving? There are hints almost of Solyent Green, with dinner party guests discussing the last time they had a meal that was actually based on food.

It’s all so wonderfully disconcerting and disturbing, even when there are moments of comedy, such as Christopher Walken’s discussion of his department’s tote bags.

I’ve watched the first two episodes so far. Will I be watching more? Hell, yes.

Bel-Air (US/UK: Peacock)

A re-imagination of the beloved sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air set in modern-day America through a new, dramatic take on Will’s complicated journey from the streets of West Philadelphia to the gated mansions of Bel Air. As these worlds collide, he reckons with the power of second chances while navigating the conflicts, emotions and biases of a world far different from the only one he’s ever known.

Rob says: ‘Miraculous’

Almost by definition, fan fiction is terrible. Almost. Sometimes, floating in the horrors that are out there, you’ll get something genuinely good. Back in 2019, a fan of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air uploaded to YouTube his fan movie that reimagined the sitcom as a contemporary drama.

Will Smith himself saw it, praised it, and just a few years later, here we are, watching the show.

And it’s sublime.

It takes all the building blocks of that original story/biopic compressed in the show’s unforgettable opening lyrics and relocates them to modern times. You could probably then write somewhere between three and 10 different PhD theses on the result. The Fresh Prince was very much a product of its time, both in terms of what themes about Black people and society it would address and the fact it was made in the 90s. Bel-Air brilliantly looks at how society has changed, the stratification of Black society, the different class structures of modern Black society and the tension between remaining true to your roots and social mobility, different Black cultures across different parts of the US, inter-generational tensions…

I could go on but honestly, you should just watch the show because it’s wonderful.

Perhaps what I love most about the show is how real all the characters feel, while still remaining true to the original show. It’s ‘Will Smith’, but for the most part, you’ll never think of this gawky teenager (Jabari Banks) as being the Will Smith until he does something insanely Will Smith. And the show asks whether someone exceptional from West Philadelphia genuinely could escape from his past in the age of social media.

But more interesting are the likes of Carlton: no longer just the butt of Will’s jokes, here here’s an upper middle class Black kid trying to avoid being contaminated by ‘the ghetto’ in order to have a race-free life where he can play lacrosse and be on the debate team and get into an Ivy League school. There’s a wonderful horrifying tension that builds up in the first few episodes between Will and Carlton, as Carlton feels the threat of his cousin ruining his prestige and whitewashing at school – Carlton is very much the king of the academy, not a dork.

Similarly, Uncle Phil – played by 19-2‘s incredible Adrian Holmes – is a real person, a lawyer who’s running for district attorney, trying to stand by his wife’s nephew, but unsure whether he’ll help or hinder his campaign. A campaign that has to juggle the need for both Black and white voters. And he has to do that without making his own son feeling jealous of the attention he gives that kid.

I actually really enjoyed the show’s take on Hilary, the airhead of the original show who is now an aspiring cook and social media influencer. She’s dropped out of college to do her own thing, but can she do it in a way that avoids compromising her roots (unlike her mother?) and burning bridges in the still fragile and new Black business networks?

The whole show seems to go from one scene of intricate social nuance to another in an effortless, fascinating and insightful way. I genuinely loved this. In fact, I’d actually declare it a work of art – I almost cried at how beautifully it was done, at the end of the first episode (which is a genuinely beautifully directed affair, BTW, with an incredible use of colour, by that very same fan who made the original movie, Morgan Cooper).

Don’t be put off by its origin story: just watch it. Love it.

Author

  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.