As far as conversational crutches go, “Have you watched any good TV lately?” is a trusty query. Provided the person you’re asking doesn’t “Clockwork Orange” cable news all day, it’s about as safe as asking for another human being’s opinion on literally anything gets these days.
We may be moving tentatively away from the anti-halcyon lockdown days when new streaming content was sanity’s life preserver. Still, we need good streaming stuff almost as much as streaming stuff needs us, am I right, Netflix executives? With that in mind, here are my Top 5 answers to your unasked question.
5 – “Moon Knight” (Disney+)
Had this Marvel adaptation been condensed to a movie when I was in high school, I’d probably have a “Moon Knight” tattoo. Instead, the latest MCU entry dropped during the height of the comicbookaissance. This means everyone will say it’s just OK and quickly amend it with “Oscar Isaac was real good though …” This is because “Moon Knight” is just OK. Oscar Isaac was real good though …
The series oddly assumes you aren’t in any way familiar with the character and/or think “googling something” is a dirty euphemism. The show holds back core elements of this particular superhero as some kind of reveal/surprise, making the bulk of it feel inert despite Isaac giving it all he’s got, Captain. What can safely be synopsized is that a gift-shop clerk with an Egyptian fetish discovers he’s connected to a powerful deity who grants him nebulous fighting and healing powers. He’s gotta stop Ethan Hawke from doing something worse than neglecting Winona Ryder.
It’s always oddly engaging, even if it absolutely cannot settle on a tone. It drunken-masters its way through boilerplate hero origin story, chaotic antihero comedy, and light horror. Marvel and Disney are in such a hurry to make more comic content that long-term plans are like a dismissive Magic 8-Ball: “Reply hazy, try again.” If this is just the start for Moony, fair enough. If this is all we get? “Outlook not so good.”
Grade = B-
4 – “Russian Doll” (Netflix)
The first season of Natasha Lyonne’s magically realistic exploration of self-awareness was a revelation. The second is more “relation” than revelation, in that it digs deep into ancestry, genetic and emotional inheritance, and Krugerrands. This time out, instead of “Groundhog Day”-ing her way through her birthday, Nadia (Lyonne) rides a magic train that takes her into the past in the body of her mother (Chloë Sevigny). And they wonder why non-New Yorkers are afraid of public transportation …
At first, it looks like the season will be a weird, heisty comedy. Then it veers and dives deeply into Holocaust issues and shallowly into gender and sexuality. Wildly ambitious, often quite funny, and wholly unexpected, the installment has so much hinging on whether it can wrap everything up in a modestly satisfying fashion. All I’ll say there is that, when I finished episode 7, I was maddened to discover the season does commit the sin of ending on an odd number. Will there be more? I friggin’ hope so. And let’s also hope next time the supporting cast gets a bit more to do than support.
Grade = B
3 – “Outer Range” (Amazon Prime)
I didn’t know that I had always wanted a goateed Josh Brolin screaming “What the F?” while staring into a time chasm in the middle of a pasture. But I did. I really did! The show absolutely feels like someone wrote “Lost + Yellowstone = $” on a dry erase board. Dammit, they’re not wrong about that.
Brolin is Royal Abbott, a truly great obnoxious character name for a patriarch in a Western sci-fi show. One day, Royal discovers the aforementioned gaping hole through time in his yard. So happens that very same day, his dipshit kids, Rhett (Lewis Pullman) and Perry (Tom Pelphrey), do an oopsie. That oopsie involves a corpse. The whole first season is a very weird blend of crime drama, as Deputy Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) inches toward solving the murder, and “Twilight Zone,” as an alleged drifter named Autumn (Imogen Poots) shows up to ask timey-wimey questions.
The danger in “Outer Range” is that it may be too weird for family drama-loving normies and not quite weird enough for rabid science-fictioners (see the next two entries, if this is you). Still, it’s hard not to embrace the show’s kooky genre straddling and Brolin’s gruff charisma. Does this feel like a series designed to leave viewers high-and-dry awaiting answers that never come?
Grade = A-
2 – “Raised by Wolves” (HBO Max)
Bonkers weirdo religious sci-fi is a rare delicacy, and “Raised by Wolves” has been a damned feast. I have almost no idea how to recap the events of the second season without sounding like the person who has consumed the most peyote. The show picks up with the android deathbot Mother (Amanda Collin) and her less violence-inclined partner, Father (Abubakar Salim), trying to integrate with a colony of human survivors on a grumpy planet with flying snakes and such.
Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar) continue their journey in service of what they believe to be a benevolent space deity. Meanwhile, young Campion (Winta McGrath) remains annoying as hell. This season has everything: Reverse crucifixions, mermaid baby snatchers, and murder botany, which is that thing when a person becomes a fruit-bearing tree. Please know that this is all much, much weirder than I’m making it sound.
And that’s great! Because sci-fi costs so much to realistically produce, we typically get only the safe stuff that’s likely to appeal to the masses. “Dune” is one of the best-selling books of all time, but it took like 60 years to get a good movie from it because it’s mildly trippy. “Raised by Wolves” is purposeful madness. Every hallucinatory element is remarkably thoughtful and revelatory upon reflection. No way it gets a season 3, right?
Grade = A
1 – “Severance” (Apple TV+)
The most addictive show I’ve seen in the last decade, “Severance” isn’t good, it is “Google reddit theories” brilliant. At the point where I’m screen-grabbing images to translate Latin phrases that appear on license plates, you know I’ve fallen into the kind of obsession that doesn’t come along often enough. The burn is slow here, to be sure, but once you are afire, you won’t want to stop, drop, or roll.
Mark (Adam Scott) is a sad-sack office drone who lost his wife in an accident. In his grief, he opted for a weird solution: Split himself in two. Lumon, a suspicious company, requires its employees to be “severed” using a computer chip in the brain. This means workers do not remember anything about their lives outside of work and vice versa. Mark’s long-time colleagues, Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irving (John Tuturro), seem happy enough while clocked in. But the newbie, Helly (Britt Lower), is … not having a good time. Helly’s resistance, and the mysterious disappearance of the gang’s former coworker, Petey (Yul Vazquez), lead to everyone asking questions. This doesn’t please boss lady Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), nor the unseen “board of directors” at Lumon.
Delivering the absolutely perfect blend of answers and more questions, “Severance” is so profoundly satisfying. Every episode feels like progress without exposition dumping. Each character emotionally resonates to the point where “answers” aren’t even the point. What “The Good Place” was for ethics, “Severance” is for existentialism. Y’all, it is so, so very good. Weird how Apple TV+ went for quality over quantity, and it’s totally working out. Isn’t that a bummer, Netflix executives?
Grade = A+