Look, let’s be honest — between political upheaval, deadly viruses, civil unrest and Galactic Federation snubs, it’s tough to “get into” a show right now. It’s even tougher to enter into a multi-year, multi-season contract with a typical pay-cable show which includes full year-and-a-half lapses between seasons. We’re barely promised a February, we don’t possibly have the time to baste in a juicy cliffhanger to find out if what happens next to a hero or heroine. As a human race, we’re literally living week to week. We need answers. To something. Anything.
The pandemic months, long as they have been, have brought massive changes to the online and streaming landscape. Who among us didn’t watch Trolls: World Tour as it debuted amid stay-at-home orders, and who among us didn’t think this is a lazy movie, even for a kids’ movie, and why is Kelly Clarkson voicing the country music horse? We’ll all certainly be nerding out in our homes over Christmas to Wonder Woman: 1984 and weeping along with Pixar’s jazz tearjerker Soul (you, not me; I’m a man, son). We went from watching HBO in real, scheduled time to watching it Netflix-style on an app, and Warner Brothers announced it would be simultaneously releasing all its 2021 films online even as they’ll be opening in theaters. It’s a new world, and 2020 will forever be remembered — culturally, among other ways — as the time we all decided we were just going to stay at home (ed. note: we were asked to stay at home).
HBO, somehow, serendipitously fell into a groove they could’ve never seen coming during the great homebodyizing of our world in 2020, having fortuitously had a slate of self-contained stories in post-production that would end up satiating our collective need for immediate gratification. By delivering a spate of easily digestible series that had both dramatic heft AND a generally satisfying, tidy ending, it became the purveyor of the visual equivalent of the audiobook. Self-contained series are nothing really new, of course; Hulu did it really well last year with really great Catch-22, though less so with he Kerry Washington-led Little Fires Everywhere. HBO, however, is mostly killing it with the genre right now, so let’s take a look at some of their hits (and one disappointing miss) over the past self-contained months.
I May Destroy You
It’s a lot of pressure for a 32 year-old to take on showrunner, director, writer and star of her own series, but English actress Michaela Coel absolutely killed it with the millenial drama I May Destroy You, which saw Coel playing a stand-in version of herself. During a drunken night out, a social-media-famous young author is drugged and raped, leaving her groggy and without memory the next morning. As Coel’s character Arabella pieces together the events of the night, she finds her relationships tested and her own insecurities faced (the entire show is based on a similar real-life event Coel suffered in 2016). It can be hardcore and tough, of course, but the series (at 30 minutes per episode) can also be intermittently comic, and it concludes with a note of resolve. Plus, since Coel has already dismissed a season two and it really doesn’t need one, the entire series stands together as an introspective and empowering tale.
If you missed this one over the summer, it’s a good time to go back and grab it. Although at the time of this writing the show has been renewed for a second season, I’m going to include Perry Mason on this list sheerly because it fits all the criteria of what we’re talking about. Though most of us may be only rudimentarily familiar with the crafty defense lawyer our grandparents watched, Matthew Rhys (The Americans) turns the character into a boozy, film-noir detective looking into the murder of a young child, exposing police and religious corruption in early 1930s Hollywood. Truthfully, Perry Mason was probably one of my favorites of the year — one of the first shows early in the pandemic to help effectively take my own mind off the growingly terrifying plague — and it’s a great escape/throwback with clever, witty hard-boiled dialogue and plenty of left turns. It also effectively wraps up, like a longer version of a standalone mystery episode, and one can only imagine season two will similarly focus on one mystery, trial and outcome. If you missed this one, go back and check it out. Also, I should tell you that the first episode is crazy raunchy, but the rest of the episodes really aren’t. So if you’re watching this with some sort of prude, you can bust that information out on good authority.
I’m still not sure, having watched all of it, that The Undoing was for me, though admittedly for a long time I felt like it was. It’s certainly for somebody, and if it was for you please comment below because I’m dying to know who really felt satisfied by it. That said, the show still works as a “character study” (and believe me, even I’m trying to keep my eyes from rolling up into my skull as I type that) where two great actors — three, if you include Donald Sutherland, and four if you include his eyebrows — riff of each other like a jazz ensemble: Grant the pleading, swearing-he’s innocent-husband, Kidman as an elaborate coat-wearing therapist who occasionally accidentally dips into her Australian accent, and Sutherland as his normal, possibly evil archetype. I’m not going to dog on this show because truthfully, for a long time I thought it was great, and it doesn’t have many episodes. All I’m saying is remember what “character studies” are like. And don’t blame me for warning you.
The Flight Attendant
I’ve been really excited to write about The Flight Attendant, probably because I had no idea I’d be enjoying it as much as I do. It’s the tale of a boozy, partying flight attendant (Kaley Cuoco) who wakes up after a layover in Bangkok to find her one-night-stand murdered and bloody in bed next to her. As she seems to be the only suspect (and she unadvisedly cleaned up the crime scene herself, out of habit), it’s up to her to clear her own name as the fed zero in and solve the murder herself. It’s a snappy, fun bit of television, funny and quick and engaging (plus it often does that cool Oceans 11 thing where a bunch of things happen in boxes on the screen). All the while, Cuoco’s hot mess converses with the specter of her murdered lover, who appears as a mental sounding board as she makes sense of all the information she’s processing. Cuoco, who shines surprisingly here after being typecast during her Big Bang imprisonment, pulls it all of really well, and though this series has yet to conclude, it’s quite a bit of whodunnit fun.
There’s something to be said for the finality of a series, and maybe the ending-guaranteed serialization of novels (The Undoing and The Flight Attendant) or crime-of-the season (Perry Mason) deliver more digestible television than delving into a new series right now, especially when the pandemic has tossed a healthy mix of “will this show I like be shut down?” into the pool (spoiler alert: if you’re watching anything on a major network right now, you might want to back it off a bit, those are all sacrificial –I’m looking at you, Manifest fans). HBO Max may have a ways to go to reach top-tier streaming, but it’s hauling ass to get there and binge-worthy tales like these have it on the right track.