by Akim Reinhardt
3QD editor Abbas was desperate. After more than a year of pandemic life, much of it spent in a state of semi-lockdown, he and his partner had run out of shows to watch. So he did what any abject and forlorn person in his situation would do: he solicited recommendations via social media. I then did what any person who has spent the last year watching far too much TV and thinks far too much of his own opinion would do: I emailed him scores of streaming titles, replete with very brief descriptions.
Fear not. I’m not here to dump that list upon you. I’m occasionally quite lazy, but not that lazy. Rather, I’ve selected from among that extensive list eight (really, nine) titles that you’re likely unfamiliar with and have crafted descriptions and arguments in favor of, without resorting to any spoilers.
Death to spoilers.
There are no hit shows here, no matter how great. No Wild, Wild Country, Fleabag, Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, or Maron (all of which you should watch if you haven’t), much less a Wire, Sopranos, or Breaking Bad. Hopefully these programs are nothing more than vague rumors to you, or per chance you’ve never even heard of them. I found each, in its own way, to be excellent. No movies included, just series. Three or four straight dramas, a Canadian sitcom, a drama that mixes in comedy, a comedy that mixes in drama, a dedicated dramedy (or comma?), and one food documentary.
There is, of course, no accounting for taste. However, if you’re already familiar with any of these shows and find my taste for them to be the sign of an undeveloped palate, then feel free to hold me to account in the Comments. Call me whatever foul and loathsome name you like, but remember: no matter what you say, no spoilers.
Patriot (Amazon). Not the terrible Mel Gibson Revolutionary War film of the same name, but rather an unjustifiably overlooked series on Amazon that was canned after two season when a new shot-caller took over the streaming service. Set in Milwaukee and Luxembourg, the show has a whiff of Wes Anderson pacing and absurdity. However, this is no mere homage, much less a cheap derivative. Ostensibly the tale of a reluctant spy, in truth it is the unfolding portrait of a man falling apart one piece at a time. With the possible exception of BoJack Horseman, I can think of no other show that has so fully and thoroughly captured the soft and fuzzy tones of overwhelming existential angst born amid dubious responsibilities, manipulations of trust, the burden of past wrongs, and the growing pains of self-awareness. Can the flower of consciousness and self-fulfillment grow while duty pulls at its roots? Or must any seeker of truth be deeply mired in inescapable anxiety, uncomfortable silences, and weighty sighs? Season 1 is outstanding, right down to the opening credit sequence, which is itself a brilliant character exposition done up in brief montage. Season 2 might be just as good. This is, without question, the greatest TV show that no one has ever heard of.
Undone (Amazon). Digital rotoscoping had a moment during the first decade of the 21st century, fueled by director Richard Linklater’s successful use of the technique in The Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). In both films, Linklater used computer software to animate motion picture footage, and thereby create an ethereal sense of reality, first of a waking dream and then of futuristic drug addiction. However, when the discount brokerage house Charles Schwab flooded American airwaves with a digitally rotoscoped ad campaign from 2005–08, the effect became the subject of mockery and complaint. No lesser an arbiter of cultural affairs than Lisa Simpson eventually pronounced it “a noble experiment that failed” in The Simpsons’ 2015 sendup of Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood.
But let’s not be so fast to bury digital rotoscoping. In 2019, Amazon released the series Undone, and its eight episodes are digitally rotoscoped to astounding effect. There are several keys to its success. First is the context for using digital rotoscoping, which produces a vibrating, almost unstable image that can disconcert viewers and challenge their sense of reality. By animating filmed footage of actual actors, rotoscoping doesn’t imply unreality, as does full animation, but rather a very different kind of reality. When used for no other reason than to grab attention, as in the Charles Schwab ads, it comes off as a tacky and annoying gimmick. However, when used purposefully and thoughtfully, it can augment a cinematic sense of atmosphere, as was the case in Linklater’s films.
Undone brilliantly employs digital rotoscoping to visualize the main character’s struggles with mental illness. To maximizes this effect, or perhaps to simply prevent it from running of the rails, Undone also does something very rare in the world of series production: it uses the same director for every episode: Dutch animator, painter and storyboard artist Hisko Hulsing. Hulsing’s artistic background and start-to-finish oversight helped create a sense of consistency and immersion. It was a smart move by co-creators Kate Purdy and Rafael Bob-Wacksberg, both of whom wrote and produced BoJack Horseman, and co-wrote three of Undone’s episodes, with Purdy authoring a fourth. Subtracting BoJack’s humor and doubling down on character nuance and life pain, these scripts are smart and fearless. And finally, there are the truly outstanding performances by the entire cast, and particularly Rosa Salazar, who plays a lead character loosely based on Purdy’s own battles with mental illness and relations with her San Antonio Chicana family. Amazon renewed the show for a second season back in 2019. Pins and needles.
Flavorful Origins (Netflix). Among the many stereotypes the West harbors about China is that of a distant land where the people do strange shit to food. This Chinese-produced show will do nothing to disabuse you of that notion if you already cling to it, even as it gaily reveals the limits of your knowledge and forces you to expand your thinking. Behold a wide array of foodstuffs, preparations, and dishes ranging from things you’ve never heard of to things you have heard of but weren’t expecting, to things you know of but would never have guessed.
This is not your typical cooking show. There is no host, no beautifully adorned studio kitchen, no accompanying website or cookbook full of recipes and photos. Instead we are led on this culinary journey through different western Chinese provinces by a narrator’s voice that changes without warning in later seasons. Each of the forty episodes, which run only 10–12 minutes apiece, focus on a particular ingredient. And as if to immediately put your expectations off balance, the debut episode is about olives. In China? Yes, olives in China. But since this is China, mostly it’s about the pits. Yes, the pits. From there you’re off and running. See where and how various crops and animals are grown and harvested. Watch unassuming villagers and urban shopkeepers transform each ingredient into an array of dishes. Think about what you might be able to incorporate in your own cooking. Stare longingly at what you cannot. Ponder deeply about what you won’t. You may never think about meatballs the same way again.
#blackAF (Netflix). How much searing social commentary can a comedy unleash and still be funny? #blackAF attacks the limits brilliantly, going further than a comedy typically can because its commentary is smart, insightful, and perhaps most importantly, self-aware. The show recognizes and embraces difficult subjects. However, obvious preaching points that would become didactic in lesser hands are strengthened by complexity and nuance.
Kenya Barris, best known as the creator of the American sitcom Blackish, plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself as a husband, father, Hollywood success story, and black man who understands his history and embraces his culture while confronting America’s racial problems as they filter through to him and his family despite his substantial wealth and fame. And in so doing, he choreographs a social ballet in which the nation’s shortcomings and struggles with self-awareness about race parallel his own shortcomings and struggles for self-awareness as a husband, father, and boss. The critics were mixed, and I can’t help but think that’s because perhaps some white critics did not fully appreciate or understand a show that fearlessly lives up to its title and is unavowedly black, even as it is situated in a very white world of money, privilege, and success. A second season is coming.
Zero Zero Zero (Amazon). This standalone miniseries about the international cocaine trade is loosely based on Italian journalist Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name, was shot in Mexico, Italy, Senegal, Morocco, and the United States, and finds several ways to challenge traditional storytelling. First is the staggered chronology and alternating character perspectives of each episode, which take viewers on a pleasantly circuitous ride. More noticeable is the show’s tri-lingual dialog, with major characters speaking English, Spanish, and Italian. And then there is the cast. It is not an ensemble in the usual sense so much as it is three separate casts that perform roles in three separate but clearly related stories. And as with the three languages, the three plots each claim equal share of the program. As a native English speaker whose knowledge of Italian and Spanish doesn’t get much beyond menus, counting, and insults, I was initially tempted to assume that the American characters and their story line were the dominant ones. However, that was merely my own cultural prejudice showing through. They are no more dominant, important, or present than the Italian and Mexican characters and story lines. Episodes are not evenly divided between the three; each leans more one way than another. But in the end everything is in balance. That is not to say all the loose ends are tied up (they are not) or that all the plots, which seem to angle towards each other, finally converge (they do not). Rather, by the end all the three have formed the legs of a tripod upon which the hellishness of the international drug trade rests.
Wayne (Amazon)/End of the Fucking World (Neflix): These two shows are of a kind, and each is wonderful in its own way. Their shared genre is troubled and awkward teenage lovers cursing a horrible world that will never understand them or treat them fairly, so they determine to ride aimlessly into an unknown sunset that we viewers know they will never really find, because we are older and wiser and sadly, that just ain’t how shit works. But their impending loss is our sad gain, because young, star-crossed lovers make for great dramatic irony.
Wayne is the more boisterous of the two, brandishing comedic hardcore violence, a dash of comic book flair, and a thrashing punk soundtrack. It was made by Americans. The British End of the Fucking World is darker, quieter, more serious, and more stoked with fear. Both are a depressingly glorious exposition on just how unfair it can all be, and a reminder of why we must sometimes throw percentages to the wind and root for the doomed instead of chiding or casting them aside. A reminder that, so long as the world is a cruel place, we do not want to live without beautiful losers.
Giri/Haji (Netflix). Cop dramas are generally known for the untangling of a crime. And while this bilingual BBC production certainly has a central storyline (a Japanese detective is sent to retrieve a Yakuza member who has runaway to Great Britain, and who also happens to be his brother), the plot is not what really drives this show or makes it especially memorable. Giri/Haji translates as Duty/Shame, and the series is about the responsibilities that yoke us and the failures that haunt us as we chase honor and redemption. Failed marriages, drug addictions, fractured relationships, unwise shortcuts, and broken promises plague the characters portrayed by an outstanding cast headed by Kelly Macdonald, Takehiro Hira, and Will Sharpe. This show does not ask if you can ever really go home again. It wonders what happens to your soul when it turns out you do not want to.
Trailer Park Boys (Netflix). At just about the exact same time that Larry David in the United States (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Ricky Gervais in the UK (The Office) were pioneering a new form of angst-driven comedy through improv and mockumentary respectively, a group of artists in Nova Scotia with a much smaller budget were doing more or less the same thing. A documentary style camera follows the misguided exploits of lovable ne’er-do-wells Ricky and Julian as they bounce back and forth between jail and their Halifax trailer park. They scheme, they connive, they dole out terrible advice, they misunderstand basic social and cultural functions, they chase big ridiculous dreams, they fuck up, they crash hard, they somehow manage to keep from bottoming out completely. The one thing they don’t actually do of course is become famous because the show really is based in Halifax, and that’s just not how the world generally works. But don’t let that stop you. Discover their day-to-day of track pants and handlebar mustaches and convenience store delicacies and casual alcoholism and wayward ambitions and broken, inverted families and petty crime and foulmouthed exhortations and lessons unlearned. You won’t be any wiser for it, but you will be happier.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com