Another Year of Peak TV

The Daily — Dec 11, 2018
Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio in My Brilliant Friend (2018)

Last year found critics arguing over whether Twin Peaks: The Return belonged on a list of the best movies or the best television shows of 2017. Since we’ve had that debate (anyone remember how it turned out?), let’s just leave it alone this year and note that most of the lists of the best TV that 2018 has had to offer are out now and then turn to some of the most interesting recent writing on a few of those shows. First, the lists. The ones to scan come from contributors to the A.V. Club, IndieWire, the New York Times, and Paste, from Judy Berman (Time), Sophie Gilbert (Atlantic), Troy Patterson (New Yorker), Sonia Saraiya (Vanity Fair), Alan Sepinwall (Rolling Stone), and if you’ve decided to pay the new toll at Vulture, Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz.

You’ll find several mentions of the final season of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s The Americans, the triumphant second season of Donald Glover and Hiro Murai’s Atlanta, Michael Schur’s The Good Place, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman, and dozens of dozens more. Nearly every list-writer opens with a disclaimer: this era of peak TV is both a blessing and a curse. In short, there are simply too many good shows to keep up with. Some producers and programmers aim to cut through the glut with a hook, offering, for example, the first starring role on television for a heavyweight movie star such as Julia Roberts (Homecoming) or the television debut of a cult director like Park Chan-wook (The Little Drummer Girl). Both shows, by the way, are cited by Noel Murray in a piece for the A.V. Club on how a good number of this year’s prestige dramas seem overtly influenced by the cinema of the 1970s. “Maybe it’s a coincidence,” writes Murray, “or maybe it’s just that writers, directors, and producers who grew up watching those movies see within them a visual grammar and storytelling approach that describes life in our own anxious, angry era.”

Park’s six-episode series based on John le Carré’s novel stars Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as Charlie Ross, a British actor recruited as a double agent by Israeli intelligence to help find a Palestinian terrorist. The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson finds the series “subtly nutty: a geopolitical thriller distilled to an exercise in psychological suspense. Its tension relies on Charlie’s swerves between fragility and bravado as she operates in a climate of mistrust and interfaces with people for whom paranoia is a job skill.” For Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook, the dialogue “at times leans too far into theatrical emphasis, with self-consciously florid lines about ‘building a fiction’ and entering the ‘theater of the real,’ but there remains something potent about Park’s vision, which makes no pretense to naturalism and frequently lays bare to its table-setting artifice.”

One series appearing on a good number of the lists, and one of the most written-about shows in the past couple of weeks, features no international stars (though it’s narrated by Alba Rohrwacher and Max Richter has composed the soundtrack), and its creator and director, Saverio Costanzo, has a solid reputation in Italy but isn’t exactly a household name elsewhere. Instead, the draw of My Brilliant Friend is, of course, Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante’s series of four Neapolitan novels tracking the lives of two women from girlhood to old age is one of the most beloved literary works of this young century. My Brilliant Friend focuses on the beginnings of the friendship between six-year-old girls Elena (Lenù) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo in the 1950s and follows them to the age of sixteen as they grow up together in a working-class neighborhood outside of Naples. “It enfolds warring families and shifting alliances, but in a setting where everyone is packed close and prying eyes and whispers are inescapable,” writes James Poniewozik, reviewing the HBO series for the New York Times (where Eleanor Stanford, Parul Sehgal, and Joshua Barone have been carrying on a conversation about the show). “It is a game of courtyards, stairwells, and balconies,” writes Poniewozik. “But as earthbound as it is, My Brilliant Friend is no less transporting.” Others aren’t as taken in. “The production is diligent, sometimes to a degree that suggests an act of literal translation, or a student who memorizes the set text rather than interpreting it,” writes Thea Lenarduzzi for the TLS.

Writing for the Paris Review, Miranda Popkey agrees that this adaptation is “merely serviceable . . . And yet, in one respect, the series is in fact brilliant. Take it from this terrone: they got the faces right.” And then there are critics, like the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who find Costanzo’s caution—and it should be mentioned that he collaborated via e-mail with Ferrante on the screenplay—is a feature, not a bug. Nussbaum admires the way that “the show takes an old-fashioned approach, by sublimating itself to its literary source, like a caring translator who will illuminate but won’t impose.” For more on My Brilliant Friend, see Sarah Marshall (Nation), Rebecca Nicholson (Guardian), Willa Paskin (Slate), Troy Patterson (New Yorker), Matt Zoller Seitz (Vulture), Emily Temple (Literary Hub), and Katy Waldman (New Yorker).

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve, in which an MI5 officer (Sandra Oh) and an assassin (Jodie Comer) become obsessed with tracking each other down, also appears on more than a few of the lists. Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Summer Kim Lee, a fan of Oh’s since Grey’s Anatomy, finds herself wondering “during a moment when critics engaged with minority representations have more or less gotten used to writing about the bad, about asserting our guilty pleasures and bad object choices as a means of making do with the few representations we either get or never get in popular culture, what happens when after all that, we start to get what we want, and what we think is and feels good?” 

One show that hasn’t appeared on many lists at all is the three-part miniseries A Very English Scandal, written by Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk) and directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen). Anyone considering taking the plunge anyway will likely be persuaded by novelist and poet Alan Hollinghurst’s essay on the “richly enjoyable” show in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. The piece also serves as an entertaining primer on the Thorpe affair that rocked British politics in the late 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party, “is played with breathtaking plausibility by Hugh Grant,” while Ben Whishaw, as Thorpe’s lover Norman Scott, “mesmerizingly combines the vulnerable and the determined.”

Another show is either too new, having premiered on November 30, or simply, as Netflix’s first Polish original series, too little-seen as yet to land on any of the lists mentioned above. Joshua Long’s conspiracy thriller 1983 is set in 2003 and in a parallel universe where communism is still going strong in Poland. For the Guardian, Christian Davies talks with one of the directors, Agnieszka Holland, the renowned filmmaker whose career has flourished on television. She’s directed a few episodes of The Wire and House of Cards, and in 2013, created a series of her own for HBO, Burning Bush. As Davies notes, in 1983, Poland “enters the twenty-first century in authoritarian isolation.” Holland tells Davies that “the world of fiction is entering our reality—so many things are starting to come true that I’m starting to be afraid of the projects I am taking on.”

Let’s wrap with a few notes on more peak TV to come, starting with Gorilla and the Bird, a limited series from Jean-Marc Vallée whose previous work for HBO, Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, have been hits with critics and audiences alike. Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva tells us that the new show will be based on Zack McDermott’s memoir in which he looks back on his struggle with psychosis. Variety’s Joe Otterson reports that Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Bird Box) will direct Nicole Kidman in The Undoing, based on Jean Hanff Korelit’s novel You Should Have Known, which centers on a therapist whose perfect life is disrupted when her husband goes missing, leaving behind “a chain of terrible revelations.” Claudia Llosa, whose 2009 film The Milk of Sorrow won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, will become the first Peruvian director of a Netflix film when she takes on Distancia de rescate, based on Argentine author Samanta Schweblin’s 2015 novel, reports Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman. And HBO has confirmed that there will be a second season of My Brilliant Friend.

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