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Top TV Episodes of the Month: 13 Reasons Why, Girls, and The Americans

Deception, lies, and harsh truths were all the rage in April

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If there’s one takeaway from April, it’s that there’s not enough time in the world for television. Whether you’re tuning into cable networks like FX, HBO, and AMC or streaming the goods on Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix, there is arguably something good at your fingertips at any given minute, and yes, those minutes start piling up.

In addition to must-see carryovers from last month — stuff like Girls, The Americans, Crashing, and Riverdale — April saw the hotly anticipated returns of Better Call Saul, Fargo, Rick and Morty, Veep, and Silicon Valley alongside the premieres of newer fare like 13 Reasons Why, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American Gods.

Basically, we said goodbye to the outside world…

jared Top TV Episodes of the Month: 13 Reasons Why, Girls, and The Americans

This may be a tad hyperbolic, but whatever, here we go: It’s almost as if a trip to the couch these days is work in itself. Clearing the DVR or the queues has never been more difficult, and while watching television is hardly an arduous task, it still requires heaps of time. And as most of you know, time is a very lucrative thing.

The good news is that May looks to add even more madness to the chaos, what with Master of None, Sense8, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Casual, House of Cards, and, yes, even Twin Peaks set to return. But as Special Agent Dale Cooper once told Sheriff Harry S. Truman, “every day, once a day, give yourself a present.”

Just know that “present” might take up your entire night … every night.

–Michael Roffman
Editor-in-Chief

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Girls

“What Will We Do This Time About Adam?”

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It’ll be a great relief in a few years when Girls is just Girls, with all its imperfections and moments of brilliance and memorable performances and butts and boobs and many, many run-on sentences. When we’ve left its lightning-rod era behind and can look back on the final season with fresh eyes, it’s likely “The Bounce”, “Hostage Situation”, or “American Bitch” that will get the most love. For this writer’s money, however, the loveliest of the bunch is the Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham-penned “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?”, a reunion between the two halves of the romantic relationship that most defined the series. The answer to the titular question is a simple one: say goodbye, for good.

It’s a hell of a trick, made possible by the fact that these two people are so often irrational. Adam (Adam Driver) finds Hannah (Dunham) with her head all the way inside a convenience store freezer, a good way to both get the maximum number of popsicles home in a timely fashion and to cool off (a busted AC unit means Hannah and Elijah’s place is basically a furnace—not a great situation for a pregnant woman.) On the spot, he tells her he wants to be with her and to help raise her kid, and after a quick “I’m, like, so confused right now,” they’re having tender make-up pregnancy sex and Adam’s talking to her belly.

Seem ludicrous and overly convenient? Yes, it does. It also ignores all the ugliness of their history and directs the pair to a completely pat and lazy ending. That’s why “What Will We Do” doesn’t actually do that. In one of Dunham’s best moments of the series—it’s a long list, but this would be near the top—Hannah watches this fantasy, that they’ll find a new place and he’ll build furniture and they’ll join a food co-op—run out of steam. A lovely idea, and a bad one. Her face crumples, his grin fades, and without a word, they let it die. She’ll go home and try to write. He’ll go grocery shopping. Maybe they’ll never see each other again.

It’s Girls in miniature—funny, foolish, and sad. May it rest in peace. –Allison Shoemaker

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13 Reasons Why

“Tape 7, Side A”

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For all of television and film’s milking of high school drama for entertainment, it’s most often given a light tone. After all, it’s called entertainment. But nothing about 13 Reasons Why is light. It’s a story centered around the suicide of a young woman, and how the cruelty of high school led her to do it. We see the effects of bullying in increments, and how lapses in judgement both big and small can have great consequences. And it is all portrayed with few punches pulled. Leading up to the finale, there are a pair of hard-to-watch rape scenes that are appropriately presented with disclaimers. They are horrific acts given the treatment they deserve. It should be hard to watch. It should feel painful and disgusting.

And in the finale, when Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) is driven to kill herself, the audience is again shown the act in harrowing detail. We’d seen all the actions that had driven her to that moment, so it made sense that we’d have to witness her death and her parents finding her body without a cushion, either. Even though it was a moment that the show told the audience would happen, that didn’t make it any less emotional. But even harder to watch was Hannah’s last cry for help, to school counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke). It’s her last attempt to live and it’s treated with haste, with an adult served a chance to save a young person’s life and failing.

For a show with wide commentary (about how young people treat each other, about recognizing signs of trauma in young people, about accepting responsibility for actions), 13 Reasons Why can’t even account for all the fish trapped in its net, with many storylines left unresolved. But at its heart, it is the story of Hannah Baker, and with the aid of Angel Olsen’s “Windows” (pretty much the best song ever) for its climactic moments, 13 Reasons Why closes with numerous punches to the gut. It’s not an experience anyone would want to repeat, but it is surely worth the ride. –Philip Cosores

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The Americans

“Lotus 1-2-3”

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From the get-go, The Americans has always been an odd sell. As actual citizens of our wonderful, beautiful, never-do-wrong country — “I’m picking up on your sarcasm.” “Well, I should hope so, because I’m laying it on pretty thick.” — we’ve been brought up to believe that every one of our enemies falls is a Bad Guy, and there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Of course, that hasn’t always been the case throughout American history, especially during the excessive highs of the ’80s, ironically when that sort of hero-worship was at an all-time high. Perhaps that’s why Joe Weisberg’s series is so refreshing; it’s painting a portrait of that time without resorting to its traditional black and white ink. For five seasons now, the CIA-officer-turned-showrunner has sold us on the series’ two Soviet spies — Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) — who, as we’ve learned, are hardly the Bond baddies we’ve previously been sold through past pop culture phenomenons.

But, they’re still spies, and it’s easy to forget that, behind all the sexual intrigue, funny disguises, and tense action, they’re still cold-hearted, contract killers. What’s more, it’s even easier to forget that they also make mistakes on a long enough timeline. Both of those facts are what makes “Lotus 1-2-3” such a pivotal episode for The Americans. Earlier in the season, the two swiftly iced a lab worker who they assumed was being hired by the American government to develop a strain of wheat that could hurt their already-famished and malnourished nation. Not so, as they discover he was actually trying to develop a stronger crop, one which would have helped world hunger. At this point, Philip is already teetering on the edge, and this is the type of bombshell that may wind up finally breaking him. But he’s not alone, he has Elizabeth, and the way this episode frames their unorthodox relationship suggests something far more nuanced and symbiotic than we we’ve ever been led to believe.

It’s a moment that will likely inform what’s in store for the two in the near future. –Michael Roffman

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Big Little Lies

“You Get What You Need”

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Big Little Lies was only ever sort of a murder mystery. Just as, say, Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica used science fiction as the bones for a complicated look at the politics of war and disaster, HBO’s mega-hit used the trappings of a whodunnit to allow for a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the inner lives of five different women. In the end, it didn’t much matter how wound up at the bottom of the stairs, or who did the pushing. What mattered was how they got to that point, and what happened afterward—and all that was defined, not by the relationships between the women and men, but between the women, full stop.

Spoilers follow…

“You Get What You Need” does manage to pack in some mystery, or at the very least, some suspense, but it works not because of the revelations, but the performances that bring them about. That Celeste’s abuser—Perry (Alexander Skarsgård)—and Jane’s rapist are one and the same is a surprise, sure, but the real kicker is the look on Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) face as she makes the connection, an obvious and profound shock that makes the truth visible, wordlessly, first to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and then to Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Within moments, a brutal fight scene springs out of nowhere, with Jane, Madeline, and Renata (Laura Dern) all trying to stop Celeste’s assailant. They’re bruised and bloodied but not successful, and the violence only stops when a fifth woman races in. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) pushes Perry down the stairs, and that’s the ball game.

There’s chatter about a second season of this one-and-done show, and while any excuse to get these women—even one of them, really—would be welcome, it seems a shame to mess up such a perfect ending. Of course, the series itself proves that Jean-Marc Vallée and David E. Kelley know how to make these characters sing, and they, along with their cast, will likely rake in a mound of trophies that underline that fact. Maybe we should welcome another chapter (even if the Liane Moriarty novel from which it was adapted doesn’t have a sequel). Still, it would be hard to top those final moments: five women, each irrevocably changed, united on a beach, free of bruises and strengthened by each other, while a detective clicks a lighter in the distance, watching. Good things come to those who wait, but nothing gold can stay. –Allison Shoemaker
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Survivor

“What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile”

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The headlines weren’t incorrect. Buried in the middle of what would be another consistently entertaining, if not generally innocuous, season of Survivor, their 34th(!), was the most despicable action to ever take place on their deserted island. And this is a show whose motto of “Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast” has basically become lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top. In a game for a million dollars, the boundaries of what is acceptable are often stretched, but this year, viewers and castaways got a hard glimpse that there is still a line and just what it looks like when someone leaps past it, resulting in a hugely important bit of television.

The action, the outing of Zeke Smith by Jeff Varner as trans, happened at tribal council as a move of desperation by a man who was trying to avoid elimination. The immediate aftermath, from Smith’s shocked expression to the tears and anger that swept unanimously across the rest of the tribe, was enough to elicit immediate shame and regret from Varner. But what the show managed to do with this ugly action was to not make it about Varner. Through an assault that took away Smith’s right to exist on his own terms, the moment remained Smith’s. Anyone who read about it afterward knew just how far this went. Smith was consulted in advance of the broadcast, along with GLAAD, to maintain what CBS called “was Smith’s story to tell.” Somehow, he was even able to turn the specific action that happened to him into a greater, more universal lesson, speaking movingly on the subject.

In terms of the rest of the tribe, to see their unanimous rebuke of Varner and disgust was hugely significant. Keep in mind the viewers of Survivor represent a cross section of America, and there were many people watching who this was a first experience with the subject of outing. To see it handled so appropriately from the tribe and host, and that Varner’s absurd notion that a transgender person was more capable of deception treated as idiotic, was exactly what needed to be shown. Of course, it would have been better if none of this had ever happened in the first place, that goes without saying. But to see a group of people from all different walks of life uniting to stand up for trans rights on national TV, including host Jeff Probst who didn’t even give Varner the dignity of being voted out and instead just called him up to snuff his flame unceremoniously, was a heartening moment of reality TV. Watching these shows can often feel like witnessing humanity at its worst, and when one player took that to new extremes, we also were able to witness people at their best. –Philip Cosores

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