Nearly everyone in the pop culture sphere has already used this turn of phrase, so who are we to abstain: We have officially reached Peaks TV.
Given the density and richness of coverage surrounding the premiere of David Lynch’s 18-hour Showtime movie-disguised-as-series — and that includes our own Twin Peaks Week — one could be forgiven for thinking that Agent Cooper’s return was the only thing happening on television this month. To be fair, it’s a hell of an event, both as the return of a groundbreaking series and as proof that TV can be every bit as challenging and audacious as any other art form. It’s as though Coop’s double stuck his head through the set and said, “You thought Legion was out there? Oh, my sweet summer child, you have no idea.”
Once you escape the Red Room, however, you’ll find that May was a terrific month for sitting in front of a big glass box and staring for hours. Kimmy Schmidt bounced back into the world, and so did Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood and the sensates of Sense8. Still basking in the glow of releasing one of the year’s best titles (The Handmaid’s Tale), Hulu closed Harlots with a bang and welcomed Casual back for what, so far, looks to be its best season yet. The CW’s Riverdale and Supergirl each ended on a high note, while the season finale of Superstore literally blew the house down. Catastrophe, Dear White People, and the criminally underrated Rupaul’s Drag Race all dropped at least one killer episode, and Saturday Night Live managed to sneak in a few more really strong outings, just under the wire. (We’ll miss you, Vanessa, Bobby, and Sasheer!)
Not one of those shows is represented on our list — Peaks TV, remember? The five that did, however, crawled right through that big glass box of ours and savaged us, in one way or another. There’s narrative daring to be found, incredible filmmaking, and no shortage of really solid punchlines. We were challenged, provoked, delighted and disgusted, and that’s all before we dive into Lynchland. Traditionally, this is the time of year when good TV takes a nap, but don’t expect a rest anytime soon — Orphan Black’s returning for one last trip, I’m Dying Up Here will start dying up there this weekend, and Preacher, Orange is the New Black, Wynonna Earp, and Broadchurch will all be back before the month is out.
So go ahead, weary watchers. Take a break! Enjoy the weather! The television will keep. Just make sure to chip away at that DVR queue occasionally, because you never know what otherworldly smoke monsters are lurking in that big glass box.
It wasn’t too long ago that past guest star Bill Hader poked fun at Brooklyn Nine-Nine for its obvious inability to tackle greater issues at large. “Andy Samberg, looking forward to your new show Brooklyn 99,” he quipped at Comedy Central’s 2013 roast of James Franco. “Funny cops. You’re always pushing the envelope, Andy. What’s going to happen when you run out of funny crimes like graffiti and pickpockets? Can’t wait to see episode 10 when Brooklyn 99 has to deal with a rape. ‘Oh I dropped the rape kit. Sporgie Dorg!’” Let’s just say the writers of Fox’s cruelly underrated ensemble comedy called his bluff.
With “Moo Moo”, showrunners Dan Goor and Michael Schur tackle institutional racism without skipping a single beat. It’s a little like those old sitcom episodes that told a serious message in a funny story, only this message doesn’t feel shoehorned in. The whole story centers around Sergeant Terry and how he’s nearly arrested simply for walking around his own neighborhood as he searches for his daughter’s Moo Moo. The white cop who stops him eventually relents, but only when he learns Terry is also a cop. The whole situation takes another turn for the worst when Captain Holt insists that Terry not report it.
“That complaint could backfire,” Holt explains. “I don’t want to see your career derailed.” But Terry isn’t having it, arguing: “I wasn’t harassed for being a cop. I was harassed for being a black man.” Holt, who has also dealt with discrimination for being both black and gay, contends: “I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying the most powerful action you can take is to rise through the ranks, so you can make large-scale changes.” Reading that doesn’t nearly do the scene justice, as actors Terry Crews and Andre Braugher respectively wire every word with aching pathos, but it should offer a convincing glimpse into the show’s weightier side — one that likely even shocked Hader. Some more crow, Captain Seth Dozerman? –Michael Roffman
Master of None
If we’re being honest, almost any episode of the exceptionally strong second season of Master of None could be on this list. Aziz Ansari’s adventures in Italy incorporate a love for Italian cinema, buddy comedies, and food into a pair of snapshots that stand on their own early in the season. Forays into subjects like religion and online dating benefit greatly from Ansari’s keen insight into the modern world. And there’s what’s perhaps the most controversial aspect of the season: his character’s infatuation with Italian visiter Franchesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) that have some crying manic pixie dream girl, reducing the character somewhat unfairly.
But what is perhaps the most perfect single serving of the Netflix show is its most unexpected. In “Thanksgiving”, Ansari’s Dev spends the holiday with his childhood bestie Denise (played as an adult by Lena Waithe, who also co-wrote the episode) in a series of snapshots from over the years. There’s the little details, from the way that 90’s R&B becomes a hallmark of Denise’s childhood room regardless of the passing years or how the pair smokes pot and expects her family to be oblivious. And then there’s the heart of the episode, which traces Denise’s long process of coming out and being accepted for who she is.
There’s a lot of insight provided, particularly when Denise’ mom (played perfectly by Angela Bassett) reacts to Denise’s coming out by telling her that her life was already going to be hard as a black woman and she didn’t want it to have to be harder. There’s the moment where Denise explains to Dev how black people have a different reaction to having gay children than other races, because they view their children as sorts of trophies. And then there’s the closing moment where the family, along with Denise’s girlfriend and Dev, can sit down and enjoy a meal together in as close to acceptance as they are going to get.
“Thanksgiving” manages to show both how the holidays can be difficult for a gay person, and on a more macro level, the difficulty in gaining wider acceptance. But it also hits on some tenderness, too, painting life’s complexities in all its hues. Master of None does this particularly well, balancing the salty and sweet of life into something that, for all its humor, ultimately feels very true. –Philip Cosores
Adaptation, what a fickle beast is she. The best attempts at capturing an existing story for the screen all manage to pull off a very particular balance, adhering to and celebrating the source material on one hand, knowing when to mercilessly cut or gleefully invent on the other. A novel is not a television show (or film, or play). To make a story sing, an adaptor must be both giddy and ruthless. Five episodes in, American Gods has made one thing perfectly clear: Michael Green and Bryan Fuller are both.
There’s no better proof of that than “Git Gone”, an episode that’s true to the spirit of the book and its world, but which tells a story that’s largely the invention of Fuller and Green. Unlike the episodes which precede it, “Git Gone” doesn’t divide its focus between the story’s many gods, goddesses, and mortals. Instead, it zooms in on Laura Moon (Emily Browning), the recently undead wife of protagonist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). In Neil Gaiman’s novel, Laura’s a cipher, a woman defined in life by her marriage and in death by her infidelity, repentance, and by the fact that she’s, you know, undead. Fuller and Green put a stop to that, giving us an hour-long character study that unrelentingly traces the path of a woman who never quite keyed into life, whose heavy, empty heart leads her to distraction, disengagement, and death. Now Laura Moon is many things, and this hour captures many of them, and not one of them, thank god, is ‘undefined.’ Neither is ‘likeable.’
It’s that last absent quality that makes “Git Gone” so unusual — that is, besides the jaw-dropping art direction, cinematography, writing, scoring, and performances. Browning calls Laura “the middle finger of the show,” a woman wholly uninterested in being deemed acceptable or good by anyone she meets. It’s a testament to Browning and director Craig Zobel that Laura’s distance and disaffection read not as blankness, but as numbness — a numbness she’s desperate to escape. Setting into motion the chain of events that leads to her march through a suburb carrying her own arm (perhaps the most striking image in a series full of them), Laura tells Shadow she feels resentful. “Not resentful of you,” she baldly clarifies. “Just… resentful.”
To say more about “Git Gone” is to lessen its many upsetting pleasures in advance — the pitch-black humor, the gorgeous and gruesome imagery, and especially the fearless performances from Browning and Betty Gilpin, who together maneuver deftly through one of of the strangest, funniest, and most honest scenes we’re likely to see this year. In a month packed with great television, this hour may very well have been the best. Just watch it, okay? –Allison Shoemaker
Better Call Saul
Season three of Better Call Saul has seen its two storylines, Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) family circus and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) Breaking Bad call-back extravaganza, deviate widely in both relation to each other and their ability to captivate. Where Mike’s world has seen a load of Breaking Bad characters return this year, it often feels poorly paced, particularly for a series of events in which the outcome is already determined. We can’t say that the prequel nature of the show also detracts from the Jimmy’s storyline, though, because episodes like “Chicanery” manage to be unblinkingly tense even though the outcome is essentially written in the cards.
For a show in which lawyers are central to its story, “Chicanery” features the courtroom more than any episode we’ve seen from the series. Once again, Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) continue their war that has been raging for seasons, but this battle goes to Jimmy, whose behind-the-scenes magic evokes a complete meltdown from his brother. It’s here when McKean goes for the Emmy, turning out a tirade that’s equally jaw-dropping and heartbreaking.
But maybe why the episode succeeds most is because it spends so much time away from Mike’s world, allowing Better Call Saul to exist on its own and away from its predecessor. With a finite amount of time before the show eventually catches up to Breaking Bad, pacing will become an increasingly tricky proposition. But in “Chicanery”, taking a deep dive into a particular moment in the life of Jimmy and milking it for more drama than the audience could have imagined, Better Call Saul felt more sure-footed than ever. –Philip Cosores
“Parts 3 and 4”
Apologies if this runs a little long…
Only fools could have thought that David Lynch’s epic return, both to Twin Peaks and to the screen itself, would be disappointing. In an age when the term “auteur” is thrown around like pigskin in East Texas, it doesn’t really do the man justice when we say the first four episodes of Showtime’s highly anticipated revival is auteurist television. If we’re to go off the writing of several top-notch critics, who love to throw that term around ad nauseam (this writer’s admittedly guilty of it), that definition would place him alongside showrunners like Matthew Weiner, Noah Hawley, or, god help us all, Sam Esmail. And yes, that would be criminal, because unlike all three of those names, there is no comparison to Lynch. The guy’s a cut above the rest, an anomaly, a genius, if you want to indulge in some mild hyperbole. Hell, it’s why he’s unconsciously spawned his own terminology.
No, as most expected, Lynch’s return delivered everything any fan would want from both the visionary and the brand that has since commissioned an unhealthy obsession with coffee, cherry pie, and donuts. Yet unlike so many nostalgic revivals as of late, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost eschewed the insufferable fan service, smashing everyone over the head with a heady two-hour premiere that relished Lynch’s signature strengths in the darkness. It was like watching a greatest hits of the guy’s crowning aesthetics, from the chummy menace of Mulholland Drive to the twisted fates of Lost Highway to the existential malaise of Inland Empire. It was almost suffocating, so much so that when we finally arrive at the Roadhouse, where Chromatics score our reunion with Shelly Johnson and James “Always Been Cool” Hurley, we start to breathe again.
That’s partly why we’re going with the next two hours, when Lynch and Frost really cement the overall aesthetic of this new Twin Peaks. What starts out with a mind trip in the space between spaces, recalling the works of Lynch’s salad days (see: The Alphabet, Eraserhead), quickly douses itself with the uncanny humor that Lynch is wont to indulge from time to time — and thank god. After all, this marathon 18-hour run wouldn’t have worked without tickling the show’s spirited side, and that’s exactly what they do in Parts Three and Four. As we quickly learn, there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching a dazed Dale Cooper stumble around the tacky confines of Las Vegas and the haunting doppelgänger houses of Rancho Rosa like he’s Jeff Bridges in Starman. Kyle MacLachlan’s hilarious physical performance in these two episodes alone says: “Hellooooo Emmys!”
Though, another qualifying MVP is Lynch himself as Gordon Cole. Age has been very kind to the hard-of-hearing FBI Deputy Director, who’s even more interesting now than he was 27 years ago. Maybe it’s because Lynch has been out of the spotlight for so long, but he’s such a wonder to watch, and every reaction (“There they are Albert: FACES OF STONE!”) and interaction (see: his time with David Duchovny’s Denise Bryson) warrants a couple of rewinds (not to mention countless Internet memes). And in a rather clever albeit meta twist, it’s Lynch who dials back the laughs toward the end, as his blue-tinted exchange with Albert Rosenfield (the late Miguel Ferrer) is chilling enough to freeze everyone’s hot cup of Joe at home. When he keeps saying “Albert…”, it’s like he’s piling on the stakes one later at a time, and all of a sudden we can’t breathe again.
It’s pretty genius. –Michael Roffman