Remember the old days? We sent letters in the mail, and walked to school uphill both ways. An ice-cold Coke cost a nickel, and the only tweeting we heard came from the birds in the trees. The air was sweeter, the roads smoother, and the White House never had to answer questions about autofellatio! And summer? Summer was a bad time for television. Those days, my friends, are long since past.
That’s not to say that the relentless onslaught of television doesn’t continue. It’s just a little smaller in scale – less “Battle of the Blackwater,” more “that Euron guy descends in the dark and there’s a big fight or something and then Theon bais.” Outside of the five outstanding episodes that follow, this month saw great installments from Orphan Black and Broadchurch — both in their final seasons — as well as the continuing insanity of Zoo, the addictive Claws, and the promising if uneven Snowfall. It also, unsurprisingly, saw solid moments in the land of Late Night, including Tiffany Haddish’s (Girls Trip) Groupon swamp tour, Colbert’s Russia week, the return of Luther the Anger Translator, and most particularly comedian and transwoman Patti Harrison’s electric appearance on Fallon. All are worth a look (and seriously, Zoo is insane).
Still, outside of Game of Thrones, this month was dominated not by what’s on, but by what’s coming next. With fall on the horizon, you can’t open a new tab without facing down a trailer, premiere date, or beguiling tease about returning favorites and new hopeful gems. In just the last few days, we’ve gotten word of a Bollywood comedy with Priyanka Chopra, a dark alien abduction comedy from Rainn Wilson, and a documentary adaptation of Shea Serrano’s essential Rap Yearbook (produced by The Roots, because those guys really don’t have much on their plates). Lest you think all new series announcements have been greeted with huzzahs, this weekend also marked a dramatic uptick in the furor over HBO’s Confederate, led by #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, among others (for more on that, start here.)
There was one other big figure on this month’s television horizon, however, and it’s a figure from the not-so-distant past — one with an arm draped over a sofa and a cigarette burning in perpetuity. July marked the 10-year anniversary of Mad Men’s premiere, and while television has changed a lot since “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, some things remain the same. Great characters and great writing matter more than any battle, than any punchline or mystery or “watercooler moment.” Those things are far from worthless, but they’ll always take a backseat to the good stuff, to a moment shared between long lost friends (welcome back, Hot Pie!) or a small, confused smile after a fucked-up moment with an ex. We watch television because we love good stories, populated by great characters, and in that respect, July had plenty to offer.
It also had Zoo, and seriously, you should give Zoo a whirl. That shit is nuts.
There are some truly great ensembles on the air at the moment — some represented elsewhere on this list (Preacher), some not (Broadchurch), and some that are pretty much just Tatiana Maslany playing 97 different people (Orphan Black). For my money, however, it’s tough to beat Issa Rae’s Insecure, which features a trio of the most dropped-in, low-key, funny, and heartbreaking performances out there. Better still, the second season of HBO’s thoughtful gem makes a point of opening new circles for Issa (Rae), Molly (the terrific Yvonne Orji), and Lawrence (Jay Ellis), with each character confronting new realities in their personal lives and new territory narratively. After spending a season carefully coaxing its audience into a serious level of investment in these characters and their relationships, we see them scattered, facing down the unknown, whether in the form of a therapist, a series of bad (and unwanted) dates, and the world of casual sex. Now you know us, the series seems to say, so let’s have a Wine Down and really get into the shit.
As good as Rae, Orji, and Ellis are — and they’re real damn good — they also benefit from a terrific supporting cast, each member of which seems molecularly incapable of wasting a second of your time (welcome back, Thug Yoda!). New this season: David Hull, a standout on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (on which he plays the unforgettably named White Josh), as Travis, a guy at Molly’s law firm who is making a hell of a lot more money than she for what seems like no good reason. We can probably expect a lot more heartbreak in Insecure’s sophomore season — the final moments of the episode and the confused, frighteningly hopeful smile on Issa’s face all but guarantee that — but it looks like we can also expect a good, long look at workplace inequity, too. If that sounds dull to you, it’s only because you haven’t started Insecure yet. Do yourself a favor and correct that, right now. –Allison Shoemaker
There’s been a lot of chatter about whether Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return has actually felt like Twin Peaks. The short answer is that, no, this isn’t the show everyone tuned in to see on ABC decades ago. David Lynch is far too progressive to relegate himself into a weekly nostalgia hour. If you couldn’t tell that from the series premiere, which now feels like ages ago, then “Part 8” certainly made that obvious, what with the charred Woodsmen and the dreamy atomic bomb sequence. And while this new revival has felt considerably more in line with Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there have been moments that hearken back to the original soap opera subversion.
“Part 11” is so far the strongest balance between the old and new. There was melodrama, there was comedy, there was horror, and there was heart. Behind it all was Lynch, twisting between those aesthetics with his trademark tension. He brought it over to South Dakota, where Gordon Cole stumbled into an unlikely wormhole. He gambled with it in Vegas, turning two mob bosses into pie-crazy stuffed animals. And he most certainly conjured it up where it matters most, in the titular town, where Deputy Bobby Briggs suppresses what might be the craziest traffic jam this side of Sicario. Oh, something downright evil is going down in Twin Peaks, and we saw a nice sneak preview riding shotgun.
It’s just a damn shame this all has to end. Damn shame. –Michael Roffman
The Bold Type
“If You Can’t Do It With Feeling”
There might not be a television show that feels more contemporary than Freeform’s The Bold Type. Based on the life of former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, the series tackles of the moment issues with the sort of breeziness that has been working for young people since the days of Beverly Hills 90210 and The OC. This isn’t as soapy as those, though, but it does tackle the lives of young people through experiences that couldn’t have happened in any time but the present. On the most recent episode, “If You Can’t Do It With Feeling”, we find Kat (Aisha Dee) spending the night in jail as she defends her Muslim friend from being verbally harassed on street. We have Jane (Katie Stevens) struggling on a political panel when a male colleague constantly talks over her and simply restates her points using different words. And we have Sutton (Meghann Fahy) struggling to pursue the career she wants in a highly competitive marketplace, where passion and hard work might not be as important as what’s on her resume.
It’s not just that The Bold Type approaches subjects like this on weekly basis. It’s how the show discusses them. Nothing about the series is heavy-handed and everything is served up with an equal amount of humor and heart. Instead, the feminism of the show is presented without need for explanation. Of course The Bold Type is discussing the real issues facing women today. Of course a series focusing of the love lives and workplace issues at a fashion magazine will have something real and important to say. Of course the pop music soundtrack and stylish wardrobes serve to enhance the subject matter, not just supplement it. The Bold Type doesn’t ask to be taken seriously. It demands it. –Philip Cosores
The true magic of AMC’s Preacher doesn’t come from its outrageous violence or extreme circumstances (ahem, Hitler is a main character on this program). It’s found in the holy trinity of Jessie (Dominic Cooper), Tulip (Ruth Negga), and Cassidy (Joe Gilgun). The effortless interplay between the three is never more apparent than it is at the breakfast table near the beginning of the episode. As screwed up as they are as individuals, it’s clear that they truly need each other even if they’re actually bad for one another. Contradictory? In reality, certainly. But in Preacher? Compelling and crucial. Sometimes it takes a fucked-up group of people (and vampires) to defeat a vengeful demon Cowboy.
Jesus. This show is crazy, but fortunately the chaos is organized throughout. Writer Mary Laws (The Neon Demon) brings just the right amount of “gang runs from demon” to add in a trip to the library for a wonderful books-on-tape-laden expository sequence. A lot happens the morning the gang finally (?) gets rid of the cowboy-on-their-backs, but Preacher has proven it can handle tonal shifts and plot twists with the best of prestige TV. When will this show get the attention it deserves? –Justin Gerber
Game of Thrones
“The Queen’s Justice”
Everyone knows the best Game of Thrones episodes don’t happen until late in the season, or at least mid-way. But as the series winds down to its final dozen episodes, you get the feeling that there is no more time for wasted space. Granted, the series will always have time for quieter moments of characterization –look at Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) meditative brush with Ed Sheeran on this season’s first episode — but it’s clear just a few episodes into the penultimate season that each week will bring colossal, jaw-dropping moments.
Perhaps there’s been no bigger moment than the much-hyped meet-up between Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Despite being the show’s two biggest stars, Clark and Harington have never appeared together on screen, making their respective introductions something of an event itself. Keeping with the season’s pace, though, “The Queen’s Justice” never stands on ceremony, going right into the beloved scene without pause, and it only takes a few minutes before the Sam and Diane vibes get going.
Now, this all may strike some fans as jarring, especially those who feel the show is losing the slow-burn qualities its previous six seasons had down to a science. But for the fans who’ve been following since the very beginning, these final chapters have to feel like a reward of sorts. What’s more, the many revelations expand the mythology, allowing the rest of the kingdoms in the show to finally evolve, as evidenced at the very end of “The Queen’s Justice” when Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) confronts Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rig). Every second counts. –Philip Cosores