Christ, October was busy. It seems like every day Netflix or Amazon or Schmazoid or Goobah were plopping down another must-see special or can’t-miss show, making it next to impossible to keep track of everything that was already streaming. To make matters worse, the NBA returned with a rare kind of energy and the MLB playoffs actually got exciting for a second or two. So, yeah, things were pretty, pretty … pretty hectic in this past month, and seeing Larry David and Nathan Fielder on a weekly basis only exacerbated that anxiety. This sound familiar? It should. We’ve complained about it all year in these monthly writeups, and no, we still have no idea how to rectify the situation. Clearly. But hey, too much of a good thing is never a bad thing, at least when it comes to pop culture, so let’s just take this all one episode at a time. Sound good?
“Trick or Treat, Freak”
True to the show’s throwback spirit, the Duffers are treating the second season of Stranger Things like a sequel. Hence, the whole Stranger Things 2 title and all the nods to James Cameron, who flipped the script on the medium with Aliens, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Like those movies, this second go-around in Hawkins, Indiana expands the world, ups the stakes, and digs deeper into its core cast while adding new ones. Granted, the season premiere, “MADMAX”, does most of the table-setting for the rest of the eight episodes, but it’s not until the second chapter, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, that we get a sense of where everyone’s going and what they’ll be doing. To top it all off, the action takes place on Halloween, and naturally, the spooky holiday marries the show’s Spielbergian aesthetic with aplomb, adding an even broader nostalgic wash that’s like being wrapped up in a wool blanket, while sitting next to a moon-glazed window that’s looking out into a windy, autumn night. Too treacly for you? Oh well.
“Trick or Treat, Freak” is peak Stranger Things. Aesthetically, it doesn’t get better than watching the Hawkins kids stumbling around in era-specific costumes (from Nancy and Steve’s Risky Business getup to Mike’s team of Ghostbusters), or Hooper investigating rotten pumpkin patches, or Eleven flipping through old-school horror movies by her lonesome. These are the sugary treats that draw us in, but it’s the episode’s bitter tricks that keep us glued. Basically, everyone’s going through the motions after last season’s harrowing events — Will suffers from a kind of supernatural PTSD; Joyce is now a wired helicopter parent; Eleven misses Mike; Mike misses Eleven; Hooper’s irritably paranoid; and Dustin’s no longer the MVP of the Hawkins arcade — but shit gets real when Nancy has an emotional, drunken breakdown at an epic Halloween party. Much like us, Steve watches in horror as she berates herself, their relationship, and their bullshit life. It’s all pretty heavy, but that’s why Stranger Things 2 is such a worthy sequel.
Everything’s familiar, nothing’s the same. –Michael Roffman
“To Josh With Love”
Now that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s entered its third season, its excellence is no longer surprising. Of course it’s great. It’s always been great. But if there’s one area in which this under-seen gem can still shock through achievement alone, it’s in the music. “To Josh With Love” would be great without its tunes. This is an hour that’s densely woven, plot-heavy, and thematically rich, yet it’s never too busy for a quick gag or two. That alone might earn it a place here. Still, the songs take “To Josh With Love” from special to extraordinary. There are four of them, and they all kick ass.
In TV (The Book), Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz write that the great Flight of the Conchords closed up shop in part because writing a great series and great music for that series was just too much. In three seasons, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has recorded more than 100 songs, all written by co-creator and star Rachel Bloom, Jack Dolgen, and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger (or some combination thereof).
This hour is responsible for four of those, including “I’ve Got My Head In The Clouds”, a religious song-and-dance-man number; “Strip Away My Conscience”, a jazzy little Fosse-esque ditty which includes the lyric “Let me choke on your cocksuredness”; and “After Everything You Made Me Do (That You Didn’t Ask For)”, a reprise of a season one song that’s as unsettling as anything else that aired this month. The best may be “The Buzzing From The Bathroom”, a Les Misérables pastiche dedicated to one man’s discovery of the orgasm gap that’s as savage a Tom Hooper parody as one could hope for. It’s incredibly funny, surprisingly adult, more thoughtful and layered than it might seem on first glance, and belted out with grandiose fervor by Michael McMillian.
In other words, it’s business as usual on the best show you’re probably not watching. –Allison Shoemaker
A big part of any TV show’s inaugural season is the question of how it perceives its central protagonist. Do they treat her or him with a fawning reverence, as The Walking Dead does with Rick Grimes? Or do they set them up as a flawed character in pursuit of their own demise, a la Mad Men‘s Don Draper? Are we meant to see this character as a guiding light or as a cautionary tale?
It was hard to tell what to make of dapper, confident FBI agent Holden Ford in Mindhunter’s early going. Played by Jonathan Groff, the character resonates as a disciplined professional still in touch with his carnal side; he proves it in the pilot, picking up a pretty grad student at a bar using little else but his biting wit. As the show goes on, we watch Ford buck authority and pioneer a new means of profiling ultra-violent criminal offenders. We watch him bow down to the level of these killers, using violent language to emotionally manipulate them into opening up. Soon, he’s using those same tactics to bust real-life killers. He’s a star, and anyone who finds his methods unsettling—including his partner, Ed Tench (Holt McCallany)—will eventually come around to his way of thinking. Sure, it’s controversial, but Ford is a trailblazer, a young buck here to school the old-timers stuck in their ways.
Ford thinks he’s right, but the question lingered as the show barreled on: Does the show think that, too? Because if so, it’s all much less interesting. Luckily, the finale serves as a culmination of everything that’s been slowly mounting, a downward spiral that confronts Holden with the consequences of every rule he’s broken, every relationship he’s taken for granted, and every mental and emotional barrier he’s cast aside. His methods, while no doubt effective, have alienated his colleagues, destroyed his relationship, and royally pissed off his bosses. The final 10 minutes are a taut masterwork, with Ford visiting killer Ed Kemper in the hospital and crumbling beneath the realization that this monster is the now only person that wants to be around him.
The season ends abruptly, with Ford suffering a mental breakdown against the thundering riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light”. They’re fierce and quick, those final moments, disturbing when set against the patient, sober tone the series established over its 10 episodes. He played with fire, he got burned, and now we’re watching him writhe in the flames. He won’t be the same come next season. –Randall Colburn
Halt and Catch Fire
“Ten of Swords”
A television show’s legacy often rests on how well it sticks its landing, and if Halt and Catch Fire is held up to a similar standard, then it should hold a place among the all-time greats. Specifically, the final four episodes of the series, from Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) untimely death to an episode devoted to his friends and family coping with it to gloriously cathartic finale, Halt managed to deliver a finished product that soared above its competitors, much in the way its characters never could in their professional life.
For its final bow, each of the remaining players gets their version of “ever after.” For Bos (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish), that involves putting behind their professional life to “finally live.” For Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), it involves the next creative endeavor, with the pair reconciling that the person that comes up with the idea and the one that executes it are both essential for a successful partnership. And for Joe (Lee Pace), it means teaching a new set of minds, realizing that his best role is the one of inspiration.
“It’s not the thing, it’s the thing that gets you to the thing,” became the mantra of the series, with its characters ultimately learning that it wasn’t really important what they created or what they innovated. What was important was that it brought them together over and over again, and that they all made each other better. “It was you,” Joe tells Cameron, equating her to the thing he had been trying to get to, but really any of the characters could have said the same thing to each other. Life is an experience, not an end result, and that’s where the heart of Halt and Catch Fire beats loudest. –Philip Cosores
Curb Your Enthusiasm
“Thank You For Your Service”
If we’re being honest, the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm has been a little spotty. When Larry David returned earlier this month, he arrived looking too bright, too over-the-top, and too self-aware. This isn’t surprising: Our favorite bald asshole is a brand unto itself now, what with Jennifer Lawrence shout-outs and internationally-renown Bernie Sanders impersonations, so it’s hard to imagine things were ever going to be the same for the Los Angeles-set comedy. So, when a fatwa was issued on his head in the season premiere, it only made sense that he’d be going bigger and broader. Since then, things have settled considerably, and he’s back to fussing over the little things — you know, like hotel cookies or disturbances in the kitchen. That’s the Larry David everyone loves because, really, that’s the Larry David everyone can relate to on some level.
“Thank You for Your Service” is the closest approximation to a classic Curb episode. Gone is any semblance of the fatwa narrative and in its place is a litany of grounded anxious LD adventures, from awkwardly dating his mailwoman, to dishonorably snubbing an American veteran, to getting into another argument with Richard Lewis, to debating over the meaning of “soon” with returning foil Mr. Takahashi, to a “clash of faces” between a waiter and a chef. Sure, the Revolutionary War re-enactment is arguably the most elaborate set piece to ever make its way into a Curb episode — a scene that surprisingly hasn’t led to any controversy over its nods toward PTSD; are we growing up finally? — but it’s an earned left turn. Because, unlike past episodes this season, Larry’s downward spiral feels at once both palatable and ridiculous. Nothing feels too contrived.
That’s the magic this show always needs, and much of that wizardry is owed this time around to director Larry Charles. The series MVP behind the camera makes his mark on the season with “Thank You for Your Service”, embracing the super-sized 35 minutes with all the right patience and nuance. The shots look more natural, a few of them linger for added value, and he wisely pulls away before the joke isn’t funny anymore. Then again, he’s no schmohawk to the process; the guy’s been a longtime collaborator of David’s going way, way back to Seinfeld. So, it’s no wonder he was able to restore some order and peace to a show that traditionally has no need for it. The good news is that he’s back for the following episode — next week’s “The Accidental Text on Purpose” — so perhaps this isn’t the last time LD makes his way on to this list. We’ll see. –Michael Roffman