By Brian Lowry, CNN
While “The White Lotus” was almost surely the show of the summer, there was plenty to watch over the last few Covid-impacted months, including the Olympics, which despite a ratings downturn can still put a lump in your throat.
Summer is often associated with light escapism, but with the theatrical box office still hobbled, TV remains our go-to distraction. And rifling through reviews post-Memorial Day the quality of documentary programming really stood out, from docuseries to individual films available (primarily) via streaming services and premium networks.
The end of the summer has brought an unfortunate deluge of Sept. 11-related programs marking its 20th anniversary — “unfortunate” not because some of those productions aren’t good, but because the sheer weight of them has served to cancel each other out.
“Summer of Soul,” culled from long-lost footage of the Harlem Music Festival of 1969, might have topped them all. It’s available on Hulu, as is “McCartney 3,2,1,” a music-centric look at the former Beatle’s life and influences, shot in understated black and white.
“Val,” meanwhile, now on Amazon, offered a touching look back at Val Kilmer’s career — and a fascinating glimpse into the working of Hollywood — made more poignant by the cancer that has largely robbed him of his voice; and “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” chronicled the audacity of Barack Obama’s political rise over three nights and roughly five hours on HBO (which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia).
Other noteworthy documentary-style efforts included HBO’s “In the Same Breath,” director Nanfu Wang’s look at the Covid outbreak in Wuhan and the US, featuring secretly shot footage out of China; and “Gossip,” a four-part Showtime series about how gossip columns swallowed the news business in the 1990s.
There are plenty more good documentaries on the near horizon, such as Ken Burns’ upcoming deep dive (is there any other kind) into “Muhammad Ali” for PBS. But there’s also a deluge of new sitcoms and dramas post-Labor Day — beyond just the traditional push from the major networks — so maybe, just maybe, we can all take a well-deserved break from reality. Just hopefully not like the guests at White Lotus.
A tribute to the King of Cringe
Speaking of “The White Lotus,” the show inspired CNN’s Sandra Gonzalez to go back to Mike White’s earlier HBO series, “Enlightened,” and she filed this dispatch from the way-back machine:
“Post-‘White Lotus,’ I’ve been on something of a Mike White-a-thon by watching ‘Enlightened’ for the first time. This is where I’d normally launch into a hearty endorsement of the show, but I won’t. It’s not that this isn’t an exceptional series — it really is and Laura Dern deserved all the praise it brought her — but I do not think it’s for everyone. If you have severe social anxiety, in fact, it may be too much for you to handle. I know this, because the series is frequently too much for me to handle.
I’m into the second season at the moment and just watched an episode where Dern’s Amy, a well-meaning but frequently misguided human, joins Twitter for the first time. For Amy — the type of person that is on an unending searching for meaning in her own life and validation — Twitter can be a blessing and/or a curse. Usually both. In this case, it’s clear that all Amy has done by joining the platform is find a second place to be ignored in life. In one scene, she accosts a co-worker to begin following her moments after creating her account. In another, she’s talking to a celebrated advocate and preaching the power of ‘twittering.’ In the middle of both scenes, I paused the show to die.
It’s a move I find myself doing at least once an episode. Sometimes Amy displays such cringe-y behavior that I have to pause, curl in a small ball and relive all of my own embarrassing moments. Am I as cringe-worthy as Amy? Dear my lord Luke Wilson, I hope not. But if you were to ask my anxiety, the answer is a rousing, ‘Of course you are.’
Watching the show is not unlike watching a really great horror movie — my heart races, my palms get sweaty and sometimes I cover my eyes with my hands and watch through my fingers. Category: social horror, if you will.
All that to say, thanks for the nightmares, Mike White.”
Another round of battling billionaires, or the rock ’em sock ’em rich
“Billions” had to cut its season in half because of Covid, and it’s back this Sunday without missing a beat, entering a new round of its latest struggle between battlin’ billionaires — and they don’t even go into space!
The show continues to follow the bitter feud between Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Michael Prince (Corey Stoll), which has really become this season’s centerpiece, although there are as usual plenty of tentacles to that as well as separate crises for Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and other supporting players.
Frankly, the Showtime drama remains fun but feels a little played out in this fifth season, perhaps because there’s only so much betrayal and counter-betrayal and ingenious high-stakes financial double-crossing that one show can comfortably handle.
Or maybe that’s just me, and your rate of return may vary.
Sparking joy (or at least a few laughs)
Finally, for those looking for a Labor Day escape without braving the roads, CNN’s Megan Thomas sent along some thoughts, and we cobbled together this list of suggestions:
“Marie Kondo returned to Netflix this week to spark more joy in a spinoff of her minimalist-living series, this time with a focus on helping deserving business owners. If watching people tidying up their lives does not spark happiness, here are seven other (new-ish) things to watch to lighten your Labor Day weekend.”
“Hacks” (HBO Max) – Jeanne Smart is reason enough to watch.
“Ziwe” (Showtime) – Ziwerekoru “Ziwe” Fumudoh delivers distinct and refreshing razor sharp cultural commentary with a smile.
“Vacation Friends” (Hulu) – Predictable buddy comedies have stood the test of time for a reason and we love Yvonne Orji.
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX) – The vampire comedy just returned for its second season, and it’s as much fun as ever, for the living and undead alike.
“Dug Days” (Disney +) – The cute talking dog from “Up” and the late Ed Asner team up in this adorable series of animated-shorts.
Also, the Disney+ series “Monsters at Work” continues to be a delightful sequel to “Monsters, Inc.,” offering a one-two punch for Pixar fans.
“Ted Lasso” Season 2 (Apple TV+) Ignore the twitter debates about whether or not the show is living up to its Season 1 hype. If “Carol of the Bells” (Episode 4 of the second season) doesn’t melt your heart, you are a Grinch.
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