Surprise hits from unexpected places continued this week in TV Land. The landscape is certainly changing, dear reader, and we’re excited to be taking you along for the ride! Scrape the final remains of those Thanksgiving leftovers from your Tupperware while you check out our thoughts on the latest and greatest in television.
DIRTY JOHN (Bravo)
I went into DIRTY JOHN expecting a pulpy, frilly romp loosely inspired by the podcast I love—and I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Other than a cringeworthy opening voiceover, Alexandra Cunningham’s take on the thrilling true story of Debra Newell and “Dirty” John Meehan is a gripping drama with levels of acting, writing, and production one would never expect from the only current scripted series from the network that brings us THE REAL HOUSEWIVES in all its iterations. It extrapolates beautifully on the source material with nods to the shocking finale, but nothing too blatant to give it away to non-listeners. The exchanges between John and Debra are so delicately crafted, playing out the manipulation described but never directly experienced on the podcast. But of course, as in the pod, the real heroes are Debra’s daughters: Terra and (renamed) Veronica, or “Ronnie.” Julia Garner and Juno Temple respectively delight in their portrayals of Newport Trash, and as someone who grew up in The OC, they nail it. My personal highlight from the pilot is the only scene they share alone, where Ronnie passive aggressively blends a smoothie to drown out her sister’s reading of how to groom a poodle. Temple especially delights in her role, strutting along the boardwalk in strappy heels and being an unapologetic bitch to everyone—but especially John. She is every girl I went to high school with and I adore her.
I am optimistic that with such a strong beginning, DIRTY JOHN will keep up the pace for its planned eight-episode miniseries run. It feels like the podcast, but it also feels authentically Bravo with a prestige twist. Like Lifetime and UnREAL before it, I’m calling it now that DIRTY JOHN is the surprise hit that puts Bravo on the Peak TV Map. [Kate Brogden]
THE FINAL TABLE (Netflix)
Alas, those searching for late-night cooking content will have to keep scrolling. There’s no exquisite pleasure like drooling over food programming when you’re deep in the cups, and the concept of THE FINAL TABLE certainly has some merit. Yet, it entirely misses the mark of its potential, coming across as hopelessly elite, snooty, and distastefully stuck-up. Here’s the thing: yes, there is obviously some element of escapism present in viewing food programming. I don’t want to watch a schlubby man in his mid-20s slather peanut butter onto a piece of toasted bread, that’s what I’m doing right now. But I also don’t want technically renowned, but not popularly renowned, chefs hootin and tootin their merry way around a kitchen nobody watching could ever afford, name-dropping exotic ingredients barely anybody watching could point out in a lineup, and then have the audacity to give reality show sob-stories a try when they’re already operating in an air of culinary success so rarefied it almost becomes esoterica. It’s 2018, and the vast majority of us can’t afford to go to the doctor when we break a bone—sorry that I can’t empathize with you when you explain how Japanese fine dining will never accept you because you’re white, despite how long and hard you’ve trained and studied for this express purpose (this episode is uniquely putrid and is worth a hate-watch, the creatively titled “Japan”). It goes without saying that food is one of life’s great pleasures, and can be an art form, but there’s just something queasy about being judged on your ability to deconstruct something as universal and working class as the taco and plating it up at a cost that would hover around $200 if served. Don’t get me wrong: you put Guy Fieri, Gordon Ramsay, and Alton Brown in a cooking competition judged by other celebrity chefs, and you can take all my money. That would be humbling, metatextual, and entertaining as all hell. But you’re much better off watching Eater or Munchies’ YouTube channels than you are struggling through THE FINAL TABLE. [Thomas Seraydarian]
THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (AMC)
The value of THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL lies more in the odd flex of telling fellow art house nerds that you saw a six-hour novel adaptation by Park Chan-wook than in actually watching the show. Seamlessly functional but frequently dry, DRUMMER GIRL checks most of the prestige drama boxes, but forgets to also be fun to watch. Other than a couple highlight reel moments, most of the first third of the series is spent slowly reeling Charlie (Florence Pugh) into the spy caper. I can understand why someone would get into this, but two-hour chunks is a tough request for a such a heady show to make.
This is a show that’s as good as you want it to be. If you’re down to put on your thinking cap and dissect the novelesque symbolism and the finer points of interpersonal relations, this will give you something to chew on. But this is far from essential viewing, and at some point appreciating this show feels too much like homework. The heavy action haymakers come too few and far between to hold the attention of lukewarm viewers, and the nerds who want to dig deep would probably rather read the book. [Dan Blomquist]
QUEEN AMERICA (Facebook Watch)
With every feasible media platform leaping into original content, Facebook started out strong with SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS and continues the trend with QUEEN AMERICA. Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as a tough-as-red-painted-nails beauty queen coach who will stop at nothing to ensure her clients wear the coveted crown. Zeta-Jones’ character is profoundly unlikable, yet very interesting, with the potential for profound character growth. However, Zeta-Jones puts on a completely strange accent that comes and goes, and at times makes it almost impossible to understand what she is saying. What’s more, QUEEN AMERICA’s take on beauty pageants isn’t necessarily a flattering one, and the viewpoint can be heavy-handed at times. In one scene, all the Miss Oklahoma hopefuls pass right by a bountiful buffet table that stays static in the center of the shot. That being said, there are many intriguing and amusing side characters, such as the particular airheaded beauty queen being coached, the way-too-into it beauty coaches, and the not-into-girly-things niece. Although there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, the pilot lays a lot of groundwork for story arcs that have already gained my interest and intrigued me enough to watch more. [Anna Mansager]
SICK NOTE (Netflix)
Maybe I’m too old to enjoy bumbling idiots idiotically bumbling their way into success, especially when its paired with gimmicky cinematography and a schadenfreudic tone that only the Brits could love. Rupert Grint is a down-on-his-luck slob whose misfortunes reverse when a clumsy doctor (Nick Frost) misdiagnoses him with cancer, and the two fall into increasingly complicated lies to keep up the mutually beneficial charade. Despite the numerous ways it tries to get us to feel sympathy for them (Grint’s girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend, Frost’s wife is abusive and cold), neither of them are particularly likeable, because they’re either infuriatingly incompetent or undeservedly lucky. The premiere is especially tedious, as it reiterates again and again how much nobody likes Grint while the audience rolls their eyes and waits for the other shoe to drop. That’s not to say there aren’t well-constructed, awkward set-pieces and engaging side characters, but even when I chuckled at Grint’s ill-tempered boss ranting about porn stars’ dicks in the middle of a meeting, I couldn’t shake the feeling that’s in the service of a unsalvageable premise that only works in a world of cartoonishly gullible dumbasses. While it’s not the worst thing the HARRY POTTER trio have been involved in, the contrived plot and miserable tone is too much to bear in order to enjoy some well-scripted dramatic irony. [Blake Michelle]