Forget everything you knew about the off-season TV slump—this past February saw premieres that are certain to top year-end lists come 2020 if we’re all still on this Earth by then. Please enjoy our favorites from the last few weeks and one we didn’t like so much!
THIS GIANT BEAST THAT IS THE GLOBAL ECONOMY (Amazon Prime)
Were you one of those people who watched THE BIG SHORT and thought “This is really doing it for me—I wish Adam McKay would apply his directorial style to explaining other complicated things”? Well, you’re in luck! The god-awfully titled THIS GIANT BEAST THAT IS THE GLOBAL ECONOMY sees Adam McKay in an executive producing role, but fans of his frenetic approach will recognize the star-studded cutaways, clever use of stock footage, and weird obsession with chyrons. Kal Penn (or—Kumar of HAROLD AND KUMAR) is the charming frontman of this series, exploring all the ways money affects us from a tongue-in-cheek tutorial on money laundering to the death industry’s ability to apply an actual dollar value to individual human lives. Tonally, GIANT BEAST is kind of a SESAME STREET for grown-ups. THE BIG SHORT gets away with this quasi-patronizing tone because—let’s face it—I really don’t understand subprime loans. However, did I really need “safe word” cutaways to puppies when we’re talking about wrongful death lawsuits? I’m a big girl, Adam, I can handle it. That being said, this works in the same way BIG SHORT did and is charming for all the same reasons: from the goofy approach to serious subjects (Kal conducts interviews on segways, tandem bicycles, and while receiving a pedicure) to the delightful appearances from the usual Funny or Die gang (Zach Galifianakis, Rashida Jones, Ed Helms, Pete Holmes, and Joel McHale, to name a few). At the end of the day, as a ding dang millennial, I kind of like having capitalism explained to me by Pete Holmes as a wacky balloon salesman. If BIG SHORT was your bag, this will be, too. [Kate Brogden]
MIRACLE WORKERS (TBS)
The preview of MIRACLE WORKERS worried me for reasons discussed on this TRAILER TRASHED podcast episode you should listen to, but to summarize, I was concerned that this would be a GOOD PLACE rip-off that got 10 minutes of Buscemi Time and stretched it into a middling series about heavenly corporate foibles. But after two episodes, there’ve been enough pleasant surprises to convince me that this is worthy of the brief season it’s scheduled to run. The premise-building material from the preview shakes out in seven minutes, and we’re quickly dropped into Eliza’s (Geraldine Viswanathan) bet with God: solve a supposedly impossible miracle in two weeks, or God blows up the world. It’s up to her and haggard prayer-solving vet Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) to figure out how to get awkward lovebirds Laura (Sasha Compére) and Sam (John Bass) to smooch. It’s dumb, but functions as a way to focus a premise with such a broad scope.
God’s scenes compose the bulk of the fun. While competently acted, Craig and Eliza’s scenes miss more than they hit. For a show that plays to the audience’s cynical side, there’s a good number of corny fist-pump moments where they realize that there here to save the world, damn it, and they’re not gonna rest until these nerds bone. These scenes take away time that could be spent on more jokes about exploding Bill Maher’s penis, the series highlight thus far. Nevertheless, MIRACLE WORKERS provides a fluffy distraction from the Hellworld it’s satirizing. It’s worth it to watch it now, if only to flex on the masses who will realize this is good after it hits Netflix. [Dan Blomquist]
At first sight PEN15 seems rough around the edges, but rest assured, it stays that way through second glance, third, and honestly up until the credits of the last episode. That’s not a negative connotation; in fact, it’s the cringey moments that make it that much more endearing. The series follows Maya Ishii Peters and Anna Kone as they navigate “the best of year of their lives”: seventh grade. However, after starting off their first day with a bowl cut and quarreling parents, the rose-colored glasses fall slightly off their noses.
Naturally, PEN15 sees some strong comparison to Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE. Coming-of-age is possibly the most accessible narrative, because everybody does it. The obvious difference between these two is, of course, that Maya and Anna are played by two 30-year-old women emulating 12-year-old girls, while EIGHTH GRADE stuck to the realism of actual middle-schoolers. One talks about a young girl navigating self-importance, single parenthood, and sex, all in present day. The other explores racism, divorcing parents, and sex in the early 2000s. Yet, rather than harping on differences, it seems more important to implore the notion that they’re both pieces of the same puzzle. Furthermore, PEN15 blends the narrative of craving adulthood while ultimately realizing the ease of childhood effortlessly. It’s not just the charming, albeit awkward, humor and relatable dialogue: it’s the suspension of disbelief as a whole. By the end of episode nine, you feel horrible for these young girls, viscerally remembering your own similar emotional experiences. Hats off to Maya Eriskine and Anna Konkle. PEN15 is heart-wrenching, complex, and hysterical all at the same time. Make sure you don’t overlook this one! [Jesse Herb]
THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY (NETFLIX)
At the height of My Chemical Romance’s popularity, frontman Gerard Way created THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: a six-issue limited comic book series about a family of seven children with superhuman abilities. 12 years later, Netflix’s THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY premiered to a well-deserved warm reception. Deliciously gritty and equally absurd, the Netflix series does more than justice to the original comics with grand sets, a killer soundtrack, and complex characters who transcend their abilities. The artistry of the fantasy and musical sequences adds a sparkle to this otherwise dreary series of events and balances serious with silly with the utmost panache. But while the creative vision of this show is stellar, at times the writing does not hold to the same standard. The middle episodes of the series sag after the excitement of meeting all of the interesting characters. The one bright light in the mid-season slump is Kate Walsh as the mysterious time boss “The Handler,” a soft-spoken but threatening authority intent on ensuring the apocalypse comes to pass. She is a commanding presence on screen and oozes authority without damping her femininity. Walsh supports a solid main cast of six actors who seem as comfortable with each other as true siblings would be. Though these middle episodes tend to be slower and less compelling than the earlier or later episodes of the season, they are not onerous to watch. Where plot stumbles, character takes over, and each character is fantastically unique. So despite its brief difficulties mid-season, THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY is an impressive genre show that is not quite like anything else on television. All elements considered, it is a joy to watch: every frame is a delicious eye feast, every cast member pulls their own weight, and each character carries their own story. If you’re at all interested in genre television, THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY is worth your time. [Nicole Barraza Keim]
WHISKEY CAVALIER (ABC)
Those of us who spend a lot of time watching Hulu or driving around Los Angeles may have noticed that ads have been pushing really hard on the new FBI drama, WHISKEY CAVALIER. The commercials don’t reveal much about the actual plot of the show, and there’s a reason for that—it’s because WHISKEY CAVALIER is so generic and bland, I’m surprised they even found enough footage to make a highlight reel with. The show is a procedural, following recently heartbroken FBI agent Whiskey, whose career becomes entangled with that of a hard-nosed female CIA agent-slash-rival. Right away the show is going for a will-they-won’t-they feel, and right away, I don’t care. Neither of the characters are interesting enough to bother investing in (the CIA agent’s main flaw is she works too hard and doesn’t let other people in—cue the “UGGH” from me). I feel like the actors are doing their best with what they’re given, but the dialogue is so stilted and cliché it becomes hard to watch at times. Characters do stupid things they wouldn’t normally do simply to move the plot along. So you’re a successful FBI agent but you’re going to be distracted by a very sexy woman and let your target get away? Yeah, sure, okay. Nice to know you’re the FBI’s finest, somehow. The plot is weird, the tone is weird, the characters are bland, the dialogue hurts sometimes—this is probably one to skip. [Anna Mansager]