Dear June, Todd, and Willa:
I could go on at length about what made the penultimate season of The Americans such a disappointing slog—and did, every week—but I think it boils down to this: The show was renewed for two final seasons rather than one. I suspect that when we look back after the series ends next year, we’ll see that we got 13 episodes’ worth of stories spread out over the final 23. Giving producers more time rather than less to wrap things up is almost never a good idea (and honestly, I would argue that the number of scripted shows that needed to stay on the air longer than five seasons is very small). Part of what has always made The Americans good is its urgency; Season 5 wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and didn’t. Also no one cares about Oleg, sorry.
I also agree with Willa about Friends From College: It wasn’t that memorable or good, but it was extremely watchable. It’s the Cloud Atlas of sitcoms: There are a million characters, and as soon as you get tired of whichever ones are in front of you, it’s time to watch different ones. You probably wouldn’t recommend it to friends, but you wouldn’t resent the time you spent on it either. Everyone has shows or genres of TV that are, as Willa writes, “good but not good enough,” because despite what some maniacs try to tell you, TV is not movies. Some of it, you experience the way you do a movie: You deliberately choose to watch it; you direct all your attention to it; you are satisfied when its story reaches its unambiguous end. (As to the last point: Had I known before I made my list that “limited series” was not actually a promise I could trust, the recently somehow renewed Big Little Lies probably wouldn’t have been on it.)
But sometimes, TV is just on, which is what makes TV better than movies. Your phone died so you can’t listen to a podcast at the nail salon, but it’s OK: HGTV is on. Why be alone with your thoughts while you load the dishwasher if a King of Queens is on? I love Christmas, but the Hallmark Channel is making me hate it because now, when I want to be lulled to sleep, Frasier isn’t on; it’s been replaced by festively saccharine rom-coms—which makes it the most wonderful time of the year for someone else who wants to get in the mood for wrapping presents and will be glad that Snow Bride is on.
“It’s on” was how I started watching Mom this year: I live in Hawaii, which means that my East Coast cable feed serves me TV Land sitcom reruns starting in the early afternoon. I have a TV on my desk, and … as you might imagine, a lot of the time, it’s on. I had never had any interest in Mom based on what I knew of past offerings from its executive producer, Chuck Lorre—shows like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Mom airs in two hourlong rock blocks every day convenient to my schedule, plus a longer minimarathon on Friday nights when I’m too tired to contemplate trying to watch a show that requires my concentration. But after a few weeks (which in sitcom syndication translates to a couple of seasons), I realized what a gift TV Land had given me, because Mom is actually secretly maybe kind of great? (No, it didn’t make my list, but it was an alternate: In these times, picking a top 10 out of literally dozens of shows is very hard.)
Allison Janney and Anna Faris, as mother-daughter addicts in recovery, are every bit as talented at physical comedy as the show’s promos would lead you to believe, but their show allows them to play stories with surprising depth and complexity, as in “A Cricket and a Hedge Made of Gold,” a standout episode this spring in which Faris’ Christy meets back up, by chance, with a man who raped her when she was using. Christy moves through her shock back into her trauma, blaming herself for the assault since she believes it wouldn’t have happened if she had been sober, and the women with whom she has surrounded herself in the program close ranks around her and love her through the crisis, on to a gut-wrenching climax in which Christy gets up at a meeting and tells the story of her rape—and makes sure to use the word—until her assailant, whom she doesn’t identify, departs in shame. The show doesn’t bother including a scene in which she confronts him one on one; he doesn’t interact with Christy at all. In this respect, in fact, it’s typical of the series in its more recent seasons in that men are rarely foregrounded. There’s one male performer in its opening credits cast (William Fichtner, who plays Adam, fiancé to Janney’s Bonnie), and to call him a secondary character would be generous. I wouldn’t have guessed that anything with Chuck Lorre’s name on it could be one of the Bechdel test-passing-est shows I regularly watch, and I wouldn’t have known if not for a TV I happened to have on.
Come to think of it, 2017 was the year that, for me, the traditional multicam sitcom really surged up my rankings. Not so fast, Will & Grace reboot (which: a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy Series? Go home to your various foreign lands, Hollywood Foreign Press Association: You’re drunk). I am, of course, referring to Netflix’s spectacular revival of One Day at a Time (which missed my list of top 10 overall, but which I was thrilled to rank among my top 10 new shows). As a girl who grew up with a single mom in the 1970s, the original series has always been a favorite, and I was hopeful if not overwhelmingly optimistic about Netflix’s take, mostly due to my snobbishness about the live studio audience of it all. And to be completely frank, the first four episodes struck me as pretty rote in its story premises … but then along came “Strays,” the first season’s fifth episode.
One of the changes made in the reboot is that the family around which it revolves is Cuban American, and as daughter Elena (Isabella Gómez) works on an immigration project for school, the guests at an impromptu party discuss their various positions on the matter: Grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno) tells the story of her own fraught immigration from her native Cuba; building super Schneider (Todd Grinnell) confesses that he’s Canadian and illegally overstayed a student visa; and then Elena’s mother Penelope (Justina Machado) discovers Elena’s close friend Carmen (Ariela Barer) sneaking into the kitchen, because it turns out her undocumented parents are in a detention center. Carmen is the immigration project. Carmen’s situation could be far worse—if you’ve read about any DACA recipient who’s lost his or her status this year, you know how bad it can be—but I can’t think of another sitcom I’ve watched of late in which “Thank God for white guilt” was such a bracing punchline in so effective and heartbreaking an episode. The episode is a turning point that made me trust when the season goes on to include stories about the stigma of seeking mental health treatment, the inadequacies of the VA (Penelope is a veteran), and the process of coming out as a lesbian.
Even TV formats that seem outmoded can surprise and move you, and even in the on-demand era, a chance discovery can occur. (Unless, I guess, you’re a cord-cutter, but get away from me with that baloney.)