If you’re reading this, congratulations: you’ve all but survived the great docudrama onslaught of spring 2022. And while that outpouring has produced some worthwhile television, from last month’s Hulu standouts The Dropout and The Girl From Plainville to David Simon’s unofficial The Wire sequel, We Own This City, most of my favorite new shows of April strayed a bit farther from the confines of reality. Below you’ll find a dreamy teen romance, a brainteasing sci-fi thriller, a horror comedy about a bloodthirsty baby and more.
The Baby (HBO)
In the first episode of this British horror comedy, 38-year-old protagonist Natasha or Tash (Michelle de Swarte) lashes out at one friend, who dared to bring her baby to poker night, and offends another by responding to that woman’s pregnancy news with an abortion joke. A few scenes later, as Tash is smoking on a nighttime beach, a woman falls off a high cliff to her death, mere feet away from her. Then, an adorable infant drops right into her arms. Hey, do you think the universe might be sending her a message about motherhood?
The Baby isn’t subtle. It isn’t polite. It’s sometimes extremely silly. And its unusual juxtaposition of a darling baby boy and heaps of bloody, gory violence surely will not appeal to everyone. But if you can live with all of the above, it’s more than just fun — it’s also a whole lot of smarter and more thought-provoking than most of the shows sucking up all the attention this month. [Read the full review.]
It’s hard to be human in the year 2022, and so we all need our little treats. Mine, this past month, was Heartstopper. Adapted by 27-year-old British YA sensation Alice Oseman from her comic of the same name, the eight-episode series follows sweet, self-effacing gay teenage outcast Charlie (Joe Locke) as he crushes on his new desk mate, Nick Kit Connor), a surprisingly kind, apparently straight rugby player who looks like he could be Prince Harry’s little cousin. It’s obvious from the very first scene where this story is headed, but — as in all the best teen romances — the delayed gratification is the point. There’s plenty to enjoy in the meantime, from a cast of endearing young characters that traverses the LGBTQ spectrum to animated flourishes that recreate the intimacy of the comic. (When Charlie’s hand grazes Nick’s, pastel sparks and lightning bolts fly.)
Even with the inclusion of realistic antagonists among the homophobic jocks on Nick’s team, the show is undeniably twee. The soundtrack is all shimmery indie-pop, the kids debate the merits of movies like Donnie Darko and most of the action takes place in the halls of two single-sex English secondary schools where everyone wears a uniform. If that kind of thing gives you a toothache, Heartstopper probably isn’t the comfort binge for you. But if it sounds like your brand of escapism, then you’ll almost certainly enjoy this gentle show populated by queer and trans high schoolers whose parents love them very much. Speaking of which: yes, that really is Olivia Colman popping in every few episodes to play Nick’s doting mum.
The Outlaws (Amazon)
A joint BBC / Amazon project, The Outlaws is a spiritual successor to Orange Is the New Black and The Breakfast Club, in that it throws together people who have nothing in common but their shared punishment – and it’s refreshingly self-aware about that. “Everyone’s a type,” teen shoplifter and self-described “studious Asian good girl” Rani (Rhianne Barreto) points out in the premiere. “You’ve got your right-wing blowhard, left-wing militant, celebutante, shifty old-timer.” (The latter, fresh out of prison and eager to make amends with his rightly resentful daughter, is played by a surprisingly subdued Christopher Walken.) Rani’s “bad boy” love interest and a nerdy loner round out the crew.
Slowly, in Orange-style flashbacks, everyone’s story comes out. And even as it pushes forward the plot with genre standbys like gangsters and bags of cash, the show fosters unexpected bonds that stretch the characters’ understanding of themselves and one another. This can be hokey, but mostly it’s humane, merging the experiences of people from different backgrounds without thoughtlessly equating them. [Read the full essay on what makes a great crime show when so many shows are about crime.]
Shining Girls (Apple TV +)
When we meet our protagonist Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss), she’s a timid Chicago Sun-Times archivist who shares an apartment with her punk-rocker mom (Amy Brenneman) and a cat. Then, without warning, reality shifts. Kirby comes home to find that she lives on a different floor of the same building, with a husband (Chris Chalk) she remembers only as a co-worker, and a dog. Instead of explaining the twist, the show immerses viewers in her disorientation.
What we do know about Kirby is that she was on track to become a star reporter before narrowly surviving a brutal assault. Only after she regained consciousness did the facts of her life start shifting. Since then, she’s drifted through a series of realities, which arrive with no apparent rhyme or reason. When a murder occurs whose details match those of her attack — the assailant leaves objects in the bodies of his exclusively female victims — Kirby teams up with hardboiled reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to not just catch a potential serial killer, but also make sense of what’s happening to her. [Read the full review.]
We Own This City (HBO)
Following productive stints in Treme‘s post-Katrina New Orleans and the 1970s New York of The Deuce, David Simon has turned his attention back to his greatest muse: Baltimore. But it isn’t quite the same city as it was in the ’90s and early 2000s, when he autopsied its failed criminal justice system in Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner and his masterpiece The Wire. Corrupt and decaying institutions remain a preoccupation of Simon and his frequent collaborator George Pelecanos in We Own This Cityan adaptation of Baltimore Sun. reporter Justin Fenton’s 2021 nonfiction book about the Baltimore Police Department’s scandal-stricken Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). In typical Simonian fashion, the drama centers on a few main characters — GTTF’s showboating leader Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) and Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), a DOJ attorney poking around the city’s halls of power in service of police reform efforts — whose actions ripple outward to touch local politicians, cops in surrounding jurisdictions and various players within Baltimore’s criminal demimonde, until the cast list swells to include dozens of peripheral figures.
What distinguishes the show from The Wire is its grounding in a contemporary law-enforcement milieu that is reacting, in ways both constructive and destructive, to the Black Lives Matter movement. Under a microscope after Freddie Gray’s horrific 2015 death in police custody, many officers have overreacted to that scrutiny by simply neglecting to do their jobs. That gives bad cops who are still making arrests, like Daniel Hirsl (Josh Charles), and apparently successful, secretly corrupt teams like GTTF disproportionate power. While the characters, based on real people, aren’t quite as enthralling as their Dickensian counterparts in The Wirethis is a thorny, fascinating story that raises the question of whether police reform is even possible — and these two creators are exactly the right people to tell it. [Read Josiah Bates’ interview with Simon and Pelecanos about We Own This City.]
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