- Jimmy Tatro plays Dylan Maxwell in the occasionally hilarious mockumentary, "American Vandal," now trending on Netflix.
We may be in a period of "peak TV," according to John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Network.
When he coined the term a few years ago, he was referencing a problem of oversaturation. For some, the diversity of so many niche shows is a great thing. For others, it's simply too much. Too much to wade through, too much to record and watch. Just too much.
So until more players break the big cable company hold and allow us to select only the channels we want to subscribe to (apart from Dish TV), the majority of cable customers could probably use some help navigating the onslaught. We know we could.
This should be a golden age for television critics. They should be rising to the fore in this age of peak TV, but until we find one we like, here's our own quick take on some of the stuff that has grabbed our attention so far.
“The Vietnam War” documentary (PBS, weeknights at 8 p.m.): The latest epic Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary is compulsively watchable if only for the moving interviews and testimonies of Vietnam vets and people of Vietnamese descent. Several articles have noted historical inaccuracies and misleading moments that may signal “an exercise in empire denial.” With sponsors such as David Koch and the Bank of America, one probably shouldn’t expect a more nuanced, complicated exposition. Here it seems as if the filmmakers are more interested in a philosophical take, one that plumbs the psychological ramifications from such a brutal war – both in Vietnam and at home. In that regard, the series may have something to tell us about today’s social unrest by the time it’s done.
“American Horror Story: Cults” (FX, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) Just when you thought this series was played out, it comes through with a spooky new angle that manages to incorporate a sweeping indictment of Donald Trump, the alt right, even politically correct behavior on the left that embraces hatred, paranoia and violence. All we know so far is that a horrifying gang of marauding clowns is killing folks and terrorizing a lesbian couple (who have enough problems since one voted for Jill Stein and the other for Clinton), while a demonic alt-right guy with blue, Kurt Cobain hair is growing a Manson-like revolution of bitter crazies who want to blame others for their failures. So far season seven has had some creepy, blood-soaked moments, but it’s the tongue-in-cheek dark humor and the no-holds barred approach to the current cultural moment that has us watching.
“Tales from the Tour Bus” by Mike Judge (Cinemax, Fridays at 10 p.m.): This animated series by the creator of “Idiocracy” and “Beavis and Butthead” is centered on the lives of legendary outlaw country music icons, whose real life tales of debauchery give rock stars a run for their money. The first episode is a doozy about Johnny “Take This Job and Shove It” Paycheck, covering his many run-ins with the law since he was a poor young man stealing hubcaps, before he started doing blow and shooting people in bars. It also includes a great cameo by early supporter and songwriter Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams Jr., a Portsmouth native who played the Richmond Folk Fest years ago. With each episode casually introduced by Judge, the show mixes animated interviews and recreations of stories with nostalgic video footage and photos for a kind of loose, behind-the-music style that feels more like old friends swapping stories. Best thing we’ve seen from Judge in a while.
“American Vandal” (Netflix): With the rise of popular true crime docs such as “Making a Murderer” and “Serial,” it was only a matter of time before some smartass decided to mock the genre. Echoing insightful teen films such as Alexander Payne’s “Election,” this mockumentary follows a detailed California high school investigation of a major vandalism incident in the school parking lot: Big penises were spray painted on 27 teachers’ cars. After several episodes, the premise begins to wear thin, but the writing is sharp and the young actors’ performances are uniformly good, especially the dopey, mouth-breathing lead, Dylan Maxwell, played to perfection by Jimmy Tatro, a real life frat boy who got his start with homemade sketches on YouTube. Another plus is how modern this comedy feels by centralizing the use of the latest social media trends. Oh, and the setting is called Hanover High School (no relation).
“Vice Principals” (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m.): It’s the second and final season of Danny McBride’s revenge comedy about a pair of high school vice principals competing for the head principal job. Season one ended with McBride’s character being shot in the parking lot. In classic “Who Shot JR?” fashion, the second season, featuring the same hilarious supporting cast, will figure out who did it. The entire series was filmed at once so it has a kind of artistic purity unlike most series these days, where the writing and plot development often responds or adjusts to critical and audience feedback on social media. McBride has called the show a tragedy disguised as a comedy, or as he told Style last year: “We like to approach it as something dramatic then figure out how to put as many dick jokes in there, or ridiculous humor in there, to disguise it.” This formula works most of the time thanks largely to the central duo: McBride, comedy’s reigning king of bluster, and his co-star, Walton Goggins, one sassy individual.
“The Deuce” (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.) – Looking for a prestige drama, then why not try the latest project by David Simon and George Pelecanos, creators of “The Wire”? It’s set in early 1970s New York during the height of outdoor prostitution, just before the porn industry exploded. What’s amazing about this show is the attention to gritty detail. People who lived or worked in Times Square during the period say its right on the money -- thanks, CGI effects. Also the show is filled with rich, slowly revealed characters (the leads are identical twins both played by James Franco, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mom and prostitute drawn to porn) so don’t expect a lot of action right away. While a show about sex workers might sound depressing, this is Simon, so we know an intelligent underlying exploration of corruption is afoot. Exploitation of women in the sex trade, sure, but also the exploitation of capitalism in a pure form. A true delight for folks who fetishize old New York, before it was drained, gentrified and homogenized, this one might even edge “Vice Principals” for best soundtrack – because we all know that the ‘70s ruled for music.
“Room 104” (HBO, Fridays at 11:30 p.m.): This barely made the list. While nowhere near the level of dark humor and surreal spookiness of the “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” the latest half hour drama by the Duplass brothers is clearly indebted to both. Each week a totally different bizarre story occurs in the same nondescript hotel room. Some episodes have been duds while others have featured clever ideas, though we doubt the show is accomplishing enough to be renewed. Still, production values are strong and the boldness of the storytelling is clear, if not always successful. The saving grace comes from some terrific acting performances, especially in episode nine about an aging Croatian tennis player played by Konstantin Lavysh.