Monday, December 21, 2020

TV Picks - Week of December 21

It's the most wonderful time of the year - and I've got a holiday watch list for you. Forget about the holiday specials, here's the best TV of the year right under your tree. 

2020 has certainly been one for the ages. Nostradamus couldn't have predicted how things turned out. There were lots of changes – most for the worse, but some for the better. Writing a weekly TV column is a positive change as I only wrote a "Best Of" column at the end of the past few years.

Lockdown meant having all the time in the world to watch everything on TV, right? Well that's not exactly how things worked out. I've never been busier with my day job and appearing on a variety of sports shows. 

Now there's some time to relax at the end of the year, and here are some binge suggestions more filling than a holiday feast.

My ten favorite shows of 2020:

10. High Fidelity (HULU)

This falls into the Fargo (failed to make the list this year) category - why take a great quirky movie and make a series out of it? It's a huge challenge, and this version rose to the occasion starring the daughter of one of the featured film players.

The gender-flipped adaptation of the classic Hornby novel and subsequent Cusack-led film just works. Zoe Kravitz is excellent as the romantically torn record shop owner. The store's staff has the same elitist fun-loving attitude towards music as they laud and goof on hipster Brooklyn. 

It's a shame this version of High Fidelity is one and done. Really dug the first season.

9. Better Things (FX)

This Pamela Adlon gem is a mainstay on my annual Best Of list. Not the strongest season, but the POV of Sam Fox is one of the most unique on TV.

Sam is the one is crisis this season as her daughters start to figure things out for themselves. Better Things is never really about the plot - it's a character study on a divorced working mom and her three special daughters (not to mention her aging mother) told in poignant snapshots. 

8. How To With John Wilson (HBO)

John Wilson explains day-to-day life in his own unique way. This documentary style comedy is dark and subtle with the little things in life meaning everything.

It's not where the story begins and ends, but the path John Wilson takes to get there and the comedy he uncovers along the way. One of the most unique shows of the year is one of the most simple - and one of the most funny.

7. The Mandalorian (DISNEY+)

Mando makes its second consecutive appearance on my Best Of list with season two picking up right where season one left off. Forget the latest feature films, it is possible to tell a good modern day Star Wars tale on TV. 

Mando's quest to return the child (who just happens to be a red-hot holiday gift) to the Jedi is filled with lots of old friends and X-Wings. Jon Favreau penned most of the second season and stays true to the force. 

6. Schitt's Creek (POP TV)

The final season deservedly won every Emmy in sight, but it's the weakest of the bunch for this Canadian comedy. Maybe it was high expectations or everyone's desire of not wanting the Rose family saga to end. 

This Levy creation remains heads above most other 2020 programs. Even Moira Rose had to love that happy ending. Get ready to laugh and cry saying goodbye to the Rosebud Motel.

5. Better Call Saul (AMC)

Another perennial favorite on my year-ending list. Jimmy McGill is practically Saul Goodman at this point. The writing continues to be heads above other dramas, and Lalo officially takes his place along side Gus Fring as a memorable foe. 

Maybe Emmy voters will realize that Rhea Seahorn has become the highlight of an acting clinic. Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks doing their thing in that vast New Mexican landscape remains a pleasure to watch.

4. The Queen's Gambit (NETFLIX)

How does a drama about chess become an international sensation? Easy - it's not really about chess. It's about the life of Beth Harmon and all she overcomes with that brilliant mind. 

This is really a sports movie, but it tracks a cerebral sport. Anya Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing to watch in this beautifully shot series. Chess sets are flying off the shelves for good reason - just don't look too closely at your ceiling.

3. Normal People (HULU)

This Irish beauty is the love story of 2020. Connell and Marianne weave in and out of their lives in this coming of age tale. The contrast in backgrounds and attitudes rings true in every scene. 

There are some steamy scenes, but the more moving stuff is how this couple finds their way through relatable struggles. This story is sweet, poignant and hooks you until the very last shot. 

2. The Crown (NETFLIX)

It's the fourth season, and I still cannot get enough of the royal family. Maybe it's just masterful television filling my Downton Abbey fix. The Crown packs plenty of surprises in each episode as it chronicles British history (we know how it turns out for the Falklands).

This season, it feels like you're watching home movies of Charles and Di falling apart. Gillian Anderson embodies Margaret Thatcher and stands toe to toe with Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth. The entire cast is spot on. Truly something special to behold.

1. Ted Lasso (APPLE TV+)

This sweet comedy is my favorite show of the year, and frankly it wasn't even close. Ted is simply the right show at the right time. Jason Sudeikis' transplanted football coach feels like a one dimensional character at first, but there's so much more to him and every member of the cast as well.

Ted Lasso is funny, but also unexpectedly sweet. It feels good smiling along with AFC Richmond's quest to not get relegated. The scores don't matter - the people do. No show moved me more than this Bill Lawrence comedy did.

Ted Lasso is the perfect uplifting show for a really crappy year.


If you love or hate my list, I'd love to hear from you.

Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

TV Picks - Week of December 14

When I created "jump the shark" back in 1997, here's how I defined it:

"It's a moment. A defining moment when you know from now's all will never be the same."

That moment changed my life – creating a web site that would alter the course of my professional life based on a Happy Days episode I saw 20 years earlier.

These precious moments are what makes life worth living. When you think back on how you got to where you are these days, pivotal milestones clearly stand out.

My moments include hitting a home run in the all-star game when I was 9 years old, meeting my wife at Michigan freshman orientation, our subsequent wedding day and the birth of our two daughters, and countless others.

Another one of these moments happened during the summer of 1980. I was 12 years old, and my mother recommended an 823 page book by an author who was catching some heat - Stephen King. That book was The Stand

My mom shaped my pop culture instincts (dad was responsible for the sports). She sat me in front of the TV at two to watch a new kids show, Sesame Street. She had me listen to The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. Mom has good taste. 

She realized summer TV was garbage and her oldest son needed something to occupy his time and fertile pop-culture mind. She recommended my first Stephen King book (Christine) the year before, so she knew I was a budding fan. She could not have known what reading The Stand did for me. 

The Stand is an epic revolving around survivors of a pandemic that wipes out most of the population. King was writing a Lord of the Rings for contemporary America. I couldn't get enough of it. 

I re-read The Stand every summer for the next decade, wondering who would be the right people to play Stu Redman, Mother Abigail, Tom Cullen and the Trashcan Man. I even took on the 1,152 page complete and uncut edition years later which taught me the value of having a good editor (apologies to Stephen).

The Stand is tailor made for the screen. Every attempt to translate this literary classic has failed. The 1984 ABC miniseries came up short - this tale cannot be told on network television. Warner Brothers recently spent 5 years trying to get a feature film made - no dice, and the rights reverted back to CBS TV.

This week, there will be another attempt at tackling The Stand. It's a 10-part miniseries on CBS All Access with episodes dropping weekly (that's a mistake). The casting is hit and miss - love Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail and Alexander Skarsgard as Flagg, iffy on James Marsden as Stu and Amber Heard as Nadine. 

This isn't the greatest time for a miniseries based on a global pandemic and Stephen King has rewritten the ending. The story is great, so this will all come down to the execution on Captain Trips. 

For me, it's a teenage summer at the end of a lousy year. I'll take it. 


Tiny Pretty Things (NETFLIX)
Monday, December 14th

The marketing department came up with this title, right? This new 10-episode drama is a cross between Black Swan and, wait for it, Pretty Little Liars.

It's the story of three young dancers at an elite ballet school who battle to be the prima ballerina and they'll do whatever it takes to get on top.

Based on the book of the same name, expect plenty of cutthroat competition in the roughest part of Chicago - the Archer School of Ballet.

The Ripper (NETFLIX)
Wednesday, December 16th

This British docuseries focuses on The Yorkshire Ripper who terrorized London in the late 1970's killing 13 women and failing to kill 7 more. 

The investigation is one for the ages. The actual killer was interviewed by the police 9 times, but the investigators let him slip away time after time. 

The serial killer was nicknamed after the legendary Jack the Ripper from 1888. Everyone was a suspect until the Yorkshire Ripper's eventual capture after an ugly killing spree. True crime is just as disturbing across the pond as it is in our own backyard.


If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.

Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

TV Picks - Week of December 7

Don't do it. Just don't do it, NBC. Not another version of The Grinch… especially not a staged production.

Any musical on network television, live or otherwise, is a tremendous challenge to pull off well. This recent trend started with Carrie Underwood making the hills come alive in 2013 with The Sound of Music. The Wiz then eased on down the road and solid ratings followed. Naturally, the networks seized upon the trend, and the novelty stated to wear off for these type of live events.

Audiences didn't find classics like Peter Pan, Hairspray or Jesus Christ SuperstarGrease was fun, but not the sensation that the networks anticipated. Viewers looked for glitches as they sang along with these live performances. People were laughing at these Broadway mainstays, not along with them.

Rent was an all-around disaster. That meant no Hair or Bye Bye Birdie even with J Lo attached. The Little Mermaid tried mixing live action and animation and was accused of pulling a bait and switch. Hamilton took us to the stage, but that was only available thanks to Disney + and COVID. The live element was gone.

I get the temptation to stage any holiday production, but A Christmas Story Live did not translate well. Now it's the most famous resident of Mount Crumpet's turn. I was not a fan of Jim Carrey's Grinch, nor any other reboot/revamp/rethinking of this Christmas classic. Just leave a good thing alone, even if it's re-aired countless times.

Matthew Morrison leads the way in this new production of Dr Seuss' The Grinch Musical, which was staged in London. This is no knock on the Glee star/Tony nominee's performing ability. It just makes me clamor for Boris Karloff and the real thing.

I know how Grinchy my attitude is towards this "network event." Any theater performance on television is a technical achievement, and people will tune in just to see how it’s pulled off. Perhaps my heart will grow three sizes on December 9th. Merry Merry.

The avalanche of specials continues as we draw closer to Santa's big day…


High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special (DISNEY+)
Friday, December 11th

We're all in this together. Troy and Gabriela, who appeared long ago, are really the ones who brought the musical format back to TV. Bridging the gap between the first and second seasons, the cheeky crew behind High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is back with a new holiday-themed musical extravaganza.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (APPLE TV+, PBS)
Friday, December 11th, Sunday December 13th

My all-time favorite. Free on Apple TV+ for three days beginning Friday and also airing Sunday on PBS. Learn what the holidays (and dancing) are all about.

Talking Dead: The Walking Dead Holiday Special (AMC+)
Sunday, December 13th

The franchise’s first-ever holiday special is hosted by Chris Hardwick (of course) and premiering on AMC+. Cast members reminisce about their favorite scenes from the past, present and future. Ho ho ho!

Couples Therapy COVID Special (SHOWTIME)
Sunday, December 13th 8pm

Grab a seat on the couch as Dr. Orna Guralnik wrestles with our new COVID world. Hope Santa makes an appearance.

You can also catch Elf almost any night on AMC. Lots more mirth on the way.


The Wilds (AMAZON)
Friday, December 11th

A plane carrying a group of teenage girls crashes on a deserted island. Yup, it's the young adult version of Lost.

This ten-part series is Amazon's first foray into original this type of drama as it explores the present and past of these young women with very different backgrounds.

Survival at this age is tough enough in high school — these ladies have to do it Kate and Sun style.

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (HBO)
Saturday, December 12th 8pm

Staying Alive. How Deep Is Your Love. To Love Somebody. Massachusetts. The number of potential titles for this documentary is endless.

The Brothers Gibb are one of the most misunderstood and underrated acts in musical history. The band went through many styles and experienced all the highs and lows of the business. Everyone thinks disco kings, but they were so much more than that.

This HBO doc digs deep into their relationships over the years and the tremendous effect their music has had on all of our lives. My love for these brothers is quite deep.


If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.

Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.