Our current experience of Peak TV means there are so many riches to enjoy on the small screen. Better Call Saul, Blackish, Game of Thrones and Veep continue to delight and amaze. This makes the choice of top 10 shows a difficult one.
Here are the picks by scholar/fan members of Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies: Ryan Cook (RC), William Brown (WB), Dan Reynolds (DR), Michele Schreiber (MS) and Beretta Smith-Shomade (BSS).
Alisa Grace has not received the same level of acclaim as the other Margaret Atwood adaptation on this list, The Handmaid’s Tale, but the light it shines on the ways in which women’s voices are stifled under patriarchy is just as bright. The mini-series tells the story of Grace (played brilliantly by unknown actress Sarah Gadon), a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to Canada in the mid-19th century and is later convicted of double homicide. The narrative (based on a true story) unfolds via flashback as Grace tells her story to Dr. Jordan (a chiseled Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist who has been hired to assess her mental stability. He (and by extension, the audience) are taken on a journey in which we are constantly asked to question where the line between truth and fiction lies. Writer-director Sarah Polley and indie stalwart Mary Harron (who wrote and directed every episode, respectively) is the ideal team who bring Atwood’s acclaimed feminist book to life. (MS)
Twilight Zone was wildly successful television in a media landscape featuring talking horses and cars that were mothers. It’s surprising, in today’s era of media singularity where all things are always on demand, that a good anthology series is hard to find. This void was admirably filled with the 2011 release of Black Mirror, which owes much to Rod Serling. The series, now in its fourth season (it wasn’t renewed until 2013), skeptically comments on humans and their relationship with technology. The short story form is alive and well in this imaginative series that, as the title promises, darkly reflects the current zeitgeist. (WB)
Chewing Gum began streaming on Netflix in 2016 after appearing on British television in 2015. Created by and starring Michaela Coel, this comedy grapples with the conundrum of a young woman’s desired sexuality, (Coel’s character wants to lose her virginity, bad), and her strict Ghanaian-British and devout Christian upbringing. Quirky, engaging and provocative, the series humorously pits limited sex education against rabid promiscuity that surrounds this young woman. In 2017, Netflix released Chewing Gum’s second season and reviewers across multiple media sources continue to stream it. Coel received the 2016 British Academy Television Award for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme for the series. (BSS)
Season one of HBO’s The Deuce charts the evolution of sex work and the rise of pornographic film in early-1970s New York. The “Deuce” of the title is slang for 42nd street, but it could also describe twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, both played by James Franco, who are gradually drawn into involvement with organized crime. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute who develops an interest in the production side of pornography. The ensemble cast boasts an embarrassment of strong performances by actors including Dominique Fishback, Method Man, Lawrence Gillard, Jr., and Margarita Levieva. Created by television veteran David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and crime novelist George Pellacanos, The Deuce is a deeply compassionate depiction of a harrowing time and place. While it is suffused with sex and violence, it never seems salacious. It is unflinching in its depiction of exploitation, but generous to its characters and contemplative in its tone. (DR)
The Handmaid’s Tale
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a theocratic revolution in these uncertain times. An ex-radio personality in high office who calls his wife “mother” may be just the man to make the U.S. medieval again. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, warns us of this possibility. In this male dominated fictional regime, women are relegated to little more than birthing vessels. An underrated 1990 film version of this story didn’t get much traction, but of course in those days an authoritarian religious takeover was improbable. Hulu’s original series based on the book speaks to the current political landscape. The environment is a mess. Foods are unsafe and infertility epidemic. Abortion is a capital crime with public executions. Women capable of giving birth have the honor of being impregnated during sanctified rape rituals. The impregnating alpha Christian male and his infertile wife raise this child while the Handmaid moves on. It’s compelling stuff because it no longer seems impossible. It’s no wonder that The Handmaid’s Tale won 2017 Primetime Emmys for Best Lead Actress (Elizabeth Moss) and for outstanding Writing and Directing. (WB)
The Man in the High Castle
The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was a man ahead of his time. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his work made into acclaimed films by gifted filmmakers (such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report). The Man in the High Castle (on Amazon) is atypical in the sense it is an alternate history rather than a sci-fi story. The Germans and Japanese have won WWII and occupy most of the United States. The story is binge watch worthy in the usual ways — lots of characters in conflict including resisters always in danger and collaborators with doubts. One collaborator is forced to send his handicapped son for extermination. Keeping the master race devoid of genetic defects is still a priority for the 73-year-old Hitler. Philip K. Dick’s stories work because the suspension of disbelief doesn’t require much suspension. He writes of futures that sound feasible, and, in the case of Man in the High Castle, a past that might have been. (WB)
Mindhunter is a show about serial killers that also takes the time to interrogate our cultural fascination with them. Based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit, which is the true account of the founding of the crime profiling unit of the FBI in the late 1970s, it is the hotly anticipated return to television for film director David Fincher who serves as executive producer and directed four of the season’s episodes. Fincher is in familiar territory here, having previously explored similar subject matter in his films Seven and Zodiac. He imbues the series with his exacting attention to period detail and his signature desaturated visual style. But what differentiates Mindhunter from your typical procedural drama is its depiction of the then-innovative emphasis on understanding the criminal mind. It also offers stellar performances by its cast. Jonathan Groff does excellent work of making straight-laced and stiff agent Holden likeable, but the show’s alchemy coalesces when he joins forces with Bill (played by Holt McCallany, in an extraordinarily nuanced breakout performance, and Anna Torv’s brilliant, tough-as-nails psychologist, Dr. Wendy Carr. (MS)
Creator, writer, director Ava DuVernay is on fire, and Queen Sugar is one of the reasons why. 2017 found the OWN series in its second season and still smoldering under the Louisiana sun. The series continues to be directed exclusively by women who frame fragility and tenderness against commonplace, every day racism, teenage angst and Louisiana corruption as a way of life. The juxtaposition of warm colors and luxurious sweeps of landscape and bodies produces the best aesthetic offering to be found on any medium. Queen Sugar’s second season was renewed from its June premier (as has been its third season to appear in 2018). (BSS)
This is Us
Season Two of This Is Us continues to take audiences across time and generation, love and loss, connection and crushing circumstances. In 2016-2017, it was the breakout scripted series of the season. Since its launch in fall 2017, the series has continued its dominance of time slot and the capturing of 18-49 hearts. Here we see more of how the adult children were shaped as their lives unfolded as teenagers. Smart, sensitive and unafraid, This Is Us was nominated for an Emmy as Best Drama with Sterling K. Brown winning in the lead actor category. (BSS)
Twin Peaks: The Return
Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is as unique as the original series was 25 years earlier. The small town Pacific Northwest setting returns, but as part of an expanded American panorama. Eighteen new episodes develop myriad storylines, but narrative resolution remains secondary to mysticism, even cosmology. Twin Peaks opens portals, including between television and the parallel universes of experimental film and video art. (RC)