What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts
Monday, 06 December 2021 00:18

What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts

Dennis Broe gives us a guide to some alternative TV media

The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.

It is only in the world of alternative media that that questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.

Eliminating empathy with the working class's suffering

CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with the working class's suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit. 

CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.

The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.

The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russian Television, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.

Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.

ROFWebsite Redacted Study

Lee Camp and Naomi Karavani on Redacted Tonight   

Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.

He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt on the ballot to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump). Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.

Renegade Inc. on the other hand focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests whith a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.

Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights.

George Galloway, left-wing shock jock

George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.

A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.

A low-budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship program is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.

They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is “one set of rules for the wealthy and another set of rules for everyone else.” The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.

Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and coloring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.

Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.

For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.


Host Brian Becker with historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program 

Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.

The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”

Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the U.S. by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution was the subject of his last two books.

Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of U.S. Russian tensions under Trump.

Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administrations failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.

Moderate Rebel’s YT channel

With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.

The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”

The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive is that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.


Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night

Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.

The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.

Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.

One of the major gains of the Trump presidency was an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.

Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019
Monday, 06 December 2021 00:18

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019

Dennis Broe reviews the best TV Series of 2019

I could not fit all the series I liked this year into a Top Ten so I have what amounts to a Top 30 best series in global television. At first glance this might indicate that series are improving but let’s not be so hasty. In the US alone, not to mention worldwide, there were nearly 500 series produced in 2019 on network, cable and streaming services, so the fact that there are a rising number of watchable and even quality series is more a product of the number of series as a whole increasing.

Peak TV

We have gone from what used to be called the Second Golden Age of Television, which in truth may have finished around 2004 with the period’s ending marked by the demise of the HBO series Deadwood, to what is now referred to as “Peak TV.”

tv Peak TV

The name denotes a phenomenon where the market, as happened with oil, is glutted, and one has to dig down much deeper to refine or find a watchable series. Yes, there are more quality series but there are also more mediocre series with the vast majority being simply unwatchable, just niche series with a very limited appeal or pre-packaged rip-offs of previous series or movies. In the supposedly quality era of streaming TV we are actually getting closer to the phenomena of cable, that is 500 channels, or in this case series, with almost nothing to watch.

Streaming Services

That is the first major trend, saturation or peak TV. The second of course is the rise of the streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon now joined by Disney+ and Apple TV+ and with NBC Universal, titled Peacock, and AT&T Time Warner, titled HBO Max, still to come. A wave of consolidation accompanied these behemoths with Disney buying Fox, AT&T absorbing Time Warner, CBS merging with Paramount Viacom, and, finally, Comcast, one of the largest cable companies in the US, also now owning NBC and buying Europe’s leading satellite company Sky. The goal in many of these mergers is to both create original series and lock up movie studio back catalogues, so that the service provides a seemingly endless array of product.

The other unstated goal of these conglomerates moving online is to use serial TV as a way to harvest data on users and sell the data to advertisers, so that advertisers are paying not only to advertise on the streaming service but also for data collected by the service. Hence, AT&T, the conservative company from Dallas, on merging with Time Warner bought a company that allows it to send targeted ads to all devices and Disney+ contracted with Publicis, a company which is already adept at collecting data from TV sets and selling it without the viewer’s consent. So, the movement now allows these entertainment complexes to become full-fledged members of the surveillance economy, and converts the “freedom” of Serial TV into a device for creating and manipulating consumer interest, and then spying on and harvesting it.

A word about my particular bent in terms of series TV and in general. Manny Farber, way back in the early ’60s, wrote a crucial essay on the difference between Elephant and Termite Art, Elephant Art being big-budget, “meaningful” art with a socially uplifting purpose and Termite Art being low-budget, degraded, prickly art with no apparent redeeming social value. He might as well have been saying bourgeois art which caters to an upper-middle-class taste versus working-class art, enjoyed by the masses and discounted by the critics. I am almost always on the side of Termite Art. On TV this would be the Nancy Drews, Burden of Truth, In the Dark rather than the Elephant Art of Succession, The Morning Show, and Billions/Black Monday

tv Succession       

The other trend is that this year saw the first wave of post-MeToo series come down the  pipeline and the prognostication is positive. Female leads in Stumptown, In the Dark, Proven Innocent, Burden of Truth and Nancy Drew generally were part of a formula that produced series that were nicer, less violent, and more social and political than previous series with male leads. This was apparent for example in the difference in two series on Apple TV+, the more patriarchal, typically apocryphal Mad Max-like See and the more matriarchal, looser and more quietly questioning the persistence of the colonial social order of Dickinson.

 I should add also vis-à-vis my Top Series that a successful series is one that gets on the air, not necessarily one that has a long run, since so many of the best series are cancelled quickly, with cancellation in a commercial medium generally having little to do with the quality of the series.

Top 15 TV Series

 tv homecoming

Homecoming – Much more than a Julia Roberts vehicle, this Amazon Prime series, originated as a podcast which made for an extremely tightly constructed half hour, the equivalent plot-wise of most hour series. Robert’s slowly coming to grips with a corporate-induced amnesia shed light on, and was one of the few series to tackle, the nefariousness of Big Pharma as the opioid crisis persists.

Bad Banks – Season One of this German-Luxembourg series, now airing on Hulu, with Season Two soon to come, boasted one of the most outstanding pilots beginning with a run on a bank and flashing back to the financial crimes that led to that collapse including millennial bankers cheering wildly at a California earthquake, which resulted in their profiting from a financial instrument that pays off on catastrophes.

Bob Hearts Abishola – Much better Chuck Lorre series than the Elephant-like The Kominsky Method. This touching on-again, off-again courtship and romance solidly rooted in the day-to-day conflicts of its female Nigerian hospital nurse and male Detroit small business owner, has its share of embarrassing stock sitcom characters (Abishola’s aunt and uncle, Bob’s sister and brother) but the leads, and especially Folake Olowofoyeku’s Abishola, aided by the writing of Gina Yashere make this an extremely heartwarming series.

Bloody Vienna – BBC2 mystery series, likely soon to circulate on BBC America, that maps the reactionary anti-semitism and stifling militarism of post fin-de-siecle Vienna as well as its grappling toward modernity in its Secessionist art at the dawning of psychoanalysis. Both are embodied in the young Freudian Max Lieberman who aids a working-class Austrian detective by employing this new science of the mind to solve crimes that originate in the repressed atmosphere of the upper reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Who is America – Sasha Baron Cohen’s one-season wonder on Showtime in which he inhabits four characters in Candid Camera-like situations but exposes the innate racist and violent nature of the actual American personalities he catches being themselves. The best character is his Israeli officer Colonel Erran Morad whose own militarist impulses allow those of the Southern Old Boy subjects he encourages to emerge on screen.

Jeux d’influence – or Game of Influence, now broadcasting on Amazon Prime. This French series lays bare the disastrous effects of lobbyists who in this case are aiming to keep a cancerous agricultural product, based on Monsanto’s glyphosphate, on the market. It’s a well-told Zola-esque view of the industry, its farmer victims, and the politicians of all the legislative parties, who, knowing the product is murderous, delay banning it, just as in fact Macron’s government has done with the actual product.

Proven Innocent – Fox, the network where all good series go to die, broadcast 13 episodes, then cancelled this show about a female attorney who fights to free unlawfully jailed victims of the Chicago criminal justice system and in so doing exposes the inequities of that system. This is the antidote to the more conservative procedural Cold Case since here the back case is about proving the defendant innocent. A marvelous complete in itself 13-episode arc also ties the original murder, for which Rachel Lefevre’s attorney was imprisoned, back to Kelsey Grammer’s prosecutor, now running for attorney general who persecutes her, with the show linking the actual guilt to the post-Citizens United world where unlimited money furthers unjust candidates.

Folklore – HBO Asia series based on the fact that as its creator Singapore director Eric Khoo says “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” But, the catch, in this marvelous horror anthology from six Asian countries, is that, unlike Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, which took a while to become relevant, this series right off the bat combines ghost stories with the actual horror of ordinary people’s lives on a continent where the disparity between rich and poor is vast.

Back To Life – Airing on Showtime, this is a second stunning and funny series from alumni of the too-soon-departed satire of the television industry Episodes. Following Steven Mangan’s Hang Ups, Daisy Haggard’s series about a woman sent to prison for murder returning to a town that rejects her is a bittersweet version of Rectify, but here the humor and the pathos is more direct, as Haggard proves herself first a marvellous comedian, then a marvellous actress.

tv Grisse

Grisse – Another HBO Asia series, this one condensing 200 years of rebellion against the Dutch in a province of Indonesia into a single uprising that employs the iconography and attitudes of a Sergio Leone Western to make its point about Dutch colonial brutality amid native resistance and compliance.

Nancy Drew – One of the year’s outstanding pilots as we find out that the CW’s contemporary Nancy Drew, is not at all your mother or grandmother’s female detective. Nancy’s mother died of pancreatic cancer, her father is a not-to-be-trusted scheming lawyer who defends the rich in this coastal New England town, Nancy’s African-American boyfriend served time for manslaughter and there are two murders in the town of its leading wealthy daughters, one of whom still haunts the area. The difference between the dream world of the original and the far tougher world of the Veronica Mars present is what lends this series its frisson.

Burden of Truth – CW again in a trend that is seeing American and Canadian production companies collaborating, meaning Canada’s more critical social democratic spirit fuses with American neoliberal television to create more socially relevant series. In this case Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk stars as a corporate lawyer who secedes from her father’s scurrilous corporate law firm to battle over two polluters causing brain damage to their children and data harvesters. Couldn’t be more relevant and utterly overlooked by mainstream critics.

Chambers – Netflix cancelled this series after one season and again critics despised it for being muddled in its presentation. In truth, the series, though sometimes a bit obscure, was not at all unclear about its sharp class presentation of the distinction and potential menaces to its Native American/African American heroine living in a trailer by the upper-middle-class Sedona type patronizing couple who employ Me Generation healing tropes in their mansion to attempt to coopt her. 

The Mandalorian – Best post-original Star Wars creation. This tight, terse horse opera about a bounty hunter with a heart operating in the nether spaces in the time after the empire has collapsed, that is after the end of the first trilogy, takes up the question of how life is lived in the wake of a shattered evil empire, a question the US may be facing at the moment as its imperial reign comes to an end.

Late Night with Seth Meyers – Not strictly a series but perhaps the funniest show on television and best of the late night hosts. Meyers’ humor, in his “In The News” and “A Closer Look” segments almost always with a political or social point, is the sharpest in late night, though lately he has gone overboard and is sounding a little one-note on impeachment. Along with him is the funniest person on television, Amber Ruffin whose segments “Amber Says What” and with Jenny Hagel “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” all of which can be watched on YouTube, constitute the most precise take anywhere in American media on the inequality of black-white relationships in Trump’s America.

Honorable Mentions

tv Damnation

 Damnation – USA, now-cancelled, series currently on Netflix about the effects of the depression on an Iowa farming community, featuring a scene where farmers intimidate bankers at an auction to get their foreclosed property back, right out of King Vidor’s film made during the Depression, called Our Daily Bread.

 In the dark – This series about an alcoholic blind girl becoming a detective brings the feistiness of Jessica Jones to network TV, with a Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Scooby Doo-like group replacing Jones alcoholic isolation.  

 Killing Eve – Two seasons now of this intriguing are they or aren’t they lesbian relationship, spy thriller, with television’s most compelling female lovers since the two combatants on Zena Warrior Princess.

 Stella Bloomquist – Icelandic series, available on Viaplay, about a sexually liberated female lawyer who wades into and runs afoul of the patriarchal power in the upper echelon of her world as she defends the marginalized of that society.

 Floodlands – Dutch-Belgium series about a nebulous border area between the two countries with a female Euro/African detective investigating the traumatizing of a young African immigrant and in so doing exposing prejudice on both sides of the border.

tv Godfather of Harlem

Godfather of Harlem - Chris Brancato’s best entry since the first season of Narcos boasts superb performances by Forest Whitaker’s wily gangster and Giancarlo Esposito’s sleezy Adam Clayton Powell, but what raises the series above the usual mobster fare and gives it its moral fibre is the revolutionary presence of Nigel Thatch’s Malcolm X.

 Dickinson – This life of the poet Emily Dickinson utilizes the Sophia Coppola/Maria Antoinette school of history as respecting the period details but making ultra-modern the language and music, so that Emily complains when asked to fetch water from the well that “This is such bullshit” before doing her chores over a rap montage. Best episode is her own championing of the environment while finding Henry David Thoreau a crass opportunist. 

X Company – Too quickly cancelled Canadian series, streaming on Netflix and Hulu, about a bevy of male spies behind enemy lines in World War II, led by a Jewish female who burrows deep within the Nazi hierarchy as the series moves over its three seasons from France to Poland to Berlin and as she extracts her own revenge on the worst of the calculating murderers of her people.

The Loch – Above average Brit detective series, now streaming on Amazon Prime, featuring a female detective in charge of her first murder investigation in Scotland’s Loch Ness, with the monster emerging at the end not as horrific otherworld creature but as the embedded evil of the region’s patriarchy.

 Cloak & Dagger – USA series from Marvel about a male/female black/white friendship between two teens each with their own power and both plagued and tramautized by the corporate malfeasance and police brutality that mark their town.

C.B. Strike – Based on the series of novels by J.K. Rowling, this noirish detective show features an intriguing, professional relationship between its seasoned and cynical private investigator and the female assistant who wants to break into the field herself.

Requiem – BBC series streaming on Netflix about the haunting of a young female cellist after her mother’s suicide which seamlessly but in a sophisticated way mixes the psychological and the supernatural.  

tv Mystery Road

Mystery Road – Australian series streaming on Acorn TV featuring Aaron Peterson’s Aboriginal detective here teamed with Judy Davis’ tough local cop as they investigate both the murder of a young girl and Davis’ white settler family legacy which pollutes the town and perpetuates the brutality and inequality which marks the country’s history.

Ozark – Netflix series whose second season, with the hardening of the Laura Linney character, could not match its first but which still refreshingly concentrated on the financial nuts and bolts of money laundering in a part of the country long left for dead.  

 Stumptown – Cobie Smulders as an alcoholic, sex-addled war vet slowly turned private detective as part of her recovery process in the darker recesses of Portland. The town’s teenage drug pushers ,under stress in the competitive quest for college entry grades, mirrors the problems of the country as a whole, while providing a female take on those problems.

Five Worst  

 The Morning Show – Perhaps the worst show of this or any season. This Apple TV+ “blockbuster” manages to waste the talents of its Two and A Half Comedians (Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston) by taking the silliness of morning television seriously, portraying it as deadly accurate journalism at a time when the actual news media is more frivolous than ever and when an Episodes-like satire would have made this a show to remember.

Succession – The Rupert Murdoch clan as King Lear. What a falling off is this, in HBO’s entry in the “wealth porn” genre. The Financial Times noted the show had no likeable characters but still fascinated us, meaning that while more people now despise the superrich that is no reason not to continue to be obsessed with their every move. Equally yucky is Black Monday, the African-American version of this phenomenon which originated with Showtime’s Billions where self-serving material gain is the only value.

Tin Star – Tim Roth as an ex-British cop in the Canadian West pursued by his demons and inflicting them on his family. A repulsive character whose detecting method is to simply exert violence by beating suspects. A hero for these times perhaps, but not the hero we need.

Dollface – Supposedly feminist series starring the superb Kat Dennings as a woman quickly dumped and trying to return to the world of female friends. Sounds good in theory but on the ground, takes the powerful in-charge, working-class, waitress from Two Broke Girls and transforms her into a weak and whimpering relationship buffoon.

Secret City/Deep State – The first is a promising Australian series with Fringe’s Anna Torv as an investigative reporter boasting a dark conspiracy theory visual overlay that unfortunately is undone by its rampant and exhausting anti-Chinese sentiment. The second has no redeeming social value in a Fox Sky TV produced series that is not about undemocratic Western intelligence operations as its name implies but is instead a cheering section for a black ops team tasked with assassinating Iranian scientists, making Trump’s prelude-to-war gesture of merely cancelling Obama’s nuclear pact seem humanitarian. A new low even for Fox.

Note: You can find out more about the ins and outs of contemporary television in Dennis Broe's book Birth of the Binge.