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A Year in Lockdown Here Are the Series That Got Television Editor, Lily Moayeri, Through Pandemic

Mar 16, 2021
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At the start of the pandemic, when it seemed like everything was going to go back to normal in two weeks, when lockdown was a confusing break from real life and expectations were low, it was an opportune time to blast through some of the choices I had stacked up on “My List” on Netflix and HBO, “My Stuff” on Hulu, “Watchlist” on Prime Video and “Up Next” on Apple TV+. Binging led to more binging. Working from home meant I could have the TV on in the background in between Zooms, which led to discovering series that weren’t even on my radar.

From all this screen time, here are 30 series I discovered during pandemic that I actually like. This list doesn’t include those I was already watching and loving such as Better Things, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Better Call Saul or Good Girls. It also doesn’t include those I watched and really did not care for such as Lovecraft Country, The Queen’s Gambit, The Undoing or Bridgerton. If you’re looking for a series to get stuck into, I can recommend the following without reservation.

Betty (HBO)

If Betty doesn’t make you want to jump on a skateboard, then you don’t have a pulse. The beautifully shot six-episode series is a spin-off of director Crystal Moselle’s film, Skate Kitchen, with many of the same characters, in some variation. Played by real-life skater girls Moselle met on the subway in New York, it is truly impressive that these natural portrayals aren’t from years of professional drama school. Winning and likeable, each one in her own way, there is nothing forced about the storylines, the style or the dynamics between the main characters, as well as the secondary ones. Issues are not resolved immediately, just like they wouldn’t be in real life. There is no agenda, there is no predictability and there is no exaggeration of every day elements of life as a Zoomer The music is on point, the cinematography is sensitive and street-wise in turns. Part of why Betty feels like a docu-series rather than a scripted one is that so much of its content is taken directly from the real lives of the actors. At a half-hour each, it takes just about three hours to catch up on season one, and start pining for season two.

Cobra Kai (Netflix)

Cobra Kai had a cult following when it started on YouTube Red a couple of years back. A spin-off of the ‘80s Karate Kid? Ugh, how good could that possibly be? Does the original even hold up? Oh, but it is so good. Netflix took the series over and made available all 20 episodes of the YouTube Red’s first two seasons summer of 2020, whipping a whole new audience into a karate frenzy. Netflix had no choice but to move up Season Three, which premiered on New Year’s Day without missing a kick. All the same characters, all the same actors, the adult versions of Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) are so much more interesting than their teenage selves, particularly the former with his stick-in-the-‘80s lifestyle and degree of awareness. Johnny shouting into the steering wheel in order to be heard over the phone is priceless. The latter is kind of dull—his fabulous and hilarious stunner of a wife, Big Bang Theory’s Courtney Henggeler, being his main saving grace. The present-day teenagers more than hold their own, with colorful personalities and unexpected story developments. As cringing as the word is, the quick-binge half-hour dramedy is one that works for Generations X, Y and Z.

The Last Dance (Netflix)

You don’t have to be a basketball fan, know anything about the Chicago Bulls, or their legendary players to get sucked into the fantastic world of the Emmy-winning The Last Dance. The 10-episode docu-series first ran on ESPN, two episodes each Sunday, which unified viewers in the classic way Sunday evening shows (generally on HBO) do. Netflix grabbed the series, which focuses on the lead up to the Bulls’ final championship season in 1997-1998 when a camera crew had unlimited access to the team. The story is told through classic, unfiltered footage and images, and over 100 interviews, with not just iconic players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, then and now, but also their families, and individuals closely involved with the team, most notably, inspirational coach Phil Jackson. Easily the most “winning” of the individuals included are Jordan’s wonderful parents and the grounded Jackson, the trifecta that have much to do with the legacy of the Bulls. Each episode looks into the past, as far back as Jordan in middle school, and stitches it to the ’97-’98 season. Everything about this sounds “sporty,” but much like Friday Night Lights, The Last Dance is about people, about challenges, about being part of a team, about adversity, about fame and about egos.

I May Destroy You (HBO)

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Michaela Coel had us at Chewing Gum, the zany comedy series the BAFTA winner created and starred in. She does the same for I May Destroy You, portraying Twitter-influencer-turned-novelist Arabella who has serious writer’s block at the time of her second novel. The central plot point of I May Destroy You is that of sexual consent, specifically Arabella’s drug-haze rape, which she investigates and uncovers slowly with both pain and humor. The characters Coel writes for herself are emotional, loud and genuinely funny. She plays them to their extremes, the way they are meant to be and wins everyone along the way. Her two best friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) are fantastic bookends for Arabella, keeping her in check as much as egging her on—all set to an amazing soundtrack. There is a delicate balance between the sensitivity of the issues explored on I May Destroy You, and the realistic humor with which the characters approach their early 30s. Exceptionally executed in every way.

The Morning Show (Apple TV+)

There is a voyeuristic fascination that revolves around morning shows on television and the hosts that America wakes up to. On the surface these individuals are the most likeable and the most relatable. If one of them doesn’t appeal to you, you can just change the channel and find someone that works for you. With a #MeToo plotline at its core, The Morning Show illustrates the dark and cutthroat side of morning television. Jennifer Aniston’s desperate and competitive character Alex Levy—the anti-thesis of her Rachel Green on Friends—and Reese Witherspoon’s loose cannon and equally competitive character Bradley Jackson—a welcome change of pace from the exhausting characters she plays on Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere—are impossible to look away from. With unexpected twists that become darker with each cliffhanging episode, The Morning Show feels like it’s in a race with itself. Enthralling until the finale where the conclusion is so rushed and neatly tied up, it’s almost a let-down, the series is nonetheless excellent up until that point.

Downton Abbey (Prime Video)

After watching the outrageously far-fetched historical creative license of the silly Bridgerton, the need to turn to Downtown Abbey became essential, especially as I missed it when it aired on PBS originally, some 10 years ago. All six seasons are streaming on Prime Video and what an irresistible early 20th century soap opera it is. Was there ever an aristocratic family who was nicer to its domestic staff? So much so that the youngest daughter runs off with the chauffeur? And then the chauffeur becomes to most-loved member of the family? It’s not all niceness as the eldest and middle daughter sabotage each other’s marriage prospects, confusing all their suitors in the process. The key to Downton’s success is its focus on the household staff as it’s very hard to make landed gentry seem interesting when the women are always poking at pointless needlepoint and taking cups of tea and the men don’t seem to do even that. In and around the kitchen, however, is where the action is and where all the secrets that run the house are kept. Still, the most priceless character is, hands-down, the Dowager Countess of Grantham aka “Granny” played by the incomparable Professor McGonagall, that is, Dame Maggie Smith—rivalled only by the other grandmother spikily portrayed by the classic Shirley MacLaine. The Downtown Abbey movie is a nice chaser for the series.

Pose (Netflix)

Mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s New York. The AIDS epidemic. Black and Latinx LGBTQIA. Drag balls. Pose is the kind of show I never thought I would ever see as a series, but Ryan Murphy took it on and he did it right. Investment in these unique and authentic characters is immediate, as is a pledge of loyalty to them and their difficult lives. The multiple and intertwined storylines of these painful characters are intense and uncomfortable. From being thrown out of their family homes to living on the streets of New York to prostitution to death, the through-thread is wanting someone to love them that they can love in return. There is heightened drama and heartbreak every step of the way on Pose and with every scene, the connection and commitment to these characters feels more real.

Pretend It’s A City (Netflix)

In far too few episodes, director Martin Scorsese lets his friend, writer and humorist Fran Leibowitz loose in the seven-part docu-series Pretend It’s a City. Leibowitz took the New York scene, and quickly the world, by storm from the early 1970s with her sharp and derisive humor expressed through essays for a variety of high-profile publications. Likely one of the earliest of the observational humorists, in Pretend It’s A City viewers can see why Leibowitz was, and is, such a popular party guest. Super-clever and side-splittingly funny, the best thing you can do with Leibowitz is not restrict her in any way and let her speak her mind, which makes for the most accurate of insights on any number of topics. Pretend It’s A City could easily become a returning series as there is no end of Leibowitz’s wry comments and things she can complain about.

Call The Midwife (Netflix)

Post-World War II, the UK was a baby making factory, which is what Call the Midwife is about. The show streams on Netflix and continues to live on PBS for 11 seasons and counting. Playing a bit like a long-form commercial for the NHS, Call the Midwife revolves around a winning bunch of nurses/midwives and nuns based in the East End of London, tending to the families and births of the impoverished area. Sweet and cute and caring, even the nurses who start out a little prickly soften up the longer they live at Nonnatus House, the nursing convent which tends to the area’s medical, and a lot of the times, social and emotional needs. This is a time when unwed mothers have zero options, when wed mothers are expected to stay home, when battered wives have nowhere to turn, when illegal abortions result in deaths, when birth control is only provided to married women, when homosexuality is a crime, when racism is rampant, when hygiene and basic human needs are desperately lacking, and when knowledge of the same is non-existent. Selfless and dedicated, the nurses and nuns cycle around the neighborhood with their styled-out post-war fashions flying behind them, medical bags strapped to their pannier racks. And no matter how unrealistic, every episode has a happy, feelgood ending.

Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)

Only Cate Blanchett could make Phyllis Schlafly, the polarizing political figure who worked so intently and vociferously against women’s rights, not to mention gay rights, likeable. Well-coifed and well-heeled, in Mrs. America, Blanchett’s Schlafly is a smiling smooth talker who is sharp and logical, makes her views seem reasonable and her platform almost something you want to get behind. Just shy of 50 years since the first states’ ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, it seems an impossibility that Schlafly would have any supporters, let along any women who wouldn’t want it ratified. But Schlafly was very popular and Mrs. America does a great job of illustrating exactly why. If anything, it’s Rose Byrne’s glamorous and smug Gloria Steinem who is irritating, Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug annoying and Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan abrasive. The only real competition Blanchett has as far as winning people over is Udo Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm and Elizabeth Banks’ sugar-slopping Jill Ruckelshaus. Amazing showcase of talent and fascinating look into politics from the ground-level.

The Americans (Prime Video)

This series shook everything up when it came on the scene in 2013 and throughout its six seasons, now streaming on Prime Video. The ‘80s-era series revolves around two Russian spies living in the US during the last years of the Cold War. The Americans stars the ageless Keri Russell, who permanently looks like her Felicity character—one she will likely never shrug off. As Elisabeth Jennings Russell is visually wholly incorrect for the time period of The Americans, except when she is in disguise. Also incorrect is her series husband, Philip, played by real-life partner, Matthew Rhys, who looks like a major mismatch, even when he’s in disguise. And what about these disguises? How do these two put on, and take off their extreme disguises so quickly and where exactly do these transformations take place? Once their daughter learns of their true identities, her conversion to their beliefs is so quick and so thorough, the psychological implications are mind-boggling. Far-fetched elements aside, not to mention the mannered portrayals—as likeable as she is, Russell’s Golden Globe nomination is a headscratcher, as is Rhys’ Emmy win, The Americans is a suspenseful and addictive watch whose layers upon layers of intrigue and deceit never get old or predictable, not to mention its main characters’ riveting ruthlessness.

Selling Sunset (Netflix)

There is something ‘80s era Dynasty-ish about Selling Sunset. An impossibly wealthy setting, impossibly well-groomed characters, impossibly dramatic personal lives, impossibly scandalous scenarios and impossibly lavish homes. These homes are supposedly what Selling Sunset is about: selling multimillion-dollar homes in Los Angeles. But is it really? What the show is actually about is the ridiculously good looking and flawlessly styled all-female real estate agents’ personal lives. Each one of the agents that has chosen to be on Selling Sunset (there are a few that opted out of participating) is a classic soap opera prima donna, confidently stomping around on pointy sky-high heels, creating theatrics where there aren’t any. Even the ones who were somewhat grounded: Maya, Chrishell, Amanza, eventually devolve into drama queens. The Oppenheim Group Real Estate firm is where they work under their diminutive twin bosses, Brett and Jason, who whip these ladies along to sell, sell, sell, and have painful conferences with them when their homes remain on the market. The biggest question: What exactly are these ladies doing on their laptops in that elaborately staged, part trendy craft cocktail bar, part high-end art gallery office that it looks like a film set?

Flip or Flop (Hulu)

After watching Selling Sunset, I had to find out more about this Tarek who turned Heather Rae Young’s head, and his family, which she has taken on as her own. It’s a little weird to watch Flip or Flop, real estate agent Tarek El Moussa’s home makeover show with his now ex-wife designer/realtor Christina Anstead when they were seemingly in a great marriage. Still, that doesn’t take away from Flip or Flop, which basically redoes every single suburban Orange County (and surroundings) house in almost exactly the same style. Christina can’t get enough of her grey floorboards and her Moroccan motif tiles and framing the shampoo and conditioner niches in the shower with a different design tile which throws the whole space off. And the wardrobes of these two. Tarek’s never ending short-sleeved polo shirts, bunchy shorts and flip-flops (no pun intended) which are just about the most inappropriate get-up in which to inspect or remodel these dangerously rundown homes. And Christina with her endless supply of yoga pants and message-printed tank tops that even teenagers won’t wear, plus her heavy nighttime-makeup-during-daytime and her mermaid hair, Southern California chic at its finest. These two’s personal lives are continuous tabloid fodder, but the show carries on. Only one season is streaming on Hulu, but it is going on its 10th season on HGTV.

Hotel Impossible (Prime Video)

Watching home upgrade shows is fun. Watching Anthony Melchiorri tackle disastrous hotels is so much better. Hotel Impossible ran on the Travel Channel for eight seasons from 2012 to 2017. During this time, Melchiorri went to struggling non-chain hotels and motels in prime locations to address their issues and help them turn things around. “Disgusting!” is the main outburst you’ll hear from the Brooklyn-born Melchiorri who rain, snow or shine is always in his trim black suit and jewel-toned tie. It’s no-holds-barred with Melchiorri who either offends the proprietors of these establishments, or reduces them to tears. All family-run, these hospitality horrors are near and dear to the owners’ hearts and Melchiorri ripping them to shreds is personal. On many an episode the careworn producers have to placate the owners into let the filming continue. It’s all worth it as Melchiorri and his miracle worker designers revamp one or more common areas and at least one room—in four days’ time, likely the “impossible” in the title. Not only that, but Melchiorri calls on his buddies at numerous hospitality companies who provide their products for free. After all this, when the update at the end of the episode flashes up, more often than not, the hotel is still struggling. “That’s disgusting!” (At the time of print, Hotel Impossible is no longer included on subscription Prime Video.)

What Not to Wear (Prime Video)

There’s not much of this life-changing show available on subscription streaming services, but what there is, the last season, is gold. The TLC show ended in 2013 and for 10 seasons and almost 350 episodes, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly had no problem calling out the wardrobe malfunctions of their guests who are nominated by their friends and family for a makeover. The duo’s dueling senses of humor are biting and witty, as brutal as they are accurate. They have their work cut out for them as every person likes their clothes, feels comfortable in their choices and not only do they not want to change, but are terrified of doing so—even with the incentive of a $5,000 spending budget. It’s so obvious to the viewer that these people desperately need help and London and Kelly, plus hair stylist Nick Arrojo and exact-same-look-for-everyone makeup artist Carmindy, work miracles. The show made a difference not only in the lives of its guests, but also its viewers who, from the safety of their homes, could entertain the professional fashion advice without being on the receiving end of the immaculately styled London’s and Kelly’s razor-sharp tongues. The running thought while watching the show is: “What would Stacy and Clinton say about my wardrobe?”

Indian Matchmaking (Netflix)

You don’t have to be of Indian descent or know anything about the culture or traditions to identify with and appreciate the trials and tribulations of finding love and the ultimate right person to spend the rest of your life with, all the while dealing with the pressures and expectations of your parents. Delightful and relatable.

Unorthodox (Netflix)

Fascinating limited series about Esty, a married teenager in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn who is under immense pressure by the demands of her family. Initially excited and committed, Esty becomes so distressed that she runs away to Berlin where she discovers who she is outside of the only life she has known. Based on a true story, heart wrenching and heartwarming at the same time.

Dirty John (Netflix)

It is excruciating to watch Connie Britton, who usually portrays super-strong women, become a weak and easily fooled, and fooled again, character. She plays a successful designer who is looking for love after multiple failed marriages. The titular character Eric Bana plays a con man who is truly gifted in being deviousness when it comes to duping women. He quickly works his way into her life, taking over everything while her daughters, played by the excellent Juno Temple and Julia Garner, try and make her see sense.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (Netflix)

Disturbing tale of fashion designer Gianni Versace’s murder is the subject of the second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story. Going back and forth in time over the course of nine episodes, the development of Versace’s murderer, spree killer Andrew Cunanan, is minutely dissected, becoming increasingly horrifying with every life he unfeelingly takes.

Fosse/Verdon (Hulu)

The story of philandering filmmaker and choreographer Bob Fosse and his long-suffering wife award-winning actress and dancer, Gwen Verdon is told in flashbacks and flash forwards. This maintains the excitement for the limited series because the highs at the start are very high and the lows they devolve into are very low. Singular story of two genius creatives whose personal lives and professional ups and downs destroys both of them.

Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (Netflix)

Madam C.J. Walker is a pioneer in Black hair care who not only became a mogul in the industry, but also battled turn-of-the-century racism and discrimination—including from Black contemporaries—as well as family troubles, to become the first Black, self-made, female millionaire. Octavia Spencer delivers the determination and resilience of Walker with aplomb in this four-episode limited series.

Normal People (Hulu)

There is something familiar yet brand-new about Normal People, a 12-episode love story/soft porn set in Ireland, which follows Marianne and Connell, the former wealthy and loveless, the latter, poor and well-liked, from high school through to post-college where they come together and fall apart repeatedly. It’s difficult not to reach through the screen and shake and slap these two to get together and stay together.

Dead to Me (Netflix)

Turns out Married with Children, the ‘80s show that put Christina Applegate on the map was the role that least showcased her excellent acting chops. Applegate is amazing as a widow dealing with her husband’s unexpected death. Equally amazing is con woman Linda Cardellini who is also dealing with a loss, or is she? The chemistry between the two drives the unexpected twists in this dark comedy.

Russian Doll (Netflix)

The premise of dying and returning back to life only to die again and return again is a super-tired one. The main thing that makes this hackneyed premise work on Russian Doll is the fantastic Natasha Lyonne who plays the main protagonist. Trying to unravel the mystery of her repeat deaths is second to simply watching Lyonne go through each scene with her superior acting skills and highly likeable scene presence.

Workin’ Moms (Netflix)

This Canadian sitcom is worth watching if just for the characters’ amazing homes. The series focuses on a group of mothers who are also full-time career women teetering between guilt and disinterest toward their respective situations. Their partners are too good to be true, but the main characters are genuinely humorous, even if it difficult not to stare at show creator/star Catherine Reitman’s weird lips—something she herself makes fun of herself on the series.

Shrill (Hulu)

Like most series revolving around millennials, the main topic seems to be that generation’s particular quirks, which are used as excuses for both questionable behavior and shortcomings, while at the same time propel them to success. The best things about this millennial comedy are its star, Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant who is imminently likeable. Bryant is followed immediately by her no-nonsense English best friend and roommate played by Lolly Adefope and the flawless John Cameron Mitchell who plays her awful boss.

The Boys (Prime Video)

The tongue-in-cheek humor of these rogue superheroes puts Marvel to shame. In a world where superheroes aren’t born but made, these figures act like intolerable celebrities and abuse their powers shamelessly. From pitiful to out of control, there is a superhero for every type of personality.

The Politician (Netflix)

The Politician feels like an exaggerated version of Model UN. Ben Platt plays Payton Hobart, a high schooler with his sights set on becoming the President of the United States. Every move the highly-strung Payton makes is strategic and calculated. The Politician feels like getting a peak behind the scenes of the politically ambitious, albeit in a very oversaturated and overblown Ryan Murphy-esque kind of way

Nora From Queens (HBO Max)

Based on a fictionalized version of the ultimate millennieal, Awkwafina neé Nora Lum, who lives at home in her childhood bedroom, which looks like it holds all her belongings since birth, a weed-swamp of bong-water and laziness. Not looking like she’ll be moving out anytime soon, Nora’s dynamic with her with her father (B.D. Wong) and Gramma (Lori Tan Chinn) is both ridiculous and hilarious, in part because, somehow, the overacting of the cast makes it work.

Tiger King (Netflix)

Everything about Tiger King is horrific. The treatment of the animals, the treatment of the staff, the competition between the big cat owners, and of course, the madman who is at the center of it all, Joe Exotic. If this series had one redeeming quality, it is that it gave viewers something in common to talk about at the start of the pandemic, and that the plight of these endangered animals has become common knowledge.

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