Because we are all spending so much time streaming during the pandemic, it is possible that many viewers will find that the various services’ algorithms might be boxing them into corners.
Amazon Prime correctly determined that I love music documentaries, and now I get served them constantly.
These situations are usually the result of good viewer service, but all I had to do was watch one or two zombie-related series on Netflix and now I’m up to my red eyeballs in rotting viscera.
This is why this series of columns is important at a time when some of us practicing social distancing start feeling a need to break out of normalcy. If the days start to blend into one another, you might need to just jiggle the algorithm and force the streamers to rethink your taste.
Mean-spirited cooking shows exist in abundance, from The Worst Cooks in America to nearly everything Gordon Ramsey has done in front of a camera. Fortunately on Nailed It!, comedian/force of nature Nicole Byer has found a way to judge embarrassing baked goods from enthusiastic amateurs without trying to burn holes through their souls.
Byer, who hosts the Why Won’t You Date Me? podcast and possesses one of the most elastic speaking voices ever witnessed on streaming video, co-hosts Nailed It! with Parisian pastry legend Jacques Torres, but Torres is about as high-brow as the show ever gets.
George Lang gives you a fresh look at movie streaming options
Featuring guest judging duties from alt-comedians like Jason Mantzoukas, Ron Funches and Lauren Lapkus, each episode invites three contestants to replicate whimsical cakes and pastries like Marvel-themed cupcakes, terrifying clowns and busts of Napoleon Bonaparte. Season 4 debuted April 1, which is an absolutely perfect date for this series to return.
Even the winners’ creations look like someone left their cakes out in the rain, so the losers are truly something to behold. Nevertheless, no one leaves Nailed It! with their sense of worth destroyed; it’s too much fun for that.
Further viewing: Chef David Chang inherited the cultural space vacated with the painful passing of Anthony Bourdain, and his series Ugly Delicious takes a global and decidedly inclusive look at popular cuisine.
Chang, who often brings along friends like Aziz Ansari on his adventures, is entirely open-minded about food and takes every opportunity possible to tear down barriers in cooking. Cooks who insist that pizza conform to specific characteristics do so at their peril in Chang’s presence.
In March, Hulu launched FX on Hulu, a welcome expansion of the innovative channel’s offerings on the service that includes most major FX series going back to The Shield.
But Devs, the new miniseries from writer-director Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, 28 Days Later, Annihilation) is the joint service’s first exclusive series and centers on the disappearance of a programmer who goes to work in a mysterious division of Silicon Valley tech company Amaya.
For pure strangeness, Nick Offerman plays against type as Forest, the zen vegan founder and CEO of Amaya.
Further viewing: FX on Hulu offers one-stop shopping for some of the best recent series on cable, including You’re the Worst, Atlanta, Legion, Fosse/Verdon and Fargo. Now, strap in for the April 15 debut of Mrs. America, an anti-hero miniseries about Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the conservative lightning rod who bitterly fought the Equal Rights Amendment and conspired to build the Moral Majority in the 1980s.
During a crisis, it helps to spend time with an empathetic thought leader and tastemaker — perhaps the greatest of those.
In Oprah Talks: COVID-19, Oprah Winfrey spends quality time on FaceTime with famous people who have contracted coronavirus like actor Idris Elba, people working on the frontlines of the pandemic like Italian physician Dr. Marco Vergano and renowned chef and humanitarian Jose Andres. The episodes (seven so far) are brief, thought-provoking and without an agenda other than getting people valuable information and much-needed uplift.
Further viewing: As one of the most visible participants on Apple TV+, Winfrey brought one of the most popular regular features of her long-running talk show to the streaming service. Oprah’s Book Club appears every two months and includes some of the most important literary voices in publishing. Subjects include Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer and American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins.
As everyone with a great love for Spielbergian suburban science fiction awaits the return of Netflix’ Stranger Things, Prime offers the missing link between Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and The Duffer Brothers’ lovingly built homage, director J.J. Abrams’ 2011 ode to 1980s summer blockbusters, Super 8.
As a group of tween filmmakers rehearses a scene for their film project while a speeding freight train passes, a white pickup rams into the train, causing an explosive derailment. This early scene in Super 8 belongs in the pantheon of great cinematic disaster sequences, and it leads into a plot involving alien invasion and human abduction, a military conspiracy and teenage crushes. In short, this underrated film was Stranger Things before Stranger Things.
Further viewing: Drew Goddard, a graduate of Abrams’ Lost brain trust, made his directorial debut with 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, which offers a devilish twist on another 1980s trope: pretty college students getting away to a remote cabin where they will be picked off like spider legs.
About halfway through, there’s a twist that would send M. Night Shyamalan to the chiropractor. The cast led by Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins, Kristen Connolly and Bradley Whitford is clearly having a blast and Goddard’s strong writing and direction earns its scares.
With 2019’s Yesterday, one of Britain’s most innovative current filmmakers, Danny Boyle, channels one of Britain’s most sentimental filmmakers, Richard Curtis.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Boyle goes so far as have Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), one of the few people who remembers the Beatles existed following a worldwide power crash, chase after his beloved manager Ellie (Lily James) through a crowded train station, just like the mass airport scene in Curtis’ Love, Actually. It all makes sense, really: the story was pitched originally to Curtis.
Nevertheless, Yesterday is thoroughly charming as Jack begins performing Beatles songs and passing them off as his own to widespread adulation, Throughout Yesterday, there is foreshadowing that a comeuppance is in the offering, but the big reveal — and it’s a good one — will bring tears to any Fab worshipper.
Further viewing: Based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, director Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film Blinded By the Light tells the story of Pakistani-British teenager Javed Khan’s adolescent survival achieved through his love Bruce Springsteen’s music in the 1980s. It is Chadha’s (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) best film in years and, like Yesterday, a reminder of the transcendence of truly great songwriters.
CBS All Access
Star Trek: Picard, the latest iteration of Gene Roddenberry’s 54-year mission, would not exist without CBS All Access’ flagship series Star Trek: Discovery blazing the trail.
Starring Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha from AMC’s The Walking Dead) as science specialist Michael Burnham, Discovery takes place roughly 10 years before the events in Star Trek: The Original Series, when the Klingon houses declared war on the United Federation of Planets.
Co-starring Wilson Cruz (My So-Called Life), Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Anthony Rapp (Rent), Discovery holds the distinction of having three different captains for each of its first three seasons, with Jason Isaacs playing Gabriel Lorca (the most fatally flawed of all canonic Star Trek captains) and Anson Mount as Christopher Pike, who captains the Discovery temporarily on his fateful way to becoming the first captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Mount will be replaced by David Ajala in Season 3 as Cleveland Booker, mainly because Mount will play Pike in another prequel set on Enterprise that entered development in January.
Further viewing: Short Treks is a surprising and shockingly great series of short films based on the Star Trek canon featuring both animated and live-action installments. Standouts include “Ephraim and Dot,” a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like look at Original Series action through the eyes of a space-borne tardigrade trying to find a place to lay its eggs; and Q&A, a preview of the upcoming Pike-centric series featuring Number One (Rebecca Romijn) interviewing Ensign Spock (Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck) during his first day on board.
It took a few years to fully understand, but Alex Hirsch’s 2010s series Gravity Falls was instrumental in priming a lot of current teenagers’ senses of humor.
The animated saga of Dipper and Mabel Pines (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), 12-year-old twins who get dropped off in the titular Pacifc Northwest hometown of Grunkle Stan (Hirsch) for one bizarre summer is essentially a feeder school for Bob’s Burgers and any number of offbeat series on Adult Swim.
Following some tweaked Twin Peaks tales involving creatures like the Multibear and the Gobblewonker, Gravity Falls hits its stride with the arrival of Lil’ Gideon, a pre-teen psychic with a Southern televangelist aesthetic who tries to leverage the populace with mind control.
An exceedingly rich mythology builds throughout the series culminating in the apocalyptic struggle between the twins and trans-dimensional dream demon Bill Cypher. The course of events is nearly impossible to describe coherently, but at the heart of it is an uncommonly empathetic look at the emotional struggles of tween twins. It is, simply put, a cult masterpiece.
Further viewing: Big City Greens, which focuses on siblings Cricket and Tilly Green who move with their father to an urban farm, inherits much of Gravity Falls’ twisted world view. Like Falls, which boasted guest voicework from Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty), Neil Hamburger, Offerman and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Big City Greens features vocal visits from such luminaries as Byer, Hirsch, Jon Hamm, Wallace Shawn, Jonathan Van Ness and Tim Blake Nelson.
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