Spring is here, bringing with it a fresh bouquet of television shows.
The latest entries in our annual spotlight on new shows worthy of discussion are fascinating genre hybrids, balancing humor with something darker – at times even deadlier. They tackle loss, obsession and the search for self in ways rarely seen on television. It's a blend that is working; all three series have already been reupped for second seasons.
'The Last O.G.' — TBS
After surviving a horrific traffic accident in 2014, Tracy Morgan has returned triumphantly to television as Tray, an ex-con who returns somewhat less triumphantly to his Brooklyn neighborhood after 15 years in prison for drug dealing. In his absence, Brooklyn has gone bougie, as has his girlfriend Shay (Tiffany Haddish). Now called Shannon, she's married to a white man and has twins; she just neglected to tell Tray the kids are his. Created by Jordan Peele and John Carcieri, the show is a surprisingly poignant fusion of humor and sorrow.
The reviews: Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair calls it "blunt and funny and heartwarming, a perfectly calibrated mix of bawdy silliness and sincere feeling." Of the fish-out-of-water story, he adds, "the show finds its amiable comedy in that bittersweet clash; it skewers both past and present humanely, while still reveling in Morgan's caustic incorrectness." The Washington Post's Hank Stuever cautions, "its first six episodes are packed too heavily with plot and too easily move past the real attraction, which is watching Tray wander around Brooklyn in a state of cultural bewilderment."
The scoop: "This is straight from my life," says Morgan of the series. "I know these people. It's about the human spirit. It's about evolution, people changing, second chances. Tracy Morgan got a second chance at life, why can't Tray Parker?" He notes that it can be painful "to relive a lot of the stories that are true in my life, but these stories have to be told."
The laughs are grounded in realistic story lines, giving them added emotional heft. "The thing I love is that it's a kind show," he says. It's also the highest-rated comedy on cable; Morgan says people in the street are already calling him O.G. "I'll take that."
'Killing Eve' — BBC America
Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star and creator of Amazon's heartbreaking comedy "Fleabag," now turns her twisted attention to merging humor with thriller. "Killing Eve," based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, centers on the mutual obsession between a British spy (played by Sandra Oh) and a beautifully creepy psychopathic assassin (Jodie Comer).
The reviews: The A.V. Club's Lisa Weidenfeld raves, "Waller-Bridge was equally assured in 'Fleabag'; here her dry wit finds its perfect avatar in Sandra Oh, who anchors the show so effortlessly it may be an actual crime that no one has been giving her roles this good. She imbues Eve with an effortlessly earthy vibe, simultaneously a little off-putting yet very real." The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman is slightly less enamored: "A couple of big twists are telegraphed well in advance, mostly by bad decisions the characters otherwise probably wouldn't make," although he concedes it is "relentlessly engaging and surprising where it's least expected, making for the next must-see show of 2018."
The scoop: Sandra Oh is having a ball playing the novice spy, even while acknowledging that the blend of drama, thriller and irreverence is tricky work. "I think that's one of the reasons why people are surprised by the show," she says. "It keeps you leaning forward, because you don't know what's going to happen." When super spy Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) asks Eve to lead a secret task force to catch Villanelle, Oh found that the plot point resonated beyond the series.
"Eve's first position is insecure -- 'I don't deserve it,'" she explains. "Especially in where we are and the movements that are going on now, there are a lot of us who don't see the actual grace, power, skill, whatever – readiness, within ourselves. It's a beautiful time to awaken to it. And definitely I feel 'Killing Eve' is about Eve's awakening to herself."
'Barry' — HBO
Bill Hader is Barry, another paid killer, but this one embodies more pathos than pathology. Created by Hader and Alec Berg ("Silicon Valley"), who both run the show as well, the series melds comedy with the darkness of a lost soul. Barry's hitman work brings him to Los Angeles; in pursuit of his mark, he happens upon an acting class (led by the wonderful Henry Winkler), and gets hooked. Other supporting standouts include Paula Newsome as a cop on Barry's trail and Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, the cheeriest Chechen mobster you'll ever meet.
The reviews: TV Guide's Matt Roush is all in: "Not since Dexter has a stone-cold murderer warmed the heart so weirdly and endearingly as hitman Barry," and celebrates the show's "wildly original and suspensefully entertaining hybrid of dark comedy and delirious action." But the New York Times' James Poniewozik expresses concern: "the season finale does raise the question of how long the series can string out its double-life premise."
The scoop: "We always said the world of the crime world was high stakes but no drama, and the world of acting is all drama and zero stakes," Hader says in describing the show's mix of tones. In the world of "Barry," the criminals are portrayed with as much compassion as the actors. "Bad guys don't know they're bad guys; if they do it's one-dimensional and boring."
But Hader, who has also directed several episodes, never wants the violence to look cool. "It's a world Barry wants to get out of, so it would make sense that you would want to portray that world as demoralizing." And unlike his character, the actor is useless with guns. "They always have to cut around me, because when I shoot I close my eyes."