The best comedy on Apple TV+ isn’t ‘Ted Lasso.’ And it’s coming to an end
This is the Los Angeles Times’ newsletter about all things TV and streaming movies. This week, we break down the history behind “The Harder They Fall,” give you a “Spencer”-prep syllabus and sing “Dickinson’s” praises. Scroll down!
Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who knows the best comedy series on Apple TV+ isn’t “Ted Lasso.”
You heard that right. It’s the upstart streaming platform’s brilliant, raucous look at the life of reclusive 19th century poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld), which strikes some of the same contemporary/classic mashup notes as “Bridgerton” — with a heartier helping of wit. (There’s an Oregon Trail reference in the series’ sublime second season that’s worth the price of admission.)
“Dickinson,” created by Alena Smith, returns Friday for its third and final season, and if you’ve been sleeping on the series, now is the time to wake up. At times dreamy and romantic, at others madcap and absurdist, it effortlessly marries its portrait of the artist as a young woman with elements of love story, family sitcom and, this season, wartime epic — all while dropping thoroughly modern winks (“Emerson is canceled!”).
It will leave you wanting to know absolutely everything about its heroine. And maybe ready for a pilgrimage to Amherst, Mass., too.
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Streaming recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times
HBO Max may have a confusing brand identity — is it HBO or what? — but a year and a half since its launch, the streaming service has carved out a clear niche with its original programming. If you want acerbic, female-centered comedies — and especially if you want your jokes delivered in an accent — HBO Max, home to “I Hate Suzie” and “Starstruck,” is the place for you. I got into the Australian series “Frayed” last year in the deepest days of the pandemic, when the idea of being transported anywhere other than my living room in the year 2020 was deeply appealing — even if that somewhere was a grim port city in Australia in the late 1980s.
The series was created by comedian Sarah Kendall, who also stars as Samantha “Sammy” Cooper, a London housewife forced to return home to Australia after a 20-year absence when her husband dies and leaves her penniless. In her time away, Sammy has carefully constructed a new identity for herself, including a posh accent and sophisticated new name, “Simone,” but once she and her kids move back in with her estranged mother and oafish brother, the facade quickly unravels. In a time of need, the not-especially-sympathetic Sammy finds that trying to distance herself from her roots has not really worked out for her. Anchored by Kendall’s prickly performance, the show offers a grittier portrait of Australia than we typically see onscreen, and it doesn’t wallow too much in ’80s nostalgia. In Season 2, which landed on HBO Max this week, Sammy and her kids are still trying to outrun the past, with results that are just as messy and entertaining as they were in Season 1. —Meredith Blake
Non-canonically taking up the story the day after the events of the 2018 live-action film “Aquaman,” the animated miniseries “Aquaman: King of Atlantis” (HBO Max) is a cartoon in every sense of the word. Having ineffectually dispatched his half-brother Ocean Master (Dana Snyder) to a room with a view, the new ruler of the sea (Cooper Andrews) faces a populace of funny fish people who just want the old king back, while advisor Vulko (a very Thomas Lennon-y Thomas Lennon) has a laundry list of dull kingly duties he is excited for him check off. Fortunately, one of those takes Aquaman and pumped-for-action girlfriend Mera (Gillian Jacobs) into an adventure with all the beats and excitement of a superhero movie but genuinely hilarious; the cast nails every joke, and it’s all jokes. The clean-lined design owes a lot to manga — proportions shift from shot to shot, features squash and stretch according to feeling — and the candy-colored palette is like something out of an Esther Williams movie. Make the cartoons canon, and ditch the features. —Robert Lloyd
Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about
Following this fall’s early screenings of “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s juicy drama starring Kristen Stewart as a mid-’90s Princess Diana, more than a few noted its deliberate similarities to “Jackie” (multiple platforms), Larraín’s 2016 film starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy. Two extraordinary lead performances; two real-life women swept up in maelstroms of power, privilege and tragedy; and two excitingly jagged, formalist movies that boldly dispensed with the conventions of the mainstream biopic. But Larraín’s admirers — and I’ve long been one of them — will guess that “Spencer,” now playing in theaters, continues more than one thematic strain in the work of this excitingly protean Chilean-born filmmaker.
The surreal “Spencer” sequence in which Stewart’s Diana dances through the hallways of her own life rings an echo of the recently released “Ema” (multiple platforms), his unclassifiably strange and hypnotic portrait of a modern dancer. And both “Spencer” and “Jackie” form a kind of trilogy with “Neruda” (multiple platforms), his wondrous portrait of the great poet Pablo Neruda, and a biographical fantasia so heady and dreamlike it makes the other two pictures look like “The Life of Emile Zola.”
As critical an eye as Larraín has cast on the houses of Windsor and Kennedy, he has justly reserved his harshest condemnations for a very different regime: the 1973-90 reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the backdrop for a superb trilogy of character studies that put Larraín on the international map. The first two aren’t for the faint of heart: 2008’s “Tony Manero” (multiple platforms), a blistering portrait of a murderous sociopath with a bizarre “Saturday Night Fever” obsession, and 2010’s “Post Mortem” (Kanopy, OVID.tv, Amazon), an equally bleak drama set during the military coup that brought Pinochet to power.
But the trilogy builds to a thrilling, triumphant conclusion with 2012’s Oscar-nominated “No” (multiple platforms), a formally inventive drama starring Gael García Bernal (a frequent Larraín collaborator) as a late-’80s adman who plays a significant role in the national referendum that will ultimately eject Pinochet from power. As a look back at a right-wing despot’s hard-won defeat, “No” feels like ever more essential viewing in 2021. It’s a crowd-pleaser — and a warning. —Justin Chang
A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching
“Queens” (ABC, Hulu), a show about ’90s superstar rappers trying to reclaim fame, evokes a lot of old memories for Eve.
But the new ABC drama brought something new to her too: the all-women cypher — freestyle rapping, usually in the round — in the first episode. And that’s saying something for someone who has been performing for more than 20 years.
“I’ve never done a cypher with women in my whole career. Ever. I remember shooting that day, we were all so on fire,” she says. “It was such a great shooting day, and [we were] so excited with each other. Usually when I was younger, it was all dudes.
“I think a lot of times with hip-hop — yes, there are a lot of women out — but usually when it’s hip-hop stories, it mostly is men. So the fact that it’s all women this way ... I think it’s incredible.”
Eve stars as Brianna, a.k.a. Professor Sex, on the show, now a few episodes into its debut season. The cypher with her and co-stars Brandy, Naturi Naughton and Nadine Velazquez is one of the highlights of the premiere.
Maybe that “fire” she mentioned will stoke new music?
“I mean, you never know. Because Swizz [Beatz, the show’s executive music producer] has definitely been on me about it. And so has Brandy, like, ‘Oh, so when do we get an album? What’s going on?’ It might spark something in me to want to get back in the studio as myself and do some music, so I’m not ruling it out,” Eve says.
“But you know, I definitely want to produce some projects. I want to write some stuff and not just in a musical capacity. I don’t write any of this stuff down. When opportunities come across, if it feels like something that maybe will take me out of my comfort zone, then it’s something I usually go toward. So yeah, there will definitely be more for sure. What, I cannot say.” —Dawn Burkes
Times staffers chew on the pop culture of the moment — love it, hate it or somewhere in between
In the revisionist western “The Harder They Fall,” Jonathan Majors’ Nat Love and Idris Elba’s Rufus Buck go head to head in a showdown between two outlaw gangs. Staff writer Sonaiya Kelley tells how Netflix’s new western corrects the record:
How closely does the film reflect the history of the Old West?
Better than most classic Hollywood westerns, which director Jeymes Samuel says “whitewashed that whole period”: One in four cowboys in that period was Black, and Black figures with colorful names — like Cherokee Bill and Stagecoach Mary — are prominent in the lore Samuel, who is British, discovered at London’s Queens Park Library during his teen years.
So the characters in the film have real-life correspondents?
Yes — though Samuels admits historical accuracy was not always the top priority when it came to casting. For instance, mixed-race outlaw Buck, played by Idris Elba, was just 18 when he was executed, a far cry from the strapping, 49-year-old movie star. Other characters inspired by historical figures include Love; Delroy Lindo’s Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi; and the aforementioned Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mary (Zazie Beetz).
Is there any precedent for a project like this?
No, but westerns with all-Black casts are vanishingly rare: The last to come from a major Hollywood company was Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 drama “Posse.” (“The Harder They Fall” features many of the same characters as Samuels’ 2013 short “They Die by Dawn,” which starred Erykah Badu, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael K. Williams, Nate Parker, Rosario Dawson and Isaiah Washington.)
So how does “The Harder They Fall” deal with the Black stereotypes so prevalent in the genre’s history?
For one thing, it very purposefully avoids the use of racial slurs. “As soon as they cast Black people in a period piece in general, they’ll use the N-word like 100,000 times,” Samuels told The Times. “You don’t hear the N-word one time in ‘The Harder They Fall.’ A man is just about to say it when he gets off the train, [then] bang!”
The TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on in the coming week
Fri., Nov. 5
“A Cop Movie” (Netflix). Alonso Ruizpalacios’ docufictional film on the professional and personal relationship of a pair of Mexico City cops.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” (Amazon). Benedict Cumberbatch is a man painting cats before and after the turn of the 20th century. Fact-based.
“Finch” (Apple TV+). Tom Hanks is a man with a dog and a robot in a post-apocalyptic world.
“Hello, Jack! The Kindness Show” (Apple TV+). Jack McBrayer is your Mister Rogers.
Sat., Nov. 6
“Arcane” (Netflix). Animated brouhaha set in the League of Legends videogameverse.
“Attica” (Showtime). Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry’s documentary on history’s bloodiest prison uprising — that thing Al Pacino is screaming about in “Dog Day Afternoon” — 50 years old this year.
Sun., Nov. 7
“Dexter: New Blood” (Showtime). Same as the old blood.
Wed., Nov. 10
“Gentefied” (Netflix). Second season for this excellent Boyle Heights-set Mexican American family dramedy.
“Passing” (Netflix). Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of racial identity and disguise in Jazz Age New York.
Thurs., Nov. 11
“South Side” (HBO Max). Chicago-set post-collegiate entrepreneurial comedy moving over (up?) from Comedy Central to a premium streamer.
Want to know more about one of the filmmakers we’ve interviewed? Need a new show to binge now that your fave is done for the season? If you have a question about TV or streaming movies for the pop culture obsessives at The Times, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you may find the answer in next week’s edition.
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