The best TV shows introduce us to new worlds and reveal something about our own. That’s definitely true of “Euphoria,” “Modern Love,” “The Morning Show” and “Watchmen,” four of this year’s most interesting new shows. On the surface, the series — about troubled teens, people in love, workers in the age of #MeToo and masked heroes, respectively — could not be more different, but on a deeper level, they all seek to help us better understand and empathize with one another, overcome collective and personal trauma and find connections.
Zendaya, as 17-year-old recovering drug addict Rue, leads a stellar ensemble cast (including Hunter Schafer, as Rue’s best friend, Jules) in this raw, riveting series about high school students toggling between isolation and connection as they navigate a world rife with sex, drugs and violence and complicated by social media. Inspired by an Israeli show of the same name and faithful to its spirit, creator Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation”) nevertheless started essentially from scratch in crafting this heart-rending, sometimes terrifying, dramatic series, basing much of it on his own struggles with addiction and getting clean.
The reviews: Variety’s Caroline Framke says “Euphoria,” while neither “an easy watch, nor a particularly pleasant one,” nevertheless “has an undeniable pull that makes it too intriguing to ignore.” Wired’s Jason Parham says the show’s “choice to skid easy definitions around difficult topics is what makes it an important cultural engine of our time.” However, while praising Rue and Jules’ relationship as a “jewel” that will keep her watching, the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix dismissed early episodes as “a highly self-conscious study of ennui, overfull with fancy camera tricks and thousand-dollar designer getups.”
The scoop: Levinson says he sought to convey how “we are all shaped by the little and big traumas” in our lives and to consistently surprise audiences with the characters’ “depth” and “humanity.” “A staple of being young is not quite understanding how deep other people’s emotional lives are,” he says. “I wanted the show to mimic that experience.” He aimed to reflect a broader human experience as well. “We’re all trying to navigate the world as best we can and empathizing with that can bring us closer,” he adds. “The core idea behind the show is to have respect for the inner lives of the people around us.”
‘Modern Love’ (Amazon)
Each episode of this charming series draws from a real-life story of love, romantic or otherwise, shared in the New York Times’ popular column Modern Love. In the first season, we meet, among others, a book reviewer (played by Cristin Milioti) whose relationships are overseen by her unexpectedly insightful doorman (Laurentiu Possa); a middle-aged actor and his wife (John Slattery and Tina Fey) who return from the brink of divorce thanks to therapy and tennis; and a bipolar lawyer (Anne Hathaway) struggling to connect in the midst of her illness. The series, featuring an all-star cast, is a love letter to love and, often, New York City.
The reviews: The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman calls the show “a simple idea executed well,” “a little gem” and “compelling television.” “Almost all the choices in ‘Modern Love’ are the right ones,” he writes. The Atlantic’s Shirley Li is less impressed. “’Modern Love’ had the chance to build upon the Times’ original essays,” she contends, “but to its detriment, the show adapted them as faithfully as possible, yielding mostly dull interpretations.”
The scoop: Creator John Carney says that, in selecting essays to adapt, he looked for those that made him “smile or laugh or feel” something. He hopes, because the stories “came from the hearts of real people,” the episodes may be not just entertaining but also “useful” to viewers who may be “suffering or going through something in love or in life,” he says. Carney also believes the show’s upbeat, humanistic sensibility may serve a greater purpose — and a timely one. “There’s a lot of flux at the moment in the world,” he says. “It’s nice to have something that has a positive outlook, even though sometimes it’s bittersweet.”
‘The Morning Show’ (Apple TV+)
The women who populate the “Today”-like show depicted here are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Jennifer Aniston plays Alex Levy, who discovers one morning that her longtime cohost, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has been abruptly fired amid sexual misconduct accusations. Scrambling to regain control, she stuns the network’s male executives by impulsively announcing Mitch’s replacement: the equally furious Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). Drawing loosely from Brian Stelter’s book “Top of the Morning” and evocative of Matt Lauer’s downfall (Mitch’s desk has a door-closing button), “The Morning Show” is notable for its A-list cast, ripped-from-the-headlines plot and the way it harnesses rage — female and male.
The reviews: The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert writes that the show “has everything … and yet: It’s OK. Just OK.” But the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd insists the show is significantly better than some reviews based on early episodes indicate. “As a mix of melodrama and well-written interactions that feel genuinely human, ‘The Morning Show’ is fairly entrancing,” Lloyd writes, suggesting the show builds to an “emotionally satisfying” and “almost operatic” ending.
The scoop: Showrunner Kerry Ehrin (“Bates Motel”) acknowledges the Lauer parallels, yet insists Mitch’s character was an amalgamation of many people. “I don’t know Matt Lauer or his story. It isn’t in any way a biopic,” she says. As for the female-rage theme, Ehrin says, “As a woman you’re taught to make things work for everybody. When that comes at your own expense, there’s a little pull of rage. Maneuvering in a male-dominated business, many women feel unseen, misunderstood or put in a box, so of course there’s deep frustration — which is not to say men aren’t angry. We all want unconditional love and don’t get it. We’re all pissed off.”
Creator Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) takes a fresh look at “Watchmen” with what he calls a “remix” of the beloved mid-1980s comic book series of the same name. Set in an alternate version of present-day America, in which Robert Redford is president, Lindelof’s “Watchmen” trades the original’s Cold War concerns for issues of race and white supremacy, following Angela Abar (Regina King), a Tulsa, Okla., police detective who doubles as the masked, leather-nun-outfitted, butt-kicking Sister Night, as she investigates the murder of her friend and colleague Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), who, she learns, may have been a member of the KKK-like Seventh Kavalry.
The reviews: The New York Times’ James Poniewozik celebrates “Watchmen” as “a first-class entertainment out of the box, immediately creating a sad and wondrous retro-futuristic world.” “Is … ‘Watchmen’ thrilling? Abundantly. Funny? Riotously. Inventive and surprising? Like a magician with a thousand hats and rabbits,” Poniewozik writes. Emily Todd VanDerWerff of Vox is equally enthusiastic, saying the show left her “dizzy from its audacity, its delight and its occasional lack of taste.”
The scoop: Lindelof recalls that, as a kid, he loved that the “Watchmen” comic-book series was “political and cultural and a story about America unvarnished,” with conflicts that echoed real-world events and made him feel “anxious and uncomfortable” yet “exhilarated.” So in reframing the story for 2019, with the Cold War no longer a central concern, he says, he asked himself, “What makes me uncomfortable now? What is the great American anxiety? What is the thing we’re not talking about but are all thinking may be our destruction, both morally and physiologically?” It was soon after the Charlottesville conflict and Lindelof had just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations.” “The answer,” he says, “was race.”