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‘MILF Manor,’ explained: We watched TLC’s Oedipal fever dream so you don’t have to

The women of 'MILF Manor'
The women of “MILF Manor.”
(TLC)
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Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who draws the line on their trash TV consumption at “MILF Manor”...

... but might be morbidly curious anyway. In Screen Gab No. 68, staff writer Meredith Blake explores TLC’s new “30 Rock”-joke-come-to-life reality show, which finds women in their 40s and 50s vying for the attentions of their fellow competitors’ sons.

Also in this week’s edition, we catch up with “La Brea” star Chiké Okonkwo, field recommendations for your weekend and more. Plus, we want to know what you’re watching! Pretend we’re at the water cooler and give us your review of a TV show or streaming movie you’ve loved and it may be included in a future edition of Screen Gab. (Submissions should be approximately 100 to 150 words and sent to screengab@latimes.com with your name and location.)

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ICYMI: The Oscar nominations

Must-read stories you might have missed

The Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills
The Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

How to watch (almost) every Best Picture winner from 1927 through 2022: From “Wings” to “CODA,” here’s our guide to streaming the winners of the Academy Awards’ top prize.

Why streaming’s big Oscar nominee is an obscure German WWI epic: Tuesday’s Oscar nominations rewarded fewer contenders from streaming services, a departure from recent years when Netflix dominated.

How to watch every Oscar-nominated movie in the major categories: The nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards are out. Here’s where you can start catching up on the nominees you may have missed.

All the 2023 best picture Oscar nominees ranked, from worst to best: Best picture is the only Oscars category that uses a preferential ballot, where voters rank all 10 nominees. Here’s how our critic would rank them.

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Turn on

Recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times

Celebrities line up with large backpacks in a desert
“Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.”
(Pete Dadds)

I don’t know who needs to see somewhat famous people — singers, actors, athletes and an infamous former White House communications director — jump out of helicopters or zip line across a desert. But I’m enjoying FOX’s “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test” (streaming on Hulu), which challenges celebrities to survive 10 days of demanding military training exercises. Without their glam teams and trailers, they’re reduced simply to people who signed up to push themselves — physically, yes, but really, mentally, and the latter battle is what spurs many of them to quit early. Five episodes in, I’m impressed that some reality stars are holding their own alongside former Olympians and retired professional athletes. And I’m surprised that, though the ex-Special Forces operatives who run the whole thing are constantly yelling in their faces, they are exceptionally empathetic and motivational, even when they’re reading these celebs for filth on their defeatist perspectives and immature attitudes. —Ashley Lee

A beautifully shaped single-season comedy, the Spanish import “No Me Gusta Conducir (I Don’t Like Driving),” streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of Pablo (Juan Diego Botto), a middle-aged, misanthropic literature professor who decides finally to learn to drive. (His late father has left him his car.) Pablo is stuck, emotionally and literally — relying on others for rides, including his newly former, but still friendly wife — caught in old patterns in the classroom, unable to form any sort of new relationships, haunted by the failure of a novel and fearful of death behind the wheel. Into his life come the friendly, forward Yolanda (Lucia Caraballo), a student of his who happens to be enrolled at the same driving school, and their teacher, avuncular, eccentric Lorenzo (David Lorente), who, unlike Pablo, considers his work a calling. The themes — learning to move on, to trust other people, to live a little — are common enough, but the execution never feels less than authentic. Even when things get out of hand, which they will, nothing is overstated; the performances are thoroughly lifelike; and the neatly balanced ending is all you could ask. —Robert Lloyd

Guest spot

A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching

A muscular man stands in the middle of a street on a gray day.
“La Brea” star Chiké Okonkwo.
(Ivan Girard)
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Forgive me for being preemptively skeptical about NBC’s “La Brea,which premiered in September 2021 with a premise seemingly designed in a laboratory to strain credulity: When a sinkhole opens up at the site of the La Brea Tar Pits, it sucks a chunk of Los Angeles and everyone in it into the year 10,000 B.C. But I should have known, as a “Land of the Lost” diehard, that sometimes a good, old-fashioned prehistoric romp is just what the doctor ordered, and the series, which returns Tuesday to continue its second season, grew into the highest-rated new drama of 2021-22 with the 18-to-49-year-olds as a result. Chiké Okonkwo, who stars in the series as gentle therapist Ty Coleman, stopped by Screen Gab to discuss his favorite L.A. disaster movie, what he’s watching and more. —Matt Brennan

1. What have you watched recently that you are recommending to everyone you know?

It’s only been a couple of weeks, but “The Last of Us” on HBO has started so well, I’ve recommended it to everyone. When I say recommended, I mean I’ve talked incessantly at anyone who will listen. I haven’t played the video game, so knew nothing going in. But the story is compelling, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to the HBO podcast, which is excellent, and admire the choices that showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have made. A+.

2. What’s your go-to “comfort watch,” the movie or TV show you go back to again and again?

There are a few actually. I can always watch “The Good Place” (Netflix). Season 4 of that show is a masterpiece. “The Office” — the American one (Peacock) — is great, of course. It’s always nice to turn on a TV in a hotel room somewhere outside of the U.S. and inevitably be able to watch “Friends” (HBO Max). Then of course there are “The Lord of the Rings” movies (HBO Max, Prime Video), a perfect trilogy. If one is on TV, and part way through, I’ve yet to find the fortitude to switch it off.

3. “La Brea” takes Hollywood’s love of destroying Los Angeles to a very different place than we usually expect. What’s your favorite L.A.-set disaster movie and why?

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I was the perfect age when “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (HBO Max) came out. By that I mean far too young to be watching it, but old enough for those ideas to really sink in. So every time I go past the basin of the L.A. River in the Valley, I think of those iconic spillways where that epic chase took place. I’ve loved that film since I first saw it, and it’s nice to think you live around so many of these iconic locations in L.A. Of course the Peterson Automotive Museum building will never be the same to me now either, having spent so much time by it in the sinkhole!

4. The series asks viewers to consider how (or whether) they would survive if suddenly transported to 10,000 B.C. What survival strategy have you gleaned from the show that you hadn’t considered before?

Thankfully my survival strategies won’t ever have to include defense against saber-tooth cats. And even though I’ve considered it quite a lot, I do think the importance of togetherness in trying times is very clear to me. On the show and in real life, when things get tough, it’s always easier to make it through when you have good people who care about you around.

Break down

Times staffers chew on the pop culture of the moment — love it, hate it or somewhere in between

Kelle in 'MILF Manor'
Kelle in “MILF Manor.”
(TLC)

In a classic episode of “30 Rock” that aired in 2008, an NBC programming executive was thrilled by the dazzling success of “MILF Island,” a craven reality show featuring “20 MILFs, 50 8th-grade boys, no rules.”

Like so much of “30 Rock’s” absurdist humor, “MILF Island” bit proved prescient.

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Almost 15 years after the creative team at “30 Rock” dreamed up a show so unbelievably crass and demeaning there’s seemingly no way it could exist in real life — even in a world that contains “The Swan” — the sensationalists at TLC have replied: “Tina Fey, hold my beer.”

This month marked the debut of “MILF Manor,” a show that follows eight single mothers in their 40s and 50s as they descend on a beachfront villa in Mexico and look for love with much younger men. The MILFs include at least two event planners, a former video vixen and a trouble-making mother of six who dabbles in real estate and wellness from — where else? — Orange County.

So far, so predictable.

But, as legally required of all reality shows, “MILF Manor” comes with A Shocking Twist That Changes Everything. Soon after they arrive in Mexico and begin to size up the competition, the women are shocked to learn that they will be dating each other’s adult sons.

Thus, what seemed like it was going to be a shameless ripoff of an old sitcom joke and nothing more instead turns out to be an Oedipal fever dream far more disturbing than anything on NBC’s fictional lineup.

As Harrison, a college football player who moonlights as a male entertainer, elegantly puts it: “This is gonna be a weird experience, getting close to these guys and then going on dates with their mothers.”

Rather than shy away from the inherent ick factor, though, “MILF Manor” encourages the contestants to cross every conceivable parent-child boundary. The women and their sons do their confessional interviews together, creating cringe-inducing moments like when Joey, a baby-faced bartender, jokes that Kelle (the aforementioned O.C. mom of six), gets a lot of male attention because “her headlights are always on.” “It didn’t bother you when you were a baby sucking on ‘em,” she replies. “You were really thirsty.” Kelle is quickly emerging as the show’s star/villain because of how eagerly she embraces the premise, declaring, “Sorry ladies, I might be sleeping with your son” and aggressively flirting with Jose, a Spanish-language TV host, while his mom, fitness fanatic Pola, lounges nearby.

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In the show’s first task, the women put on blindfolds, then grope the naked torsos of the young men in an attempt to determine which is their son. (In a shocking show of restraint by the producers, the women were not asked to reverse roles.) The second episode brought a challenge with even more explosive results, as the contestants were asked to read anonymously written secrets (“I had a seven-woman orgy,” “I got pink eye from eating a—.”) and try to guess which belonged to their mother or child. It’s all a bit of TMI fun until one of the women confesses to sleeping with the best friend of her son, who (understandably) freaks out.

Setting aside the obvious grossness, “MILF Manor” is also mean-spirited: One of the mothers, we learn, is mourning the recent death of her daughter, and probably should be miles away from a camera of any kind, not on a reality show with her son. Several others are recovering from toxic marriages or the death of a spouse. The show may present itself as an experiment in intergenerational dating — and has at least prompted a conversation about the difference between MILFs and cougars — but mostly it has triggered nausea.

Long known for its sordid family programming and exploitative dating shows, TLC has lately been leaning into shows that play with incestuous taboos, like “I Love a Mama’s Boy,” about overbearing mothers meddling in their sons’ relationships, and “Extreme Sisters,” about unhealthily attached siblings. (The cast includes twins who have been in a longtime three-way relationship with the same man.)

With “MILF Manor,” the network that defined basic-cable bottom-feeding has somehow found a new low. —Meredith Blake

Mail bag

Recommendations from Screen Gab readers

A man stands behind a one-way mirror during a police interrogation
Marc Warren as Piet Van der Valk in “Van der Valk.”
(Courtesy of © Company Pictures, NL Films & A3MI)

I’ve been enjoying “Van der Valk” (PBS Passport). It’s an edgy, European version of shows like “CSI” and “Bones.”

Mark Flannery
Fullerton

What’s next

Listings coordinator Matt Cooper highlights the TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on

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Fri., Jan. 27

“Lockwood & Co.” (Netflix): Two teenage boys and a teen girl with psychic powers set about ghost-busting in present-day London in this new supernatural drama.

“Shotgun Wedding” (Prime Video): Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel’s nuptials get crashed by modern-day pirates in this over-the-top 2022 action comedy. With Jennifer Coolidge.

“Shrinking” (Apple TV+): A therapist (Jason Segel) grieving the loss of his wife goes rogue and starts giving patients his unfiltered opinions in this new comedy. Harrison Ford co-stars.

“You People” (Netflix): Guess who’s coming to dinner? Jonah Hill, Lauren London, Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, David Duchovny and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, that’s who, in this satirical 2023 rom-com from “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris.

“Next at the Kennedy Center” (KOCE, 9 p.m.): The Roots rule the roost with a residency at the venerable venue in a new episode of the performing arts series.

Sat., Jan. 28

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“Frozen Planet II” (BBC America, 8 p.m.): Chill out in some of the coldest climes imaginable in David Attenborough’s new follow-up to his 2011 nature series.

“Love in Glacier National: A National Park Romance” (Hallmark, 8 p.m.): An avalanche forecaster hooks up with a hunky park ranger in this new TV movie.

“Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini” (Lifetime, 8 p.m.): “Hart of Dixie’s” Jaime King portrays the Redding woman who faked her own abduction in 2016 in this new fact-based TV movie.

“Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 8:29 and 11:29 p.m.): “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan hosts and rapper Lil Baby performs.

“Help! My House Is Haunted” (Travel, 10 p.m.): Haunted, I tells ya! The paranormal investigation series returns with new episodes.

“Austin City Limits” (KOCE, 11:30 p.m.): Veteran indie-rockers the War on Drugs take the stage on the concert series.

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Sun., Jan. 29

NFC Championship and AFC Championship (Fox, noon; CBS, 3:30 p.m.): The Eagles face the 49ers, then the Chiefs battle the Bengals, with winners of each contest moving on to Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12.

“Vacation Home Nightmare” (Lifetime, 8 p.m.): A woman finds her short-term rental comes with potentially lethal consequences in this new thriller.

“90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way” (TLC, 8 p.m.): This entry in the relationship-themed reality franchise returns for a fourth season.

Mon., Jan. 30

“Prisoner of the Prophet” (Discovery+): One of polygamist cult leader and convicted sex offender Warren Jeffs’ many wives speaks her piece in this new documentary.

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“Switch” (GSN, 7 p.m.; also Tuesday-Friday): Contestants use their knowledge of trivia to jockey for position in this new game show.

“The Watchful Eye” (Freeform, 9 and 10 p.m.): A young woman (Mariel Molino) with a secret works as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family with a few secrets of their own in this new Manhattan-set mystery drama.

“History’s Greatest Mysteries” (History, 9 p.m.): They’re desperately seeking Scotland’s legendary Loch Ness monster in the series’ Season 4 premiere.

“Independent Lens” (KOCE, 10 p.m.): The new episode “The Picture Taker” profiles Ernest Withers, a Black photographer who documented the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s while also working as an informant for the FBI.

Tue., Jan. 31

“Cunk on Earth” (Netflix): A British TV presenter (Diane Morgan) with a limited grasp of the facts is your guide to the history of human civilization in this new mockumentary.

“Nate Bargatze: Hello World” (Prime Video): The Nashville native cracks wise for fans in Phoenix in this new stand-up special.

“Pamela: A Love Story” (Netflix): Former “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson reflects on her life, her career — and yes, that infamous sex tape — in this intimate new documentary.

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“Breathless” (TCM, 5 p.m.): French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard, who died in 2022, is remembered with a mini-marathon that includes the director’s influential 1960 crime drama.

“Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” (KOCE, 8 p.m.): Viola Davis and “Succession’s” Brian Cox shake their family trees in this new episode.

“Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World” (KOCE, 9 p.m.): This new four-part series co-created by Public Enemy rapper Chuck D charts the rise of that musical genre.

“Frontline” (KOCE, 10 p.m.): The new episode “Putin and the Presidents” explores the longtime Russian leader’s often contentious dealings with his American counterparts over the last two decades.

Wed., Feb. 1

“The Great British Baking Show: The Professionals” (Netflix): The old adage “If you can’t stand the heat …” does not apply to the contestants in this new spinoff series.

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“Gunther’s Millions” (Netflix): A German shepherd allegedly inheriting a sizable fortune is the least bonkers thing that happens in this new “Tiger King”-style docuseries.

“The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” (Disney+): This reboot of the 2002-05 animated sitcom is back for a second season.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney+): The once-reclusive African nation soldiers on following King T’Challa’s untimely demise in this 2022 sequel to Marvel’s 2018 action tale. Ryan Coogler directs and Letitia Wright stars.

“18½” (Starz, 2:11 p.m.): A low-level White House employee gets caught up in the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s in this 2021 comedy. “Jack Reacher’s” Willa Fitzgerald stars.

“Schoolhouse Rock! 50th Anniversary Singalong” (ABC, 8 p.m.): Famous faces lend their voices to this celebration of the beloved 1970s-era animated educational series. With Black Eyed Peas, the Muppets, et al.

“Nova” (KOCE, 9 p.m.): They’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day, to bring a new transportation system to the British capital in the new episode “London Super Tunnel.”

“The Ark” (Syfy, 10 p.m.): It’s not exactly smooth sailing for the crew of a damaged spaceship on a mission to find a new home for humanity in this new sci-fi adventure drama.

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Thu., Feb. 2

“Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power” (Peacock): This 2022 documentary recalls the battle to protect the franchise in one Alabama community following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The Reading” (BET+): A grieving author (Oscar winner Mo’Nique) who lost her family in a violent home invasion turns to a young psychic to help her find closure in this 2022 supernatural thriller.

2023 Pro Bowl Games (ESPN, 4 p.m.; concludes Sunday): The NFL’s annual contest expands to include skills challenges and flag-football match-ups. From Las Vegas.

“The Iron River of Guns” (Vice, 11 p.m.): This new documentary details efforts to stem the tide of cheap and illegal firearms flooding into Mexico from the U.S.

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