June 2019 was a huge month for new TV debuts and returning TV favorites. I normally try to whittle these monthly lists down to a handful of shows worth commenting on, but in June, that was harder than ever, with so much to choose from.
Though not all of the month’s spoils measured up, there was still plenty to like, including a wildly enjoyable “horror” comedy, a hardboiled crime drama, and even a sketch comedy series that I — a notorious non-fan of sketch comedy — liked more than I didn’t. Summer TV is going great guns, but these are all shows you should have on your plate.
Alternatino continues Comedy Central’s run of smart sketch comedy shows
I am not, by nature, a sketch comedy person. Whether it’s my short attention span, my deep disinterest in Saturday Night Live, or the inherent hit-or-miss quality of most sketch shows, I really struggle to care about the format, outside of the occasional Key & Peele or I Think You Should Leave.
But if there’s a network that’s cracked the sketch comedy nut, it’s probably Comedy Central, which aired the aforementioned Key & Peele, as well as the incredibly successful Inside Amy Schumer (which quickly burned itself out, but never mind). The network is good at developing shows that balance funny sketches that don’t drag on too long with perspectives we’re not used to seeing in the comedy world.
Such is the case with Alternatino With Arturo Castro, the network’s latest sketch series. Castro is the first Latino to have a sketch comedy series built around him, a reality the show simultaneously embraces and runs away from. Castro is someone who loves to put on a costume in order to put on a character, and even the show’s promotional art underlines how he’s a man of a thousand faces.
Alternatino isn’t yet as sharp as Key & Peele or Inside Amy Schumer, but it’s on the right track in its first season. It gets a little repetitive — there are a few too many sketches about just how rapidly cultural norms are shifting, and even if Castro’s comedy never makes fun of the people who are shifting them (and instead targets those who are befuddled or outraged as a result of the shifts), it loses steam fairly early on.
Still, there are at least a couple of good sketches in each episode (I’ve seen four of 10), and at his best, Castro balances a friendly wink with satirical bite. Alternatino isn’t all there yet, but it’s definitely on the right track.
Watch Alternatino if you like: Any of the sketch series I listed above. Also, the workplace comedy Better Off Ted.
Where to watch: New episodes of Alternatino air Tuesdays at 10:30 pm Eastern, and previous episodes are available on Comedy Central’s website and on demand. The show also has a healthy YouTube presence.
Jett is a perfect, sizzling crime drama for the warmer months
Carla Gugino has been living in the “She’s so good; why doesn’t she have a TV show?” realm for so long now that it’s easy to forget the flinty actress has starred in a number of shows built around her considerable charms. It’s just that none of them have taken off. Alas, Karen Sisco, b. 2003; d. 2003!
Actually, the sly noir Karen Sisco is a great comparison point for Gugino’s new series, Jett, which is exactly the sort of thing I’m inclined to enjoy in the summer months because it so perfectly captures the feeling of not wanting to leave your couch because it’s so hot outside.
On Karen Sisco, Gugino played the long arm of the law — a US Marshal who tracked down fugitives. (She played a very similar role on Justified, and considering both Justified and Karen Sisco are Elmore Leonard adaptations, let’s just say she played Sisco again on the better-known series, reality be damned.) But on Jett, Gugino plays a thief who’s tried to leave a life of crime behind. And as they say, just when she thought she was out, they pulled her back in!
Truth be told, Jett is maybe a little too pulpy for its own good. There are so, so many plot twists throughout the first four episodes (out of nine in the show’s first season). It’s as if the show is terrified you might revolt if it lets you catch your breath for even a second.
But Gugino knows exactly how to make Jett’s kind of pulpy, hardboiled dialogue sing. And if ever there’s a time to watch a show that is maybe a little overwrought but focused on entertaining you at all costs, early summer is it. Jett is fun. In June, that’s enough.
Watch Jett if you like: Justified, Alias, Veep
Where to watch: Jett airs Fridays at 10 pm Eastern on Cinemax and is also available on Cinemax’s streaming platforms.
Los Espookys successfully captures a bilingual reality, with a healthy dose of handmade horror
Here’s a brief excerpt from my recent rave about HBO’s Los Espookys, a series about a group of friends in an unnamed Latin American country who start up a business aimed at bringing horror to everyday life via handcrafted monsters and ghouls:
It feels reductive to call Los Espookys magical realism, both because it’s so much funnier than that term would normally imply and because essentially every project that somehow involves Latin America gets dubbed “magical realism” at one point or another, whether the moniker fits or not.
But what’s so rewarding about this deeply weird little show is how it all but forces you to pay closer attention to what could seem tossed-off or silly. You never know what might happen, a key tenet of magical realism.
It also feels like the show’s sneakily profound core is similar to the horrific ghouls and monsters cooked up by its central characters to inject a little horror into day-to-day life: It’s painstakingly handcrafted and assembled bit by bit until it adds up to something wonderful and, yes, magical.
Watch Los Espookys if you like: Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Good Place
Where to watch: New episodes of Los Espookys air Fridays at 11 pm Eastern on HBO. You can also watch the series on HBO’s streaming platforms.
Perpetual Grace LTD brings Ben Kingsley to TV. It’s just wild and weird enough to earn his presence.
Here’s a brief excerpt from my earlier recommendation of Perpetual Grace LTD, Epix’s wildly twisty noir drama about a small-time criminal trying to rip off a pastor (played by Ben Kingsley!) and his wife:
Co-creator Steve Conrad has big ideas on his mind, about how capitalism squeezes people dry and how modern American Christianity aids and abets it, but he’s so good at crafting sharp plot turns and dreamy images that Perpetual Grace LTD never feels didactic or preachy.
As with Conrad’s other show, Amazon’s lovely and mournful Patriot, Perpetual Grace LTD is worth watching less for its plot — which is fun and twisty but also not exactly anything new — and much more for its overall vibe. Conrad’s work examines the crumbling weight of American institutions. On Patriot, he focused on the slow strangulation of working-class America and American institutions. On Perpetual Grace LTD, he’s turned his sights to the uneasy intersection of faith, commerce, and crime.
Conrad creates antihero shows, about bad people who do bad things, but he roots them in an overall thesis about how America creates those bad people and why they’re a logical outcome of a system that hollows out social institutions in the name of making more and more money. The church used to mean something, but now it’s a husk. All anybody cares about is how much money they have in the bank, and how much you can be fleeced for. If there was ever anything else, it’s long turned to dust.
Watch Perpetual Grace LTD if you like: Breaking Bad, Fargo, Barry
Years and Years is a deeply strange piece of historical fiction — about the future
Miniseries about the life of one family, playing out against the epic sweep of history, are a rich tradition on television. In the US alone, you can perhaps think of Rich Man, Poor Man; Roots; and The Winds of War — all three center on the stories of one family, often traced across multiple generations (as in Roots).
Technically, Years and Years does this too. It’s about one British family over roughly 15 tumultuous years of history, watching as rabid populists divide nations against themselves and as death and horror spread across countries that believed themselves immune to such darkness. But Years and Years is also different. It starts in 2019, and the “history” it charts is all in our immediate future. It is a show about how the end of the world begins and gains momentum, rooted in the world we know all too well right now.
The six-episode miniseries (I’ve seen three episodes so far) is the latest work of Russell T. Davies, a British TV writer extraordinaire who created Queer as Folk and the Doctor Who reboot, among other series. Years and Years sees him biting off slightly more than he can chew, but its vision of a world circling the drain and how impossible it will be to plug that drain is perhaps more than any TV writer could manage. That Davies does so as well as he does — and that Years and Years feels like an eerie prediction of what’s to come — is commendable.
I struggle a bit with how his depiction of “transhumanism,” or the desire of some humans to transcend their forms by becoming more and more machine, feels like a sly and maybe even snide attempt to pivot off current discussion of trans issues in an almost scare-mongering fashion, as if mocking the kids today for thinking they could possibly change their bodies, or not just be happy with what they were given at birth. I say “almost” because, well, talking about how we’re going to navigate a world where boring old analog humanity is supplemented by digital add-ons is pretty much a necessity in near-future sci-fi. But it still pinged my trans radar.
Beyond that, Years and Years is pretty terrific. The cast is amazing, including Emma Thompson as the kind of fascist who is good at keeping up appearances and making her brutal positions seem almost palatable to the masses and the media. But what’s really remarkable about the show is the way it captures a tendency toward catastrophic thinking that is present all over the world right now. You think things can’t keep getting worse, but then they do. What if that never stops? Or, rather, what if there’s no way to stop it?
Watch Years and Years if you like: Angels in America, Mad Men, most post-apocalyptic fiction
Where to watch: New episodes of Years and Years air Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. The series is also available on HBO’s streaming platforms.
7 more new shows worth checking out
I don’t endorse the following shows with nearly as much gusto as the five discussed above, but maybe you’ll like them more than me. They’re all worth at least considering!
- City on a Hill (Showtime, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern) is doing absolutely nothing new. It’s a cops-and-robbers show set in Boston, and we’ve all seen that before. But it stars Kevin Bacon, who is doing his damnedest, and it does have a sense of local flavor to spice up its “done this, seen that” feel.
- Did the world need a miniseries remake of the classic German submarine movie Das Boot (now streaming on Hulu)? Probably not, considering the original film is pretty much perfect (and has already been expanded into a miniseries version of itself, using footage cut from the film shown in America). But Hulu’s new version is still a good version of a great story, and sometimes that’s enough.
- It’s still early, but Euphoria (HBO, Sundays at 10 pm Eastern) at least has a shot at randomly ending up on my year-end top TV list. Its depiction of troubled teens trying to figure out their identities is a little smug and tawdry, but geez, when the show works, it works very, very well. And Zendaya is terrific in the lead role.
- Holey Moley (ABC, Thursdays at 8 pm Eastern) combines mini-golf with an obstacle course, and Steph Curry occasionally drops by to provide a cameo. That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
- I will give literally any multi-camera sitcom a shot, and I will probably overrate it because I love the form so much, which are necessary caveats to say: I am enjoying Mr. Iglesias (streaming on Netflix), a warmed-up version of Welcome Back, Kotter starring Gabriel Iglesias as a high school teacher trying to get through to some punk kids.
- I still haven’t seen the original Tales of the City (streaming on Netflix), but the new version is a largely satisfying dive into queer history, set in San Francisco and focused on an intergenerational found family built among LGBTQ folks living there. My one quibble: It almost plays better as a series of disconnected scenes than it does as an actual TV show.
- Finally, I haven’t yet watched What Just Happened (Fox, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern), but its premise — Fred Savage hosts a fake “aftershow” (think Talking Dead) for a TV show that doesn’t exist, based on a series of books that also don’t exist — is so weird that I guarantee you I will try to like it as much as I possibly can.
10 returning shows you better be watching
If you’re not watching these 10 shows that recently started new seasons, well, I think it’s worth doing so (even if some of them are struggling creatively right now).
- Baskets (FX, Thursdays, 10 pm Eastern)
- Big Little Lies (HBO, Sundays, 9 pm Eastern)
- Black Mirror (streaming on Netflix)
- Claws (TNT, Sundays, 9 pm Eastern)
- Dark (streaming on Netflix)
- The Detour (TBS, Tuesdays, 10:30 pm Eastern)
- Good Trouble (Freeform, Tuesdays, 8 pm Eastern)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (streaming on Hulu, new episodes on Wednesdays)
- Legion (FX, Mondays, 10 pm Eastern)
- Pose (FX, Tuesdays, 10 pm Eastern)
And if that’s not enough, July is already here. Netflix is revving up with a new season of Stranger Things and the final season of Orange Is the New Black. Hulu is reviving Veronica Mars. There’s lots still to come!