Part 4: Genuine Escapism
My last entry in this series will deal with a group of shows that fit the definite of escapism better than any of the other shows on this list.
We all spent much of the last four years looking to TV to bring us into a world other than this one. But these shows — be that comedies, dramas or mini-series — used the medium to new levels of imagination. A lot of them didn’t make sense, but can we truly say the world we lived in the past four years made much either? These really took the visuals of the medium and made it incredible.
Not nearly enough people viewed Jim Carrey’s return to television. But those of who did saw a true miracle. Carrey played Jeff Pickles, the host of a children’s TV show for thirty years whose life was slowly and surely becoming undone after the death of one of his children. As he slowly but surely began to crack, the lines between his world and the world of puppets that he and his family had spent decades developing began to fray and the result was one of the greatest surreal experiments in TV history, that constantly kept the viewer on their toes, trying to figure out what was real and what was in Jeff’s mind.
We saw flashbacks to an earlier time when things seemed easier. We saw a dream sequence under anesthesia that not even Jeff could tell if things was actually happening. We saw an episode of his series — and in all candor, if this was a real show, it’s the one we need now more than ever. Carrey reminded us why, in addition to be one of our great comics, he’s a superb actor. And he was backed up by a great supporting cast, including Frank Langella and Catherine Keener.
I’m not entirely stunned that this series was canceled after just two years — the viewership was low even for Showtime. But I hope like heck that some other creator takes on the ideas of the visuals and focuses it on an other rarity in Peak TV — a good person who can’t even bring himself to use the curses everyone around him can.
This would be a true joy for television even if this were a far gentler era. But in this era, it is remarkable. A flashback to 1980s Indiana and a story focused on a group of pre-teens as they try to explore the world of supernatural monsters.
Watching the series first explore the disappearance of Will Byers featured some truly magnificent moments. Joyce trying to find her son using Christmas tree light; the disappearance of the nerdy Barb that started its own hashtag, the visuals on the Demagorgon. And all around a bunch of good-hearted middle Americans trying to do the right thing.
The cast was always filled with winks to the earlier era, starting with Winona Ryder as Joyce, but what has made this series sing has been the incredible performances the Duffer Brothers have managed to coax out of these incredible kids led, of course, by Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Even three years into her work, there are few actresses of any age who can do so much with so few words.
The virus postponed the shooting of Stranger Things 4 which means will have to wait to see if the most beloved character Sheriff Roy Hopper is still alive. But as long as they keep promoting, I’ll be a member of their party.
I know, I know, technically this is an urban comedy. But anyone who’s watched Donald Glover’s masterpiece knows that Atlanta is anything but the typical comedy. Writer-director-star Glover has assembled a troop of writers that are willing to do more and stranger things that even some of those risky dramas are willing to try.
Who can forget ‘B.A.N’, where Paper Boi when on a black network channel to deal with a racial controversy? The commercials alone made it a masterpiece. Or the prescient Juneteenth where Earn and Van went to the title celebration that was the complete opposite of what we know it should be about? Or FUBU, where we back to Earn’s childhood and saw just how dark things could be over a jacket?
Of course, all of that pales (pun definitely intended) with the show’s masterpiece (so far) ‘Teddy Perkins’. Fringe character Darius goes to pick up a piano, and ends up having one of the most surreal experiences in television history with a former rock star who seems to have completely bleached his skin and has a completely different look on fame and success. This is one of the greatest achievements in TV history. Two years later, critics are still trying to explain it.
Atlanta will be back, though it’s hard to know when. (It was renewed for two seasons, but Glover was moving at a measured pace getting the writing done before Covid threw everything into chaos. But I want to see what happens next to Earn. I know it won’t be pretty. That’s why I want to see it.
Technically this series was one of the most realistic explorations of race in the history of the medium. That doesn’t change the fact that this limited series that served as a sequel to the groundbreaking graphic novel was one of the greatest visual and creative masterpieces in history.
The murder of a sheriff in Tulsa becomes the backdrop to a battle for racial dominance that could lead to the end of the world. But Sister Night (the always dazzling Regina King) could never quite put together how it was happening, even though she was at the center of it. And Laurie Blake (the equally brilliant Jean Smart) didn’t seem to care because, as we all knew, she’d seen it all before. In the midst of this, Adrian Veidt seemed to live a life of leisure that quickly became more and more surreal. Looking Glass was dealing the aftereffects of the attack at the center of the comic and the truth was devastating. And through it all Lady Trieu was trying to bring about world peace. That’s what she thought anyway. And where was Dr. Manhattan in all this?
This did turn out to make sense in the end, but it wouldn’t have matter much of it didn’t because the visuals were so great (This Extraordinary Being was one of the great accomplishments of 2019) and the performance were marvelous. Damon Lindelof has firmly said that this will be a one and done series, even though the demand for Season 2 is high and there are place the show could go. But this was a true masterpiece and nothing can damage that.
Twin Peaks: The Return
In a world of reboots and revivals, it would’ve been easy for David Lynch to get the cast and crew of his landmark cult series back together and do more of the same. But as anyone who’s watched his work, ‘easy’ is not something David Lynch does.
This series defined what a revival should do. In eighteen episode, Lynch and Mark Frost managed to create a world that was almost, but not entirely unlike the series he had created a quarter of a century ago. He took the central character of that series Dale Cooper and had him play two completely different versions of himself until the revival was almost over. Most of the characters of the show were there, but it made very clear that the world of Twin Peaks was completely different. Hell, half the characters we met had no previous connection.
Did it make much sense? Not really. Did I care? Not at all. This is one of the true works of art of television, a perfect companion to the original series. And I know it was because the Emmys had no idea what to do with it when the time for nominations came out. They’ll appreciate it later.
Much as I’d like another season, given the age of most of the cast (Miguel Ferrer and Catherine Coulson died not that long after making it) the odds are fairly strong against it. So let’s be grateful that we got what Dale Cooper said all those years ago something that was: ‘wondrous and strange.”