We’ve got another week with a lot of entries. Most of the series come from the U.S., but most of the films are international. It makes for a week with many different options. Entries come from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Georgia, Japan, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, and the U.S.
We’re still in the mid-season premiere period when many new series follow the one-episode-a-week format. These things are seasonal, so as we get into February, expect to see that dwindle and more of the all-episodes-at-once format become more common again.
Sam feels like an outsider in rural Kansas. As she deals with the loss of her sister, she’s able to start identifying where her real community lies.
The show is developed by and stars comedian Bridget Everett. Hannah Bos showruns with Paul Thureen. Bos has written on “Mozart in the Jungle”, “High Maintenance”, and “Strangers”.
You can watch “Somebody Somewhere” on HBO Max. New episodes arrive on Sundays.
Single Drunk Female (Freeform, Hulu) showrunner Simone Finch
Samantha has a breakdown in public and moves back in with her mother to avoid jail time. She struggles with remaining sober and getting through rehab.
Showrunner Simone Finch worked as a showrunner’s assistant on “Madam Secretary”, and the “Roseanne” reboot, and as a writer on “The Conners”.
You can watch “Single Drunk Female” on Freeform or Hulu. New episodes drop on Thursdays.
How I Met Your Father (Hulu) co-showrun by Elizabeth Berger
“How I Met Your Father” is a standalone sequel to the 2000s hit “How I Met Your Mother”. Hillary Duff stars as Sophie, a photographer trying and failing to find her soulmate. Kim Cattrall takes up the role as the older version of Sophie, who’s telling this story to her son.
Elizabeth Berger showruns with Isaac Aptaker. The pair also showrun Hulu’s “Love, Victor”, a similar standalone sequel that started off charming enough, but was probably the most improved show of 2021 with its second season.
Pamela Fryman returns to direct the first two episodes. She directed 196 of 208 “How I Met Your Mother” episodes, though I’m unsure if she directs more than the two-part pilot here.
You can watch “How I Met Your Father” on Hulu. New episodes premiere Tuesdays.
Summer Heat (Netflix) by various
“Summer Heat” follows the young workers at a resort as they build and wreck and rebuild relationships over a summer.
It’s hard to pin down who exactly’s running the Brazilian series, but the head writers are Andrea Simao and Andrea Midori, while the series is directed equally by Caroline Fioratti and Isabel Valiante.
You can watch “Summer Heat” on Netflix. All 8 episodes are available at once.
Tales of Luminaria: The Fateful Crossroad directed by Katou Midori, Katou Shiori
This anime tells the story of young soldiers in an ongoing fantasy war. While this is part of a franchise, the “Tales of” series is much like “Final Fantasy”. Entries such as this take place in a new world with new characters that are all separate from the rest of the franchise.
Both Katou Midori and Katou Shiori worked on “Bungo and Alchemist: Gears of Judgement”, but this is the first time either is directing.
You can watch “Tales of Luminaria: The Fateful Crossroad” on Crunchyroll or Funimation. New episodes arrive Thursdays.
Stop-Zemlia (VOD) directed by Kateryna Gornostai
This Ukrainian film follows a girl who’s trying to make sense of growing up as she hangs out with classmates. The experimental drama employs a documentary style.
Writer-director Kateryna Gornostai started out as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. This is her first narrative feature.
Mona doesn’t have much success to speak of, but at least she was the one responsible enough to stay behind and take care of her father. When he has a stroke, her three successful siblings sweep in to assume control of the one thing she was doing well.
As well as starring in the lead role, Agam Darshi writes and directs. This is her first feature film in those roles. She’s had a number of acting roles on shows like “Sanctuary” and “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”.
Definition Please (Netflix) directed by Sujata Day
Sujata Day writes, directs, and stars in a film about a former Spelling Bee champion who attempts to reconcile with her estranged brother. He’s returned home to help care for their mother, and she’s considering leaving to take the kind of dream job that was once expected of her.
You may recognize Sujata Day as a supporting actress from series like “Insecure” or “The Guild”. This is her first time writing or directing.
I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.
This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.
The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.
The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.
Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.
Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.
OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.
There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.
Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.
This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.
I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.
There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.
It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.
I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.
Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.
Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.
In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.
There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.
All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.
At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.
The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.
There’s a lot new in streaming this week, including an MCU film, a First Nations film, a stop-motion mind-trip, and the bulk of the winter season’s new anime. You’ll also start to find some awards contenders arriving on streaming platforms, such as “Bergman Island” coming to Hulu (in the mix for screenplay and acting nominations). The larger awards contenders won’t come out until later in the year, and in some cases won’t be realistically available until right before or after the Oscars. Films that people can’t realistically see until February or March 2022 being the best film of 2021 is…another conversation.
I do want to talk about that influx of anime: why does it tend to happen in such sudden bursts? Anime tends to drop seasonally, with most premieres grouped into brief two-week windows about once every three months. This means quick bursts of premieres before another few months of relative silence. I try to feature animation from all countries, but no other country has the scale of saturation in the U.S. that Japan manages. Obviously, other English-speaking countries like the U.K. and Canada do well. As for others, France is an extremely consistent animation powerhouse, and we do see tons more work from South Korea and India than we imagine, since a lot of “U.S. productions” are mostly animated there. Yet in terms of original content, streaming platforms tend to only pick up a few things from Poland, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, India, South Korea, Russia, China, and other countries that do have significant animation industries.
Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and the like don’t put the investment into bringing that animation over that they do into anime – and that’s even before getting to dedicated anime platforms like Crunchyroll, Funimation, or Hidive that bring the bulk of new titles over and maintain interest and infrastructure. Even before this, Japan’s investment into anime is staggering. Despite being the 11th most populous country, it regularly produces the most animated films and the second-most animated series (after the U.S.) in the world. And again, a lot of what counts as “U.S. productions” are animated in other countries, but I can probably only keep you through so many tangents.
Let’s get to it:
The House (Netflix) multiple directors
“The House” is a stop-motion, gothic anthology series about characters in three different eras who each become tied to a house. Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Goth, Matthew Goode, and Miranda Richardson lend their voices.
Emma De Swaef directs an episode with Marc James Roels, and then Paloma Baeza and Niki Lindroth von Bahr each direct one.
Based on the DC comic book series by Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and illustrated by Jamal Campbell, “Naomi” follows a fan of the real Superman who investigates a supernatural event and begins to realize her own powers.
The series is produced by Ava DuVernay, and Jill Blankenship is showrunner. Blankenship has written and produced on “The Last Ship” and “Arrow”.
You can watch “Naomi” on The CW. New episodes arrive on Tuesdays.
An archivist is hired to restore a collection of old, damaged videotapes. What he finds on them is the work of a filmmaker who was investigating a cult.
Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine has written and produced on “The Boys” and “The Vampire Diaries”.
Four of the episodes are directed by Rebecca Thomas, director of “Limetown”, “Stranger Things”, and the upcoming live-action “The Little Mermaid” adaptation. Another two are directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who helmed “Wadjda” and “Mary Shelley”.
You can watch “Archive 81” on Netflix. All eight episodes are available at once.
Akebi’s Sailor Uniform (Crunchyroll, Funimation) directed by Kuroki Miyuki
A girl from the country gets into an elite private school. The show takes its name from how excited she is just to put on the school uniform. This seems like it could be a wholesome, slice-of-life anime.
Director Kuroki Miyuki has previously directed on “The Idolmaster Side M” and assisted directed on the “Fate/Grand Order” franchise.
Life with an Ordinary Guy Who Reincarnated into a Total Fantasy Knockout (Crunchyroll) directed by Yamai Sayaka
I mean, some of the titles save me a lot of descriptive work. Two men are transported to a fantasy world by a goddess. One of them is transformed into a woman (after he indirectly wishes for this), and now the two have to navigate both this world and their newfound sexual tension.
There are a lot of ways this could go wrong, and anime has about as bad a history on trans rights and gender dysphoria as U.S. media does, but I will say Anime Feminist gave this a strong early review and they tend to have a progressive stance on these issues as a critical site.
This is the first series directed by Yamai Sayaka.
You can watch “Life with an Ordinary Guy Who Reincarnated into a Total Fantasy Knockout” on Crunchyroll. New episodes arrive on Tuesdays.
Pivoting (Fox) showrunner Liz Astrof
Eliza Coupe, Maggie Q, and Ginnifer Goodwin play friends who react to the death of their friend Colleen by upending their lives and pursuing new directions.
Showrunner Liz Astrof has produced on “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney”.
You can watch “Pivoting” on Fox. New episodes arrive on Thursdays.
Saiyuki Reload Zeroin (Hidive) directed by Takada Misato
Adventurers band together in order to stop the resurrection of a powerful, evil being. No English-translated trailer is available, but there will be translation for the series.
This is the first series directed by Takada Misato.
You can watch “Saiyuki Reload Zeroin” on Hidive. New episodes arrive on Thursdays.
Futsal Boys!!!!! (Funimation) directed by Hiiro Yukina
Futsal is a 5-on-5 game of soccer played on a hard court that’s smaller than a football pitch. “Futsal Boys!!!!!” is a slice-of-life anime that follows young men playing the game. No English-translated trailer is available, but there will be translation for the series.
Director Hiiro Yukina has previously helmed “Hitorijime My Hero” and “100 Sleeping Princes & the Kingdom of Dreams”.
You can watch “Futsal Boys!!!!!” on Funimation. New episodes arrive on Sundays.
Eternals (Disney+) directed by Chloe Zhao
Chloe Zhao follows up her Best Directing and Best Picture Oscar wins for “Nomadland” (as well as screenplay and editing nominations) with a Marvel film that follows a race of immortal beings who’ve thus far stayed out of humanity’s affairs.
Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Richard Madden, and Kit Harington star.
A wife and husband travel to an island that inspired legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman to write. As they stay there, reality and fiction start to blur together.
Mia Hansen-Love quickly left acting in favor of writing and directing. She’s had success as a French filmmaker that includes a Cannes win and a Cesar nomination.
You can watch “Bergman Island” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.
Edge of the Knife (Shudder, AMC+) co-directed by Helen Haig-Brown
This First Nations drama is the first feature film in the Haida language, spoken on a series of islands off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. “Edge of the Knife”, or “Sgaawaay K’uuna”, tells the story of a man who’s traumatized after accidentally causing the death of his best friend’s son. Wracked with grief, he escapes into the forest and transforms into a Gaagiixiid, or a wildman.
Helen Haig-Brown directs with Gwaai Edenshaw. Haig-Brown is a Tsilhquot’in filmmaker. This is her first feature film.
We’re a few decades into men romancing android women, but women being romanced by android men hasn’t gotten the same amount of cinematic attention. In “I’m Your Man”, a scientist makes an agreement to obtain funding for her own research. She agrees to live for three weeks with a robot who’s designed to make her happy.
Co-writer and director Maria Schrader won an Emmy for her directing on “Unorthodox”, and is a well-known German actress.
You can watch “I’m Your Man” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.
Sex Appeal (Hulu) directed by Talia Osteen
A teenager who’s a perfectionist at heart needs help from her best friend to collect data for her sexual research app.
This is the first feature directed by Talia Osteen, who’s composed the music for “Imposters” and “Coffee Town”.
A year-and-a-half ago, 1,000 deaths a day from COVID was reason to distance and shut down most of our daily lives. That same number today just makes us worry about how quickly our economy can get back to normal. Obviously, we have vaccines now that we didn’t have then. That decreases the spread among the vaccinated, but not if we increase the places we can spread COVID by resuming our everyday activities.
We’re weeks off “Spider-Man: No Way Home” grabbing the second-largest opening weekend of all-time with $260 million. I didn’t cover it. In fact, I’ve only covered one film in theaters since COVID broke out, and that was because I could maintain social distancing at a drive-in.
We’re looking at COVID becoming endemic like the flu – just something we deal with despite 800,000 dying as a result of it, and millions more coping with long haul COVID and the devastating chronic health issues it can create.
A year-and-a-half ago, 1,000 deaths a day from COVID was unacceptable. It was reason to close things down, to shut down theaters and many other businesses, to get serious about using our taxes to provide supplementary income to people in order to bridge that shut down. Yet the U.S. has again been surpassing that average of 1,000 deaths a day since August 2021. It has become acceptable, the price of doing business, and if that’s not a demonstration of our norms being severely moved, I don’t know what is.
I love film and there’s absolutely a draw to see new films in theaters. I’m sure it’d help my Patreon to write about something as big as “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. I’m vaccinated and boosted, but is any of that worth even a small risk I could carry COVID and – even if it doesn’t impact me – pass it on to someone who’s elderly or immunosuppressed? I ask myself if a movie is worth even a 0.1% chance of that and I come away thinking it’s not. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m being too careful. To me, there’s a responsibility there, and a responsibility isn’t about whether I like it or not; it isn’t about whether it’s easy or not; it’s about whether I do it or not.
The average movie ticket price in the U.S. is $9.37. That means nearly 28 million people saw “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. If every person who saw that movie had only a 0.1% chance of passing COVID on to someone else in a serious way, that’s 27,000 serious cases from one event in a three-day weekend. My 0.1% chance, or whatever it may be, doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Now add on all the packed stadiums at football and basketball games, packed bars in states that don’t take this seriously, event after event imagining they can positive think their way into escaping a disease they invite right in their doors….
I have family living in a state that has actively and aggressively resisted masking, distancing, and vaccination. They follow all those guidelines, they’ve been vaccinated, but hardly anyone else does. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell everyone weekly in what state it’s safe-ish or not safe to watch a movie in theaters, or in which county in which state. If I feature films in theaters, I’m encouraging people to go see those films in theaters, wherever they are. So: I don’t feature films unless they have a home viewing option. Period.
It’s not an easy decision. It’s one that I imagine costs me. Other critics are seeing films in theaters; other content creators are making content out in public. I’m not going to judge them or say they’re doing anything wrong. Many people have jobs that don’t give them a choice.
I look at this country and we’re just not there yet. A thousand deaths a day once saw us recoil in horror and shut things down. If we decided at the start of this that we wouldn’t let the pandemic change who we are, that we wouldn’t let conservatives argue us into sacrificing lives for an economy we’re wealthy enough as a nation to supplement, then a thousand deaths a day should always make us recoil in horror, and should always make us argue that we need to shut things down. Vaccines have changed some of the equation, but not enough to shift that tally of deaths.
If a thousand deaths a day means opening everything back up, that’s to a large extent the result of Republicans and some Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to help people through this time, hauling our norms over, and making that an acceptable figure in a way it wasn’t last year. I can’t do that. Fuck them for trying to make me. I’m not angry at COVID; it’s a disease. I’m angry at those who would rather sacrifice lives than see the richest nation in the world spend our own money on us during a crisis.
I don’t expect a hard boundary when COVID isn’t a thing anymore, but we can look at that daily count and compare our very different reactions from one year to the next. That daily COVID death count was once unacceptable, and treating it as unacceptable was a significant difference in humanity and empathy between those who wanted to shut things down and help people financially bridge the gap vs. those who wanted to sacrifice lives to keep an economy limping along with no assistance for the people and families making those sacrifices.
I can’t help but ask where that difference is now. I don’t have a desire to chase it out of myself, and certainly not for a movie, for a bar, for a football game. What a pathetic and insulting price to put on our humanity.
Maybe I’m being a stick in the mud, but if people are still dying in the thousands, why the hell don’t we act like it anymore? If cases are spiking among young children who haven’t been able to get vaccinated, why isn’t that an emergency around which we rally?
I look around and I know I wasn’t alone in these feelings last year, but that standpoint feels a lot more isolated now than it did when COVID started. It no longer feels like the norm. If we held that norm in 2020 and part of 2021, and that norm was part of our humanity and empathy, what does its absence speak to now?
That’s why I won’t go back to featuring films without home viewing options. That’s why I’ve shifted a bit more toward series. That daily count still needs to go down. I thought that in 2020. I think that now. Whether it’s about what movie I feature, or another choice to maintain social distancing, I won’t have someone else take that thinking away from me, and I won’t give it away. It has to be a decision I would have been willing to make in 2020, and 2021. The only way to know that someone hasn’t moved my norms is to make that decision out of the norms I held when I knew they were unmoved. Otherwise, it’s not about what our reality is, it’s about that anti-vaxxer, Republican, Q-Anon, positive thinking clusterfuck trying to unseat and erode those norms; it’s the movement that let COVID get out of control in the first place and still abets the disease.
The pandemic, an economy unassisted because of conservative unwillingness to spend our money we gave them on us, the pressure, the stress, all of it adds up, and that makes us prone to allowing our norms and realities to be changed in ways we once would have resisted. That’s not easy to identify or reject. It wouldn’t be so effective if it weren’t so tempting. Yet we’ve got a way to make it easy. Those norms don’t often come with numbers. This one does. If a thousand deaths a day was unacceptable in 2020, and unacceptable in 2021, then it still is. Before anything else, my decision-making has to come from that place. Anything else, and the humanity and empathy that decision arose from is missing. Here’s the point: the decisions you make when your humanity and empathy are missing are not ones you get to go back and undo.
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The new year brings high-profile series on traditional networks. Streaming platforms try to get their big shows out before the holidays. You can fit eight or ten episodes in with a November premiere, or just drop them all at once in December. Netflix and company know people will gladly curl up and binge a show over the break.
Traditional networks still mount series with larger episode orders and weekly delivery. They need to in order to make their format work. This means following the September/January model of debuting new shows. There are major entries across the board. With “Women of the Movement”, “The Cleaning Lady”, and “Good Sam”, ABC, Fox, and CBS each bring new series showrun by women.
I’ll also note Part 2 of “The Club” premiered this week. The Turkish show follows a Jewish woman released from prison and trying to reconnect with her orphaned daughter. It centers on a nightclub in 1955, and the cultural and religious conflicts that play out there. Creator, writer, and director Zeynep Gunay Tan realizes the time period in both a sweeping cinematic and deeply personal sense, and the ensemble is captivating. “The Club” made it to #8 in my Best Series of 2021. You’re looking at 10 hourlong episodes if you decide to check it out.
Women of the Movement (ABC) showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar
Adrienne Warren plays Mamie Till-Mobley. She’s the mother of Emmett Till, a Black 14 year-old who was lynched in 1955 because he spoke to a white woman. His murderers were acquitted. The biographical drama follows his mother’s fight to make this country see the senseless, racist, systemic violence that resulted in her son’s murder.
(CW: Be aware that Timothy Hutton is cast in a leading role. Hutton has faced allegations of raping a 14 year-old girl in 1983.)
Showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar has produced on “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “13 Reasons Why”.
You can watch “Women of the Movement” on ABC on Thursdays.
The Cleaning Lady (Fox) showrunner Melissa Carter
Elodie Yung stars as a Filipina doctor who comes to the U.S. She hopes to secure medical treatment that can save her son. Rather than finding help, she’s pushed into a situation that sees her cleaning up after a crime lord. The show is based on an Argentine series.
Showrunner Melissa Carter has written and produced on “Stargirl”, “Queen Sugar”, and “Mistresses”. Creator Miranda Kwok has written and produced on “The 100”.
You can watch “The Cleaning Lady” on Fox on Mondays.
Good Sam (CBS) showrunner Katie Wech
Sophia Bush plays a surgeon who heads her department after her boss and father (played by Jason Isaacs) falls into a coma. He wakes up and wants to assume his old position, but has to adjust to working for his daughter.
Showrunner Katie Wech has produced on “Jane the Virgin” and “Rizzoli & Isles”.
You can watch “Good Sam” on CBS on Wednesdays or on Paramount Plus after each episode airs.
I Carry You With Me (Starz) directed by Heidi Ewing
A chef leaves his lover in Mexico to try to make it in New York. The story of ambition and regret spans decades.
Director and co-writer Heidi Ewing has mostly helmed documentaries, including “One of Us”, “Detropia”, and “Jesus Camp”. The last of these saw Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady nominated for an Oscar.
The most important thing to understand about lists like this is that they’ll always exclude something. No critic can watch everything out there that’s worth watching. The choices a critic makes in what they prioritize can help you understand how a list like this can be useful.
For instance, even though many of my friends have raved about it, I just can’t bring myself to watch “Succession”. Perhaps it belongs on this list. Satire though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much time invested in which billionaire gets to make more billions while others go home super sad about only possessing the billions they already have. I’m sure it’s good. I’m sure I’d also feel a deep pit in my stomach even touching it.
As viewers, the feelings we have like that are legitimate, and every good critic is ultimately a viewer who has a desire to connect with and share what they love with others. There are times when we push our comfort, for good and bad reasons, and there are times where we realize we can do more or better work in other places.
It was a priority for me to watch series from different countries. It’s great that South Korean series “Squid Game” is breaking through, and it’s on my list. Yet if we were really being inclusive in our viewing choices, South Korea’s television industry is so overbrimming it should be getting best-of entries every year.
When “Squid Game” is a breakthrough rather than part of a norm, it means that critics are following audiences rather than shining a light on what’s next. If “Squid Game” hadn’t set viewing records, would it have made so many critics’ year-end lists? Probably not, because there’s a well of other Korean series of equal quality in this year and years past.
Is “Squid Game” the only entry on a list from somewhere outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.? Then you know something about that critic’s scope. Don’t get me wrong – watching more international series means that I’ve sacrificed watching a few U.S. ones. My point isn’t that one is inherently better than the other; my point is that this information gives you a perspective on what different lists can tell you.
What other priorities inform this list? I tend to lean toward series that buck tradition and try something risky or ambitious. If there’s an element of absurdism, abstraction, or magical realism that’s pulled off well, I tend to like it even if it asks me to do that much more work as a viewer. I like empathy, not just on the part of a series, but also in being asked as a viewer to stretch and view perspectives I might not have sought out in the past.
I don’t mind if a series occasionally shortcuts a plot point with the mutual understanding viewers have seen it a thousand times before and can assume the A-to-B of it. I think world-building doesn’t matter that much for the world you’re creating; I need to see how it’s shaped the lives, understandings, and relationships of the characters who live in that world.
I don’t mind a little bit of melodrama. Where the U.S. tends to incorporate theatrical and even melodramatic performances told within a “gritty”, verite-heavy filmmaking approach, a lot of the rest of the world prefers more understated, verite performances told within a melodramatic filmmaking delivery. We all secretly like melodrama; the only difference is where we place it.
Oh, and some of the best series of recent years have been canceled prematurely. If you’re looking at committing to a series, it helps to know if it’s self-contained or will get to continue, rather than simply being canceled. I’ll mention on each whether it’s been renewed. On with the list:
10. What We Do in the Shadows
The series adaptation of the 2014 mockumentary follows a trio of vampires and their familiar living together on Staten Island. In season three, they’ve just been named leaders of their local vampiric council. It seems like a success, but it’s really the beginning of the group fracturing apart.
Past seasons have been funny, skewering horror movies, bureaucracy, and the “Office” style mockumentary format itself. This season turns into something else, though. Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, and Kayvan Novak all feel like they have rangier roles to play, while still allowing room for now-regular Kristen Schaal to hit the ground running. It’s Matt Berry, in all his skill at overblown bluster, who ultimately reveals the deep heart the show’s built upon.
Without losing its humor, “What We Do in the Shadows” turns into a moving consideration of how found family unites and bonds – and also drifts apart. Questions about feeling lost in the world and wanting meaning abound in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and loaded with ennui. It feels like “What We Do in the Shadows” has taken on a much larger mantle than it has before, one that feels more immediate, relevant, and invested in the humanity of its inhuman characters.
Is “What We Do in the Shadows” renewed? Yes. A fourth season will premiere in 2022.
9. Squid Game
“Squid Game” exquisitely describes the world we live in. Gambling addict Gi-hun is roped into a get-rich quick scheme. Go play some children’s games for a few days, and make millions. Effectively estranged from his daughter, he sees it as his only chance at making amends. The others who show up to play are similarly hard up – they owe money to the government, loan sharks, gangs, you name it. Even when it becomes apparent the losers of the games are all killed, the realities of the world outside make it clear that they have about as much chance in the games as they do in the corrupt, abusive world of late-stage capitalism.
There are wrinkles that I won’t divulge. Like any large organization, the place isn’t exactly run terribly well. Players cheat, employees cheat, all to make an extra buck. There’s as much tension in whether the games will continue as in who wins them. At the point where we as an audience are anticipating the next game and hoping it goes on, what does that say about us?
Lee Jung-jae gives an incredible performance as Gi-hun. He creates one of the most complex characters of the year. He’s at once deeply charming and hopeful, someone at his best when helping others, yet he’s also manipulative and constantly seeking enablement. It’s a delicate balance to still make us like and hope for him.
Oh Yeong-su captured every viewer’s heart as the elderly Oh Il-nam. Lost in some of the conversation is Jung Hoyeon, playing a North Korean escapee who wants the money to help her family leave that country. She’s asked once whether the outside is better, as she weighs the value of her own life against someone else’s for money. She doesn’t answer.
Is “Squid Game” renewed? It seems to be, but they’re going to take their time with it. If I had to bet, I’d guess we won’t see a Season 2 until 2023 at the earliest.
8. The Club
This Turkish drama is lavish, intricate, and deeply felt, with a melodramatic flourish that reflects the 1955 nightclub at its center. Matilda is freshly released from prison after serving time for murder. She has a nearly grown daughter, Rasel, but Matilda doesn’t want to see her. She simply plans to leave for Israel. This is derailed when Rasel steals from the club and Matilda agrees to work off a blank debt.
The drama of “The Club” rises from defining Turkish cultural conflicts. The East and West meld and clash. As Matilda is Jewish, the shadow of the Varlik Vergisi weighs heavily on her past. This was a 1942 tax on non-Muslims that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth based on religion and ethnicity, and the forced internment of those who couldn’t pay
Characters in “The Club” don’t serve as metaphors for these events and influences, but they have lived through them. These shape characters’ histories, biases, hopes, and fears. The cast is roundly superb. Gokce Bahadir stands out as Matilda, as does Salih Bademci’s visionary but self-sabotaging singer Selim Songur. Firat Tanis is exceptional as the club’s corrupt, abusive manger Celebi. He has a connection to Matilda’s past she hasn’t figured out.
If you can feel at ease with a few melodramatic fluorishes, such as a swelling music cue here or there, “The Club” has an underlying magic that’s difficult to define. It transports in the way the best period pieces do, and the characters feel a genuine part of that lived-in history. It has that sweeping, yearning sense that comes from depicting a place through both the details of its world, and the conflicting emotional realities of those who live within it.
Is “The Club” renewed? Part 2’s already been filmed and premieres very soon, on January 6, 2022.
7. Only Murders in the Building
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short star in a comedy mystery. A man’s been murdered in their New York apartment building, and they take it upon themselves to solve what the police have deemed a suicide. They’re bumbling at best, and on top of it all, decide to make a podcast about it. “Only Murders in the Building” speaks to our true crime media addiction, one that seems to prioritize narrative over truth. Luckily, these three veer wildly enough to occasionally dig up some morsel of a clue.
Martin and Short are 80s comedy legends, so it might surprise that it’s Gomez who most solidly anchors the story. Between this, “Spring Breakers”, and “The Dead Don’t Die”, she’s delivered three exceptional performances and should be thought of more seriously. The supporting cast includes Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch, and Sting, toying relentlessly with the idea that the famous guest star must be guilty.
What “Only Murders in the Building” is really about is loneliness, though. Each of the three leads deals with loneliness, isolation, trauma, and regret in very different ways. Gomez’s Mabel is self-sufficient and deliberate in her actions, Martin’s Charles is locked in an unthinking, melancholic routine, and Short’s Oliver reaches out constantly to those he’s already disappointed or betrayed. That “Only Murders in the Building” works as a caring, empathetic examination of loneliness, and a wildly successful comedy is a uniquely disarming pairing.
Is “Only Murders in the Building” renewed? Yes. The first season leaves a cliffhanger for a Season 2 that was picked up quickly and is currently filming. Expect it sometime in 2022.
6. My Name
You could pick any number of Korean series for this list and have a strong argument. “My Name” was the one that captured me the most. The premise of a woman joining the police to track down a killer within their ranks reflects a number of other undercover gangster projects: particularly “The Departed” and its inspiration “Infernal Affairs”.
“My Name” mixes together a number of familiar elements from John Woo action films to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy and Michael Mann projects like “Heat” and “Miami Vice”. I’d even say it does so better than its more well-known progenitors. It also avoids creating a false nobility for the gangs the way so many highly regarded U.S. projects have done in the past. What’s here is brief, brutal, and feels far more grounded than flights of golden era Mafia-worshiping.
“My Name” pitches to a fever intensity by the second episode that it refuses to let go until the series’ end. Han So-hee carries nearly every minute of the show. She delivers one of the top performances this year.
The action scenes feature creative fight choreography with a lot of moving pieces. There’s an evocative editing that reflects the single-minded drive of the show’s lead, while also pushing the emotions she can’t allow herself to feel. One interesting decision in the show is to lean heavily on a single song, repeating in different circumstances. It reflects how Ji-woo (undercover as police officer Hye-jin) has honed herself to just be one thing, to have a singular intent no matter the circumstance. In many ways the show is edited and scored to feel what its lead has compartmentalized away. “My Name” is one of the best revenge sagas of recent memory.
Is “My Name” renewed? Like many Korean series, “My Name” is designed as a fully self-contained season. It’s not designed to be renewed, so it’s unlikely.
“Evil” follows a team that assesses mysteries for the Catholic Church. These range from suspected demonic possessions to investigating a potential sainthood. What makes the show work so well is that only one member of the team of three is Catholic – a priest in training named David. The psychologist Kristen and debunker Ben are both Atheist, though from different backgrounds. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic and Ben was raised Muslim.
The discussions they have in trying to figure out the mysteries are extremely well-written, and range from the personal to the philosophical. They add significant weight and meaning to the best horror show on TV right now.
Usually, I don’t go in for Catholic horror. It’s all so inconsistently codified it gets a bit silly to me. “Evil” doesn’t try to hide or explain away those inconsistencies, or avoid criticisms of the Catholic Church. Those inconsistencies and criticisms confuse and divide the characters, too. Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, and Christine Lahti make up my favorite ensemble of the year.
“Evil” reflects earlier unexplained investigation shows like “The X-Files” and “Fringe”, but it does a much better job than either of giving you multiple explanations. Some of its mysteries are debunked, others aren’t. When something is explained, is that simply the path something demonic took to achieve it? In some episodes, they don’t even know which religion’s demons are in question. Many situations are solved without being fully fixed, which feels realistic. By sometimes denying us the closure of consequence, “Evil” feels that much more consequential. The writing makes it reasonable that the believer still believes, that the Atheists don’t, and that they can all identify a common trust and productive purpose that pushes them forward as a team.
“Evil” also has a wicked, occasionally fourth-wall breaking sense of humor. Demons troll visions from God with meme gifs. A nearly dialogue-free episode at a silent monastery has way too much fun with subtitled inner thoughts. The pop-up book used to introduce episodes to the audience in the second season becomes real to the characters midway through.
Perhaps the biggest strength of “Evil” is one that it could be a little rough getting down in its first season: it incorporates elements of kitsch, camp, and meme culture in quiet, understated ways that subvert our expectations, unravel our explanations, and unnerve us with the very things that usually feel a refuge.
Is “Evil” renewed? Yes. A third season was announced halfway through season two, reflecting a strong showing. Expect it sometime in 2022.
4. Reservation Dogs
Four indigenous teens try to make sense of reservation life after losing their friend. They steal in order to save enough money to leave, some reconnecting with their families and some drifting further away. The series features all indigenous writers and directors, and a mostly indigenous cast. The amount of talent working here, that other studios and platforms have routinely overlooked, is staggering: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Lil Mike and Funny Bone, Elva Guerra, each of them could probably lead their own shows.
It shows in the final result, with even small scenes taking on emotional weight and stellar comic timing. “Reservation Dogs” hearkens back to 90s indie comedy, particularly in its small-scale, sometimes aimless tone. Yet 90s indie comedy could also spark of a lot of privilege; “Reservation Dogs” uses the form to critique and highlight life without it. It has a way of building that the genre never had, of revealing moments that are far more real and relevant.
One thing I really appreciate here is that the comedy isn’t directed at me. It’s created to make indigenous people laugh. As a viewer, there are expectations of me to broaden my understanding of comedy staples and the truths they can evoke. “Reservation Dogs” doesn’t come with every reference explained, but that can help me see what an episode is doing in a way I wouldn’t if the explanation was catered to me.
There are absolute gems of episodes here: “NDN Clinic” turns an aimless, meandering day into a perfect memory, “Come and Get Your Love” connects the importance of legend to who we become, “Hunting” is a stunning, haunting, and funny reflection on loss, and “California Dreamin’” is a chance for Jacobs to demonstrate just how phenomenal an actor she is.
Is “Reservation Dogs” renewed? Yes. A second season has been announced for 2022.
3. Sonny Boy
An entire high school shifts out of reality, into a dimension of nothingness. The adults are nowhere to be found. The students organize, trying to make the best of the situation. As they shift through more dimensions, they realize some students have powers. Imbalances develop. The group splits, looks for people to blame, re-organizes. The dimensions they investigate each have their own rules, often born of metaphor, as if designed.
Magical realism and metaphor can struggle to work together in balance. One or the other usually takes over as a story’s focus, regardless of the medium. That’s fine, but “Sonny Boy” takes a difficult path in balancing the two elegantly. The series is exceptionally abstract: complex, disjointed, full of time skips, dimensions that only half-explain themselves, powers that equip the students with magical tools that look like toys, rulesets within rulesets.
The result is a series that would become too confusing to grasp if it wasn’t so well-guided by meaning. We make sense of the meaning first, and then the logic comes around and fills in some gaps, often hitting in a Kafka-esque way that can hurt. “Sonny Boy” begins to feel like an impressionist landscape of relationships, joys, anxieties, dreams, regrets. Moments can feel like a gut punch, yet never because of something over-emotive. Instead, it’s because we make sense of why a meaning is shaped the way it is. Why is a world designed just so? Why does a character leave something unspoken? What disaffection in the powerful shapes a society? What part of ourselves do we leave behind in order to adapt? What loss means enough to still be guided by the one we lost, or to even repeat that loss?
“Sonny Boy” can feel like an expression of helplessness, or the determination to work against that lack of hope. It manages to be both sides at once, to show the dual natures within us that feel forlorn at trying to change the world, and that will do our best to try anyway. No other show this year captures what it is to grow up, to put our past selves away even as we keep parts of them alive, to pair the joyful with the bittersweet, to choose the difficult because it’s at least a choice, to do the thankless because it’s right. No other show this year is so deeply, relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly human.
Is “Sonny Boy” renewed? “Sonny Boy” seems expressly designed as a single, self-contained season. It’s original, not based on a manga or other source material, so there’s no outside indication to think it would continue. Its ending is perfect in what it says, so in many ways I hope this season is it.
2. Made for Love
Hazel is trapped with everything she could ever want. She’s married to billionaire Byron Gogol, and lives in a holographic mansion with access to anything and anywhere. She’s desperate to either kill herself, or escape. She does the latter, only to discover he’s implanted a chip in her head that’s designed to fuse their minds together as one.
The high-concept premise works as both an extremely dark comedy, and as a cyberpunk allegory. Both center on our interconnected world, where who we are is whoever we portray, regardless of its reality, and where that portrayal itself becomes our source of fulfillment.
I’ve worked with people who’ve been stalked, and I’ve been stalked myself. Scenes of this in “Made for Love” are as close as I’ve seen to the horror of feeling like someone else controls where you can even feel safe, and what your choices are. Cristin Milioti is getting wildly overlooked for her role as Hazel.
The comedy here can range pretty far afield. Hazel’s refuge and ear for fundamentally feminist issues is her estranged father (Ray Romano), who turns out to now be in a relationship with a sex doll. Investigators on both sides are regularly distracted or incompetent. These things always come back to reflect on the core, though: the horror of who we are being controlled by who someone else wants us to be. When who we are and what we’re fulfilled by is a portrayal we project, and someone else gains control of it, then who the hell are we anymore?
Is “Made for Love” renewed? Yes. Season 2 is likely to drop in 2022.
An overwhelmed technocrat stands before a warlord. It’s the technocrat’s city, but this doesn’t feel like his space. He is in uniform. She is naked in a bath, getting a massage. Between them in the frame stands the mural of an army. They face him, spears descending row by row until they come to point at him. He is out of his element. She is biding her time.
The rain in Caitlyn’s life always slides down surfaces in fits and starts. You can’t keep track of the lines it traces. It gives an impression of movement as she stays still, grasping to make a decision before others make it for her. She always meets the consequences head on, but she’s never able to track the cause and effect well enough to get ahead of them.
Two men stop each other on a ledge at different points in their lives. One meets the moment with closed eyes, the other open. They both offer support in ways they may not fully realize.
The voices of those lost are scratches on the film. The memories are drawn over like a child scratching out a word. She hides their expectations for her, their criticisms of her. Jinx destroys the reality of the story itself, even as we’ve seen it. She erases what we’ve witnessed so that she can rewrite her story as she pleases.
“Arcane” follows so much – twin cities that are breaking apart through inequality, an abusive police force, generations of characters whose accomplishments and mistakes echo in government, magic, and war for decades to follow. It follows young idealists who concede in order to realize ideals now poisoned. It follows a fight for freedom and self-determination. It follows a woman who’ll stop at nothing to save her abandoned sister, a…terrorist? A freedom fighter? It portrays the best romance of the year, a lesbian relationship that develops in fits and starts because of the overwhelming nature of the life-or-death decisions happening around them.
Crafted by French studio Fortiche, “Arcane” is one of the best pieces of fantasy put to screen. It’s an incredible leap forward in animation, fusing 3D and 2D approaches into something genuinely new. It’s the best piece of western animation since I was five. It’s the best piece of steampunk on film or TV. Its world-building is on par with something like “The Golden Compass”. It released as three acts, three episodes apiece, and if you wanted to call each act a film, then I’d call it the best film trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. Forget the modifiers; it’s thus far one of the best shows ever made. Even when I write these things, it feels like I’m understating just how emotional, artistic, and impactful “Arcane” really is.
“Arcane” is the show I always dreamed about because I knew it could never be made. I’m not talking about the source material, with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I mean what it becomes as a series. There’s not an episode I didn’t shed tears at – sure, because some parts are so human and empathetic, and sure, because it’s unique and overwhelming in its beauty. Yet there’s something deeper, something more artistically fundamental at play. It’s because when you’re in the rhythm of a phrase, when the poet or the painter needs you to yearn or smile or break, there’s a giving up at play. There’s a loosing of control that’s utterly rare, that requires so high a trust be given over.
Maybe it happens for a moment, when a word pierces our guard, when the twist of an idea is pushed home. That’s the thing – you expect it to happen for a moment before your guard returns. You don’t expect it to be down for hours at a time. You don’t expect to trust that much. What an impossible space that would be. What a relief in a world that batters us so much.
This is what “Arcane” creates so well. It’s a harrowing story, complexly told, beautifully depicted, it’s an advanced course in French art history, but above all it manages that impossible thing – it delivers that magic of becoming a place so beautifully, it feels safe to relinquish your burdens while you’re there. You’re in a storyteller’s hands, and what they’ve made is crafted with such exceptional, seemingly unprecedented care, you can feel the whole thing without guard.
“AlRawabi School for Girls” is a Jordanian series that follows a “Count of Monte Cristo” plot. Mariam is a bookish student who becomes the target of three popular girls. They beat her, leading to a school investigation. In what might be the most stomach-turning scene this year, the most popular girl convinces the entire student body that they saw something they didn’t, something which casts Mariam as the aggressor instead of their victim. On top of her injuries and trauma, this shatters Mariam’s home and school life, so she decides she’ll take them down one by one.
What “AlRawabi School for Girls” gets so right is its feeling of hideousness. There are acts of bullying here that other shows often treat as plot impetus, instead of focusing in on character. Here, it feels world-ending, which is exactly how it feels to children enduring it.
The scene where Mariam’s bully Layan convinces everyone to swap their roles is particularly stark. We tend to think this rewriting of reality is something complex. After people like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, there’s a temptation to imagine it requires a vast power struggle at the highest levels to pull off. That’s a comforting thought in the face of their horror because it pretends things like this only happen beyond our ability to control or influence. Yet this single scene in “AlRawabi School for Girls” shows how ordinary it really is. It just takes a little bit of privilege to exert, which most of us can find somewhere in our lives. That means any of us is capable of it, and that we all have a responsibility against it.
“AlRawabi School for Girls” focuses on how girls are disempowered. Some of this is specific to Arab and Islamic culture. One episode revolves around trying to get an image of a girl without her hijab. Even though most of the girls don’t wear one, the fact that Roqayya does means that removing it to flirt is scandalous and would embarrass her family. It’s not difficult to see how this plays out in other cultures as well – such as how many evangelicals police the clothing of girls and persecute them based on double-standards.
The series also poses how this struggle for limited agency within the bounds of a private school – already dangerous and traumatizing – is dwarfed by the denial of the girls’ agency outside the school. One of the tensest scenes I saw this year was brief but overwhelming, when an old man tries to sexually assault one of the girls in a swimming pool.
“AlRawabi School for Girls” never shows too much – it doesn’t glorify these moments or turn them into set pieces as if they’re somehow an exception. By sitting us with the experience in a more realistic, everyday way, the idea’s commonality is what becomes horrific.
The point of this hideousness isn’t shock. It’s to make you understand how it’s licensed – how it’s made so normal. In every instance, the adults blame the wrong person. Every time, the one at fault is a girl without agency because this is how our societies have organized themselves to license and excuse predatory behavior. The show’s ultimately about girls taking out their lack of agency on each other. They desperately need to rebel against this lack of agency, but their only lesson in control and confidence is to emulate their abusers by harming those lower on the social ladder. Their only chance to exercise agency as girls is to take it away from the other girls.
The three students who first abuse and discredit Mariam are in turn pursued by Mariam so she can abuse and discredit them, in a cycle that ensures nothing in the patriarchal system that holds all of them down is challenged. In a difference from how we investigate this genre in the U.S., this isn’t a matter of complex mystery plots pulled off by teenagers. Mariam may have a conspiracy wall in her closet, but the reality is that her plot for vengeance boils down to pretty simple steps: get a certain picture, report a girl for sneaking out, that sort of thing.
It’s the consequences – the abusive control these girls’ families exert over them – that are escalated. Even the hacking in the show, while spiced up a little when we see it on a character’s laptop, is narrow and realistic in its capabilities and goals.
Andria Tayeh’s Mariam is well conveyed. There are long stretches where she’s alone in a sea of people, but she recruits two friends to help and it’s in these dialogue scenes where she shines. We see Mariam’s quest for justice morph into a control over her friends that starts to look a lot like Layan’s. These friends are Yara Mustafa’s Dina, a rich girl often lost in her own world, and Rakeen Saad’s Noaf, the aforementioned hacker who balances a desire for change against just wanting to keep her head down.
Noor Taher’s Layan, Salsabiela A’s Roqayya, and Joanna Arida’s Rania round out the cast as the three popular girls who make everyone’s life hell. This is absolutely an ensemble effort. The core cast is good, but some of the surrounding players can be a little hit or miss.
I do want to single out Arida’s Rania as a character who shifts from publicly carefree to privately aggressive at the drop of a hat. She balances that cycle from abused to abusive well, and the more we get to know her, the more we see how much of her attitude is a front.
Saad’s Noaf becomes a standout performance later in the show, as she’s given an overwhelming amount to react to and pinned as the character with the most complex moral and philosophical choices.
At times, “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel too broad. Its portrayal of power dynamics, privilege, and agency are all pinpoint, but its slice-of-life elements can feel glossed over. Characters occasionally talk about everyday events in ways that relate more to the plot than to each other. There’s foreshadowing here that’s used beautifully, but there’s some initial suspension of disbelief that’s asked of the viewer in terms of who these people are. Everyone except Mariam starts off as an archetype.
This does get filled in, and there is a strength to this approach, too. We get to know the characters best as they’re radically changing who they are. This escalates our sense of consequence as the show progresses, and creates a lot of space where we’re genuinely unsure how a character will respond. Are they still the archetype we were introduced to, or the conflicted person we’ve gotten to know?
Showrunner, director, and co-writer Tima Shomali has a stunning expertise at handling scenes with large-scale crowds. There’s a bad habit in filming coming-of-age or school-based dramas where the leads are off on their own. This cuts on costs for supporting actors and extras. Here, though, characters are constantly coming in and out of rooms. Time outside isn’t just a few leads against the wall with ambient shouting in the background and a handful of cutaway shots. The school is populated; dozens of students exist in every space. This goes a long way to exacerbating that sense of social anxiety and trauma. There’s literally nowhere here you can escape. Even hiding in a bathroom stall out of shame turns into being cornered before long.
Shomali drives many of the bullying and revenge moments forward in these large-scale crowd scenes. That would already be impressive, but these scenes become some of the most personal in the whole show. She establishes a towering sense of apprehension for how things will play out both plotwise and for each character’s development. There’s a sense of the social experience inside that crowd. It’s remarkably easy as viewers to cheer on revenge that’s just another form of bullying, to become a part of that crowd one minute, and then sit as a viewer and feel empathy the next. It’s a rare balance.
Some aspects of the show may not play out the way we’re used to seeing. There’s a sense for how these girls are often awkward in their own skin. Take a moment where a character becomes excited and betrays how they otherwise want to present themselves. We’d tend to play that for laughs that tread into satire, schadenfreude, or manic pixie dream girl territory. Here, it’s just played as uncomfortable. That’s a lot more realistic, but because our series in the U.S. are made with character acting, banter, and big, anchoring moments in scenes, a more patient and subdued intent can read as less realistic for us. There’s a shift in sensibilities that a viewer has to make with this. It’s not particularly difficult, but it may be noticeable for some.
I mean – let’s be real. When we make coming-of-age shows about this premise in the U.S., it’s either a comedy or a conspiracy thriller. Both absolutely have their value, and some of them are among my favorite shows, but we also tend to provide abusers with redemptive story arcs that misrepresent the impact of their abuse and excuse their responsibility for it. And let’s not get into being adrift in shows about sexy murder high schools that we pretend aren’t a creepy trend in our storytelling culture that we should at least talk about more.
My point is that the shift into a series like “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel clunky in places, but I think that has a lot to do with our training as viewers. Its dramatic moments exist more to communicate experience and empathy than to provide the direct catharsis, satire, or schadenfreude we expect from U.S. versions of this show.
What’s being told here is very universal. If you can make that shift and appreciate the show’s sensibilities, there’s a specific story about how Jordanian culture denies girls agency, and a broader portrayal that mirrors how all our cultures practice and reinforce this denial. We expect girls to take that disempowerment and objectification out on each other, to practice it and get good at moving within it, to fight each other for limited agency rather than challenging us for the power and control over their lives they should have in the first place. (And we certainly struggle as men to imagine we should give more than words to supporting such a challenge.)
Perhaps there’s no catharsis for that because there’s been none. There’s no satire for it because our real world is a satire of it. There’s no schadenfreude because laughing at it is propagating it. “AlRawabi School for Girls” leaves us with more questions than answers because none of its questions have been answered in the real world. When I say it captures hideousness, it’s not because of any moment where you have to turn away from the screen. It captures what we turn away from every day – the hideousness we all know but like to forget or put out of mind because its systemic, that we all like to pretend happens beyond our ability to control or influence. What’s hideous is that it’s ordinary, that we overwhelmingly pretend we can’t change it, and that we allow the aggressive punishment of the next generation until they get good at repeating it.
You can watch “AlRawabi School for Girls” on Netflix.
If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.
Love or hate the awards season, it is a period where a lot of unique, character-driven films rise to the surface. There are the more obvious contenders across the board: “The Power of the Dog”, “The Unforgivable”, “Licorice Pizza”, “West Side Story”, the list goes on.
Of course, some of those are only available in theaters right when the Omicron variant of COVID should be sending us back into social distancing again. I’d argue we can wait the few months until some of these are available for home viewing; there’s plenty out right now that we can watch from our couches.
I’d also point out that this brief list hides a reality that extends beyond those four examples: major films by men are much more likely to make it to theaters. It’s the streaming platforms that are doing the best job of getting movies by women in front of audiences. This is true in terms of production from the early stages, as well as through acquisition of indie films looking for a buyer. Streaming platforms are doing a much better job than traditional studios of putting films by women in front of viewers.
Awards season means a lot of smaller films with a breakthrough performance are coming out, often with day-and-date home and theatrical releases. That’s the case with director Lauren Hadaway’s “The Novice” and Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance as its obsessed rower, which you’ll find below. A release now gets the performance in front of eyes, with an outside chance of a surprise nomination if it catches.
(See also: Krisha Fairchild’s performance in “Freeland”, co-directed by Kate McLean and out on VOD, or Halle Berry in her self-directed “Bruised” on Netflix).
This is also a time when many international films competing for that Oscar category will be making their debuts. Mexico’s submission, Tatiana Huezo’s “Prayers for the Stolen”, came out last month. Charlotte Sieling’s “Margrete: Queen of the North” is one of the featured movies below. Even though it just missed out as Denmark’s submission, this release date was solidified in the anticipation it may’ve made that final cut (it was one of Denmark’s three finalists).
Release dates try to take advantage of potential awards campaigns when a smaller or international film has a chance of breaking through, and they help to fuse awards campaigns with more general marketing campaigns, so each can build on the other. Keep an eye out for smaller films by women and international films by women that will be trying to catch fire this time of year.
Also of note this week is that season two of “The Witcher” drops on Netflix today. The fantasy series is showrun by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who also wrote and produced on “Daredevil” and “The Umbrella Academy” for Netflix.
OK, let’s get to this week’s entries:
With Love (Amazon) showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett
Lily and Jorge Diaz are brother and sister. The holidays come just as they’re trying to find renewed purpose in their lives.
Showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett has written and produced on “iZombie” and “One Day at a Time”.
Holy Beasts (MUBI) co-directed by Laura Amelia Guzman
In this Dominican film, Geraldine Chaplin stars as a failing actress named Vera. With an unfinished script by a late friend, and a few of her friends still remaining, she sets to making her last movie.
Laura Amelia Guzman writes and directs with Israel Cardenas.
Rose Plays Julie (Shudder) co-directed by Christine Molloy
Rose decides to seek out her birth mother. Doing so unveils a number of discoveries that set her on a path for revenge.
Christine Molloy writes and directs with Joe Lawlor. The pair have written and directed a few films in Ireland now.
You can now watch “Rose Plays Julie” on Shudder, or see where to rent it.
Queen of the Morning Calm (Showtime) directed by Gloria Kim
Debra is an immigrant sex worker trying to make ends meet, while caring for her daughter.
This is the first feature from writer-director Gloria Kim.
You can watch “Queen of the Morning Calm” on Showtime.
Sophie Jones (Showtime) directed by Jessie Barr
Sophie is in high school and struggling with depression and aimlessness after her mother’s death.
“Sophie Jones” is directed by Jessie Barr, not to be confused with her co-writer Jessica Barr (a cousin). Both are coming at the project from personal experience, as both lost their mothers to cancer when they were just 16. This is the first feature for either one. Both have worked as actresses before this.
“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.
This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.
Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.
Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.
That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.
This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.
Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.
The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.
In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.
Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.
I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.
“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.
There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.
Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.
Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.
Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.
If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.
The first series up this week is a pandemic-driven dark comedy from New Zealand. It brings up an interesting conversation when it comes to genre. Shows about pandemics are hardly new. Hits from “The Last Ship” and “12 Monkeys” to more procedural takes like “The Hot Zone” and “Helix” have dominated the last decade. Hell, even “The Strain” kept on straining for four seasons.
Yet during COVID, shows like “The Stand” and “Y: The Last Man” have not lived up to expectations in terms of either viewership or quality. Now, both were in substantial development before COVID hit, so it may not be a case of platforms thinking this is a topical moment. That’s reserved for tackling ill-advised pursuits like “Love in the Time of Corona”. What it does show us is that the fascination with pandemic-driven fare may have waned. After all, it’s no longer escapism for many.
Where does a dark comedy from New Zealand that features pretty explicit imagery of a pandemic and a similar premise to “Y: The Last Man” land? I couldn’t say, but it is one that I have some hope for – in part due to the involvement of Roseanne Liang, director of this year’s massively underrated “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film’s an ambitious period thriller that veers from tight “Twilight Zone” storytelling into absurd pulp action and makes astonishing use of a relatively small budget. If one person can fuse the starkness of a pandemic to a dark, gender-driven comedy, it’s Liang.
Ultimately, interest in pandemic-driven stories is going to be up to the viewer. Some may not want to be reminded in their escapism, while others will see making comedy out of it as a way of reclaiming a sense of control within their escapism. Neither takeaway is right or wrong; just be sure to respect your own reaction about whether watching pandemic-driven stories feels stressful or relieving.
CW: pandemic imagery
Creamerie (Hulu) directed by Roseanne Liang
A plague has killed nearly all men on the planet. The remaining 1% of men are sent to a facility in New Zealand. It’s thought that even they died, until three dairy farmers run over a seemingly impossible survivor.
“Creamerie” is created by actress-producers J.J. Fong and Perlina Lau, and producer-director Roseanne Liang. As mentioned, Liang delivered “Shadow in the Cloud”, which may not be for everybody but is one of my favorite films of the year.
You can watch all six half-hour episodes of “Creamerie” on Hulu.
Under the Vines (Acorn TV) showrunner Erin White
A man and woman who hate each other inherit a failing vineyard in rural New Zealand. Neither knows a thing about how to run or work a vineyard, so of course they make a go of it.
Erin White is a longtime director in New Zealand and Australian TV.
You can watch the first two of six episodes of “Under the Vines” on Acorn TV, with a new weekly episode dropping every Monday.
The Unforgivable (Netflix) directed by Nora Fingscheidt
Sandra Bullock plays Ruth. She’s being released from prison after a 20-year sentence for killing a cop. Very few people are willing to give her a chance or forget her past, even as she searches for the little sister she may have been protecting.
In addition to Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, and Rob Morgan also star.
Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed the incredible “System Crasher”, an unflinching yet sympathetic portrayal of a girl with rage issues. It was one of the best films of 2020.
Anonymously Yours (Netflix) directed by Maria Torres
In this Mexican romantic comedy, a mistaken text message between classmates leads to a real friendship. The pair fall for each other without realizing they’ve already met and can’t stand each other. I can’t find a trailer with English translation online, but the film will have one available.