My Covid TV hitlist

Hello. It’s October 2020, in the time of Covid-19. Today there is snow in Albuquerque so I thought it was time to share a few watchables that have helped me stay sane and/or distracted. I’m mostly enjoying adventure, funny, nostalgic or documentary genres for this period. Nothing too cold or disturbing. It’s not the greatest list, so if you have any other shows to recommend, please do comment.

CBS: Picard

Although released in February, I’m just catching up with this show. Picard’s retirement is interrupted by a plea for help from a synthetic life form. Jean-Luc assembles a rag tag crew to investigate, but without the assistance of Starfleet.

In my fantasy life, Picard is my Dad. He is a lot of people’s fantasy Dads. However, Picard, for much of his career, has roamed the galaxy, liberating, chastising and monologing at a bunch of disparate species. And we have let him, thanked him even, cos he’s our Dad, and he knows best. But then he leaves and the episode is over. Did he get a chance to check back in with those folks? I don’t think he did. This show recognizes the broken homes Picard left in his wake and brings back some very traumatised characters with not insignificant abandonment issues, who give Picard a proper telling off.

Sometimes Picard can be a bit awkward, with a the characters excessively talking about what is happening, what has happened and why that happened. Just when you start thinking “This is a bit shit” the show saves itself, with a scene of emotional poignancy, or a well timed callback to TNG or DS9. I’ve inadvertently gasped out loud once, and welled up twice and I’m only on episode 5. Is Covid crushing your soul? Let Picard put the air back in your lungs.

An aside: If you like reading scripts, I recently discovered this script repository of PDFs. It has loads of movie and episode scripts but more interesting to me, the Bibles, or the guideline documents that describe how to write for a particular franchise like Star Trek the original series (funny! so sexist!) or Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (“never, ever let the air out of the balloon”). Really fascinating stuff there, you could lose an afternoon.

Disney+: The Mandalorian

This launched last year so you’ve probably seen it by now. Especially good was the final episode directed by Taika Waititi, with some hilarious Stormtrooper interaction. Clean, old fashioned adventure in the style of a western, with enough of the Star Wars universe to make you feel at home. Season 2 will be released on October 30th.

End credits artwork: Chapter 2, The Sin

HBO: The Vow

I have more time than most for cult documentaries. Something about the deep vulnerability of our species; seeking community, longing for purpose and meaning. And in that bright eyed, pure-of-heart quest, a seemingly inevitable abuse of power ensues. It’s the same story again in this new HBO documentary, with a more recent American cult.

NXIVM (pronounced nix-ee-um) promotes a pro-capitalism, self-improvement manifesto whilst the leader satisifes his more private urges with a secret inner sanctum of women. B-grade actors and almost-rans make up the membership (including strangely, two actresses from Battlestar Galactica) whist the endeavor is bankrolled by a naive Canadian heiress.

This doc has a few too many filler episodes highlighting less sympathetic protagonists. The plight of ex-Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg for example, attempting to liberate her cult-positive daughter with the aggressive use of publicity, is grueling viewing. However the diminutive “guru” Keith Raniere provides plenty of hilariously bad pseudo-spiritual quotes and cringe worthy performances, and there is a pleasing sense of anticipation to observe his eventual downfall.

From a scene where Keith Raniere openly wonders why he is so special.

Other cult investigations I have enjoyed include Wild Wild Country (Netflix), Holy Hell (Amazon Prime) and podcast Dear Franklin Jones (Stitcher).

HBO Max: Friends

Recently, I commented on a tshirt a young friend was wearing showing a drawing of a sofa with the words “pivot” on it. I asked what it meant. Surprised, she told me it referenced a Friends episode. Friends? I was confused as to why this would be the pop culture reference of choice for a new generation. Was it irony? It turns out, not really.

I didn’t watch Friends the first time around. It wasn’t huge in the UK. My peer group were especially busy being too alienated and cynical for this light and breezy sit-com. Today however, young people have embraced this show, and in light of Covid this makes sense.

…to a person growing up in a post-9/11 world where withdrawing from interpersonal contract with loved ones and strangers alike is all too easy, “Friends” promotes a version of independent life in the best light possible.

Why millennials and Gen Z love “Friends” Melanie Macfarland for Salon

I have enjoyed an evening binge of Friends a couple of times during Covid with numerous alcoholic beverages. This reduces my consciousness to a fuzzy, colourful blur of entertaining characters, bite sized narratives (episodes are 22 minutes), rapid fire jokes, and happy endings. In the words of comedian and podcaster Marc Maron “Use whatever options you have at your disposal to maintain your sanity”.

Netflix: Cobra Kai

The updated Karate Kid story continues! Originally launched by Youtube’s Red network, two seasons now reside on Netflix with a third due in January 2021.

Johnny and Daniel’s rivalry continues although both are now squarely in middle age. The show fills in the 30 year trajectory of the main characters between 1984 and now, whilst adding a new group of aspiring karate kids.

William Zabka as Johnny is the surprise hero for me. A lovable loser he struggles to adapt to more progressive times. Whilst Johnny’s formative years were about rock music, hot babes, fast cars and being cool, he clashes with generation-Z when he re-opens the Cobra Kai dojo. I found it reassuring to spend screen time with this 80s throwback, who repeatedly gets it wrong, but has a good heart and keeps trying.

“Hashbrown Team Cobra Kai!”

Cobra Kai is rich with simplistic teenage and middle age dramas, romances, rivalries and season two wraps up with a pretty awesome fight scene. I always get a laugh and big smile from an episode. This is Covid comfort food at its best.

Honorable Mentions

I worked my way through Mad Men (now on Amazon Prime) over a 6 month period. I might be the last person to watch it, actually I hope I am. A wonderful cast of characters with some astonishing writing that addresses history, society, gender, creativity, humour, friendship, death, love and life. Like The Sporanos, books and academic theses have been written disseminating the show. It’s so engaging on many levels, including of course the gorgeous period set design.

Kingdom (Netflix) is an MMA drama set in Venice beach. Great show, packed with action and some big, heavy story lines. It only gets an honorable mention because the material is quite dark which doesn’t really alleviate the Covid sadness.

The Morning Show (Apple TV+) was quite entertaining, with a lively, smart script about the world of morning TV. There are solid performances from (among others) Jennifer Aniston, Mark Duplass and Billy Crudup but I didn’t fall in love with it, and I can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps because the foundation, the very setting of the morning TV show, is so unstable. Mark Duplass, as the long suffering executive producer, is the only heart of the show (real and on-screen) fighting to make something good that works for his team. I will tune in again when (and if?) season 2 is released but only if nothing better is on offer.

Succession (HBO) may have been pre-Covid for me, but I have to add it. This comedy-drama revolves around the family of an aging media mogul who plot, cheat and connive to establish and maintain power when the old man falls ill. Written by Peep Show genius Jesse Armstrong, Succession is absurd, disturbing and hilarious. It sounds awful as described but the characters are brilliantly drawn and acted, and their interactions crackle and spark. It’s also a wonderful hybrid, mixing the finest HBO production values, with the irreverent humour and sharp dialog of a British show.

That’s all from me now, it’s getting dark and the snow outside is a few inches deeper. Time to get cosy.