Casual — Hulu picked up its first ever nomination with Casual, which landed in the best comedy category and deservedly so, although it is not necessarily a laugher. It has the vibe of Transparent (the series lead, Michaela Watkins is best friends with Transparent creator Jill Soloway) and a similar exploration of family dysfunction. This particular family is attempting to date in a world where dating doesn’t look like it did five or ten years ago, and where it’s more difficult to than ever to present your true self. The principal characters — a divorced mother; her caddish brother with whom she has an unusually intimate relationship; and her libidinous high-school daughter, who leaks sex tapes as a ploy to sleep with older men — attempt to navigate the pitfalls of new relationships while maintaining old ones. It’s also one of those shows where, if you’ve ever gone through a divorce (especially recently), it will hit upon a lot of raw nerve endings.
Mozart in the Jungle — If you loved the brilliant Canadian series Slings and Arrows (an all-time favorite of mine), then you’ll definitely like Mozart in the Jungle, as the two series have much in common structurally. Where Slings and Arrows built each season of its series around the production of a Shakespearean play, Mozart in the Jungle builds its around the production of a symphony orchestra performance, and both deal in the relationships of their ensembles (there is no ghost in Mozart in the Jungle, though the retired conductor does continue to hang around). It’s a great cast, and while you’d expect nothing less from Gael Garcal Bernal, Lola Kirke (sister of Girls’s Jemima) really is a pleasant revelation, balancing her character’s confidence and insecurity with an attractive brand of mousiness. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the storylines — they are light, with sprinkles of both drama and comedy — but they are engaging and enjoyable. It’s the kind of show built around the characters, and they all manage to be likable in their own way, even when they’re not being so nice to one another.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — The best new show on network television this fall (easily), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend almost doesn’t belong on network television: It’s a relationship comedy about a Harvard law graduate (Rachel Bloom, who nabbed the Golden Globe nomination) who quits her job and moves to a dumpy town in California to chase a boy she was in love with in camp during high school. She’s stalker-y, but in a non-threatening cute way, but what’s so revelatory about the show — besides musical numbers with risque lyrics that belies the poppy music — is how dark the series is under the surface: It deals in insecurity, neuroses, jealousy, and depression, though it’s often hard to detect beneath a layer of sharp wit and genuine warmth. Also, the musical number above is one of my favorite moments of the television year, and a good illustration of what to expect from the show: Musical parody, but from a place of love for the genre.
Flesh and Bone — I’ve fallen a few episodes behind on Flesh & Bone, but from the few episodes I’ve seen so far, it’s far more brutal than what you’d expect from a ballet drama. It comes from Moira Walley-Beckett, who wrote the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, and it’s as dark as you’d expect from a show whose lead was inspired by Walter White. There’s stalking, incest, rape, sexual harassment, and violent emotional abuse — and that’s just in the first three episodes. The lead, Sarah Hay (who was nominated, along with the miniseries), is terrific: Shy but bold, as she makes her journey from vulnerable ballet dancer to what I assume will eventually be the company tyrant.
Show Me a Hero — Inspired by a true story, Show Me a Hero centers on Yonkers and its young mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) in the 1980s. Yonkers, like the rest of the country, was in the middle of desegregation crisis. The series itself focuses only on the housing desegregation, but at the true heart of the crisis at the time was school desegregation. Yonkers residents resisted mixing the east and west sides of the city because one side was black and one was white. Despite a court order, the city council continued to resist, even after they were threatened with fines upwards of $1 million a day and the city councilors themselves were fined $500 a day and imprisoned for contempt.
Why would they fight so hard to resist? Because the white people didn’t want their children to go to school with the black kids, and they didn’t want their property values lowered by the public housing units in their neighborhood.
What’s so unfortunate about Show Me a Hero is that, 30 years later, cities across the country continue to struggle with the same problems — it resonates as much today as it ever did. The series, from David Simon, also boasts a tremendous cast — Oscar Isaac, Winona Ryder, Catherine Keener, and Jon Bernthal. It’s only six episodes, and it’s a series that’s likely to hold up for years to come.