I’ll level with you: this has been an unusually weak month for new shows. Maybe the networks ran out of steam after unveiling some actually-pretty-decent new comedies in January, or maybe some release dates got shuffled to avoid conflicting with an Olympics that very few people ended up watching. All I can say for sure is that I sampled a couple dozen February debuts and was only bowled over by one: Severance. (NB: I’ve had to recuse myself from weighing in on the noteworthy docuseries Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy, on Netflix, because it is produced by my colleagues at TIME Studios and would present a conflict of interest.) The remainder of this roundup consists of shows I happened to enjoy, despite some conspicuous flaws. Criticism is, of course, always subjective—and never more so than in this particular list.
The Girl Before (HBO Max)
An architect builds a breathtaking minimalist house in London and rents it out, at far below market rate, to tenants who meet his exacting specifications. They can’t hang pictures, make messes, have children—and they must consent to monitoring by elaborate smart-home devices. In parallel timelines, two women occupy the space. Emma (Jessica Plummer) shares it with a partner, Simon (Ben Hardy). Three years later, Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) moves in alone and soon makes an alarming discovery about the building. The women bear a jarring resemblance to each other, and each has recently suffered acute trauma.
It’s a premise worthy of Hitchcock, and the Master of Suspense’s influence is indeed palpable in this four-part adaptation of J.P. Delaney’s best-selling novel The Girl Before. While the last act doesn’t rise to the level of earlier episodes, stellar performances further elevate this chilly, cerebral, sophisticated psychological thriller. Mbatha-Raw strikes the right balance of fragility and strength. David Oyelowo is equally mesmerizing as the architect, whose serene veneer renders his intentions opaque. And maybe it goes without saying, but the interiors are stunning.
Inventing Anna (Netflix)
Shonda Rhimes‘ latest Netflix megahit has divided audiences, and you know what? I get it. I even agree with the most of the common criticisms. The episodes are too long. The acting is uneven. Rhimes is too generous to her subject, the “Soho Grifter” formerly known as Anna Delvey, while the portrayals of her victims can be egregiously nasty. Journalism doesn’t work like that. Something something girlboss something something.
And yet… there’s a lot about the show that I enjoyed. Although there were certainly some dud performances, Julia Garner was magnificent as the intense, chameleonic Anna; her outlandish accent put some viewers off, but for me it worked as the big honking red flag that everyone around her failed to see. Anna Chlumsky was perfectly cast as a disgraced everywoman reporter scrambling to redeem herself. And, in all honesty, I appreciated the show’s refusal to reproduce the same bland, measured morality tale we always get when TV rips scammer stories from the headlines. Who needs another sociopath saga? Inventing Anna may not be a masterpiece, but it does understand the core appeal of con artists: they’re fun. Our appetite for them is endless because their appetites for life—for money, power, achievement, glamour—are endless. [Read the true story behind Inventing Anna and learn about how the show recreated Anna’s wardrobe.]
Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy (Amazon)
Behind every superstar stand-up (at least until the social media era), there is a local comedy community that prepared them for prime time. For many of the biggest breakouts between 1995 and 2005, that community was headquartered at Phat Tuesdays, a weekly showcase by and for Black talent at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Opening with the scene’s origins at South L.A.’s Comedy Act Theater in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this three-part doc makes the persuasive argument that when Black comedians secured a platform at the same storied venue that hosted the biggest white acts of the era, it led to a seismic shift in the industry. Phat Tuesdays didn’t just launch individual careers; it helped to desegregate comedy.
As an amendment to a historical record that too often whitewashes L.A. comedy and credits the synergy between hip hop and stand-up solely to Def Comedy Jam, Phat Tuesdays is invaluable. Would it, like just about every other docuseries in this era of streaming bloat, have benefited from being cut down to the length of a feature? Absolutely; whole segments of the final episode verge on inanity. But the messiness of the editing is far outweighed by the pleasure of watching some of the funniest people in the world reminisce about their youthful shenanigans. Executive producer Guy Torry, the actor and comedian who founded Phat Tuesdays, and Reginald Hudlin (who also directs) assemble dozens of interviews with everyone from A-listers like Tiffany Haddish and Anthony Anderson to comics’ comics like J.B. Smoove, Luenell and the pioneering trans stand-up Flame Monroe. (The presence of Regina King and Snoop Dogg underscores Phat Tuesdays’ influence on the entertainment industry at large.) When even the documentary crew can’t stifle their laughter, you know you’re in for a treat.
Severance (Apple TV+)
Set in a snowy parallel universe (or perhaps near-future), the show centers on Lumon Industries, an all-American megacorp overseen by a family dynasty that dates back to a supposedly benevolent philosopher-founder in the mold of Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. In recent years Lumon has pioneered a procedure known as severance, which allows the company to split employees’ consciousness for the purposes of conducting top-secret work. After they consent to having an implant placed in their brains, “severed” staffers essentially become two people. While they’re still the same person they always were outside of office hours, their second self exists only at Lumon. Neither half retains any memory of the other’s life. “Outies” wonder, with increasing anxiety, what their “innie” does at work; innies speculate on the very basics of who their outie is. [Read the full review.]
State of the Union (SundanceTV, Sundance Now and AMC+)
I’m cheating a bit with this entry, because State of the Union is an anthology series, and the season that premiered earlier this month was its second. Stephen Frears directs, Nick Hornby writes and the conceit is that each 10-minute episode consists of a conversation between separated spouses on their way to couples therapy. And I’m counting the latest edition as a new show because you don’t have to know anything about its predecessor to watch.
While the first season cast Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd as Brits prepping for their shrink over pints at the pub, the sequel pairs up Patricia Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson as American boomers who’ve grown apart after decades together. Clarkson’s Ellen is a free spirit experimenting with Quaker faith and progressive activism; Scott (Gleeson) doesn’t seem to have revised his worldview since the ’70s. Even the coffee shop where they meet up is too newfangled for him, with its non-dairy milks and its non-binary barista (Esco Jouley). The dialogue can get stagey, and the old timer who can’t wrap his mind around they/them pronouns is fast becoming a stock character. But the central question is solid: What happens to a couple when one person evolves with the times and the other stays stuck in the past? And the real draw (aside from the mercifully short total runtime) is the intimacy and pathos generated by two of the most skilled character actors of their generation.
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