Every day, small-screen addicts have the chance to check out dozens upon dozens of offerings: network police procedurals, basic-cable sketch shows, late-night hosts gaming with their guests, streaming sitcoms, Britcoms and rebooted series, premium-channel prestige dramas, off-brand reality TV and those unclassifiable oddities that reside left of the virtual dial. But here at Rolling Stone's new column, we're zeroing in on and counting down the five best moments of the viewing week — from the scenes everyone's been talking/recapping/tweeting about to the underseen, undersung performances and undeservedly neglected episodes you might have missed.
This week: the secret weapon of Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer prequel; a race-relations mini-opera played out on a primetime dance-off; and that "heavenly" Halt and Catch Fire season finale. Tune in.
5. Everything about Josh Charles in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)
The first few notes of Jefferson Starship's "Jane" — along with the list of returning cast-members in the opening credits — signaled right away that Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer prequel was aiming right for fans' sweet spots. But while it's fun to see Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, and the rest of the core WHAS team slip back into their 1981 costumes and characters, the real highlights of First Day of Camp have been the new additions and WTF twists — like Jon Hamm's secret agent "The Falcon," or the way Elizabeth Banks' Lindsay has been reimagined as a Cameron Crowe-esque undercover reporter, using Camp Firewood as her own personal Ridgemont High.
The real MVP of FDOC's eight episodes, though, is Josh Charles, playing a snooty prep from a rival camp where they eat veal scallopini in the mess hall and look down on Camp Firewood's "bunch of sunburned Jews." Clad in three polo shirts — with all three collars turned up — Charles' Blake McCarthy is the perfect villainous snob from every 1980s teen comedy. He brings his own touch of loopiness to the role too, like he gives his girlfriend an ultimatum and tells her that if she doesn't come through then, "We're toast… as in: barnt braid." By episode four, it's almost impossible to remember a time when the sinister McCarthy wasn't a part of the Wet Hot-iverse.
4. Alan makes a fish-trap, Alone (History)
The History Channel's extreme-survival series doesn't have the sort of flashy gimmicks as some of its better-known peers. (No one's naked, in other words.) Isolated contestants, with no camera crews, film themselves in the wintry Canadian wilderness, where they attempt to be the last man standing while threatened by wolves, bears, falling trees, sub-freezing temperatures, and starvation. That's the whole program. Yet over the month it's been on the air, Alone has become a haunting, strangely beautiful respite from the usual clamor of reality TV.
The soft-spoken, philosophical contestant Alan has thrived as his competition has dwindled — although he has no idea that he's "winning," since the players have no contact with each other. In the most recent episode, he found some discarded plastic bottles that he turned into traps, catching dozens of tiny fish. Then, inspired by his small-scale success, Alan spent days weaving tree-limbs into a larger trap, while talking to himself about finding spiritual peace and reckoning with his past mistakes. The whole reality genre gets a bad rap — but what other show would dedicate several hushed minutes to watching a man make something useful?
3. Robots and race-relations, So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
Over the space of two consecutive performances on the most recent SYTYCD, the show demonstrated why it's still one of the classiest and most electrifying reality competitions on television, even in its 18th season. Contestants Virgil Gadson and Hailee Payne fired up the studio audience with an infectiously goofy hip-hop routine, choreographed by Pharside & Phoenix and set to Noahplause's "Runnin'." They essentially did a modified robot-dance, looking like loose-limbed marionettes in Tron costumes.
Even better though was the Justine Giles contemporary routine that preceded it, with Kate Harpootlian and Eddie "Neptune" Eskridge dancing to Ben Howard's "Promise." Pointedly dressed in mid-20th century garb, the Caucasian Kate and the African-American Neptune acted out a romantic attraction that kept getting interrupted, thanks to social pressures strongly implied but never overstated. Their steps were simple but elegant, and the overall visual was strong — it's a Douglas Sirk movie distilled into a 90-second segment of a primetime TV game show.
2. Review returns! (Comedy Central)
Last year, sketch-comedy vet Andy Daly introduced one of TV's funniest and saddest characters in Forrest MacNeil: a naive, curious broadcaster whose mission to "review life experiences" ends up wrecking his marriage. Based on an Australian series (co-created by Phil Lloyd and Trent O'Donnell), Daly's Review was a slow-building cult hit on Comedy Central last spring; it's second season's premiere was as hilariously cruel as ever, with Forrest finding and losing a new love in the space of a single episode.
The beauty of Review is in how it takes small, strange ideas (like Forrest investigating public restroom "glory holes") and strings them together into a larger story about how the pundit suffers for his art. It remains to be seen whether this new season will feature any piece as inspired as 2014's "Pancakes" or "There All is Aching"; but it's easy to believe in the comic savvy of a show where the mule-headed host pops his penis through a hole in a men's room stall and believes he's being "pleasured by some mystery woman."
1. Halt and Catch Fire's second season finale (AMC)
Here's one of many small-but-significant details in last night's Halt and Catch Fire: When husband and wife Gordon and Donna Clark are getting ready for bed, she changes into her pajamas in the bathroom, where he can still see her in the mirror but can't look directly at her naked body. It's a beautifully framed shot and a clever bit of staging, speaking volumes about how the Clarks' marriage has lost its sense of casual intimacy. And it's that kind of smart, subtle scene that helped AMC's retro techie melodrama complete its turnaround from "promising but muddled" to "pretty amazing" in year two.
The finale brought together a lot of what the show's been about. While the first season mostly centered on the dysfunctional relationship between programming genius Gordon and manipulative slickster Joe MacMillan, this year has shown the two men struggling to keep their egos and ambitions in check while the women in their lives take the lead. In "Heaven is a Place," the characters' relationships and careers arrive at a crossroads, as Donna and her business partner Cameron face their own binary choice between growing their company and keeping romance alive.
Halt and Catch Fire's leap in quality is tied to this deeper understanding of what drives these people — along with creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers figuring out that merely recreating the past and knowing something about computers wasn't enough for a TV drama. Instead, they've spent this season considering the personal consequences of working 100 hours a week to fulfill a dream. In what could be the series' last episode (though we certainly hope it isn't), everyone picks a path, and appears to be heading into the second half of the 1980s as potential internet pioneers. But on the soundtrack, the Talking Heads song "Heaven" suggests they could've been happier doing nothing. If AMC cancels Halt, those kind of coldly real observations will be hugely missed.