Tracy Morgan returned to Saturday Night Live this past weekend for the first time since his debilitating car accident, and it was a glorious thing to behold. Even beyond seeing the former SNL star do comedy again — surrounded at one point, poignantly, by his old 30 Rock castmates — the episode as a whole was a reminder that life is short, and maybe it’s better to spend whatever TV time we have left watching people we already know we like. And that includes you, Larry David, who kicked off the show with a Bernie Sanders impression so spot-on and funny that Republicans and Hillary Clinton supporters may pull for the Vermont Senator to stick around for a while, just for the jokes.
This week’s installment of Top Five TV is crowded with familiar faces, including three of last year’s best hour-long series: a comic romp, a grim drama, and the other something somewhere in between. And like nearly everyone who watches sports, we feel obliged to say a few words about the strangest, most riveting inning of baseball to be broadcast in eons. This is the kind of month it’s been. Nearly everything new has been hugely disappointing. But the old standbys? They’re still good. Like Larry-David-as-Bernie-Sanders good.
5. Jane the Virgin makes a melodramatic — and milky — return (The CW)
Throughout its first season, this meta-telenovela served up gangsters, romantic betrayals, kidnappings, and the financial health of one messed-up Miami resort hotel. And now the show hits viewers with something really major: Jane Villanueva’s struggle to breastfeed her newborn son. Last week’s “Chapter Twenty-Three” has everything JtV fans love, from the laser-focused vanity of our heroine’s celebrity dad to self-aware commentary/narration.
But the episode is also serious when it matters. Head writer Jennie Snyder Urman deals truthfully with the emotional stress and old wives’ tales that accompany Jane’s lactation anxiety; and then when the milk finally flows, it’s semi-comically framed as a miracle. The show has always finessed the difficult trick of poking fun of soap opera conventions while simultaneously using them to explain/explore the complicated life of smart, young, working-class Latinas. Crazy crises may be piling up already, but Jane understands that the series’ heart is in the everyday troubles, the kind where the outcome’s anything but certain.
4. The Steven Soderbergh TV empire expands: Red Oaks and The Knick (Amazon/Cinemax)
Retirement, shmretirement: Former moviemaker Steven Soderbergh has been doing just fine lately as a television impresario, thank you. The Oscar-winning director is only credited as an executive producer on the Amazon sitcom Red Oaks, but it was co-created by his longtime collaborator Gregory Jacobs, and it’s quite Soderberghian in the way it puts a realistic spin on a popular genre: a Caddyshack-style 1980s sex comedy involving horny country-club employees. It’s a fascinating and highly binge-able experiment, reimagining exaggerated, drug-fueled “snobs vs. slobs” antics with more down-to-earth young folks.
For a purer shot of Soderbergh, however, we turn to The Knick, the Cinemax historical drama which he produces, directs, and edits (while also serving as cinematographer and camera operator; we assume he’ll be catering lunches for the cast and crew as well by next season). In television terms, last week’s sophomore-season was a classic reintroduction episode, setting up new conflicts while pointing toward a possible redemptive path for the show’s disgraced hero: the brilliant, cocaine-addicted surgeon John Thackeray (played by Clive Owen). But what makes The Knick such brilliant TV is the way the filmmaker calmly, clinically moves his camera around these turn-of-the-century professionals, watching them try to stay un-mussed while they’re peeling back faces and treating bloody abscesses. As with the man’s movies, nothing’s overstated here. Everything’s quietly intense.
3. The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers tour haunted houses (Fox)
The annual Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” will be airing next week, but in the meantime, the show offered its first-ever non-“imaginary” Halloween story—and produced one of its best episodes in years. “Halloween of Horror” gets in some good seasonal jokes, including an entire Rocky Horror-inspired song about how after 9 p.m. the kids go to bed and “drunken Hobbits hit on slutty crayons.” But like many of the top-shelf Simpsons, this one’s so good because it’s about the bond between the dumb-but-kind Homer and the smart-but-moody Lisa. The plot sees Lisa traumatized by a gory amusement park attraction, and then stalked at home by a trio of disgruntled pop-up shop employees (while Homer whistles John Carpenter’s Halloween theme to try and keep things cheery). The terror feels real — and so does Lisa’s sense of triumph whn she gets back to relying on her wits instead of being crippled by her fear.
Not to be outdone, Fox’s current Sunday animated champ Bob’s Burgers did its own just-as-scary, almost-as-touching haunted house episode last week. When the jaded, unflappable Louise complains that she can’t be frightened by any of the fake-y Halloween stuff her parents foist on her year after year, Bob and Linda respond by borrowing an old house and staging their own mini-nightmare — which quickly goes awry when the whole family is surrounded by ominous cloaked figures. (“Lots of people have cloaks,” Linda nervously suggests. “Ann Wilson from Heart?”) The twist ending’s predictable but sweet, which speaks to how well-defined the show’s writers and voice talent have made these characters. We cower along with them; we’re delighted when they’re delighted. Not bad for a cartoon.
2. Katie Nolan, Sports — and “The Inning” (FS1)
Nolan made headlines a couple of weeks ago when her sports talk/comedy show Garbage Time returned with a righteous rant against Dallas Cowboys defensive end/accused woman-beater Greg Hardy — a “garbage human,” according to the host. She mocked the resulting hubbub with her most recent opening monologue, which was all about how much she still loves football, despite the violence on and off the field. Whenever she got too serious, the camera would swerve away and start to flee — itself a funny visual gag. But the overall point was sincere, and true. So much about sports can be “problematic.” Yet sometimes something happens between the lines that trumps any objection — like how, on the same night of Nolan’s pro-sports speech, the decisive Game Five of the Blue Jays/Rangers American League Division Series featured 45 minutes of baseball so singularly nutty that it’s already being called, simply, “The Inning.”
The seventh inning of Game Five was, pound for pound, great TV. Because it took so long to play out and happened around dinnertime in the eastern half of the country, people were near their sets as social media started buzzing that something freaky was going on. In the days since, writers as formidable as The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell and as funny as Parks & Recreation creator Michael Schur have tried to explain what “The Inning” was like. But nothing has yet compared to seeing it live: the fluke throw, the gift run, the fan revolt, the series of errors, the mammoth José Bautista home run, and the bat-flip. This wasn’t just high drama; it was the rare television where-were-you-when-it-all-went-down event, history being witnessed in the moment.
1. Fargo takes a long, strange trip back to 1979 (FX)
Some TV critics have argued that Noah Hawley’s take on the 1996 movie is nothing but a one-note riff on the Coen brothers — all cartoonish “Minnesota nice” and ironic violence. But there’s always been more to the show’s vision than just accents, snow and human legs in woodchippers; it’s more interested in replacing the typical prestige television antiheroes with actual heroes, and then dropping those characters into patchwork pulp stories. Any given hour might jump from Ronald Reagan movie outtakes to a family squabble among rural crime-lords — and then to a possible alien invasion.
This new run of episodes is set in 1979, and though the first chapter only spends time with one hold-over character — good-hearted cop Lou Solverson, played in his younger version by Patrick Wilson — it explores the same heightened universe, where the bad guys border on demonic, the good guys fight hard to keep them in check, and the ordinary folks are just one rough day away from becoming murderers. Between the snowbound diners and the use of forgotten FM chestnuts like Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun,” Fargo makes the late Seventies American midwest feel like a foreign land — and it makes tales of mobsters, mayhem and malice look unlike anything else on TV right now.