The top two items on this week’s list aired on NBC, but since one’s already been cancelled and the other’s being quickly killed off, it’s feels wrong to call them “NBC shows.” Both have been relatively acclaimed, but when it comes to the programming of what used to be known as TV’s “Big Three,” prestige alone doesn’t sell. Those of us who favor the daring can be bummed about this, and blame the primetime broadcasters for not always backing their best. Or we can be glad these programs existed in the first place.
Because we’re celebrators by nature here, we’ll thank the Peacock Network for ruffling its feathers and taking chances occasionally. And while we’re at it, we have a few more kind words this week: for a popular reality show with a lurid name; for Netflix’s latest obsession-to-be; and for a yearly gathering of some of the music industry’s biggest celebrities. These three aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, which is good news — sometimes, the cunning and the beautiful can still survive.
5. Trafficking jams, Narcos (Netflix)
Is it wrong to enjoy a TV series about violent drug dealers? Netflix’s Narcos belongs to that shamelessly pleasurable subgenre of crime stories that mix a little history, a lot of action, and just enough caution to pass as “responsible.” Created by writer-producer Chris Brancato and director-producer José Padilha (best-known for the snazzy Brazilian Elite Squad action movies and the recent RoboCop remake), this torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines drama traces the rise of Pablo Escobar and the parallel story of how international law enforcement agencies tried to break the Medellín Cartel. Think colorful cops, crooks, and character actors like Luis Guzmán and Game of Thrones‘ Pedro Pascal, populating a narrative as brisk as it is dense.
To serve the rocketing pace, every episode sports wall-to-wall narration by Boyd Holbrook as a DEA agent who breaks down the drug trade’s ins and outs with a thoroughness that borders on excessive — and which might’ve been insufferable in a feature film. Here though, the constant explication helps transform Narcos into a combination of two addictive TV staples: the kinetic pulp adventure and the true-crime documentary. Ordinarily, a series with such a complex, era-spanning narrative might be confusing, but what makes this one so ideal for Netflix chain-watching is that the audience can just cruise along with Padilha’s nifty camera moves until Holbrook pops back up to explain what’s happening. It’s informative and entertaining, without being especially demanding. That alone makes it stand out from the the growing body of stream-only originals that skew heavy.
4. The 40-day Naked & Afraid XL challenge ends, with piranhas, caiman and a long, hot walk (Discovery)
Anyone who says they started watching this reality show for the “afraid” part is lying. But it’s true that the titillation factor on Discovery’s extreme survival challenge does fade fast, leaving only the fascination of seeing bare-assed folks try to figure out how to eat, and avoid being eaten, in the middle of nowhere. The spin-off XL series was a little disappointing, however, because while it featured multiple teams of past survivors attempting a 40-day expedition instead of a mere 21, the notion of stretching a single mission across eight episodes rather than their usual taut one-and-done was a bad call.
An exciting finale picked up a lot of the slack though, as the eight remaining challengers from the original 12 broke into a groups for a grueling overnight journey to their extraction point. They dealt with intense heat, nibbling piranhas, a leaping caiman (which they killed and grilled), and the lingering hurt feelings that split them into two traveling parties in the first place. As tedious as the interpersonal drama eventually became, it lead to some fascinating contrasts in N&A strategy, as each of these sets of series veterans held to their own beliefs about how best to live (to conserve energy or to hunt? … to work as a collective or to go it alone?) while sneering at everyone else. Much more than the bare skin, it’s these tests of will and clashing values that the series is really selling.
3. Nicki and Taylor kick off the VMAs with a little “Bad Blood,” before Kanye throws his hat into the ring (MTV)
When it comes to MTV’s Video Music Awards, does anyone really care about the actual trophies? The moon-men are just an excuse for the kids to put on a show — and to talk about themselves. This year’s VMAs featured a pro-pot Miley Cyrus as the host, with trippy melting rainbows as her appropriately lysergic design motif. But the night belonged to Nicki Minaj, who was joined onstage by her recent Twitter sparring-partner Taylor Swift to duet briefly on “The Night Is Still Young” and “Bad Blood.” A cynic might say that this was simply phony, choreographed moment, intended to capitalize on a trumped-up controversy and generate clickbait headlines. But what’s pop music without a little fakery and fantasy? When the two women smiled at each other across the stage, they looked for a second like they were actually having fun, and were happy to see each other. (Which is more than you can say for Nicki and Miley. Ouch.) It was, y’know, nice. And almost real.
Even realer: Kanye West, who took advantage of his Video Vanguard award to give a long, rambling, sweetly heartfelt speech about awards shows, entertainment, Millennials, MTV, and his presidential ambitions. He was joking (maybe?) about that last part, and sure, the thrust of Kanye’s “stay true to yourself” message is mostly applicable to the small circle of millionaire musicians that he hangs with. Regardless, it was still clear that the man was honestly wrestling with something, in front of millions of fans and haters, while speaking live and off-the-cuff. For 10 minutes, he was the most mesmerizing thing on television. West 2020, people!
2. The Carmichael Show gets old-fashioned (NBC)
You’d be silly to pretend that comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s new sitcom is “hip” in any conventional sense. It leans hard into the classic three-camera/live-studio-audience format, featuring broad performances and crowd-pleasing one-liners that would’ve fit right into primetime circa 1975. The big twist is that Carmichael and co-writer/co-producer Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) also embrace the topicality of TV from 40 years ago. In last week’s first two installments — aired back-to-back as part of NBC’s bizarrely common strategy of burning through its most promising comedies — Carmichael played an obstinately apolitical young man, stuck between his far-left-leaning activist girlfriend and his socially conservative Christian Democrat parents. For most of each episode, the characters gathered in a living room and talked, All in the Famly-style.
It wouldn’t matter much that The Carmichael Show is a bold throwback if it weren’t also genuinely funny. There’s an undeniable zing to a lot of the lines, like when the hero cracks, “No one goes to Boston for the food, you go for the enthusiastic racism,” or when David Alan Grier (as the his dad) says that he voted for George W. Bush after the first stimulus check, because, “You can bomb whoever you want so long as you send me $1600.” Rather than using these jokes to score easy political points, the characters argue fairly with each other, displaying a mix insight and ignorance that puts them right in line with most ordinary Americans. It’s just too bad that they’re only going to do this four more times over the next two weeks, and then probably never again. Speaking of which….
1. Will and Hannibal square off one last time on Hannibal (NBC)
The way that NBC’s now-cancelled Hannibal ended demonstrated a lot about the differences between on of the best horror shows on television and the two movies that adapted the first Thomas Harris “Lecter” novel (Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller Manhunter and Brett Ratner’s film Red Dragon), the same source material for Hannibal‘s final arc. While the filmmakers aimed to replicate the surprise twists and personal angst of the original novel, showrunner Bryan Fuller’s version had its own agenda. As always, the small-screen adaptation freely ditched the plot to suit whatever its creator had in mind, be it an intimate study of twisted male friendships or a stunningly beautiful tableau of bodies being carved and cooked.
If “The Wrath of the Lamb” is the last we ever see of Fuller’s brilliant, baroque experiment — and barring a belated save by some streaming service, it looks like it will be — the series went out strong, with a reinterpretation of Red Dragon that changed the novel’s details in order to get its narrative ducks in a row. This time, Hannibal Lecter (how we’ll miss you, Mads Mikkelsen), FBI profiler Will Graham, and serial killer Thomas “The Tooth Fairy” Dolarhyde all convene at the good doctor’s picturesque cliffside retreat, for one final round of shooting, stabbing and longing homoerotic looks.
A lot of Hannibal has been about the sick relationship and delicate dance of the Graham and Lecter, but here — just before the series ended with an original song co-written and sung by goth-punk legend Siouxsie Sioux — the physical aggression between the two old foes erupted, consuming both their nemesis and each other. And so a show that was defined by its visual style came up with one last apt image before the closing credits: three bloodied men, wrestling in the dark, on the precipice of a cliff. It was right on the edge down to the very end. Bon voyage and thanks for all the meals, old friend.