Everything on TV last week retroactively fell under the shadow of what happened in Paris on Friday, which made the weekend shows feel like either a welcome escape or an act of mass commiseration. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver kicked off with the host addressing the terrorists with, “Fuck these assholes.” Saturday Night Live — coming back strong from last week’s Trump debacle — served up both remembrance and relief, with a touching bilingual nod to France. Even when television offered comfort food, we first had to say a somber grace.
Oddly — or appropriately — this was actually a good week for small-screen escapism, thanks to kick-ass action from a pair of effects-heavy adventure shows, some long overdue comedy from a beloved duo, and a strange trip into the thoughts of an eccentric movie star. Each of those four shows makes it into this week’s column, joined by a bold bit of political theater from one of basic cable’s best dramas. If we’re being honest, the latter did make us think about the unsettled state of the world today. But you can only disappear into television for so long.
5. Welcome back, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (Netflix)
We couldn’t have picked a better time to binge on the Mr. Show creators’ return to sketch comedy. (Seriously, thank you, Netflix.) Comedians don’t get participation medals, however, and the duo’s new show, W/Bob and David, wouldn’t have been so welcome if the old gang weren’t still funny. Yes, not every single gag lands in the series’ too-brief four-episode run, but when the troupe hits on a good idea — a “no-nonsense” TV judge replaced by one who tolerates some nonsense; an anti-police harassment activist encountering a friendly cop — they perform the bit with the precision timing of an atomic clock.
Odenkirk’s accomplished post-Mr. Show career serves him well here, with his richer acting experience bringing more depth to sketches like the one where his “bad cop” is sensitive over what his “good cop” partner says about him to crooks. And in one of the best new sketches, the local news reports on the death of a previously unknown member of the Beatles, as a philosophical man-on-the-street wonders, “If you had an invisible third arm that was paralyzed, would you miss it?” The pairing of Odenkirk and Cross is like that metaphorical third arm. And dear lord yes, was it ever missed.
4. Bruce Campbell drives Fargo into the Reagan era (FX)
Apparently it’s not enough for Bruce Campbell to be (literally) killing it right now on Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead, because he also stopped off in FX’s peerless Midwestern noir last week, to play a pre-presidency Ronald Reagan. Set in 1979, at a time when the Gipper was on the campaign trail, this week’s episode — “The Gift of the Magi” — brought him to southwest Minnesota, where he delivered a stump speech so heartfelt that it choked up the local anti-government cynic Karl Weathers (played by Nick Offerman). On some other shows, Campbell might’ve been asked to do a broad, cartoonish Ronnie; here, he’s so convincingly sincere that even lifelong Democrats may wish they could go back in time and vote for him.
Turning the future 40th President of the United States into TV character isn’t some cheap stunt. Fargo‘s second season has been telling an intricate story about the waning days of the 1970s, musing about how hippies and down-home crime families alike were steamrolled by the promises of big-time capitalism. The show’s also been exploring the freaky side of this particular time in American history, evoking the prog-rock, UFOs, and macrame fringes of the Me Decade — all by way of explaining how a former Hollywood actor became a viable presidential candidate. Who better then than the physically sturdy, unnervingly square Campbell to play a man who pledged to lead the country into a future meant to reflect our imaginary past? It’s doubtful even Reagan in his Cattle Queen of Montana prime could play a more perfect Reagan.
3. Into the Badlands — your new “fast-forward to the good parts” favorite (AMC)
TV fight sequences have become more kinetic and visceral over the past few years — we’re looking at you, Daredevil and Strike Back — but rarely have top-quality punch-outs and slice-ups been as much of a selling-point as they are in AMC’s new postapocalyptic martial arts extravaganza. The show has a capable lead in American-born Chinese movie star Daniel Wu, and features a suitably out-there premise, about a not-so-distant future controlled by ruthless “barons” and their sword-wielding “clippers.” But while there’s not much here that should disappoint (or, frankly, surprise) genre fans, there’s a reason why each commercial break during the series premiere was preceded by a teaser for the next round of bloodletting.
That’s because the most important name in the Into the Badlands credits doesn’t belong to Wu, or even creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, but to fight choreographer Ku Huen Chiu, who’s previously worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Kill Bill films. The pilot’s plot was really just a way to get to the scene where a fighter shoves his opponent into a mirror, catches one of the flying shards of glass, and then flings it back into the man’s eye. That’s just one example of what this show has to offer to those who like their action fast-paced and hard-hitting.
2. Listen to Me Marlon revives one of the greatest actors of all time (Showtime)
It’s been a great year for documentaries in general, but it’s been unusually good for the ones backed by premium cable channels. HBO gave us Going Clear, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, How to Dance in Ohio, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, while Showtime has come through with Mormon bigamist exposé Prophet’s Prey, and now this peek inside the Method actor’s mind. The latter actually has a lot in common with the Cobain film, in that it too taps the private archives of a pop-culture icon to let him tell his story in his own words. In the case of Marlon Brando, director Stevan Riley had access to caches of audio-tapes of the eloquent, thoughtful actor, who later in his career became more reclusive and more inscrutable.
The doc spans the star’s career, giving as much space to his string of 1960s flops and his enthusiasm for Tahiti as he does to On the Waterfront or The Godfather. Pretty much the only voice here is the big guy’s, which makes the movie feel like a frank, personal behind-the-scenes look at what drove an oft-mercurial man. From the scenes of a handsome-as-hell young Brando hitting on lady reporters to the tapes of him talking about civil rights and showbiz phoniness, Listen to Me Marlon captures what made this actor so difficult to those who knew him intimately, and so beloved to those who watched him raptly from afar.
1. Zoom gives The Flash a rush (CW)
The DC superhero’s second season has mostly been as fun as its first, packed with plenty of gung-ho teamwork, crazy villains, nifty special effects, and curiously halting Tom Cavanagh line-readings. What’s been missing, however, is a strong overarching plot-line to match last year’s combination murder-mystery/time-travel/Reverse-Flash funkiness. Season Two has required a lot more set-up, with episode after episode of new characters popping by hype up the Machiavellian alternate-Earth speedster known as “Zoom.” All of that finally paid off last week in a long visit from the ultimate rogue and some peak Flash action.
Even before the Big Bad zipped over from Earth-2 to pummel our hero into near-paralysis, this was a packed episode: a jailbreak by tragic antagonist Dr. Light; a hilariously awkward Zoom-baiting ruse involving Light’s Earth-1 doppelgänger; and multiple attempts by the newly psychic Cisco to pick up “vibes” from the morally questionable scientist Harrison Wells. “Enter Zoom” sported the brightness, humor, and camaraderie that’s been setting this show apart from its much grimmer DC-derived brethren Gotham and Arrow (not to mention Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). But the episode also gave us a lingering look at a seemingly unbeatable foe, which could lead to some nerve-wracking but entertaining complications for Barry Allen and company in the months to come. Add to that the return of the psychic gorilla Grodd this week, and The Flash‘s sophomore season is really starting to pick up momentum, reminding fans why this is the best live-action superhero TV series on the air right now — if not of all time.