One of the big topic of conversations among TV-watchers this fall: Why do the major networks keep refusing to cancel their crummy, unwatched new shows? Either there’s nothing in the pipeline to replace these duds, or we’re reached a stage where studios and producers are thinking more about Netflix, Hulu et al. than winning a Nielsen night. Since nobody knows what might eventually become prime binge-watching fodder, why scrap a series after only three weeks? So as long as the sets are already built and the actors are under contract, why not not go ahead and crank out 12 episodes?
Meanwhile, what is scoring big on TV lately? Live events — like political debates or, say, the appearance of a certain divisive demagogue on a venerable late-night comedy program. In our weekly round-up of television’s most-talked-about moments, we can’t avoid The Trump Affair. And after a week that saw another round of Amazon pilots vying to become the next streaming sensation (vote One Mississippi!), we’re expressing some gratitude for a Netflix original that’s one of the best things this wild new digital frontier has yet yielded.
5. Trump tanks on SNL (NBC)
The current Saturday Night Live cast is talented and versatile, and the show has done well in the past whenever it’s dropped real-life politicians into a sketch (as with Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago). But whatever your political leanings, it was a bad precedent for SNL to give an entire episode over to any person actively campaigning for the presidency — let alone to one who’s made such inflammatory statements about immigrants and women.
Even though Donald Trump himself only ended up getting around 12 creepily stiff minutes of screen-time last week (or about half of the typical host), the decision to make most of the sketches about Trump was consistently squirm-inducing. The actors looked uncomfortable, as though they were afraid to be too enthusiastic lest that be seen as an endorsement — but also leery of turning on their host. (The lone exception: Michael Che, who’s “Weekend Update” jabs at The Donald made him seem like the only one actively acknowledging the idiocy of this whole stunt.)
The episode hit its nadir in an intentionally bad sketch that had Trump “live-tweeting” insults at its participants, in what may have been a meta attempt to explain why everyone on SNL was playing along — but instead read as unfunny and degrading. So why does this debacle make the Top 5 list? Because it was a memorable TV event, undeniably. And, boffo ratings aside, it went so badly for all concerned that it’s unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Plus, this episode clears the way for what should be a stellar Saturday Night Live next week, featuring all the good jokes apparently cut out of the Trump show.
4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend asks: Will you settle for it? (The CW)
Even by the relaxed standards of the CW, less than a million people watching Rachel Bloom’s wonderfully deranged comedy each week probably isn’t enough to keep it on the air much longer — even though roughly half of those viewers are TV critics tweeting, “Please watch this show!” Besides co-producing and co-writing with Aline Brosh McKenna, Bloom anchors every episode as Rebecca Bunch, a brilliant-but-damaged New York lawyer who’s moved to an unglamorous California town to be closer to a guy she dated as a teen; cue stalker-ish delusions of eternal romantic bliss. To be honest, there are plenty of clever TV comedies about women and men who’ve gone off the rails on their way to adulthood. (You’re the Worst, for example, has been crushing it this season.) But what really sets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend apart are its musical numbers: twisted pastiches of pop and Broadway, partially penned by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger.
Last week’s episode featured two showstoppers: In “Sex with a Stranger,” Rebecca starts out singing about wanton lust and ends up digressing into STD tests, complaining, “Your balls smell weird.” And then in “Settle for Me,” she does a Fred-and-Ginger routine with her scrappy, charming bartender pal Greg (played by New York stage vet Santino Fontana). He urges her to think of him as “like 2% milk or seitan beef” — an acceptable substitute for the man she really wants. How many television shows on the air right now are staging sumptuous black-and-white song-and-dance numbers, with its characters in tuxes and gowns? People, get with the program. We have a genuine gem here.
3. Getting On gets grimmer — and funnier (HBO)
HBO’s adaptation of the pitch-black British sitcom Getting On made the jump from good to excellent last year, becoming more satirical and screwball as it tackled insurance fraud and institutional entropy at a Long Beach hospital’s geriatric unit. The third and final season picks up the story about eight months later, with the ward’s high-strung director (played by the brilliantly brittle Laurie Metcalf) in danger of being ousted by the scandal. Meanwhile, her key nurses (Niecy Nash, Alex Borstein, and Mel Rodriguez) hide behind union rules to keep from cleaning up any literal or figurative messes. Much scrambling ensues, while the staff’s patients continue to weaken and die, as they inevitably do.
The episode’s title — “This Is About Vomit, People” — cuts right to what this show’s really about: the often futile grunt work of medical care, and how bureaucracy keeps those on the frontline from mopping up a pile of puke when they see one. But what really makes this one of HBO’s buried treasures are scenes like the one where Metcalf checks in on a patient via a remote robot helper, and ends up running over the poor old lady’s corpse. That’s some dark, dark humor there — and a hilarious-but-pointed illustration of how the tools we rely on to help others can become blunt and destructive.
2. Mom: Hope spring maternal (CBS)
Allison Janney has won an Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy for each of the two years that this traditional sitcom been on the air; thanks to this season’s premiere (“Terrorists and Gingerbread”), she may have just locked up her third. Ellen Burstyn guest-starred as Shirley, the mother who gave up Janney’s character Bonnie Plunkett for adoption when she was a toddler. When Bonnie hears that her biological mom is dying, she reluctantly agrees to see her for the first time in 50 years. The second half of the episode is largely taken up by these two women hashing out the choices they’ve made, and the damage they’ve wrought.
After a shaky start two years ago, Mom has developed into one of TV’s best comedies — though it doesn’t always get recognized as such, because it’s a traditional three-camera show taped before a studio audience, and doesn’t exactly feel “hip.” But co-creators Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker have been shaking up the form in subtle ways, by telling stories about a mother and daughter (Anna Faris) who are both recovering alcoholics clinging tentatively to their sobriety. These are characters who are trying to improve themselves, but aren’t anywhere close to where they want or need to be, which sets them apart from all the other quipsters on television who crack jokes from places of relative comfort.
The addition of Burstyn to this combustible mix — even for just a guest shot — continues the show’s mission of finding humor and pathos in people who aren’t just broken, but are worried they’ll lose something essential about themselves if they get too healed.
1. Viva Aziz!: Master of None (Netflix)
There’s nothing wrong with treating a season of television is like a novel or an epic-length feature film; there’s also something to be said for those who play to the medium’s strengths and continue to make episodes. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix series parcels out sprawling stories about the lives of creative types in the hipper quarters of New York City — in particular Dev, a marginally successful thirtysomething actor who’s painfully aware that the choices he makes in his life could easily become permanent. Like Louie and Girls, the show splits the difference between a sitcom an indie film, creating something that works both as a five-hour narrative and as a batch of winsome stand-alone urban vignettes.
Give a lot of credit to the show’s slate of experienced indie directors — including Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) — who make great use of the city’s dim rooms, deep shadows, and diffused light. But even more props should go to Ansari and Yang, who’ve learned a lot from their years of working on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. They track Dev’s on-and-off romance and up-and-down career between punchy one-off episodes like “Parents” (a look back at a mother and father’s immigrant roots), and “Indians on TV,” which examines Asian stereotypes and Hollywood’s shallow commitment to diversity. You can watch just one or binge all 10. Either way, it’s a winner.