If social media is the best barometer for what’s really going on in pop culture, then you’d have to call this “Hate-Watch Week” in television-land. Twitter exploded with snark and outrage during the Emmys, the Republican debate, and — from out of nowhere — the premiere of Best Time Ever, Neil Patrick Harris’ bizarre new mash-up of game show, variety spectacular, and cringe-inducing hidden-camera comedy. Over the next few months, TV will be overstuffed with new and returning series, and fans will be all over the Internet, declaring allegiances. But here in the waning days of pre-fall? Viewers mostly seemed to be using their sets as disgust-generating devices.
Why dwell on the negative, though, when there’s so much out there to like? So we’ll salute a few programs that have stuck around longer than anyone could’ve expected, and we recognize the end of a cultural institution. We also have some kind words for TV’s annual night of self-congratulation, which featured enough appealing jokes and winners that even the most dedicated of angry Tweeters had to stop complaining every now and then and say, “Okay, I don’t loathe this.” (Hey, sometimes it’s the small victories that are most worth celebrating.)
5. South Park’s 19th season premiere skewers “PC bros” and Deflategate (Comedy Central)
The best argument for the continuing existence of Comedy Central’s legacy show is that even now, almost two decades after the show became a left-field hit, co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone keep finding new ways to air old grievances. Even staunch advocates of political correctness might appreciate Parker’s off-kilter critique in his script for the the new season premiere “Stunning and Brave,” which imagines the “check your privilege” crowd as a mob of drunken frat boys strong-arming anyone who disagrees with their sociopolitical agenda. The conflation of social progressives’ most cherished ideals with a few things they hate — namely bullying and “bros” — is a tricky little twist on a familiar South Park gripe. It’s so clever that this episode even takes a moment to smirk at itself at the end, as Cartman and his classmates have plates of cake and get to “eat it, too.”
Is “Stunning and Brave” a well-reasoned takedown of tolerance run amok? Hardly. But it’s funny in unexpected ways. And in typical South Park fashion, it’s up-to-the-minute with its references, which include a freaky dream sequence involving Tom Brady — loosely tying the self-righteous PC mafia to both the recent “Deflategate” scandal—and a pivotal plot point having to do with whether or not Kyle is willing to call Caitlyn Jenner a hero. Maybe this episode will “start a dialogue,” or maybe it won’t. (Okay, most definitely it won’t.) It’d be enough just for this show to get people to start saying, “Watch your micro-aggressions, bro!”
4. Sábado Gigante signs off after 53 years (Univision)
Want to know what Univision’s Saturday night staple has meant during its five decades of existence? Spend some time searching the “SGHastaSiempre” hashtag, and hear people who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes fondly remember the hours they spent on the couch with their abuelas, watching Don Francisco host goofy contests and sketches. There’s a reason why the final episode of Sábado Gigante featured a salutary message from President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. Though it launched in Chile — before moving to Miami in 1986 — this weekly extravaganza has been a major part of American family life for generations.
The grand finale was hardly a typical episode, with a string of teary-eyed special guests that included Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, and Gloria Estefan. But it was strangely apt that Sábado Gigante ended in the same week that Best Time Ever with Neal Patrick Harris tried to bring a similar kind of nutty, anything-can-happen vibe to primetime network television. It’s easy to parody Don Francisco and company. Actually being them? That’s going to be a lot harder.
3. The newly revived The Mindy Project pays homage to a classic romcom (Hulu)
It shouldn’t have been that surprising when Hulu picked up Mindy Kaling’s cancelled Fox sitcom earlier this year, because it’s an ideal series for streaming. Its eccentric characters become more fun to be around over time, and the extended embrace/subversion of modern romantic comedy tropes takes dozens of episodes to hone its sharp edge. In fact, the will-they/won’t-they tension between Kaling’s self-absorbed obstetrician Mindy Lahiri and Chris Messina’s ideologically rigid conservative Catholic character Danny Castellano has unspooled slowly over three seasons, before culminating in a cliffhanger that saw a pregnant Lahiri willing to split with Danny over his unwillingness to commit to marriage.
Aside from sporting a trimmed-down cast, the Hulu Mindy Project picks up where the Fox one left off. The Kaling-scripted season premiere, “While I Was Sleeping,” has die-hard New Yorker Danny trying to win over Mindy’s Bostonian parents; meanwhile, the heroine wakes up in an alternate reality where she’s married to a hot, rich dude played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and is launching her own line of “slutty girdles for the sexually active obese”). The episode is a direct homage to the fantasy rom-com Sliding Doors — cited by name — but more importantly, it’s a top-notch installment of The Mindy Project, which is the kind of sitcom where the lead complains about going to church with her boyfriend because, “I have to wait in that long line for one stupid chip.” That over-the-top, me-first griping would be insufferable in real life. Here, it’s what makes the fictional Mindy as endearing as her creator.
2. Two creative women improvise brilliantly on Project Greenlight and Project Runway (HBO/Lifetime)
The revival of HBO’s most influential docu-series garnered some unwanted headlines this past week, due to a scene in the premiere where Matt Damon abruptly dismisses his colleague Effie Brown’s call for diversity behind the camera. In episode two though, Brown is really the star. When this season’s winning director Jason Mann starts making auteur demands about revising the script he’s been assigned to shoot — and insisting on using expensive celluloid film instead of working with digital cameras — the producer massages his ego, while finding ways both to honor his genuinely decent ideas and to torpedo his unreasonable ones.
The original raison d’être for Project Greenlight was to document the many different types of creative work that go into the production of a single movie, and to illustrate how a well-timed “wait a minute” can be more valuable than a repeated chorus of “you’re so talented.” Here, it’s the naysayer who may be the real artist at work, if only because she’s adjusting on the fly and getting her point-of-view across even when faced with coddled egomaniacs who cut her off. As it plays on, Season Four’s “Brown versus Mann” dynamic could end up revealing a lot about how Hollywood really works — and how it should.
If nothing else, the return of Project Greenlight has been a reminder that it was a pioneer in “classy” reality. The erstwhile Project Runway shares part of its name with its HBO sister — and a production partner in Miramax Television — and this past week it aired an episode that proved why these kinds of “watching people work” shows remain so popular. In an unconventional materials challenge, the remaining Project Runway contestants were asked to make clothes out of obsolete technology. Designer Ashley Neil Tipton took a stack of undeveloped Polaroid stock, rubbed some colorful designs into the emulsion, and slapped the resulting smeary squares onto a cunning skirt. Judge Nina Garcia called the outfit, “A dress made of memories.” It was also the sort of ingenious, improvised art that — far more than any trumped-up conflict — makes this genre addicting.
1. Andy Samberg watches every single TV show ever, then hosts the Emmys (Fox)
This year’s Primetime Emmy Awards was more interesting than most, at least from a “What do the Academy’s choices say about the state of the medium?” standpoint. From the refreshingly diverse slate of winners (some of whom, like How to Get Away with Murder‘s Viola Davis, used their acceptance speeches to keep challenging the status quo) to the success of HBO’s internationally popular fantasy blockbuster Game of Thrones (which operates at a scale that network television can’t really match any more), the Emmys steered the conversation away from “Peak TV” and toward a better understanding of what might be good about the glut.
Meanwhile, for those who just tuned into the broadcast to be entertained for three hours: Andy Samberg made a pretty good host. Or, more accurately, his writers were on-point, and he didn’t muff too many of their best lines. (His monologue was shaky, but it also had the joke of the night, about how this year we said goodbye to so many series, including, “True Detective, even though it’s still on the air.”) Samberg also got to bring some of his SNL Digital Short experience to an infectiously silly opening number, where he boasted that before he took this hosting gig he “watched every show” on television, including the 40 or so that have “Wife” or “Wives” in the title. Why do we love TV? Because on any given Emmy Sunday we might hear a song that both celebrates the medium and points out that, damn, there have been a shit-load of Castle episodes.