From Shakespeare to stunning photography, via penile graffiti—there’s something for everyone in our selection of top TV picks this month.
American Vandal: Season 1
Earning a cult reputation within weeks of its Netflix debut, this spoof of Making a Murderer-style true-crime docs succeeds in being far less dumb than it first appears. On the low-brow side: yes, it’s unarguably about a high-schooler accused of spraying his teachers’ cars with penile graffiti.
Its genius lies in the exactitude of its spoof—the placid drone shots, the leading voiceover, the po-faced investigative pedantry, made doubly ridiculous when applied to matters of summer-camp gossip. Creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault were all but unknown a month ago—they can count on being far busier after this.
What is it? Summer TV’s surprise sleeper hit.
Why should I watch it? If you find spraypainted phalli amusing, of course—although Yacenda and Perrault also have things to say about the documentarist’s responsibilities in the age of Snapchat.
Best episode? The mystery aspect gives the entire series a strong narrative throughline; it’s sustained right through to the final moments of the unexpectedly haunting finale.
Best character? Kudos to Ryan O’Flanagan’s deeply uncool “cool teacher” Mr. Kraz, but the breakthrough star will be Jimmy Tatro as wronged dude Dylan: you have to be very smart to play stupid this well.
Watch on: Netflix
Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum
Here’s a timely reminder of what great arts programming looks like: a shimmering documentary—co-produced by the BBC and European broadcaster Arte—which traces the genesis and development of Magnum Photos, the agency set up after the Second World War by Robert Capa among others.
Their diverse portfolio would capture intimate, behind-the-scenes moments from many of the greatest movies ever produced in the US and Europe. Reframed with expert commentary from photographers and filmmakers alike, these images flood and light up the screen, spanning the decades separating Ingrid Bergman’s first adventures in Italian neo-realism from Kate Winslet’s appearance between the covers of Vanity Fair.
What is it? A brilliant one-off, hour-long primer in the lost art of onset photojournalism.
Why should I watch it? It goes without saying that cinephiles should race to catch it before it disappears from the iPlayer, but anyone with an eye for beauty or an interest in composition might equally find themselves swooning: one Eve Arnold shot of Marilyn Monroe in a hotel bathroom, face upturned to catch the light just so, may be the single most gorgeous image of this star in circulation.
Watch on: BBC iPlayer, until October 16
Transparent: Season 4
The most groundbreaking show on streaming has always retained an interest in the Pfefferman family’s Jewish roots. Season 4 transfers the clan’s newly scattered members from LA to the Holy Land, complete with unexpected but not inappropriate Jesus Christ Superstar references.
If that sounds a touch touristy—like a trans-themed Holiday on the Buses—it extends the show’s major theme of boundaries into the wider world. Showrunner Jill Soloway and team seem to sense our need for a getaway, guiding us towards a safe haven that feels doubly precious for being so rare in 2017.
What is it? Amazon’s explosion of the nuclear-family sitcom.
Why should I watch it? For its ability to translate issues of gender and identity into non-judgemental, gloriously human comedy-drama.
Where did we leave it? With the still-transitioning Maura and her variously troubled offspring in very diverse relationship models.
Best episode? Episode Eight drops everyone in the desert, where—in the kind of scene that best showcases the show’s terrific ensemble—a gun goes off and a major bombshell is dropped.
Best character? As with Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, your favourite character may be the one on screen at any given moment.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Upstart Crow: Series 2
A potentially great sitcom is among us, and it's at risk of going under-heralded. Partly, that’s down to the scattering of the terrestrial audience; partly, it’s down to the presence as creator of Ben Elton, the Tony Blair of British comedy, here returning from Australian exile. Watched without prejudice, Upstart Crow is very nearly the equal of Elton’s work on The Young Ones and Blackadder:
David Mitchell’s portrait of Shakespeare as self-important social climber hits new heights in this second run, as Elton continues to juggle witty textural analysis with droll insights into Britain now as then.
What is it? Ben Elton’s richly verbose Shakespearian romp.
Why should I watch it? If you’re a Shakespeare lover/hater (or a Ben Elton lover/hater)—these self-aware gags cover all bases.
Where did we leave it? With the Bard no closer to his dream of achieving social status.
Best episode? Episode 5, “Beware My Sting!”, is an obvious standout: a sharp and extremely funny deconstruction of the author’s problematic Shrew play.
Best character? This ensemble is as good as the Globe’s: special mentions for Harry Enfield’s scrofulous Shakespeare Sr., Mark Heap’s weaselly Robert Greene, and Spencer Jones’s decidedly Gervaisian Will Kempe.
Watch on: BBC2; BBC iPlayer
W1A: Series 3
One crucial difference between US and UK TV: when the former does rat-a-tat administrative walk-and-talk, it results in stirringly sincere entertainments like The West Wing, whereas we make mickey-takes like W1A, poking copious fun at middle-management groupthink.
Three seasons in, and it’s clear John Morton’s show has changed the very rhythms of small-screen comedy: the can-kicking back-and-forths between lithe-mouthed performers occasion more cuts per scene than the average Bourne movie—though Bourne would stand no chance against these stonewallers. Bless the BBC for opening itself up to such ridicule, and bless Morton for ridiculing it so well.
What is it? The BBC’s inner workings, twisted round on themselves in a peerless mockumentary.
Why should I watch it? To observe the best-drilled ensemble in British sitcom at work.
Where did we leave it? With the awkward love triangle between ineffectual Ian (Hugh Bonneville) and colleagues Anna (Sarah Parish) and Lucy (Nina Sosanya) assuming painful new dimensions.
Best episode? Episode Two, with its visit from the minister for—as David Tennant’s voiceover has it—“Culture, Media and, for some reason, Sport”.
Best character? It’s a team game, Brian, and the series opener somehow succeeds in making even a cameoing Alan Shearer seem hilarious.
Watch on: BBC2; BBC iPlayer
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