Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel Credit - Courtesy of Marvel Studios
June should probably be the weakest month of the year for TV. Not only have the handful of network shows worth watching gone on summer hiatus, but also, because Emmy eligibility ends on May 31, June has become the television equivalent of January’s movie-release wasteland. A lot of the titles we’re getting now are ones that platforms didn’t see the point of rushing out in the spring for awards consideration—which makes it kind of unnerving that this has turned out to be my single favorite month of 2022, to date, when it comes to new series. Below, you’ll find two excellent British character studies, an immersive crime drama set in Navajo country, an inspired update of a ’90s arthouse favorite, and the only superhero show since Jessica Jones that I wholeheartedly endorse. They may not be bombarding you with For Your Consideration ads, but they certainly deserve your consideration nonetheless. For more recommendations, here are my top 10 shows from the first half of the year.
Becky Green doesn’t want to be Becky Green anymore. And who could blame her? The protagonist of Chloe, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is a study in abjection. Played with protean inscrutability by Erin Doherty (The Crown’s Princess Anne), Becky works a demeaning temp job and lives in a shabby apartment with a mother (Lisa Palfrey) who’s sinking into early-onset dementia. Social media is her escape. She scrolls endlessly through posts by a childhood friend, Chloe Fairbourne (Poppy Gilbert), who lives a glamorous life surrounded by her ascendant-politician husband (Billy Howle) and a tight clique of photogenic bourgeois-bohemian pals. Then Chloe dies, in an apparent suicide, and Becky discovers that one of the last things her estranged pal did was try to call. [Read the full review.]
Dark Winds (AMC and AMC+)
Dark Winds, the latest crime drama from AMC, opens with a heist scene worthy of a summer blockbuster. The year is 1971. Two uniformed guards emerge from Gallup Savings & Loans, in the small city of Gallup, New Mexico, lugging padlocked bags stuffed with cash, which they load into an armored van before driving off. Suddenly, a helicopter descends, blocking the road in front of them. One of its occupants hops out and throws a bomb under the van; the explosion lifts the vehicle’s back end into the air like the hind legs of a bucking bronco. A gunfight ensues, the masked bandits make off with the money, and as the helicopter ascends, the generic cityscape gives way to panoramic shots of the golden, butte-studded vistas surrounding Monument Valley.
We won’t find out, right away, where the helicopter ends up. But the journey has taken us to the show’s true setting: the Navajo Nation. This isn’t a common backdrop for the kind of TV epic whose elaborate action sequences run up a tab of $5 million per episode; neither do its overwhelmingly Native American cast and crew fit the profile of the typical storyteller Hollywood sees fit to bless with such a generous budget. Dark Winds would be a remarkable crime drama—at a time when unremarkable ones dominate television—even if it wasn’t a groundbreaking showcase for Native talent. The fact that it is gives the show resonance far beyond its overcrowded genre. [Read the full review.]
Irma Vep (HBO Max)
Film-to-TV adaptations aren’t exactly rare in this era of television as insatiable content maw, but I promise you’ve never seen one like this before. In his cult-classic 1996 feature Irma Vep, French auteur Olivier Assayas—who created an indelible portrait of Carlos the Jackal in his three-part epic Carlos and gave Kristen Stewart her two best roles in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper—traced the mutually destructive connection between a director (New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) obsessed with remaking the silent serial Les vampires and the international star (Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung, playing a version of herself) he casts as its bewitching lead. The film lingered over other tortured, symbiotic relationships: art vs. celebrity, famous actors vs. fanboy reporters, inspiration vs. madness. A quarter-century later, it’s also an artifact of mid-’90s indie cool, with Cheung sneaking around in her Irma Vep catsuit to the spiraling guitars of Sonic Youth.
The new 8-episode series, also helmed by Assayas and featuring music from Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore, strikes the right balance between honoring the gritty original and updating it to better reflect the entertainment industry of today. (How could Irma Vep, in 2022, be anything but a TV show about people making a TV show?) Alicia Vikander steps into the Cheung role, though in this telling her name is Mira, she’s an American actor fresh off the set of a soulless superhero, and her persona feels closer to that of Stewart than to Vikander’s own. The elongated runtime gives Assayas the opportunity to expand the cast of characters, yielding an ensemble piece that spends time with everyone from Mira’s vengeful former assistant and ex-lover (Adria Arjona) to an actor who vacillates between nihilistic provocateur and drug-addled mess (Lars Eidinger). The looseness feels like a luxury. So, if the devolution of Netflix has you scared for the future of TV as an art form, watch this to hang on to some hope. [Read Stephanie Zacharek’s review.]
Ms. Marvel (Disney+)
Despite all the fanfare that has surrounded them, most Disney+ original series are competently made, mildly clever Marvel or Star Wars brand extensions—necessary viewing for fans who don’t want to miss a beat between movies but easily skippable for the rest of us. Ms. Marvel is different. A coming-of-age tale that centers on Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American, Muslim teenager with overprotective immigrant parents who lives in Jersey City and worships Captain Marvel, the six-episode action dramedy takes off when our hero sneaks out to an Avengers convention wearing an heirloom bangle from her grandmother that activates Kamala’s own latent superpowers. The series has a playful visual style, boasts a lovable lead performance from Iman Vellani, and draws on its characters’ ethnic and religious backgrounds in fascinating ways. If superheroes are contemporary American gods, then Ms. Marvel is a delightful reminder that modern American culture is rooted in traditions imported from around the globe. [Read Sanya Mansoor’s feature on how Ms. Marvel celebrates Pakistani and Muslim culture.]
This Is Going to Hurt (AMC+ and Sundance Now)
You might, at first, take the protagonist of this British medical drama, OB-GYN Adam Kay (the wonderful Ben Whishaw) for the kind of badass maverick doctor that TV produces in bulk. But he’s not a Gregory House or a Cristina Yang. Nor is he incompetent. Based on a widely read 2017 memoir by the real physician Adam Kay, which drove an international conversation about health care, he’s a more-or-less regular guy struggling to build a sustainable career in the UK’s inspiring but underfunded National Health Service. Hurt is the best medical drama in years because, instead of celebrating idealized superhuman doctors, it observes how broken systems force real doctors to attempt superhuman feats. And it weighs the impact, on providers as well as patients, of setting up public-health programs to fail. [Read the full review.]