Last week's installment of our recommendation engine focused largely on escapism — perhaps because we were already glued to the oft-frustrating coverage of protests against police brutality on cable and local TV news, or because so many scripted crime shows perpetuate troubling ideas about race, policing and the justice system.
But amid the ongoing movement-building that's followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, it's also vital to highlight television that cuts against that grain. As such, this week's list features a number of titles that celebrate black lives and the systemic threats arranged against them, from a classic family sitcom and a streaming teen comedy to a superheroic comic book adaptation and an in-depth docuseries.
Here are the five shows that The Times TV team is watching this week:
Available on: HBO
HBO's "Watchmen" is even more relevant and timely than it was when it ended its first and only season last December. The series was revolutionary in scope and concept, placing an African American female lead in the reboot of a comic book franchise that had been exclusively white. Regina King delivered a revelatory, award-worthy performance as costumed vigilante Sister Night. The series injected hot-button political issues — race and racism, white supremacy and police brutality against black people — into its genre roots. The unlikely combination made the drama richer and more compelling. Since series creator Damon Lindelof has announced that there will not be a second season, it's time to appreciate further the show's message and accomplishments.
— Greg Braxton
"On My Block"
Available on: Netflix
High school is a challenging if not perilous time for most teens, but Netflix series “On My Block” ups the ante by focusing its cool kids vs. nerds story on four streetwise misfits from the fictional Los Angeles neighborhood of Freeridge. The childhood friends made a vow back in Season 1, during their first year of high school, that they’d make it to graduation alive — with their friendships intact.
Three seasons later, the charming, fun and often sweet “On My Block” continues to reimagine the high school TV series through the eyes of black and Latinx kids. Sure there are the “Mean Girls” tropes — jocks, snobs, dorks — but there are also the very real threats of gun violence, drug dealers and bad cops. Failure to thrive in this high school doesn’t just mean you’re unpopular — it equals slipping through the socioeconomic cracks, poverty, jail or worse.
The series, created by Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, chronicles the adventures of Monse (Sierra Capri), Cesar (Diego Tinoco), Ruben (Jason Genao) and Jamal (Brett Gray), be it a date at Rollerworld , outsmarting gangsters, searching for lost treasure or trying to make it out of the hood in one piece. Uplifting, humorous and empathetic, it grapples with many of the issues at the heart of today’s nationwide protests, through the eyes of black and brown teens.
— Lorraine Ali
"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"
Available on: HBO Max
With the arrival of HBO Max, many are overjoyed that "Friends" is once again readily available to binge. But I'm more excited that all six seasons of this seminal '90s sitcom are available for the first time on a streaming platform. Sure, I've seen every episode at one time or another — usually upon heading straight home after school to catch a syndicated rerun, or falling asleep to a randomized pairing that aired on Nick at Nite. It's a delight to be able to watch the entire series in order for the first time, and to watch a young Will Smith, then a musician with no real acting experience, transform into the next big movie star.
— Ashley Lee
“America to Me”
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
This 10-part documentary by director Steve James, of “Hoop Dreams” fame, got roughly 1% of the attention it deserved when it was released in 2018, which is a shame: Few unscripted series in the last few years have been as moving or insightful when it comes to matters of race and systemic inequality. “America to Me” follows a dozen students at Oak Park and River Forest High School on the outskirts of Chicago, a large and diverse school where teachers and administrators continually work to improve outcomes for black students. Filmed during the 2015-16 school year, amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations, “America to Me” provides a nuanced look at the obstacles to achieving equity in education — and an empathic look at the lives of contemporary teenagers.
— Meredith Blake
Available on: VOD (Amazon Prime Video, YouTube), DVD (Shout Factory)
Mary Pat Gleason, who died June 2, was a busy character actress across a long career — a recurring role on "Mom" most recently. But for me, she will always be Ida, the caustic robot assistant to Matt Keeslar's square-jawed eponymous/anonymous hero and Natalie Morales' bohemian heroine, Wendy Watson, in Javier Grillo-Marxuach's great 2008 comedy adventure "The Middleman." Protecting clueless humanity from what they don't know but can definitely hurt them, they dispatch an encyclopedic array of science-fiction and supernatural threats with deadpan aplomb and highly wrought, pulp-elegant dialogue S.J. Perelman might have written. Couched in comic-book conventions, shot through with pop-cultural allusions, it's a spoof, but like all great spoofs, it also embraces and functions effectively as the thing it's spoofing.
— Robert Lloyd