By Aryav D. ’23
This fall saw some of television’s most beloved series returning — and in the case of some, coming to a long-dreaded close. I will not be covering House of the Dragon or The Rings of Power or whatever Disney Plus is up to with Star Wars this month, because, simply put, I have not seen them yet (and likely may never!). As Plato put it, “Too much TV, and not enough time.” For we are in a new Golden Age, that of television; and what greater disposable joy is there in this life than streaming comedy television? Onto the first show!
Big Mouth (streaming on Netflix), is back for its sixth season, and for myself (and I suspect many viewers of the show reading this article), Big Mouth has comprised much of our adolescence. While its characters may stay in middle school for what feels like several years now, the show has remained timely to our existence at this current moment in history (while hitting the same crass animation standard set by shows like Family Guy). While doing so, Big Mouth rarely ever feels preachy and always addresses shockingly topical issues.
Obviously, with a show featuring this many main characters, there are bound to be dud storylines, but this season, some of the character writing is better than it’s been in the whole run of the series. Andrew continues to get the most to work with, and Lola grows actual pathos (with her dialogue rising to the top ranks of my favorites on the show). Nick is lovably hateable as ever, and his storyline yields very fruitful comedy with the otherwise under-utilized Fred Armisen voicing his father. Comedic mileage can sometimes vary in a show with such a high jokes-per-minute ratio, and Big Mouth uses the format of animation to gleefully cram as many visual gags into the frame as possible. Generally, there are more hits than misses, or, perhaps, my sense of humor is as ruefully juvenile as the middle-school days of the early seasons of this show.
There’s a certain charm to Big Mouth’s disgusting consistency — and one that is still going, six seasons in.
The White Lotus (streaming on HBO Max with new episodes every week) is midway through its second season, this time set in Sicily and focused on an all-new cast, with the exception of last season’s Tanya, played by Jennifer Coolidge. While it is difficult to speak about an anthology show like this without having seen the whole thing, so far, this season is on track to meet the high bar set by its predecessor.
One quirk of the first season was that there was hardly a single character to root for, and while much is prone to change in the second half of this season, so far, White has introduced a more morally reasonable, generally likable set of characters. And the cast playing them grows more and more star-studded, with F. Murray Abraham and Aubrey Plaza highlighting the cast this year. Theo James, known for 2014’s Divergent, and, uh… the rest of the Divergent franchise, is surprisingly fantastic, with Mike White continuing to make excellent casting choices. I may be in the minority opinion on this, but since the start of the show, I have found Jennifer Coolidge’s character Tanya insufferable when the show isn’t mocking her absurdity.
Last season, resort manager Armond was certainly the biggest charmer, and this season, it has simply not been the case with the unfortunately less interesting Valentina, although this could very much come to change. Michael Imperoli, best known for playing Christopher from The Sopranos, is wonderfully greasy this season, and Meghann Fahy is another standout, bringing complexity and depth to an initially superficial caricature. While White might skewer these guests to bits, he doesn’t do so without injecting them with loads of complexity and pathos that make us almost root for them.
This season’s themes skew more toward gender roles, sex, and class (whereas the last season focused on race and class). The setup of each season has been a looming flashforward murder mystery, and it’s a testament to the show’s writing and acting that it can start by showing us bodies turning up and get us more invested in who is screwing over whom. The interwoven aspect of character interactions remains just as impressive a feat, as White seamlessly links each seemingly disparate story to often destructive impact on them all, cringe-filled conversation and tension abound.
White’s direction is intoxicatingly indulgent of the setting and the glamor lived by the characters, while always reminding us of the clear superficiality of these lives. His teleplay has really never been better than this, and every hot-button issue he decides to make the topic of many a fraught dinner table conversation gets wrung to death exactly as he intends. Truly no one is safe from a complete lampooning here, and the truth of certain moments to real perspectives in today’s society makes it feel mind-boggling that this is, in fact, a scripted series.
And the music! As with last season, the score this season always serves up a perfect tonal contrast, making the most innocuous moments at the resort seem chillingly sinister, and ironically relishing in the pleasure of its most morally repugnant characters.
At its most fervent feeling like a high-art soap opera, The White Lotus is a thematically decadent, razor-sharp wealth satire that expands its target this season through the lens of desire.
Donald Glover’s brainchild Atlanta (all episodes streaming on Hulu), which I covered during its Season 3 return this spring, was back with its fourth and final season immediately following the last, with its spring-fall turnaround probably the closest thing this “sitcom” has ever done to a normal, well, sitcom. Much of the focus this season has been on Atlanta’s (and Glover’s, by extension) place in the mainstream media landscape since its debut and the reactions it has garnered in that time.
While I adored the experimental nature of the third season, at least tonally and narratively, this is a return to the norm for Atlanta. However, as a result, earlier episodes of the season, while still fantastic episodes in their own right, can feel a tinge underwhelming considering the nonstop showcase of creativity that was Season 3. But, of course, if any show were to have the high-class problem of making smartly written satire unlike anything else on TV somehow feel underwhelming, it would be Atlanta.
The midpoint of this latest season, “Work Ethic!”, is both the detour and shot in the arm the season needed to get completely back on track (which, for this show, often requires going off the rails completely). From there on, this season has no trouble giving us the narrative closure needed to tie up four seasons of spending time with such few characters.
Between flashes of survival horror, mockumentary, and romantic drama (all with the show’s typical satire baked in), the run of episodes leading up to the finale feels like Glover and the team telling us not to forget that not only are they capable of pulling off anything, but they’re also capable of making whatever they embark on feel as cinematic in the span of half an hour as anything we’d encounter in a movie theater would in a feature-length runtime. Mockumentary “The Goof Who Sat By The Door” is a truly strange, poignant, hilarious bottle episode and undeniably one of the greatest entries of the show.
There are still, of course, beautiful streaks of abstraction like “Andrew Wyneth, Alfred’s World,” an episode that could only exist in the context of a show that’s paved the way for that level of artistic freedom. And I’d be remiss not to mention Murai’s direction, which episode after episode, gorgeously amps up the surrealism on a visual level.
The finale, which garnered mixed reactions for its bittersweet brevity and flippantness, begs the question of how else the show could have possibly ended. While this was inevitably the problem (Glover simply couldn’t have made a traditional finale), it does hurt not to get a clear answer on the future of any of the characters. But the show nevertheless does a beautiful job of tying up the seasons-long narrative arcs of the characters inhabiting its world, even without giving us the type of ending we’ve become accustomed to.
So this holiday season, between passing the mac and cheese and tense, emotionally fraught political conversations, if you find yourself with a half hour of spare time, any of the above three shows would make for some lovely (if decidedly not family-friendly) viewing.