For most of the past decade, having almost always had some theatrical production to prepare for, rehearse, and/or perform in the evenings, I prided myself on not being much of a TV viewer, and certainly not much of a binge-TV viewer. (My habits more closely resembled Gil Faizon's in the Netflix comedy special Oh Hello!, where he defined binge-watching as “You watch an episode of a show, then you wait a week, and then you binge-watch another episode.”) But pandemics can really play hell with your sense of being and traditional plans, and so I did, for me, the previously unthinkable in late April – I subscribed to Hulu. And HBO. Given that I already had Prime Video and Netflix, there is now absolutely no reason to again leave my apartment.
Happily, blessedly, I'm kidding. But in addition to all the cinematic blasts from the past I've been writing about over the past few months, I have been relishing the chance to see things I otherwise might not have – and sometimes, somewhat embarrassingly, numerous times over. The following are 10 answers to the (currently) frequently asked question “What're you watching these days?” – some brand-new, some new-ish, all of them hugely enjoyed during our stay-at-home period, and a few of them almost more fun than preparing for a new play for live audiences. Almost. Sigh.
Better Call Saul (Seasons 1 – 5): For years, AMC's Breaking Bad follow-up kept staring at me through one of those “recommended for you” boxes on my Netflix home page. Yet for increasingly nonsensical reasons, I resisted this acclaimed prequel for Bob Odenkirk's shady attorney Saul Goodman until social distancing left me with the requisite spare time – and only then after a friend aggressively goaded me into it. Well, mea culpa, dammit – it's fabulous. As with BB, the show takes about a season-and-a-half to really get rolling. But after 50 episodes devoured in less than a month, it now feels as wholly secure in its tragicomic romance as Vince Gilligan's original was in its antihero bleakness, its black-and-white framing device a hint of miseries yet to come. And who could've predicted that amongst an ensemble boasting Odenkirk's Saul/Jimmy, Jonathan Banks' Mike, and Giancarlo Esposito's Gus – all BB scene-stealers – Better Call Saul would be stolen nearly every episode by Rhea Seehorn's thrillingly unpredictable yet endlessly supportive Kim Wexler? When this thing ends after next season, I demand her prequel.
Getting On (Season 3): You know what was even stupider than waiting so long to watch Saul? Not knowing there was a third season of this wildly underrated, long-gone comedy series until last freaking week. In 2016, I rented two seasons of HBO's exquisite cringe comedy set in a hospital's extended-care unit, and was knocked out by the ballsiness of its alternately cruel and humane storylines and the remarkable performances of Laurie Metcalf, Niecy Nash, and Alex Borstein. It wasn't until re-watching those 12 episodes last week that I discovered another six waiting for me, and it was like landing on a big box of family home movies you never knew existed. I thought Getting On concluded admirably after season two. Its actual ending is more satisfying still, especially having been given three extra hours in the company of cherished TV characters I never expected to see doing “new” things again. If you've never watched this under-the-radar show, give it a chance. It might not make you feel better about dying, but Nash, especially, is a phenomenal advertisement for living.
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch: I'm somewhat cheating here, considering it was in December of 2019 that I originally saw Netflix's salute to, and spoof of, formative children's television from Mulaney's youth. Yet in our pandemic era, there's no hour of entertainment I've more frequently returned to than this weirdly rewarding comedy special, just for the simple fact that it makes me feel utterly fantastic every single time. Maybe you had to have grown up with The Electric Company and Free to Be … You & Me and Zoom – the PBS show, not the current manner of existence – to wholly comprehend the genius of what Mulaney, his fiercely talented child co-stars, and their eclectic guests (David Byrne! André De Shields! Richard Kind!) are up to. But in this rare hour in which every single sketch and musical number is first-rate, the pleasures are so copious that it would be worth a standing ovation even if it ended before Jake Gyllenhaal's routine as the thunderously unprepared Mr. Music. That bit just makes it worth an ovation and an Emmy.
Mrs. America: When last I referenced creator Dahvi Waller's enthralling, nine-episode FX on Hulu miniseries about the battles surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment, we were still days from the finale that brought the action to a close with Ronald Reagan's 1980 election victory. What can I say? The show stuck the landing, climaxing its briskly paced hour with a perfectly appropriate kitchen-table tableau and the unmissable message that the fight, and the fighting back, continues to this day. The miniseries is certainly informative and capital-I Important. But if you're worried that Mrs. America is merely a didactic history lesson, nothing could be further from the truth; for all of its worthiness, it's also more sheer fun than anything else I've seen in 2020. Among literally hundreds of moments to savor, be on particular lookout for Ari Graynor's impassioned talk-show appearance as lawyer Brenda Feigen (“Cite the case!”), Uzo Aduba's empowered grin as Shirley Chisholm makes her presidential bid, and any time Cate Blanchett's Phyllis Schlafly smiles. And you thought Blanchett's wicked stepmother in Cinderella was terrifying.
Normal People: As a 50-something who would generally rather stare at a blank wall than six hours of YA romance, I thought about skipping this BBC Three/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's acclaimed novel, the tale of secretive, mismatched high-school lovers in Ireland whose complicated relationship continues into university and beyond. The miniseries' rave reviews finally wore me down, though – and thank goodness they did, or I would've missed out on one of the most sublimely romantic and heart-stabbing love stories I've yet seen. Despite Normal People's initially solid performances and disarmingly frank sexuality (and equal-opportunity nudity), it takes two or three of its 12 half-hour episodes to find its groove. But once it does, the relationship between sardonic rich girl Marianne and insecure poor boy Connell becomes utterly transfixing, and the respective portrayals by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal begin to feel unimprovable; Connell's wrenching episode-10 breakdown should absolutely not be viewed without an accompanying box of tissues, or maybe a squeegee. You don't just want to watch this show. You want to propose to it.
Run: Speaking of proposals, it took me all of three minutes – or roughly half her total screen time – to fall helplessly in love with Merritt Wever in last year's Marriage Story; playing Scarlett Johansson's wannabe-actress sister, Wever was like Diane Keaton's Annie Hall, but with more quick-flip neuroses and a less-funky wardrobe. Consequently, I didn't binge so much as inhale the seven episodes of Wever's love-on-the-you-know-what HBO comedy series that pairs her with Domhnall Gleeson as former lovers embarking on an impromptu cross-country getaway. The stars' magically spiky and sexy chemistry is reason enough for a viewing of its seven episodes. But like Netflix's equally binge-worthy Russian Doll, the plotting somehow grows both more world-expanding yet more specific with each passing chapter, and the supremely well-titled Run never takes its foot off the gas – even when the stars are motionless, you're kept dizzy by the nearly visible speed of their ever-whirring brains. Here's hoping Wever and Gleeson reunite for a season two. If Gleeson isn't available, I'm sending Wever my contact info.
Sea Wall: In mid-May, the New York Times ran an article on streaming options for people who were missing live theatre. One of the selections was directors Andrew Porter's and Simon Stephens' half-hour, 2012 adaptation of Stephens' stage piece – a devastating monologue on family, faith, wonder, and unutterable grief performed by Andrew Scott. At the time, the short film had newly become available for free YouTube viewing, and because Scott is amazing and the Times was pretty adamant about Sea Wall's greatness (“you should start watching right now, I mean it, instantly”), I gave it a whirl. Thirty-odd minutes later, completely undone by Stephens' profoundly moving script, the pandemic-era perfection of its isolationist presentation, and Scott's disarmingly naturalistic, soul-shattering performance, I watched it again. And then again later that night. And a couple times the next day. Now it's gone from YouTube, but I'm up to about 15 viewings and counting anyway, as it's available for a five-dollar rental or six-dollar purchase at SeaWallAndrewScott.com. It's so worth your five bucks. It's even more worth your six.
Succession (Season 2): I haven't seen nearly enough recent TV to make this assumption. But is it possible that, in addition to being television's best drama, HBO's Succession is also television's best comedy? The possibility was certainly hinted at in year one of creator Jesse Armstrong's dysfunctional-family epic – an endlessly engrossing, complexly juicy tale of a global-media empire, its tyrannical ruler (the properly majestic Brian Cox), and the adult children fighting for pieces of the capitalist pie. The laughs came fast and furious – especially whenever Kieran Culkin's smarter-than-he-seems Roman and Nicholas Braun's endearingly addled cousin Greg were around – but the near-Lear tone was still more intense than irreverent. Season two, however, is a deliciously, almost constantly re-watchable hoot, with even the most unsettling subplots (the TV-station shooter, the lockdown in Turkey) as mordantly hilarious as they are nervy. The press-conference finale, meanwhile, inspires a priceless “Oh no he didn't!” cackle before the weight of the event truly sinks in, leaving you counting the minutes until production resumes on season three. Please, let it be soon.
Unbelievable: Before Run, my Merritt Wever infatuation continued with this powerful, painful, yet astonishingly optimistic Netflix miniseries about a series of seemingly unrelated rapes and the attempts by two Colorado detectives to link the crimes to one perpetrator. Unbelievable's first episode is justifiably harrowing, examining in clinical, enraging detail the indignities suffered by Kaitlyn Dever's teen after reporting her attack to the authorities. But the rest of the eight-episode procedural is practically a buddy comedy, with Wever's sensible, devout cop and Toni Collette's profane, agnostic one gradually finding common ground in an environment that oftentimes treats female officers and female victims with equally unwarranted suspicion. The idea of planting genuine laughs within such profoundly unfunny circumstances shouldn't work, like, at all. That it does, brilliantly, is testament to the miraculous empathy evinced by the show's creators, and to the gloriously human tenacity, instinct, and emotional credibility of its leads. This may not sound like something you'd want to watch even once. I'm about ready for round three. It's that good, and that entertaining. Unbelievable indeed.
The Vast of Night: Oh my God … an actual 2020 movie! One that was at the Blue Grass Drive-in just two weeks ago! It's also streaming on Prime Video, and I kind of hate that I missed seeing writer/director Andrew Patterson's low-budget chiller from the socially-distanced comfort of my car, because this thing was made for drive-ins … though it's really made for anyone who enjoys a ripping-good story beautifully and intelligently told. Set in 1950s New Mexico and concerning a strange, encroaching … something … that terrified witnesses are trying yet failing to explain, this giddy little sci-fi freakout is like a perfect cinematic short story scored and shot with astonishing elegance, particularly given its meager $700,000 budget. I will officially line up for anything Patterson does after this spectacularly controlled and inventive debut, and am so glad I heeded the advice of the friend who alerted me to The Vast of Night's Amazon presence this past Friday by merely texting, “See it now.” I did. And again two nights later. Being a pushover does have its benefits.