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‘Baby Reindeer,’ ‘Fallout’ and Spring TV Highs & Lows: Critics Debate

‘Baby Reindeer,’ ‘Fallout’ and Spring TV Highs & Lows: Critics Debate

DANIEL FIENBERG The shift to a backloaded schedule built around a May 31 deadline for Emmy consideration has drained some of the surprise from the spring TV calendar. Viewers are growing accustomed to a glut of high-profile limited series and prestige returning shows from March to May, with the biggest titles and stars creating their own gravitational fields of self-perpetuating coverage.

Luckily, though, there’s still room for discovery. With its literary pedigree and a budget that burst off the screen in the form of astonishing evocations of 17th century Japan, FX’s Shogun had “prestige” written all over it. Yet the care taken by creators Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo to deliver this story without having it reek of appropriation and voyeurism was evident throughout. Still, who would have guessed that Shogun would be so successful that the network would want to push forward with future seasons beyond James Clavell’s novel, transforming the show into the potential savior of the moribund Emmy drama categories?

An even more unexpected development was that the spring’s two defining smashes were a pair of very different explorations of memory, trauma and exploitation within the entertainment industry. ID’s Quiet on the Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV became a phenomenon through its uncomfortable mix of millennial nostalgia and true crime. In terms of quality, Quiet on the Set had the whiff of sensationalism that hangs over much of the network’s programming. But it also has the potential to help reshape an industry.

Netflix’s Baby Reindeer came out of nowhere; the streamer didn’t even send episodes to critics in advance. But by the end of its first weekend, it was a word-of-mouth phenomenon, astonishing for a show whose creator and star, Richard Gadd, could have walked through Beverly Hills malls entirely unnoticed the day before the premiere. So full of haunting and mortifying moments that it was nearly unwatchable at times, Baby Reindeer was equally impossible to look away from.

ANGIE HAN Baby Reindeer is this year’s Squid Game, the Netflix title that came out of nowhere to dominate the conversation among normies and critics alike in 2021. And as with Squid Game, the hype was earned. Gadd’s portrait of abuse is so brutally candid that it would feel like mere self-flagellation were it not for its equal emphasis on empathy for both its protagonist and his stalker.

However, I wonder if it broke through in part because so many of this spring’s big, buzzy, prestige-y shows just … weren’t good. Don’t get me wrong, I still found plenty to love: I was blown away by Shogun‘s dazzling world-building and complicated characters. Ripley was hands-down the most gorgeous thing Netflix has ever produced, anchored by Andrew Scott’s perfectly off-putting Tom. And while it didn’t get nearly as much attention, Apple TV+’s Manhunt impressed by sneaking a searing history lesson into a propulsive conspiracy thriller.

But I admired more than loved Netflix’s 3 Body Problem (cool ideas, lopsided plotting) and HBO’s The Sympathizer (bold swings, too much Robert Downey Jr.). I was taken with the performances in Hulu’s Under the Bridge, but underwhelmed by the storytelling. I can’t argue with the gravity of Holocaust dramas like Hulu’s We Were the Lucky Ones and Peacock’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, but important isn’t always the same thing as compelling. And that’s not even getting into the glossy mediocrity of Peacock’s Apples Never Fall and Apple TV+’s Palm Royale. A star-studded cast cannot save a show that seems to have no idea what it wants to be in the first place.

FIENBERG I prefer glossy mediocrity to dour mediocrity, which has become one of Apple TV+’s most lucrative brands, as typified by the sci-fi glumness of Dark Matter, which lacked any sense of fun within its loopy multiverse plot; the hopelessly bland Franklin; and the tonally jumbled The Big Cigar, which tried without success to blend wacky Hollywood heist high jinks with an overview of the history of the Black Panthers.

Apple had a bit more success with gumshoe drama Sugar, thanks to Colin Farrell’s charismatic lead turn and the show’s interestingly conflicted portrait of Hollywood as both a dream factory and an industry fueled by abuse and trauma. Indeed, Sugar could have had a spot in trend pieces alongside Quiet on the Set and Baby Reindeer if the conversation around the series hadn’t been dominated by its big twist, which was so exhaustingly teased that lots of folks guessed it in advance.

Disappointments really did abound this spring — not crushing failures, just things that looked like Emmy contenders until you watched. Both Netflix’s A Man in Full and HBO’s The Regime had scenery-chewing lead performances — from Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet, respectively — but as satires of the corrosive nature of wealth and power, they were one-dimensional. FX/Hulu’s The Veil got off to a promising start with international locations and the intriguing tension between characters played by Elisabeth Moss and Yumna Marwan. But creator Steven Knight steered the thriller to the least interesting place imaginable.

You mentioned Ripley, and I loved how star Andrew Scott, creator Steven Zaillian and especially cinematographer Robert Elswit took Patricia Highsmith’s oft-adapted novel and found a spin that was both faithful and unique. And I agree that Robert Downey Jr. sucked up too much of the oxygen in The Sympathizer, but there’s so much ambition in Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar’s harrowing and satirical take on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, and Hoa Xuande more than holds his own opposite all those Downeys.

HAN This year’s crop of stereotypical Emmy bait may have been a mixed bag, but there’s still been plenty of fun outside that very narrow definition of “quality” television. Like Max’s Conan O’Brien Must Go and Netflix’s John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in L.A., which took the familiar formats of the travelogue and the talk show, respectively, and then dialed up the idiosyncratic sensibilities of their hosts to thrillingly zany results. (You could argue that Jerrod Carmichael did the same for his HBO reality show, though I found that experiment to be more prickly-interesting than flat-out entertaining.)

Even the dreaded category of reboots and spinoffs yielded some gems. Disney+’s X-Men ’97 breathed new life into the increasingly creaky Marvel universe by returning the titular team to their millennial Saturday morning cartoon/soap opera roots. Netflix’s Sandman spinoff Dead Boy Detectives felt like a CW show that would’ve been huge on Tumblr circa 2014, and I mean that as a compliment.

Those are just the new shows! Max’s Hacks is as hilarious as ever in its third season, nudging its dysfunctional duo toward growth without losing its mischievous humor. Ditto Hulu’s Extraordinary and its gang of Gen Z misfits. Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts returned after three years with elevated maturity, but no less punk-rock spirit. And while I can’t say this season of Bridgerton is as delicious as the others, you could not ask for a better showcase for Nicola Coughlan than the one-two punch of Penelope’s romance and Tubi’s Big Mood.

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What’s been your idea of fun this spring?

FIENBERG Well, definitely not Amazon’s Fallout, especially its leaden early episodes, despite my warm feelings for Ella Purnell, Walton Goggins and certain pieces of its production design. I still preferred it to Apple’s Palm Royale, which squandered one of the best casts you could ever hope to assemble by turning every performance up to 13 on the dial — 11 is for wimps, apparently. And while I don’t know if anybody could possibly find Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show to be “fun,” as public self-eviscerations go, it’s an astonishing examination of both what we expect from our celebrities by way of personal exposure and what celebrities expect from doing reality TV.

A lot of my favorites this spring were returning shows. Hacks, a series I’ve always respected more than loved, was at its absolute best in the second half of the season, as Jean Smart’s Deborah came closer and closer to achieving her life’s dream — and viewers were glued to their seats waiting to see how things would get screwed up. Abbott Elementary continued to be one of the few broadcast shows worthy of superlatives, though Robert and Michelle King’s Elsbeth (CBS) showed potential in giving Carrie Preston’s flighty Good Wife character the Columbo treatment. And the Kings’ Evil started its final season with a strong run of episodes featuring some of the show’s creepiest demons to date, as Paramount+ waits to see if there’s any bump from the show’s recent debut on Netflix.

And yes, John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in L.A. was full of delightful moments. But I’d add that in the stand-up space, nothing this spring made me happier than finally getting to watch Alex Edelman’s provocative and provocatively silly Just for Us on HBO.

HAN I guess the problem is less a shortage of great TV than an excess of just-OK TV — particularly the kind of shows that boast astronomical budgets, all-star casts and beloved source material, but no strong vision to tie it all together. And even that would be less exhausting if not for everyone deciding to roll all these shows out at basically the same time. So if anyone with scheduling power is reading: Please, on behalf of your friendly neighborhood TV critic, keep in mind that months besides April and May exist.

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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