By Steve Guntli
Last year, the phrase “peak TV” was coined to describe the almost overwhelming amount of high-quality television that’s available to us today.
For those of us with day jobs, friends and families, it can be tough to sort out what, exactly, we should prioritize when seemingly every show is the one we just have to see. I can’t claim to be the authority here (my Netflix queue is as clogged as anyone’s), but for my money, here are three shows you should definitely make time for.
Making a Murderer (Netflix)
If you can make it through even one episode of Netflix’s bracing new documentary series without seething with anger, you are a much stronger person than me. “Making A Murderer” is a gripping indictment of the American legal system, and a pot-boiling thriller to match the best scripted shows on TV today. It’s all we’ve been able to talk about around The Northern Light offices lately, and it won’t take you long to see why.
In 1985, Steven Avery was sent to prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. He served 18 years before latent DNA evidence conclusively exonerated him. Subsequently, he sued the Wisconsin county that wrongfully imprisoned him, and based on the strength of his case, Avery was set to win most, if not all, of his $36 million claim. Then, mere days before a key deposition, a young woman went missing, and Avery, along with his teenage nephew, was charged with murder and facing life in prison.
It’s clear that filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (who spent 10 years working on this project) believe Steven is innocent, and so some of the framing has to be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, the degree of reasonable doubt Steven’s astute lawyers are able to establish makes for shocking television. The most upsetting moments come from interrogation footage involving Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan, who has an IQ of about 70 and is clearly being lead by the nose into admitting to a monstrous crime.
The series essentially turns the viewers into jurors, making the proceedings feel intimate and immediate. Everyone will leave the show with a strong opinion. For my money, regardless of guilt, the Avery family was unfairly persecuted, perhaps because they were poor and uneducated and reflected badly on the community. As unlikely as a police conspiracy would be, it seems equally unlikely that Avery, however simple he may be, would throw away his hard-earned freedom and a huge payday to kill a casual acquaintance. But watch the show for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
You’re The Worst (FXX, Hulu)
“You’re the Worst” is a show about attractive young people in Los Angeles navigating the tricky dating world. Snooze, right? But while the premise has been done to death, there’s never been anything on TV quite like this.
At the series’ outset, Jimmy (Chris Geere) meets Gretchen (Aya Cash) at Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Jimmy is a misanthropic British novelist living off the increasingly meager royalties from his first and only book, while Gretchen is a hard-partying publicist who has made one too many bad decisions. The two have a casual fling, based on a mutual sense of cynicism and self-loathing, but find their deep bond is too real to ignore, and reluctantly enter into a relationship. The cast is rounded out by Edgar (Desmin Borges), a sweet-natured Iraq war veteran and Jimmy’s roommate, and Lindsay (Kether Donohue), Gretchen’s best friend who is having trouble adjusting to her new husband and life in the suburbs.
Once again, there’s nothing revolutionary about the show’s premise: mean, awful people meet and try to make a life with each other. What makes this series unique is its unflinching honesty. Jimmy and Gretchen are not the type of sitcom couple who will ever get into a wacky situation because of farcical misunderstandings. They wear everything on their sleeves, and accept each other, warts and all, which is remarkably refreshing.
In later episodes, the series turns its eye for the truth toward mental health issues, depicting oft-misunderstood afflictions like PTSD and depression in a painfully honest way and giving the standard comedy format a welcome shot in the arm.
The writing is consistently sharp and funny, and the performers are likeable despite their character’s best efforts to be terrible. As Gretchen, Cash gives one of the best performances on TV. Her comic timing is impeccable, but it’s the more serious moments, when her tough-chick façade starts to break, that she really shines. It’s not always a pleasant show, but you won’t find a smarter or more real comedy on TV.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
It’s not the sort of premise you would think to build a sunny sitcom on: a teenage girl is abducted and held captive in an underground bunker in Indiana for 15 years, where she unwittingly becomes a member of an apocalyptic cult. Upon being freed, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is thrilled to see the world hasn’t been destroyed. She finds herself a minor celebrity as a news item, but chafes at the idea of being remembered as a victim. Determined to start a new life for herself, the stunted but optimistic Kimmy decides to settle in New York City, where she finds a roommate (Titus Burgess) and a job as a nanny for a bored, affluent Park Avenue housewife (Jane Krakowski).
Coming from creator Tina Fey, “Kimmy Schmidt” bears a lot of the same DNA as Fey’s last series, “30 Rock.” Both shows feature machine-gun delivery of high-quality jokes, surprising celebrity cameos and even a similar soundtrack. But while “30 Rock” was often derided for being too insider and inaccessible for middle America, “Kimmy” is a show that everyone can love equally. What’s especially amazing about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is how it’s able to subvert potentially grim subject matter into something effortlessly funny, sweet and affirming.
Kemper is a powerhouse in the lead, her wide smile conveying Kimmy’s genuine joy at being alive and above ground.
As Kimmy’s roommate Titus, Burgess absolutely steals the show. Whether he’s making a play for Broadway glory by staging his own knockoff “Lion King” production or filming a music video for a ringtone (the insanely catchy “Pinot Noir”), Burgess is hilarious, and would make the show worth watching even if the rest of the series didn’t work. Luckily, it all comes together, and the show’s second season is one of my most anticipated shows of 2016.