There’s no such thing as a slow month in the TV-release calendar anymore, but December does still often feel like an afterthought. The annual best-of lists are already out, sweeps month (to the extent that it still matters) is over before Thanksgiving and, traditionally, we’re all too busy shopping and holiday-partying and visiting family to spend too much time in front a screen. But December 2021 has brought more than just end-of-year dregs and Yuletide treacle to TV—and I’m not talking about that dire Sex and the City sequel.
Which is probably a good thing, as yet another COVID spike has thrown yet another wrench into many Omicron-fearing would-be revelers’ festivities. It’s cold comfort, I know, but the best I can offer is this list of worthy distractions. This is a Harlem-set comedy that has been updated to holiday romance. Take it one day at a timeThese five TV shows will give you the chance to survive another Christmas.
Anne Boleyn (AMC+)
Sometimes an amazing performance is all that’s needed to rejuvenate an old story. The tumultuous reign of Henry VIII is one such tale, memorably retold on TV in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as well as in Showtime’s frothy Tudors. Famous actors such as Claire Foy and Helena Bonham Carter have played the role of Anne Boleyn on small and large screens. Yet I’ve never seen an Anne quite as haunting as the one Queen & SlimJodie Turner Smith, star is here
A three-part series imported from Britain’s Channel 5, Anne Boleyn chronicles the queen’s downfall in the style of a psychological thriller. Henry is weak. (Mark Stanley Game of ThronesAnne plots to rescue herself and her daughter after a disastrous miscarriage turns the court against them. Paapa Essiedu is another good choice. I may destroy you plays Anne’s brother George.) We all know how that campaign ended, and Eve Hedderwick Turner’s script doesn’t necessarily add much from a historical or thematic perspective. Yet Turner-Smith makes the miniseries so captivating it scarcely matters, in a layered, “identity-conscious” performance that contrasts the queen’s private panic with her initially shrewd but progressively unraveling public self-presentation. The queen is elegant and graceful in posture. She is also elegantly dressed in jewel-toned attires. Her cinematography is beautiful, making her unique.
Sometimes peak redundancy is a blessing in disguise. Starz released a comic about four different and equally fashionable Black 30-something girlfriends living in Harlem earlier this year: Run the World. And now here’s Amazon, with its own comedy about four very different, uniformly fashionable 30-something Black girlfriends in Harlem (also the title of the show). Both series share a common main character, who is a Columbia professor. You know what, though? They’re also both charming, funny, culturally specific depictions of female friendship that feel a whole hell of a lot less redundant in the grand scheme of things than Just like that. Plus, Harlem This is where it comes from Girls trip Tracy Oliver is the writer, so it’s no surprise that this series delivers hilarious, laugh-out loud comic sets and characters that jump off of the screen. My favorite, in the early episodes at least, is Shoniquia Shandai’s lovable wildcard Angie, a flailing singer who’s taking a second chance at a career years after getting dropped by her label.
Landscapers (HBO Max)
The British True Crime Drama stars Olivia Colman (Oscar) and David Thewlis (Christopher Edwards), a strange couple who almost committed murder. In case that summary hasn’t already propelled you straight to the closest screen, here are a few more enticing details: The writing is superb. Unlike just about any cop character you’ll see on American TV, the detectives all have witty, bone-dry senses of humor that make scenes that have them puzzling out the case together absolutely riotous. A great stylistic choice Landscapers The Edwardses’ real life is stark and grimy, but the Edwardses create a vividly colored world through their filmtic imaginations. (One of the first things we see Susan do is buy a vintage Gary Cooper poster she can’t afford.) You can watch the miniseries in four episodes. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you might be able to finish it all in one evening. And when you’re done, you can read all about the real Edwardses in this fascinating piece from my colleague Mahita Gajanan.
Station Eleven (HBO Max)
Is there a pandemic? Our pandemic show? Second Are you sick of COVID? Am I kidding you? No! And I’m not even one of those people who went rushing to revisit ContagionFebruary 2020. In March 2020. The Walking Dead franchise to last year’s The StandReboot is a painful process to witness. However, Station Eleven is a different kind of pandemic show—one that is less concerned with how its characters survive the virus than with what’s worth living for when everyone and everything you’ve ever known, including civilization, is gone.
Adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, a National Book Award finalist, the miniseries begins with the onset of a swine flu variant that kills within hours of exposure, ultimately taking out 99.9% of the world’s population. But even as it toggles between characters’ pasts and the present, 20 years after the collapse of society, the heart of the story is a theatre troupe traversing the post-apocalyptic Midwest to perform Shakespeare for ad-hoc communities of survivors, while a scary self-appointed prophet amasses a cult of children born after the pandemic. Our hero Kirsten—played by a wonderfully understated Mackenzie Davis, leading a fantastic ensemble cast that also features Gael Garcia Bernal, Himesh Patel and Caitlin FitzGerald—is an actor struggling to move past both nostalgia and nihilism. With a slew of weapons Hamlet, a mysterious sci-fi comic called Station Eleven and the mantra “because survival is insufficient” (yes, it’s a Star Trek Quote: Her quest proves the soul-sustaining necessity of art.
In Love (Amazon)
Gloria Calderón Kellett has a knack for blending timeless TV formats with characters that feel specific to the present. Her beloved reboot of Take it one day at a time, Calderón Kellett recast Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom about a divorced mom to showcase a Cuban-American Army veteran, her queer teenage daughter and a firecracker of an octogenarian matriarch played by the legendary Rita Moreno. In Love finds the creator working her warm, inclusive magic on the traditional holiday-season romantic comedy—and you’d better believe it’s not about a harried white career woman who returns to her rural hometown to build snowmen with her high-school sweetheart.
This miniseries tells the story of a Latinx family from Portland, OR. On the heels of a painful breakup, 20-something Lily (an effervescent Emeraude Toubia) gets caught between an old friend who’s madly in love with her (Desmond Chiam) and the pugnacious dude (Rome Flynn) who makes her pulse race. Jorge, her brother (Mark Indelicato), is going serious with Henry (Vincent Rodriguez II), but obstacles lie ahead. The siblings’ parents, Beatriz (Constance Marie) and Jorge Sr. (Benito Martinez), have been drifting apart after decades of marriage. Their cousin Sol (Isis Kings), trans-oncologist, has the guts to accept a request from Todd Grinnell. This gentle, funny, culturally specific five-episode story spans a year’s worth of holidays, from a Nochebuena party to an emotional Día de los Muertos, all tied together by the love that binds a family.
Bonus: Abbott Elementary (ABC)
Although broadcast primetime is usually quiet in the last month, some networks use this time to show off their midseason sitcoms. The second half of 2021-22 will have more primetime comedy than it did the first. This single-cam mockumentary created by and featuring starring is the best so far. Sketches by Black LadyQuintaBruson is an alum, and the show is about teachers at a Philadelphia public school with low resources. While the show won’t officially join the ABC lineup until January, the pilot is currently streaming on ABC.com Hulu—and its mix of kindness, structural critique and characters shooting exasperated looks straight at the camera is sure to appeal to fans of Parks and Recreation and Superstore.