I usually at least try to appear supportive of these recommendations, but goddamn, I hate Netflix’s reality programming. I hate how cheap and exploitative it is and how they shoehorn that fucking neon circle into each show. Every time I see it, it feels tackier.
I’ve seen the contracts for these shows, and I know they’re shot for next-to-nothing, and very rarely do contestants get nothing but grief, even if they win — come on, $200K? In this day and age? — but Netflix itself almost always turn a massive profit, which makes it even worse.
That said, I have been watching reality shows since the modern makeover in the early naughts — yes, I’m old enough to have live-watched the first season of SURVIVOR (which I’ll note had a $1M payout) — and watched more than my fair share of PROJECT RUNWAY seasons — most of them live — as well as wanna-bes like one-season weirdos like THE CUT.
NEXT IN FASHION is very clearly Netflix’s very cheap take on PROJECT RUNWAY.
I’ll note: I am married to a fashion historian. When she was in college I helped her with her collections, because she needed more hands and mine were the closest, and I take instructions well. I’ve worked on websites for a bunch of designers, attended a number of illustrious fashion events — I’m very familiar with this world in a way I never would have expected.
The thing about PROJECT RUNWAY is that: both of the leads were not just experts in their field, but proper and established mentors. That was the allure. You’d actually learn from them, as opposed to simply being judged.
So, NEXT IN FASHION is very lucky to have Gigi Hadid. Tan, while engaging, is clearly out of his element here. He has nothing to offer but mild quips and grey tips. Gigi, on the other hand, succinctly explains — and articulates — why certain looks do not work.
That said, reality shows are built on the backs of their contestants. And I’ll note that NEXT IN FASHION’s contestants have a better reputation than most. They’re not starving artists or fresh-out-of-school; most of them are far more established than those you’d see in early seasons of PROJECT RUNWAY.
That’s what makes the show far more interesting to watch, because you know you’re watching seasoned workers just here for promotion instead of thirsty amateurs that barely know what they’re doing. I’m so used to the latter regarding reality TV shows that I was absolutely surprised to realized — halfway through the season — that no, that’s not the tact they took.
I love watching skilled people do what they love, but that’s a rarity with reality TV! I realize most just want to see people fuck-up via terrible shit, but I don’t! I want to see people revel in doing what they thrive for; I want to learn from them, even from their mistakes! I’m a stupid nerd, but I endlessly want to be taught, and this show helps with a bit of that, despite Netflix’s shenanigans.
This was a great year for TV, overstuffed with brilliant finales and new offerings. Sadly, I haven’t had time to watch all that I’ve wanted — I’m still sitting on UNDONE S2, ANDOR, PACHINKO, FOR ALL MANKIND, STATION ELEVEN as well as personal favorites EVIL and much much more — but if I waited to watch everything I wanted in order to pen this, this post would never see the light of day.
BARRY (Season Three)
BARRY so consistently delicately threads drama and action and dark comedy while also being one of the most emotionally draining and enthralling shows on television. Visually it has its own amazing language, which paid off major dividends in 710N and the striking season finale.
BETTER CALL SAUL (Season Six, Part Two)
If there’s any justice in the world, BETTER CALL SAUL will be more influential than BREAKING BAD. Its plotting, action, and character work takes everything they learned from BREAKING BAD (and THE X-FILES, don’t forget Gilligan’s on-the-job training) and finely hones it into a brutal deconstruction of two unconventional misfits.
While so much ink was spilled about the finale, the end of Jimmy’s arc, I found the penultimate episode to be far more affective, as it laser-focuses on how the fallout of Kim’s entanglement with Jimmy has affected her in a way you simply don’t often see portrayed.
BETTER THINGS (Season Five)
“[BETTER THINGS] makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.
No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.”
While I’ll be forever grateful that FX gave this show five seasons, it feels like a goddamn injustice that — apart from a handful of critics — it mostly came and went unnoticed. It’s such a vivid and singular depiction of home and family and aging that everyone should be exposed to.
DOOM PATROL (Season ?)
Yes, not one, but two DC TV shows on this list. (And, tellingly, no Marvel shows.) Unlike HARLEY QUINN, I was already in the bag for DOOM PATROL having read and loved Grant Morrison’s iconic run, albeit probably later in life than I should have.
However, I was skeptical that they could capture the wild wonder of their world. To some extent, they do not — while it has a far bigger budget than I would expect, it’s still difficult for the show to do justice to a sentient block mirroring Haight-Asbury — but they’re trying their damnedest.
And that’s okay, because the show leans in a different direction. Like HARLEY QUINN, this show doubles-down on the found misfit family facet, trauma-bonding, while adding savior complexes to the group. It also includes Cyborg who seems like a strange fit, but they work him in as well as possible.
Also like HARLEY QUINN, it is a voyage of trauma-exploration — it even features a similar ‘dissociative event/we have to enter their mind’ episode — however, where QUINN sees a light at the end of the tunnel, DOOM PATROL is far more dour, perhaps more than Morrison initially intended. These are castaways who have lived with too much for far too long and, consequently, feel rudderless.
I’ll note that this year’s season has barely kicked off, and I’m still working through the prior seasons, but as a show it really hit me in the gut and I couldn’t leave it off this list.
GIRLS5EVA (Season Two)
This season didn’t quite hit the highs of the first, but it still provided effortless laughs and brilliant performances.
HARLEY QUINN (Season Three)
Before I’d watched a single episode, I had written off HARLEY QUINN as a filthy lark — hyper-violent, intentionally offensive snark — but enough critics boosted it that I thought it’d be a fun comedic, mindless watch at a time when I desperately needed that midway through this year.
I was absolutely 100% wrong on all counts. (Well, not about it being filthy and hyper-violent because it most certainly is.) I also watched it at a time I most certainly shouldn’t have been watching it, during a period in my life when I was explicitly told to stay away from trauma-centeric works after a bout of enduring extremely difficult works and processing waaaay too much.
HARLEY QUINN is all about dealing with/confronting trauma and abusers and people-pleasing and recovery, but despite the fact that the show is so dirty that I of all people had to consult urbandictionary.com, it’s surprisingly healthy. Ultimately, it’s about Harley realizing herself, her potential, and growing as a person, as opposed to the standard misery porn most shows lean on.
This year’s season isn’t as concise as the prior two, nor is it as emotionally brutal, but it finally coupled-up Poison Ivy and Harley and portrayed the two as a very complicated, but fulfilling, relationship. The writers bend over backwards to underscore that their relationship doesn’t ‘solve’ Harley, that there’s still work to be done. The fact that they can do so while firing off lines like “I can’t listen to ya when you’re dressed like a 40s housewife who is fucking her husband’s boss.” is just an added bonus.
THE LAST MOVIE STARS
The story of two beautiful people with big beautiful problems, all extremely graciously handled by the ever-empathetic Ethan Hawke.
RESERVATION DOGS (Season Two)
I’m still working through the second season, however this show has such a taut command over its characters and tone and what they want to say that it has to be included. A heartfelt raw nerve of a show.
THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES (Season Two)
On paper, every Green/Hill/McBride show should not be for me; immature, petulant male bravado is not my bag.
However, they are absolutely amazing at giving their mostly terrible characters nuance while still being hilariously quotable -and- instilling them with genuine humanity and pathos. Crazily enough, HBO has also given them a budget that allows them to create some shockingly JOHN WICK-worthy set-pieces.
THE REHEARSAL (Season One)
An absolute mindfuck of a reality show in all of the right and wrong ways. By the end I couldn’t help but feel like numerous crimes had been voluntarily committed.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Season Four)
An absolute joy of a humane comedy. The writers are restless and endlessly inventive, and the cast as always game for it. –Go Flip Yourself– is an instant classic.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Season One)
“[A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is] about rewiring cultural attitudes and figuring out what’s best for yourself when you’re actively able to make said decisions.”
I LOVE THAT FOR YOU
The Home Shopping Network is an easy target to lampoon, but I LOVE THAT FOR YOU never punches down, opting instead to tell a serious-but-often-comedic character story about what happens when you get the spotlight you want, and what you’ll do to keep the spotlight on you.
KIDS IN THE HALL
I grew up in Vermont and I’m old, so I was part of a select few of those in the United States who actually saw KIDS IN THE HALL via antenna way back in the day.
If you haven’t seen the original run: I implore you to do so.
That said, I was a bit worried about this return, that it might feel a bit tired, but they still hit all of the right notes. Also, it was all worth it solely for Doomsday DJ.
MYTHIC QUEST (Season Three)
Given the history of all of the creators and writers of this series — notably from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA folks — I expected MYTHIC QUEST to be an even filthier SILICON VALLEY and, while I’m sure so many folks would have been happy with that, instead it’s a surprisingly tender — though still barbed — workplace drama that I’m shocked exists, partially because it actually showcases how gaming culture and audiences have significantly changed.
It’s no longer about tech dudebros — although yes, they’re there — but the show isn’t so pre-occupied with that. It’s genuinely supportive.
It recalls WKRP and 30 ROCK, because with most workplace sitcoms you already know how the sausage is made, but with those, you really didn’t.
Also, Polly uses the exact same faceless, pitch-black mechanical keyboard I’ve used for years, which is a really, really nice touch.
OUR FLAGS MEAN DEATH (Season One)
The queer CABIN BOY/CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS TV show no one knew they wanted or needed.
SEVERANCE (Season One)
Finally, an emotional, character-centric high-concept show that fills the LOST-shaped hole in everyone’s heart. Immaculately designed, perfectly cast; it was a treat of a wintertime show.
SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE (Season One)
For the theatre nerd in all of us; an affecting homecoming story that reminded me of the sadly overlooked ONE MISSISSIPPI. It’s also one of the last performances from classic character actor Mike Hagerty, and he gives it his all here.
STRANGE NEW WORLDS (Season One)
An absolutely delightful sci-fi throwback that captures the wonder and excitement of exploration.
THREE BUSY DEBRAS (Season Two)
Some of the finest surrealism on TV, at least until it was canceled. At least it went out with a bang.
(Hulu/VOD) I rarely watch reality shows but, somehow, I’ve watched each and every episode of CBS’ THE AMAZING RACE, a show that has been endlessly airing in the shadow of SURVIVOR for thirty-plus seasons over twenty — yes, twenty — years. (I’m unwilling to do the math as to how much time I’ve spent on the show, so I’ll leave it to you.)
If you aren’t familiar with THE AMAZING RACE — for a show that has been around for twenty years and has received numerous Emmy wins, it’s flown surprisingly under the radar — it’s a family-friendly reality show hosted by New Zealander and avid traveler Phil Keoghan in which a number of teams fly around the world while participating in competitive tasks. There’s some game theory that goes on, as teams have a variety of options they can use to disrupt other teams progress, but usually the winners who make it across the finish line are those who are young and quick on their feet, don’t overthink challenges, and have a lot of luck with flights and taxis.
So, yes, it’s a reality show competition, but really? It’s first and foremost a throwback to the days of travelogue films, exposing audiences to foreign lands and traditions they’d more than likely never experience. If you’re interested in world culture, and don’t mind the occasional ugly American team or somewhat squicky task, the show is endlessly compelling.
Given the nature of the show, obviously COVID-19 completely thew a wrench into production. They were a few legs into the thirty-third season when the pandemic hit, so they sent the contestants home and instead aired a series they had filmed several years ago and shelved for some reason. (It wasn’t a great season, but it certainly wasn’t one of the worst.)
Now Phil and the show is back and, while it will be difficult to watch knowing how events unfurl, and how they adapted to CVOID, and now with the omicron wave, I’ll be more than happy to check it out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I teared up a bit upon watching the teaser for the new season.
While there -is- a new season, if you haven’t seen the show, I suggest starting with the fifth season, as it has a number of iconic moments and compelling drama.
If you’ve seen a handful of seasons and haven’t seen the first season, it’s a fascinating curio as it is radically different from what the show would become.