THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

BETTER THINGS (2016-2022)

(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.

BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)

(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)

Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.

Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.

It 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.

I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.

Season 1 Trailer:

Final Season Trailer (for the brave):

DIETLAND (2015)

CONTENT WARNING: Eating disorders.

I previously recommended the TV adaptation of DIETLAND back in January which I described as a ‘woman-focused FIGHT CLUB’. While I last watched the show when it first aired in 2018, revisiting the pilot inspired me to check out the source material, Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name.

Upon reading it, I was struck at how close Marti Noxon’s adaptation hewed to the source material, while still fleshing Plum’s story out to be a bit more action-oriented to meet the requisite runtime of a TV series. However, the novel has an interiority and command of character that strikes closer to the reason why these pieces exist, which is:

Fuck capitalism, your body is fine, accept it and stop funneling money into the weight loss industry, but you will never, ever, be able to fit in without fighting for your right to do so. (And you still might hate yourself for doing so.)

To summarize: Plum Kettle is an ghostwriter giving private email advice to whomever mail her under the name of teen lifestyle magazine empress Kitty Montgomery. Plum is also fat, has always been fat, and wants to get surgery so she’ll be ‘Alicia’, her given name, the thin girl waiting inside of her. While working for Kitty, she’s roped into a group of ‘Jennifers’, an extremist organization that has no qualms about killing men and women who perpetuate a masculine agenda at the cost of women’s lives. Matters escalate.

While Noxon’s adaptation scrutinizes the changing of Plum from a meek, self-loathing woman into a revolutionary, Walker’s novel takes a different tact in exploring the dichotomy between who Plum feels as a fat person, and who she’d feel like as Alicia, a thin person. The Jennifers are backgrounded, a means to an existential end. It’s purely about Plum and the reader’s journey.

Look: I know I’m a middle-aged CIS dude. I am not the target audience for this work. However, I’ve struggled with my own weight issues. As a teen, I was definitely a calorie-counting anorexic, a behavioral note that DIETLAND hammers home. At my lowest scale reading, I was 130lbs, which for a 6’2” person was not healthy, but health be damned — I was a lithe goth boy!

Then, after working in diners and then meeting a woman who introduced me to the wonders of fine dining — as opposed to the same reliable carbs I’d routinely eat — I got fat. Then I found a very stupid, but very healthy and fun way to lose that weight: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, a videogame that knows a bunch of weight-obsessed folks play it, as it counts your calories with each track you dance to. It was way ahead of PELOTON with gamifying weight loss but, sadly, apparently is no longer profitable, and no longer exists due to the whims of its corporation.

Predictably, I gained the weight back, although under better circumstances: mostly beers in-between theater screenings and the like. I recall waking up one morning and realizing ‘oh, I’m just a fat person. This is who I am now.’ I felt a bit at peace with that reckoning. I stopped weighing myself and just started accepting my girth for what it was.

Then, the pandemic occurred, and in a fit of stress-induced anxiety, lost twenty pounds without even realizing it, which then provoked a flood of endorphins and, well, I thought: I lost this much through inaction, so let’s try action! And now I’ve lost at least fifty pounds, I can wear pants and shirts I haven’t worn in over a decade — although that’s probably a fashion crime — but I still feel like garbage. My wife calls it self-control, but I know the real term for it, and I haven’t felt the same sort of acceptance that I felt when I told myself that I was fat.

What DIETLAND instills is that the fat, insecure person will always live in you. It becomes part of your identity. You will always see them, even if others don’t. It’s a resignation that, in the novel, leads to a personal and political revolution. In real life, that doesn’t really happen.

I’d like to say I ‘recovered’, but as anyone who has struggled with weight knows: there’s no recovery; not really. There are highs and lows, at least until a final acceptance, which is the ultimate point of DIETLAND, but at the end of the day, DIETLAND is still a fictional work. Living with that is far harder than turning the last page.

I don’t feel that most men think about their looks or weight, or at least more than they have to which — by American standards — is very little if they’re heteronormative. I’m thankful to have a network of friends I can confide to about this, but I fear many don’t, which is exactly why I’m writing this. I can say: both the series and the book have helped me process a number of weight-related issues, and if you suffer from that, maybe these works will speak to you, too.

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.

FALLEN ANGELS – Murder, Obliquely (S01E05, 1993)

FALLEN ANGELS was a mid-90s neo-noir anthology on SHOWTIME that I only recently heard of, but the fifth episode of the first season, entitled Murder, Obliquely, features Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Diane Lane, was co-written by Amanda Silver (THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and a number of the new PLANET OF THE APES films) and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (CHILDREN OF MEN, ROMA). That’s a stellar team right there.

Murder, Obliquely is also based on the Cornell Woolrich short story of the same name. Woolrich wrote the source material for REAR WINDOW among loads of other very successful works, but by others accounts he had a very unhappy life: he married a woman in 1930 while knowing he was gay; the marriage was annulled three years later; despite being a prolific and successful writer, he was also a self-destructive alcoholic, living with his mother in shithole apartments until she died; then he spiraled out completely and became a recluse until he died.

I mention this because this adaptation of Murder, Obliquely very clearly leans into this background, if you read between the lines. (I’ll note that I have yet to read the short it’s based on.) It’s a Sirkian noir of infatuation — Annie (Laura Dern) becomes obsessed with inherited-millionaire Dwight Billings (Alan Rickman) but he can’t get over his ex, the recently-married Bernette Stone (Diane Lane). The story ends with everyone miserable, as noirs do.

Despite having the gauzy veneer of 90s cable television, it’s remarkable stylish with its costuming and art design — especially Dwight’s art deco home — as well as the dialogue, which manages to be distinct without feeling too broad. If you have thirty minutes to spare, it’s a great way to spend some time.

I don’t think anyone will mind a direct link to a fan rip in this case:

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2021)

(HBO MAX) This is the real fucking deal, a vodka-fueled tonic for the litany of sad, isolated wine-women thrillers. It’s a Hitchcockian/De Palma-esque thriller that gives every woman agency and nuance and, while it’s nowhere near subtle, it is far more substantial than you’d think for a story about a woman who drinks far too much and sleeps in too many beds and wakes up to find her fling viciously murdered next to her.

To quote Brian Grubb, “it’s a goddamn blast,” and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for lead/executive producer Kaley Cuoco (BIG BANG THEORY) who read this book by a dude and saw her vision for it, and made it happen.

DIETLAND (2018)

DIETLAND was a one-season wonder from Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MAD MEN, UNREAL) based on Sarai Walker’s novel. The show was canceled too soon, but was one hell of a ride, something that starts as DEVIL WEARS PRADA that turns into a woman-focused FIGHT CLUB.

DIETLAND is unabashedly about fashion-and-capitalism, faux-feminism and body positivity and faith and, while it’s uniquely about women, it wildly resonates.

I would have loved to have seen a second season, as I’m sure it would have been absolutely bonkers in all the right ways, and certainly take place in the future, but I’m happy that there’s at least one season.

BILLIONS (2016-2022)

BILLIONS is one of those premium cable shows that I’m never sure how many people actually watch, but the sixth season — yes, sixth and alleged final season — recently premiered on January 23rd, 2022.

Created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien of ROUNDERS, KNOCKAROUND GUYS, and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN fame, BILLIONS takes a similarly deep dive into the minutiae of men skirting the edges of the finance world. It’s has the appearance of an expensive, emotionally dramatic financial legal thriller, complete with tons of recognizable faces talking at each other and, when they aren’t talking at each other, they’re toying around with some grand destructive spectacle.

BILLIONS features Chuck Rhoades (a very game Paul Giamatti) as the Attorney General of New York City whose white whale is the ‘self-made financial empire man’ Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (HOMELAND’s Damian Lewis). Chuck is married to psychologist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff, MAD MEN, SONS OF ANARCHY), who Axe ends up enlisting at his firm while Chuck spends his nights indulging his own more prurient subservient interests.

There are a number of more intriguingly drawn characters, including Axe’s right-hand-man, the extraordinarily hedonistic Wags (BREAKING BAD’s Gale, David Costabile), Chuck’s ice-cold father (the ever-brilliant character actor Jeffrey DeMunn), and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), Axe’s VIP non-binary quant.

I’m sure there are some folks who watch BILLIONS for how it represents the machinations of the financial and political world. I wouldn’t know as none of that really interests me. I watch for the Iannucci-esque verbal tongue lashings of the show.

Ultimately, BILLIONS is a soap opera, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I enjoy the feints and the relationship turns and characters lapsing out of the show, only to find their way back in. However, after the first two seasons, it becomes blatantly obvious that any brutal hits to any of the major players would quickly be retracted or written around. This is television, and television likes to maintain a status quo, but nothing takes the sheen off of a sharp and biting high-end series like seeing a character written into a corner and then, one ep later, is back on top, none the worse for wear, even if the entire series is built around two monsters jockeying to see the other punished.

Nonetheless, BILLIONS has more than a few compelling facets, such as its portrayal of the NYC food scene. The majority of the show takes place in restaurants and diners, and those dining scenes genuinely reflect the history and disposition of the characters Chuck and Axe are consistently meeting with throughout their day. Both often know their colleagues’ favorite haunts, or at least know where to suggest, so one meal might be Chuck dropping by late-morning to meet a rich Italian at their favorite very dated luncheon spot, then two hours later he’s picking at a deli sandwich while complaining about a recent wrong to an ally.

These ritualistic eating scenes worked quite well at giving the actors something to do while spitting their lines back-and-forth until midway through season five, when COVID shut down production. When it re-opened, well, I don’t quite want to spoil matters, but the restaurant outings dried up. Interactions fundamentally changed, forcing the show to pivot its directorial mode. I’m not 100% sure it was successful — you can be the judge — but it’s interesting.

But I digress: there’s also the fashion. Since this is, more often than not, a show about men talking at each other, about -rich- men talking at each other ad nauseam, those behind the scenes know that these men have look good, look -expensive-, and still have their clothing reflect their personas. (I’ll note that I’m no expert here, but even I can see that they put a lot of effort into the costume design.)

For instance, Chuck is always wearing immaculately conservative — but yet striking — suits that bring out his blue eyes.

Axe is the polar opposite, opting for high/low looks, more upscale versions of what a college kid would have been wearing in the 90s: expensive trainers, tailored jeans, excessively aged and distressed band shirts made to look like he’s been carting them around his entire life, but still fit like a glove. Like Zuckerberg, he has a penchant for hoodies, but his hoodies cost four figures and greatly flatter him.

Then, as a contrast, you have Taylor, who very specifically dresses in non-gendered, but very striking ways; all darker colors, longer but open suit coats, black tops, loose-but-still-fitted vests.

Lastly, there are the music needle drops. The show has grown into a comfortable rhythm of opening up swinging with some classic rock that costs a fortune to license. At one point, not only does METALLICA appear on the show, they play a live show (or at least appear to).

While BILLIONS narratively never feels as expensive as everything around it, all of the little touches work in its favor to create something that, while it’s not unique, has the veneer of uniqueness and, sometimes that’s more than enough.

Season One trailer:

Season Six trailer:

THE AMAZING RACE (2001+)

(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.