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What to watch: Blink Manhattan, Feel Good
Hey there! The Pop Culture Brain newsletter is currently on holiday hiatus. It’ll be back soon with regular news, trailers, and recommendation emails — but for now please enjoy highlights from the what to watch segment! And watch any of these if you missed ‘em!
Before Christopher Nolan goes off to make his Oppenheimer atom bomb movie, I want to give a hearty nod to WGN’s vastly under-seen prestige-era drama series Manhattan, now available on Hulu.
At the peak of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Chicago-based cable network WGN tried their hand at a Tiffany drama and the results were quite strong. This WWII period piece has the hallmarks of the prestige dramas airing around it, but never got the recognition it deserves. Manhattan takes place at the top-secret New Mexico military base where scientists and their families were brought during WWII to design and build the atom bomb. It smartly blends the science-making and workplace drama of the aforementioned AMC hits with family and relationship conflict, bringing in historic and fictional characters including J. Robert Oppenheimer) . There are plenty of twists and turns and at two-seasons it’s an easy binge.
But the big accomplishment here is the cast. This series had a murderer’s row of TV talent who either already had accomplished character acting careers or would go on to become series-carrying leads. Let’s break it down: Rachel Brosnahan (Mrs. Maisel), Daniel Stern (Home Alone), Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, The Father, The Crown), Ashley Zuckerman (The Lost Symbol), John Benjamin Hickey (Big C, Pitch Perfect), Katja Herbers (Westworld, Evil), Michael Chernus (Orange Is the New Black), David Harbour (Stranger Things, Black Widow), Richard Schiff (The West Wing), Neve Campbell, Mamie Gummer, Griffin Dunne, among many more.
Looking at that cast list again, it’s shocking this show flew under the radar. I feel confident that most people have never even heard of this show — so if nothing else, impress your friends with your deep knowledge of brilliant yet overlooked TV shows.
HBO’s Girls is not a universally beloved show. Lena Dunham’s 2010s series has its fans and many detractors — but what is indisputable is how influential it has been on the current TV comedy landscape. Dunham, Jenni Konner, and Judd Apatow essentially invented a genre that turned the sitcom into an auteur-driven indie exploration of modern life as a young person. Girls is the progenitor to Fleabag, Atlanta, I May Destroy You, Dave, Crashing, Ramy, I Hate Suzie and even more shows I’m not remembering at the moment. And it’s certainly the godmother to today’s recommendation: Channel 4 and Netflix’s Feel Good.
Written by and starring Canadian comedian Mae Martin, Feel Good is a thoughtful, hilarious, and at-times gut-wrenching exploration of queer love, addiction, and finding yourself. Like the aforementioned shows, Martin channels their razor sharp world view and unique life story into a beautiful series that achieves relatability through the specific. With astounding honesty, Martin shows what it’s like to be a recovering addict and deal with horrific trauma, all while trying to make a relationship work and succeed as a fledgling comedian in London. Martin is only 34 but the wisdom on display in just 12 half-hour episodes is that of someone well beyond their years.
It’s remarkable that this show is flying under the radar because it features a smash supporting performance by Lisa Kudrow. Ever heard of her? It’s also got a career-defining turn for John Ross Bowie and makes a star out of Martin’s romantic co-lead Charlotte Ritchie. And speaking of the romance, The Kissing Booths and To All the Boys of the world are nice — but this is the actual 2021 answer to the romantic comedy. It just happens to be 6 hours long. Feel Good has all the romantic comedy trappings but then elevates the genre with its exceptional, humanistic depth.
It’s ironic that Girls got dinged so often for having a narrow worldview, considering it begat so many diverse perspectives. Feel Good is another extremely worthy evolution of the form Dunham, Konner, and Apatow gave us — don’t sleep on it.
I’m going to go ahead and recommend what’s regarded as the best episode of Doctor Who’s modern era. It’s called Blink (HBO Max, season 3 episode 10). It’s 100% standalone (you don’t need to have seen or know anything about Doctor Who to watch it). It stars a young Carey Mulligan (ironically, the episode hardly includes David Tennant’s adored 10th Doctor). It has a 9.8 out of 10 audience rating on IMDB. It’s got Steven Moffatt’s horrifying monsters and ingenious time travel plotting. It’s hard to believe this episode debuted 14 years ago, because its iconography and deep chills are still fresh in my mind. It’s all but a guarantee that you’ll be on board if you love high concepts, fantasy, and/or science fiction. It’s a nice Who sampler — if you dig it, you can go back and start Doctor Who (2005). It’s right behind you. Don’t blink.