The Pandemmy Awards: The Best (New) TV of the COVID-19 Era

March 11, 2020. Sitting at my usual Wednesday night bar trivia, an acquaintance asks “Do we have our first case of coronavirus?” The bartender-regular rumor mill works fast – faster than Sonic the Hedgehog, still in theaters at the time, and certainly faster than official channels. Within a few hours, the Monroe County Health Department confirmed the first local case of COVID-19. By Monday, most of New York had shut down, with the rest of the country following close behind.

And then it was television’s time to shine. Production on some shows was cut short. NBC’s Superstore, which had just announced the departure of star America Ferrera, ended abruptly without filming a season finale. They returned in the fall (with Ferrera for a few more episodes), bringing an honest look at the physical and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on retail employees.

Other series saw brief reunions. The cast of Community, along with The Mandalorian‘s Pedro Pascal, held a virtual table read in benefit of José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods’ COVID-19 relief efforts. The cast of The Last Man on Earth – the show about a deadly virus that wiped out humanity in the year 2020, if you forgot – reunited in “The Last Zoom on Earth” to discuss their time on the show and what might have happened to the characters after the series ended. America’s power couple, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, brought the casts of their respective sitcoms, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, back for remotely-produced episodes. For Parks, it served as a fundraiser for Feeding America, while 30 Rock, appropriately, served as a replacement for NBC’s upfront events, showcasing the fall lineup and new Peacock streaming platform.

But that’s all old TV, the kinds of shows you watch while you’re huddled under a blanket on the couch trying to block out the nightmare of the outside world. What should you watch if you’re sitting mostly upright on the couch, semi-aware of the nightmare of the outside world? That’s where the best (new) TV of the pandemic enters. This is less a comprehensive list, and more a list of demands, made by me, to you.

Central Park (Apple TV+)

Central Park
Central Park‘s Tillerman family. Apple TV+

Do you like Bob’s Burgers, but wish it had more elaborate musical numbers? Then Central Park is the show for you. Following Owen, the park manager, his wife Paige, and their two children, Mollie and Cole as they (unknowingly) thwart the evil machinations of ultra-rich Bitsy Brandenham, who dreams of turning the park into luxury apartments and retail. Each episode features multiple Broadway-style musical performances, with guest composers including Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles, making up a soundtrack album that is infinitely re-listenable. The cast includes many of your favorite talkers and singers, including Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom, Jr. and Daveed Diggs, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Tituss Burgess, The Good Place‘s Kristen Bell, and recent iTunes chart-topper, WandaVision‘s Kathryn Hahn.

Teenage Bounty Hunters (Netflix)

Teenage Bounty Hunter‘s Blair, Bowser, and Sterling. Netflix

What are two upper-class Southern Christian high school twins to do when they crash their dad’s hunting truck and the other driver turns out to be a fugitive? This ten-episode quest of self-discovery mixes the teenaged challenges of school, parents, and boyfriends with the adult challenges of morality, justice, and yogurt flavors.

On paper, Teenage Bounty Hunters should be a nightmare, but it turned out to be an incredibly satisfying story about the bond between two sisters navigating the differences between them and the contrast between presentation and reality. Netflix canceled the series after just one season, but Blair, Sterling, and “Bowsey” will deserve every bit of admiration this soon-to-be cult classic will receive.

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Ted Lasso‘s Nathan Shelley, Ted Lasso, and Coach Beard. Apple TV+

Everyone knows that the best TV shows are based on commercials. Just check the awards list for ABC’s Cavemen. Based on the character created for NBC Sport’s 2012 Premiere League coverage, Ted Lasso is a Kansas City-born football coach who is recruited to move to England and coach the other kind of football. The premise, combined with Jason Sudeikis’ previous work as sports commentator Pete Twinkle on Saturday Night Live, betrays the sincerity of Ted Lasso. Ted Lasso is a successful coach, but cares more about his relationships with his players, his co-workers, and his family than he does about win totals. Navigating culture shock and hostility from a team – and its hometown – in turmoil, Ted does what he does best.

The Rest

Plenty of other new TV started over the past year. Apple TV+ launched Little Voice, a drama about a young singer-songwriter from J.J. Abrams, Jessie Nelson, and Sara Bareilles. Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and Jeff Richmond returned to NBC as producers of Ted Danson-led Mr. Mayor, currently partway through a promising first season. TV’s Craig Ferguson returned to network television with The Hustler, a trivia show for people who need more deception in their lives. And, of course, Disney+ blew Marvel fans away with WandaVision.

The TV-making industry, essential workers by my definition, if not the government’s, have figured out how to keep our screens on during this pandemic and in the hopefully-soon aftermath. Don’t we owe it to them to watch all of it?

The Mandalorian: Essential Episodes of The Clone Wars and Rebels

I’m the first in line to tell you that you should watch every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, but not everyone has the time. As The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV series, finds new ways to tie in with the movies and TV shows that came before, here are, in my opinion, the essential episodes so you can really appreciate the universe The Child is part of. (I’m assuming you don’t need a refresher on the original trilogy, but these episodes are also a great tie-in to Solo, which takes place between the two series.)

The Clone Wars:

The Clone Wars theatrical movie

S2E05 – Landing at Point Rain

S2E06 – Weapons Factory

S2E07 – Legacy of Terror

S2E08 – Brain Invaders

S2E12 – The Mandalore Plot

S2E13 – Voyage of Temptation

S2E14 – Duchess of Mandalore

S3E05 – Corruption

S3E06 – The Academy

S3E10 – Heroes on Both Sides

S3E12 – Nightsisters

S3E13 – Monster

S3E14 – Witches of the Mist

S3E15 – Overlords

S3E16 – Altar of Mortis

S3E17 – Ghosts of Mortis

S3E21 – Padawan Lost

S3E22 – Wookiee Hunt

S4E14 – A Friend in Need

S4E19 – Massacre

S4E20 – Bounty

S4E21 – Brothers

S4E22 – Revenge

S5E01 – Revival

S5E14 – Eminence

S5E15 – Shades of Reason

S5E16 – The Lawless

S5E17 – Sabotage

S5E18 – The Jedi Who Knew Too Much

S5E19 – To Catch a Jedi

S5E20 – The Wrong Jedi

At this point, “Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir” is a worthwhile read. The comic miniseries was based on unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars when the series was abruptly canceled. It’s not necessary, but it does bridge a gap and answer questions that might come up with the next batch of episodes.

S7E05 – Gone with a Trace

S7E06 – Deal No Deal

S7E07 – Dangerous Debt

S7E08 – Together Again

S7E09 – Old Friends Not Forgotten

S7E10 – The Phantom Apprentice

S7E11 – Shattered

S7E12 – Victor and Death

This is a good place to read the novel “Ahsoka.”

Star Wars Rebels:

S1E01 – Spark of Rebellion

S1E15 – Fire Across the Galaxy

S2E01 – The Siege of Lothal

S2E03 – The Lost Commanders

S2E13 – The Protector of Concord Dawn

S2E18 – Shroud of Darkness

S2E21 – Twilight of the Apprentice

S3E03 – The Holocrons of Fate

S3E07 – Imperial Supercommandos

S3E08 – Visions and Voices

S3E15 – Trials of the Darksaber

S3E16 – Legacy of Mandalore

S3E20 – Twin Suns

S4E01 – Heroes of Mandalore

S4E10 – Jedi Night

S4E11 – DUME

S4E12 – Wolves and a Door

S4E13 – A World Between Worlds

S4E14 – A Fool’s Hope

S4E15 – Family Reunion and Farewell

Not Filmed In Front of a Studio Audience: Essential Episodes for a Pandemic

We’re in uncharted waters.  Whether you’re afraid of getting sick or getting others sick, or facing economic uncertainty as more and more businesses close down, many people aren’t sure how to cope. The answer to this, and to most of life’s questions, is simple: Television.

Join me, an expert, through the small screen’s best virus-avoidance methods.

George, Elaine, and Jerry in "Seinfeld"

George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) in “The Soup”/NBC

1. No touching.

If you’re still dating during this lockdown – and if you’re like me, you’ve been playing it safe for months – there are some rules you should follow. No kissing after the third date. No sharing coffee shop sandwiches. No harassing people at the restaurant where they work. There might be some minor social consequences, like getting snubbed in the street or having your TV pilot dropped by the network, but you and everyone else will be better off.

“The Shoes” (Season 4, Episode 15) – Seinfeld

Mac, Charlie, Dee, and Dennis in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) in “The Gang Gets Quarantined”/FX

2. Limit outside contact.

Limiting contact with other people is the key to preventing the spread of disease. Stay in as much as possible, and if you do need to venture out, make an effort to avoid unnecessary contact. Just simple things, like avoiding crowds, washing your hands, and maybe wearing a full-body bubble boy suit. Maybe some alone time will lead to some self-discovery.

“The Gang Gets Quarantined” (Season 9, Episode 7) – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Bender in "Futurama"

Bender (John DiMaggio) in “Cold Warriors”/Comedy Central

3. Don’t panic.

Chances are, you aren’t a doctor or scientist, mad or otherwise. You hear a lot of stuff that you don’t really understand. Trust the experts and don’t do anything crazy. You want to keep space, not hurl an entire city into it.

“Cold Warriors” (Season 6, Episode 24) – Futurama

Jerry in "Parks and Recreation"

Jerry (or something) Gergich (Jim O’Heir) in “Flu Season 2″/NBC

4. Know the symptoms.

There’s a chance you’re sick without being “sick.” Allergies, food poisoning, maybe even a hangover could lead you to believe you’re infected. There’s even a chance you’re just adopting a dog.

“Flu Season 2” (Season 6, Episode 19) – Parks and Recreation

Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation"

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in “Flu Season”/NBC

5. Know when to quit.

Worst case, you get sick, for real. Accept it and do what you need to do in order to make yourself healthy and prevent others from getting sick. Stop going to work. Stop doing work from home. Maybe even go to the hospital, in accordance with your local health department’s guidelines.

“Flu Season” (Season 3, Episode 2) – Parks and Recreation

With these simple steps, you can greatly reduce the risk to yourself and your family, and also watch a bunch of great TV.

Laundry Day

Laundry Day

As part of the product line for The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, LEGO offered a small set featuring Charlie Day’s Benny, a slightly-worn Space minfigure from the early 80s, along with Lenny, Kenny, and Jenny, three brand-new companions. The original Space theme included only Red, Yellow, White, Blue, and Black, but this new set includes Pink in addition to Red, Yellow, and the Blue Benny.

It didn’t take long for this idea to come to me.

ALL THE THINGS: My New Favorites of 2018

The year is just about over — which means my birthday is coming very soon, in case you forgot — so like the rest of the greats, I’m sharing my Best Of list for 2018.

Not all of this stuff is new, but it’s all stuff I discovered in this calendar year and think you should discover in the next one.

Music

Lights2.jpg

Lights performing “Giants,” 2018 Juno Awards. CBC

  • One of my perennial favorites, Barenaked Ladies, didn’t do a new album this year (their latest, Fake Nudes, was released November 2017), but they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this spring. That’s not what this list item is about, though. I went to Vancouver (a city that would make the list if I was including places) to see their induction at the Juno Awards, where I discovered Canadian artist Lights. She doesn’t have a new album this year either, but four studio albums and acoustic versions of several will keep new fans busy for a while.
  • The Milk Carton Kids, another musical favorite of mine for several years, toured with a band for the first time in support of their album, All The Things I Did and All The Things I Didn’t Do. Also their first album with a band, it’s a refreshing yet familiar sound for these all-around talented guys.
  • All right, so Barenaked Ladies may not have a new record this year, but Steven Page, inducted into the Canandian Music Hall of Fame alongside his former bandmates, did. Discipline: Heal Thyself, Part II, is a followup to 2016’s Heal Thyself Park I: Instinct, and an excellent listen for any fan, new or old. Page has been on tour across North America and the UK with no sign of slowing down in the new year.

Television

  • 46748464_1312154128924622_3298555274765071323_n.jpg

    Esther Povitsky and Benji Alflalo in “Alone Together.” Freeform

  • If you’re in your late twenties, single, and still trying to figure out what you’re doing, Freeform’s Alone Together was a surprise TV find. Unfortunately, this series, produced by The Lonely Island, was canceled, but not before two seasons and twenty episodes made it to my living room.
  • You can’t go wrong with Amy Poehler. For real. She has elevated some great new artists to at least one season of TV success as she takes steps to becoming the next Lorne Michaels, and I’m very excited to see what she brings us in 2019. Actually seeing her face on TV, though, is made better only by that face being next to Nick Offerman’s, and the relentless positivity of Making It was a welcome addition to the summer schedule.
  • New this year? No. New to me? Also no. Deserving of a mention on this and every list? No doubt no doubt no doubt. For fans (and cast and crew) of Brooklyn Nine Nine, 2018 included one very long 24 hours between Fox canceling the series and NBC reviving it for a sixth season.

Movies

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Gilda Radner on “Saturday Night Live,” 1976. Broadway Video

  • A more pretentious man may have called this section “Film,” but that same person wouldn’t have put Solo: A Star Wars Story on his list. Solo is just a fun movie, the way Star Wars was a long time ago… in 1977. It certainly had some setbacks during production, but it’s hard not to watch this movie with the same grin that Han has the first time he flies the Millennium Falcon.
  • If you want to temper your grin with some crying, Love, Gilda (making it’s TV debut on CNN January 1) is the film for you. This look at the life of one of Saturday Night Live‘s first breakout star, Gilda Radner, draws you in with her humor and then… well, you’ll see. Narrated in her own words, thanks to archive recordings and diary pages read by some famous faces inspired by her work, this is an intimate look at one of TV’s brightest, fastest-burning stars.
  • Somewhere in that happy medium is Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, an uplifting documentary on Fred Rogers, the man behind “Mister” and featuring the people who knew him best.

‘Tis The (Mid) Season: Television’s Greatest Christmas Episodes

Mid-December. There’s snow (or maybe potato flakes) on the ground, you’re scrambling to buy your last-minute Christmas gifts, and, worst of all, all of your shows have gone on midseason break, not to return until January… if you’re lucky.

Sure, there are network TV specials, but John Legend will only get you so far. That marathon of Harry Potter  movies isn’t really Christmas, and you’re not actually going to watch The Christmas Prince on Netflix, right?

The obvious answer is “go watch some classic Christmas episodes.” I’m not claiming that these are the “best” episodes, but they are some of my favorite shows and I have unquestionably good taste.

 

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WHITE NOISE: Steven Page’s “Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II”

page_2.jpgIf you have ears and lived through the 90s, you are not a stranger to the music of Steven Page. Page, of course, is a co-founder of Barenaked Ladies in 1988 (inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this spring) and is perhaps best recognized for the words “It’s been…” on 1998’s “One Week.” Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II is a followup to 2016’s Heal Thyself Pt. I: Instinct, and is Page’s third album since the leaving the band in 2009 (2005’s The Vanity Project and A Singer Must Die, released in 2010 with The Art of Time Ensemble, make up Page’s other full-length albums).

Discipline was released digitally and on CD in September; quality control issues delayed shipment of LP copies until the end of October. While billed as a second part to Instinct, the albums have very little in common in tone; Discipline‘s opening track, “Nothing Special,” incorporates a theme of Instinct‘s “There’s A Melody.” While styled differently, Discipline‘s “Whistling Through The Dark” shares some melody with Instinct’s “Surprise Surprise” (that album’s lead single).

If listening to the LP, side A (tracks 1-5) fit very well into the Steven Page songbook fans known since 2010’s Page One. Much of Discipline sounds like a throwback to the 1970s with lyrics that are distinctly modern – or perhaps distinctly Steven Page. For any longtime fan of Page or Barenaked Ladies, Discipline feels fresh yet familiar.

Side A ends on “Gravity,” a Spanish-inspired rebuke of modern science-deniers, and is a hint at what is to come. A driving guitar and refrain that evokes The Ramones begins Side B and “White Noise” before delving into a classic Page-style musical and lyrical narrative inspired by the 2017 Charlottesville, NC riot. These responses to Trump-era politics marks Page’s first political compositions since his co-write with Ed Robertson and Kevin Hearn on the subtle”Second Best” from Barenaked Ladies’ 2003 Everything To Everyone (the band’s other Bush-era political track, Barenaked Ladies Are Men‘s “Fun & Games” in 2007, being composed solely by Robertson).

“White Noise,” however, is a brief detour from an otherwise personal album. The slower, sadder “Done” feels like a sequel to 1996’s “Break Your Heart” (from Barenaked Ladies’ Born On A Pirate Ship, and still a part of Page’s live performance) if the couple had continued on in a dysfunctional relationship for two decades. Page has openly discussed his long struggle with mental illness––depression and bipolar disorder have shaped his music since writing “Brian Wilson” at age 19 before ever being diagnosed––and two Heal Thyself albums suggest an artist who is trying to do exactly that. While Instinct opens with a monotone “There’s A Melody” and revisits that theme with much more complexity just before the album’s end, Discipline appears to acknowledge the struggle, closing with back-to-back “Whistling Through The Dark” and “Looking For The Light,” the final words (for now) of an artist that is aware of his past and looking forward to his future.

Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II is available on all digital platforms and on CD and LP at stevenpage.com. Steven Page is on tour in the western United States this fall and in Canada beginning in February 2019.