Savor, Don't Settle: On TV, Quality Counts Now More Than Ever

Apr 15, 2020
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. These days, many people are watching much more TV. That's certainly true of our TV critic David Bianculli, who has recommendations not only about what to watch and where but how.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: First, a few words of overall advice - while you're at home more and looking for more TV to watch, seek out off-the-beaten-path alternatives. I've been watching limited free website showings of plays and musicals from London's West End and taking comfort in limited-run showings of Julia Childs' "The French Chef" on Amazon. Most streaming services, from established giants like Netflix to brand-new players like Quibi, see this as an opportunity to get you to sample them and are offering free trials or great sign-up deals. Take advantage of them.

Also, every home will gravitate to different sources of comfort during these times. For families with young kids, Disney+ is indispensable for its new shows as well as its backlog. For me, it's Turner Classic Movies, which is my default channel and where I go to escape or recover from the news networks.

But whatever you watch, don't just binge - savor. Look for and establish nights when you can gather all the people already under your roof, serve some snacks and make watching TV an event. Spring for one of the new theatrical films now premiering straight to pay TV or pick something everyone likes to watch and settle in, the way families did a generation ago with TGIF on ABC or two generations ago with "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS. And perhaps most important to remember, don't give up on watching current shows as they unroll in real time on broadcast, cable and streaming sites.

One of the most welcome examples of what I call fresh TV was this past weekend's last-second production of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which presented a special at-home edition. It wasn't live and emanated piecemeal from the homes of various cast members and guests. But it was so comforting to watch, similar to the first "SNL" program after 9/11, when the show, then as now, broadcast from the epicenter of a national tragedy and said, in essence, we're still here. That was especially true last Saturday of the evening's surprise guest host speaking remotely from his own house, Tom Hanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TOM HANKS: But why me as host? Well, for one, I have been the celebrity canary in the coal mine for the coronavirus. And ever since being diagnosed, I had been more like America's dad than ever before, since no one wants to be around me very long and I make people uncomfortable.

BIANCULLI: Another fresh TV treat, which started its third season this weekend on BBC America, is "Killing Eve," the wonderfully weird comedy-drama about a Russian assassin for hire with a British government investigator in hot pursuit. One twist is that both these characters are women, another is that over their long cat-and-mouse chase, they've become infatuated with one another and almost killed each other, too.

As the new season begins - an episode you can catch in replays and on BBC America's website - the assassin thinks her pursuer, played by Sandra Oh, is dead. So the Russian killer, played with giddy gusto by Jodie Comer, gets married to another woman and gives a typically oddball wedding toast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KILLING EVE")

JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) When we met, I just had a really bad breakup. It was really bad. But when I think about my ex today, I realize I am so much happier now she's dead (laughter).

BIANCULLI: "Killing Eve" is light enough and strange enough that it serves as pure distraction, which we can really use right now. And my final example of fresh TV has several of the best TV performances I've seen all year. Produced by FX, with the first three episodes premiering Wednesday on Hulu, it's called "Mrs. America." It's about the rise of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the battle against it. The creator of this miniseries is Dahvi Waller, a writer for AMC's "Mad Men." And she brings this story to life with undeniable flair and vibrancy.

But what really carries "Mrs. America" is its cast, an all-star team of actresses who treat each iconic '70s activist role like the gift it is. Rose Byrne plays Gloria Steinem. Tracey Ullman is Betty Friedan. Margo Martindale is Bella Abzug. Uzo Aduba is Shirley Chisholm. And dominating the series in her first major American TV role is Cate Blanchett as anti-women's liberation organizer Phyllis Schlafly. What makes "Mrs. America" so interesting and so unusual is that both sides of this early culture war are presented as bringing heavy artillery to the battle. Here's Blanchett as Schlafly, for example, testing out her position on a receptive audience at a Daughters of the American Revolution luncheon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Let me be clear. I am not against women succeeding. I am not against women working outside the home. That's their choice. But what I am against is a small, elitist group of northeastern establishment liberals putting down homemakers. Now, the libbers love to say that they're dedicated to choice. But if you dare to choose the path of full-time mother, well, there must be something wrong with you. I mean, if you don't feel enslaved, well, you're just dumb and unenlightened. In fact, you're not even a person.

BIANCULLI: That's enough to start with when you're looking to add new items to your stay-at-home TV menu. To recap, don't overindulge and don't settle. Now, more than ever, it's quality, not quantity.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of TV and film studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Mrs. America" premieres tonight on Hulu. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Anthony Fauci became America's doctor. Fauci's been praised for his straight talk at Trump's coronavirus briefings. Our guests will be New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter, who writes about Fauci's innovative approaches to medical problems and his skill at dealing with politicians. Specter has covered Fauci's battles with infectious diseases since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.