Monday Morning Critic: The Best Show You’re Probably Not Watching
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: a look at the upcoming American Crime and praise for The Goldbergs.
In the past, I’ve taken an approach towards pilots that I will occasionally deploy here in the ‘MMC’: The 5 Questions And 500 Words approach. The title pretty much serves as a descriptor: Instead of overloading both you the reader and I the critic with an avalanche of words about all major pilots about to premiere, I’ll cut to the chase as quickly as possible in order to save you time and me some sanity. It’s hopefully a win-win situation. With that in mind, here are another two such reviews.
American Crime premieres on March 5 on ABC at 10pm ET
A lot of major networks jumping on the “limited series” bandwagon. How does American Crime stack up?
We’re early into this trend, but it’s safe to say American Crime is the best of the major networks’ attempts thus far. And it’s really not even close.
What makes this stand out?
So often, on all networks of all sizes, “limited series” is either a way to hedge bets from a public relations standpoint (for instance, seeing if the ratings merit a second season, as with Agent Carter) or to emphasize “plot” over “story.” While there’s an instigating incident that is tracked over the course of this show’s length, where American Crime excels is exploring ripple effects rather than focus on whodunit. Who actually committed the titular crime isn’t unimportant, but the focus is on those connected to the victims.
And who is connected?
Here’s another strong aspect of the show: its sprawling, multi-generational, multi-ethnic cast, with far too many good performances to adequately praise within this format. (Think Traffic with less geographical expanse and Crash with less preachiness and you get the general gist of the show’s scope and approach.) While not every interconnected storyline resonates equally, American Crime takes them all seriously and takes care to put depth into each character. Those depths aren’t always obvious right away, but in the four episodes made available for review, more than a few characters were already far more complicated than their initial presentation.
What about the show’s presentation itself? How does that fare?
The show’s cinematography and editing sneak up on you, slowly revealing themselves as the show’s secret weapon. American Crime often deploys staccato-type cuts to either convey intense emotion, but will also use it to quickly tell story in the space of a few frames of films. Conversely, as the season unfolds, it uses an increasing number of single takes. These aren’t showy, True Detective-esque tracking shots, but provide an incredible amount of tension all the same. It gives the show a documentary feel, almost as if it’s afraid to turn the camera off lest it miss something. The cast rises to the occasion in these long takes, often feeding off each other as the length of the scenes progress.
Are their any negative aspects to this show?
It’s fair to note that while this is a well-executed version of a crime show, it’s still a crime show, and one that takes a rather cynical look at both the legal system and human impulses. That might not be your idea of a fun way to spend an hour watching television, and that’s fine. On top of that, while certain storylines excel early on, at least one never gets out of first gear, which hampers the flow of this ensemble excursion. Still, even as someone who is eager for more light to penetrate the darkness of small-screen storytelling, American Crime was a compelling surprise and one well worth your time. The major networks have been looking to truly crack the limited-series space for a while, and may have landed its first success story with this show.
The Goldbergs might be the best comedy that some of you are watching.
As far as hot takes go, that’s pretty darn tepid. But while there are plenty of underwatched gems and huge hits, it’s rare for critics to talk about the steady performers that consistently entertain. Part of that stems from the episodic review culture, which unfairly penalizes shows that defy thousand-word-a-week analysis. Most of the time, after finishing an episode of this show, I think, “That was really nice/sweet/funny!” and move on with my life. But simply because a show doesn’t spark a weekly treatise on the nature of the world doesn’t mean that show isn’t an important part of my TV diet.
I’ve been a fan of this show since its debut, although it took a few episodes to really hit its sweet spot of nostalgia mixed with heartfelt family comedy. It’s easy from the outside looking in to simply think this is a show that throws The Goonies and The Bangles out as low-hanging fruit for those with ‘80s nostalgia. Now, I’m a total mark for those references, which never cease to delight someone who grew up in that decade. But what The Goldbergs smartly does is deploy those references in service of simple, universal stories about family. While it helps to know your Autobots from your Decepticons, lack of knowledge about the difference between the two shouldn’t be a barrier from jumping into this show.
Indeed, the beauty of The Goldbergs (and the rest of the ABC Wednesday comedy bloc) is that jumping in at any time is pretty easy. Even if a serialized show has a boffo episode in its third season, it’s hard to recommend it to someone looking to hop into that show. I love The Americans something fierce, but this current season depends so much on having spent time with its characters up until this point that the only option is starting from the beginning. Yes, you can probably get the gist (Russian spies posing as Americans in Reagan-era Washington), but there’s a cumulative effect in play from a narrative and emotional perspective that if at all possible, it’s best to start most current shows from the beginning.
I’m not saying there’s no difference in viewing experience between watching last week’s The Goldbergs as a long-time viewer or a first-time observer. But the barrier between the two is porous at worst and non-existent at best. The show is built on archetypes that get broken down over each episode and then reset for the next one. Matriarch Beverly will always be a “smother,” patriarch Murray will always be a softie under his gruff exterior, and so on. The show’s conceit of smashing together every year of the 1980’s into an anachronistic melting pot further cements the idea that the parts here are greater than the sum.
And yet, the sum total of The Goldbergs offers up a series of short stories about a family that offers its own type of continuity. While these characters more or less stay the same, they ping off each other in interesting ways. Last week’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-inspired outing centered around both eldest son Barry’s social insecurities while offering up an aha moment for youngest son Adam’s realization that he would rather be a filmmaker rather than a star. Both stem from the Ferris concept, which justifies its use. The lazy approach would have been simply aping the film beat-by-beat. And while there were plenty of uncanny homages, the episode used the high concept as a hook to lure viewers into yet another emotionally warm depiction of two outsiders trying desperately to fit in.
We’re at a point in which shows mostly either get hundreds of weekly reviews that produce a novel’s worth of words, or are ignored utterly online. There’s a middle ground for shows like The Goldbergs, which may not always require weekly analysis but definitely deserve weekly eyeballs. I might not always write about this show, but I’m always watching it. If you haven’t checked it out, or haven’t checked in in a while, it’s worth watching last week’s episode to see what you’re missing.