Top 5 Shows You Should Be Binge-Watching Right Now: Welcome to the Dog Days of Summer

Top 5 Shows You Should Be Binge-Watching Right Now: Welcome to the Dog Days of Summer

With the dogs days of summer soon upon us, with both the NBA Finals and NHL Stanley Cup drawing to a close, with preseason NFL still months away, and with only baseball to keep the avid sports fan’s attention on television, those of us TV junkies–who wish to escape that never ending pessimism which pervades the daily news on television–seek solace in the one place where we still have complete control: streaming television channels.

I must preface this article with the fact that I am teacher who currently has summer off of work. Therefore, with only baseball as the only sport to occupy my TV free time, it is inevitable that I turn to Netlfix or Hulu or Amazon Prime to pack those other hours.  However, I know that one doesn’t need to be a teacher to still find themselves drawn like summer fireflies to the radiant glow of their living room television set. In fact, “What are you currently binge-watching?” seems to be that constant universal water-cooler question or bar table topic that has friends and colleagues conversing, often debating what program they wish to tackle next.

Now, I know many people would say, “Why don’t you go out and be more active rather than sitting on a couch and watching mindless amounts of television?”  Where this argument is valid, there are still some people, like myself, who enjoy consistently getting lost in the various new narratives provided by the big three streaming networks. The problem in today’s world of television is that there are so many television programs to choose from. Gone are the days where two pages of a TV Guide was all you needed to see what was playing that evening.

So a question that arises for people like me is: Which new shows are worth my time and will not leave me with the feeling that I wasted valuable summertime sun?

So, with this question at hand, allow me to take time to offer my own recommendations for the Top 5 shows you should be watching right now:

5.  Game of Thrones:

I know you must be saying, did he literally just recommend Game of Thrones!?!  If you have already watched all eight seasons, then you still might be recovering from the finality of the series just weeks ago.  And if you have never watched Game of Thrones, you were probably hoping to not hear about this show ever again, thankful that it has finally died from the daily narrative and the perpetual postings on your Facebook feed.Nonetheless, this recommendation is for the latter group. Yes, if you have never watched a single minute of Game of Thrones, listen to me, now is the time to take that plunge!

For all the arguments and heated ire that arose from the final three of four episodes, there is no denying that Game of Thrones has been the single biggest television event of the decade.  When television historians reflect on the 2010s (or however one would label this decade), there is no question that HBO’s Game of Thrones will have marked the time.  In just 73 episodes, GoT has taken its rightful place in the discussion of all-time great television shows. The scope and magnitude of the show has never been matched, and watching this program was an experience one could have only received in the theaters just a few years ago.  

Without going into too many details of the show–as I am sure no one reading this has never not heard at least something about Jon Snow or Westeros or House Stark— there is no time like this summer to take that deep plunge into the pool of George R.R. Martin’s majestic world.  Prepare to get lost in the lives of numerous characters, jaw-dropping twists, breathtaking cinematography, the greatest score ever composed (sorry, Lost fans!), and character arcs unlike television has ever been exposed to.

So I will reiterate one and final time: if you have never seen Game of Thrones, fill that void in your life that you do not even realize is there!

4. Barry

Entering its second season, HBO has gripped audiences once again with Barry, a dark comedy from producer Alec Berg.  If you have not watched the first season, without spoiling any of the material, Barry Berkman is the titular character played by the brilliantly casted Bill Hader (who obviously best known for his long run on Saturday Night Live).  Barry is a former Marine who now resides in the ever mundane world of the American midwest.  As is common with former marines, Barry feels disenfranchised and turns to a life that allows him to utilize a strength that he relied on throughout his career in the military: he has become a hitman.

Nevertheless, while hired on a contract to take down a mark in Los Angeles, Barry finds himself at an acting school run by the resilient Henry Winkler, who plays the most magnetizing character on the show: acting coach Gene Cosineau.  Barry and Gene strike up a father-son relationship as Barry seems to find a life of peace– finally–in this acting group. Gene, though self-obsessed and often detached from his students, seems to find a spark in himself through the authenticity of Barry.

This is a fun show!

Why?

Because it takes risks with its characters.  It asks us to believe in the relationships that it sets forth, and we find ourselves doing just that.  It has the ability to tip-toe that line of drama and comedy, so much that it does not rely on either one to keep the narrative progressing or to keep the audience engaged.  There is plenty of satire attached to the show to allow the more pedantic or priggish viewers to discuss the arguments that the show is making about our contemporary society; however, this satire is not the focus of the show.

Just know going into this show, that the melancholy that is exuded by the characters is genuine and can create that perception of existential hopelessness; it feels like every character searches for a purpose that does not seem to be present.  On the contrary, by the end of the first season and into the beginning of the second, one cannot help to be gripped by the power and visceral nature of the world that Barry presents.  

3. Chernobyl

I feel like I cannot go anywhere without someone boasting, “Have you seen Chernobyl?  If not, you need to watch this show!”  

And I must confess, I am one of those people.  

Yes, #3 on this list is yet another offering from HBO (HBO just always seems to find the right material).  

Chernobyl has cemented itself as the television event of here and now.  With the highest audience ratings ever on IMDB, Chernobyl is a shoe-in for Emmy award nominations, and I am predicting now, it will take home the Emmy for Best Mini-Series, and it might even sweep all the mini-series categories.  

Though historical fiction, the show is being applauded for its veracity in retelling the events of April 26, 1986, as the No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl in Pripyat, Ukraine (formerly of the USSR).  Now, I was nearly five when this event happened, so I must state that the memory of this event was present in my mind, just not too vividly. So for someone who loves history, this five-part miniseries takes the audience through, almost in real-time, the dark hours and days that encapsulated this tragic event.

As I stated before, this show is historical fiction; however, most of the dialogue and most of the scenes are reportedly based on actual historical documents, audio recordings, and captured interviews with the people most closely connected to the “accident”, and it is as close of a docudrama as one is going to get on the subject matter, especially as the current Russian government continues to conceal as much information on the event as they can.

What makes this show such a highly rated program is the focus on truth, and the corruption in our world that attempts to suppress truth.  This is an intelligent story, but not for witty dialogue or top-rated performances (which it does have), but for its desire to actually submerge its viewer into a world of government that most citizens never get to experience. Even though we are dealing with the Soviet USSR during the 1980s, it feels like there is something here for everyone, in any time period.  Moreover, this is also a story of heroes. People who, in the face of immense pressure, stand up to corruption, stand up to malfeasance, and stand up to deception.

And how do we not champion such a story?

You must give Chernobyl a look! Just be prepared for a bleak, cruel look at one of the more miserable moments of recent memory.

2. Dead to Me

Dark comedies seem to be the hit genre of today’s television world. And there is not a more refreshing dark comedy than Netflix’s Dead to Me.  Created by Liz Feldman, who has written for a variety of comedy programs, such as 2 Broke Girls and the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Dead to Me is her most charming and seductive comedy yet.  

Again, without spoiling much of the plot, as this is another dark comedy with mysterious twists (seemingly in ever episode), the story focuses on Christina Applegate’s Jen Harding and Linda Cardellini’s Judy Hale, who meet at a grief support group.  Applegate’s character thrives on her stony, straight-faced responses to those who attempt to converse with her, whereas Cardellini’s character seems needy and desirous of friendship. Their repartee with each other is flawless and whimsical, yet it does not feel phony or overly sly, which can be the case in the dialogue of many dark comedies.

DEAD TO ME Season 1, Episode 6 Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate CR: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

This show is anchored by the dynamic duo of Applegate and Cardellini. Honestly, who ever casted this show brought together two actresses that almost seem to one-up each other in every delivered line and scene.  This is the role that Christina Applegate was born to play. Since Married With Children, she has always seemed to struggle with breaking from either the memory of her original character or the typecast that that show placed upon her.  Yet, while watching Dead to Me, I found myself finally forgetting her as Kelly Bundy and ultimately seeing her as a true leading lady.  And though I haven’t really seen Cardellini since Freaks and Geeks, I was also left wondering where she has been this whole time?!?  Thankfully, these two actresses are brought together and they seem to be at the top of their craft in this program.   

But why I really love Dead to Me is how the show deals with the omnipresence of death, a theme that many, many shows have used as its foundation, yet Dead to Me restores a truth to the way we process death: the grief is more about pain than about sadness.  In fact, there is little sadness in this world.  Or at least that is what the show is arguing. And how the two characters use grief to make us laugh is brilliant in its own right, yet serves like a medicine that we can mentally store away and use in our own lives when we next experience grief.

It is, however, important to know that this show is dark…really, really dark.  But, there are too many laughs in this show that we often forget the depth of the grim world that these characters are living in.   

  1. Fleabag

My #1 recommendation for some quick summer binge-watching is Amazon Studio’s British dramedy Fleabag. Now many of you have probably not even heard of this show; and honestly, I only stumbled across it as I was reading another article of recommended shows to binge-watch.  So, I decided to pop it on around 10 p.m. on a random Tuesday night, and since I noticed each of the two seasons are only six episodes long, with each episode just about 26 minutes in length, I said to myself, “I can just watch the first one and then go to bed! This will be a nice little filler show.”  

Well, lets just say I didn’t go to bed until about 1 a.m., as I completed the entire first season in one viewing. And then, I went to bed only to wake up in the morning and spend three consecutive hours watching the entire second and final season.  And when I closed the book on this show with the series finale, I thought to myself, “That was the most surprising show I have ever randomly experienced!”

So what is Fleabag?

Fleabag is named after its titular character, and is played by the show’s writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  Like most of the other shows on this list, it can be classified as a dark comedy, though Fleabag is both more dry and realistic than the others I have listed. A general synopsis of the show is that Fleabag is an independent soul, who tries to balance her relationships with her family–most notably her sister, her disgusting brother-in-law, her father, and her father’s wicked fiance–along with her own romantic relationships, all while grieving the loss of her best friend Boo, who she recently opened a business with.  Nothing about this plot seems new or audacious, but it is in the writing and performances where this show is unlike anything I have ever watched.

One of the primary techniques employed by Waller-Bridge is regularly breaking the fourth wall.  This is nothing new to television, most notably as Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards often engaged in this process. However, unlike Underwood’s rather Shakespearean-like monologues, Waller-Bridge only breaks the fourth wall for a few seconds, with snarky, playful, and/or droll comments or looks, often occurring in the middle of her conversations.  But Waller-Bridge not only delivers on these comments and looks, she makes them seamless in the regular dialogue with other characters. It is like we have become her imaginary friend and another character in the show. One could even argue that we are her conscience; moreover, that we are allowed a unique glimpse into the human mind unlike any show has ever been able to achieve.

Besides the story being honest and captivating, I found myself perpetually asking questions; questions like, “What if someone could hear my thoughts? Would they be as true as the thoughts of Fleabag?”  And never have I watched a show with dialogue this punchy. Sure there is something about British comedy that seems dusty and contrived to some viewers, but not this show. Fleabag feels sincere and Waller-Bridge lays her character out, tough and undisguised, yet naked and vulnerable. She seems to have lost all hope and optimism in life, and prefers to just go through the daily motions while selfishly seeking out small moments of fulfillment.

But what I most love about this show is the finality to which it ended.  The show is only two seasons, and was only intended to be two seasons. And because the episodes are short and both seasons contain just six episodes, it felt like Fleabag was more a book brought to life; almost like a visual memoir.  And now the book is closed. Of course, like any viewer of a show, I wanted more episodes…but truly, there is no need for them. Waller-Bridge basically takes you on a concise, fun journey, and then leaves you satisfied.

The only thing I truly wonder after finishing this program is: What will Phoebe Waller-Bridge do next?  

Whatever it is, if it is half as genius as Fleabag, I believe she will solidify herself as one of the most notable writers of contemporary television.

Prepare for future reviews and critiques of the hottest summer shows, like The Handmaid’s Tale, Cobra Kai, Stranger Things 3, Glow, and The Dark Crystal.

Cory Gasaway

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