Catch Up With
My Brilliant Friend
(HBO, Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. ET and on demand)
You don’t have to be one of the 10 million readers of Elena Ferrante’s novels about two smart girls growing up in 1950s Naples to get hooked on its exceedingly brilliant miniseries adaptation, HBO’s first foreign-language show (with subtitles that are a breeze to read). The actresses playing shy, bookish Lenu and her sky-high-IQ best friend Lila as children, and then as teens, are amazing, and there’s nothing on TV to match the show’s novelistic immersion in their inner lives, and their vivid, violent, impoverished neighborhood, whose repressive quiet is regularly interrupted by screaming fights and murders in the street that everybody studiously ignores. The town punishes girls for their talents and tries to squash their dreams — especially those of the brighter, poorer, boldly defiant Lila, the daughter of a volatile shoe repairman utterly indifferent to her education. The final two episodes air Dec. 9 and 10 at 9 p.m.. The tale is addictive but slow to unfold, so it’s good to tune in now, when you can binge many episodes at once on demand.
(Netflix, streaming anytime, 10 episodes)
The fact-based and wildly dramatic hit series about the evolution of the Mexican drug trade in the 1980s features two parallel characters: Kiki Camarena (Michael Pena), an ambitious agent with the brand-new, underfunded, outgunned DEA, and his cold-eyed quarry, Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the innovative ex-cop who united Mexico’s quarrelsome regional drug smugglers and corrupt police, planted a marijuana field in the desert big enough to spot from outer space, and expanded into the cocaine business. The supporting players are terrific: Kiki’s jaded DEA colleague (Mad Men’s eye-patch guy Aaron Staton), the Eliot Ness of Mexico (Julio Cesar Cedillo), Felix’s wise older adviser Don Neto (Joaquin Cosio), and his hothead associate (Tenoch Huerto) who abducts a spoiled rich girl who decides to stay abducted. It’s fresh and original, not just another gangster show.
(Amazon Prime, streaming anytime, eight episodes)
Julia Roberts, 51, plays Heidi Bergman, who works for the ghostly Geist Group counseling returning veterans from Middle East wars. Bobby Cannavale is great as her slick MBA-like supervisor, and Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham is indefatigable as a Defense Department investigator trying to figure out what Geist was up to. But a mystery crops up when the sleuth tries to find the answer — Heidi quits her job, becomes a waitress, and seems to have no memory of her dark past. This mystery will grab you and not let go.
(Netflix, Friday, Dec. 7, then streaming anytime)
The Netflix original film is based on the 2015 book by Julie Murphy about an overweight teenager who enters her small-town beauty pageant to prove a point to her mom (Jennifer Aniston, 49), a former pageant winner whose life still revolves around the annual contest. Dumplin’s story of mother-daughter bonding is charming, sentimental and Southern-fried, the movie’s real draw may well be the six new Dolly Parton-penned tunes featured on its soundtrack. Dumplin’ also includes new versions of Parton classics, including “Jolene” and “Here You Come Again,” reworked as Dolly duets with the likes of Sia, Mavis Staples, even Aniston. — Austin O'Connor (A.O.)
Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Prime Video
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
(Amazon, Season 2, streaming anytime, 10 episodes)
Amazon’s critical darling — Mrs. Maisel took home awards for best comedy series at the Golden Globes and the Emmys this past year — returns for its 10-episode sophomore season with its candy color palette and winningly profane humor intact and actually improving. The new season revolves around its title character (Rachel Brosnahan, reigning Emmy winner for best actress in a comedy) as she tries to climb up the New York standup-comedy-circuit ladder while still juggling her duties as a 1950s not-quite-housewife and mom. Creator and writer Amy Sherman-Palladino (also an Emmy winner for Season 1 — are you sensing a pattern here?) has a gift for rat-a-tat dialogue and dry humor, and it’s still shining through. With a stellar ensemble that includes Alex Borstein, 47, and Tony Shalhoub, 65, Mrs. Maisel remains a marvel. — A.O.
(Starz, Season 2, Sundays at 9 p.m., Season 1 streaming anytime)
If you’re trying to convince someone to take a chance on this spiffy, underseen sci-fi spy series, you can whittle your argument down to one person: J.K. Simmons. It’s no secret he’s gifted: Simmons, 63, won an Oscar in 2015 for his flashy turn as a borderline berserk music teacher in Whiplash. But in Counterpart, he may have his most interesting role ever — actually, make that roles. He plays Howard Silk, a docile, long-serving, anonymous United Nations worker stationed in Berlin. He also plays Howard Silk, a snarling field agent for the murky Office of Interchange, also in Berlin. The two Silks exist in parallel universes, separated by a portal created by East German scientists during the Cold War. It’s as trippy and twisty as it sounds, but watching Simmons move seamlessly between two versions of a character with diametrically different personality types is a wonder. James Cromwell, 78, comes aboard in a guest role for Season 2 — newcomers should binge-watch the first season to get up to its sometimes-dizzying speed. — A.O.
Catch Up With
Jessica Brooks/Amazon Prime Video
(Amazon, streaming anytime, eight episodes)
Julia Roberts, 51, makes her auspicious TV debut as a TV series headliner, playing Heidi Bergman, a therapist for traumatized war veterans at a Florida facility called Homecoming. She bonds well with her main patient (rising star Stephan James from If Beale Street Could Talk), but her employer is sinister — and the mystery deepens when we flash forward to a few years later, when Heidi has become a waitress at a cheap restaurant and can’t (or won’t) remember her therapist past. The show has Hitchcock DNA (some of the odd camera angles and tracking shots are "stolen" from his classics, and it was shot on the same Universal lot as Psycho), and Sissy Spacek, 68, is good as Roberts’ protective mom. So is Dermot Mulroney (who turns 55 on Halloween), Roberts’ My Best Friend’s Wedding costar, as her mistreated, mystified boyfriend.
The Kominsky Method
(Netflix, streaming anytime, 8 episodes)
TV’s best grownup comedy in years — a creative breakthrough for super-showrunner Chuck Lorre, 66 (The Big Bang Theory) — stars Michael Douglas, 74, as an actor whose career isn’t going as well as his former acting students' (Diane Keaton, 72, and Jessica Lange, 69) or his doctor's (Danny De Vito, 73), who says, “It’s a great time to be a urologist!” But he has a wonderfully sardonic agent and best friend (Alan Arkin, 84), and they make a team more delightful than Grumpy Old Men’s Lemmon and Matthau or Grace and Frankie’s Fonda and Tomlin. It captures the sardonic humor with which most people regard aging, and the laughs are rooted in poignant loss and grief, too. It’s terrific, Arkin’s best work since Little Miss Sunshine and as good as anything Douglas has done this century. READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
The Little Drummer Girl
(AMC, streaming anytime)
John le Carré couldn’t have asked for better actors in hot Korean director Chan-wook Park’s AMC/BBC adaptation of his thriller The Little Drummer Girl, which is far better than the 1984 film version with Diane Keaton. Florence Pugh, a skyrocketing new actress often compared to Kate Winslet, dazzlingly plays Charmian “Charlie” Ross, a London actress seduced by the tall, mysterious blond hunk Becker (Alexander Skarsgard) in Greece. The Parthenon never looked so romantic, but it turns out he’s a spy who wants to recruit her as a double agent to foil a terrorist bomber. To infiltrate the terror network, she and Becker must pose as lovers, but she finds it’s tricky to kiss him without developing feelings. Their Holocaust survivor turned Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon) tells Charlie it’s “the role of a lifetime in the Theater of the Real!” But with spies, actors and lovers, what is really real? The plot requires alert patience — 2 million impatient British viewers tuned out after the first episode — but those who keep watching are rewarded. It’s the third sharp BBC thriller this year (after must-sees Killing Eve and Bodyguard).
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
(Netflix, streaming anytime)
The latest western by the Coen brothers (True Grit, No Country for Old Men) won for best screenplay at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, but it’s actually six independent little movies that add up to two hours and 12 minutes of uneven — but always masterfully perverse — entertainment. The Coens' adaptation of a Jack London story features Tim Blake Nelson, 54 (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who aces the title episode as a singing gunslinger, and singer-actor Tom Waits, 68, does the same as a grizzled gold miner. In the slightest (but still watchable) of the tall tales, James Franco plays an outlaw who escapes from one noose to another, and Liam Neeson, 66, is a Wild West impresario whose star is a legless, armless guy who recites Shakespeare and Lincoln speeches for a cowpoke audience. The last two episodes are stronger: Zoe Kazan is emotionally affecting (unlike most of the Coens’ jokey characters) as an imperiled covered-wagon pioneer on the Oregon Trail, and Tyne Daly, 72, and Brendan Gleeson, 63, are among the passengers trapped in an existential stagecoach whose occupants are not what they seem. Any full-length Coen brothers' movie beats these six shorts, but they’re all gorgeous, original and often funny.
Escape at Dannemora
(Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET)
Ben Stiller, 52, directs a Showtime miniseries about the astounding true story of a 2015 New York jailbreak by two weird yet intrepid murderers (Benicio Del Toro, 51, and Paul Dano, 34) aided by the lover they shared (Patricia Arquette, 50), who ran the prison tailor shop. So it’s a comedy, right? No, it’s a drama as gripping as the 1970s thrillers that inspired it (Dog Day Afternoon, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and a first-rate character study that should earn them all Emmys. There has never been a stranger femme fatale than Arquette’s character, an upstate New York Madame Bovary, more desperate to escape her life than the convicts are. Don’t miss this fascinating yarn. READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH BEN STILLER
Hold the Sunset
(BritBox, streaming anytime)
Fawlty Towers’ John Cleese, 79, returns to TV in a comedy — written by Monty Python writer-actor Charles McKeown — about a retired guy who’s about to marry and run off to Malta with his old friend and neighbor (Alison Steadman, 72, Pride and Prejudice), until her 50-year-old son moves back in with her. Not thigh-slapping funny, but pretty good, and the nonpareil stars have excellent chemistry together. READ JOHN CLEESE’S 5 FUN THOUGHTS ABOUT AGING
John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons
(Netflix, streaming anytime)
In his Tony Award-winning Broadway solo show, John Leguizamo, 54, (Moulin Rouge, Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five) is raucously funny and serious as a heart attack. Inspired by his son’s research for an eighth-grade report on Latino heroes (after a racist classmate at his ritzy school had bullied his son), the comic was horrified to discover his people’s absence from U.S. history books. Fed up, he read up, and he relates 3,000 years of history in a rollicking lecture in which he impersonates Frida Kahlo, Moctezuma, Freud, Andrew Jackson, the cross-dressing Confederate Army lieutenant Loreta Velázquez, and his own therapist (who talks like Project Runway’s Tim Gunn). Guaranteed to irritate Trump fans and the politically incorrect police alike, Leguizamo’s spiel is packed with facts made fun. He’s Hollywood’s most entertaining history teacher since Tom Hanks. FULL REVIEW
(Amazon, streaming anytime)
Don’t confuse this with Mel Gibson’s 2000 American Revolution flick The Patriot or Netflix’s popular news/talk/comedy show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj — it’s more like a cross between a Bourne flick and a droll, loping, self-mocking comedy like Loudermilk. In Season 2’s premiere, an undercover agent (Michael Dorman) is assigned by his spymaster dad (Terry O’Quinn, 66, Lost) and another spy boss (Kurtwood Smith, 75, That '70s Show) to steal a gun in Paris and kill a guy to thwart Iran’s nuke program with the unhelpful help of a middle-aged gang that can’t think straight, let alone shoot. It meanders maddeningly, and the indie-folk songs the agent sings about his mission are half-good, half-intentionally godawful. Still, the blend of silliness and thriller tension keeps you mostly hooked, and now triple Oscar nominee Debra Winger, 63, joins the cast as the spy’s mom, her second TV series role. It’s better than her Netflix show, The Ranch, but they should’ve given her more screen time.
Sophie Mutevelian/World Productions/Netflix
(Netflix, streaming anytime, six episodes)
The best show on TV this week is Britain’s most popular show since Downton Abbey and its best crime-thriller export since Killing Eve. Brooding hunk Richard Madden (Robb Stark on Game of Thrones) plays a PTSD-afflicted Afghanistan vet guarding (and bedding) the Homeland Secretary, the top U.K. security official (Keeley Hawes, Line of Duty). She’s an utterly scary person who’s terrified as mysterious people try to assassinate her. But in a paranoid plot a bit like The Wrong Man, it’s not clear whom the bodyguard should fear most, her, the assassins, terrorists who put bomb vests on innocent citizens, or the various police and secret service officials maneuvering to outwit each other and set him up as the fall guy. This show will kill off anybody, and keeps you guessing as the tension inexorably ratchets up and the bodyguard gets more and more traumatized. The first and last episodes boast suicide-bomber scenes as nail-bitingly riveting as The Hurt Locker. It’s as gripping and gratifyingly twisty as Homeland was at its peak, and unlike way too many streaming shows, the six-hour drama is tightly plotted, as if viewers’ time were valuable.
(ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET)
Roseanne is gone from the show about the Conner family. So? AARP Movies for Grownups award winner Laurie Metcalf, 63, is apt to throw off livelier sparks with her new high-IQ boyfriend (Treme’s Steve Zahn, 50) than she was trading stale anti-Trump jibes with Roseanne. Darlene (Sara Gilbert), whose ex (Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki) has a new squeeze (Juliette Lewis), gets her groove back with a new guy (Justin Long of Dodgeball). Give the greatest show about blue-collar Americans a second chance. FULL REVIEW
(ABC, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET)
Charming as Remington Steele, Nathan Fillion, 47, was better than his old show Castle, and he’s a wish-fulfillment dream in this loosely fact-inspired show about LAPD’s oldest newbie cop, whose boss calls him “a walking midlife crisis,” a middle-aged loser “looking for some kinda Eat, Pray, Love path to reinvention.” But in exciting cop-action scenes, he proves him wrong. This show is a win for grownups, and Fillion’s charm only grows. READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN FILLION