Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
The Little Drummer Girl
(AMC, Nov. 19, 20, 21, 9-11 p.m. ET)
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.
Catch Up With
The Kominsky Method
(Netflix, Nov. 16, eight episodes streaming anytime thereafter)
TV’s best grownup comedy in years — a creative breakthrough for super-showrunner Chuck Lorre, 66 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 (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
Escape at Dannemora
(Showtime, premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 10 p.m. EST)
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.
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.
House of Cards
(Netflix, streaming anytime)
Relax, House of Cards fans! You haven’t lost Kevin Spacey (purged after sexual misconduct allegations). You’ve gained Oscar nominees Diane Lane, 53, and Greg Kinnear, 55. Spacey’s character, ex-President Frank Underwood, is now dead under suspicious circumstances, and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright, 52) is a president sweating in an assassin’s crosshairs (and hoping certain buried bodies don’t come to light). But as a pair of zillionaire donors trying to make her their political puppet, Lane and Kinnear are scarier than Frank. You don’t miss Spacey’s egomaniacal drawl at all — Lane and Wright make a better dueling duo, dressed to kill, good at it, and thrillingly unconstrained by conscience. They're what this show needed: fresh blood and a new president talking straight to the camera — even if we can't necessarily trust her to play it straight. FULL REVIEW
(Showtime, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET, also streaming)
After show creator Ann Biderman, 67, left her macho-yet-sensitive show about two-fisted L.A. fixer Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber, 51) and his convict dad (Jon Voight, 79) in 2014, it was time for some fresh energy. It gets some as Season 6 begins, and Ray has moved to New York, where a cop rescues him from his suicidal dive into the East River. But he’s still carrying a baseball bat and working for homicidal media mogul Samantha Winslow (Susan Sarandon, 72). The show remains proof of what Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman said when the show premiered: “Ann Biderman (Southland, Primal Fear) has absolutely obliterated the ridiculous industry standard that you have to be some young talented thing to make an impact. She’s created the most testosterone-fueled, rough and intelligent drama in ages.”
(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
Last Man Standing
(Fox, Fridays at 8 p.m. ET)
Tim Allen, 65, comes back big-time with his show, booted from ABC but entirely intact. The jokes land, and Allen has something to say about everybody’s politically squabbling clans — from his right-wing perspective, a trifle obnoxiously, but his smugness is why it’s funny, and lots of left-ier comedy fans will laugh, too. It’s mostly just about a family, like the 2018 Roseanne reboot, and it’s every giggle as good.
The Good Place
(NBC, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET)
Ted Danson, 70, is bound to get his 16th Emmy nomination as the supernatural being in charge of four humans in the afterlife in TV’s smartest, least predictable hit. In the third season, he beams back to Earth, prevents their deaths and tries to see if he can manipulate them into becoming good people. Odd? Yes, but if you watch this, you’ll be a better person — and laugh more.
The Cool Kids
(Fox, Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET)
Roseanne’s Martin Mull, 75, David Alan Grier, 62, Leslie Jordan, 63, and Carol Burnett Show veteran Vicki Lawrence, 69, vie for social supremacy at the Shady Meadows retirement home, which is as unruly as any high school. “History is the best thing about getting old. You know stuff that young people don’t know,” Lawrence told the TV Critics Association. These four know as much about classic comedy as anyone alive.