19 November 2017
I love half hour television. Most of my favourite shows are half hours- not necessarily comedies, but half hours. Peak TV has led to a boom in genre rebellion, shows that live in the unclassifiable grey and understand that “digestible” and “simple” are not synonyms. Because they are a half hour, I actually watched all of the Netflix shows on this list. I watched every minute and none of it felt like a chore. I didn’t have to put the show on in the background while I brushed my teeth or peeled potatoes to get through a season, I just watched them, it took a couple hours, and now they’re over and I get to miss them. They were wonderful, even the ones I didn’t love, because watching a half hour of television on Netflix is a treat (unlike, say, watching an hour and six minute episode of Daredevil, which is torture). I decided I wanted to write about all the original half hour scripted shows available on Netflix. I obviously couldn’t do that, because Netflix has more titles than any one human could watch in a lifetime, but I gave it a hearty effort. The following are my least favourites but I still enjoyed all of them, in their own way. If you haven’t watched them, you should, and here’s the awesome part: it won’t take you long at all.
The Ranch isn’t clever or groundbreaking or artfully executed- certainly not on the level of Netflix’s greatest half hours- but, in its way, it actually sort of is all those things. Grumpy as it makes the sort of people who write about television on the internet, I think it’s really important that there be shows like this that the right side of the political spectrum can watch and enjoy and recognize a little bit more than literally every other thing in the entertainment industry. And there’s something intriguingly subversive about The Ranch’s particular brand of Republicanism- it’s respectful and doesn’t judge its characters for their politics but there’s an open-minded empathy we tend to associate more with the left that’s baked into their morality and refreshingly not simply tied to religion. An interestingly nuanced unplanned pregnancy story, for example, boldly brought up the topic of abortion and the only argument it made was one for empathy- whatever you believe, whatever you decide, just lead with kindness over judgement and go from there. TV even more than movies is a machine for empathy and that only works if we’re occasionally presented with anything other than what we already agree on. The show’s creator has roots in Two an a Half Men and its cast is basically just an ever-expanding That 70s Show reunion but, rather than lean on that same pandering comedy style, this gaggle of artists that, let’s face it, nobody takes seriously at all, are genuinely trying to make something bigger and better and truer than what anyone expects. Sometimes it feels more like a play than a sitcom. Sometimes they’ll go a whole episode without a laugh. Sometimes they make idiot jokes about binge drinking and banging chicks because progress is a process. They don’t succeed all the time but something is being tried with The Ranch and it’s not something that I’ve seen anyone try before. I really appreciate that.
Friends from College
It took me a long time to get into this show about narcissist adult children who can’t leave their Harvard days behind but its ultimate rewards are plentiful if you’re able to stick with it. I’ve always loved Keegan-Michael Key but in this show his character employs the “fall back on silly voices when you’re uncomfortable” trait that is the single most annoying thing about every improv/sketch comedian on the planet and it overwhelms his great emotional work. Fred Savage on the other hand is awesomely understated (though tragically under-written) in another very welcome step in his on-screen career renaissance and Billy Eichner plays his partner, proving once again that everything is better with Billy Eichner (here he’s hilarious and cathartic and smart and uncomfortable and kind of low-key sexy in a way that makes you realize how dramatically he’s been underused by every person who’s ever cast him). Nat Faxon and Annie Parisse are also great and, though I’m a little bit over her as a performer in general, Cobie Smulders really brings it in the final few episodes. It could definitely be better but Friends from College really has its moments.
Ed Westwick gives a captivating performance as a corrupt low-class screwup who kind of thinks he’s Chuck Bass (there’s an inescapable air of regality to Westwick, possibly cheekbone-related, that’s particularly interesting when presented as a put-on). He’s flanked by fellow shitty salesmen James Buckley and the singularly sympathetic Joe Thomas (both Inbetweeners alums, along with creator Damon Beesley) and, while the storytelling is never more than moderately interesting, they make a very memorable trio. It’s a shitty time to throw support of any kind behind Westwick but I hate to see Buckley, Thomas, and Beesley dragged down with him, so make your own call about whether to watch.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
I still watch this show because it’s one afternoon a year and I’m happy to surrender one afternoon a year in exchange for like 6 good jokes and a couple appearances by Daveed Diggs but I want it on the record that it sucks that a lot of people choose this as their only Netflix half hour. It’s so overrated it hurts. It dances on the line of offensive constantly and not in a boldly edgy way, in a defensive and careless way. In this series, I’ve talked about 11 shows you should be watching before Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (I wrote about 13 shows in total but Kimmy‘s probably better than White Gold, depending on your taste). I’m not saying you need to give up Kimmy– you deserve those 6 good jokes as much as the next person, and that theme song really is very catchy- but I just beg of you to try something else too, don’t just go with this one because you’ve heard of it. You don’t have to do everything Tina Fey tells you to do.