Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Summer is a time for taking a break from all the heavy drama of the main television season with light and breezy eye candy. Or, at least it used to be. We’re lucky enough to be smack dab in the middle of Peak TV, which means a whole new season of stuff to binge watch instead of eating over-grilled BBQ and taking bets as to how much sweat your business casual suit can absorb before you get to the office.
In this very special episode we’re looking at three shows starring characters with mental illness (Lady Dynamite, Mr. Robot, and Penny Dreadful) and a show about a dude who wishes he was having a breakdown instead of the reality he’s stuck with (Wayward Pines).
The Road So Far: Lady Dynamite is influenced loosely on Maria Bamford’s own life as a comedian with type II bipolar disorder. It’s a weird little surreal sitcom that jumps around through time and geography as Maria spirals out of control, sinks into a deep depression, and eventually pulls herself back out again. Her agent Karen (Ana Gasteyer) pushes her into the heights of fame then abandons her to her parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place) and childhood frenemy Susan (Mo Collins) in Duluth during her breakdown. During her recovery she returns to Los Angeles and with the help of her new old agent Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) and assorted friends, coaches, boyfriends, and pugs, attempts to get her life back on track. (Netflix)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Lady Dynamite is hilarious in a heartbreaking way (see also: You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman). It takes a bit to settle into the groove, but it’s worth the wait. This is the kind of show that could only exist in the era of Peak TV, in that it’s deeply strange and bizarrely quirky. What makes it so unusual even in the crowded field of semi-autobiographical shows about comedians is that Maria’s mental illness fractures into the metanarrative while also mining the humor in depression and anxiety and scorching Hollywood’s double standards. It’s layers upon layers of off kilter jokes slathered on top of harsh truths.
Even though Lady Dynamite isn’t a straight up SFF show, there’s more than enough to entice genre fans. There’s a running gag where Maria has conversations with her pugs and by the end of it Robert Downey Jr. attends the funeral of one of the pugs and Maria’s boyfriend watches sports with another one. The three most influential women in her pre- and post-crash lives are all named Karen Grisham. The theme song is literally 30 seconds of her awkwardly imitating 1970s exploitation films and the lyrics “I’m a pterodactyl…Corn!” Lady Dynamite is everything you’ve been missing in television and so much more. I binged through it the weekend it came out and I’m already planning another rewatch, it’s that good.
TL;DR: I could happily watch Maria Bamford fake eat potato chips for the rest of my life.
The Road So Far: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is a damaged young computer nerd working for an anti-hacker company while secretly scheming to hack the living hell out of Evil Corp. He joins a team of other rebels being led by the compelling and disconcerting Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and they launch their plot. In the interim, Elliot’s girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw) gets him tangled up in a gang fight, his friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) struggles to deal with Elliot’s increasingly weaker mental health and her own collapsing relationship, and his boss Gideon (Michel Gill) tries and fails to crack his harden shell. Flitting around the edges waiting to strike is Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), a Patrick Bateman-esque businessman with an eye for Elliot. When all of Elliot’s disparate relationships suddenly collide his world shatters. Like Lady Dynamite, Mr. Robot breaks the fourth wall repeatedly as Elliot monologues at the audience. And let’s not forget the inimitable BD Wong with one of the best guest spots on television as Whiterose, and here’s hoping for a return in season 2. (USA, S2 starts July 13 10p)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mr. Robot is the epitome of YMMV. I know people who love it (me) and hate it for exactly the same reason, namely the pacing. J’adore slow, deliberate shows that take their time worldbuilding and exploring the characters. The action is an appetizer to the main meal of foreboding and quiet drama. It twists and turns but on a leisurely route, the writers in no hurry to reveal the destination but content to revel in the journey. The wonkiest elements—how Elliot interacts with certain characters, how the secondary characters are often sidelined, the cyberpunk and gangster tropes—all mean something bigger when viewed through the context of Elliot as an unreliable narrator.
Ultimately Malek sold the show for me. He is a force of nature here, restrained and unrestrained in equal, devastating measure. He plays Elliot’s mental instability not as an affectation, quirk, or creepy terror but as a genuine illness he can’t combat or control. Mr. Robot functions as Elliot’s id, but Tyrell is in a way his evil twin. He is as polished as Elliot is disheveled and direct where Elliot is vague. They pendulum through each other’s lives leaving blood and havoc in their wake. The world of Mr. Robot is a darkened mirror held up to our own. The show is a masterclass in production, with the direction, editing, cinematography, design, and costuming all working in concert. Not every element of the story or characters work as well as the writers think they do, but the missteps are still more interesting than most television shows.
TL;DR: Say hello to my favorite summer television addiction.
The Road So Far: Season 3 starts with all our heroes flung to the far corners of the world. Vanessa (Eva Green) slowly crawls out of her weeks-long depression with the help of a shrink, Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone). Under the guise of Dr. Alexander Sweet, Dracula (Christian Camargo) and his thrall Renfield (Samuel Barnett) lure Vanessa into his clutches. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), despondent over Lily (Billie Piper) abandoning him for the hedonism of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), aids his old friend Jekyll (Shazad Latif) with his experiments to tame madness. Kaetenay (Wes Studi) retrieves Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in Zanzibar to attempt a rescue of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) in the US from those who want him to suffer. Lily and Dorian are building some kind of Bacchanalian army out of foundlings and bloody sex rituals, and John Clare (Rory Kinnear) is on the hunt for his human family. (Showtime, Sun 10p)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: This season the writers are playing fast and loose with the themes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hecate accuses Ethan of enslaving his bloodthirsty self to appease his kinder self. Dr. Sweet plays at being kind and empathetic with Vanessa but his demonic Dracula side drives his interactions. Vanessa veers between emotional chaos and psychological clarity. Malcolm Murray is a brute masquerading as a gentleman and John a gentleman masquerading as a brute. Frankenstein is the Hyde to Jekyll’s Jekyll, but they’ll soon enough be trading places. Lily, Dorian, Hecate, and Kaetenay have accepted their darker natures at the expense of their humanity, and Dr. Seward is the only one to offer a counterpoint. There’s a lot of room for thrilling storytelling here, especially as the discrete stories start coming together in unexpected ways.
Penny Dreadful is one of those shows I watch if I’m all out of other things to do. Season 1 was fine enough but didn’t kick the way I wanted it to, and I skipped season 2 entirely. So far so good with season 3, though. The cinematography is gorgeous, what with those stunning wide shots of the West and the uncomfortable closeups in the British Museum. The show is still way too heavy on exposition—the writers never met an infodump they didn’t like—but the episodes work for me in a way they never have. Maybe it’s just that the show has finally settled into itself. Some of the mythology is meh (looking at you, Dracula and Lucifer as warring siblings), but at least it’s not boring. It’s still not priority television, but it’s certainly moved up in the queue.
TL;DR: Has anyone told the showrunner how stupid Ethan’s werewolf makeup looks? Someone get Greg Nicotero on the line ASAP.
The Road So Far: Wayward Pines is a show about a middle-aged white man who wakes up in the eponymous Idaho town where he’s welcomed by suspiciously enigmatic and cheery townsfolk who hold a dangerous secret. The woman he was sleeping with is tasked with introducing him to the rules of the new world order as its sinister overlord asserts his tyrannical rule. Rebels attack the town as much as the “abbies,” and our lead soon sides with them to take down the town and its dictator. Trouble is that vague description fits for both seasons. The central mystery has changed—what are the abbies up to instead of what Pilcher is up to—but the major beats are frustratingly identical. This time around it’s Dr. Yedlin (Jason Patric) as the future insurgent, Jason (Tom Stevens) and Kerry (Kacey Rohl) as Pilcher 2.0, CJ (Djimon Hounsou) as the Black man backing the regime, and Rebecca Yedlin (Nimrat Kaur) as the weak-willed wife. Ben Burke (Charlie Tahan) is now a domestic terrorist, Theresa Burke (Shannyn Sossamon) continues to shout about doing things while not actually doing anything, and Megan Fisher (Hope Davis) is somehow even more evil than before.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I’m struggling to find a reason season 2 exists. That is, other than to make Fox a bunch of money during a dry spell. The first season used up all of the material in the book series (or so they say, I still haven’t read them) and apparently no one could think of anything better so they decided to just do it all again. There are some minor tweaks—the dictator is now a petulant teenage boy doing his best Hitler Youth impersonation and the star is a mediocre doctor instead of a mediocre secret service agent—but it’s like playing Mad Libs with the details. All that would be fine if the story was still as batshit as it once was. But no, it’s eye-wateringly boring. There are plenty of interesting tidbits but they’re touched on in only the most cursory ways. Whenever we get close to crazy town banana pants everything screeches to a halt so two dull characters can have a Serious Conversation full of exposition. Every character, including the Burkes, are two-dimensional trope machines.
So far the two weirdest things involve agriculture and plaque and bronze making. How the hell did they make a life-size statue of David Pilcher or that customized nameplate for Yedlin’s office door? With what resources? And why? They don’t have food but they have some extra bronze and smelting equipment just lying around? Speaking of farming, I still don’t understand why they planted their only food source so far from the electric fences that it required several vehicles to get to? And who was tending the farm? How did they pick the food without harvesting equipment? Is there a canning and drying factory somewhere? Surely that’s a more important job than hairdresser. Why plant corn and tomatoes when tomatoes have limited uses and corn has very little nutrients? Man, it’s a bad sign if your viewers are more obsessed with the meaningless technicalities than the actual plot. Like season 1, I suspect season 2 will be better served as a binge watch to override the massive plotholes.
TL;DR: Wayward Pines season 1 : Wayward Pines season 2 :: The Walking Dead : Fear The Walking Dead.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.