Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
We’re still in a golden age of television with so much out there that is really good to excellent. I compiled a list of 20 for my personal blog. On that blog, I talk about the rise of documentary series. A lot of excellent documentary series are out there, but I had to take that list of 20 and cut it in half. I do love all 20 shows, but the following collection is what I feel are the strongest. I would recommend that any and all should check out these series. They really do represent the best of what television can do.
10. TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (Netflix) – Netflix has now become known as the place to go if you want to see a true-crime documentary with a lot of crazy twists and turns. However, the streaming service has outdone itself with this latest series by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin. Its seven episodes properly detail the life of Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, a former zoo operator in Oklahoma who was federally charged with animal abuse. Why this documentary exists is because Joe Exotic is currently in prison after he was convicted for a murder-for-hire plot. Joe Exotic was involved with an arrangement to have rival zoo operator, Carole Baskin, killed in Florida. Strangely, the murder-for-hire plot is probably the tenth craziest thing that occurs in this series. From polygamy, a fake music career, and a failed presidential run, this was undeniably the most entertaining show of the year.
9. MCMILLIONS (HBO) – This is another documentary that explores the people surrounding a true-crime, perpetrated mainly in the South, in and around Florida. As I say in my review, it has at its center a really charming, handsome and engaging subject, the FBI agent who first catches onto this crime. That crime is connected to one of the biggest fast-food chains in the country, that of McDonald’s. This series too has some crazy twists and turns, ones that in my mind compare it to something like The Sopranos.
8. EMERGENCE (ABC) – Unfortunately, this series only lasted one season. It premiered last fall in 2019 and concluded in January of this year. There was hope that it could be renewed, but the network officially gave it the axe in May. It was a bit of a thrilling series that initially drew comparisons to TV shows like Lost (2004) and Manifest (2018). It started out as this creepy mystery, prompted by a plane crash. Where it goes from there was always a source of intrigue and surprise, which I credit Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, the two female head writers, for always keeping you on the edge of your seat. The series was also a vehicle for Allison Tolman who ever since she burst onto the scene in Fargo (2014) has demonstrated herself to be an amazing actress who should be given her own vehicle. She is funny and charming and so strong in her performance, especially in this role, that it’s a shame that she didn’t get to continue with it.
7. MRS. AMERICA (FX) – Created by Dahvi Waller (Mad Men and Desperate Housewives), this series follows Phyllis Schlafly, a Republican woman, as she works to stop the Equal Rights Amendment or ERA. It follows her from 1971 to 1979. The structure of the series also puts a spotlight on the various women on the other side, the various feminists working to pass the ERA. Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett plays Schlafly as a woman frustrated by her unrealized ambitions who then channels it in other ways. The supporting cast of women, which includes Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, is incredible. Tracy Ullman, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Elizabeth Banks and Ari Graynor all get moments to shine and prove to be the best assembled, majority female cast of the year.
6. GENTEFIED (Netflix) – The series is about a Mexican-American family living in East Los Angeles, in an area called Boyle Heights. The family consists of a grandfather and his three adult grandchildren. Through the three of them, we get to explore issues of intercultural and inter-generational conflicts. The main issue though is the problem of gentrification. A main concern is the family maintaining its tradition and heritage, as expressed through the family holding onto its Mexican restaurant, which is in threat of being either closed or bought out by possible white investors.
5. RAMY: SEASON 2 (Hulu) – This is another series about an immigrant family, except this one is about a Muslim-American family living in northern New Jersey. The star and creator of this series is Ramy Youssef and he won a Golden Globe earlier this year for the show’s first season, which was an interesting and funny introduction of this young man of Egyptian heritage. The series continues its affirmation of faith, as well as the struggle with it by introducing a character played by Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim to win an Oscar for acting. However, the best part of the series are the actors who play the mother, father, sister and uncle to Ramy. The series is a great example of how you can change point-of-view and perspective to tell more diverse stories.
4. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: SEASON 10 (HBO) – Larry David started this series 2o years ago. He’s taking longer breaks between seasons. The last was three years ago. The one prior was six years ago. This is perhaps good because it gives David time to come up with really funny ideas and craft them in brilliant ways. David just comes up with ideas that nobody else has ever even conceived or if they had, would never say out loud. Or, maybe they would say out loud and David has the gumption to do entire episodes about them. Examples of David’s crazy or bold ideas are in the titles of his episodes. Those titles include “The Ugly Section” and “The Spite Store,” which are ideas and jokes that I won’t soon forget, if ever.
3. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER: SEASON 6 (ABC) / HOMELAND: SEASON 8 (Showtime) – I had a tie here. Both are TV shows that I have loved for nearly a decade. Both have strong female characters as the lead. Both shows had their final seasons and series finales this year. I wrote a review of the finale for How To Get Away With Murder. I only recently watched the finale to Homeland, so I haven’t commented on it until now. I found the end to Homeland to be bittersweet. The series was about a CIA operative named Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes. In the first season, Carrie attempted to learn the truth about a military soldier who people believed might be a traitor and secretly working for a foreign country. This final season came full circle and made Carrie the person who people believed might be a traitor. The stakes were amplified, so that not only was she accused of doing the worst thing a traitor could do but that also the United States was in danger of going to war with Pakistan. As crazy as all of that, it managed to ground the events in pathos, especially in regards to Carrie’s relationship with her boss, Saul, played by Tony and Emmy-winner, Mandy Patinkin.
2. FOR LIFE (ABC) – When it comes to the end of How To Get Away With Murder, I was hoping to find a show that could take its place. There have been other legal dramas on the same network that have tried to be the replacement for How To Get Away With Murder, but this one might actually do the trick. It’s not as twisty or crazy as How To Get Away With Murder. It’s based on a real-life story about a man who was falsely convicted of a crime and then had to spend years clearing his name. This series by Hank Steinberg is wonderfully written, as it delves into the corruption in the criminal justice system and politics surrounding it. It does so all from the perspective of a man behind bars and his family who try to support him. It’s amazing and heart-wrenching.
1. THE GOOD FIGHT: SEASON 4 (CBS All Access) – In previous Top Ten lists, I did rank this series very high. I didn’t do so for Season 3, which felt a little disappointing to me. However, this current season reminded me of everything why I absolutely love this show. It’s not only the best series on TV, but it’s also one of the greatest political satires and political commentaries ever done for TV. It’s a spin-off of CBS’ The Good Wife, which was a show that was nominated for several Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. Unfortunately, this series hasn’t yet gotten that honor, but there is no question that it’s just as good, if not better, than its predecessor.