How’s your May going? The networks are wrapping up seasons and trying to get us hyped for the Fall, but there are still plenty of cable and streaming series setting up shop for the Summer. But what of these new offerings are worth your time? Let this weekly column be your guide as I review the pilot and second episode of new scripted series this Summer. Don’t see a new show listed below? Check previous weeks.
Hacks, Thursdays on HBO Max (Premiered May 13)
About: This new comedy centers on Jean Smart as an aging comic still headlining in Las Vegas. But her hold on that slot is beginning to wane as the Casinos want to pull in a younger crowd. Meanwhile Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is a young comedy writer whose Social Media barb has gotten her in hot water. Soon, their mutual agent (Paul W. Downs) puts them together, hoping they can help each other get their careers back on track. This is an outlandish and fun comedy at times. Smart is great in the lead role, and Einbinder grows into the character throughout the first two episodes which were made available as the series debuted Thursday. Subsequent episodes will drop weekly, giving HBO Max an original draw in addition to show airing on HBO and Warner Brothers films dropping at the same time they go into theaters. HBO Max is one of the strongest streaming platforms with one of the most diverse offerings, and Hacks is a great addition to the lineup. I enjoyed the first two episodes, though the second episode had some slow moments, and I’m curious to see how this plays out.
Pilot Grade: B-
Second Episode: C+
Run the World, Sundays 8:30 p.m. on Starz (Premiered May 16)
About: Each network or streaming platform has to work hard to establish an identity. Series can be a way to do that. Starz has cultivated its own niche of late, and Run the World feels like an addition that the network hopes can build on that brand. Once upon a time, HBO helped establish its sense of network brand with Sex in the City, focusing on four women living their lives in New York City. Hailing from Leigh Davenport, Run the World centers on four women (Amber Stevens West, Andrea Bordeaux, Bresha Webb, and Corbin Reid) living in Harlem and trying to rule their own world. The pilot, which aired on Sunday, set the scene with the characters and stories, building the world. It moved at a decent pace and will likely appeal to those who enjoy the genre. I thought it was a bit flat, but it feels like the kind of show that will take some time to build.
Pilot Grade: C
Death and Nightingales, Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz (Premiered May16)
About: The other piece of Starz’ recent original programming portfolio is bringing in stories from overseas. Death and Nightingales, a mini-series based on the novel from Eugene McCabe, originally aired in England in 2018. It made its American debut on Sunday and is set in 1883 Ireland where a cruel landowner, Billy (Matthew Rhys), is set at odds with his stepdaughter, Beth (Ann Skelly), and her beau, Liam (Jamie Dornan). The first chapter picks up near the climax and then goes back to lay out the conflict. Rhys is a great actor, and Dornan and Skelly are strong performers, too. Adapted by Allan Cubitt, the mini-series runs three episodes, each about an hour. I thought the first episode, despite some decent performances, was a bit dry. But the conflict begins to take bigger shape by the end of the first hour and should build heading into Week 2.
Pilot Grade: C
The Upshaws, Now Streaming on Netflix (Premiered May 12)
About: Netflix continues to offer a diverse set of scripted films and shows in different genres. One genre that continues to stymie the service creatively is the traditional sitcom. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to roll them out. The Upshaws is a traditional sitcom of sorts starring Mike Epps and Wanda Sykes, who serves as a producer as well. Epps is a husband and father caught between his wife (Kim Fields) and the mother of one of his children (Gabrielle Dennis) as they try to navigate the challenges of daily life. The first season is 10 episodes, each about a half an hour. Like other traditional sitcoms on Netflix, despite a decent cast, it just doesn’t work. This felt stiff, plodding and awkward. Netflix keeps trying to roll out sitcoms, but this is another miss in the genre.
Pilot Grade: C-
Second Episode: C-
Halston, Now Streaming on Netflix (Premiered May 14)
About: This new mini-series from producer Ryan Murphy centers on the fashion designer Halston (Ewan McGreggor), tracing the arc of his life and rise to fame in the industry during the 1960s and 1970s. This includes his friendship with Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez). Murphy is a prodigious content creator and has been the driving force behind some good shows. But when his projects haven’t worked for me, it’s often been a case of too much focus on style and not enough focus on substance. That is certainly the case with Halston, the five-part mini-series that dropped on Netflix on Friday. McGreggor gives a solid performance, and Rodriguez steals the show, offering some great musical numbers and bringing the character to life in a vibrant way. The problem is, through two episodes, this feels a bit like every other story about someone building a business and not in a compelling way. There isn’t a great hook and aside from everyone on screen telling us he is, there is nothing that helps you feel like Halston is a genius. There is a lot of flash and style here but not enough substance to be worth the journey.
Pilot Grade: C-
Second Episode: C-
The Underground Railroad, Now Streaming on Amazon Prime (Premiered May 14)
About: The latest from Amazon Prime is a limited series based on the novel of the same name from Colson Whitehead. It’s set in an alternate world where the underground railroad is, indeed, a secret railroad and train underground that helps ferry slaves to freedom in 1800s America. The series has been long in development and comes from Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), who serves as the director of each of its 10 episodes. All 10 episodes dropped Friday, and each is around an hour. The series focuses on a pair of slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who are in Georgia and catch the train to escape a brutal and violent life. Hot on their trail is the slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young assistant Homer (Chase W. Dillon). This is a difficult story that is told in a sometimes brutal and unflinching way. The suggestion has been this isn’t the kind of series to binge, but rather one to watch in small bites to digest. Watching the first two episodes, each of which ran just over an hour, that seems like sage advice. The series is well-acted and well-crafted, but it is dark, difficult and brutal. It doesn’t pull any punches in depicting this violent and dehumanizing period in history. It’s an important story to tell, but those who are undertaking the journey should be prepared.
Pilot Grade: B
Second Episode: B
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.