It’s the weekend before the long Memorial Day holiday and while coronavirus restrictions are lifting all over California and the rest of the nation, there is some serious TV dropping. Which of course poses the question: What is the show you have to watch this week?
There are some very Russian royal moves occurring over on Hulu starting today with The Great and the rise of a certain empress named Catherine played by Elle Fanning. Straight outta Provincetown, May 17 sees the premiere of Starz’s Hightown, led by Monica Raymund and executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Brec Bassinger lights up streamer DC Universe on May 18 and then on the CW the next day in DC’s Stargirl. Also on May 18, the long-awaited small-screen version of Snowpiercer with Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly hits the tracks on TNT.
Long review short and with some blood on those tracks, Snowpiercer is not the show you have to watch this week.
Despite the presence of Hamilton alum Diggs as the last police detective on a very chilly Earth, and Requiem for a Dream vet Connelly as the head of hospitality in the stratified society on a fast-moving, 1,000-car-plus train circling the frozen planet, Snowpierer is way more Super Train than Les Misérables, and not in a good way.
Having taken several years and a couple of showrunners to make it to the small screen since Bong Joon-ho’s big-screen version starring Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans and based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the already renewed Snowpiercer the series leaves the figurative station on a weak and almost incidental murder mystery plot and promptly gets stuck in a narrative snowbank.
Put another way, besides a timely reference that occurred in the opening episode of the latest season of CBS All Access’ The Good Fight, the eight-part first season of Snowpiercer is a deep freeze all round.
Well in the CW’s wheelhouse and at the heart of the DC Universe, the Geoff Johns- and Greg Berlanti-developed DC’s Stargirl is a lot of high production value, lighthearted fun that’s full of the kind of Easter eggs comic geeks like myself love. With all the Ya tropes of a new home, a new school, new friends, a new stepdad, a new step-brother (played by Trae Romano) and suddenly new superpowers, All Night vet Bassinger is a near perfect fit as Courtney Whitmore.
The teen is plucked out of her life in LA to live in the very different landscape of Blue Valley, Nebraska after her Amy Smart-portrayed mom marries low-key mechanic Luke Wilson. As it is in such tales, all is no bueno until Courtney discovers an all-powerful staff in the attic. That leads to Courtney becoming Stargirl and the revelation that stepdad Pat Dugan used to be a bit of a somebody in the Justice Society of America as the sidekick to the now-deceased Starman (Joel McHale), who may or may not be the new hero’s real father.
Like I said, the series from Johns, Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Melissa Carter and based on the character first introduced in the comics in 1999 is fun and very family friendly, with Bassinger confidently coming more and more into her own as a superhero as a new JSA is formed.
Taking the ensemble of DC’s Stargirl for what it is, the only real dimming of its light is when you get past the first few episodes and the Injustice Society’s overly heavy-handed and heavy-hitting villains show up to kill the buzz, at least from what I’ve seen. Neil Jackson, Nelson Lee Christopher James Baker and Joy Osmansk are all in fine form as the baddies, but it feels like they belong more in the brooding world of the now concluded Arrow or DC’s Legends of Tomorrow with the more grown-up Stargirl of that CW show.
Talking about killing the buzz, Starz’s Hightown is all about a buzz that at first dose seems to have long since lost its luster. Already streaming on the Starz app before this weekend’s on-air premiere, a Cape Cod-set murder shoots up this sometimes self-consciously gritty dive into sex, drugs and redemption from creator Rebecca Cutter and starring Chicago Fire regular Monica Raymund.
Strip away the piercing portrayal of Raymund’s inquisitive and strung-out Marine Fisheries Service agent Jackie Quinones’ struggles with illicit substances and recovery, and the gender-bent cop clichés of the series from Cutter, Bruckheimer, Gary Lennon, Jonathan Littman and KristieAnne Reed isn’t addictive TV. Standard mystery plots, corrupt cops, and drug kingpin storyline aside, you actually can’t strip that piercing portrayal away from Hightown, it is successfully the soiled but hard beating heart of the show.
Overall, the ride of Hightown is rocky, but the lows of the opioid epidemic and the hard realities of substance abuse are a high unto themselves, with light at the end of the tunnel.
Still with all that is to be discovered in on the narrative streets of Hightown, the real jewel in the TV crown this week is The Great, which debuted on Hulu earlier today.
Taking well-played liberties with history and based on Oscar nominee Tony McNamara’s 2008 stage satire of the same name, The Great weaves between comedy and drama with an assurance that is underpinned by Fanning’s restrained performance as a young Catherine, who is not yet Great and ruler of all she surveys.
As he did in the 2018 film The Favourite, McNamara plots out the evolution of a young woman at the near center of a royal court pustulating with corruption and decadence. As you can see over the 10 episodes that dropped on the Disney-dominated streamer this morning, The Great isn’t great TV – but it’s no Potemkin village either.
Watching Super 8 alum Fanning arrive in Russia to an arranged marriage with her often stumbling and insecure husband Peter II, played wonderfully on a near-doltish high note by Nicholas Hoult, you know that you’re in for a really good coup treat. Also starring Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge, Sacha Dhawan, Sebastian de Souza, Bayo Gbadamosi and Belinda Bromilow, this series produced by Civic Center Media in association with MRC Television admirably surveys a young woman battling the constraints of gender and the times to set off on her own journey and the destination of ultimate power.
No spoilers, but The Great grabs the best tradition of Apple TV+’s breakout series Dickinson and the best bits of the very good Olivia Colman-led Favourite to show some devilish sense and modern sensibility.
So, check out Hightown this Sunday on Starz, but don’t miss The Great on Hulu. It’s worth a royal binge, and hence is crowned the show you have to watch this week.