From epic fantasies starring puppets to refreshing sketch comedy, these were the best new shows of the month.
August used to be the worst month of them all for television. It was too late to introduce a show that would run all of its episodes before the fall TV season began in September, but also a little too early to debut a big show’s newest season.
But August 2019 was awesome for new TV. There were tons of things worth watching, from essential dramas to fantastical puppet prequels to refreshing sketch comedy. And as if that weren’t enough, HBO’s Succession, one of the handful of shows with a legitimate claim at being the best on television, began its long-awaited second season (which is already shaping up to be a classic).
So if August has been as hot in your neck of the woods as it has been here in Los Angeles, maybe it’s best to kick back with some high-grade, premium television. Here are the five best new shows of August 2019, along with a collection of other new shows worth checking out and seven returning shows that should be on your radar.
HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show continues a strong year for sketch comedy
It’s been an exceptionally strong year for sketch comedy, from the sheer absurdity of Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson to Alternatino, Comedy Central’s skewering of American conservatism. But there’s always room for more good sketch comedy, and there’s also always room for more work for Robin Thede, a terrifically funny comedian whose BET talk show, The Rundown, was unfortunately canceled in 2018. Enter HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Thede created Black Lady Sketch Show and stars in several sketches per episode, but she’s also assembled a killer cast of sketch comedy players, including Ashley Nicole Black of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee fame, Quinta Brunson of “lots of great YouTube videos” fame, and Gabrielle Dennis of “she’s mostly done dramatic work!” fame. Add to that central quartet guest stars who include everybody from series producer Issa Rae to Laverne Cox to Lena Waithe, and you have a great basis for some terrific comedy.
And Black Lady Sketch Show doesn’t disappoint. Thede and her writing staff have a great eye for situations that start out in a normal place and slowly curl in on themselves until they’re weirder and weirder and weirder, like with a series of sketches that recur throughout the season and feature the four series regulars riffing on friendship among black women — in what seems to be the only house standing after the end of the world.
Believe it or not, that’s one of the more normal sketches in the show. Motown singers perform a song called “Ice Cream Shop” that rapidly becomes more and more sexually explicit. An emcee announces categories for a celebration of the basic members of the LGBTQ community in a clever Pose parody. Thede plays a ridiculous black intellectual who says that triangles are just the typical shape of white people turned upside down (it’s true!).
Even better, these sketches almost never overstay their welcome. Often, the secret to great sketch comedy is knowing when to end a sketch, and Black Lady Sketch Show always leaves you on a high. I don’t know if this is my favorite sketch show of the year — but that I’m saying that says more about how good this year has been for sketch than it does Black Lady Sketch Show.
Watch Black Lady Sketch Show if you like: Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, Silicon Valley
Where to watch: New episodes air Fridays at 11 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO’s streaming platforms.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance offers a lush, gorgeous prequel to the ‘80s puppet epic
I never thought that my standard answer to “What fantasy show should I watch now that Game of Thrones is done?” just might be “A prequel to a cult ‘80s movie starring puppets,” but the 10-episode Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is just terrific. Here’s an excerpt from Aja Romano’s four-and-a-half star review:
The Dark Crystal was one of the late Jim Henson’s pet projects, one whose world he continued to build and expand for years after the film was created, and the new production has been built as faithfully as possible to that spirit. It’s in many ways as odd as its predecessor, though perhaps for different reasons.
Its setting is a fantasy world as vast and complex as the most high-budget epic fantasies, yet its puppetry means many viewers might expect the series to convey a constant whimsy. But while there are many moments of whimsy, they’re grace notes on a show that’s unabashedly somber; if anything, the rich detail of the puppetry and production design paradoxically makes Age of Resistance’s world feel even bleaker, and lends its moments of real horror an extra-disturbing sense of uncanny valley. Through it all, the production is blessed with a huge, delighted and delightful cadre of A-list actors (seriously, the list is eye-popping), all taking their roles very seriously.
The care, the attention to detail, and the roster of stars eager for involvement are all an indication of just how highly valued Age of Resistance is by its creators — and how ultimately satisfying it is that the resulting series is a win for all of us
Watch The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance if you like: The Dark Crystal (duh), Game of Thrones, Adventure Time
Where to watch: The series is streaming on Netflix.
David Makes Man is a beautiful coming-of-age drama from the writer of Moonlight
If you’ve been looking for a good teen show, maybe OWN’s David Makes Man, a dreamy and moving series about a boy growing up in predominantly black Florida, will be just the thing you need. Here’s an excerpt from my earlier recommendation of the show:
Tarell Alvin McCraney, the creator of David Makes Man, is having a pretty great 2019 — especially once you realize that “pretty great 2019” is in the context of the fact that he won an Oscar for co-writing the Best Picture-winning Moonlight in 2017. (He also wrote the play Moonlight was based on.)
But winning awards isn’t everything! Suddenly, McCraney’s writing is everywhere. It’s on Broadway, in the Tony-nominated play Choir Boy. It’s on Netflix, in the acclaimed Steven Soderbergh film High Flying Bird. And now it’s driving a TV show, via David Makes Man. The series returns to the poverty-stricken, predominantly black Florida neighborhoods that McCraney visited in Moonlight, but also slows down and expands that movie’s middle section, which focused on a sensitive black teenager grappling with his sexuality.
We’re once again following the life of a sensitive black teenage boy in David Makes Man, and you won’t be shocked to learn his name is David (played by newcomer Akili McDowell). But where Moonlight drilled down so specifically into a handful of days that changed its protagonist Chiron’s life, David Makes Man has room to sprawl and to build out the neighborhood that David lives in, and introduce us to the people who live there.
Watch David Makes Man if you like: Friday Night Lights, My So-Called Life, Rectify
Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida gives Kirsten Dunst the role she deserves
Not everything about the Showtime dramedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida works, but its built around a terrific Kirsten Dunst performance (as a young widow struggling to keep her head above water amid a multi-level marketing company) and features way more good stuff than bad. Here’s an excerpt from my three-and-a-half star review:
Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, who has no great love for the multi-level marketing company FAM. But she’s also so in hock to the company that the only way out is through. So she throws herself into selling its products with clear eyes (she knows most of the stuff is crap) and the kind of gusto that only a former beauty queen who once imagined a brighter future for herself can muster. She tells herself she’s building something better for her family, but the nature of FAM means that she essentially has to bilk her closest friends and lure them into a position she knows might well bankrupt them. To play the game is to lose everything, even when you win.
That last sentence is a pretty great summation of unchecked capitalism to begin with, and On Becoming a God in Central Florida isn’t shy about pointing out all of the ways FAM might just be a microcosm of the country that gave birth to it.
What’s more, the show is interested in how the casual sexism and racism of the American dream Krystal grew up with only serves to perversely keep feeding its own ends. Krystal’s ideas — good ones! — are frequently written off because she’s a woman and the men around her cannot imagine viewing the world through her perspective. But to prove that her ideas are good means further feeding and enriching the beast that would otherwise dismiss her entirely, a catch-22 that plenty of people who aren’t cisgender straight white men have found themselves in throughout American history. To become her most profitable self, she must also become her worst self.
Watch On Becoming a God in Central Florida if you like: Mr. Robot, Fargo, Twin Peaks
Where to watch: On Becoming a God in Central Florida airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on Showtime. The first two episodes are available on YouTube, and episodes are also available on Showtime’s streaming platforms.
HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones might be Danny McBride’s most accessible TV show yet
If you’ve enjoyed Danny McBride’s previous HBO shows — Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals — then his megachurch-skewering crime drama The Righteous Gemstones is definitely going to be up your alley. And even if you didn’t, you’re probably going to have a good time with it, as it’s likely his most accessible show yet. Here’s an excerpt from my discussion about the show’s pilot with Alissa Wilkinson:
The family at the center of The Righteous Gemstones fits into a very particular subset: megachurch evangelicals, many — but by no means all — of whom are white. And while that’s also the subset into which a lot of famous evangelicals fall, like prosperity preacher Joel Osteen or the Trump acolyte Robert Jeffress, it is hardly representative of all Trump-country evangelicals.
So The Righteous Gemstones is really only a satire of a particular strain of evangelicalism, one that’s replicated across America but maybe not quite as much as media coverage of Trump’s mostly white evangelical base might lead you to believe. And I am fairly convinced I don’t want to see a show like this try to skewer the politics of that crowd. For one thing, that would mire the show in 2019, instead of making it feel a little like it exists outside of time; after all, televangelists and families of powerful preachers, with jets and mansions and bling, are hardly a new phenomenon.
And more importantly, I think the show’s interest in exploring the celebrity culture of big churches where the pastors are major celebrities and treated as such — and the way leaders benefit from and try to sustain their congregations’ adoration — is, in an oblique way, a much better satirical note to strike in 2019. I’m convinced that for many (though not all) white evangelicals, their support for Trump has a lot to do with being primed to admire big, brash celebrity pastors, to follow charisma and to be swept up by emotion. If you’re devoted to a pastor like John Goodman’s Eli Gemstone, whose spiritual acumen is proven by his ostentatiously flashy empire, then it’s a natural step to admire a figure like Donald Trump because of his wealth and fame rather than in spite of it.
Watch The Righteous Gemstones if you like: McBride’s prior shows, Succession, Ozark
Where to watch: New episodes of The Righteous Gemstones air Sundays on HBO at 10 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on HBO’s streaming platforms.
5 other new shows worth checking out
August was so stacked for new TV that I would normally have bumped up a couple of the below to full reviews in most other months. Suffice to say: There’s plenty down here to enjoy.
- I like BH90210 (Fox, Wednesdays at 9 pm Eastern; streaming on Hulu) so much more than I ever would have dreamed, considering I’ve seen not a single episode of Beverly Hills 90210. But this mockumentary series about the cast of that show reuniting to make a reunion series is just strange enough to work.
- Is Carnival Row (streaming on Prime Video) good? That assumes that words like “good” and “bad” can apply to this delightfully banana-pants series about a Victorian England populated with magical creatures and the like. Maybe “agreeably silly” is the best way to put it, or “perfect for a warm Labor Day weekend.”
- OK, confession: I haven’t watched Our Boys (HBO, Mondays at 9 pm Eastern; streaming on HBO) yet because this stark miniseries about a kidnapping and murder in Israel that led to the outbreak of war sounds incredibly despairing and brutal. But the reviews for the series are very good, and it hails from the terrific writer Hagai Levi, so it is likely worth your time if you can stomach it.
- I don’t quite like The Terror: Infamy (AMC, Mondays at 9 pm Eastern; streaming on AMC) as much as its predecessor, but this ghost story set amid a Japanese internment camp is eerie and enjoyable in its own right, especially once you get past its earlier, clunkier episodes. Of all the shows on this tier, it’s the one I’d be most likely to bump up if it wraps its season well. (I’ve seen six episodes of 10.)
- Finally, Why Women Kill (streaming on CBS All Access; new episodes on Thursdays) is a show where you will know if you’ll like it based almost entirely on the title and the fact that it’s from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry. It’s dark and fun, with a great cast and plenty of murderous impulses. If you think you’ll like it — you probably will.
7 returning shows worth checking out
As if all of the above weren’t enough, here are seven shows that came back in August, some of which are sure favorites for my year-end top 10 and some of which are just fun, but all of which are worth checking out.
- Is it completely necessary to watch the final season of The Affair (Showtime, 9 pm Eastern, Sundays; streaming on Showtime)? Maybe not, but it’s also partially set in a climate change-ravaged future, which is honestly a wild way to send out a prestige soap. So how can you not watch it?
- I found the third season of Dear White People (streaming on Netflix) a bit scattered compared to how good the first two seasons were. But the pieces of the story came together in the end in a way that suggests how a show about kids at a historically black college might run longer than the average college stint.
- The third season of GLOW (streaming on Netflix) makes one creative choice I absolutely despise (it involves a particular romance), but I love the show’s massive ensemble, its willingness to take its time telling stories about its many lady wrestlers, and its warm evocation of the 1980s.
- I’m so glad to have Good Eats (Food Network, 10 pm Eastern, Sundays) back after a seven-year absence. Its 15th season, which opened with installments about chicken parm and ancient grains, has lost none of its visual inventiveness, and Alton Brown remains TV’s preeminent food nerd.
- There are few TV shows that quite capture the vibe of Lodge 49 (AMC, 10 pm Eastern, Mondays; season one on Hulu), a series about a fictional fraternal lodge, the folks who hang out there, and the collapse of the American working class. Also alchemy? Sort of? It’s a terrific TV show, is what I’m saying, and you need to be watching it.
- It took almost two years, but the David Fincher-produced (and occasionally directed) serial killer drama Mindhunter (streaming on Netflix) returned for season two, which is more tightly plotted all around, with some fantastic scenes sprinkled throughout. Its ultra-dry approach that’s more interested in conversation than crime won’t appeal to everybody, but those who do dig it will dig it.
- Succession (HBO, 9 pm Eastern, Sundays; streaming on HBO) is probably the best show on television, and you should be watching it. Full stop.
And guess what? September is coming, and it will bring with it every show in existence. That’s right: Fall TV season is almost here. Get ready for a bunch of shows that will make it half a season if they’re lucky!
Author: Emily Todd VanDerWerff