The Christmas specials seem to arrive earlier each year, as cable and streaming services start stuffing sleighfuls of formulaic holiday cheer down our chimneys the minute the trick-or-treaters stop knocking. That means, come November, it can be hard to find something novel on TV that is not a kiddie Santa-fest, an HGTV roundup of houses with elaborate seasonal lighting, or a snowy romance in which a lonely, workaholic businesswoman reluctantly returns to her childhood hometown to abandon all pretense of ambition and smooch her ruggedly handsome high school sweetheart under the mistletoe. Well, it wasn’t easy, but I did it: I dug up five decent-to-great series that premiered this past month to please even the Grinchiest of viewers. Brace yourself—December will be even worse.
The Big Brunch (HBO Max)
If you’ve finally given up on the declining Great British Bake Off—or you simply can’t get enough of big-hearted cooking contests—then you’ll want to add this brunch-focused offering from Schitt’s Creek mastermind Dan Levy to your queue immediately. The format is nothing you haven’t seen before: 10 chefs compete in episodic elimination challenges for a cash prize that could help make their wildest professional dreams a reality. What separates the show from dozens of similar streaming titles is its cast. The contestants are kind, talented, articulate, and humble; representing the wide variety of cultural hybrids that make up American cuisine, they’re eager to support and learn from one another. And the panel of judges is as perfectly balanced as a great Bloody Mary. Levy brings the self-deprecating humor, and Eleven Madison Park restaurateur Will Guidara the sweetness. But chef, food writer, and YouTube star Sohla El-Waylly is the show’s MVP, dispensing blunt, pithy, yet never nasty feedback that reflects her own high culinary standards rather than any desire to humiliate the lovable cast.
The English (Amazon)
Written and directed by Hugo Blick, the creator of sophisticated, politically engaged British dramas like The Honorable Woman, this insightful Amazon-BBC co-production opens with a chance encounter. Upon arriving at a dusty hotel in the desolate Kansas of 1890, Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) finds a badly beaten man, Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), chained to a post. She’s an English aristocrat on a mission to kill the man who killed her son. He’s a newly retired Pawnee scout traveling to Nebraska to claim land he’s owed under the Homestead Act but—despite and because his ancestors made their homes in the same area—will likely have to take by force. She saves him, then he saves her. They’re strangers, but unlike other strangers who cross paths on these eerily empty plains, they’ve earned each other’s trust. [Read the full review.]
Mood (BBC America/AMC+)
For a young artist with dreams of conquering the world, the gulf between aspiration and reality can seem unbridgeable. In fact, it usually is. So how is a person supposed to make a life for herself when she’s talented but also broke, lonely, self-destructive, decidedly unfamous, and the only career path that appeals is to somehow become the next Beyoncé? Mood, a six-part British musical drama, is executive producer, writer, and star Nicôle Lecky’s inventive and empathetic attempt to chart a course. [Read the full review.]
Yes, it’s yet another documentary series about a brilliant, violent, egomaniacal artist. And in all honesty, it probably would not have made this list in a more competitive month for new shows. But if you still have the emotional bandwidth for another account of real women’s suffering at the hands of a powerful man, this studiously non-sleazy Phil Spector doc from directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott (Framing John DeLorean) might be worth your time. While its focal point is, unsurprisingly, the pop megaproducer’s murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, the filmmakers contextualize the crime within Spector’s checkered biography, enlisting former friends, collaborators, journalists, and even his daughter Nicole to offer genuine insight into his particular combination of genius, madness, and misogyny. They also give Clarkson her due. Often mischaracterized, in life and after her death, as a B-movie bimbo, she’s revealed to be an intelligent, savvy performer whose career was hitting an upswing when she connected with the fading Wall of Sound innovator. It’s more than fair to question the need for one more retelling of an already well-documented life story, two years after its subject died in prison. Still, Spector paints a thoughtful and responsible portrait of a figure whose name many of us could do with never hearing uttered again.
Welcome to Chippendales (Hulu)
Welcome to Chippendales has all the elements of a great workplace comedy—a charismatic cast led by Kumail Nanjiani, offbeat characters, an unconventional setting. But the show is actually a true-crime docudrama based on a book called Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders by K. Scott Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca. That complicates things, resulting in a romp through 1980s L.A. nightlife that makes you feel a bit guilty for enjoying it so much. [Read the full review.]