The Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, Calif., was packed earlier this month as the Television Critics Association (TCA) launched its first in-person tour in three years. Masked critics and cheering publicists filled the rooms, halls and event spaces for the scaled-back affair, which included important players such as NBC Universal, Disney General Entertainment Content, AMC, MGM+, Paramount+, PBS and the big finisher, Apple TV+.
Over 10 days, almost 80 returning and new projects presented panels with actors and creatives, setting the TV landscape for the next six months. There was a new stage courtesy of SenovvA (the same folks responsible for the sights and sounds at the Oscars), but fewer lavish parties (although FX and NatGeo represented). Only two executives – FX chairman John Landgraf and PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger – braved the stage to field industry questions, making them two of the most popular people on the tour.
The essential conversations, however, were those that took place between official business. As TCA members caught up during breaks and dissected early screeners and panels, they also dug into which creatives had winning long-term plans and which series came out with more swagger than substance. Here’s what won them over.
MOST SURPRISING SHOW
American Born Chinese, streaming spring 2023 on Disney+
Every year there’s one presentation that surprises and leaves critics enthusiastic for more. This year that entry was American Born Chinese, an adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel. The coming-of-age story centres on an average high schooler named Jin Wang (Ben Wang) who accidentally gets caught up in the pantheon of Chinese gods and immortals. New Oscar nominee Michelle Yeoh plays one of them – the iconic Goddess of Mercy. While the premise fits in with Disney’s overall heroics, it’s also a unique entry that delves into Chinese culture in a fun and engaging way. Between the premiere and the lively panel, it left many critics buzzing.
BEST NETWORK ENTRY
The Company You Keep, Feb. 19 on CTV/ABC
These days it’s rare for a network show to win over critics, but many were willing to journey with star Milo Ventimiglia as the charming con artist Charlie in his follow-up to This Is Us. Not to be confused with the 2012 Robert Redford film, the series is based on the Korean drama My Fellow Citizens. It revolves around a family of small-time swindlers who stumble into debt with dangerous mobsters, just as Charlie sparks with an undercover CIA agent (Catherine Haena Kim). Ventimiglia channels his inner Clooney in the first two fast-paced episodes, which are grounded with fun heists and a solid supporting cast that includes Sarah Wayne Callies and Felisha Terrell.
Poker Face, Jan. 26 on Citytv+
Creator Rian Johnson (Knives Out) is partially to blame for the resurrected popularity of whodunnits, and Natasha Lyonne is still riding the success of Russian Doll, so expectations were high for this crime-of-the-week mystery. After sampling Johnson’s TV debut and sitting down for a discussion with the duo, critics were not disappointed. Lyonne’s Charlie character lives out of her Plymouth Barracuda and knows whenever someone is lying, setting the groundwork for a good balance of mystery and humour. The show’s look and style are just as absorbing as the series of crimes Charlie is tasked with solving, which may be the excuse you need to finally subscribe to Citytv+ on Amazon Prime Video Channels.
BEST NEW TAKE
Great Performances: Richard III, May 19, PBS
Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) gives the late Christopher Plummer a run for his money when she tackles Shakespeare’s greatest villain in this subversive and inclusive take on Richard III. Gurira embodies the role with every scene, but she’s just one piece in the diverse new cast. “For other people to see someone in a wheelchair or to see deaf actors or a smaller statured actor is exciting,” said director Robert O’Hara. “It reflects who they are and also opens up the space of what Shakespeare is.”
FAVE HISTORIC RETELLING
A Small Light, spring 2023 on Disney+ under the National Geographic hub
It’s challenging to tell a story so many already know. But during an advanced screening of A Small Light, it was clear creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater have created a compelling miniseries capturing a new side of the Anne Frank story. A Small Light centres on Miep Gies (Bel Powley), the young woman who agreed to hide her boss, Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber), and his family for two years during the Second World War.
The limited series puts plenty of thought and detail into the entire production, from the annex where they hid to the hope that kept the family going through a horrible time. There’s more than six years of research crammed into eight episodes, but it’s Powley’s stunning performance that left critics talking.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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