Your TV GPS, Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert’s look at the week ahead in television, appears every Monday morning on BostonGlobe.com. Today’s column covers Nov. 16-22.
A ‘QUEEN’ OF DRAMA
It’s unusual for a TV miniseries to get the kind of broad-based word-of-mouth buzz that has been surrounding Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” since it premiered last month. These days, the world of TV is fractured; we’re not all sharing the same three or four networks, as we split off into the libraries of Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Apple TV+, etc. Shows don’t tend to become mass phenomena like this anymore.
Everyone I talk to about TV has mentioned “The Queen’s Gambit” — either that it’s brilliant or that it’s on their list — and the title pops up endlessly on my social media feeds. Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the seven-parter follows the complex life of a Kentucky orphan named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy from “Emma,” “Peaky Blinders,” and “The Miniaturist”) who, while struggling with drug abuse and emotional detachment, becomes a chess star.
Why is this one breaking through? For one thing, it’s a miniseries at a time when audiences seem particularly primed for the format. Many of us have more time to take in TV shows because of the pandemic, and six-to-10 episodes makes for a perfect little binge. It’s only a bit of a time commitment, not a TIME commitment.
And the story, so lushly filmed and designed, is transporting. Created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, “The Queen’s Gambit” manages to make the highly intellectualized world of chess competitions accessible and fascinating. The script doesn’t try to educate us on the specifics of the game; it only makes it clear that being able to project many moves ahead is essential. It brings us up close to the manners and mind games between the super-intelligent players, and it captures the sexism that pervades the culture and that Beth needs to power through.
Taylor-Joy is oddly sympathetic as Beth, as she is numbed out and distant on the one hand and fiercely driven to survive and overcome on the other. Ultimately, her tale builds to a familiar climax, but along the way, it gives us an intimate look into an extraordinary woman who doesn’t back down even when the men she encounters and the self-destructive voice in her head are telling her to.
The supporting cast, too, help make the ride entertaining, particularly Marielle Heller as Beth’s adoptive, alcoholic mother. Heller, also the director of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” is heartbreaking as one of the nurturing presences in the series. I hope Emmy voters are paying attention.
WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEK
1. On Saturday at 8 p.m., HBO is premiering an adaptation of a stage production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 bestseller “Between the World and Me.” The show was staged at the Apollo Theater in 2018 by Kamilah Forbes, and this special, directed by Forbes, will combine readings from Coates’s book, documentary footage from the actors' home lives, archival footage, and animation. Here’s a preview of this unique program to give you an idea.
2. Writer-producer David E. Kelley is a remarkably productive guy. In recent years, he’s delivered “The Undoing,” “Big Little Lies,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “Goliath,” and on Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC he is premiering a new drama called “Big Sky.” Based on the 2013 novel “The Highway” by C.J. Box, the show has two detectives and a former cop looking for two sisters kidnapped by a truck driver on a remote highway in Montana. The cast includes Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha from “Vikings”), Ryan Phillippe, Kylie Bunbury, and Brian Geraghty.
3. HBO Max is importing the darkly comic British series “I Hate Suzie” on Thursday, and, based on its enthusiastic reviews across the pond, I am planning to watch it. Also, the eight-episode show stars (and was cocreated by) the winning Billie Piper, from “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” She plays a famous actress whose phone is hacked, resulting in graphic photos of her extramarital affair getting thrown onto the Internet. Piper cocreated the show with Lucy Prebble, a writer-producer from “Succession.”
4. On Wednesday at 10 p.m., BET is premiering a two-hour documentary about the impact of pot on the Black community in this country. Called “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” and narrated by Nasir “Nas” Jones, it looks into the complex legacy of cannabis, as criminal prosecutions became a systemic way to jail Black people. The film includes the story of Corvain Cooper, who is serving a life sentence for selling weed in the same neighborhood where legal dispensaries now operate, and it looks at the small percentage of Black-owned dispensaries. Among those interviewed: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, former NBA player and cannabis investor Al Harrington, and former NFL star Ricky Williams.
5. Dogs and their owners are the stars of “The Pack,” a new “Amazing Race”-ish Amazon reality competition due on Friday. Hosted by gold medalist Lindsey Vonn and her canine cohost Lucy, it follows 12 teams of dogs and humans on a challenge-filled journey across multiple continents. The prize is $500,000, as well as a $250,000 donation to the animal charity of the winner’s choice.
6. This one sounds like a nonfiction version of Netflix’s excellent — but prematurely ended — “Mindhunter.” Called “Crazy, Not Insane,” and directed by Alex Gibney, it follows the research of Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist who has dedicated her career to studying murderers. Why do people kill? Does the death penalty deter them? It premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO and is narrated by Laura Dern.
7. Showtime is premiering R.J. Cutler’s documentary “Belushi” on Sunday at 9 p.m. It’s a deep dive into the life of comic John Belushi, who died at 33, and it will feature previously unheard audiotapes of him. Among those who talk about Belushi and tell his triumphant and yet tragic story: Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Penny Marshall, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Jane Curtin, Ivan Reitman, and Judy Belushi.
8. TLC’s “When Skin Goes Wrong” premieres on Thursday at 10 p.m. The first episode is called “People Like Pus.” I’m just gonna leave this right here.
“His Dark Materials” Season two premieres. HBO, Monday, 9 p.m.
“No Man’s Land” An eight-episode drama set in Syria that follows a French man searching for his missing sister. Hulu, Wednesday
“Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” Have a holly, jolly, Dolly holiday with this musical starring Christine Baranski. Netflix, Sunday
“The Crown” An eventful and poignant fourth season tracks the punishing Thatcher era and the courtship and marriage of Charles and Diana. Netflix
“Moonbase 8” Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, and Tim Heidecker have great chemistry in this comedy series, but the scripts mostly fall flat. Showtime
“Roadkill” Hugh Laurie and the rest of the cast save this otherwise formulaic PBS “Masterpiece” miniseries about a corrupt British politician. GBH 2
“The Undoing” A murder-mystery miniseries starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant is entertaining and manipulative. HBO
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” Byrne’s rousing stage musical is adapted for the screen by director Spike Lee. HBO
“The Right Stuff” The series adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book shows the Mercury astronauts struggling with the happy front NASA needs them to put on. Disney+
“The Boys in the Band” Performed by the same cast as the Broadway revival, including Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer, the movie is more than a filmed stage production. Netflix