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In The Mood To Binge? Here Are 4 Shows To Watch Now

<em>The Bad Batch</em> follows an elite, hard-bitten squad of genetically mutated clones who rebel against the Empire.
Lucasfilm Ltd.
The Bad Batch follows an elite, hard-bitten squad of genetically mutated clones who rebel against the Empire.

From this TV critic's perch, with a few exceptions, 2021 hasn't yet provided a great deluge of outstanding shows. I suspect we're enduring the lingering impact of the industry's pandemic-inspired slow downs and shut downs. But there are signs of change.

As May gets underway, I've identified four shows to watch now (except for the first one, which you can't see until Monday). They are bold, incisive, entertaining and impactful — a great harbinger for a TV industry starting to regain momentum.

Here's the list:

The Crime of the Century (HBO)

This masterful, two-part documentary is a devastating indictment of the ways pharmaceutical companies, politicians, lobbyists and assorted profiteers bent and broke the law to earn billions while encouraging practices that stimulated nation's deadly opioid epidemic. The first part focuses on the manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, and the actions of former chairman and president Richard Sackler. This film makes the case that the company sold doctors on a lie that its powerful opiate OxyContin was not overly addictive to patients, encouraging them to prescribe it heavily. The second part largely details the excesses of other companies that jumped into the opioid market that Purdue Pharma created, offering unlimited bonuses to salespeople while paying doctors through sham "speakers' programs" to over-prescribe the drug.

Directed by award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) in partnership with The Washington Post, HBO's program reveals how companies convinced doctors to prescribe powerful opioids and expand the drugs' potential market, while also encouraging pharmacists to fill these increasing levels of prescriptions. And as agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency tried to crack down, these billion-dollar companies paid fines, hired former DEA lawyers as lobbyists and gave huge contributions to politicians who spearheaded changes to the law aimed at reducing the DEA's authority, unopposed by Presidents Obama or Trump. Ultimately, Gibney's documentary details the corrupting power of big money, which led companies and individuals charged with safeguarding public health, to champion the explosive use of a drug which led to nearly 500,000 overdose deaths in nine years. Debuts Monday on HBO.

Shrill (Hulu)

Saturday Night Live veteran Aidy Bryant has quietly built a powerfully entertaining comedy about an overweight Millennial woman struggling to find success in love and life, working for a supremely dysfunctional weekly newspaper in Portland. Past seasons have been a delight, but this, the show's third and final season, deftly toggles between comedy and drama with a wry, heart-warming style. Bryant's Annie Easton resists attempts to pigeonhole her as a "body-positive" columnist who only writes about the struggle of being fat in modern society, pushing herself to find a romantic partner who isn't a clueless doofus.

On the surface, the plots may sound predictable. Annie tries to up her journalism game by profiling a woman running a traditionalist, white separatist group — imagine all the ways that can go wrong — and runs over to the apartment of a guy she's been flirting with after he sends her a random text. (In Annie's defense, heavy drinking was involved.) But along the way — including substantive storylines starring her gay, British-Nigerian roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) — the show gently interrogates the nature of love, ethnic identity and history, work relationships and the challenge of becoming a grownup in the modern age. Debuts today (5/7) on Hulu.

That Damn Michael Che (HBO Max)

It may look odd to see a co-head writer for the longest-running sketch comedy show on television create another sketch comedy show for an entirely different platform. But five minutes into watching Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che's provocative show, it's clear why he crafted this show for the home of Insecure and A Black Lady Sketch Show rather than Saturday Night Live. Che, whose has a long track record of challenging assumptions on all sides of the color line in his comedy, offers a show steeped in his experiences as a Black man in urban America — this time, fully under his control.

Sketches range from a scene where Che's trapped in an elevator with an earnest, apologetic white lady to a parody of a promotional video featuring New York police with Black people offering the tagline, "protecting your community from your community." Sketches are occasionally bracketed by Che sitting back, talking to an off-camera interviewer, tossing off observations similar to his standup bits to focus the context: "watching conservatives riot, to Black people, is like watching your big brother play a video game ... we were just trying to get watches ... (they) were trying to steal the Constitution." Because Che is devoted to tweaking all sides of these issues, he includes insulting jokes about Black folks that no white comic could get away with (a Black father counsels his son against becoming a police officer because he has too many warrants out for his own arrest, for instance). Much of it still feels like a work-in-progress or a high-profile experiment, but when one of his sketches hits on a telling truth, it resonates with today's moment in a way far too few of SNL's bits do these days. Debuted on HBO Max Thursday.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (Disney+)

This animated series will probably appeal most to the Star Wars die-hards — people who have, perhaps, read the novels and encyclopedias that have grown up around George Lucas's space opera franchise like kudzu. But even casual fans can enjoy and learn a lot from this series, focused on an elite, hard-bitten squad of genetically mutated clones that finds itself in tough circumstances when bad guy Chancellor Palpatine transforms the Star Wars universe's Galactic Republic into an authoritarian Empire.

This series is a sequel and spin-off of The Clone Wars animated series. It picks up after Samuel Jackson's Jedi Knight character, Mace Windu, is killed trying to stop Palpatine in the theatrical film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

But as the stormtroopers move to kill off the Jedi they once fought alongside — they are genetically programmed to obey their superiors — The Bad Batch resists Palpatine's commands enough to realize something terrible is going on. Given that this show was created by Star Wars guru Dave Filoni, an executive producer, writer and director on Disney+'s live action hit The Mandalorian, it's no surprise this is another great example of Disney finding a compelling world full of stories in a situation barely given any attention in the franchise's big movies. Debuted Tuesday on Disney+.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.