‘Serpent Queen’: Catherine de Medici drama is worth your time
Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone looking for some “House of the Dragon” counter-programming.
As TV critic Lorraine Ali writes in her recommendation for “The Serpent Queen,” Starz’s razor-sharp costume drama about Catherine de Medici will scratch your every itch for palace intrigue — but the only dragons are the pretenders at court.
Also in this week’s Screen Gab, showrunner Bruce Miller explains why Elisabeth Moss’ protagonist is not the heroine of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we remind you that “Abbott Elementary” is back, and more. And be sure to send your TV or streaming movie recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and location. Submissions should be no longer than 200 words and are subject to editing for length and clarity.
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Recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times
Palace intrigue, treachery and a little black magic drive “The Serpent Queen,” STARZ’s eight-part drama about the rise of 16th century queen Catherine de Medici, France’s longest-serving and most unlikely monarch. Young Catherine (Liv Hill) is a homely orphan when her uncle, Italian Pope Clement (Charles Dance), claims her not as a daughter but as a political pawn. He adorns her in jewels and presents her to the French court as a prospective match for young Prince Henry. They agree on the basis of a massive dowry and the promise that she’ll pop out heirs. But her betrothed spends all his time in the bed of an older, influential woman who would like to see Catherine dead. And so begins her battle for survival among packs of royal jackals who consider her a commoner. The fun is watching Catherine (played in adulthood by the sublime Samantha Morton) outmaneuver and eviscerate those who wish her harm. And she has powers of perception that the others learn to fear. Based on the 2004 nonfiction book “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France,” this version of the wicked smart Catherine is a welcome change from the refined and delicate royals often portrayed on screen. She’s truly a viper on the throne. —Lorraine Ali
In each episode of the charming, instructive, and sometimes very moving “Sketchbook” (Disney+), a Disney animator or story artist — women, men, older, younger, more senior, more junior — demonstrates how to draw a character, from Captain Hook to Mirabelle. As one who spent many long hours childhood hunched over Bob Thomas’ “The Art of Animation” (the 1958 unrevised edition) and repeatedly thumbing a Chip ’n’ Dale flipbook, bought at Disneyland back when parking was $5 and cel animation was the pride of the studio, it is just my cup of graphite. (And better than Bob Ross.) The show is implicitly addressed to young viewers who like to draw and might like to make a life of it; the artists recall their own paths from inveterate doodlers to ardent students to animation professionals, with touching tales of parental support and (of course) their own life-changing first encounters with Disney — no other animation studios may be mentioned by name. There is a magic to the process as circles and triangles, swooping and sketchy lines, resolve into a lifelike personage. The artists are encouraging: Perfection is not the point, but love. “If you want to become an animator, or become a designer, if you like to draw, don’t waste time,” says animator and character designer Jin Kim, “just follow your passion. That’s the only answer.” —Robert Lloyd
Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about
“Abbott Elementary” (ABC, streaming on Hulu) is back in session, having returned this week toting two highly deserved Emmys for the trophy case — wins for the honor of broadcast television situation comedy. The series, about a mostly Black Philadelphia grade school and the teachers who try to make things work with slim resources and in spite of a hilariously unhelpful administrator (the divine Janelle James), is, like any sitcom, a dance of divergent personalities. But it is also really about its subject: the value of education and, from teacher to student and among the teachers themselves, one generation’s responsibility to the next.
In the season premiere, we learned what the perfectly cast, universally funny principal characters did over their summer vacation. Idealistic Jeanine, played by creator (and Emmy winner for writing) Quinta Brunson, finally broke up with the awful boyfriend who only existed to forestall a fated romance with Gregory (Tyler James Williams). She also started parting her hair on the other side, an emblem of change she assumes all will notice. Gregory, a full-time substitute in Season 1, is now full-time, period, and stressfully concerned about teaching everything he’s supposed to; older and wiser Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Emmy for supporting actress), who lost her shoes on a cruise (“I was very inebriated — Sea Barbara is different than Land Barbara”), put him straight. Tough but tender Melissa (Lee Ann Walter) spent the summer on the Jersey shore reveling in the smell of cigarettes and vinegar, while painfully earnest Jacob (Chris Perfetti) taught in Peru and learned ASL, which helped him translate for the premiere’s special guest, Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty. Though not without sharp edges, the series is old-fashioned in the best way, loving and optimistic and not afraid to jerk a tear from your eye. —Robert Lloyd
A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching
The fifth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu), the Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale, largely ventures beyond Gilead as the story’s central figure, June (Elisabeth Moss), plans her next move, free from her enemy and the post-America theocracy that held her captive.
Since premiering in the spring of 2017, the drama has drawn attention for its eerie and foreboding look at what the stripping away of women’s rights could look like. The drama was recently renewed for a sixth and final season, making its endgame against the current real world backdrop a compelling, if fraught, development. Screen Gab caught up with showrunner Bruce Miller to talk about how the realities of today are informing where the dystopian story is heading, good vs. evil on the show, and more. —Yvonne Villarreal
What has been the lesson of crafting “The Handmaid’s Tale” in an era that mirrors the fictional world you’re presenting?
Over the last few years I’ve learned that politics and world events move very quickly, and TV production moves at a slower pace. That’s hard to imagine, considering how crazy our work and production schedule can be. But we can’t keep up with current events, so I think as a show we don’t try to make any guesses about where the world is going. The lesson I’ve learned while making a political show in a political time? Stick to fiction, follow June and your characters. Don’t try to predict.
Has the fear that abortion rights advocates have been talking about ever since the show premiered coming true changed or shaped your thoughts on how you’ll end the story, or where the story is going?
I try not to let the unfolding news effect my story plans, but I am sure that it must affect me on some level. We are telling a story about Gilead, but we are all living in this era. Real time. TV, even important TV, is still only a small distraction from the genuine troubles and pressures of the world.
How do you view “The Handmaid’s Tale” characters within the realm of good versus evil? Is June still our hero?
I hope each character sees themselves through a different moral prism — so right and wrong [are] based on each character, not on an abstract universal law. Is June a hero? June is the main character, the POV of the show. But June isn’t a hero, because “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a hero’s journey. That is a certain kind of mythic tale that follows certain dramatic rules. Hero’s tales have heroes. This is “The Handmaid’s Tale.” We have our Handmaid.
“The Handmaid’s Tale’s” music selection has become one of the series’ defining features. What song choice have you found most interesting or memorable and why?
Complex character moments are often a challenge to score with acquired music — I take my lead from June’s POV, and when that POV is off-kilter or partially insane, the song choices need to follow. But I am always concerned that something too off-kilter will take the audience out of the moment. … The right song can do lots of difficult work. So you need to be careful.
Recommendations from Screen Gab readers
“Bosch” (Prime Video): Having been born and raised in the L.A. area, the familiar scenes and stunning views from Bosch’s house are really appreciated. I also feel that Titus Welliver is perfect as the “Harry” I read about in all of Connelly’s books.
Listings coordinator Matt Cooper highlights the TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on.
Fri., Sept. 23
“A Jazzman’s Blues” (Netflix): Two young lovers in the 1940s contend with issues of race, class and colorism in this Southern-set 2022 romantic drama from Tyler Perry.
“Lou” (Netflix): Allison Janney plays a reclusive woman with a particular set of skills in this 2022 action thriller. With Jurnee Smollett.
“On the Come Up” (Paramount+): A young Black girl tries to make her name in the rap game in this 2022 drama. Sanaa Lathan directs.
“Sidney” (Apple TV+): Beloved actor Sidney Poitier, who died in January, is remembered in this 2022 documentary directed by Reginald Hudlin.
“Shark Tank” (ABC, 8 p.m.): More aspiring entrepreneurs come hat in hand as the competition returns.
Sat., Sept. 24
“Fly Away With Me” (Hallmark, 8 p.m.): A single woman with a parrot problem hooks up with a hunky pilot/dog sitter in this new TV movie.
“Dying for a Crown” (Lifetime, 8 p.m.): She’s gonna be homecoming queen even if it kills her — or somebody else — in this new thriller.
Sun., Sept. 25
“The Murdochs: Empire of Influence” (CNN, 6 and 7 p.m.): The media empire Rupert Murdoch built comes under scrutiny in this new docuseries.
“Big Brother” (CBS, 8 p.m.): It’s moving-out day in the competition’s season finale.
“Celebrity Jeopardy!” (ABC, 8 p.m.): Famous faces supply questions for the answers in a prime-time edition of the venerable game show.
“The Simpsons” (Fox, 8 p.m.): The animated sitcom returns to anchor Fox’s Sunday night lineup.
“Under Wraps 2” (Disney, 8 p.m.): Call your mummy and tell her to tune in for this new TV movie sequel.
“The Rookie” (ABC, 10 p.m.): Nathan Fillion reports for duty in new episodes of the cop drama.
“Outrageous Pumpkins” (Food Network, 10 p.m.): They’re still out of their gourds as the competition returns.
Mon., Sept. 26
“Chefs vs. Wild” (Hulu): First, they forage in this new culinary competition.
“Mary Berry: Love to Cook” (Acorn TV): The former host of “The Great British Bake Off” chats up other foodies in her latest series.
“Panhandle” (Spectrum): An agoraphobic amateur sleuth and a traffic cop join forces in this new Florida-set mystery comedy.
“Sharon Osbourne: To Hell & Back” (Fox Nation): The controversial talk show host tells her side of the story in this new docuseries.
“A Trip to Infinity” (Netflix): Far out, man! Astrophysicists, mathematicians, et al., ponder the size and scope of the universe in this new documentary.
“POV” (KOCE, 10 p.m.): Activists fight development and deforestation in wilderness areas in the Philippines in the 2022 documentary “Delikado.”
“Halloween Cookie Challenge” (Food Network, 10 p.m.): Bakers are tasked with creating treats both spooky and tasty in this new competition.
Tue., Sept. 27
“Nick Kroll: Little Big Boy” (Netflix): The comic opens his big mouth in a new stand-up special.
“Reasonable Doubt” (Hulu): An L.A. defense lawyer (Emayatzy Corinealdi) tries to have it all in this new legal drama.
“30 for 30” (ESPN, 5 p.m.) The new episode “Deerfoot of the Diamond” remembers one of major league baseball’s first Native American players.
“Yankees-Dodgers: An Uncivil War” (ESPN, 6 p.m.): This new documentary recounts the intense rivalry between the two storied baseball franchises during the 1970s. Rob Lowe narrates.
“Bachelor in Paradise” (ABC, 8 p.m.): They’ve got it made in the shade as this reality spinoff returns. Jesse Palmer hosts.
“La Brea” (NBC, 9 p.m.): Return with us now to prehistoric L.A. in a second season of this “Lost” meets “Land of the Lost” sci-fi drama.
“Bobby’s Triple Threat” (Food Network, 9 p.m.): Bobby Flay hosts yet another new culinary competition.
“The Rookie: Feds” (ABC, 10 p.m.): “Reno 911’s” Niecy Nash-Betts goes all the way to the F-B-I in this new spinoff.
Wed., Sept. 28
“Blonde” (Netflix): Ana de Armas portrays Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe in this 2022 bio-drama based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel.
“The D’Amelio Show” (Hulu): The first family of TikTok is back for a second season.
“Eat the Rich: The GameStop Saga” (Netflix): See how a motley crew of amateur traders gave Wall Street a run for its money in this new docuseries.
“Sex, Lies and the College Cult” (Peacock): This new documentary tells the twisted tale of a con man who coerced coeds into acts unspeakable.
“National Silent Movie Day” (TCM, 5 p.m.): Spend some quality time with Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, et al., in this 24-hour marathon.
“Nova” (KOCE, 9 p.m.): The new episode “Saving Venice” shows how the popular tourist destination — the one in Italy — is contending with rising sea levels.
“The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” (Bravo, 9 p.m.): It’s hard to tell the sinners from the Latter-day Saints as the franchise entry returns.
“Hostages” (HBO, 9 and 10 p.m.; also Thursday): This new four-part documentary series revisits the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis.
Thu., Sept. 29
“José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar” (Peacock): The Grammy-winning guitarist and singer is celebrated in this 2022 documentary.
“Tyler Perry’s Zatima” (BET+): One of the stars of “Tyler Perry’s Sistas” flies solo in this new spinoff. Crystal Renee Hayslett stars.
“Hell’s Kitchen” (Fox, 8 p.m.): Order up! The competition hosted by Gordon Ramsay returns.
“Ghosts” (CBS, 8:30 p.m.): This sweet-natured supernatural sitcom scares up a second season.
“So Help Me Todd” (CBS, 9 p.m.): A lawyer gets her no-account offspring a gig at her firm in this new comedy-drama. Marcia Gay Harden and Skylar Astin star.
“Welcome to Flatch” (Fox, 9 p.m.): “My Name Is Earl’s” Jaime Pressly joins the cast of the sitcom in the Season 2 premiere.
“Call Me Kat” (Fox, 9:30 p.m.): “Jeopardy!” champ Ken Jennings plays himself in the season premiere of the Mayim Bialik sitcom.
“CSI: Vegas” (CBS, 10 p.m.): Franchise veteran Marg Helgenberger returns to the fold for the procedural drama’s sophomore season.