When we’re not working our tails off to bring you breaking news on the coronavirus and updates on the election, the Mercury editorial team is spending evenings and weekends much like you: filling our free time with whatever entertainment we can get our mitts on. So if you’re looking for some suggestions of films, TV shows, or books that you can while away the hours with, here are some of our favorites from the past few weeks.
For those who fear that The Great—Hulu's original series about empress of Russia, Catherine the Great—is a stuffy, historical bore-fest that will have you clawing your eyes out... well, this definitely ain't that. Elle Fanning stars as Catherine in this historically inaccurate comedy about a forward thinking and wildly optimistic French girl who's sent to marry Emperor Peter III of Russia (a fantastic Nicholas Hoult) and finds her world turned upside down—and then turns the world rightside up in response. Written by The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, you can expect off-kilter, smart, anachronistic humor paired with deeply likable (and unlikable) characters.
Fanning is truly "great" as Catherine, whose feminist awakening is fueled by her hubby's churlish/whoring/insane behavior, inspiring the coup that eventually leads to her ruling Russia for a good portion of the 18th century. But pay close attention to the razor-sharp performance from Phoebe Fox, Catherine's handmaiden/fallen aristocrat: Her understated sly portrayal is simultaneously heartbreaking, funny, and cunning, making her one of my fave characters in the series. In short, The Great provides top notch performances, gorgeous costumes, and a whip-smart script filled with sex, violence, poop talk, and just a smidge of education—if that's okay with you.—Wm. Steven Humphrey
Over the past couple weeks I have, somewhat coincidentally, read two recent blockbuster novels that have also been adapted for TV: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Both of these books have a straightforward, almost pedestrian quality at first blush—they’re a suburban comedy of manners and a tale of young adult love, respectively. But the more I read each of them, the more pleasantly enveloped I became in their settings and characters and syntax. I wanted to race to finish each of them, a feeling that becomes rarer the older and busier I get.
Quarantine offers the ideal parameters for getting lost in a bestselling novel—there’s not too much going on in your real life, you have hours to spend indoors, and you might not have the bandwidth for a denser title. Both Little Fires Everywhere and Normal People are fine options to consider when plotting your next literary escape.—Blair Stenvick
While thumbing around Hulu looking for something easy-listening to put on in the background, I stumbled over The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a sitcom classic I didn't even know was ON the platform until Mary's face was grinning out at me from my TV. And I hit play fully intending it to just be background noise—but the show itself wasn't going to let me shrug it off that easily. It was created in 1970 by James L. Brooks, who you might recognize as a name behind the movie Broadcast News and also a quaint animated program called The Simpsons.
To reference a recently wrapped-up sports documentary: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is basically the sitcom equivalent of Phil Jackson getting to coach Michael Jordan. Does that make this show the Chicago Bulls of sitcom history? Is there a version of this blurb that morphs into a 3,000 word thinkpiece extending the analogy to how Cheers = the Boston Celtics and The Honeymooners = the New York Knicks? Thankfully, you'll never have to read that (it's probably already a three-hour Bill Simmons podcast anyway), but rediscovering The Mary Tyler Moore Show is an affirmation of just how influential this show was, and how ahead of their time Mary and James were—not just in political terms, but also as a constantly impressive example of how thoughtful, emotional, and satisfying mainstream prime-time comedy could be.—Bobby Roberts
I’m currently re-watching The X-Files, which I forgot has an alarming number of pandemic/alien virus episodes which usually end with a “welp, looks like another government coverup” conclusion. Fox Mulder is one hundred percent the guy at the Oregon Capitol rally wearing a trenchcoat and holding a QAnon sign. This is why I’m writing in “Dana Scully’s skeptical sighs” for President.
Another accidentally relatable watch: 2018’s Annihilation, a horror/sci-fi flick featuring Natalie Portman as a slightly self-destructive biologist investigating a mysterious military mission that left her soldier husband (played by a “meh” Oscar Isaac) fatally ill. The film (by Ex Machina director Alex Garland) is hauntingly beautiful and dark, weaving together psychedelic alien shenanigans and thought-provoking scientific theories to create a truly unique premise. I loved following Portman and her all-woman cadre of equally self-destructive scientists (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) through an eerily beautiful swamp to uncover its alien architect.—Alex Zielinski
When dealing with the absolutely overwhelming amount of entertainment options available to us via streaming services, cable TV, and on demand platforms, I need some kind of direction to help guide me through it all, lest I spend an hour scrolling before giving up completely. Luckily, at the start of the pandemic, I stumbled upon They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, a website run by a dedicated (read: insane) cinephile from Australia. It’s a kind of critical aggregator, compiling lists of all-time favorite films—as chosen by well-known directors and accomplished critics—that have been published in magazines and online and turning those selections into a mega-list of the 1,000 Greatest Films. It’s the kind of obsessive project I could see myself doing if I didn’t have a day job and a kid to raise. And it was the perfect road map for my nightly viewing schedule.
Working my way from #1,000 to #1 and skipping over the movies I’ve already seen, I have been treated to a wondrous array of cinematic styles and eras. My favorites so far include Catherine Breillat’s absolutely brutal feminist allegory Fat Girl, Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful humanist drama Red Beard, John Waters’ appropriately outlandish Female Trouble, and Kim Ki-Duk’s poignant Buddhist exploration Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. It all adds up to a film history class that I can manage at my own pace and is blessedly free of homework. —Robert Ham