Used to be that TV this time of year was crowded with big-ticket items—movies, miniseries, shows not starring Charlie Sheen—as networks gunned for high scores in the May Nielsen sweeps, which had a huge impact on the year's ratings. But now that Nielsen technology allows it to monitor viewer eyeballs pretty much 24/7, sweeps have mostly joined Snooky Lanson and John Cameron Swayze in the dustbin of TV history.
So consider The Bite and Halston, this week's extraordinary streaming-service debuts, a sort of TV history lesson, remembrances of video past. With crackerjack casts and scripts from some of the most talented producers in TV, these shows are enough to make you lock the doors and windows back up, fluff the couch pillows again and pretend COVID still has us by the throat.
Which, not at all coincidentally, is the precise the point of The Bite, in which the virus itself often seems to be the star and humanity is on the verge of an exit, stage right. Even the opening credits roll over photography of the coronavirus floating slowly but predatorily through somebody's bloodstream. (To make sure you get the point, the show's theme song is Vera Lynn's World War farewell-boys ballad "We'll Meet Again," which acquired an even more desolate air when Stanley Kubrick used it against a backdrop of mushroom clouds at the end of his blacker-than-black Cold War comedy Dr. Strangelove.)
The malaise does not end with the credits. Shot last year when the lockdown was at its tightest, The Bite takes place in an eerily isolated New York City full of empty streets and echoing hallways, one where life has mostly been reduced to staring into cell phones. At the center of the story are two isolated women living in neighboring apartments. Rachel (Audra Goodman, The Good Fight) is a physician whose telemedicine practice has been reduced to little more than pimple emergencies and borderline urban-myth cases like a bite from a nasty bag boy at Trader Joe's. She spends more time discussing wi-fi glitches than symptoms.
The professional status of Rachel's upstairs neighbor Lily (Tyler Schilling, Orange Is the New Black) has also declined during the pandemic; the string of a dominatrix's whip just isn't the same on a Zoom call. ("Let me see your credit card. … Put it on the floor. … now LICK IT!") In her suddenly bounteous spare time, Lily is trying to launch a literary career with a book about her job, which the publisher says won't have much oomph unless she uses her real name, which will be a bit of a surprise to her social-register parents.
Rachel and Lily's mutual ennui explodes shortly after a YouTube video surfaces showing a bunch of kids dancing in and around a pool, and suddenly there's a great gout of blood like something out of The Horror of Party Beach. It's hard to describe what happens after that without a king's ransom in spoiler alerts; suffice it to say that both Rachel and Lily encounter some victims of a fairly spectacular COVID variant that even a dozen of Dr. Fauci's masks couldn't deter.
Part horror and part satire, The Bite is written and produced by the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Michelle King, who have also given us the politico-legal dramas The Good Wife and The Good Fight, the theological horror drama Evil and the blithely funny BrainDead, a 2016 political satire in which space-alien bugs eat the brains of U.S. politicians and reduce them to spouting gibberish that's uncannily similar to what you hear on the evening news.
All those programs are penned with style and wit, perhaps moreso than any other collection of shows on TV. The Kings simply seem incapable of writing anything unintelligent, and The Bite is no exception. When it's not scaring you—and it uses the empty spaces and telephone confinement of pandemic America to spectacular advantage in doing that—it's crippling you with laughter. Government officials spend more time trying to spin the COVID variant than looking for a cure. (Preferred new name: COVID Lite.) Victims refuse to believe it's serious. (One hoochy refuses to let CDC doctors look at an infected wound in her nether regions unless they pay her: "That's my future.")
Even the bit players are scathingly funny. Leslie Uggams, still on television 60 years after she smashed its color barriers to bits by joining the cast of Sing Along with Mitch, is a model of disgruntlement as Rachel's Nobel-prize-winning immunologist mom who isn't so distracted by COVID that she doesn't have time to sneer at her daughter's new Afro-braids: "You just feel guilty because you married a white man."
Crankiness is practically the lifeblood of Ryan Murphy's new Netflix miniseries Halston, the story of the waspish designer who built a fashion empire, and then destroyed it, on pure ego. Star Wars veteran Ewan McGregor is larger—and meaner—than life as the arrogant, graceless Halston, who in a moment of affection dismisses his own production team as "a bunch of queers and freaks and girls who haven't grown up yet." His enemies, and it took little or nothing to make that list, got much worse. Jacqueline Kennedy, who made Halston famous by wearing his pillbox hats, was cast into hell simply for giving up hats. "She stopped wearing hats so she wouldn't ruin that awful gigantic hairdo of hers," he snipes.
Watching McGregor spew this exquisite venom like a deranged rattlesnake is entertaining enough, and he gets great support from the rest of the cast—particularly the amazing Krysta Rodriguez (Smash), who captures the manic energy of early Halston advocate Liza Minnelli as if she were born into it. But most of the credit has to producer Murphy, who has an unparalleled ability to carve compelling narratives out of tangled, throbbing messes of characters and subplots
He did it with the repressed homoerotic doctors of Nip/Tuck, the neurotic kids of Glee and the confused cops and killers of The People v. O.J. Simpson. I don't give a rat's finely coutoured derriere about fashion, and the idea that somebody could become famous because Jackie Kennedy wore one of his hats truly appalls me. But as I watched Halston, I discovered I was—against my will, and to my amazement—becoming actually interested. That's story-telling at its finest.