What we've been watching: Ken Burns' Country Music

Plus 'Evil,' 'Primal' and 'I Think You Should Leave.'

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This week, Senior News Editor Billy Steele explains why everyone should check out the latest documentary series from Ken Burns. Senior Editor Devindra Hardawar has an unexpected affinity for the latest CBS procedural and Senior News Editor Richard Lawler has found one thing worth watching on Netflix.

Ken Burns' Country Music

Billy Steele

Billy Steele
Senior News Editor

I was raised on a steady diet of country music. From birth until around 12, my musical tastes were shaped by my grandparents, who raised me since I was two. My grandfather loved bluegrass. Flatt & Scruggs. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Bill Monroe. The classics. He also indulged in early "country" artists like Roy Acuff and Johnny Cash. And, of course, I had favorites that were on the radio in the '90s: Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn and George Strait. These days, I only listen to that stuff on occasion, but I still enjoy bluegrass quite often. Punch Brothers has been one of my favorites for years now, and the band's "complete" playlist on Spotify gets a lot of spin in my house.

When I first heard about Ken Burns' Country Music documentary series, I knew it'd be a trip down memory lane. What I didn't know is how little I actually knew about the history of country music. Burns is a master of recalling history in a way that makes it sound like an epic tale that almost seems surreal. He starts this entry in his massive catalog in the 1800s with the origins of the genre, including weekly radio shows and "stars" like Fiddlin' John Carson and Uncle Dave Macon.

The episodes that covered my grandfather's favorites hit me the hardest. He recently passed away, so learning about the careers of all the artists he introduced to me as a kid was timely viewing. From Roy Acuff's long run on The Grand Ole Opry to learning how we ended up with so many great country artists from California, there's a history lesson here even for the most dedicated fans of the genre. The early days, which include The Carter Family and other pioneers, are particularly interesting.

The Johnny Cash section is my favorite part of the series. It spans multiple episodes since you can't really confine that career to a brief explanation. If you've seen Walk The Line, you already have an idea of how the narrative goes. Still, hearing first-hand accounts, including stories from his children, makes Burns' version of Cash's life one of the most compelling I've heard.

Also, I had no idea Merle Haggard was so damn handsome back in the day. Good lord, it should be illegal to look that good.

Even if you're not a huge country fan -- heck, even if you hate it -- you should give this a shot. Ken Burns is a masterful storyteller and the first-hand accounts of the people he interviews make for a fascinating look at history. The Civil War and Baseball are two favorites of mine, but Country Music, in my opinion, is also one of his best to date.

'Ken Burns's Country Music' episodes are available via your local PBS affiliate, streaming with PBS Passport, as an audio/video experience on Spotify or as a complete set on Blu-ray, iTunes and Vudu.

Evil / Primal

Devindra Hardawar

Devindra Hardawar
Senior Editor

Take The X-Files, add a more religious focus and mix it up with the writing talents of The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, and you've got Evil, CBS's creepy new procedural. It centers on a skeptical clinical psychologist (Katja Herbers) who teams up with a soon-to-be priest (Mike Colter) to investigate supernatural phenomena. As you'd expect, there are demons to exorcise and miracles to prove, but Evil is also very much a work of horror. Every night, a demon/night terror visits Herber's character, and there may be some sort of evil cult gaining power, which includes everyone's favorite Lost villain, Michael Emerson.


I'll be honest: I've loved just about everything the Kings have made. I've been shouting from the rooftops about The Good Wife for years, but I've also had a hard time convincing people that a CBS network genre show could actually be good in the era of big budget premium and streaming shows. Then there was Braindead, their bonkers political satire that perfectly encapsulated the 2016 election (complete with exploding heads, alien ants and a scenery chomping Tony Shalhoub). Their CBS All Access show, The Good Fight, is also the best TV response to life in our current political age. Their shows are sharp, smart and, most importantly, entertaining. So that alone is why you should give Evil a shot.

And as I mentioned on this week's Engadget Podcast, I'm in love with Primal, Genndy Tartakovsky's latest animated series for Adult Swim. It's a revenge story with no dialog, just a cave man trying to survive in a brutal time. After rampaging dinosaurs kill his family, he teams up with another dino who's suffered a tremendous loss of her own. It's a beautiful show that demonstrates the full potential of 2D animation, with filmmaking so crisp and clear you won't mind the lack of words.

Evil is currently airing on CBS at 10PM ET every Thursday, while the five episodes of Primal are available via the Adult Swim website or as they re-air on Cartoon Network.

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

Richard Lawler

Richard Lawler
Senior News Editor

Netflix may have suffered from a lack of smash hits earlier this year, but there was at least one entry that supports its overall approach to content: I Think You Should Leave. Despite its name, this is the kind of thing that Netflix does best -- unexpected comedy that's done before it wears out its welcome.

The sketch show lasts just six episodes that you can watch in an hour and a half, a small investment for seasoned bingers. Most of them feature writer/actor Tim Robinson (Detroiters, SNL) and bring just enough outlandish cringey humor that they wouldn't make the late night TV shows it's emulating. (Unsurprisingly, some of them are rejected SNL sketches that the NBC show desperately needs.) It works, with familiar comedic setups like a focus group that promptly goes in a direction-defying explanation.

While Netflix has had a decent record with romantic comedies, I've been disappointed by most of its increased output of comedy specials and improv efforts like The Characters. The streamer's attempts at recreating the late-night TV show dynamic haven't gone well either, but there's something here, and I can't wait to see season two.

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson season one is available for streaming now on Netflix.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

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