Binge? Fall/Winter ’16

Post election night, while dealing with the ensuing overwhelming shock, dismay and depression, I decided to practice some self-care for a few days and hunker down with the major current streaming mini- and limited-series: “Bron” (“The Bridge”) , “The Crown”, “Stranger Things” and “Westworld”. And since I never gave my takes on some of the other Fall/Winter streamers (“The Get Down”, “Luke Cage”, “The Night Of” and “River”), I’ve decided to write one post to cover them all…because I’m lazy that way.

So here is my guide for how you should fill your down time while home during the holidays…or on a plane…or just because you have as little a life as I do:

“Bron/Broen” (All three seasons on Hulu)
Created by Hans Rosefeldt
(season one trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 5 out of 5

bronMany of you may have watched the US version of this show. It was not terrible, but compared to the Swedish original, decidedly meh. All three seasons of “Bron/Broen” are filled with ten easily (and voraciously) consumed episodes of  intelligent and mesmerizing intrigue. I’ll say this about European procedurals, they aren’t afraid to give two or three episodes to characters that end up having nothing to do with the actual solution, and with “Bron”, pretty much every time you think you’ve got it figured out, you’re wrong. Very wrong.

That advantage stated, the real reason to binge is to watch the performance Sofia Helin. As the Swedish side of the investigative duo, Helin’s Det. Saga Noren is almost devoid of social skills, perhaps on the Asperger’s spectrum, and concurrently hilarious and heartbreaking. On the Danish side (for seasons 1 & 2), and true opposite of Saga, Kim Bodnia’s Det. Martin is always on the verge of overwhelm – whether it be anger, joy or sadness. His face is reason enough to watch. And while Season 3 suffers from his absence, Thure Lindhardt is a worthy successor. In fact, if anything, his absence allows Helin to shine even more.

The “bridge” of “The Bridge” is the Oresund bridge/tunnel between Malmo and Copenhagen and represents the combined police forces of each city/country necessary to solve each case. It happens to be a gorgeous work of engineering, and, while you can’t believe that so many different shots of a bridge would be interesting, it is, in fact, hypnotic. As is the title sequence and theme, “Hollow Talk” by Choir of Young Believers, which acts as a jumping off point for the rest of the show’s music. Haunting, it will stay with you and, even though I often fast forward through the opening credits when I’m binge watching something, I never do that with “Bron” (or “House of Cards” – great theme and opening sequence).

As for plot, they all deal with some form of mass murder with incredibly complex twists and turns. And, while Season 2 is the weak link of the three seasons, without it, season 1 is utterly incomplete. I love this show and can’t believe I have to wait until 2018 for its next iteration.


“The Crown”
(Netflix)
Created by Peter Morgan
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 5+ out of 5

crown-lithgowThe best of any bunch this year, “The Crown” is simply sensational and boasts, if not the best television performance of all time, one that is easily in the conversation (John Lithgow as an aging Churchill). Based on the play “The Audience”, “The Crown” dramatically details the young life of the Empire’s reigning queen, Elizabeth II. And in all categories – acting, writing, direction, music and photography – this limited series excels.

Given the world of the series, “The Crown” could have easily suffered from most royal bio-pics. They tend to look like they were done on the cheap, or look fantastic but have actors who can’t quite handle the world they supposedly inhabit. But the sets, the locales, the trappings, the small things, are so detailed, extraordinary and as awe-inspiring as they should be to us mere mortals, the show is in a different stratosphere. People compare it to “Downton Abbey” for it’s attention to detail, but “The Crown” is “Abbey” on large doses of anabolic steroids. Stunning.

The acting, which has the massive advantage of Morgan’s delectable script, is uniformly fantastic. Claire Foy is perhaps the most sympathetic and vulnerable royal we’ve seen in a biopic. Matt Smith grows into his character as the series moves on and the secondary story involving Princess Margaret and her lover, Captain Peter Townshend, are expertly portrayed by Vanessa Kirby and the incredible Ben Miles.

But Lithgow is…well…indescribable. In a career of amazing performance, episode nine will stand as his greatest achievement. Blustering, mortal, terrified, egotistical…sometimes all in the space of one look…Lithgow does more to illustrate Churchill the man, than any one of a number of giant biographical tomes. If my fellow SAG/AFTRA union members fail to award him the statue, then they should give back their cards.

The Crown, which also boasts fantastic music from Rupert Gregson-Williams, is the definition of binge-worthy. Stop whatever you’re watching right now and get on it!


“The Get Down”
(Netflix)
Created by Baz Luhrman
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 1 out of 5

the-get-down-netflix-trailer-01Oh, Baz. You just can’t help yourself can you? Hellbent on painting mid-seventies south Bronx pretty, Luhrman undercuts the entire point of how and why hip hop was created in the first place. It’s a fantasy, you say? Well, it must be. How else to explain the “Fame”-like musical scene in the pilot episode. It tries so hard to be…uh…fantastical(?)…but fails. The pilot episode, especially, is just a mess. It grows slightly more watchable toward its later episodes, but, like “Vinyl”, it plays the mythology of the mythology, rather than the reality that created the mythology.

Do yourself a favor. Watch another Netflix program, the fantastic four-part doc “Hip Hop Evolution”, which tells the exact same story, with more intrigue and more reverence in less than half the time instead. “The Get Down” is entirely misguided.


“Luke Cage”
(Netflix)
Created by John Romita, Sr., Archie Goodwin & George Tuska
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 3 out of 5

cottonmouth-760x428Man, I wanted to love this. I think “Jessica Jones”, where we are first introduced to Mike Colter’s “Luke Cage”, is one of the best things Netflix has offered. Certainly one of the best Marvel offerings…along with “Daredevil’s” first season. “Luke Cage” is good…very good…in places. But there is something uncertain about it. Like they weren’t sure what the “good” part of the story is, or worse, how to make the “bad guys” not cartooney. As a result, it’s a little unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is the casting of (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard. I can’t decide if they’re too good to handle the two-dimensionality of their written characters, or if the script undercuts the investment they make. Regardless, if you don’t buy the bad guys (as you do implicitly with “Jones'” David Tennant and “Daredevil’s” Vincent D’Onofrio), then it’s a bit of a slog.

Still absolutely worth the effort if you follow the Marvel universe.


“The Night Of”
(HBONow or HBOGO)
Created by Richard Price
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 5 out of 5

nightof_turturro_sandalsIn my review for “Manchester by the Sea”, I noted its focus revolved around negative spaces…that it was as much about what we don’t experience via the script, than what we did. “The Night Of” could be described the same way. HOWEVER, where “Manchester” uses this as a character-development tool, “Night Of” manages to make this effect work as a plot device (much like the best European cop shows do). By going in to such great detail about the evidence of the show’s crime, it makes you wonder what is HIDDEN, and that makes for an incredibly engrossing six episodes.

That course of action, however, is sunk without actors to handle that ‘nothingness’ with skill and dimensionality, and man, does “Night Of’ have that! There are no weak points in this entire cast – at least not amongst the major characters. Bill Camp and John Turturro are simply incredible. They are impossible not to watch…even when they are quite literally saying nothing. Then there are the family members, Peyman Moaadi, Poorna Jagannathan and, our lead, Riz Ahmed. Each imbues their storylines with requisite terror, grief and hope – while simultaneously symbolizing the American immigrant experience in the face of terrible adversity.

“The Night Of”, if you haven’t already watched it, is REQUIRED viewing for all lovers of the craft of storytelling and acting! Meow.


“River”
(Netflix)
Created by Abi Morgan
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 4 out of 5

river2_3471697bStumbled upon this six-part detective story by accident (as I recently have of another satisfying Brit detective thriller – “Hinterland”). Happy accidents may be the most interesting aspect of this streaming world we now find ourselves in – and this was a true pleasure. I had not heard a word about it, nor knew anyone who had seen it previously. But when I saw my fave actress from “MI5”, Nicola Walker, was its co-star opposite Stellan Skarsgard (!), I, correctly, thought it couldn’t suck.

Revolving around a murder mystery whose lead investigator suffers from some serious schizoid tendencies, the show has all the misdirection and attention to detail of the best Euro-detective shows, with some of its best acting! Skarsgard is bizarre, convincing, terrifying and sympathetic in the lead role of Det. River. Walker, as ever, is brilliant, natural and effusive as his partner. And the minor characters are played with the usual British, RADA-schooled professionalism that makes all BBC shows a joy to watch.

There are occasional missteps, and an ending that might disappoint some (not me), but “River” should absolutely be in your queue!


“Stranger Things”
(Netflix)
Created by The Duffer Brothers
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 4 out of 5

stranger-things-mike-eleven-196213“The greatest thing ever on TV!!” If I had a dime for every time I was told that about “Stranger Things”, I could afford my Starbucks coffee every day. It is not that. It is, however, an extremely enjoyable look back at a different era of storytelling…a “horror” story where the scary is left to our imaginings rather than the hyper-bloody ultra-realism that infects all our thrillers these days.

The performances are pretty great from top to bottom, especially David Harbour. His sheriff is everything you want in a white hat character: perfectly portraying how extraordinary events change someone in subtle ways. Winona Ryder, in a long overdue return to the lens-front, may be a little screechy…but its warranted and her emotions and actions feel very honest. And Millie Bobby Brown…I mean…she is impossible not to watch.

My problems with the show revolve around the repetition of the child interaction, and a feeling that the whole thing could’ve been told in four episodes.In fact, more economy would have made the annoying or boring sections less so. But those small criticisms aside, you could do a lot worse than to spend a weekend with ‘Stranger Things”…especially if you were a fan of “The Goonies”, and other films of that ilk.

“Westworld” (HBONow or HBOGO)
Created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy
(trailer here)
Binge worthiness: 2 out of 5

the-man-in-black-straight-ahead-westworld

As you all know, I watch a lot of television…and a lot of very complex and slight-of-hand based scripted shows. I can follow the most complex plots. And I feel like I know the difference between a multi-layered script and a multi-bullshit script. “Westworld” sure FELT like the latter.

There are storylines…MAJOR storylines, that make absolutely no friggin’ sense until the final episode…and then, you scream to yourself (or out loud, as I did), “wait…that’s it?” A large investment to make for a shrug of a payoff.

It’s certainly a pretty show and very well-acted…I guess. Hard to tell, since it has almost no structure at all and simply repeats itself over and over. But I really enjoyed Thandie Newton’s journey, Ed Harris’ hard-assness and James Marsden’s aww-shucks confusion. Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright are hypnotic, but ultimately undercut by their meandering storylines. And it’s pretty obvious Anthony Hopkins was picking up a paycheck…still good…still Hopkins…but, when all is said and done…who cares.

I hear there will be a second season…and I’ll probably watch. But I can’t really recommend this iteration of “Westworld”. Watch the original film instead. Scared the hell out of me as a kid and Yul Brynner is kick ass.

 

SUMMARY
“The Crown” and “The Night Of” are essential viewing. “Bron” and “Stranger Things” are close behind. “River” and “Luke Cage” are certainly worthy if you’ve already seen everything else. Finally, “Westworld” and “The Get Down” can be missed. Okay…I’m off to finish up “Hinterland”.

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