By Bruce A. Smith
The streaming services Netflix and Hulu are releasing hundreds of new shows every year. However, the algorithms that are supposed to sort out which ones we would like to see, based upon our past viewing selections, are ineffective. Out of ten shows Netflix proposes to me, I may like only one enough to watch more than twenty minutes. In fact, finding shows that I truly enjoy is arduous. It is a modern-day version of trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Some media are trying to correct this, like the New York Times, since the public wants to consume so much TV. Binge-watching is a new reality for us, and I for one, love it. The NY Times has a full-time team watching and recommending new streaming shows, but there are so many platforms, such as Amazon Prime and Sling TV, that these near-global reviews are worthless as well – I simply can not afford to subscribe to every streaming service. Even Hulu has several different program packages to purchase, and I had to up-grade my Hulu account to add “Showtime” so that I could watch Homeland, which I consider to be the finest TV series ever created. Hence, I’ve started to keep my own records to pass on to friends, focusing on shows that may not be headline news or a household name. I trust Mountain News readers will enjoy these broadcasts as much as I have.
This round I’ll focus on Netflix. Tomorrow, Hulu.
Bill Murray Stories, Netflix, 2019
Great movie. I loved it. It’s a true sleeper.
I had never heard of the movie, nor the events that the movie portrays. Apparently, the famous actor and comedian, Bill Murray, has spent a lifetime off-screen having quirky, fun times with regular people he doesn’t know. He never abandons his celebrity status, however, and joins in as a regular guy., which makes for a weird but fun time for all.
This docu-drama records some of these Bill Murray escapades, such as spontaneously washing dishes at a party he crashed, drinking beer with a guy sitting by himself at a bar across the street from a club where a colleague of Murray’s is about to perform, or slapping his bare belly like a drum in front of a couple taking their wedding day photos in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. Perhaps one of the most iconic Bill Murray stories is the time he acted as a roadie for a band at SXSW, went to their after-party and jammed until the wee hours – then he embraced the cops when they came to shut it all down. These are just a few of these Bill Murray Stories displayed in this documentary.
But not only does this movie describes many of those stories, but best of all it explores why Bill Murray does them and what impacts it has on people. The film uses much of the iPhone video that folks take when they’re having their Bill Murry-moment – so we see the details in real time – but there’s a lot of talking head interviews with theatrical folks who know Bill, or have an insight into why Bill Murray has all of these encounters. The consensus is that Bill Murray is living his life as a continuous improvisational performer, living in the moment, unfettered by his fame yet undeterred by those who swoon at his, all the while teaching us all how to live and have fun.
The movie captures that essence superbly. Remember, as Bill says in Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.”
Secret City, Netflix, 2017-2019
Very good series. Season 1 is great, Season 2 is decent.
The lead actor is Anna Torv, and she is great. Torv plays a newspaper reporter who has a nose for uncovering governmental corruption, and she stumbles into a doozy.
Both seasons take place in Australia, and the drama is rich, plausible, and interesting. Since it takes place Down Under, we get an insight into their world-view, one that is heavily influenced by Chinese interests, both political and economic. Secret City also reveals the complexity of life in authentic ways, such as Torv having a homosexual affair with her ex-husband after he has a sex-change operation and becomes a woman.
Russian Doll, Netflix, 2019
Outstanding series. 8-parts, each is 30 minutes long, and I wish there was more.
The show stars Natasha Lyonne who was one of the wacky women in Orange is the New Black, and she expands that role here as a quintessential “Tough Broad” in New York City, named Nadia. The plot is a bit weird, as Nadia dies frequently and is reborn into a time loop that commences in her friend’s bathroom. At first, the show feels like a female Groundhog Day, but it quickly reveals much more, as Nadia’s tortured life is portrayed in progressive snippets and we appreciate her struggle to become a decent person.
Russian Doll reaches sublime heights when it reveals a second character, Alan, who also dies frequently and returns to a predictable life as a young computer specialist, but super up-tight. Quickly we find that Nadia’s and Alan’s lives – and deaths – are linked, as is their evolution into understanding their predicament and what it will take to complete their time loops.
It is an honest love story that is original and refreshing, as it takes on the purpose of life. Also, it fully embraces the rich tapestry of Manhattan’s Lower East Side – the people, street scenes, and ambiance.
Fringe, Netflix, 2008-2013
Top notch. I loved it, and binged-watched like crazy. 5 Seasons, 100 episodes.
Anna Torv had her American film debut in this wonderful sci-fi drama that explores elements of “fringe” science, especially alternative realities. Torv plays an FBI agent who is assigned to investigate strange crimes and incidents in Boston, and eventually assembles a small team of cutting-edge scientists who can help her solve the mysteries confronting her.
The narrative arc is well-maintained across the five seasons, and again, I was sad to see the show end.
Continuum, Netflix, 2012-2016
Excellent. Sci-fi, drama, 45 episodes
This Canadian series has 4 seasons and superbly explores the political, social, and scientific impacts of time travel. The narrative arc is well-maintained throughout the series, and is superbly written and directed. The cast is excellent as well, and the complexities and shifting alliances across time are fascinating, plausible, and utterly realistic.
I consumed this show with both hands.
The 4400, Netflix, 2004-2007
Excellent, Sci-fi, drama, 44 episodes
The 4400 is a fascinating series about four-thousand-plus people who mysteriously appear out of a ball of light on a lake shore in current time. However, all of them are folks who have disappeared from their lives over the past sixty years from around the world.
The series explores the political fears of governments that do not understand the phenomenon. In response, they incarcerate everyone. Over time, the fears lessen and people return to their lives, but they have been changed. They possess enhanced insights and abilities, such as healing others, or being telepathic.
The government, of course, wants to learn the powers of advanced consciousness that these people clearly possess, as do others. So, the 4400 learn to resist, forming organizations to protect themselves and their abilities, even as they seek to share their abilities.
The narrative arc is solid, plausible, and presented in an even-handed manner. A top-notch show. In fact, I will probably re-watch this series, as I haven’t seen it for several years.
Note: I started re-watching the show and am still enthralled with how solid it is. I am not alone in that estimation, apparently, and Wikipedia is announcing that CBS TV has green-lit script development for a new season. By the way, one of the lead characters of the original show is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor in Best Supporting, for his work this year in “The Green Book.” That’s the kind of pedigree that exists in The 4400.
Weeds, Netflix, 2005-2012, 102 episodes
This is a superlative TV series. Original, funny, and utterly fresh for every season. It is one of the few TV series that I have watched twice, and the last episode is so compelling I have watched it several times. In fact, the last three minutes of screen-time are silent, as the cast members slowly gather themselves on the steps of the lead character’s house, played superbly by Mary Louise Parker, and acknowledge quietly what they have all experienced together over the proceeding seven years – while passing a joint.
I consider Weeds to be one of the finest TV shows I have ever seen.
The plot is simple. A suburban mom, played by Parker, is widowed by her engineer husband’s sudden heart attack. Yet, she has two young boys to raise. Without any notable skills, she begins to sell pot to her husband’s friends, who are always ready for a good toke. The husband had been their pot dealer for years, but only for recreational use. However, the widow discovers she has a real talent for dealing the weed, and soon becomes the Pot Queen of her Suburban Development. The show – and Parker’s aspirations – take off from there.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Netflix, 2012-2019, 72 episodes
Short, smart interviews with comedians of all types, hosted by Jerry Seinfeld. Excellent.
Each episode is about 15 minutes long. They feature a unique automobile, such as an antique VW bug or some hotsy-totsy Italian roadster, and Jerry picks up a comedian, usually a famous one like John Oliver, Dave Chappelle, or Jerry Lewis, and they go to a coffee shop to schmooze.
Often, they talk about the craft of being a comedian. I found most of the chats to be fascinating and illuminating – almost instructional – on how to be a better performer, understanding how a good comedian actually finds his – or her’s – funny stuff.
I’ve loved the show, and each episode is just long enough to be interesting, and yet short enough not to get boring.
Mindhunter, The Unabomber, and Wormwood
These shows are all excellent. Also, they are similar in theme and style, delving into the workings of the FBI, and all are multi=part docu-dramas that are tight, well-written, and well-produced.
Mindhunter deals with the Behavioral Science Division at the FBI and how they came into existence through their work examining serial killers. Specifically they began to scientifically explore how and why these killers murder so many people. In doing so, this division had to change the culture of the FBI and weather the storm of tension and conflict with field agents and traditional police analysis.
The Unabomber is a six-part series on the capture of Ted Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber. Again, the Behavioral Sciences Division of the FBI was instrumental, and this show is a top-notch companion piece to Mindhunter. Different crimes, but each show expands upon the themes and dynamics revealed in the other.
Wormwood is a dark and sometimes abstract series on the influence of MKULTRA upon the FBI and CIA, and in particular, certain individuals involved in the early development of the mind-control programs of this infamous program. MKULTRA is better known as the Manchurian Candidate program, and it has left a gruesome wake of tragedy in its path. This series reveals how and why.
Another top-notch cop show is Longmire. However, this one is set in the fictitious realm of Absaroka County, Wyoming, but the problems Sheriff Walt Longmire faces are similar to NYC and LA. Yet, very different. Murder, drugs, corruption, and so forth – but set here against the landscape of the Rocky Mountains, endless prairies, and rural budgets that can’t afford cell phones for the deputies. Nevertheless, Longmire plies simple but solid police work to rounding up the bad guys, and along the way we learn the realities of western life – casinos on the Rez, opiods wherever poverty and hopelessness abide, and true love in every warm heart that beats in this lovely series that is six seasons long.