As father of a young child and a busy professional, I’ve become very particular about how I spend my free time. I spent many hours with my infant daughter snoozing on my lap in the wee hours of the morning as I consumed season after season of The Twilight Zone but as my daughter has become more active and conscious, those spurts are growing fewer and further between. And yet this year, thanks to illnesses, and a few wasted vacations, I’ve still found a way to sneak in some quality binging; I’ve also found myself deeply regretting wasted hours invested in hollow and contrived crap. Let me help you save yourself from streaming regret.
Narcos, Seasons 1 and 2 (Netflix)
Boyd Holbrook (Suicide Squad) warns at the start of Narcos’ (pictured above) both seasons that Colombia is the birthplace of magical realism. He attributes the literary phenomenon to the unbelievable-but-true story of how cocaine dealer Pablo Escobar rose to fame as a hero of the people, only to end up waging a terror campaign against his own government. Holbrook doesn’t do much else in his role as DEA agent Steve Murphy, but his partner played by Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) is a tortured and debonair hoot. The main attraction however is Wagner Moura (Elite Squad) who steals the show with his understated but all-consuming portrayal of Escobar. The show isn’t for the feint of heart. All you have to do is read a little bit of the history to know that things get gruesome; it plays out like a Western where no one is truly good and no one can truly win.
Waste of Time
Stranger Things (Netflix)
I wanted to like, no, love Stranger Things. The Spielbergian plot and characters, a dab of David Cronenberg and Winona Ryder–all things that attracted me. But in the end the show felt hollow and Ryder’s performance is so overwrought and scenery chewing that you’ll be fastforwarding get to the more nuanced performances delivered by child actors. The show offers nostalgia and pretty pictures but little else.
Danger 5, Seasons 1 and 2 (Netflix)
Season one of this Australian-produced comedy is a campy, absurdist take on 60’s adventure shows. The Danger 5–a surly American, a Russian femme fatale, a dour and proper British man, an Italian agent whose speciality is mixed drinks and a prim and British blonde–are routinely tasked with hackneyed missions by Colonel Chestbridge, who also happens to have a giant eagle’s head. Chestbridge finishes delivering mission briefs with his catchphrase, “As always, kill Hitler!” Hitler unfailingly escapes by jumping head first through a window and returns the next episode to unleash plans involving Nazi dinosaurs and Atlantean super weapons. As bizarre as season one gets–and it gets pretty fucking bizarre–season two finds absurdity, shoots it in the head, and then wears its skin around like nothing’s wrong. Exchanging the campy ’60s theme to parody ’80s American cinema, the show explodes into a riotous riff on American pop culture. There’s the take on John Hughes’ films called “Johnny Hitler,” where Hitler decides to hide out in an American high school and becomes the most popular kid in class. “Merry Christmas Colonel” plays on action flicks like Die Hard and Death Wish. This is dark and nuanced humor–not Fuller House.
Waste of Time
The Man in the High Castle, Seasons 1 and 2 (Amazon Prime)
There may be bigger devotees of Philip K. Dick than I but I’ve yet to meet them. I anticipated the the first season of Man in the High Castle like a kid waiting for the next Pokemon game. And then I watched it. Rather than seizing on the strengths of Dick’s writing, mining the wealth of his paranoia, the incisive points he makes about perception and reality, the show mines bleak, unrelenting horror and exploits tragedy like a soap opera. Although the show is thin on action, it’s hard to forget the few action scenes it attempts because they are hokey and stiff. The acting is much the same.
Peaky Blinders, Seasons 1, 2, 3 (Netflix)
I’ll be honest, without Cillian Murphy, Peaky Blinders would be tired and unwatchable. But thanks to Murphy’s sly performance and hip soundtrack featuring Nick Cave, Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey and Radiohead, the story of a gang that took over the streets of Birmingham in the aftermath of World War I becomes just engaging enough to escape being just another gangster show. Murphy’s bestie Tom Hardy shows up in season 2 and ups the excitement.
Black Mirror, Seasons 1, 2, 3 (Netflix)
I find that Black Mirror can be hit or miss. Much like The Twilight Zone, there are episodes that speak directly to me and others that miss the mark, but generally they only miss by inches. This season the show reached new heights with “San Junipero” and “Nose Dive.” Meanwhile “Playtest” felt like a number of ideas smashed together–what you get isn’t exactly coherent but is entertaining.
Luke Cage (Netflix)
The plot of Luke Cage is a mess, the acting is terribly uneven and yet I’m quite certain it is the best show Marvel has ever produced. The script is rich with references to Black Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance, and black artists, writers, musicians and politicians. Mike Colter has trouble delivering a full range of emotion and at times comes across as under the influence of a heavy sedative, but the supporting cast lifts him up. Mahershala Ali is great as a conflicted villain, whose arc isn’t given enough time to deliver. Alfre Woodard plays a convincing corrupt and scheming councilwoman. Simone Missick is captivating at times as Misty Knight. As much as I’d enjoy another Luke Cage show, I’d prefer to see him on the big screen now that he’s been established.
No other show grabbed me as quickly this year as Westworld. In fact, the show felt genetically engineered to my tastes and background, and that is terrifying. Directed by Christopher Nolan’s brother, it stars a number of actors I’m particularly fond of like Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) and Thandie Newton; it has a soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead; themes deal with consciousness and artificial intelligence; there’s a direct influence of video game morality and logic; and there’s even one episode written by my favorite comic book writer, Ed Brubaker. It’s like the show was created in a laboratory for dorky, 30-year-old white guys. Critics have complained that the show is hollow and that its biggest reveals are highly telegraphed. I wouldn’t argue with either of those points. Hollowness and a lack of meaning is a central theme of the show and its reveals are scripted not to surprise but to manipulate; they are used just as the piano music in the show is, to elicit specific reactions and guide the audience to a certain point–sometimes without them knowing, other times against their will.