The best that Netflix has to offer

I think one of the reasons I’ve seen few good movies in 2015 is that I’ve been watching far more TV series, and with the advent of Netflix in our home, the scale has decidedly been tipped in favor of TV. There is also the fact that the TV viewing experience has changed drastically in the last few years, with many film directors crossing over to the “dark side” to produce, write and/or direct TV series. Frank Darabont, Jane Campion, Guillermo del Toro, and Cary Fukunaga are among these, and they have proved to be very good at it. But there have also been plenty of maverick “start-ups” picked up by smaller and/or independent networks in the U.S. and Canada that achieved more with less.

If I had to pick my top five shows in terms of subject and character development, it’d have to be Mr. Robot, RectifyThe Walking Dead, the first season of True Detective, and Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer.  If I picked them in terms of how exciting and irresistible I found them, I’d have to include Daredevil, Orphan Black, and Better Call Saul.

What follows is a list of series and documentaries that I think are worth watching, and which can be currently found on Netflix. While it’s true that the majority of these shows were made in North America, there are still a few cultural beacons left in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand that more or less regularly churn out something intelligent and praiseworthy. I’ll be mentioning those at the end.

On Netflix:

Making a Murderer

Probably the top TV event of 2015, this documentary series snares you with its righteous passion for exposing injustice, and it takes some time and distance from it to realize that it’s not as objective as it purports to be. It nevertheless offers a sobering, at times heart-breaking insight into the failings of the American justice system.

Daredevil

Finally a show where fight scenes look realistic and feel physically real! Expertly shot, supported by luscious imagery, and a well-devised plot, Daredevil invites binge-watching. I also applaud the choice of Deborah Ann Woll as one of the main female protagonists for her blend of tough and fragile femininity. I now have high expectations of season 2.

Jessica Jones

It took me about five episodes to get past Krysten Ritter’s permanent scowl and tough bitch routine, copy/pasted from her turn in Breaking Bad, and really get into the series. Jessica doesn’t really come into her own until she’s played off her arch nemesis, Kilgrave, and bits and pieces from early episodes finally start falling into place. Kudos to the show for exploring, for the first time ever in TV format, topics such as the guilt of the brainwashed, PTSD via rape survival and brain cannibalization, and lesbian divorce.

The Americans, Season 1

This show was a nice surprise, both in its choice of subject matter (KGB sleeper agents embedded in suburban America) and in terms of how suspenseful and engaging each episode is. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are excellent leads with genuine on-screen chemistry. Even the sub-plots are well-executed and interesting in their own right.

Walking Dead

This show deserves a post of its own, as it continues to give me food for thought even after five seasons. It has long since stopped being a show about zombies, and is now a full-on heart-of-darkness exploration of the misery and perseverance of the so-called human condition. Season 4 was a particular favorite of mine because it was the darkest; it took me days to recover from some episodes. I don’t know how long and how far the showrunners can keep it going before it descends into solipsistic madness, but until such a time, they’ve got me utterly hooked.

Orphan Black, Seasons 1 and 2

The series explores the ethical conundrum posed by human cloning. It starts off slow and small, and then suddenly explodes into a fast-paced, tightly wound action/drama. The plot doesn’t unravel but only keeps getting more complicated, with Tatiana Maslany slaying the many-faceted lead role(s). Looking forward to seeing where the show goes in the third season.

Rectify, Season 1

This show is pure poetry and philosophy, as is its central character. As such, it’s not the easiest pill to swallow. Its plot line is straightforward enough and its premise interesting in a Shawshank Redemption kind of way, but its deeper concerns are somewhat incongruous with what is currently on air in terms of prison-related shows. But that’s where the beauty of the show is hidden.

Fargo, season 2

Don’t get me wrong, season 1 of Fargo makes for very entertaining viewing, but is also constricted and bound by the tone and plot of the movie it’s based on. The familiar ground the show’s treading on is somewhat freshened up by the likes of Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, but while the latter plays the villain tremendously well, Freeman is reprising Bilbo Baggins with an American accent. I didn’t feel like he brought anything new to the role. For that matter, Allison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson is the heart and soul of the season.

Season 2, on the other hand, is marked from the very first shot by fantastic directing, editing, and score. No longer in thrall to the Coen brothers’ movie, the plot of season 2 ranges wide and free to include the vicissitudes and predicaments of every single member of a mobster family, as well as the heartbreak and creeping grief of watching a loved one waste away from cancer. The casting for this season was so good that even the normally insipid Patrick Wilson shines as a state trooper (and father of Deputy Solverson from season 1). But the stand-out performances of the season belong to Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, who play a married couple trying to cover up a hit-and-run and murder. I haven’t seen Dunst on such high form since 2011’s Melancholia, or even further back, since The Virgin Suicides and Drop Dead Gorgeous from 1999.

I’m telling you, Fargo is going places.

Better Call Saul

As someone who was in turns underwhelmed, nonplussed, and knackered by Breaking Bad, I found that its prequel, Better Call Saul, hit just the right spot for me. In very simple terms, the show is funny, sad, and surprisingly deep. You just don’t expect to see so many facets to the joker and clown you came to know and love in Breaking Bad. The back story I particularly enjoyed was the one about Mike Ehrmantraut, played so very well by Jonathan Banks. Here’s hoping that they can keep it up in season 2.

Breaking Bad, seasons 4 and 5

This show and I didn’t get off to a good start. By the time I sat down to watch it, it was already in its fourth season, and everyone had told me it was the best show they’d ever seen in their entire lives. Naturally, this generated very high expectations on my part, and at first I couldn’t understand how people came to binge-watch it: the second season especially I found to be sluggish and often quite boring.

It wasn’t until season 4 that the show grabbed me, and my ambivalence toward Walter White turned into hating his guts. I  finally understood that I was meant to feel this way about his character, and I could also finally see the overarching plot line that had eluded me before.

What galvanized me was the appearance of Gustavo Fring. Up until that point, the show seemed to be about Walter one-upping different small-time egomaniacs while micro-managing his family and his reluctant assistant, Jessie. This was exactly what had failed to entice me: I couldn’t really see anything particularly original or ground-breaking in how the show handled its characters or its plot.

Gustavo Fring was, finally, Walter’s only true antagonist and a match for his intellect. He called out the worst in Walter, and Walter had to be at his absolute worst in order to outmanoeuvre him. He also seemed to have quite the opposite effect on Jessie: I greatly enjoyed the gradual evolution of Jessie’s character as the show’s one true humanist. I was very sorry to see Gustavo go, but season 5 nevertheless turned out to be the best wrap-up I’ve seen on a TV show so far.

Shows outside the Netflix platform that I’ve greatly enjoyed in the last two years:

Australia/New Zealand:

Top of the Lake

Danger 5

UK:

Happy Valley

Black Mirror 

Utopia

U.S./Canada:

Mr. Robot

True Detective, Seasons 1 and 2

 

Honorable mentions across the board:

Game of Thrones

Sons of Anarchy, seasons 1,2 and 3

Justified, seasons 1 and 2

Modern Family

Master of None

The Last Kingdom

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