Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: February 2019

By Craig Mathieson
Adolescent antiheroes in ‘Sex Education’ and ‘Pen15’, Eric Bana shines darkly in ‘Dirty John’, new ‘Counterpart’, and the irreverent charm of ‘Russian Doll’

Sex Education. Photograph: Sam Taylor / Netflix

The streaming services have been focusing on a new kind of antihero to replace the familiar flawed patriarchs and embittered-but-dedicated detectives: the adolescent. Teenagers, whether comically appropriated or coolly sketched, were at the centre of some of the month’s best shows. Last year, Netflix, which has the expansionary instincts of Alexander the Great when it comes to genres, ventured into the coming-of-age series with the debut of Everything Sucks! and On My Block, which were earnest, slight and, in the former’s case, frantically dispiriting.

Netflix’s latest high school entry, Sex Education, is altogether more complex. Dedicated to its teen protagonists, the English series is set in a lush corner of Wales where everyone looks like they’ve been beamed in from a Hollywood teen melodrama. The locale is culturally fluid, but the kids are both distinct and united by their desire to understand and enjoy – across the full breadth of orientations – their sexual experiences. The facilitator is Otis (Asa Butterfield), a 16-year-old virgin possessed of explicit knowledge and conciliatory tone due to growing up with his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), a prominent sex therapist and author.

The show is frank about sex but warm in tone, and it’s cheering to imagine how many conservative American households it’s available in. The third episode sealed it for me: Maeve (Emma Mackey), a fellow student who organises Otis’s surreptitious sessions, gets an abortion, and it’s a bittersweet and detailed experience made complete by The Smiths’ “Asleep” on the soundtrack. The sequence interweaves insight, knowledge, reassuring humour and a sense of reflection for what we euphemistically call “learning experiences”. The show does the same.

Stan’s Pen15 begins with a wild comic premise – 31-year-old American actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old Maya and Anna, best friends introduced on their first day of middle school in 2000. The leads lean hard into their adolescent roles, showcasing elastic limbs and outlooks pushed to hormonal extremes, but there is nothing knowing or ironic about their portrayals. Having women play girls, while admittedly funny in moments of panic or annoyance, lets the series, created by the leads and Sam Zvibleman, examine the pathos and sudden stresses of puberty.

In one episode Maya goes from playing with dolls to masturbating for the first time, a moment of discovery that she finds addictive but shameful, and one that she initially withholds from Anna. You don’t have to be in your early 30s to relate to Pen15 – although an episode where the duo discover dial-up online chatrooms has been causing nostalgic acknowledgments – because what it ultimately reveals is the ludicrous demands made on 13-year-old girls who have no idea what they’re in for but instinctively take refuge in solidarity. Maya and Anna can readily be mean or guilty of dubious judgement, but this is a heartfelt and half-bonkers depiction of female friendship.

Some adults could have better judgement, too. Netflix’s true-crime drama Dirty John turns the search for true love into a steadily escalating fight for control and, ultimately, survival. Adapted from the hit podcast of the same name, the first season of the anthology series begins with the romantic optimism of four-times divorced Debra Newell (Connie Britton), a successful business owner, who meets and within six weeks weds anaesthesiologist John Meehan (Eric Bana), despite the suspicions of her two grown daughters. Debra believes he is the one, a vulnerability John ruthlessly exploits while the storyline switches perspectives and uses flashbacks to illustrate the dire straits she’s actually in. The show isn’t just about deception but also self-deception – Debra’s inability to cut John adrift reveals as much about her beliefs as his tactics. Bana is a protean actor who disappears into his role, and he hasn’t had one this good in years.

One of 2018’s best new series resumed in February. The second season of SBS On Demand’s Counterpart picks up several weeks after the first concluded, returning to a Berlin that is home to a clandestine crossing point with a parallel world created in a scientific accident 30 years prior. I reviewed and recommended the initial season last year, and it’s still available for anyone who wants to start exploring an existence where duplicates – of individuals and societies – create a cruel, knotty experience of shared identity and divergent beliefs. The veteran character actor J.K. Simmons returns as Howard Silk, a no-longer quite so meek bureaucrat from this world whose fate is now intertwined with the other Howard Silk, a spy deep from the other world who’s in duplicity given a second chance. The plotting is labyrinthine but never abstract: resolutions and revelations always return to the pain of human misunderstanding.

The highlight of the month, which I wrote about previously, remains Netflix’s Russian Doll. A science-fiction black comedy about a pugnacious New Yorker, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), who repeatedly dies on the evening of her 36th birthday party, each time returning like a chastened video game player to the night’s beginning, the show has a charming irreverence that sits just above crushing realities. With just eight episodes, each clocking in at or below 30 minutes in length, don’t be surprised if you end up watching it in one glorious binge session.

Also: Fans of LA detective noir will enjoy Stan’s I Am the Night, a 1960s-set mystery that unfolds in the shadow of the infamous Black Dahlia murder and official corruption, which stars Chris Pine as a tarnished reporter trying to resurrect his career. Netflix’s Umbrella Academy puts a blithe spin on the comic-book adaptation, opting for weirdness and familial vulnerability over heroic responsibility. It’s the haltingly paced story of supernatural siblings who were raised for greatness but fracture in adulthood. Stan’s Miracle Workers is a metaphysical workplace comedy about an angel (Daniel Radcliffe), who realises that his boss, God (Steve Buscemi), has given up on humanity. It’s funny in parts, especially when the dispassionate deity gets the urge to pass judgement on his wayward creations. Really, who could blame him?

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Sex Education. Photograph: Sam Taylor / Netflix

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