Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: April 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘Special’ and ‘Bonding’ look askance at sexual mores, ‘Killing Eve’ returns, and Beyoncé brings ‘Homecoming’ to Netflix

Television networks have long offered familiarity with viewers’ tastes as a form of reassurance: “We know what you want”. Netflix has the same belief, but it’s verified by data. Every click on the streaming service is a kernel of information that can be compiled and analysed. The licensed Hollywood movies you watch on Netflix, for example, give it ideas for its own commissions and purchases. Roughly 18 months ago the company began targeting romantic comedies, set in high school hallways (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and the modern workplace (Set it Up), that knowingly referenced the genre’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s –they have what you’re having.

But now their understanding of what you watch – and when you stop – is getting more involved. In April Netflix debuted a terrific pair of idiosyncratic comedy series whose episodes run for little more than 15 minutes. Special and Bonding can each be watched in its entirety in roughly two hours, but instead of being breakneck or insubstantial, both titles use a condensed clock to be smartly succinct.

In divergent ways they both also examine central characters who look askance at contemporary society’s sexual mores. Based on his 2015 memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, Special’s creator Ryan O’Connell plays a version of himself who is also named Ryan, also gay, and also has cerebral palsy. When the fictional Ryan is knocked over by a car prior to starting an internship he lets his sympathetic new co-workers believe that his disordered movements are simply effects of the accident. This new perspective allows the character, who is far from perfect but authentically engaging, to look at ableism and the codes of gay relationships with a curious and frank eye. The episode where Ryan decides to lose his virginity with a sex worker is a standout and, like much of this breakthrough series, it is equally funny and thoughtful.

In Bonding the high school friendship between Tiff (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell) is resurrected post-university when she offers him a job as assistant to her dominatrix. The set-up of Rightor Doyle’s blackly comic series creates a space where kinks are treated with matter-of-fact acceptance, but the leads’ personal battles are tightly held and slowly revealed. Both these 20-somethings have issues that they’re struggling with, so the hard, bright fantasy of their employment is a farcical means of diversion that never quite endures. The tone takes flagrant twists, revealing a surprisingly tender vulnerability. Safe words take many forms in Bonding.

The second season of Killing Eve (ABC iview) retains the droll twists and female entanglement of last year’s compelling debut, but the tale of a mutual obsession between an MI6 analyst, Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh), and a psychopathic Russian contract killer, Villanelle (Jodi Comer), is struggling to refresh the dynamic between the pair. The show still presents exchanges and sequences that feel unique, whether as a workplace comedy or as an exploration of women who acknowledge their capacity for extremes, but it hasn’t added anything vital. Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is currently polishing the script for the next James Bond movie, didn’t contribute to the writing of the new episodes, and while she’s left behind a framework and fascinating characters there’s a slight loosening of the show’s bracing bonds as Eve and Villanelle stalk each other yet again.

Chris Lilley has left the ABC for Netflix, but with Lunatics the Australian comic actor, writer and director sticks with what he knows: a cross-section of eccentric characters whose steadfast refusal to see their own failings makes them mockumentary fodder. Lilley has been using this form since 2005’s We Can be Heroes, and some of his characters, particularly the teenagers, are repetitive at this point. Previously criticised for blackface performance and perpetuating racial stereotypes, Lilley has sketched his new creations as grotesques, but the structure of his new show is formulaic and it is agonisingly slow to engage over the initial episodes.

Displaying exceptional timing, SBS On Demand has provided a diversion from the inadequacies of Australia’s current federal election campaign: all three seasons of the Danish political drama Borgen. Debuting in 2010 and quickly finding international acclaim, the series follows a newly elected female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whose idealism is increasingly tempered by the struggle to maintain a working coalition government, solve policy conundrums and stay connected with her family. The minutiae of governing provides genuine drama instead of procedural quirks, with a cross-section of characters whose flaws inform their place in the system. The show’s depiction of the relationship between the government and the media is particularly relevant.

Beyoncé brings her formidable talents to Netflix with the concert film Homecoming, a record of her landmark headlining set at the 2018 Coachella music festival that presents the performer of a generation in her prime. Written and directed by the American singer and songwriter, who is firmly in her auteur phase, the documentary features ebullient performances that are masterfully choreographed. The songs are driven by a marching band’s drumline and horns, linking the music to the lineage of America’s black universities, and throughout the film Beyoncé celebrates black history and culture. Beyoncé is never explicit in her politics, but her belief in collective pride is purposeful. As one collaborator notes, “They heard her say it without saying it.”

Also: Shorn of background detail, Netflix’s Black Summer is a live-or-die zombie apocalypse series that updates the undead ethos of George A. Romero’s genre-defining horror movies. With unexpected attacks – these zombies can run – and no certainty that even established characters will survive, it’s a tense and sometimes terrifying genre work. The second season of Stan’s The Last O.G., co-created by Jordan Peele, continues the crudely enjoyable but sometimes revealing attempts of a just released ex-con (Tracy Morgan) to understand his now-gentrified home in Brooklyn. Fans of demented sketch comedy need to see Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. The humour is aggressively absurdist, but the focus on aggrieved American protagonists determined to defy reality with their own narrative feels deeply connected to the moment.

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

Ryan O’Connell in Special. Photograph courtesy of Netflix.

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