Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: June 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘Dark’ makes a wild return, ‘Good Omens’ approaches the apocalypse lightly, ‘City on a Hill’ moves beyond the crime genre’s prerequisites, and new ‘Black Mirror’

Dark returns to Netflix.

According to recent research from Roy Morgan, Netflix has 11.5 million users in Australia. While the streaming giant doesn’t disclose how many monthly subscriptions that is (it has close to 150 million globally), Roy Morgan estimates that in most states more than half of Australians aged 14 or older have access to Netflix. Despite this profitable presence, there are no requirements for Netflix to produce Australian content. It has co-financed some ABC productions (Glitch, Pine Gap) in exchange for the global streaming rights, but the first original Australian series it commissioned, last December’s Tidelands, was a dismal supernatural soap that barely bothered recommendation algorithms.

By contrast, the European Union has always been clear with Netflix and fellow streaming services, such as Amazon Prime Video, that access to their collective market would require European content. The EU is now moving to formally set a content quota of 30 per cent, and while it’s unclear how the figure will be calculated, Netflix has been committed for several years now to embracing European productions. It’s partly a recognition that audiences respond to domestic content, and partly good business sense: series from Spain have huge appeal throughout the vast Spanish-speaking Americas, for example.

But on a more fundamental level, Western Europe has strong creative networks and skilled production infrastructure maintained by acceptable public broadcasting budgets. They’re primed for global exposure. Germany has produced some compelling series in recent years, most notably the immense Weimar-era historic drama Babylon Berlin, which Netflix has the Australian rights to, and the streaming service has just debuted the second season of its original science-fiction mystery Dark, a show that proves that international audiences don’t need to be fed homogenised content (such as Tidelands) as long as what they’re seeing is distinct and engaging.

Set across 33-year intervals – 1953, 1986, and 2019 – in the small town of Winden, where the main employer is the nuclear power plant, the first season’s opening gambit of a missing child and unnatural events drew initial comparisons to Netflix’s retro American hit Stranger Things. But Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s series operates at a grim pitch, with mournful regret, doom-laden cello scrapes, and fate’s cruel compunction to the fore. Season one began with an Einstein quote; season two turned to Nietzsche.

Time travel is essential to the story, with 2052 added to the new episodes’ parameters, but it is secondary to the sense that time itself is a wilful force. Dissolves between the faces of the same character in different eras have a bittersweet potency, with the underlying theme that trying to alter the inevitable is a futile act. With its sizable cast, overlapping arcs and metaphysical twists, the apocalyptic plot is deeply intricate (I needed a refresher before starting season two), but it’s very good at resolving crucial questions even as it opens up new fronts. Netflix has commissioned a third and final season, and the series’ sombre torment remains quite thrilling.

A looming apocalypse also motivates Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens, but this limited series, adapted by Neil Gaiman from the 1990 fantasy novel he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, approaches the end of the world with a wry wit and a very British demeanour. Like rival travelling salesmen frequenting the same customers, the demon Crowley (David Tennant, offering more than a hint of Bill Nighy) and the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) have been on Earth for so long that they’re now surreptitious pals. With the Antichrist born, but given to the wrong family, the duo try to suborn the plans of their respective head offices and preserve humanity. The humour is droll, and the threat of Biblical horrors unfolds with almost whimsical disregard. Amazon’s other Gaiman adaptation, American Gods, could do with a decent snort of this show’s otherworldly bemusement.

Stan’s new crime drama City on a Hill is both in thrall to the genre and trying to invest it with a new perspective. Set in the Boston of the early 1990s, where the city is run by various corruptible institutional forces that operate like rival cliques, it focuses on two male antiheroes who try to jam up the flawed system. Kevin Bacon plays Jackie Rohr, a legendary FBI agent whose flaws are soon apparent – mistress: tick; cocaine: tick – but who also carries a streak of self-loathing that allows him to join forces with Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), an ambitious black prosecutor increasingly desperate to change the status quo. The unlikely duo are flawed crusaders, given a window of opportunity by a deadly armoured car robbery, but the series moves past the pungent dialogue and tough-guy routines to draw uncomfortable truths from both characters, as well as doing more than merely sketch the women in their lives. “The bad do understand,” Jackie tells Decourcy, and that could be City on a Hill’s motto.

When today’s technology is tomorrow’s dystopia, you don’t need many episodes to make your point. The fifth season of Netflix’s celebrated British science-fiction anthology Black Mirror has just three episodes, and as per previous releases the quality is neatly dispersed. “Striking Vipers”, which explores the intersection of sexuality, race and infidelity when two old friends – played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen – use characters from a virtual reality fighting game to become online lovers, is the stand-out episode. Meanwhile, “Smithereens” is a decent calling-out of Big Tech’s failing CEOs (Fleabag Hot Priest stans take note: it stars Andrew Scott), and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley too” is a misfire about teenagers and celebrity culture. The scariest thing about Black Mirror is the very real possibility that everyday life has overtaken its fictional provocations.

In brief: Set in Florida, with a supporting cast of nefarious eccentrics and a soap opera’s voracious hunger for plot, Stan’s Claws is a pulpy, female-driven crime drama about a genuine cross-section of working-class women who, through economic necessity, find solidarity and advancement in a money laundering operation run out of a beauty salon. Third-season episodes are currently releasing weekly. SBS On Demand’s The Miniaturist has the look of a Vermeer painting and the eerie sensibility of horror cinema’s recent elevated strain. The gifted American actor Anya Taylor-Joy plays Nella, a teenage bride in 1686 Amsterdam with no agency but a dollhouse that starts to predict events in her life. This handsome British series mixes gender implications with supernatural suggestiveness, even if it can’t quite find common ground between the two strands. Comprising just six five-minute episodes, the micro-comedy Sarah’s Channel on ABC iView is a showcase for the terrific Australian comic actor Claudia O’Doherty (Netflix’s Love), who can project a delusional peppiness that is bright and bewildering. Like many of this month’s offerings, the show references apocalyptic outcomes, but at least these video updates from a beauty vlogger living in unusual circumstances can improve the end of the world with solid toner technique and bronzer tips.

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

Dark returns to Netflix.

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