Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: November 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘The Crown’, ‘For All Mankind’ and ‘Dickinson’ offer new perspectives on history, and pragmatism meets pyramid schemes in ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Photograph by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

The third season of The Crown, English writer Peter Morgan’s fictionalised history of the lengthy reign of Queen Elizabeth II, swaps out the cast to reflect the monarch and her family’s ageing. But even as Claire Foy and Matt Smith, as the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, are replaced in middle age by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies for episodes that span the years 1964 to 1977, the Netflix series stays true to its successful lures. A dry wit that verges on the mordant, nobly managing the personal demands of public life, and impeccable pomp remain the show’s defining qualities.

They provide continuity in a season where the plotting verges on the implausible: Britain’s sagging relationship with the United States is resuscitated by Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) getting sauced at the White House in 1965 with President Johnson (Clancy Brown), while in 1968 Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), the former head of Britain’s armed forces, spends the weekend pondering a military coup to thwart a Labour government, before the Queen, his second cousin, sternly tells him it’s not on. Weighing up democracy’s demise doesn’t appear to affect his standing in the royal family.

Morgan is a tidy dramatist, who uses catastrophic disasters and the death of public figures to reflect on private turning points, but repetition is revealing his flaws. An episode will zero in on a crucial moment, such as a crisis of self-belief for Prince Philip set against the backdrop of the first landing on the Moon, but subsequent instalments offer no evidence of the change that was explicitly depicted. The Crown celebrates the stoicism of Queen Elizabeth, whose job is to be nothing but a fitting symbol, but, to remain engaging, that stasis requires sympathetic figures by way of contrast. Take a bow Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), now a defiant heir forced to sacrifice his personal happiness. On the show the Windsor’s failings are always the result of systematic deficiencies, but as Prince Andrew’s recent failings have shown, real life doesn’t always offer such favourable accommodations.

The battle for global streaming supremacy began in earnest in November, with the launch of both Disney+ and Apple TV+. The ramifications are widespread, but for now there’s no shortage of new series to consider. Disney+ looked to the Magic Kingdom’s most fabled franchise for its headline original series, sidestepping into the Star Wars universe with The Mandalorian. Set after the demise of the Empire and absent Jedi mysticism, it’s the story of a masked bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal in the title role) that has the sparse, violent rhythms of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western interspersed with equally familiar creatures and moral quandaries. Created by filmmaker Jon Favreau, it looks impeccable, but the best new element is German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose anonymous fixer hires the Mandalorian. Watching the director who once brandished a gun at his leading man, Klaus Kinski, inspecting an iconic Star Wars species is truly a special effect.

Disney+ is banking on a raft of familiar family-friendly titles to bring in subscribers, whereas Apple TV+ has no back catalogue but a handful of debuting series. The tech giant’s flagship, Morning Wars, costs approximately A$22 million an episode, which is partially explained by a cast topped by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. Set at an American television network’s breakfast show, where Carell’s anchor has just been fired for sexual misconduct, the show’s initial episodes were cautious in examining the #MeToo movement amid competitive workplace manoeuvrings. But Morning Wars has added a cynical undertow to its earnest outline, with Aniston’s co-anchor a fascinating mix of controlling veneer and deep vulnerability alongside Witherspoon’s scrappy and newly promoted on-air partner. The storylines are increasingly unpredictable and ambitious – over halfway through the first season it’s still unclear where this series is headed, but I’ll follow it.

I also liked two extremely different alternate histories on Apple TV+. A calm, curious depiction of astronaut myth and national pride, For All Mankind begins with the Soviets suddenly beating the Americans to a Moon landing in 1969, freaking out America (Senator Ted Kennedy postpones his weekend at Chappaquiddick) and spurring NASA into a 1970s space race. “The right stuff” takes on new meaning as female astronauts crash the boys club, and sci-fi speculation upends textbook convention. Dickinson is an anarchic comedy that reimagines the cloistered life of secret poet Emily Dickinson (the terrific Hailee Steinfeld) in 1850s Massachusetts with a modern tone: the pop-music soundtrack, arch dialogue, queer desire and flouting of female shackles all have an engorged energy. The writing of Dickinson’s now celebrated verses cap this wild mash-up, anchoring the fluid tone to enduring greatness.

SBS On Demand’s black comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a sharp dissection of how the American dream is a Ponzi scheme that runs unchecked. Set in the titular suburban landscape of 1992, it stars Kirsten Dunst as Krystal Stubbs, a wife and mother who has resolutely dragged herself up to a modicum of working-class safety, only to lose her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) to the prosperity gospel of Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a multi-level selling scheme with a distinctly pyramid-like structure. A hardened realist, Krystal has no time for FAM’s gaudy promises, but when left in a hole she realises that her best chance of survival lies in mastering it. The show has a sardonic outlook and strange tonal shifts – it keeps revealing curious new layers even as Krystal risks becoming a FAM devotee.

In brief: Netflix’s embrace of cinema’s leading auteurs continues with the release of Martin Scorsese’s sombre mob tale of crime and (moral) punishment The Irishman. On Amazon Prime Video the second season of Jack Ryan, with John Krasinski as Tom Clancy’s do-good CIA operative, remains an espionage thriller with ready bursts of action and a patina of geopolitical reality. The first three seasons of Catastrophe, the scathingly funny and deceptively genuine comedy created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney as a couple whose brief fling becomes parenthood and marriage, are now available to stream on Stan. Only a handful of titles from Australia’s chequered television history have found their way to streaming services, which makes SBS On Demand’s pick-up of the 1995 ABC miniseries Blue Murder a welcome first step. The production values might be dated now, but in telling the bloody 1980s story of bent NSW police detective Roger Rogerson (Richard Roxburgh) and his criminal associate Arthur “Neddy” Smith (Tony Martin) it reminds us that Australia has had an accepted culture of official corruption since the Rum Rebellion. You might also wonder where that institutional wrongdoing is currently flourishing.

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

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Photograph by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

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