Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: March 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘The OA’ amplifies the intrigue, Gregg Araki’s streaming debut ‘Now Apocalypse’, and the wealth porn of ‘Billions’ returns

America’s independent filmmakers have been relocating to streaming services to make television series for several years now, making welcome use of guaranteed distribution, better budgets, and a larger storytelling canvas. Mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg (Netflix’s tart anthology Easy) and writer-directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan (Stan’s uneasy The Girlfriend Experience) have prospered, but no one has made better use of the medium’s possibilities or furthered their artistic vision more than long-time collaborators Brit Marling and Zal Batmaglij. The duo’s mystery-box series, The OA, delivers what their earlier movies, Sound of My Voice and The East, hinted at: knotty explorations of personal faith, digital subcultures and metaphysical wonder. The show is serenely wild, and this month’s second season amplifies the weirdness.

Marling and Batmanglij – they write together, she stars, and he directs – imagine each season as a very long movie, complete with a single credit sequence (38 minutes into the new season’s first episode) and irregular episode lengths shaped to the unfurling narrative. The plot’s nexus is Marling’s Prairie Johnson, who has been the daughter of a Russian oligarch, a missing blind woman found with amnesia and full sight after seven years, and the titular Original Angel. The show’s cosmic flourishes and geeky genre twists make The OA a love-or-loathe option (I choose the former), but whatever happens it’s grounded in the very real emotional struggle of navigating sustained trauma. The new season adds parallel dimensions and an ancient telepathic octopus, but it remains tenderly intimate and, thankfully, self-aware. “A puzzle,” one character aptly observes, “is a conversation between the player and the maker.”

A veteran of New Queer Cinema in the 1990s, filmmaker Gregg Araki’s work has a set of recurring elements – existential angst countered by libidinous indulgence, a knack for abrasive one-liners, lithe naked bodies, and a love of atmospheric alternative rock – that can easily be transposed from a movie into a series. The 10 half-hour episodes of Stan’s Now Apocalypse, Araki’s introduction to streaming, brings to mind what David Lynch’s take on, say, Melrose Place might look like. Ulysses (Avan Jogia) is haunted by visions of reptilian aliens, but like most Araki protagonists he’s easily distracted by sleeping with other men and getting high. The show is best read as a parody, whether of modern relationship etiquette, Hollywood mores, or science-fiction tropes – one of the characters, French “astrobiological theorist” and polyamory advocate Severine (Roxane Mesquida), works in a top-secret lab complete with armed guards. It’s slight but amusing.

Returning to Stan this month, with a new episode each week, was the fourth season of Billions, a juicy drama about the machinations of the ultra-rich and very powerful that brims over with wealth porn and cool-dad cultural references: a hedge fund’s new non-compete clause for traders is described as being “tighter than AC/DC in ’78”. Hollywood screenwriters (Rounders, Oceans Thirteen) turned TV showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s Manhattan-set show follows the power plays between hedge-fund owner Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who are linked by Chuck’s wife, Wendy, who serves as the in-house performance coach at Bobby’s company. The new season finds the former rivals coexisting as wary friends after both suffering major professional setbacks. The problem is the plotting has become dominant, overwhelming the social critique drawn from how the two men relate to a world that’s distorted by their influence.

Netflix’s headlining original movie for the month was Triple Frontier, a technically assured and cinema-screen-sized action-thriller about a group of unfulfilled former US Special Forces soldiers – played by Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal and an exceptional Oscar Isaac – who venture into narco country in the interior of South America to rob a cartel boss of his cash. Co-writer and director J.C. Chandor previously made 2014’s A Most Violent Year, a gangster film that focused on a comparatively honest man (played by Isaac), and he manages to mostly subvert expectations here as well. The gung-ho warrior’s code is undercut by greed, and alongside the gunfights are images of ill-gotten gains being sacrificed after coming at a damning price.

The new show this month that also inspired a love-or-loathe reaction from viewers (and in this case I choose the latter) was After Life, a bittersweet but tepid comedy from Ricky Gervais. The acerbic co-creator of The Office and Extras writes and directs himself in the lead role of Tony Johnson, a reporter who is mired in depression and suicidal thoughts following the death of his beloved wife from breast cancer. Tony’s lack of care for anything or anyone else leads him to say whatever he thinks, something Gervais’s characters have long done through stupidity or self-conceit. But the mournful insults are nothing more than insults – Tony’s words never speak truth to power or put him in harm’s way. It might have helped if a more skilled actor had played Tony, because Gervais’s depiction of being on the brink of self-harm comes off as shallow in a series that is trite about mental health issues even as it offers Tony a predictable path to redemption.

Also: Amazon’s baroque adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 fantasy novel, American Gods, which traces a myth-fuelled war between the traditional gods and the usurping deities of the modern age, returned for a second season that has removed the show’s original creator Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and a degree of its outré tableaux. Ian McShane remains a loquacious ringmaster as the human form of Odin, but the series has too many diversions and too few resolutions. Stan’s Desus & Mero is the best talk show that streaming television has offered up yet, with the Bronx comics presenting as sharp-witted hosts and irreverent sketch stars. Their guest on the first episode is another Bronx native, insurgent Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Actors deserve the chance to reach, but Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie asks us to believe the effortlessly charismatic actor Idris Elba as an ageing failure. His title character is a washed-up London DJ who has to work as a manny to his successful pal’s hellion of an 11-year-old daughter. It’s a modest comedy goofily executed, but as a comedic audition it’s a reminder why Elba was a popular choice to play James Bond. Elba doesn’t so much commit to the part as simply play Idris Elba skimming for laughs. It’s hard to convince others when you’re not convinced yourself.

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

Brit Marling in The OA. Photograph by Nicola Goode / Netflix

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