Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: May 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘When They See Us’ and ‘Catch-22’ examine flawed institutions, ‘Dead to Me’ astutely studies the living, and ‘Fleabag’ makes a must-see return

When They See Us. Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Arriving on Netflix on the last day of May, like a searing full stop to the month’s numerous streaming releases, When They See Us is a dissection of institutional power and systematic injustice that elevates the humanity of its subjects. The series is created, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, whose Academy Award–nominated 2014 film, Selma, charted a bloody and crucial civil rights campaign run by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It examines the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, five black and Hispanic teenage boys from Harlem, who were arrested and convicted – in a blizzard of prejudiced media coverage – for the 1989 assault and rape of a white female jogger. Those convictions were vacated in 2002, when another convicted criminal confessed to the crime and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt.

“These are not kids,” declares Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), the head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, beginning a campaign of racially motivated dehumanisation that would result in coerced confessions and rights violations. The series shows how racism was not just an attitude held by individuals but entrenched in the very structure of the city’s authorities; the sense of totality is chilling. The narrative follows the investigation and arrests, trials and incarceration, but it never loses track of the individual boys and the men they became, alongside the family members who failed them under police pressure. Shot with vigour and lyricism by the cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival), When They See Us is wrenchingly tender. The first episode ends with the railroaded boys meeting each other in the holding cells, having realised they’d been manipulated into framing one another. Instead of anger there’s shared consolation and redemptive camaraderie. Few shows this visceral also possess such bittersweet grace.

Another flawed institution underpins Stan’s Catch-22: the United States Army. In this handsome adaptation of Joseph Heller’s iconic 1961 novel, written by Australians David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Luke Davies (Candy), the army is less interested in keeping its own soldiers alive than it is in eliminating its German adversaries during World War Two’s Italian campaign. “The enemy is anyone who’s going to get you killed,” reasons John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), the discombobulated bombardier desperate to escape active duty as his friends and comrades are shot down. The book’s circular narrative is partially straightened out, but the absurdist humour and bureaucratic risk remain, complete with Milo Minderbinder and Major Major Major Major. With its martinet officers and wisenheimer humour, the limited series has a meandering pace and heightened sense of the offbeat that mostly feels fitting.

For a show that’s rooted in grief for the departed, Netflix’s Dead to Me reveals a terrific insight into the living. The first season of this new American series has a Californian gloss and an effective way with episode-ending twists, but beneath its Desperate Housewives veneer the show offers a comically ruthless and complex character study of forty-something women. The friendship that develops when Jen (Christina Applegate) meets Judy (Linda Cardellini) at a support group for the grieving pulls back layers about both women in ways that are equally intriguing and satisfying.

Amazon Prime Video only has a toehold in the Australian streaming market, and it doesn’t add exclusive new series at the rate Netflix and Stan do. But its leading titles – the military-industrial-complex thriller Homecoming and the pulpy alternate history The Man in the High Castle – make it difficult to bypass. Now it’s added what’s the single best season of a show to date this year: the second edition of Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s London-set black comedy about a woman at odds with her situation in life balances its contradictions: it’s furiously hilarious, insightfully filthy and harshly understanding. Aided by an expert supporting cast headlined by Olivia Colman, the travails of Waller-Bridge’s protagonist are unpredictable and deeply felt. It first season, in 2016, was a revelation, but the new episodes add sharper direction and a sustained pitch to the writing that can build over an entire episode. It is, with Netflix’s Russian Doll, essential viewing in 2019.

The release of the third and final season of Netflix’s Easy is a good opportunity to revisit the comic drama anthology, which unfolds with dry humour and everyday dissatisfaction around the middle-class neighbourhoods of Chicago. The show’s creator, American independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg, is alert to the fears and foibles of his affectionately regarded characters, but what initially appeared to be deft sketches has evolved as Swanberg has returned repeatedly to the same lives. The sizable and eclectic cast roll with the conversational rhythms of the writing, but it’s worth highlighting the character actor Michael Chernus, who manages to be bemused and hopefully committed as a husband in an open marriage.

Also: Tuca & Bertie is an animated paean to female friendship with an avian bent. In this idiosyncratic Netflix series the former is a toucan voiced by Tiffany Haddish, while the latter is a songbird voiced by Ali Wong. Their anthropomorphic world is analogous to that of Netflix mainstay BoJack Horseman, which Tuca & Bertie’s creator Lisa Hanawalt worked on, but it’s visually wilder and more optimistic in its outlook. SBS On Demand is adding a new episode weekly of legal drama The Good Fight, a rationing that makes sense given how the show has become a possessed fictional response to Donald Trump’s presidency, complete with covert campaigns and class action cases over malfunctioning voting machines. Fronted by the formidable Christine Baranski, Democrat wish fulfilment has rarely been so enjoyable.

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

When They See Us. Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

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