Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: October 2019

By Craig Mathieson
The anthology makes a comeback with ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Criminal’; new ‘Harlots’; and ‘Living with Yourself’ delivers low-key high-tech farce

Tina Fey and John Slattery in Modern Love.

When television first became a mass medium in the 1950s, the anthology series was central to its scheduling. Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone were just two of a slew of shows that used an established framework to provide a new story and characters weekly; the vision was black and white, but the creativity was colourful. The format fell out of favour, as networks determined that anthologies didn’t create the audience connection forged by serialised shows, but the anthology has been revitalised by the streaming age. When the next episode is a click (as opposed to a week) away, a good concept is now sticky enough to hold audiences. Whether they remake themselves each episode (Black Mirror) or each season (Fargo), the anthology is once again relevant.

The strengths and weaknesses of that approach are both apparent in Modern Love, the new Amazon Prime Video anthology adapted from the weekly relationship column in The New York Times. The eight episodes are studded with stars, lured by a comparatively brief shoot and roles that revolve around dialogue and not digital effects. Some also appreciate being partnered up: as a married couple sliding towards divorce, Tina Fey and John Slattery are terrific together in an episode written and directed by Catastrophe’s sharp-eyed co-creator Sharon Horgan. There’s an acidic taste to the lead’s exchanges, which offsets the sentimentality that permeates some of the other entries, nurtured by Irish filmmaker John Carney, who is credited on five of the instalments. His New York is privileged and open to whimsical flourishes; Anne Hathaway delivers a theatrical, and sometimes florid, performance in one of his episodes, playing a woman with bipolar disorder. Modern Love’s understanding that relationships can take many forms is welcome, and the ensemble cast is often expert – ultimately it’s worth staying involved with this series.

Netflix’s Criminal: UK has a much tighter focus. Each of the three episodes is primarily set inside a British police interview room where different detectives from the same unit engage in extended sessions with a crime’s leading suspect. The first episode, where David Tennant plays a prevaricating doctor whose stepdaughter has been found murdered, sets the tone with coiled dialogue, ticking-clock tension, and an understanding of how the horrific can be nestled in the everyday. The outcomes aren’t just a matter of being caught out or not, and this stage-bound offshoot of the police procedural comes with a bonus for those who enjoy it: Netflix also has available French, German and Spanish editions of Criminal (all four variants were shot on the same sets in Madrid) that interpret the production’s brief in differing ways.

In October, SBS On Demand added the third season of Harlots, a vivid Georgian-era period drama that uses the London sex trade to examine women’s covert agency in the 18th century. Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, the plot is stoked by the bitter rivalry between two brothel madams: the refined Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and the eager-to-leave-the-slums-behind Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton). The latter’s daughters are among her best assets, but in a society where women are routinely disenfranchised, sex work is not treated as exploitation but rather a means to empowerment. The entitled male clientele are good for coinage and disparagement – a noble in thrall to Margaret’s daughter Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is memorably dismissed as a “fopdoodle”. Electric-guitar riffs punctuate the score, which is indicative of how this juicily engaging series gives contemporary momentum to the genre’s petticoats and powdered wigs.

Netflix has a thing for discombobulated black comedies where the weird and dystopic fracture the quotidian. Strands of last year’s Maniac felt like offshoots of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, while earlier this year the time-loop farce Russian Doll was a bittersweet, idiosyncratic joy. The streaming service’s new series Living with Yourself takes a more low-key approach, making the unbelievable an adjunct to the mundane. Paul Rudd plays Miles Elliot, a diffident advertising copywriter bored with his life, who buys an experimental spa treatment and comes home to find a clone of himself doing a better job with his career and marriage. Befitting the wry tone favoured by creator Timothy Greenberg, the two versions of Miles try to share his life, which only leads to fresh complications. It’s highly quirky – which makes the always-engaging Rudd crucial – and the show’s successes are unexpected. The best perspective is that of Miles’s wife, Kate (Aisling Bea).

It was also a busy month for Netflix’s growing catalogue of original movies. Produced in secret, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie offers a coda to the acclaimed crime drama that would satisfy fans and barely register with newcomers. With The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh takes a typically obtuse but ultimately insightful approach to explaining 2016’s Panama Papers leak. Jumping between the fictionalised quest of a widow (Meryl Streep) looking for answers about worthless insurance, the theatrical explanations of the lawyers (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) running a vast web of shell companies for the ultra-wealthy, and illegal vignettes from the lives of their powerful clients, the film charts a cross-section of corruption as a means of condemnation. It’s wilful, but Soderbergh makes it work. Netflix’s next banner movie releases on Friday: David Michôd’s The King is an incisive, sternly modern take on King Henry V’s ascension to the English throne and subsequent military campaign in France, with strong performances by Timothée Chalamet and co-writer Joel Edgerton as Hal and Falstaff respectively.

In brief: Stan’s crime drama Godfather of Harlem intertwines historic figures, such as black crime boss “Bumpy” Johnson (Forest Whitaker) and Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), in 1963’s rapidly changing Harlem. With encroaching mafia rivals and family complications the story can feel predictable, but the series is redeemed by an unstinting eye for Bumpy’s flaws, and images – such as a hellish heroin detox ward run by Nation of Islam nurses – that break gangster-tale conventions. Netflix’s Toon is an enjoyable Dutch comedy about the titular jingle writer (co-creator Joep Vermolen) whose happily walled-off life is ruined when a viral video makes him inadvertently famous. Carried along by the ambitions of others, the stoic slacker is a 21st-century Sisyphus who is unsuccessful in his attempts to push the boulder of failure down the hill.

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

Tina Fey and John Slattery in Modern Love.

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