Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: August 2019

By Craig Mathieson
Heroes and villains take many forms in ‘Mindhunter’, ‘The Boys’ and ‘Bosch’, and the Obamas make their Netflix debut with ‘American Factory’

Mindhunter. Image courtesy of Netflix

There’s not exactly a surfeit of shows streaming on Netflix that call to mind Friedrich Nietzsche, but the serial-killer procedural Mindhunter is one exception. In 1886’s Beyond Good and Evil the German philosopher wrote, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster,” and that dictum defines the underlying risk in this coolly coiled study of investigation, obsession and, eventually, identification. Released in 2017 and based on historic accounts, the show’s first season charted the 1977 basement-bound founding of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit by two agents, steady veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and the overly empathetic rookie Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), along with psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv).

Looking to formulate workable theories, the trio interviewed the newly defined ranks of imprisoned seral killers. The jailhouse encounters meant an absence of true-crime gore and a surplus of wiry, evaluative dialogue. There’s always something to learn in Mindhunter, and the second season, which begins in 1980, firmly places that gaze on both the subjects and their interlocutors. Filmmaker David Fincher, one of the show’s guiding producers, puts a defining visual seal on the first three episodes of the compelling new season: forensic cinematography, lingering unease and the persistent threat of being engulfed by the inexplicable.

Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, will launch in Australia on November 19, exclusively presenting the entertainment giant’s Star Wars and Marvel comic book movies, plus a slate of new shows derived from the same familiar franchises. That looming level of cultural concentration gives Amazon Prime Video’s bloody and satirical new series, The Boys, an added layer of resonance. In the drama’s otherwise recognisable world, powerful superheroes are both crime-fighting beacons and corporate employees, whose missteps – and even crimes – are buffed over by publicists and lawyers.

With a titular group of vigilantes, led by Butcher (Karl Urban), stalking the corrupt superheroes, the show is a sardonic, gory and unhinged treatment of caped archetypes and familiar iconography. What makes it particularly audacious is its use of this same wild framework as a vehicle for political commentary. “I hear you. The world hears you,” the square-jawed Homelander (Antony Starr) tells emergency workers and television cameras at the site of a disaster he surreptitiously caused. His speech is almost word-for-word what then US president George W. Bush said at ground zero three days after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In crime fiction the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch has a long service record. The veteran Los Angeles homicide detective is the protagonist of more than 20 novels by author Michael Connelly. Since 2015 the character has also been on television screens, played with defiant determination by Titus Welliver. The fifth season of Bosch is available through SBS On Demand (the four earlier seasons have migrated to Amazon Prime Video), and even though the series has a through line, the latest batch of episodes can be enjoyed without viewing the prior instalments. While the plotting is knotty but familiar, the real pleasure is in the pithy exchanges, the observed intricacies of Los Angeles policing and politics, and Bosch’s willingness to sabotage the status quo.

Netflix has been signing leading creators to exclusive deals over the last 18 months. The most lucrative is with powerhouse producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), who makes his Netflix debut on September 27 with a black comedy titled The Politician. The most prestigious of these deals is with Barack and Michelle Obama, whose first title distributed through their Higher Ground Productions is the documentary American Factory. Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, it’s a sharply drawn but nonetheless sympathetic depiction of the cultural and commercial clashes that mount after a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, takes over a shuttered General Motors plant in rustbelt Ohio and reopens it as an automotive-glass manufacturing facility with hundreds of local employees and imported management practices. The friction is plentiful, but the filmmakers’ impeccable access presents the situation from multiple angles, and even as individual storylines take shape the battle lines are not purely drawn along national lines. The struggles of the workers, who consider unionisation, are ultimately universal.

Created by Welsh screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose previously outstanding 1950s-set thriller The Hour is currently on Amazon Prime Video, Stan’s The Split is a deceptive family drama set against the backdrop of high-end London divorce lawyers. Watching marriages break down and blow up is a second-generation trade for Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker), who has just left the family firm run by her formidable mother, Ruth Defoe (Deborah Findlay), and younger sister, Nina (Annabel Scholey). Meeting-room confrontations alongside clients alternate with family functions, and while the plot machinations are suitably juicy, the show’s real strength is the conflicted intimacy of Hannah’s extended family. Their conversations bristle with shared regrets, rueful jokes and harsh rebukes. It’s a complex portrayal of familial connection told with welcoming ease.

In brief: The Indonesian actor and martial artist Iko Uwais has been the brightest hope of Asian action cinema since his international breakthrough in the crunching 2011 action epic The Raid. Netflix has put him at the centre of the San Francisco–set Wu Assassins, a supernatural thriller about an immigrant chef (Uwais) bestowed with ancient powers to defeat gathering evil. With a diverse cast, the series is a far from taxing drama, but the fight choreography is exemplary. Aficionados should take note. Stan’s The Loudest Voice, a posthumous depiction of the life and crimes of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, ended its weekly run this month. There’s a full review here, but like their subject the seven episodes were cumulatively fierce, flawed and hard to turn away from. Monsters take many forms.

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

Mindhunter. Image courtesy of Netflix

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