Culture

Television

Streaming highlights: September 2019

By Craig Mathieson
‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Murder in the Bayou’ expose cultures that devalue women; ‘Shrill’ warmly challenges prejudice; and ‘The Politician’ takes student politics to another level

Merritt Weaver and Toni Collette in Unblieveable. Image courtesy Beth Dubber/Netflix

With Apple TV+ and Disney+ bringing further choice and an embrace of mathematical symbols to the already competitive streaming-television ranks on November 1 and November 19 respectively, September and October are the final months of the industry’s Phoney War. The existing services may be saving their big guns for when customer churn is strongest, with Netflix debuting season three of its hit House of Windsor drama, The Crown, just two days before Disney+ launches, but the upshot was that this month had a strong – if not easily classifiable – range of original new series to watch.

Leading the way was Netflix’s Unbelievable, a wrenching dramatic adaptation of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning article about the misstep-plagued pursuit of a serial rapist. Created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the limited series consistently finds telling new perspectives. The most vital is its depiction of how easily a system that’s short on sympathy and common sense can become the adversary of a traumatised rape victim. When 18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is raped in her Washington apartment in 2008, inconsistencies in her story lead the male police detectives on the case to accuse her of fabrication. Barely out of the foster-care system, Marie acquiesces, drawing criminal charges.

When her rapist’s distinct methods resurface in Colorado three years later, it’s two female police detectives, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), who work with the victims to create a profile and spearhead the hunt. Unbelievable is a police procedural that doesn’t allow for the genre’s easy outs – the humanity of the rape survivors does not disappear into the plot’s wake, while the investigators are never merely defined by their work. The directors, led by filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), quietly reveal power inequalities and institutional failings. While the detectives are pursuing one perpetrator, their inquiries bring them into contact with every strand of a culture that devalues women, from the entitled college frat boy to the arrogant bystander. The way that Duvall and Rasmussen set them straight is deeply affirming, while adding a further layer to a gripping narrative.

Stan’s Murder in the Bayou uses another real-life case – the murder of eight women over four years in Louisiana – to create a more familiar, and flawed, true-crime docuseries. Based on journalist Ethan Brown’s 2016 book of the same name, the show is initially a devastating portrait of a milieu wracked by inequality. Depicted with rich cinematic tones, the town of Jennings is a failed society where murder appears to be a tragic progression of tolerated ills. But the images become lurid, and the particulars of the case prove frustrating to explanation. Is there a serial killer hunting women, or are these individual deaths simply occurring at a terrible pace? And which is worse? What Murder in the Bayou discovers is questions it can’t answer.

Smart contemporary comedy Shrill, on SBS On Demand, is about a woman determined to improve her life on her own terms, not the ones society has condescendingly placed on her. Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant) is an aspiring Portland magazine writer (as her editor, Gabe, John Cameron Mitchell is a snooty hoot) tired of the judgement she gamely endures because she is plus-size. With awkward enthusiasm she rights the course of the diffident podcaster she hooks up with, Ryan (Luke Jones), and her passive-aggressive mother, Vera (Julia Sweeney). It’s not unlikely you’ll devour these six half-hour episodes in a sitting – the show is warm and engaging, with both setbacks and small victories that are readily relatable.

A creator of shows that are both provocative and popular, American maestro Ryan Murphy doesn’t pull any punches on his Netflix debut. Set in a wealthy Californian enclave, The Politician is simultaneously a political satire, teen melodrama, black comedy and knowing soap that is so confident in its tonal extremes that it forges a heightened netherworld. Running a campaign for student-body president that has daily polling and steely teenage strategists, Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) is so intent on building a platform to reach the White House that he’s a monomaniacal mess. Pampered by his adoptive mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow, wisely cast) and threatened by his Menendez-like brothers, Payton juggles ludicrous campaign crises and genuine self-doubt. The dialogue is withering and rapid-fire, with unexpected flourishes: tennis great Martina Navratilova is note-perfect in her small role. It’s a study in elaborate excess, but nonetheless highly watchable.

Amazon Prime Video is determined to crack the next Game of Thrones. It just debuted the steampunk fantasy epic Carnival Row, which is ornately complicated but not actually that interesting, and is preparing to make a Lord of the Rings prequel series that will be the most expensive television show ever produced. Largely unnoticed, however, is the small and compelling Undone. Using rotoscoped animation, where live footage is traced over to create an untethered yet realistic viewpoint, the program is a science-fiction thriller and a stark domestic drama that follows a young Texan woman, Alma (Rosa Salazar), whose already uncertain life is fractured by the reappearance of her dead father (Bob Odenkirk). It’s a show about self-acceptance, told with transformative visuals. In a wonderful but unexpected way, the interior and the cosmic become intertwined.

In Brief: Sacha Baron Cohen finds a new avenue for his fraught impersonation in Netflix’s The Spy, where he plays real-life Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who went undercover in Syria in the 1960s. His jittery striving partially illuminates the character, but Israeli writer-director Gideon Raff frames it with familiar plot points and theatrical period detail that lack insight. Ramy on Stan is a sweetly authentic culturally specific comedy about the titular second generation Muslim-American (co-creator Ramy Youssef) slacker drawn between conflicting hopes. Finally, one of Netflix’s best sitcoms, the philosophy and snarky delight that is The Good Place, has returned with new weekly episodes. It’s the fourth and final season of Michael Schur’s ode to humanist absurdity, which might be the most welcome thing television in 2019 has to offer.

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

Merritt Weaver and Toni Collette in Unblieveable. Image courtesy Beth Dubber/Netflix

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