July 31, 2019

Television

Streaming highlights: July 2019

By Craig Mathieson

Derry Girls. Image courtesy of Netflix

Low-profile comedies ‘Flowers’, ‘Workin’ Moms’ and ‘Derry Girls’ beguile; ‘Veronica Mars’ revived; and Netflix and Marvel break up

For a company that industry analysts estimate will spend upwards of AU$20 billion on content in 2019, Netflix is having a patchy year. The streaming service has delivered a handful of exceptional new series, including the cosmic black comedy Russian Doll, the animated (and already cancelled) avian ode to female friendship that was Tuca & Bertie, and the wrenching imprisonment drama When They See Us, but these successes have hardly been overwhelming. This month, Netflix released the third season of its 1980s adolescent science-fiction adventure Stranger Things, which is approaching a Game of Thrones level of pop culture obsession, complete with an awkward storytelling style and a giddy body-horror sensibility. The show has the sugary taste and evaporative form of fairy floss.

What a poor month in original series and movies means is that you need to venture deeper into Netflix’s vast server racks. The company’s engorged spending doesn’t just cover newly commissioned originals, it also picks up the international streaming rights to shows that previously debuted via other broadcasters. Easily the best thing I saw on Netflix in July was the just-added British comic drama Flowers, which has two perfectly formed seasons of six half-hour episodes each that tie together grotesque absurdism, bittersweet melancholy, English eccentricity and a tender examination of mental illness. First seen on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2016, the previously unheralded series stars Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt as Deborah and Maurice Flowers, a married couple with two adult children very much still at home, whose relationship is foundering due to the latter’s depression. Creator Will Sharpe, who also plays a Japanese illustrator valiantly trying to motivate Maurice, a children’s book author, has fashioned a recognisable genre into something beguiling and original.

Two other low-profile comedies seconded to Netflix worth considering: the tart Canadian sitcom Workin’ Moms, where balancing a baby and a job (plus a partner) is an obstacle course of drily ludicrous proportions, has just added a second season, while shortly the Northern Irish farce Derry Girls, an exuberant expression of poor teenage decisions set against a backdrop of the country’s divisive recent history, adds another six episodes.

The perpetual need that streaming services have for content – which will only be exacerbated as Disney and Apple introduce their own streaming platforms over the next 12 months – also means that many long-finished shows are actually perpetual candidates for revival. Stan debuted the fourth season of Veronica Mars, which began in 2004 as a teenage mystery starring Kristen Bell (The Good Place) as a high-school student and nocturnal private eye. With a feel for sunny Californian neo-noir, the show’s sniping dialogue was matched to a sometimes complex reckoning with guilt and punishment. Veronica Mars originally concluded in 2007 after three long seasons, but cult fandom and DVD sales led to a crowdfunded movie in 2014 (Stan has all of these previous iterations) and now an eight-episode fourth season. While it’s still set in the fictional seaside town of Neptune, the writing acknowledges the passing of time, both as a creator of change and a burden that can’t be lifted.

Another ramification of companies such as Disney setting up their own shop is that existing alliances are being unwound. Disney’s Marvel division, home to the dominant slew of blockbuster comic book movies, previously supplied Netflix with series adapted from its numerous printed titles. Only one of the half dozen or so shows cut through: Jessica Jones. A study of sexual trauma and self-loathing, the series starred Krysten Ritter as the titular private detective (living on the opposite coast to Veronica Mars) whose enhanced physical abilities made her a weapon that was rarely wielded wisely. Netflix barely acknowledged the show’s third and final season, but even with an overly long 13-episode run (every season of Jessica Jones sags in the middle) it stayed true to a distinctly female sense of endurance and solidarity. The relationship that mattered most was between Jessica and her best friend, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), whose decades together spilled over into sacrifice and rivalry. All three seasons, but particularly the first, are worth rediscovering before Disney reclaim them.

In brief: Netflix’s The Last Czars attempts to put a Romanov spin on The Crown, while augmenting the palatial drama with commentary from historians. If that sounds like a strange hybrid, the result is downright disappointing. The dramatic scenes have no connective tissue or genuine sense of the characters, while the talking heads are only briefly featured, allowing for commentary so basic it’s more picture book than textbook. And there’s way too much Rasputin (Ben Cartwright). SBS On Demand has picked up all four seasons of the post-apocalyptic comedy Last Man on Earth, a preposterously amusing version of life after a deadly virus has swept the planet. As the initially lone survivor, Phil Miller, the show’s star, Will Forte, is the comedic personification of the American schmuck: craven, scheming, privileged but perpetually aggrieved, and unwilling to admit to any of it. The world couldn’t be in worse – or funnier – hands.

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.

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