Culture

Television

Voices carry: ‘Calls’

By Craig Mathieson

Among March’s streaming highlights is a sci-fi thriller making clever use of telephone and radio exchanges

Given the deluge of new shows and original movies coming to streaming services, it’s not surprising that creators are looking to fashion a distinguishing trait. Calls, a science-fiction thriller on Apple TV+, has a novel (and somewhat ironic) feature: it’s a scripted drama comprising telephone calls, radio exchanges and other auditory communications. Accelerating to panic – “it had your face,” a terrified woman in New York tells her boyfriend in Los Angeles, after sighting a figure outside her home – with a flash-forward opening, this remake by filmmaker Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe) of a French series makes the most of the idea that there’s nothing worse than what you can’t see but only imagine. You listen carefully to each short episode, read emotions and try to filter the increasingly uneasy background noise. The best moments are genuinely tense.

Is this a podcast on your screen? Not exactly. There is a visual component, which includes unfurling transcription of the voices, patterned graphics and pulsing colours – it’s a mix of omniscient surveillance apparatus and mood board. With its inexplicable duplications and diversions, the plot nods to Stephen King, with the subsequent instalments threading together as a horror-strewn countdown. The format makes clear which members of the extensive cast have a future in voice acting (Rosario Dawson) and which don’t (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the need for the viewer to remain attentive does accentuate any slip in the standard of writing, which folds in mordant humour and life-shifting realisations. Calls falls short of greatness, but it emphasises that the next step in the streaming wars just might be based on stretching the boundaries of what a series can be.

Another sign of the times: HBO, the creator of signature American culture such as The Sopranos and Sex in the City, now has a European arm commissioning original works. Beforeigners (SBS On Demand) is the first Norwegian-language program from the cable giant (which is morphing into a global streaming service). A science-fiction allegory about migration and racism, it’s set in a present-day Oslo where each night, in the harbour, desperate new arrivals turn up – from the past. These citizen refugees – from the Stone Age, the Viking era and the 19th century – struggle to assimilate and face discrimination. It’s a weighty concept that the show explores through multiple styles. There’s a workplace comedy, a murder procedural focused on police detective Lars (Nicolai Cleve Broch) and his rookie partner, a Viking shield maiden called Alfhildr (Krista Kosonen), and the exploration of trauma that Alfhildr carries with her from the 10th century. It’s a fantastical framework that can’t help but feel timely – this is a world where the unbelievable has been shoehorned into the everyday.

The superhero-industrial complex continues to multiply. Having concluded the middling WandaVision, Disney+ rolled straight into another Marvel spin-off series releasing weekly Friday night episodes, with the sidekicks now centrestage in action-adventure The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But streaming’s headline comic book event was Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Binge), a four-hour extended version of the dismal 2017 film Justice League, based on the DC Comics supergroup of the same name. A symphony of greys and slow-motion, the newly engorged edit restores the vision of Snyder, the director charged with teaming up Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) until he departed mid-production due to personal loss. Snyder deserves his elevation to titular possession – this CGI epic has a ludicrously overblown commitment to displays of might and the simplest of sentiment. He’s an auteur of excess.

In brief: Netflix continues to stoke its research-driven recommendation algorithm with pulpy English thrillers that are the contemporary equivalent of 1980s miniseries. Behind Her Eyes is an otherworldly-tinged romantic thriller that climaxes with a truly bananas, multiple-twist finale, while The One is an enjoyably distracting mystery about a driven female tech mogul whose company has cracked the scientific matching of soulmates. Stan has unearthed 2014’s under-appreciated Doll & Em, a bittersweet tale of female friendship in Hollywood created by and starring Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells as versions of themselves. The postwar Berlin drama Shadowplay (SBS On Demand) tries to connect multiple storylines about the occupied city, including Russian machinations, macabre crime networks and a seral killer targeting Nazi remnants. Only half of these gambits connect, but the best – a group of women trying to staff a nascent police force – is a showcase for the brilliant German actor Nina Hoss. Sometimes the only distinguishing trait a show needs is a compelling performance.

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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