Culture

Television

Souls train: ‘The Underground Railroad’

By Craig Mathieson
June’s streaming highlights are led by an epic drama transcending its historical source with magic-realism

The scope of history is vast and nightmarishly brutal, yet also intimate and deeply observed, in The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime), the often masterful 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about slavery’s hold on America. Forged by the filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), the limited series follows an escaped slave, Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), whose journey across the Antebellum South captures a breadth of images and insights that don’t merely re-create the era, but also offer contemporary resonance. With its magic-realist gambit of the Underground Railroad having a physical form, a covert escape network shuttling souls northwards, the show is able to transcend period realism. Surviving this alternate world, let alone escaping it, requires both endurance and a sense of wonder.

Working with his regular collaborators, including cinematographer James Laxton and the remarkable composer Nicholas Britell, Jenkins opens up the inner lives of his central characters, whether it’s Cora or Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), the cunning slave catcher who pursues her. Cora is witness to unspeakable terrors, but she is not defined by these traumas. Her interior life, brought to bear by Jenkins’ lyrical and insightful compositions, adds strands of hope, familial regret and love, first for her travelling companion Caesar Garner (Aaron Pierre) and later Royal (William Jackson Harper), a freedman who changes her trajectory. Jenkins, who helms every episode, has always been a director with a tactile technique – he makes the audience intuitively feel what his characters experience. Here, that individual focus accumulates, so that slavery’s institutional oppression has a damning specificity. This immense series is an epic rich in humanity.

As a biographical rise-and-fall story, the fashion industry drama Halston (Netflix) has a predictable trajectory, but its re-creation of 1960s and 1970s New York culture – especially the disco decadence of Studio 54 – and the fabulous archival designs of its titular subject, at least give the narrative a pleasurable jolt of energy. As played by Ewan McGregor with arch conviction, albeit lacking patrician grace, Halston is a bundle of arrogance, brilliance and barely suppressed neuroses – the episode in which he develops a fragrance is basically psychoanalysis by scent. Sharr White’s series has celebrity references – with Krysta Rodriguez playing Halston’s bestie, Liza Minnelli – and a cautionary theme of commerce ruining creativity, but it underplays fascinating figures such as Halston’s atelier muse Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), who struggled to define her own creative sensibility as Halston’s shadow darkened and grew.

Why are there so many girl groups and so few women groups? The delightfully daffy American comedy Girls5eva (Stan) has a few ideas, depicting the present-day reunion of a turn-of-the-century MTV-friendly quintet as a quick-witted study of what women are offered in their forties. Basically, there’s a lack of choices, little understanding and minimal cultural spaces. This is all illustrated with absurd gags delivered as serious observations and a keen sense of comedic self-realisation for the four remaining members of Girls5eva, who get another 15 seconds of fame when a successful hip-hop artist nostalgically samples their signature hit. Meredith Scardino’s show mocks the music business, while acknowledging how toxic it is, as well as the trappings of celebrity, but it also sees the four women as actual people whose endless mishaps just might be part of their personal progression (while remaining very funny).

The interwoven history and geography of Los Angeles has been documented by voices as diverse as the hardboiled crime novels of James Ellroy and Thom Andersen’s Hollywood essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. Now you can add City of Ghosts (Netflix) to the list, an animated children’s series that is so intricate, genuine and thoughtful that its appeal should be obvious to any age group. Created by Elizabeth Ito, the half-dozen 20-minute episodes follow a group of children who make documentaries about the spectral exiles in various neighbourhoods. With a visual palette that mixes photorealism and idiosyncratic character design, these stories of youthful understanding are laden with empathy. Thomas, Eva, Zelda and Peter don’t try to banish these spirits; instead they coax them to be interviewed and share their stories. Heart-warming is often used as a dismissive description, but City of Ghosts is the terrific endorsement of exactly that.

In Brief: Bitingly perceptive about the demands of sisterhood and the struggle to stay upright as mental health difficulties mount, This Way Up (Stan) is a London-set comedy about a pair of Irish siblings, played by the show’s creator Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan, whose connection runs from caring to caricature. Their bond might suggest Fleabag, but the series has its own bittersweet identity. Rescued from streaming obscurity, StartUp (Netflix) is a routine Miami crime drama that is obvious in its menace, though it boasts a fascinating if against-type performance by Martin Freeman (Sherlock) as a corrupt FBI agent. Post-apocalyptic realms tend to resemble a Mad Max movie, but in the black New Zealand comedy Creamerie (SBS on Demand) the virus that kills every man alive makes for a brave new (female) world where the positive tenets of wellness try to drown out the considerable trauma. The humour is drily askew, not laugh out loud, but it adds up as the plot unfolds.

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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