June 28, 2022

Television

App trap: ‘Chloe’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Television shows have been trying to represent the impact of the smartphone and social media for several years now, whether by stacking heart-shaped likes across the screen or turning text exchanges into vivid pull quotes. But until Chloe (Amazon Prime), a compulsive British thriller about the malleability of identity, the emotional impact of such technology has been muted. The defining image of the compact limited series is the rapt face of Becky Green (Erin Doherty), devouring an Instagram-like feed that supplies both the focus and the fantasy to her own flailing life. Watching her mother, Pam (Lisa Palfrey), disappear due to early-onset dementia, Becky gets sustenance from the account of Bristol influencer Chloe Fairbourne (Poppy Gilbert). When Chloe is found dead, Becky can’t help inserting herself into Chloe’s grieving circle to search for answers.

Created by Alice Seabright (Netflix’s Sex Education), Chloe is a juicy psychological drama that is willing to stoke the plot, adding excruciating tension and sudden twists. In giving herself a new identity that’s attractive to Chloe’s friends and grieving husband (Billy Howle), Becky is not just an infiltrator, she’s creating the life she’s always wanted. Her con has a measure of truth, with Becky’s discoveries about Chloe’s true life matched to details from Becky’s own unacknowledged past. It works so enjoyably well because Doherty, who was a flinty Princess Anne in The Crown, layers curiosity and self-loathing, social anxiety and a thief’s nerve, into her portrayal of a young woman who doesn’t believe any of the narratives society has offered her generation. Becky keeps her face neutral, like a screen waiting to project whatever feed gets loaded next. The show is digital pulp: there’s all kinds of intricate coding here.

Rote biopics about classic rock artists have become the Hollywood norm, but Pistol (Disney+) is a mishap for a different era of music: it renders punk rock uninspiring and doctrinaire. Adapted with considerable liberty by long time Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce from the 2017 memoir by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, the limited series turns the group’s cataclysmic rise and fall into an orderly tale of inspiration and struggle. Director Danny Boyle adds his trademark energy to the depiction of a stagnant mid 1970s Britain, but the idea that the band who unleashed Anarchy in the U.K. saw themselves as a corrective force is deeply flawed. The one actor who transcends their character’s scripted limitations is Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who vividly brings to life the impish machinations of the group’s manager, Malcolm McLaren.

Loot (Apple TV+) mostly manages to thread the finest of 2022 needles, with Maya Rudolph garnering laughs and a measure of empathy for a character who is the third wealthiest woman in America. Drenched in a luxury that is presented with aspirational lust, Rudolph’s Molly Wells is newly divorced from a tech titan (Adam Scott) and unfulfilled by global decadence. When she decides on a whim to work at the Los Angeles charity foundation that she’s ignored for seven years, Molly encounters the no-nonsense director, Sofia (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), and an idiosyncratic cross-section of employees. The show’s politics are resolutely personal, but as with the wonderful sitcom Parks and Recreation, for which Loot creators Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang both wrote, there’s a giddy energy and misfit warmth to these half-hour episodes. Score one for inequality’s PR team.

In brief: Tudor-era period dramas are a recurring topic for storytellers, but Becoming Elizabeth (Stan), in which the future Elizabeth I (Alicia von Rittberg) has to survive a viper-pit teenage upbringing upon the death of her father, Henry VIII, distinguishes itself by matching an electric intimacy to the Machiavellian power grabs. Despite the familiar outlines of a Marvel streaming series, the enjoyable Ms. Marvel (Disney+) manages to be a superpowered coming-of-age tale, with a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager, Kamala Khan (a terrific Iman Vellani), transcending the spaces that society has squeezed her into. A decade after it last aired, political junkies and fans of Nordic drama can again savour the corridors of Danish power with the return of Borgen (Netflix). In the fourth series, international geopolitics trump the minutiae of domestic policy, but Sidse Babett Knudsen’s portrayal of former prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, now the foreign minister in a coalition government, is a fascinating portrait of a female politician increasingly torn between her beliefs and the exercise of power. The season moves fast, but the questions it asks linger.

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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