It’s August of a year that most of us would rather forget (and one that is still far from over) and in the absence of noteworthy film releases, your intrepid reviewer is still scouring the Web for some worthy recipients of your time.
If you have Netflix, there are a number of good limited run series, some in their second seasons, that might have escaped your attention. Many of them tread on the darker side (even the ‘comedy’ series), but all are fairly entertaining and worth a look.
To begin with, a few dark thrillers and police procedurals, (all of them British). Collateral starring Carey Mulligan, makes for a very intense four hours. As scripted by David Hare, Collateral has Mulligan’s perceptive, determined police inspector investigating the murder of a pizza delivery boy in South London. Although we soon discover who the killer is, what ensues is a complex exploration of politics, the military, sexism, immigration and British intelligence, and all measures of social unrest. To his credit, Hare and a capable cast directed by S.J. Clarkson manage to create an entertainment that is generally satisfying, especially since it provides no easy answers. Another procedural (now in its third season) is Marcella. When you locate it, you’ll see it described as “Nordic noir,” which seems pretty apt, as it concerns a police detective (Anna Friel – riveting) who is as good at her job as she is sorely dysfunctional in her private life, complete with blackouts that just may have some significance regarding an investigation (from the first season). If “Nordic conjures up bleak and cold (with a side of unforgiving), the first season of Marcella certainly fills the bill, but it is anchored by some fine performances (Friel and Sinead Cusack), and a mystery that is intriguing and plausibly developed.
Harlan Coben has developed a cottage industry in “page-turners,” usually containing a protagonist who is leading a life of some contentment, until he or she is forced to confront a sin from the past. Currently on Netflix there are three adaptations of Coben’s work that have been adapted by British filmmakers with (predominantly) British casts. The two that I viewed, Safe and The Stranger, are similar in that a revelation in the first episode leads the protagonists on some kind of desperate search and some unfortunate discoveries. Safe, starring Dexter’s Michael C. Hall (with a mostly credible British accent) is perhaps the lesser of the two, as Hall’s intrepid surgeon widower (or widowed surgeon) frantically tries to find his teenage daughter, who has gone missing around the same time her boyfriend winds up floating dead in a pool (at a neighbor’s house party gone amok). His private investigations occasionally help and sometimes hinder the police investigation led by family friend/current lover Amanda Abbington (Sherlock, Mr. Selfridge). The plot machinations and the quality performances (including French actress Audrey Fleurot as a compromised teacher in an underdeveloped subplot) make this worth seeing, but The Stranger, the more recent entry is far more effective. It stars Richard Armitage as a lawyer helping retired police detective Stephen Rea hold on to his home despite some venal real estate developers (led by Anthony Head, as Armitage’s father) seeking to demolish it. But the case is not the protagonist’s main concern, not when a stranger (Hannah Jean-Kamen) appears “out of the blue” to tell Armitage some devastating information regarding his wife—who also winds up missing. Armitage’s quest to find his wife dovetails with the increasingly ubiquitous “stranger’s” attempts to wreak havoc on his and other people’s ordered existences. Armitage’s gripping performance is mainly what elevates this Stranger over Safe, but he is aided and abetted by several clever plot turns, and some fine supporting work from Stephen Rea, Anthony Head, Jennifer Saunders (as a bake shop owner embroiled in the stranger’s stratagems, and Sihoban Finneran as a police detective (and good friend of Saunders’) who finds that one of her investigations intersects with the one conducted by Armitage. The Stranger is a compulsively watchable mini-series that makes one look forward to future Coben adaptations.
In terms of the lighter side of Netflix, it can still be a little dark, especially with regard to two returning series, both of which, I’m happy to say, are even better than their first season. In the case of The Politician, I was pleasantly surprised. The first season was fitfully entertaining, as pampered and privileged Ben Platt’s Payton stops at nothing in the early stages of his quest to become President of the United Srates—in this case, beginning with president of the high school student body. Platt/Payton has problems, starting with his own abrasive personality and extending to various tangled relationships, including his “political rival River (his honorable, charismatic ex played by David Corenswet), River’s ex-girlfriend Astrid (Lucy Boynton), his adoptive mother and father (Gynneth Paltrow and Bob Balaban), and an “ill” classmate named Infinity (Zoey Deutsch) and her meddlesome mother (Jessica Lange, devouring the scenery). In spite of my misgivings over the first season (at times, I was just waiting for Ben Platt to show off his considerable singing talents—which he did in a few episodes), I tuned for the second—and was glad I did. Some of the regulars were given more to do (especially Platt’s Saving Evan Hansen castmate Laura Dreyfuss as Payton’s intelligent, dedicated campaign manager) but the major saving grace was the addition of Judith Light as Platt’s rival for the Senate and Bette Midler as Light’s longtime campaign manager. They are both formidable antagonists to the uncertain Payton (in writing and execution) and whenever Light and Midler are onscreen (either alone or in tandem) they provide endless jolts of energy and flawless comic timing, and even lend some much-needed credibility to the far-fetched proceedings.
Along with The Politician, Dead to Me, in the capable hands of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, is also enjoying a second season that is superior to the first—but here I was surprised because I couldn’t figure how they could top a stellar first season. However, the writers (led by Liz Feldman, who created the series), found a way, as Cardellini’s warm, well-intentioned but flighty Judy befriends Christina Applegate’s cynical, grieving widow Jen and forge a friendship that endures despite some seemingly insurmountable obstacles. (If you didn’t see the first season, I don’t want to spoil things.) I will say the second season is a little less dark and even funnier, and the writers are consistently ingenious in propelling the storyline forward. Besides the two leads, the supporting players, including James Marsden as Judy’s husband and Natalie Morales as a new friend for Judy, are uniformly excellent. I can hardly wait (though I may have to) for the third season of Dead to Me. Hopefully, you’ll catch up with it—and it will catch on with you.