Watch This – The Best Streaming TV Shows

The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of streaming TV on offer and nominates the best… and worst.

 

Watch This is a regular column in which Witchdoctor’s TV-loving scribes assess the worth – or otherwise – of the vast trove available to stream. Unlike other media, our policy is to dig deep and go further than just Netflix or what’s new this week. This month’s capsule television reviewers were: Gary Steel, Pat Pilcher, Rebekah Davies and Toby Woollaston.

 

RAD!

Devs – spooky and different

Devs (Neon)

For those who like it dark but different, new 7-part series Devs is a must-see. This Hulu series stars Sinoya Minuzo as software developer Lily Chan, whose boyfriend (employed by a top-secret division of the same company) is framed as a suicide. Naturally, she’s like a ferret after a snake, but it’s so much more than a typical thriller. There’s some fabulous dry humour amidst the fretting and philosophic pondering brought on by the closely guarded technological secret at the heart of the, um… murder. (Don’t worry, I’m not telling you anything you won’t learn early on in the show anyway, and it’s a series where the journey matters more than revelations, anyway). Yes, Devs takes its good, ruminative time, but this is a class act. GS

 

Don’t F**k With Cats is more than it seems to be

Don’t F**k With Cats (Netflix)

There is loads of serviceable documentary fare on Netflix, but too often quite slim concepts are seemingly given carte blanche to expand into a whole bloated series when one episode would have done nicely. When I began watching the 2019 documentary Don’t F**k With Cats it was very tempting to quickly dismiss the 3-episode documentary as something of limited interest. Who wants to follow a few internet nerds ‘hunting’ down a YouTube cat murderer online? A good documentary will keep adding on the intrigue, and despite what seems like a rather computer-bound piece, Don’t F**k With Cats does just that. As it goes on you inevitably start to feel affectionately towards the cat-love do-gooders, and especially the Vegas IT specialist the show focuses on. But there are surprises in store that make it much more than simply about online animal cruelty, and it’s deftly handled. GS

Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Pérsecution (MUBI)

Perhaps I should have paid better attention to the title; some things are hidden in plain sight. In any case, I found this 2009 film gruelling. Starring Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pérsecution is billed as ‘romance/drama,’ however it is heavy on the drama, and almost devoid of any romance as far as I can tell. Duris, as Daniel, is a tormented young man given to histrionic displays and anguished crying jags. His relationship with the stoic Sonia (Gainsbourg) is painful to watch as he runs circles around her with his paranoia and insecurity. To further complicate matters, a man has fallen in love with him after a chance encounter on the street, and is relentlessly stalking him. This man may or may not be a figment of Daniel’s imagination. Sounds heavy? It is. If emotional intensity and theatrical tension is your thing, then Pérsecution will more than satisfy your predilections. RD

 

Creepy drama Servant

Servant (AppleTV+)

AppleTV+ has cast a wide net in its opening salvo of programming. Servant represents the tech giant’s foray into that indefinable category of downbeat chills that M. Night Shyamalan seems to have mastered. It’s a 10-parter that skirts the edges of the Shyamalan’s uncanny brand of creepy drama as it traces the fortunes the Turner family. Dorothy is suffering a mental breakdown after the mysterious death of her baby, Sean is trying to keep her horrific secret in the dark, and their new nanny is a religious-ultraconservative straight out of Gloriavale. Oh, and Ron Weasley pops is from time to time to drink their wine. A chamber piece of sorts, Servant never ventures too far from the Turner household, instead letting the characters boil in their own caustic malaise. Fans of Shyamalan will get off on this sombre, brooding spook-fest, and as with any genre piece, focused film-making is what hold this series together. There’s plenty of inventive camera-work that avoids the wankometer, although beware, some cliches are hiding in the shadows and the score is perhaps a little heavy handed. But on the whole Shyamalan and his stable of directors maintain a consistent tone throughout. It’s unclear if this will be back for another round, and I’d like to think not as the series leaves us on a satisfying (albeit rather opaque) note. TW

 

Patrick Stewart returns as Captain Picard

Star Trek Picard (Prime Video)

Jean-Luc Picard is back in this new series, but he seems fragile and closer to Patrick Stewart’s actual age of 79. The Federation also appears to have turned isolationist in response to a terror attack. It’s a stark change from the optimism of the original series. While a darker and morally ambiguous take on Star Trek, it feels more grown-up and less kiddy-widdy. Unsurprisingly, this saw mixed reactions from Trekkies. Some saw it as giving the franchise a contemporary feel, while others thought it was too dark. Either way, it makes for good viewing, even if it isn’t every Trekkie’s cup of Earl Grey. Things kick off when Picard meets an android who is then exterminated by the Romulan secret police. Establishing that the android has a twin, Picard sets out to make sure she doesn’t meet the same fate. This premise is used to bring in other Star Trek cast members, each of whom seems older, greyer, and glad of the opportunity for paid work. For fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are opportunities aplenty to reminisce. While Star Trek Picard opts for a grittier story, it also feels more robust. A downside, however, is that – unlike its predecessor – characters aren’t given much headroom for development. PP

 

The Stranger puts the thrill back in thriller

The Stranger (Netflix)

If there is such a thing as the TV version of a page-turner then this is it. The Stranger is a Netflix original that’s perfect for bingeing on those cold lockdown evenings—a British eight part thriller-drama bursting with familiar faces and packed full of twisty-turny “no way!” moments. The series centres on the Price family, a regular middle-class family, but with a slew of secrets to hide. When Adam, is approached by a mysterious stranger who whistleblows his wife’s fake pregnancy, the story heads down a deep rabbit hole of red herrings, dead ends, and yes, murder! There is a sense of Happy Valley or Broadchurch in its blend of family drama with police procedural, although The Stranger is a lot looser in plausibility—you don’t have to dig far below the surface to find plot holes. Clearly, The Stranger wants to keep you above ground, and it’s at this level where the series operates best, cleverly distracting you with a barrage of intriguing plot twists and character wrinkles. Each episode will have you craving for the next, so take it at face value and get aboard the binge train. TW

 

Tales From The Loop features amazing imagery

Tales From The Loop (Prime Video)

Amazon’s latest sci-fi series, Tales From The Loop, is based on the art of Simon Stålenhag, who combined utopian rural scenes with surreal sci-fi. The series looks at life in a small Ohio town that is home to a physics research facility called The Loop. In each episode, residents collide headlong with bizarre science fiction scenarios. Where most sci-fi is about tech, Tales From The Loop uses the sci-fi as a vehicle for exploring and developing its characters. The idyllic rural landscape is littered with unusual objects based on Stålenhag’s art. They’re never explained or mentioned. In doing this, the show’s creators cleverly let the viewers’ own imaginations fill in the blanks. Tales From The Loop has a recurring cast of characters, and plots often overlap. Each episode also works as a standalone story. It also combines smart storytelling with engaging characters. Each episode has a delicious sense of melancholy, which helps make for particularly engaging viewing. It’s not fast-moving, but richly rewards over time as more details are teased out and plots/subplots get revealed. PP

 

The Outsider

The Outsider (Neon)

I’m so jaded with the number of half-cooked Stephen King adaptations hitting the screens lately that I almost avoided this moody, noir-like interpretation of the book of the same name. Silly me. While sometimes it moves a little too slowly, The Outsider is a 10-part series that builds up a genuinely creepy atmosphere by taking an almost fly-on-the-wall approach to the filming. While sometimes this feels oddly disconnected, at other times it works a treat and it aids the sense of real characters going about their real lives; and ultimately, it serves the shocking parts, when they come, really well. Starring co-producer Jason Bateman (as a presumed child-killer), Ben Mendelsohn as a tortured cop and Cynthia Erivo as an autistic investigator, it’s a flawed but fascinating diversion. GS

 

Film noir from 1959 in Two Men In Manhattan

Two Men In Manhattan (MUBI)

Sumptuous establishing shots of a nighttime Manhattan – moody in black and white and on the cusp of the ‘60s – may lead the viewer to think they’re in for a stock standard Film Noir exploration of lust and betrayal, albeit a nicely photographed one. Those elements are intact in this 1959 film, as are the ennui and existentialism. However, Two Men In Manhattan is a class above. French director Jean-Pierre Melville cannily cast himself in the lead as a reporter searching for a missing United Nations delegate. After enlisting the help of a sozzled paparazzo, hauntingly played by Pierre Grasset, the pair begin an enigmatic midnight tour of Manhattan and Brooklyn hot on a cold trail. There’s a show-stopping performance from jazz singer Glenda Leigh, but a wisecracking Jewish diner proprietor steals the movie when he exclaims: “Those Frenchie’s make me meshugga!” There’s much to like here. RD

 

BAD!

 

Series 2 of Altered Carbon is a profound disappointment

Altered Carbon (Netflix)

I felt alone in loving the first series of Altered Carbon, a sci-fi series that was hard to like and hard to get into but – after a shaky first few episodes – gathered pace and became turned into a genuinely bizarre and interesting viewing experience. Given the opprobrium lobbed at that first series I was excited when a second series turned up. But as one dull episode rolled into the next my enthusiasm wilted on the vine. The idea that in the distant future we’ll be able to assume new bodies (“skins”) is fine, but can get really confusing, because you never really know who is who. Add to that that it’s a dialogue mumble-fest and it gets tired very fast. I tried really hard, but by the final episode I still didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Big miss. GS

 

Westworld Series 3 – more pointless stringing along

Westworld (Neon)

The first series was full of intrigue and surprise and red herrings. The second series was more of the same, but by halfway through we’d realised our folly. They were making it up as they went on and it didn’t make much sense. The only really surprising thing about series 3 is that there is a third series, and by now it’s become completely predictable in its unpredictability and we just feel like we’ve been led up the garden path and left to rot in a maz of death. Back in the time of Lost, ‘keep you guessing’ shows like this made sense because television was so rotten at its core that there wasn’t much else to chew on. Now, in the age of streaming, there are endless options and most of them are better than this. GS

 

If you’d be keen on contributing to this regular capsule review column, email garys@witchdoctor.co.nz

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