The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of streaming TV on offer and nominates the best… and worst.
The idea of watching a drama about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster doesn’t really yank my crank, but this acclaimed mini-series turns out to be quietly compelling viewing. It’s the creeping terror of the situation and the deft and understated way the story is handled as it unfolds that makes it special and separates it from the average disaster flick. At times it’s hard to watch and it’s excruciating to experience the utter stupidity of just about everyone in the chain of events in Soviet-controlled Russia. Told without unnecessary dramatization, it really tells two stories: that of the victims, and of the people who came in to try and sort out the disaster. In the end, it’s a morality tale about the abnegation of responsibility that comes with a dictatorship and the absence of freedom. GS
Devil Next Door (Netflix)
This 5-part documentary tells the story of a quiet retired Ukrainian, John Demjanjuk, who in the 1980s was accused of being the Nazi death camp sadist ‘Ivan the Terrible’, where he forced men, women and children into the gas chamber with a sword, sometimes cutting off body parts on the way. Largely constructed with scratchy TV news and courtroom footage from the time and interviews with the main players (then and now) in the various court cases that ensued, it’s the deft way it’s edited that keeps you guessing. Often heart-in-mouth because the stakes are so high, the film is predicated to put the onus of judgment on the viewer, who will doubtless find themselves questioning their own judgment as new evidence pops up to suggest that previous assumptions are wrong. It raises many important questions that can’t just be glibly debated on a Facebook timeline, and many of the show’s characters – both from the prosecution and the defence – are still dealing with the ramifications decades later. A must-see. GS
Fleabag (Prime Video)
With a mantelpiece full of awards, but unlike so many critics’ favourites, it’s an entertaining watch, too. Fans of British shows like Sex Education and After Life (Ricky Gervais) will love Fleabag, as it falls somewhere between the shock-humour approach of the former and the gentler characterisation of the latter. Creator/writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars as an eccentric young woman navigating life and love in her completely uncompromising way, and by drawing you into her mindset the viewer feels the full strength of the story’s ongoing calamitous tragi-comedy. And as with After Life, the brevity of each episode really keeps you hooked. GS
I Am A Killer (Netflix)
There are so many crime documentaries on streaming TV that you could spend your life getting a very warped idea of reality, but for anyone who has ever wondered exactly how someone ends up on death row, the two series-worth of I Am A Killer is hugely educational. Unlike the repellent, staged and moralising Piers Morgan series, Confessions Of A Serial Killer, I Am A Killer is refreshingly dispassionate. Each episode takes its time, allowing the death row inmate to tell his story, and cutting away to interview both relatives and friends of the killer as well as those of the victim. There’s nothing sensational here, the crimes are often banal and meaningless, and the killers more often than not admit their crimes and agree that they should die or remain in prison. But as one lawyer says: “Should you be defined by the worst thing you’ve done?”
I Am Not Your Negro (DocPlay)
There are loads of great documentaries on Netflix and several other streaming platforms, but the place to go for dedicated doco-watching is DocPlay, one of the few places you can also see Aussie and NZ films as well. I Am Not Your Negro wowed the critics on release in 2016, but stuck at home with young kids I didn’t get the opportunity to see this powerful film until now. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film utilises an unfinished manuscript by the great James Baldwin, which weaves together the savage history of American racism by telling the stories of several civil rights leaders. What’s great is that, while it occasionally sounds like a polemic, there’s something poetic about Baldwin’s articulation that keeps the viewer gripped through his wandering observations. GS
Jack Ryan (Prime Video)
Jack Ryan, the fictional character crafted by Tom Clancy, played a central role in print and then the big screen, starring Harrison Ford. In this Amazon Prime series John Krasinski is Jack Ryan. The first series sees Ryan uncovering a pattern of financial transactions and communications that all point to potential terrorist threats. The bad guy, a rising Islamic extremist named Suleiman, gets a lot of airtime which adds depth to the show. That issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis are used as side stories and cleverly woven into the plot of the main story add to the show’s richness. Season One proved hugely popular, and now Ryan is back dealing with shady politics and assassinations in South America. The new series keeps up the hectic pace, and it mostly manages to avoid cliched cops and robber show pitfalls that have transformed so many similar thrillers into formulaic wallpaper. The sheer unpredictability and detail crammed into each episode make Jack Ryan a rewarding watch. PP
I’m surprised that the three seasons of Legion haven’t been talked up more, because here’s a series that isn’t quite like anything else around at the moment. You could say that it exists in its own televisual universe, or at least, in the mind of David Haller (played by Dan Stevens). Maybe it’s because its origins are in a Marvel comic, and people are unsurprisingly getting tired of superhero series. Legion is nothing like that. It’s never quite clear whether it’s a series about mental illness and Haller’s powers are all in his head, or otherwise, but the series is weaves a complex web of psychotically charged scenarios, and is constantly evolving and surprising. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to watch on drugs (well, I guess it’s a firm favourite with those inclined towards psychedelics) because it’s trippy enough all by itself, with oddball set designs and quirky everything. Occasionally the narrative gets a bit confused (well, I did, anyway) and the forward motion gets a little throttled by its weirdness, but overall, this show is something else (man). GS
Machete Maidens Unleashed (DocPlay)
I considered myself something of a connoisseur of cinematic trash until I watched this 2010 documentary about the exploitation films made in the Philipines in the 1970s, a genre that I was wholly blind to until now. Sure, I’ve seen films like Beast Of Blood and Women In Cages, but had no idea of the bizarre and frightening back story. Well researched and put together with verve and panache, Machete Maidens Unleashed is the kind of backgrounder that makes for eye-opening viewing regardless of whether you’ll ever watch the films it’s talking about, and like any good documentary, it explains the social and cultural context in which these films were made, and in this case, the paradox of the freedoms that spawned the films with the political repression of the place they were filmed. GS
Midnight Diner (Netflix)
We started watching this at the onset of the Covid-19 lock-down for a bit of light relief, and it’s low-key charm took hold after a couple of episodes. There’s a quaint, almost amateur, fly-on-the-wall quality to this show (two series so far) set almost entirely in a tiny Tokyo eating house that trades only between midnight and 7 am. There are regular clientele that you become familiar with over time but also fresh faces, always with a story to tell, sometimes tragic but always told with a delightfully warm touch. At times the characterisations are a bit over-accentuated but for the most part the actors come across so lifelike that it feels almost like a documentary. And for food fans, each short episode comes with its own culinary special. GS
Up until now Hayao Miyazaki’s heart-warming and deeply philosophical all-ages movies have been oddly absent from streaming platforms, but over the last couple of months, Netflix has been quietly adding the Studio Ghibli legend’s filmography, to the wonder of kids and adult children everywhere. Essentially a radical rewrite of the classic The Little Mermaid story, Ponyo (2009) finds a goldfish with a human head befriending a human boy and, of course, doing everything she can to become human. As with most of Miyazaki’s movies (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke are also highly recommended), there’s a deep well of Japanese zen-like folk wisdom embedded in the story, and Ponyo has replaced Frozen II as her current watch-repeat-watch-repeat obsession. And thank goodness for that! PS, Choose the subtitled version for a more authentic feel. GS
Tromeo & Juliet (Mubi)
Mubi – which features a carefully curated revolving selection of 30 international films at any one time – tends to show film festival titles. But they’re not snobs, as their current showcase of crappy 1980s Troma films shows. Its most notorious movie, The Toxic Avenger, has already been and gone but they’re currently streaming the so-bad-it’s-great 1996 reversioning of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. While lacking the appealingly tacky 1980s vibe of earlier Troma productions, fans of very dark comedies with lashings of sex and gore will find Tromeo & Juliet very appealing, but admittedly only if they’re able to tune into the juvenile delinquent that exists somewhere inside even the most sophisticated grownup.
This excellent (and important) series appears to have sunk without trace, which is odd in the age of the #MeToo movement. I guess that rape is a subject that’s hard to glamorise or turn into entertainment, and Unbelievable doesn’t try. The premise of this mini-series (based on a real case from 2015) is that a troubled teen is raped, but then recants her police statement when she faces the arduous and horribly intrusive process she’s then subjected to. Meanwhile, a serial rapist is on the loose, and we follow the two police detectives (played Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) as they investigate the cases. What’s instructive and brave about Unbelievable is that its methodical and almost documentary-like, which makes the reality of it all that much more emotionally shattering. Collette and Wever are fabulous: two very different characters who end up meshing for the common good and who become multidimensional over the course of the series. Ditto Kaitlyn Dever as the teen victim, whose portrayal is so candid that you can’t help crying at the injustice the system perpetuates.
Good Omens (Prime Video)
This could have been really good, but Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of the 1990 novel he wrote with Terry Pratchett is a giant miss. David Tennant has done a good job of jettisoning the curse of Dr Who by showing his adaptability on shows like Broadchurch, and there’s nothing especially wrong with his performance on Good Omens where he plays a demon jousting on earth with the Angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen). It’s the tone of this mini-series that lets it down, as it goes for a kind of black humour reminiscent of Tim Burton’s surreal world but completely lacking his sense of creativity, and burdened by overbearing narration. Despite a surfeit of special effects, Good Omens is actually boring. GS
The Handmaid’s Tale (Lightbox)
This heavy handed morality tale is a bit like watching a horror movie like SAW spread over three tortuous and progressively more infuriating seasons. Okay, we get it: if a fundamentalist Christian cult got its way and wrestled control of the government and took control of women (and by extension, their bodies) then life would basically suck. Elisabeth Moss is great, but there’s only so much she can do with a story that essentially goes nowhere except down the gurgler. Do yourself a big favour and find Volker Schlondorff’s excellent 1990 movie of the Margaret Attwood novel, which also boasts a rather lovely score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
MasterChef Australia (TVNZ On Demand)
My wife is a big MasterChef fan. This means I get to watch it most nights whether I want to or not. I take a particularly dim view of reality TV’s manufactured drama and usually find reality TV exploitative of its contestants. In MasterChef, this translates into a series of increasingly intense cooking challenges which whittle down contestant numbers until a winner is finally chosen. If that was all it’d be fine, if not a touch formulaic and boring. Sadly, there’s so much more to dislike. While high profile Brit cooks Rick Stein, Nigella and Yotam Ottolenghi add sparkle, there isn’t much else going for the show. Add in some portentous and dramatic music, and you can almost see the sweat fly as the contestants race to crank out dishes in a seemingly impossible amount of time. All of this makes watching each episode stressful and dare I say it, fatiguing. The drama is clearly manipulated. People who love to cook and who pleasure out of learning new cooking techniques will find MasterChef lacking. If the show included useful stuff such as recipes and showcased cooking methods, it’d feel far more complete. As it stands, MasterChef Australia is more of a poorly constructed and overly flashy Big Mac than a gourmet delight. PP
Note: 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 and Pat Pilcher.