The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of streaming TV on offer and nominates the best… and worst.
Just what I needed in these grim times was a good ol’ fashioned pick-me-up. Deadwater Fell isn’t that series. This four-part mini-series is a grim dirge of a drama as suggested by its rather foreboding title. Writer Daisy Coulam (Grantchester, Death in Paradise) appears to have plumbed the depths of her dark mind to uncover this tale of misery. Set to the backdrop of a dreary Scottish town, this crime drama focusses on a seemingly happy family who meets a firefly demise in their home but for the only survivor, Tom (David Tennant). The town quickly becomes suspicious of the part he might’ve played in the fire leading to dark looks, finger-pointing, and angry villagers with pitchforks at the ready. Despite the depressing subject matter Coulam and fellow director Lynsey Miller have done a fine job of slowly revealing each character’s back-story, dangling an apparent truth and then suggesting otherwise. It is undeniably well produced and acted, but it is also unbearably bleak. So… for many, now may not be the time. TW
Defending Jacob is a brooding, eight-part crime series based on a 2012 novel of the same name by William Landay, and its main star (and an executive producer) is Chris Evans (Captain America). The story is about a well-off married couple, Andy (Evans) and Laurie (Michelle Dockery) who have one child, 14-year-old son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Jacob is accused of murder that happened near his school. But is he guilty, or not? As the story unfolds, we learn that (surprise, surprise) Jacob turns out not to be as straightforward as he appears, and nor are other family members. The cinematography, sound and acting are uniformly great, except for Evans, who simply comes across as Captain America with a beard. This provides an obstacle to developing a deeper engagement with the unfolding story. Still, Martell’s acting is exceptional, and he manages to blend a mix of “hey, I’m just another regular 14 year old lad” with hints of someone far more complex, hidden and unknown. And that’s what keeps me interested in the series, which is basically a whodunit. CJ
For those who have animal-loving young kids at home and time to kill, this series is delightful. Each (very) short episode focuses on telling the story of the birth and growth of a different baby animal in the wild, with informative narration. David Attenborough documentaries can be a little overwhelming for kids but these bite-sized shows provide easily digestible and captivating glimpses of animal life. My 5-year-old watched most of the 13 episodes in one sitting, and has watched them again several times since.
Acorn specializes in English programmes, and it’s great to be able to catch up with shows like Miranda, which I missed the first time around. In retrospect, this comedy about a gangly 35-year-old woman comes across as a more mainstream, funnier cousin of the recent, award-winning Fleabag. As with that series, comedian Miranda Hart (who previously worked with French and Saunders) often talks directly to the screen during a scene, but there’s none of Fleabag’s darkness as Hart turns every excruciating scene into an opportunity for a good hearty laugh or two. Although it has that “canned” sitcom feeling (it was performed live in front of an audience) Miranda gets past that slight corniness through its superb performances and hilariously honest lines, and a bonus is seeing a younger Tom Ellis (Lucifer) as her chef friend. GS
This Old House is the granddaddy of modern reality TV, and practically the only product of the genre worth watching. Where most reality shows have a host that’s about as slick as snot (but far less charming than a booger), This Old House is presented by actual tradespeople who pick a house to renovate. In subsequent episodes, they step the viewer through each stage of the renovation process. By today’s standards, it breaks every rule of a successful TV production, and is all the better for it. The show is slow and unpolished, but each episode delivers loads of useful information and its hosts are genuinely authentic and real people who are – dare I say it – charming. There are no plastic personalities, made up drama or anything else that makes you want to throw the TV out the window. Having started in Boston in the 1970s and now in its 46th season, This Old House is highly recommended to anyone renovating or buying a home. PP
Apple is busting its US bubble with their latest original, Trying, an easily digestible feel-good comedy that that traces out the lives of two Londoner 30-somethings who are, yes, “trying” to have a baby. It’s no spoiler to say that they can’t conceive (you find that out early in Episode One) so they embark on a journey of adoption, discovering it’s a long-winded process that is fraught with many pitfalls. Prepare yourself for a predictable mix of likeable comedy and sentimental drama tightly packaged into eight half-hour episodes. There’s not much new ground broken here, but it’s undeniably warm and engaging thanks to the leads Rafe Spall and Esther Smith, who strike up a decent amount of chemistry and are surrounded by a solid cast that includes the versatile Imelda Staunton. Yes, Trying is whimsical and the couple’s cherry optimism as they flit around Camden and other recognisable London landmarks will have some groaning. It’s no Fleabag, but if you’re getting tired of the misery out there in TV-land then this is the perfect tonic. TW
Imagine a world where those who can afford it upload their consciousness before they die to spend eternity in a digital paradise. Upload is set in a future society where this very thing is possible. Death for the wealthy really need not mean it is the end at all, even if some wish it were. Penned by The Office co-creator Greg Daniels, Upload is an odd beast: part rom-com and part sci-fi, with a dash of comedy and a hint of murder mystery thrown in for good measure. The main character is Nathan (Robbie Amell) who has it all – a hot girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), a career as a hotshot coder, and a self-driving car (which plunges into a parked truck). Pulled from the wreckage, Nathan gets rushed to hospital where it turns out his injuries are fatal, and he doesn’t have long to live. His girlfriend persuades him to upload into the digital afterlife. The digital hereafter is run by a giant corporation who monetize every aspect without mercy, often with comic consequences. Unafraid to take a poke at the shitty marketing practices of today’s dot.com crowd, Upload delivers a wealth of cutting social commentary. PP
There are so many bog-standard children’s computer-animated films on the various streaming channels that it’s always a pleasure when something even a little more creative and imaginative turns up. The Willoughbys has an odd, eccentric and slightly gothic aroma that feels influenced by Tim Burton, but even though it’s advertised as suitable for kids seven years or over, our five-year-old was glued to the screen throughout. ‘Cat’ (who really is a cat and is voiced by Ricky Gervais) narrates the story of self-centred errant parents and their neglected kids who stage a rebellion. Nearly as entertaining for parents as it is for children, it’s all a bit of a wild ride and its idiosyncratic nature and oddly-drawn characters somehow never detract from a movie that is both clever and has a heart. Oh, and the music is by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo)! GS
There’s much to like about this dark 2018 drama shot in semi-rural Ireland and starring the phenomenal red-haired Carolina Main as Cat, who returns to her family home for the funeral of her mother, only to implicate her doctor Dad (played by Adrian Dunbar) in her Mum’s death. Blood has been highly acclaimed and soon there’ll be a second series; odd, given that the Big Question that hung over the first series was answered in the second-to-last episode. But there’s one big problem: Cat’s sometimes idiotic behaviour, and in particular an incident that leads directly to the death of her best friend. Yes, people do make silly decisions in real life, but too much of this feels like plot devices that haven’t been thoroughly figured out to the point where you’re screaming at the TV with rage. GS
The first season of Ozark was intriguing. Clearly based on a template set by Breaking Bad, it starred Jason Bateman as a dad caught up in a money-laundering scheme escaping with his family to a remote (and beautiful) lakes area of the Ozarks. The acting, character development and some shocking violence (and the everpresent threat thereof) kept me glued through the first series but there was a sense during the sequel that it was all getting a little ridiculous. The third season ups the savagery and turns wife Wendy Byrde (played Laura Liddle) into the chief provocateur in a really stupid deal with Mexican drug lords. And it’s just not believable. As always, there are some great performances (especially Tom Pelphrey as Laura’s doomed brother), but the plot devices are increasingly looking ludicrous and unbelievable. GS
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 week’s capsule television reviewers were: Gary Steel, Pat Pilcher, Charles Jameson and Toby Woollaston.