The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as worthy catalogue offerings.
Bon Appétit (YouTube) 8/10
We all have our guilty pleasures, and mine takes the form of Bon Appétit’s test kitchen, where chef Claire Saffitz reverse-engineers junk food to craft superior homemade versions. Bon Appétit is the child of US media giant Condé Nast and it’s to food media what Cuisine magazine is to New Zealand. The significant difference is that the show has detail and personality. Saffitz doesn’t just whip up an instant treat for your viewing pleasure. The homemade versions she crafts typically take two to four days to perfect, and there are usually more than a few failures and lessons learned along the way.
Saffitz always looks exhausted near the end of each session where she eventually completes what she’s been crafting, and it’s hard not to root for her every step of the way. Helping things along is a cast of likeable people and authentic interactions from the test kitchen staff. The test kitchen manager, Gaby Melian, is bubbly, fun, and very engaging. Each episode not only clues you in to the minutiae of crafting wholesome food but letting the various test kitchen characters be themselves seems to really pay off. This makes for a refreshing change from the over-thought-out and overproduced food shows that clutter YouTube. PAT PILCHER
Castle Rock (Neon) 7.5/10
There’s such an insane glut of quality streaming TV at the moment that it’s very easy for shows to fall down the cracks. Or maybe I’m just slow. Castle Rock is a collaboration between JJ Abrams and Stephen King that attempts to bring together various of King’s abiding themes in two seasons (2018 and 2019 respectively) linked by the strange and possibly demonic goings-on in a small American town called Castle Rock.
While there’s a preponderance of under-performing Stephen King adaptations on the telly, this one pulls out all the stops with fabulous acting turns by the likes of Sissy Spacek, Melanie Lynskey and Tim Robbins and trippy and occasionally very gruesome visuals that – with the forest backdrop – can’t help but conjure up memories of Twin Peaks. The one flaw is that these stories really leave the viewer guessing, and as is the case so often with King, don’t seem to feel the need to resolve the stories into something that’s fully understood. Or maybe that’s just me. GARY STEEL
David Foster – Off The Record (Netflix) 2/10
It slowly dawned on me as I embarked on what I hoped would be a musical education that this is the man responsible for the death of popular music; the man charged with more crimes against good taste than anyone else. It was excruciating as one horrendous, tortuous act piled onto another, and another, and another, usually in ascending order of horribleness. For the uninitiated (and you’re very lucky if you are) Foster is the “multi-talented” talent agent (musical entrepreneur, producer, songwriter, blah-blah) behind a stunning roll-call of musical travesties, including Kenny G, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and recently, Michael Bublé.
He’s also the guy who chucked out the Chicago horn section to engineer that group’s execrable comeback on multi-platinum albums like Chicago 17. This litany of musical sins is described by Foster in Off The Record as something to be proud of and yeah, you guessed it, his ego is such that you get the sense that he had a say in every aspect of this dull faux-documentary. Ultimately, seeing inside Foster’s world that he lets us see – garish displays of his Grammy winnings and five failed marriages – still fails to reveal anything but a caricature. GARY STEEL
Humans (Acorn TV)
Set in suburban England in the near future in a world much like our own, humanity has become reliant “synths”. We’re not talking about cheesy Casio-tone keyboards, but human-like androids who tirelessly slog for humankind. Or do they? The Hawkins family purchase a synth, Anita. At first, she seems to be the answer to the family’s prayers. But it soon comes to light that Anita’s presence has consequences not one of them could have possibly anticipated.
For sci-fi fans wanting thought-provoking plots and engaging characters, Humans offers more than most sci-fi shows. You can’t help feeling queasy at the interactions between humans and these alarmingly real synths, and what comes to light over the three excellent seasons is the increasingly human-like consciousness of these biological machines and the inevitably mixed reactions from the old order of brainy apes. Humans feels timely and not that far ahead of where we might be in the near future. It’s sharply written and acted with great nuance. PAT PILCHER
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (Neon) 9/10
There’s a surplus of great documentaries on the streaming channels and the trend is to extend a story to series length. This can stretch things out interminably but in the case of the slow-burning I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, it’s worth taking in the six hour-long episodes to understand the complex network of consequences wrought by the crimes of one individual. There are many stories deftly woven into this narrative, and although those consequences all stem from the actions of one rapist/serial killer, this series easily transcends genre.
The Golden State killer – who committed 13 murders and more than 50 rapes in the ‘70s and ‘80s – is mostly elusive as the documentary tells the story of those who took it upon themselves to hunt him down nearly 40 years after the crimes were committed. Drawing on the research of writer Michelle McNamara, whose work ultimately led to the arrest of former cop Joseph DeAngelo, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark tells her story through her own words, filmed interviews and her husband (and executive producer), comedian Patton Oswalt. Tragically, McNamara died from the cocktail of prescription drugs she was using to help her with the stress of writing her book on the Golden State Killer less than a year before DeAngelo was finally identified. Packed with amazing detail and beautifully filmed and edited, the film reaches a gratifying (and tear-inducing) finale as many of his victims meet each other for the first time to celebrate the fiend’s arrest. GARY STEEL
Laurel Canyon (DocPlay) 9/10
Here’s a two-part documentary that anyone with a penchant for rock music from the Los Angeles scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s will find fascinating. While a TV show can never quite dig into the detail to the same degree as a book, Laurel Canyon is far removed from the typically superficial, heard-it-all-before coverage of rock’n’roll lore. This artfully shot, edited and compiled film mostly eschews the usual boring talking heads, and the audio of interviews is thankfully integrated into a kaleidoscope of historic film footage.
Fans of individual groups or artists may be disappointed, as even two hour-long episodes don’t allow for much specific exposition. But what Laurel Canyon does beautifully is evoke the era and tie the action and the art into the overall story. I was constantly reeling with how much incredible music came from Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s, and how much of a community they were at the beginning of the scene. While no time was given to my favourite Laurel Canyon musician, Frank Zappa, the documentary did mention that his rented house was for a time the ultimate hang-out for top musicians, freaks and hangers-on. Inevitably, key artists featured include Buffalo Springfield, Love, The Doors, the Mamas & The Papas, Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, but there’s so very much more. Sadly, with the corporatisation of creativity in the ‘70s, cocaine became the drug of choice and groups like The Eagles dissipated what had been a unique community. Essential viewing. GARY STEEL
Lovecraft Country (Neon) 8/10
Green Book meets Get Out in HBO’s latest offering. Lovecraft Country mixes a cocktail of period drama, horror, comedy, a hint of musical, a splash of documentary, and a face-slapping wallop of racial commentary. It’s a heady brew indeed, and if it doesn’t stir you from your viewing apathy then you might want to check your pulse. Set in the fifties, LC follows Atticus (whose name is an obvious nod to To Kill A Mockingbird’s topically relevant protagonist), a young black war veteran who receives a letter from his missing father promising a mysterious birthright.
Despite being estranged from his Dad, Atticus (played by the excellent Jonathan Majors) heads cross-state deep into green book territory in search for answers. What unfolds is a story that twists and turns at unexpected junctures, shifting from thoughtful drama to outrageous thrill-ride in a heartbeat. Born from Matt Ruff’s novel and sewn together by Misha Green’s golden pen, LC cleverly utilises H.P. Lovecraft’s monster-laden mythos to great allegorical effect and borrows liberally from producer Jordan Peel (Us), whose racially charged horror is clearly evident throughout, and JJ Abrams, who injects his accessible spooks. There’s so much going on, yet LC somehow avoids becoming a bloated and confusing mess. TOBY WOOLLASTON
Ted Lasso (AppleTV+) 6/10
Cheesy and overly nice US gridiron coach Ted Lasso scores a job training a soccer team in England. This M-rated comedy series begins with Ted’s first days of his new job, where he experiences creative abuse and hostility from players and the public – which he endures with an innocent smile on his face. Fans rightly wonder why the club’s owner, sexy rich power-driven Hannah Waddingham, has chosen this totally inexperienced overseas trainer. Turns out she’s done it for revenge.
Ted Lasso is snappily edited, and overall acting is lively and competent, but it does all seem rather lightweight, one-dimensional and cartoonish. After watching the first three episodes released, I still knew almost nothing about Ted other than his featherweight personality and relentless cheesy optimism. A flimsy comedy that’s only slightly better than average due to its creative use of M-rated metaphors, Ted Lasso is ultimately of only minor value. CHARLES JAMESON
The Rain (Netflix) 6.5/10
With Covid-19 being the singular world event of 2020, this Danish post-apocalyptic story of a man-made virus that wreaks havoc on civilization feels eerily prescient at times. The first series is especially compelling, and its plot, location and intriguing characters make it feel fresh. But the current tendency for series to tell one story over several seasons can create a heavy burden. The second series felt convoluted with a storyline that stretched credulity, while the final series has a formulaic feeling that it never quite shakes.
The Rain is much, much better than other youth-oriented sci-fi shows on offer (The 100 springs to mind as one to avoid), but there’s an annoying tendency in the final two seasons for dialogue that’s simultaneously verbose and idiotic. To put a final nail in the coffin, by the final series the editing (cutting back and forth between scenes) has become as formulaic as an episode of Coronation Street, which distracts from the action. GARY STEEL
Versus – The Life & Films Of Ken Loach (DocPlay) 8/10
For TV and film fans of a certain era and disposition, Ken Loach holds a very special place. My first experience of a Loach film was as a young lad watching his story about a boy and his kestrel, Kes (1968). At the time, it was right on the vanguard of a new style of almost documentary-style filmmaking that focused on real – often disadvantaged – working-class people struggling with the class system.
Loach revolutionized TV in 1966 with the shocking Cathy Come Home, and during the following decades never failed to rankle the establishment with his blatantly political, relentlessly honest films. Versus captures the aged Loach as he temporarily comes out of retirement to make one final film (and one final statement) in 2017, and it’s a quietly compelling portrait that at times had me close to tears. Somebody had to stand up for those without a voice, and Loach did so through film for more than 50 years of personal struggle with nothing more than dogged determination to lob at the forces of power and oppression. What a guy, and what a film. Highly recommended. GARY STEEL
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.