The Witchdoctor team sifts through the mountain of available streaming TV and brings your attention to great new shows as well as those to avoid.
There’s such a surplus of fantasy, sci-fi and dark, twisted thrillers on streaming TV of late that it’s quite a shock to be taken 400 years back in time to the early days of colonisation in the Americas. Set in Virginia in the early 1600s, Jamestown (eight episodes over each of three seasons) is set in the first permanent village established there by the Brits, and there’s plenty of lurid drama to keep the makers of Downton Abbey busy. Much of the action takes place in the disease-ridden, mud-bound village or the lush farmlands and countryside, and of course there’s a dastardly autocratic judiciary to deal with, which means accusations of witchery. There are narrative diversions involving altercations with native Americans, African slaves and an obsession with gold prospecting, but the action centres on the first clutch of young women literally bought and shipped over from Blighty, and the inevitable hormonal frenzy that erupts amongst the men-folk.
Naomi Battrick is especially excellent as the gorgeous and scheming Jocelyn, who dangerously runs rings around the men. But somehow, in the context of the times, her character doesn’t quite ring true. To some degree, Jamestown is like so many other historical dramas in its assumption that people back then were exactly like people now, just dealing with a different sort of adversity. It also suffers mildly from somewhat glib attempts at light humour, presumably as a foil to the often grim storylines. Special merit mention to Patsy Ferran, Jocelyn’s maid Mercy, who provides some exquisite comedic touches. When a boy pashes her, she says: “Why did you put your tongue in my mouth? I’ve already got one of those in there.” GARY STEEL
Lupin – the first French series to make Netflix America’s top 10 list – makes for some cracking good and binge-worthy viewing. Set in Paris, Lupin follows Assane Diop (played by the seriously talented Omar Sy), a Senegalese Frenchman who takes inspiration from Arsène Lupin (from the book, The Gentleman Burglar by Maurice LeBlanc) to avenge the death of his father, who, framed for theft by an evil and rich employer, commits suicide in jail.
The intricate and often insanely devious methods of Assane’s revenge borders on genius. Thanks to a generous mix of likeable (and unlikeable) characters, quirky storytelling and oodles of beautiful Parisian cinematography, Lupin delivers some seriously compelling TV. PAT PILCHER
Mare Of Easttown (Neon) 9/10
The best drama I’ve seen in ages, this stars a middle-aged Kate Winslet who in no way resembles the gorgeous vixen of Titanic. Winslet is incredible as Mare Sheehan, a disenchanted detective from a dull and disenfranchised suburban area of Philadelphia. All of the performances are superb, but it’s the tone of the thing and the way it plays out that differentiates it from all the other police procedurals. Yes, there are multiple murders and abductions and ODs and a few chases, but a fair amount of the time we’re following Mare’s private life, which intersects with that of her job in often difficult ways.
The most special aspect of Mare Of Easttown is the way it lets us into astonishingly authentic scenes with family and the wider community. We feel like a privileged fly on the wall watching the characters develop in front of our eyes, in real time. This is astoundingly refreshing and reinforces how manipulated we are by so many TV dramas into accepting shallow characterisations and plotlines that are just plain stupid. As for Winslet, hers is a bravura performance that will surely end with an award. Gossips will find it interesting that Guy Pearce reprises a role as her love interest 10 years after they both starred in Mildred Pearce (also screening on Neon and worth a look). GARY STEEL
1971 – The Year That Music Changed Everything (AppleTV+) 6/10
I had high hopes when I heard about this series. The trailer looked interesting, and it looked like the series could be a treasure trove of remarkable and fascinating footage from 1971. And it does – sort of. But it’s mostly USA footage, with a smaller proportion of European events (the Rolling Stones captured during a druggy period in France!) and barely any mention about the rest of the world. The time-stamped footage keeps you engaged in the video and immersed in 1971, and voiceovers from various people provide slight insights into stuff you’re watching on screen.
While it’s kinda cute seeing a very shy early David Bowie miming sweetly in a decorative costume, most topics are quickly dispensed with and once-over-lightly, which makes for a brisk pace but a lack of depth. Some of the choices are plain odd: while cheesy teen pop group The Osmonds make an appearance, for instance, Don McLean’s 1971 hit ‘American Pie’ doesn’t. The highlight is Episode 5, the entirety of which is given over to a US prison riot. It’s got a tight focus and carefully unfolds a compelling albeit tragic event. CHARLES JAMESON
The Path (Neon) 6/10
This Hulu drama has all the right ingredients but somehow, it never quite gels to become more than the sum of its ingredients. Its three seasons purportedly explore the lives behind the walls of a quasi-religious cult that seems full of love and light on the surface, but inevitably contains layers of subterfuge and bad shit, all to be slowly revealed during its 36 (phew!) episodes. One of its problems is a plotline that just never feels credible. It’s as if the writers tried really hard to imagine what a semi-respectable but bad on the inside cult would be like, but couldn’t quite crack the nut.
Another of its problems are the characters themselves. Aaron Paul might as well be reprising his role as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, right down to the shuffling gait and slept-in look. Michelle Monaghan is fabulous as his wife and one of the sect leaders, who somehow manages to come over as both sweet girl next door and evil bitch, but Paul and Monaghan never quite work together as a believable husband and wife. Hugh Dancy plays the volatile, psycho leader and he’s brilliant in the role. Ultimately, The Path never quite finds its way (ironically, given its name) but the sheer quality of the performances and its directorial flair (editing, music) make it an easy watch. GARY STEEL
Your Honour (Neon) 8/10
I don’t know how a 10-episode series can still be called a miniseries, but whatever, Your Honour makes for compelling viewing. Like Mare Of Easttown, this Showtime production features some great acting and a naturalistic style that makes the characters seem real. Everything goes wrong (and continues to go wrong) for our characters, which makes for some excruciating moments, but anyone who enjoys what they call “the cinema of unease” will find it worth a watch.
If there’s a weakness it’s that Bryan Cranston gets to repeat the “nice guy faced with a life-threatening dilemma” issue played out in Breaking Bad. This time, rather than a struggling high school teacher he’s a high court judge whose son is in a hit and run. To complicate matters, his victim’s Dad is a dangerous and powerful criminal. Naturally, Michael Desiato (Cranston) opts to cover up for his son and the series becomes a fingernail-biting cat and mouse game. 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.