The conundrum for the every-growing hordes of TV streaming viewers is not a lack of good or even great material. The problem is how to navigate the oversupply.
When Netflix and Stan were launched in Australia in 2015, they were relatively cheap – and alone. Now they have been joined by a number of paid competitors including Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Binge. That’s without mentioning the free SBS On Demand which, if you can stomach the too frequent and careless interruption of commercials, has more movies and series than a viewer can get through easily in a lifetime.
Bridgerton on Netflix
Yet while there’s never been so much material to watch on TV, trying to find something to watch can feel like panning for gold in a muddy river. Some titles – usually the more expensive ones, such as Netflix’s Regency romp Bridgerton – are given a huge shove by the network. You can’t not know about them. Trying to find something else to watch when you’ve either rejected it (not your bag) or too quickly binged it (your bag it definitely is and you don’t know where to turn next) is the issue.
The on-screen information given for individual titles can be infuriatingly unhelpful. Country of origin is often not indicated and has to be guessed by picking up the clues – names of actors, main location – from the short description. And the algorithms meant to second guess our tastes with useful yet creepy accuracy are, to put it kindly, a work in progress.
So, I’m not going to warble on about the handsomely filmed Bridgerton (basically Jane Austen with black aristocrats, bare bums and outlandishly gorgeous frocks). Instead, let us away to a handful of more deeply buried pearls.
Asylum City on SBS On Demand
One of a small handful of guiding principles I utilise is: if a film or series is from Israel, at the very least give it a look. Not for any religious, political or ethnic reasons but simply because this small nation has one of the best track records in the world when it comes to well-honed drama (see my review of spy series Fauda in October’s Limelight).
Asylum City (SBS on Demand) is in part a civil rights story, but it’s also a detective procedural with touches of espionage thriller (yep, Mossad is rarely far away). A small human rights office is trying to support African refugees in a poor suburb of South Tel Aviv – both a political embarrassment to the Israeli government and an opportunity for criminals operating a blackmarket bank. Just as you think you know where it’s all headed, the writers throw a genuinely surprising spanner in the works at the end of the opening episode. From there on viewers are kept on toes until the final episode. The writing is both fresh and taut, the latter helped by a less than 50-minute running time per episode, and the casting and performances excellent.
37 Seconds on Netflix
Scroll quickly through Netflix and you’ll see East Asian titles a-plenty, but where to start? You could do a lot worse than with 37 Seconds , a touching and unsentimental Japanese film (directed by Hikari – just Hikari) about a young manga artist in a wheelchair, due to cerebral palsy, fighting for greater independence from her well-meaning but over-protective mother, in particular her right to pursue a sex life. Lead actor Mei Kayama has cerebral palsy herself, so there’s no get-an-Oscar-for-acting-disabled fireworks, instead an authentic and genuinely touching performance.
Another film from the Asia-Pacific worth seeking out is A Sun from Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong, a family drama about a grown son who triggers a crisis in his family when he’s sent to reform school after being involved in a violent crime. Not only is the film visually outstanding, but it takes us on a most unpredictable narrative journey where characters who seem initially unsympathetic finally come to be people we genuinely care for. It’s a rare film that can deepen as it progresses and end in a manner both hopeful and tragic. (Viewing tip: note that three family members have almost identical names: A-Ho, A-Hao and A-Wen, something that initially threw me).
Finally, to Love & Anarchy (Netflix), a seven-episode Swedish comedy about a couple of co-workers for a book publishing company who, after initially starting a calamitous private war, start to mend their split by engaging in an escalating series of dares at work ranging from “walk backwards for a day” to “liven up this meeting”. The results go from absurdist fun to calamity as their japes’ unintentionally spin out of control, giving the final episodes an unexpected sting.
This series reminded me of several workplace-themed predecessors: Gervais’s The Office; Call My Agent (the excellent French sitcom about an actor’s agency); Lars von Trier’s 90s TV gem, The Kingdom, and feature comedy Toni Erdmann from Germany’s Maren Ade. The outstanding lead performance by Ida Engvoll, a new name to me, is reason enough to watch. Given a significant emotional arc by writer-director Lisa Langseth, Engvoll is riveting as she traverses everything from sexual frustration, a short-temper, child-like playfulness and anarchic glee to emotional breakdown.