In this week’s column, Lynden Barber looks at three television series, on Netflix and SBS On Demand, from the Parisian jazz club of The Eddy to the raw detective series Giri/Haji and finally the small-town mystery of Wayward Pines.
As an admirer of the jazz-themed movies Whiplash and La La Land, I was intrigued to find their dynamic writer-director Damien Chazelle attached to a new TV series for Netflix set in a Parisian jazz club, The Eddy (which serves as both the name of the series and the club itself, though the name’s provenance is obscure).
It turns out he’s on directing duty only – the script credit goes to English screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne – and even then, Chazelle only handles the first two episodes. Still, that makes him the guy who establishes the series’ style. Not to mention that his participation would have helped the production get picked up by Netflix; in other respects, this is a most uncommercial project and of course, that’s not in itself a bad thing.
Chazelle’s above-mentioned first two films were in contrasting tones, the first intense and filled with obsession and sadism, the second an old-school Hollywood romantic musical, but they both showed a jazz-loving filmmaker who was unafraid to take risks while being talented enough to pull them off.
La La Land ended with Ryan Gosling’s pianist realising his long-held dream of opening a jazz club in LA, an idealised notion replaced in The Eddy by a more realistic and unvarnished view of the insecure and impecunious life of musicians and club owners. Anyone who warms to grit and grime will find plenty here, though irritatingly Chazelle overdoes the shaky handheld camera, as he did with the domestic scenes of his Apollo moon mission film, First Man.
Like the Australian novel and TV series The Slap, each episode takes the point of view of a different character. First to kick off is Elliot (a superb André Holland), an African American semi-retired musician who co-owns the struggling basement club The Eddy in an unfashionable arrondissement with his Arabic best mate, Farid (Tahar Rahim). The latter handles the business management in a manner that will lead to fireworks.
Also in the frame are Elliot’s teenage daughter Julie, visiting from the States (Amandla Stenberg – terrific), and various members of the house band, mostly cast from real musicians and not given dialogue, though their zonked out Polish singer (Joanna Kulig) can sing more than adequately and is allowed to handle enough dialogue to count as a character.
Like Treme, David Simon’s teleseries about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, each episode features a live musical performance. Here that’s not always wise. While some musical set-pieces work well, usually because they’re woven into the narrative – such as a rambunctious group performance at a surprise party – others can feel like narrative bubble-wrap, there to pad out the space.
The first half hour is filled with lightly sketched character studies (less charitably described as plotless noodling) so it’s with a sense of relief that a highly dramatic incident occurs at around the 37-minute mark and characters finally show some deep emotion and make us begin to care.
It’s not that every TV drama needs to be driven by plot, but most usually require a sense of dramatic tension and too much of the first three episodes of The Eddy I’ve watched so far are uneven – sometimes engaging, but too often a bit dreamy and slack, like its mind is off somewhere else.
My continual complaint is that US TV series are too padded out and yet again that’s the case. Bringing every episode in at 30-40 minutes instead of an indulgent one hour running time would almost certainly have tightened up the storytelling and pacing. In the meantime, there’s just enough here to keep me hanging in – for the time being, at least.
The detective series Giri/Haji (also on Netflix) makes quite a contrast. Where the camerawork in The Eddy is raw and ragged, this series is replete with burnished cinematography and stylish compositions. Most teleseries have limited visual ambitions but not this one. Flashbacks are depicted in a different screen ratio; plot recaps are sometimes animated and there’s even a fight scene depicted as a slo-mo ballet.
You could be forgiven for assuming this to be a Japanese series, and not just from the title. It opens in Japanese language (with English subtitles) as a senior Tokyo detective, Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), is ordered to go to London to bring back his brother, a Yakuza gangster thought to be responsible for igniting a gang war. Once we get to London, the unmistakably cheeky dissonances of English humour start cropping up in dialogue and the series’ UK origins becomes apparent.
Running in a straight line through some complex plotting and occasionally ferocious bloodletting is the gradual formation of a quirky surrogate family around Kenzo comprising a Scottish detective (Kelly Macdonald), a part-Japanese gay rent boy (Will Sharpe – fabulous) and Kenzo’s rebellious teenage daughter, who has flown to join her father. There’s an excess of formulaic detective stories on TV, particularly from Britain and Scandinavia, but Giri/Haji is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The week’s final teleseries, Wayward Pines, was originally launched in 2017 and is now available at SBS On Demand. Its title initially brings to mind Twin Peaks, an impression that intensifies when you realise it’s about a city slicker (here Matt Dillon’s Secret Service agent) arriving to investigate a mystery in a close-knit rural town, this time nestled amidst the woods and mountains of Idaho. Swiftly thoughts of David Lynch’s surrealistic series recede. He’s there to investigate the disappearance of two of his colleagues but quickly discovers this is no ordinary town. For a start, it’s impossible to leave.
This story device, people being stuck in a town, is not entirely unfamiliar. I’m thinking of such classic films as Australia’s The Cars That Ate Paris and Wake in Fright and 1967 TV production The Prisoner, the latter a much loved UK series about an intelligence agent trapped in an isolated private coastal town, where Swinging Sixties fashion, Mini Mokes and a hostile giant beachball created long-lasting visual appeal.
Wayward Pines is not really in the same class as those productions, though I found it highly watchable, even as it wanders into genres like horror that usually I regard with a lack of enthusiasm (violence alert: expect some brief throat slashing). It’s based on a series of novels by Blake Crouch and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan. The latter is known for his major plot twists (starting with The Sixth Sense), but here there’s no massive reveal at the end of the first series, more of a series of intrigues and mysteries woven artfully throughout the narrative, so that as one mystery is explained, a new one arrives.