Recently watched on Netflix

Posted on February 27, 2018 under Thoughts

Despite the fact that I’m a film & TV grad student, those are topics which I pretty much never cover on my blog. Maybe it’s because it’s nice to keep my academic life and hobbies separate; after all, when I’m writing essays analyzing films I don’t necessarily want to do the same thing on my blog. As you may know, I don’t often watch films for fun. I sort of fell into film studies accidentally, and I’ve always been much more drawn to television narratives. So in that spirit, I thought I’d do a little roundup of some of the recent-ish Netflix content I’ve been consuming recently.

(There’s actually an ongoing academic debate regarding what TV even is anymore, when so much “television” is watched on non-television screens and consumed in a way that does not resemble traditional broadcast scheduling. Indeed, Netflix originals tend to be structured differently from conventional narrative television because the industry and streaming format is so different. But for lack of better terminology I consider Netflix content TV, though the specificity of Netflix as a medium is definitely worth exploring.)


FBI agent Holden Ford meets serial killer Ed Kemper

Netflix originals are generally created with binge-viewing in mind. The Netflix model has certainly changed how we view television, and carving out an entire weekend to watch the new season of OITNB is standard now. But that’s not how I watched the David Fincher-produced Mindhunter. It actually took me about six weeks to get through all ten episodes, as I watched one at a time, with several days in between. Maybe it’s because of the brutal subject matter, but I think part of it is just the pacing of the series as a whole. The first episode especially is noticeably slow.

Mindhunter is a fictionalized look at the creation of the serial killer psychological profile in the late 1970s. It follows FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as well as criminologist Wendy Carr, as they interview convicted serial killers and assemble a common psychological profile which they use to help solve open cases. Like many, I’m deeply interested in the world of serial killers; perhaps it’s the dark idea that such violence can lurk in the human psyche, and perhaps a little bit of it is a sick, voyeuristic desire to understand the tragic fates of other women. So I was surprised when this series failed to hold my attention for more than an hour at a time. Certainly the subject matter is interesting – and the interviews Holden and Bill conduct are actually taken word-for-word from interviews the real killers gave, which adds a layer of almost unbearably dark fascination. But the pacing is odd, the characterization weak. The attempts to give Holden a personal life fell flat; I simply didn’t care about his strained relationship with his two-dimensional girlfriend Debbie.

And therein lies the other essential problem I can identify with this series – the lack of female voices. Aside from Debbie, the only female character is Dr. Carr, whose presence simply doesn’t make up for the overwhelmingly male perspective. (It feels like they were overcompensating with her, too, giving her the storyline of “lesbian who must remain closeted for the sake of her career” for no real purpose other than diversity points, I guess.) This feels like an unforgivable gap considering the subject matter. This is a series about men who torture and kill women for sport – how is it made almost entirely in the absence of the female perspective? Of course I understand that it’s about the psychological profile of serial killers – and that aspect of the series was fascinating. But if they had time to devote to Holden’s boring personal life, they could have made space for robust female characters.

I was really disappointed that I didn’t enjoy Mindhunter more. I’m really interested in serial killers and I love the 70s, but the characterization and utter lack of consideration of the female perspective made the whole thing fall flat. Even though it ended with a bang, I can’t say I’m particularly excited for the second season.

The End of the F***ing World

James and Alyssa flee a crime scene after burning their clothes

If you like black comedies, you will probably love this one – and the good news is that it consists of eight very short episodes. If you have two spare hours, congrats, you can watch this series in full! It’s about self-diagnosed teenage psychopath James and his rebellious, angry friend Alyssa. Alyssa, who has a difficult home life, convinces James to run away from their southern England town – and James sees an opportunity to fulfil his psychopathic tendencies by murdering Alyssa.

The murder that eventually does occur is surprising and equal parts satisfying and disturbing. The ensuing events are funny, grim, and touching. Alyssa is a really compelling character; she’s so damaged, her anger masking her neediness and abandonment issues. James’ backstory is a little bit trite, to be honest, but his character arc is still interesting. Still, despite the premise I find that James ultimately becomes a supporting character to Alyssa, which is a delicious reversal of the usual gender dynamics we see! Anyway, I really hope this series doesn’t get renewed for a second season, because it ended perfectly – yes, there’s a bit of a cliffhanger, but I don’t really think there’s enough meat for the plot to be extended. Sometimes only a few episodes are needed to tell a story, and this is one of those times. Ambiguous endings don’t always necessitate another season to clarify what happened… sometimes they should just remain ambiguous.

Alias Grace

Grace Marks asks her master Thomas Kinnear a question about his painting

After really enjoying the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, I took the plunge and watched the six-part Netflix series this month. For those who don’t know, this is a fictionalized version of the life of Grace Marks, an Irish-born maid in Toronto who was convicted of killing her master and his housekeeper. Not much is known about the real Grace, and the novel and Netflix series attempt to fill in the gaps, though the question of her guilt or innocence isn’t necessarily prioritized.

The series is a bit slow at first, but once it dives into the murder plot it’s delicious. It’s visually stunning; the costuming and set design are perfect, and I really love the dim lighting that’s used in many of the scenes. The footage often has a grainy, tactile quality that echoes analogue film. And some of the filming and framing techniques are really fascinating because they aren’t incredibly naturalistic. For example, there are a lot of quick shots from the murder punctuating present-day Grace’s conversation with psychiatrist Dr. Jordan, and there’s a sequence near the end of the series where the camera is positioned as spy, which feels overtly sinister. These shots are jarring because we’re watching historical fiction; the series is set in a time without video cameras, and so the reminder of the camera feels anachronistic. It’s very interesting!

Unfortunately, the acting is hit-or-miss; the actress who plays Grace is great (and, I think, does quite a good Irish accent for a Toronto native), but some of the supporting characters are a bit hammy. And Paul Gross, while a well-known Canadian actor whose inclusion in the series seems almost necessary by virtue of the gravitas he afforded himself with Passchendaele, has the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard. Seriously, I played a little clip from the show to my (Scottish) friends and they were like, “Is he supposed to be German?”

Despite Paul Gross borderline ruining the character of Kinnear with the godawful accent, I think it’s a very enjoyable series. It’s quick to get through – six 45-minute episodes are not a huge time commitment, and I think it’s pretty bingeable once you get past the slower first and second episodes. Onscreen Grace is as complex and well-developed as her novelistic counterpart, and the show is stylistically interesting. Worth a watch for fans of the book for sure!

It’s cool to see Netflix partnering with CBC for this series, since I doubt the chronically underfunded and threatened public broadcast institution could afford the production value the series clearly displays. I’m the first to say that the Canadian television landscape is pretty bleak (though shows like Schitt’s Creek and Letterkenny are slowly rehabilitating that image), and I think further partnerships like this would be amazing. It’d create jobs for Canadian talent and boost Canada’s cultural capital – worldwide release on Netflix is a far cry from local distribution on CTV. I see that there’s also a CBC-Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which is great. More of this, please!

(By the way, a fun but irrelevant fact – Paul Gross is the father of Hannah Gross, who portrays the boring character Debbie in Mindhunter.)

Queer Eye

Antoni, Tan, Bobby, Karamo, and Jonathan watch footage of makeover subject AJ’s party

Representation of LGBTQ people on TV usually comes with some considerable caveats, and the Queer Eye reboot (and, indeed, its network television predecessor) is no exception. The ability of the Fab Five to represent themselves as gay men hinges on the value they bring to straight men and to the institution of heterosexuality in general. Seven of the eight episodes revolve around making over straight men (and their homes) to make them more attractive to women. Some of the men have obvious love interests (an ex-wife who appears receptive to getting back together, a wife who is unhappy with the way her wedding went), and some are chronically single men who are made over in order to increase their value on the dating market. The Fab Five basically act as proxies for straight women, giving their opinions on what women will find appealing with a sense of authority lended to them by their affluent homosexuality.

The best episode of the series by far involves making over a semi-closeted gay man, who uses the confidence boost from the makeover to come out to his stepmother. It’s the most genuine episode precisely because he shares something intrinsic with the Fab Five, who can relate to his struggles and insecurities in a deeply meaningful way. It’s not that the other seven men don’t get a lot out of the experience (they frequently give emotional, sometimes tear-filled speeches at the end of the process), but there is a lot more emotional depth to the narrative “These confident, successful gay men helped me become comfortable in my sexuality” versus “A group of gay guys made my wife think I’m more attractive.”

Be warned if you watch this show – the third episode is just one big “yikes” moment the whole way through. It’s disheartening that the Fab Five are forced to make over a proud Trump-supporting cop, even more uncomfortable when they have to jokingly play off his political affiliation as something a bit passé rather than a direct threat to their livelihood. And making Karamo – who is Black – speak to the cop and basically agree that “it goes both ways” with regards to police brutality… well, that’s unfortunate. I mean, that’s just not a thing – there’s no comparison between distrust of police and institutionalized racism. The episode sadly taints the rest of the series since it makes its neoliberal assimilationist politics all too clear, sacrificing the safety of gay men for the comfort of the heterosexual gaze.

That said, the show pretty successfully traffics in feel-good emotion, and it’s genuinely heartwarming. Whether or not the changes imposed by the Fab Five will be long-lasting, we can’t know – but it’s good, light fun. Each cast member has a compelling, attractive personality and over the course of the series we begin to see the complexities of their personalities. There is no cast member who I dislike, although I tend to enjoy Karamo – who’s in charge of the vaguely-defined “Culture” – and Tan – the “Fashion” guy – the most. It’s a series that has several downfalls when watched with an even slightly critical eye, but LGBTQ representation so often is one of those “take what you can get” things and there are a lot of good moments peppered throughout the series.


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