Highlights of Netflix UK, 2016

I mentioned on Facebook that I was enjoying watching Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller, and several friends asked for other recommendations. So here — in no particular order — is what I’ve been watching on Netflix UK this year. [Edited to add: Somehow I forgot to mention How to Get Away with Murder; that has been added since the original publication of this piece.] A separate post has recommendations from Amazon Prime Instant Video:

Politics and noir

Eldar Skar as police bodyguard Hans Martin Djupvik

Occupied

Based on an original idea from 2008 by Jo Nesbø and directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, Occupied (original title: Okkupert, 2015) is set in the near future, where instability in the Middle East has compromised oil production, US energy independence has caused them to withdraw from NATO and the Norwegian Green party have won a mandate to cease fossil fuel production. And then the EU asks Russia to provide “technical assistance” to ensure the power continues to flow. Ironically, the Russian invasion of Crimea began on the first day of shooting season 1, which is all available on Netflix UK and season 2 is on order.

Ryan Phillippe as marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger

Shooter

Remaking the 2007 film of the same name, which was also based on Stephen Hunter’s novel Point of Impact, the 2016 TV series Shooter stars Ryan Phillippe as USMC gunnery sergeant Bob Lee Swagger coaxed out of retirement to help foil a plot to assassinate the president — framing himself in the process. Season 1 is being released weekly on Wednesdays and season 2 has already been ordered.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa, Baroness Stein of Tilbury

The Honourable Woman

A 2014 miniseries directed and written by Hugo Blick for the BBC and Sundance TV, Maggie Gyllenhall plays the titular Honourable Woman, an Anglo-Jewish businesswoman recently ennobled for her foundation’s contribution to the Middle East peace process. But then her new business partner dies in an apparent suicide, delaying phase 3 of their ambitious project to cable up the West Bank with optical fibre, and her friend (and her brother’s housekeeper)’s son is kidnapped. The show won a Peabody Award and Gyllenhall won a Golden Globe for her performance. The full miniseries is available on Netflix UK.

Kiefer Sutherland being sworn in as President Tom Kirkman

Designated Survivor

The first scenes of David Guggenheim’s 2016 TV series Designated Survivor is increasingly seeming like an good plan for how to deal with 2016’s election results, but the wholesale destruction of all 3 branches of the US federal government during the State of the Union address being the opening gambit gives you a good idea of quite how ridiculous this show is. Kiefer Sutherland is the HUD Secretary raised to the Oval Office, with Natascha McElhone as his wife, a lawyer. It’s terrible, but really good fun and is being released weekly but is currently on mid-season hiatus.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Frank and Claire Underwood

House of Cards US

If you haven’t been watching the American remake of House of Cards, first airing in 2013, you should stop reading and fix that straightaway. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are masterful as the machiavellian congressman and his environmental-lobbyist wife. They’ve each won a Golden Globe for their performances, and they’ve each been Emmy nominated every season; he’s also won 2 SAG Awards and she a Satellite Award, with the crew earning a host of further accolades.

Several plot points will be very familiar to those of us acquainted with Michael Dobbs’s and Andrew Davies’s source material, though it has expanded beyond that, as well as its transposition to the US. 4 seasons are available on Netflix already, with a fifth series in production, albeit with Beau Willimon having stepped down as showrunner. It’s easily the best political fiction of the decade and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Charlotte Rampling, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent in London Spy

London Spy

Somehow I had failed to catch London Spy when it aired on the BBC in late 2015; it’s 1 of 2 recommendations I’m making here that I’ve not yet seen all the way through. Ben Whishaw plays the hedonistic Danny, who falls for Edward Holcroft’s enigmatic and inexperienced Alex. When Ben discovers Alex’s corpse in a secret BDSM room things take a turn for the unexpected. The story was inspired by the similarly-mysterious real-world death of Gareth Williams, a GCHQ mathematician found padlocked inside a bag in an MI5 safehouse. The full 5-part miniseries is on Netflix.

Damian Lewis and Claire Danes as USMC sniper Nicholas Brody and CIA officer Carrie Mathison

Homeland

Homeland starts by spending a whole season teasing us about whether or not USMC sniper Nicholas Brody had turned traitor during his captivity with al-Qaeda; we spend the first 4 seasons wondering how the fuck Carrie Mathison manages to keep her security clearance with her “interesting” approach to managing her mental health. None of this detracts from it being an exceptional piece of work. Its 2012 Peabody Award described it well, as “a game of cat and mouse, a psychological thriller and a Rorschach test of post-9/11 doubts, fears and suspicions rolled into one”. All 5 seasons are on Netflix UK; a 6th season is due to start airing in the US this month, 2 further seasons are expected.

Y Gwyll / Hinterland

Y Gwyll / Hinterland shows that Wales can do bleak — and bilingually, at that. Apparently S4C aired a version mainly in Welsh and BBC 1 Cymru aired one mainly in English. I’ve only seen the first episode, but it is very promising. Wikipedia tells me that “the version available on Netflix differs from those originally transmitted in the United Kingdom and is almost exclusively an English language version.” 1 season is on Netflix UK, 2 further seasons have aired; 3 episodes are currently on iPlayer, but not for long.

Scifi and fantasy

Florence Faivre as Julie Mao

The Expanse

The Expanse has been described as the genre-defining science fiction drama of the decade. Based on a novel series by James S A Corey, this is grandiose space opera in the best visual form I’ve ever seen.

200 years in our future, humanity has expanded throughout the solar system. There are 3 key plot threads: Shohreh Aghdashloo plays an undersecretary-general at the UN, trying to prevent Earth’s cold war with Mars turning hot. Thomas Jane plays a private dick on Ceres, looking into a missing-person case in his spare time. Steven Strait plays a trouble-magnet XO on an ice-lugger that is the focus of an incident that could upset the status quo between Earth, Mars and The Belt. Season 1 is on Netflix; season 2 premières in the US on 1 February 2017.

Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo as Lucas, Mike and Dustin.

Stranger Things

Do I need to tell you what Stranger Things is? Do you even go here? Given the Duffer Brothers were both born in 1984, I don’t know how they managed to hit all the right nostalgia buttons for people 10–15 years their senior, but 2016’s scifi–horror homage to the 1980s is probably better at representing those tropes than many films actually from our childhood. The awards nominations are all still pending, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t clean up pretty well. Season 1 is on Netflix; season 2 will be released later in 2017.

The crew of the Bebop: Jet Black, Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Edward Wong and Ein, a genetically-engineered Corgi that’s probably more intelligent than you are.

Cowboy Bebop

1998’s Cowboy Bebop is an awesome anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe. Set in 2071, the show following the bounty hunter crew of the Bebop. Quoting Wikipedia again, “Cowboy Bebop explores philosophical concepts including existentialism, existential ennui, and loneliness”. It won a boatload of awards and has an amazing soundtrack, a 2004 poll ranked it 2nd only to Neon Genesis Evangelion in the top anime titles of all time. All 26 episodes are on Netflix UK, but the 2001 film follow-up doesn’t yet appear to be.

Dylan O’Brien, Tyler Hoechlin, Tyler Posey, Crystal Reed and Holland Roden form the core of the ensemble cast for the first 3 seasons

Teen Wolf

MTV’s 2011 series Teen Wolf is only rather loosely based on the film and TV you may remember from the 1980s. Underneath a very convincing façade of shallow ensemble teen drama, this is a surprisingly clever, well-made show with a rich lore behind it. And, of course, a cast of attractive teens and 20somethings who’ve led the show to a host of Saturn, Teen Choice and Young Hollywood Awards. It’s a lot of fun, thoroughly enhanced by Price Peterson’s photo-recaps on TV.com (and, more recently, on Yahoo!) If you watch any current or recent teen kinda-trashy stuff, it’s worth checking if he recaps it, as his witty work is sometimes even better than the show itself. Netflix has the first 2 seasons; the 6th is currently on hiatus from MTV and will be the last.

Russell Hodgkinson, Michael Welch, Kellita Smith, Nat Zang, Tom Everett Scott, Anastasia Baranova, Pisay Pao and Keith Allan are (with DJ Qualls, missing here) are the ensemble cast for season 1.

Z Nation

2014’s Z Nation is a comedy-drama that doesn’t take itself all that seriously, despite actually being pretty good. 3 years into a zombie apocalypse, Murphy is mankind’s last great hope and needs to get from New England to the last-functioning CDC lab, which — obviously — is all the way over in California. Travails and body counts ensue, of varying levels of plausibility. Netflix has the first of 4 seasons.

Austin Butler, Poppy Drayton and Ivana Baquero on their Quest™

The Shannara Chronicles

A fantasy drama adapted from Terry Brooks’s novels — primarily the 2nd of the series, published in 1982 — The Shannara Chronicles is another MTV show, with the cast of pretty young things that predictably implies. It’s a good old-fashioned swords-and-sorcery Fantasy Quest™ made in 2016 and set in our far-future, with elves, dwarves, demons and a magic tree. I’d almost certainly have enjoyed it more before my teens, but it was pretty good fun nonetheless; friends who like twinks will almost certainly enjoy Austin Butler’s apparent allergy to shirts. The show was beaten to the Saturn Award for best TV fantasy series by Outlander; season 1 is available on Netflix with a 2nd season on order.

Other genres

Charlie Weber, Liza Weil, Billy Brown, Matt McGorry, Aja Naomi King,
Viola Davis
, Katie Findlay, Alfred Enoch, Karla Souza and Jack Falahee

How to Get Away with Murder

A late addition to this list, as I have no idea how I forgot to include it before, but How to Get Away with Murder (2014–) is a great piece of TV. Certainly it has an unfeasibly attractive ensemble cast and an implausible number of twists and turns to the plot, but it hooks us in well.

Viola Davis is the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama, among a handful of other accolades, for her turn as Annalise Keating, a demanding law professor at a prestigious university. On top of seeing her teach classes, the 5 most-promising students assist her private caseload, as well as having become embroiled in a murder that we see frequent flash-forwards to the students covering up — season 2 has a very similar structure, though I’ve not yet completed that season.

The show has received several nominations — and a few wins — from both the NAACP Image Awards and the GLAAD Media Awards, recognising a diverse set of characters, including laudable, realistic depictions of gay characters and issues around HIV and PrEP.

The first 2 seasons are on Netflix UK, with season 3 already aired in the US.

Marc-André Grondin and Denis Ménochet as Jean and Martin Bastière

Spotless

The presence of Marc-André Grondin (the lead from 2005’s queer-themed Québecois hit C.R.A.Z.Y.) was, quite predictably, a large part of what made me try Spotless, an amusing gangster-crime drama from 2015. Jean Bastière runs a crime-scene clean-up business in London, his black-sheep brother turns up unexpectedly after years apart, trouble follows in his wake; Brendan Coyle is outstanding as a mob boss. Season 1 is on Netflix and it’s only typing this up that’s lead me to discover a 2nd season is in the works.

Bloodline

A bit of a slow-burn, Bloodline is a 2015 dark thriller set in the Florida Keys. With a tagline of “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing”, the family who are recognised as pillars of the community find their secrets coming out when the black-sheep eldest son, played by Ben Mendelsohn, comes home unexpectedly. Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek are the hotelier parents, with Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz playing the other siblings; Mendelsohn’s turn has won him an IGN Award, an Emmy and a Satellite Award. Netflix has 2 seasons already, with a 3rd and final in production.

Van Hansis, Kit Williamson, Matthew McKelligon, John Halbach and Constance Wu play, respectively, Thom, Cal, Jeremy, Ian and Kathy.

EastSiders

Webseries EastSiders was originally released on YouTube in 2012; season 2 moved to Vimeo On Demand in 2015 — both were mainly crowdfunded through Kickstarter. At 10–15 minutes apiece, the show follows couple Thom and Cal (played by creator, writer and director Kit Williamson) working through infidelity and addiction problems as well as couple Ian and Kathy reaching their 6-month anniversary — her longest relationship and his shortest. Ian is played by Kit’s husband John Halbach, who shares an exec producer credit; Sean Maher, who most friends will recognise from Firefly, joins a much larger cast in season 2. Each season won an Indie Series Award, with season 2 landing a couple of Daytime Emmy nominations. Both seasons are on Netflix, a third is in progress.

Films

Ryan Corr and Craig Stott playing Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo

Holding the Man

Holding the Man is a beautiful love story, based on Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 UN Human Rights Award-winning autobiography, listed as one of the “100 Favourite Australian Books” for the Australian Society of Authors’ 40th anniversary in 2003. The film was the centrepiece gala at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival.

In the mid-1970s, Tim is in the same geography class as Melbourne’s Jesuit Xavier College’s star Aussie Rules player and team captain John. They fall in love and the film follows the couple over the next 15 years including, inevitably given the time period, their HIV diagnoses and deaths. It’s a personal perspective on the Aussie AIDS crisis, but also a heart-warming tale of young love in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ryan Corr’s portrayal of the author won him an Australian Film Critics Association Award; his on-screen chemistry with queer actor Craig Stott is just amazing, with the work they put into their portrayal coming through clearly in interviews. You’ll want tissues; even just reading Wikipedia and interviews to write thus up I’m struggling not to weep.

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore

A Single Man

Tom Ford’s 2009 directorial and screenwriting début, adapting Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name, is another piece of queer cinema that will make you cry — though not because of the AIDS crisis this time.

A Single Man is a period piece set in the 1960s, with Colin Firth winning a BAFTA and a host of nominations for his turn as a university professor experiencing suicidal depression after the recent death of his long-time boyfriend. Nicholas Hoult and Julianne Moore are both also excellent and I’m never going to object to seeing Jon Kortajarena on-screen.

The film itself is visually stunning, as one might expect from a fashion designer, with Ford using the production design team from Mad Men and Firth’s character living in one of the sexiest buildings I’ve ever seen — the first house built by John Lautner after he left Frank Lloyd Wright; there are photos in a couple of articles online. The film won a Queer Lion at Venice and a GLAAD Award.

Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck

The Lives of Others

A beautiful piece of Ostalgie from 2006, Das Leben der Anderen is a thriller set in 1984’s East Berlin that won the Oscar and BAFTA for best foreign-language film. Mühe portrays a Stasi officer who starts to empathise and sympathise with his surveillance target, Koch’s Dreyman, a playwright. Himself an Ossi who had been politically involved, when asked how he prepared for the role, Mühe replied “I remembered”; he died shortly after the film’s release.

I’ve not watched this film in about a decade, so I’ll have to give it another look. For anyone who grew up under the Cold War and enjoys revisiting the period in drama, it’s a must-watch.

The images are all used without permission, for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Feel free to translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

 by the author.

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him

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Owen Blacker

Owen Blacker

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him