The traditional networks’ offerings are getting ever less inspiring. Only CBS’s Young Sheldon and SEAL Team show much promise, and NBC’s sole innovative 2016 offering, This Is Us, is falling into every dramatic sinkhole it deftly avoided in its terrific first season. Fortunately, Netflix has stepped up.
With new shows, and returns actually building on their premise rather than squandering it, a Netflix subscription has never been a better value. Here are 5 top examples.
5. Manhunt: Unabomber
In case you missed it on the Discovery Channel, this superb docudrama about the hunt for the Unabomber really delivers an explosively compelling package.
Sam Worthington is superb as the brilliantly obsessive FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a man who sees patterns in language the way top physicists see patterns in number. Language, he gets. Spotting behaviors in others, he’s great at. Having a life, making room for his family, navigating the FBI bureaucracy? Not so much
Paul Bettany matches him scene for scene as Ted Kaczynski, the genius-level loner who lives in a shack and sends his deadly messages back to American society through the U.S. mail.
Manhunt: Unabomber may have a slow fuse to start, but the payoff is immense. Check it out and stay with it.
Stop me if you’ve seen this before: A middle-aged suburban dad has a secret life of crime, but the reality of his misdeeds eventually overcomes his seemingly ideal life. And, of course, the crisis reveals deep flaws in his outwardly ideal family life.
But you’ve rarely seen it done this well, thanks to star Jason Bateman, who is not only ideally cast as the corrupt father, but shows himself to be a superb director—particularly in the incredibly suspenseful home stretch of the first season.
Bateman plays Marty Byrd, a Chicago accountant who has been managing the money of a cartel kingpin (a scary Esai Morales). Marty’s partners get caught skimming from the cartel, and Marty narrowly escapes their grisly fate by pitching the boss that he can make it all up in short order by continuing his new idea of setting up shop among the cash-heavy tourist industry in the Ozarks.
But city slicker Marty has forgotten one major obstacle—there are criminal enterprises everywhere, and the Ozarks have their own collection that is not happy to be moved in on.
With a setting not usually seen on TV and a great supporting cast, along with sharp writing and superb directing, make Ozark rise above merely feeling like a tired combination of Breaking Bad and Justified. On the plus side—Ozark is a combination of Breaking Bad and Justified.
3. Narcos 3
Narcos Season 3 may be a continuation of the true story of the DEA fight against the Colombian cocaine cartels, but the extent to which it is needed to reboot makes it seem like a whole new show.
The first two seasons of Narcos were dominated by the hunt for the most famous drug kingpin of all time, Pablo Escobar, and also by a riveting performance by Brazilian star Wagner Moura as the charismatic criminal.
Season 3 not only loses Pablo, it loses one half of the DEA team that brought him down. So the idea of a third season seemed forced.
Surprise: Narcos 3 is every bit as good as the first two seasons, as Agent Pena (Pedro Pascal) takes on the four-headed Cali Cartel. This is thanks to vivid performances by the new bad guys, and a script that takes us through their battles with each other and with the government without getting lost in the weeds.
A new Colombian government that wants to cut an amnesty deal with the head of the cartel in exchange for ridiculously light sentences equally offends Agent Pena and some of the cartel members, who don’t think they should do any time at all.
How Pena exploits those conflicts, while not getting in trouble with his superiors or the host government, makes for a wildly entertaining, informative—and can I say “addicting?”— 10 hours.
Another superb true-crime drama that documents the process by which the FBI formed its criminal profiling of serial killers curiously takes a Dragnet approach: The cases and the killers are real, but the pioneering team of heroes is fictionalized.
Perhaps that’s because the real-life team of Special Agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler very emphatically went their separate ways after Ressler retired from the Bureau and became a consultant. Or, perhaps it’s because acclaimed director David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network) wants to take a very un-Dragnet look at the personal and sex lives of the protagonists.
It was Douglas (Holden in the show) who came up with the idea of conducting interviews with the serial killers (the term was not coined yet) who were already in prison in the late ’70s (the methodology shown in The Silence of the Lambs). While the show has the agents assisting with a few local cases as they travel around the country lecturing police departments, the base of the show is those interviews and their bureaucratic struggles to get the FBI to support their efforts.
This may sound dry, but it most definitely is not. Fincher’s superb cinematography and a perfectly cast series of killers who are surprisingly eager to talk about their exploits and motivations (“It’s hard work,” one explains), and a compelling quest by a quirky hero, combine to make Mindhunter an obsessive experience.
1. Stranger Things 2
If you haven’t heard that there’s an ’80s-themed mashup of every kid-oriented horror/sci-fi flick of the era—from Poltergeist to Firestarter to E.T.—that is a smash hit on Netflix… well, welcome back from Mars.
Enough has been written about the influences of the show, the terrific performances, and the deft writing and direction that keep this show from being another tired homage.
What struck me the second time around for Stranger Things are things that seem strange on modern TV. A sense of wonder and innocence. A sense of adventure. A lack of cynicism– even in a show where the government is making all kinds of big mistakes.
And even more than ’80s movies, what Stranger Things evokes most effectively—and which seems really strange in this era of over-parenting—is a time when pre-teens roamed far and wide on their bikes and nobody stuck their noses in. Just come home for dinner.
On the TV review front, Stranger Things 2 is everything that everyone loved about the first season, and more. It avoids sequelitis, expands its universe and lets the characters grow, rather than just repeating their same conflicts over and over like the “adults” in the Lethal Weapon series.
It sounds strange to say about something with this many references to the past, but there’s really nothing else like it.