Times change, and the way we consume media has to change with them. Who wants to deal with commercials, pre-empting, and hiatus when on-demand television is available?
There’s a lot to recommend on-demand watching. Along with the above, on-demand shows can offer niche stories that network broadcasting wouldn’t support, which means more opportunity for creative freedom for producers, and satisfaction for viewers who are tired of the network formula for ratings. Plus there’s a different financial model involved. Network television spends almost as much time on advertisement as it does on entertaining.
I don’t want to think about the commercialism behind a show. I just want to get lost in the story. Here are some stories that I’ve found worth investing my time in this past year. Most are Netflix, as they seem to be the leader in the field of innovative series for streaming. Not all are science fiction, but hey, even a hardcore sci-fi fan enjoys other genres. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
This has been out for a while now, but if you’re a sci-fi fan and haven’t seen this, it’s a must. The cinematography is terrific for a small-screen franchise, and the writers are not afraid to kill off characters. There are “hero” types and “villain” types, but more importantly, most characters are gray-area types, and all the more interesting for it. The story itself isn’t tremendously unique, but it isn’t old hat either because of the intrigue and variety of characters. There’s a clear narrative that doesn’t get muddy, though the characters’ motivations sometimes are.
When I watch The Expanse, I never find myself sighing, wishing they’d get on with it. They take advantage of every scene and every line.
Westworld is an HBO story that’s well worth a short subscription for binge-watching. This is near-future Earthbound sci-fi—modern humans with advanced technology. But most of the action occurs in an Old West narrative. There’s a push and pull, between our history and our possible future. The story is unique, and the plot has twists and turns that will keep you guessing. People who like to figure a story out will love trying to solve this one.
This series has a lot to say about AI, self-determination, consciousness, and morality. But it doesn’t give you any answers—it’s up to you to provide your own.
You never know what you’re getting with this show. It’s all curveballs. In a world of network tv so formulaic that anyone can predict what’s coming next, The OA is intriguing to the point of being addictive. There are just enough answers to keep you from getting frustrated, but not enough to satisfy either. That’s pretty self-aware writing, because it means it will bring viewers back for more. The last episode of the first season glossed over some events to rush to the final scene, but what a divisive, puzzling final scene it was.
Sense8 sure pushes a lot of boundaries. It was created by the Wachowskis (the same ones that brought us The Matrix), who both transitioned from male to female. It also features an actress who has transitioned (Jamie Clayton). The series follows eight characters in different parts of the world and very different backgrounds. They are joined together by a mental connection and via this connection they get to know one another, teach each other, and compensate for one another’s weaknesses.
At times, the individual story narratives verge on the tedious. It’s when they’re connecting with one another that the story shines, and challenges ideas of morality, sexuality (or maybe it’s sexual morality), and love. The most compelling individual story is that of Nomi Marks and her girlfriend Amanita. Theirs is a beautiful love story that is raw, real, and everything we dream of when we think of falling in love. You’d never see something that visceral on network tv.
Mozart in the Jungle
Mozart in the Jungle is an Amazon offering. The first season wowed me with its weirdness. It’s somewhat formless, but that works, given that it’s all about musicians and their art. All the characters have their eccentricities, but the King Poobah of crazy genius is the symphony’s conductor, Rodrigo.
You’re never sure where this show is going to go, but the actor who plays Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) makes childlike wonder, passion, and caprice come to life. He holds the whole show together. Malcolm McDowell gets in some great strokes too, particularly in the third season. The second season disappointed me in its confused, uneventful delivery. You could pretty much skip it and miss nothing. But the third season brought the story forward again and, as I mentioned, gave McDowell some excellent moments.
The Midnight Diner
This is a charming little show about a Japanese diner. It’s performed in Japanese, so be prepared for subtitles. Also be prepared for a major craving for noodles because each episode features a dish enjoyed by a customer. From there, that customer’s story spools out. On the whole, The Midnight Diner is cozily charming. There were a couple of episodes that were just odd to me, because I was missing the point due to not understanding cultural details. But if you want to just relax and have some easy, often heartwarming viewing, tune in to this one.
You’ve likely heard of this one. A lot of noise has been made about it, in no small part due to Winona Ryder’s fantastic performance. A cast of excellent child actors helps it along, too. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) run away with every scene they’re in.
What’s great about this show is its weird mishmash of elements. And it does all of them fabulously! It starts with the intro, which is so wonderfully 80’s retro. The whole feel of it is such a modern-retro fusion that it feels incredibly fresh even as it hits the pleasure centers of being reminded of kid-team classics like The Goonies. In addition to some excellent acting, we get an enticing mystery, special powers, horror elements, and edge-of-your-seat anticipation.
The writers do drag some elements on too long and create some artificial conflict in an obvious manipulation of the viewers. Those parts are slow and tiresome, and all too reminiscent of network tv. But other than that, it’s a stellar series.
Grace and Frankie
This is a quieter show you might not have heard of. It’s a comedy, and it actually makes me laugh, which is rare. Most of that is due to the fantastically on-point timing and delivery of Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Sam Waterston also takes a good turn at a lovably well-intentioned but sadly ham-fisted doofus. The combined acting chops of these three create moments of hilarity as well as moments of deep sadness.
Though it’s a comedy and a lightweight compared to the others on this list, what I really appreciate about this series is that it’s a vehicle for older people. Not just because these actors who have amazing talent would otherwise go to waste because good roles aren’t there for them, but also because old age is an eventual condition for everyone, provided we’re lucky enough to make it that far. Grace and Frankie is a comedy, but it shines some light on topics not often seen elsewhere. Older people will recognize issues central to their own lives, and those of their contemporaries. Younger people get some insight into the issues of their parents and grandparents, as well as get a glimpse of their own futures.
That’s it! I am currently caught up on all these shows, and eagerly awaiting more seasons. Bring on the entertainment!