There’s a lot to be said for minimalism, especially if it lacks miserabilism.
Short-form comedy or drama – even very-short-form storytelling, lasting mere minutes – can have the layered richness of long-form storytelling in its brief, considered response to life. (We’re talking more heft than TikTok and more substantial than whatever Quibi is doing.) Also, short-form storytelling is often the first step for gifted and driven writers and directors who are on their way to something much bigger.
Binge-watching guide: The recent shows you need to catch up on, all available to stream
Here are three gems, ideal for summer viewing, that you can find online or on streaming services. These series resonate abundantly for all their brevity.
Night Owl (Vimeo VHX) is a beauty of a little series, an exquisite study of a small slice of life, loneliness and social awkwardness. It’s funny, too. Written by and starring Rebekah Miskin, it’s about Jessie (Miskin) who is an insomniac. She wakes in the night and is in the habit of going to the local all-night grocery store, less for shopping than human contact with the staff. (It was filmed at Fiesta Farms in Toronto.) It’s a simple idea – all-night stores are their own enclosed worlds with staff, few customers and a strange vibe that can be melancholy or playful.
Jessie chats with the cashier Mel (Daiva Johnston, familiar from Murdoch Mysteries) who is bored out of her mind and bosses around the security guard Carlos (Jesse Camacho, who is wonderful) and the guy stocking the shelves. Jessie turns up so often that both guys have a little crush on her. Jessie is oblivious and when she runs into a doctor (Gabe Grey) a few times she works up the courage to ask him on a date. Nothing unfolds quite as you’d expect in this charming but meaningful piece of whimsy. At six episodes, each less than 10 minutes, Night Owl (it screened at SXSW and other festivals) is one of those jewels that can leave you smitten with all the characters. It’s on Vimeo with a pay-what-you-can fee, with all funds going to non-profit organizations.
Homemade (Netflix) is enormously ambitious – an anthology of shorts about lockdown life during the pandemic. Most were made in May and adhered to physical distancing rules. Given Netflix’s heft, some big names are involved. For instance, Kristen Stewart made a short that is essentially an acting exercise featuring her face conveying the panic and boredom of sleepless nights. (There is less to it than meets the eye unless you want to study acting in close-up for a small camera.) Maggie Gyllenhaal’s piece is one of the best and truly odd: Her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, plays a reclusive man alone in a cabin in the woods while his static-filled radio brings news of some virus-like apocalypse.
The other standouts, which give a visceral sense of COVID-19’s impact, are a drone journey made by Ladj Ly – with a child sending a camera over a working-class area of Paris, showing glimpses of ordinary life – and Ana Lily Amirpour’s segment, narrated by Cate Blanchett, which offers a stunning view of a deserted Los Angeles where a young woman rides a bike. Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino presents a hilarious little comedy with two tiny action figures, one being the Pope and the other the Queen. They squabble, swap jokes and ponder what to watch on TV together.
Hey Lady! (CBC Gem) is one I’ve written about before, but is worthy of a reminder. This series of eight short episodes is a delight, a journey from zany to lawless comedy raucousness. Written by playwright Morris Panych specifically for its star, Jayne Eastwood, Hey Lady! is framed as a kooky conceit: The old “lady” believes she’s starring in a TV series and barks orders about moving on to the next scene when she’s bored. Is this some kind of senility? Nope. But the series in which she’s starring is often so rude and foul-mouthed that a ton of the dialogue can’t be quoted in this newspaper.
She shoplifts constantly, yells insults at children, drinks copiously and, with her equally wisecracking, chain-smoking sidekick (Jackie Richardson), wreaks havoc daily in every possible location. (Scenes of the pair torturing baristas are priceless.) It’s one of the most extraordinary comedy creations on Canadian TV.
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