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Something I’ve noticed recently is the declining popularity of true-crime sagas. A bunch have arrived in the past few weeks, mainly on Netflix and focusing on grisly crimes, manhunts for serial killers and such. They’re not getting much traction because, I think, people want more comforting distractions and a dose of optimism. A serial killer being caught years after he began his murderous campaign is not fitting the bill.
No wonder. It’s fun escapism and laughter that’s needed. Here’s a list of four witty distractions for all tastes.
Servant of the People (Netflix) is a series from Ukraine (in Russian with English subtitles) you already know about, whether you realize it or not. The show took a while to land here, for some reason, but it’s been worth the wait. This is the gently satirical series that made its lead actor Volodymyr Zelensky go from TV to President of Ukraine, entangled him with Donald Trump – remember the first impeachment hearings – and what’s even stranger is that the show is about an unknown becoming president of Ukraine. It’s a sly, smart comedy that travels well and is all the more fascinating when you know what happened to the star – people in Ukraine loved the character so much they made him president.
Zelensky plays Vasyl, a high school history teacher, a bit earnest but liked by his students. One day, while talking to a colleague, he unleashes a rant about corruption in politics. Thing is, a student is watching, records the rant and puts it on YouTube. It’s a big viral hit because he’s articulating the frustrations of ordinary people. Vasyl thinks he’s in trouble with the school principal but he is, in fact, on his way to winning an election. The comedy is very droll, especially about the fakery of politics and it takes a while before Vasyl realizes the power he has. The story is told backwards, beginning with him being elected and switching back to scenes in the school. An absolute gem of tongue-in-cheek humour, it’s about Ukraine but universal in appeal.
Their Finest (Netflix) is a one-off, a BBC Film set during the Second World War, and it’s adorable. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin, a young woman sent to work at the Ministry of Information, Film Division and to help make movies and shorts that will inspire people to support the war effort while entertaining them. Specifically, she’s hired to write what a male colleague calls “the slop,” and by that he means “girls’ talk, women’s dialogue.” Bill Nighy plays a fading movie star pushed into the propaganda films and wanting to steal every scene. Richard E. Grant plays a snippity bureaucrat who wants more propaganda and less storytelling. There’s a sweet love story and some wonderful work by an array of British actors. My heavens, this is charming, rib-tickling escapism.
Loudermilk (three seasons on Amazon Prime Video) is a peach of a laid-back, smart comedy. It’s also under the radar, since it first aired only on AT&T’s Audience Network in the U.S. Title character Sam Loudermilk (Ron Livingston) is a totally irascible former music journalist, four years sober and sort-of employed as an “abuse counsellor” helping addicts stay clean. A complete misanthrope, he’s grumpy with everyone but essentially good-hearted. The series (created by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort) has a different feel to most TV comedies. It lopes along to its own beat and is mainly concerned with allowing Sam to be wildly, inappropriately mean to people who deserve it. It takes a while to find its feet but it’s a very engaging, rude comedy about an eccentric who grows on you. A great binge-watch of unconventional, cranky comedy.
Pink Is in (Bell Fibre channel) is a dopey, off-the-wall comedy set at a women’s prison in Hamilton, Ont. Created by Lisa Crawford, it’s all whimsy and slightly lewd humour, and it defies description but its rough quality is very appealing. Prison Warden Morgan Dungworth (Ellen-Ray Hennessy) is often tipsy but not as drunk as the prison’s CEO. Besides she’s not truly in charge of the joint. That role goes to the prisoner known as Top Dog (Tricia Rainone), who runs the place with a good understanding of what the incarcerated women prisoners actually want. The episodes are short, the feel is trippy and this is one of those gutsy Canadian comedies that deserves a much bigger audience. Ideally watched while imbibing or inhaling whatever it is that helps you get through this time. Laughter helps.
Join Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle and veteran writer Bill Brioux for a live webcast on Friday Feb 5th at 12 p.m. ET as they discuss the latest on the TV streaming battleground and what shows to add to your must-watch list. Globe and Mail subscribers can register at tgam.ca/experiences.