For reasons best known to people at streaming services who have too much money to spend, there’s a glut of science fiction and fantasy drama. We are meant to be awed by being transported to other worlds; we are meant to be spooked by characters with paranormal powers.
But if some of us see another drama about “a magically enhanced monster-hunter” (that would be The Witcher on Netflix, I think) we will scream, and henceforth reject any invitation to “immerse yourself in an epic world” of childish twaddle about magical powers, or to travel to a galaxy that looks like a giant mall built by Lego enthusiasts.
Let’s have life as we live it, thanks. Or fiction about relatable life in all its plausible horrors and strangeness. Here are three odd but gripping series that offer perspective on that meaty stuff: blood, sweat and tears.
In My Skin (one season on CBC Gem) has sometimes been listed as “hilarious” but it isn’t. It is bleakly comic and has some razor-sharp wit but it’s a series about keeping secrets and trying to use those secrets to create art. Set in Wales (be warned, the accents are thick), it is about Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), who likes to tell her friends at school about how great her home life is. Loving parents, holidays abroad and bourgeois comfort. It’s all a lie. Her mother has a bipolar disorder and her dad is a disaster of a man. In the first episode Bethan goes home from school and as night falls realizes her mother is in the street, washing a car and singing loudly. It’s Bethan who takes her mother to the hospital. Bethan, a mere teenager, is living multiple lives and weaving them together with lies. Thing is, she feels compelled to write and what we are witnessing is, in fact, the creation of a writer.
On the surface, the series (five episodes on CBC Gem) might seem to fit with Sex Education and The End of the F***ing World (both on Netflix) as a volatile coming-of-age British series, but it has more depth than both. It’s dense with pain and has starkly light moments. Creevy is astonishing in what is a gravely comic portrait of the artist as an anxiety-driven, self-sabotaging teen. A comedy that’s magnificent drama at times.
The North Water (on-demand on Super Channel and streaming via Amazon Prime Video’s Super Channel platform) presents itself as “A piercing look at the darkness inside men.” True. Set on a whaling ship in the 1850s (again, be warned, the accents are thick), it’s an intense look at what hard men, confined together, will do to each other and nature itself. Made within the Arctic Circle, and it shows, it’s about what happens on an isolated whaling ship at the end of the whaling era. On board, the central tension is between the melancholy but moral Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), an ex-army surgeon escaping his past and a drug problem, and the near-feral harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), who is ruthless, moral-free and mainly interested in blood and lust. This might be Farrell’s best work yet. His Drax is a believable monster of a man, uncivilized in thought and action, epitomizing the rawness under the surface of Victorian niceties. Not for the easily disturbed – there are breathtaking scenes of cruelty – the series (in five parts) invests heavily in the exploration of flawed, fierce men, and is rewarding just for that.
Vendetta: Truth, Lies and the Mafia (streams on Netflix) is a bonkers true-crime series. It’s about Telejato, a small Sicilian TV station that became famous for its relentless investigation of links between the Mafia there and local businesses and political figures. The central figure is Pino Maniaci, a charismatic, chain-smoking on-air figure who set out to become notorious, and did. His fights with Mafia figures became public and brutal. They threatened him. He called out their names on live TV. They burned his car and killed his dogs. There was deeply personal animosity from both sides.
What we see is a revenge-figure becoming his own myth. But he had an ace up his sleeve. He knew that corruption was rife, possibly reaching into the judicial system itself. This put Maniaci at odds with the legendary anti-Mafia judge Silvana Saguto. One was an outsider and the other was an insider. Bitterness abounded and while the series – in six parts, mostly in Italian with English subtitles – isn’t accusatory, it certainly questions almost everything about the public campaign against organized crime in Italy.
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