There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and some near hysterical glee recently about the state of things at Netflix. The streaming service is being judged harshly, especially inside the entertainment business. In L.A., what is heard is the sound of cackling with delight. Damn those disrupters.
News that Netflix had missed its target of new subscription and was reaching a point where the bubble has burst, has created its own narrative about the streamer – less lavish spending on original content, fewer massive deals to lock in creative talent and fewer distinctively original, must-see series. One well-publicized footnote is that Netflix has scrapped a proposed animated series from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. If that’s cancelled, things must be bad.
A lot of coverage in the trade press that examines the industry has focused on three themes. First, that Netflix has an unusual system for giving the green light to new productions, and what is rejected by one team can be accepted and produced by a different team. Second, the departure of executive Cindy Holland has led to creative chaos. Holland was responsible for much original content, from House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to The Crown, Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit. It was her taste that made Netflix unique among the streaming services, some say. Third, when Holland left in 2020 there began what’s called the “Walmart-ization” of Netflix, meaning it’s all things to all customers.
Forgotten in all this is the cultural impact of Netflix. In particular its commitment to foreign-language content from all over the world. It’s Netflix that made many Americans comfortable with subtitled series, unusual sensibilities and different takes on TV formats.
Anxious People (streams Netflix) is one of those series that Netflix continues to deliver as a curated, discerning service. It’s been around for three months but has been overlooked, and it’s a classic example of a Netflix surprise: The premise seems simple, it being about a hostage-taking after a bank robbery goes awry, but there is wit and poignancy in it and its odd, distinctly Swedish artfulness.
Based on a book by Fredrik Backman, it isn’t straightforward from the get-go. We meet two cops, a father-and-son team, in a town outside Stockholm. That’s son, Jack (Alfred Svensson), and dad, Jim (Dan Ekborg). Mainly concerned about the possible arrival of his daughter for New Year’s Eve, Jim doesn’t like Jack’s skepticism about the arrival. Anyway, Jack needs a haircut and is in the middle of being shorn when a masked bank robber fails to carry out the mission – it’s a cashless bank – and storms into a nearby apartment, which is up for sale with a number of prospective buyers having gathered to view it.
With only half his hair cut and styled, and a bit addled, Jack tries to spring into action. Jim’s a bit rusty on hostage-taking situations but he’s in charge. After hours pass, the armed hostage-taker asks for pizzas. No sooner is the food consumed than the hostages are released. The hostage-taker, however, seems to have disappeared. After getting his half-cut hair mocked by a cop from Stockholm, Jack sets out to interview the hostages with his dad. Thing is, not one of them seems to know anything. No one had a good look at the guy, no one remembers anything distinctive and nobody can reveal where he got to. And they just want to move on, because nothing happened anyway. One woman is more concerned about the parking fine she’s accumulated while being held.
But as Jack keeps investigating in his earnest, half-cocked way, he realizes that they’re all connected in some way and they all have some reason to hide their real reason for being at that apartment.
What unfolds is a wry, gently comic mystery, and a series of character studies of these rather ordinary people. Backman said of his novel, “I am interested in relationship dramas and why people act like idiots.” And it’s true several characters here behave idiotically, but what emerges from the deeper portraits of them is a delicately connected thread of love stores.
It’s both funny and beautiful – this dalliance with eccentricity (six half-hour episodes, in Swedish with English subtitles) is as rewarding as any of Netflix’s big-ticket series. And an example of what Netflix does best, with no hand-wringing involved.
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