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Messiah is first-rate middlebrow entertainment. The 10-part series on an enigmatic leader of a cult-like following who emerges from the Middle East and has a disturbing impact is a thinking person’s thriller, with a touch of Homeland and a dash of astringent scrutiny of faith. At times bombastic and at times infused with a moral imagination, it is othing like what some reviews have painted it.
Condor (Super Channel on demand)
Condor’s first season is an excellent, thrilling binge-watch. Derived from the 1975 film and 1974 James Grady novel Three Days of the Condor, it’s a conspiracy drama that starts slowly and then moves at a blistering pace. Max Irons plays central figure Joe Turner, a CIA employee unsure about the moral rightness of his work, but thrown into a crisis that’s partly of his own making.
Cardinal’s fourth season is lean at six episodes and, simultaneously, has a gravity and gorgeous depth to it. All of the crime drama’s seasons, but especially the first, third, and this one, succeed in their ambition to carve out a wonderfully distinct style of Canadian noir.
The Flight Attendant (Crave)
The Flight Attendant is a darkly comic whodunnit with plenty of laughs, but at its centre is the issue of why Kaley Cuoco’s character is who she is – a self-admitted good-time gal who drinks and parties heavily. This is not to suggest The Flight Attendant is heavy going. It’s incredibly light, enjoyable and made with great panache, and Cuoco is tremendously good as a physical presence.
Dead Still (Acorn TV)
Dead Still is a gloriously off-centre and addictive concoction. The six-part series is a deadpan Victorian mystery with a layer of subversive humour. An Ireland/Canada production, it’s set in Dublin in the 1880s and about Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), a “post-mortem photographer.” Clever, visually sumptuous and indescribably unique.
Warrior Nuns (Netflix)
Warrior Nun is a hoot and wonderfully weird. The newly brought back to life Ava (Alba Baptista) is a 19-year-old orphan and former quadriplegic who was badly treated by the nuns back at the orphanage. Ava is destined to toil in action for the Order of the Cruciform Sword, a secret society of fighter nuns who are chosen and trained to seek out and terminate demons from hell who roam the Earth.
The Sounds (CBC Gem)
The Sounds mystery series (it also streams on Acorn TV) is far from being original or startling, but it’s a puzzle-drama without apology or ambition; a good time-waster and nicely made escapism. A Canada-New Zealand production, it’s about Maggie Cabbott (Rachelle Lefevre), who goes to New Zealand from Vancouver to meet up with her husband Tom (Matt Whelan), a rich businessman who disappears into the water. Or does he, really?
Women of the Night (Netflix)
Teeming with menacing men, tough women and with everybody harbouring secrets, Women of the Night won’t strain your brain, but it’s an escape to a different, hard-nosed world, from the safety of your couch. The 10-part series from the Netherlands (in Dutch with English subtitles) is about sex, crime, drugs and politics in Amsterdam. It has sometimes ludicrously obvious twists but frankness about the sex industry that’s notable.
Twin Murders: The Silence of the White City (Netflix)
Twin Murders: The Silence of the White City is a one-off crime-drama mystery from Spain (with English subtitles). Set in Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the Basque region, it’s about the search for a serial killer who poses his victims, always a pair of them, with some symbolic meaning, in various historic sites. Be forewarned that the murders at the heart of the story are depicted in disturbing detail. In fact, everything about this TV movie (planned to be a series of separate stories) is Gothic-erotic from the get-go.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Amazon Prime Video)
Tokyo Vampire Hotel is from Japan (with English subtitles) and not for every taste. “Lurid” doesn’t do it justice. It’s unhinged and gloriously colourful and bloody. Made by “punk auteur” Sion Sono (who had several movies at TIFF), the nine-part extravaganza is a mash-up of thriller and vampire-fantasy epic, while staying anchored in the neon Tokyo occupied by cool youngsters.
Biographies of the famous and fascinating
Belushi is a feature-length doc about John Belushi’s life and work. It is 38 years since Belushi died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and heroin, at age 33. The aim of this new documentary, made by R.J. Cutler, is to rescue Belushi from the tawdry legends that surround his end. It certainly achieves that.
Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head (TVO.org)
Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head is a wonderful, nuanced, fun and moving story. And it fills a huge gap in the chronology of pop culture in Canada. Teenage Head mattered and its outsized importance has never been celebrated. Pop, punk, fun and inspired in part by the New York Dolls, the Head epitomized everything that was admirable and enthralling about the punk revolution.
Punk is a four-part docu-series that first aired on the Epix channel in the United States last year. The executive producers are fashion designer John Varvatos and music legend Iggy Pop. Keep that in mind about this often brilliant and illuminating but sometimes vacillating series. Both Varvatos and Pop are from Detroit and their answer to gnarly questions about the place-origins of Punk is, of course, Detroit.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (HBO/Crave)
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn is a powerful documentary made by Ivy Meeropol, whose grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In 1951, Roy Cohn, just out of law school, prosecuted the Rosenbergs on espionage charges and argued successfully for their execution. Cohn then became Senator Joe McCarthy’s legal counsel during the Senator’s demented hunt for Communists. You could say that understanding Cohn means understanding a half-century of U.S. politics – and the current Trump period in particular.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Netflix)
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is a charming, uplifting documentary, as effective a tonic as a sunny horoscope forecast. The utterly captivating Walter Mercado became a legend in Spanish-speaking countries after his daily astrology segment on a TV station in Puerto Rico was a surprise hit. The film has an undeniable charm, as does its subject, and it is deeply heartening.
Feel-good fun for the burned-out
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Ted Lasso has recently emerged as a touchstone of optimism, a favourite binge-watch for anyone in need of reassurance and idealism. On the show, one Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is an American football coach from Kansas City hired to take over a floundering London soccer team despite knowing nothing much about soccer. He’s relentlessly optimistic, cheerful and sees the good in everyone and everything.
Sanditon (Amazon Prime Video)
Sanditon, available on the PBS Masterpiece stream on Amazon Prime Video, and later in December via PBS Passport, is an unguarded, thrillingly cockeyed adaptation of an unfinished Jane Austen novel. And fabulously distracting, lavish, humane, funny, romantic and sexy as all get-out. The eight episodes build toward a volcanic eruption of lust that isn’t quite resolved.
Chewing Gum (CBC Gem)
Chewing Gum comes from the mind of Michaela Coel, who made and starred in this year’s acclaimed HBO series I May Destroy You. This earlier comedy (two seasons of six episodes) stars Coel as Tracey, an East London shop assistant who is 24 and about to free herself from her deeply religious upbringing. Mainly, she wants sex and fun. This isn’t easily found.
How To with John Wilson (Crave/HBO)
How To with John Wilson is one of the most charming and zany series of the year. The premise of the six-episode series is spectacularly simple. Wilson, a documentary filmmaker, films New York street scenes obsessively, often finding the beautifully ludicrous. In each episode, he tries to research a topic – how to make small talk, how to cook a risotto, etc. The combination of his offbeat remarks, droll self-deprecation and unusual encounters is addictive.
Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist (Amazon Prime Video)
Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist comes in two parts. First the comic is here in Canada and his stand-up set is devoted entirely to his observations and experiences. The second part is done in Barcelona and he does to Spain what he did to us. This isn’t a pointless contrivance – Gaffigan views the idea as a good challenge and spent a lot of time here in multiple provinces. It’s quite the feat, and very funny but gently so.
Late Night in the Studio (CBC Gem)
Late Night in the Studio is a very trippy take on Canadian TV and it’s hilarious. The conceit is simple. The CBC’s fictional Head Archivist (played with aplomb by Nobu Adilman) introduces viewers to lost gems from the CBC Archives. You know, old and forgotten shows, pilot episodes that never made it to series and such.
Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill (Netflix)
Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill is a breezy delight. No angst involved, no Trump jokes or even a cuss word. Just Jerry Seinfeld observing things and doing what only Seinfeld can do – make the mundane seem ridiculous and obliging you to nod in agreement.
Love and related joys and problems
Normal People (CBC Gem)
Normal People is broken up into 12 half-hour episodes and would be easy to summarize in an offhand way as frivolous and sex-obsessed. But that summary conceals so much. Normal People, beautifully made, is an achingly powerful story of intimacy, affection, power dynamics, class division and money.
Trigonometry (CBC Gem)
Trigonometry is all about a polyamorous romance. It moves at a glacial pace while painting a rich picture of three thirtysomethings living together in contemporary London. It takes a while before the true nature of the three-people romance is fully established.
Love Life (Crave/HBO)
The first scripted drama from new streaming service HBO Max (available through Crave in Canada and on cable if you have the HBO Canada package), Love Life is a sweetly eccentric series. The plan is to follow one person’s history of relations each season and the first is about a woman named Darby Carter (Anna Kendrick), a young woman who at first is drifting through her twenties, envying friends who are in solid relationships.
Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) were sweethearts in their late teens and made an agreement: If at some point in the future, one texted “RUN” to the other, and got the same reply, they would both abandon their lives and meet up, on a train leaving New York’s Grand Central Station. Run is a romance, a mystery, disarmingly oblique and unique. You have no idea where it is going, but not in the sense that it’s a twisty tale. At times hilarious and heartbreaking, as TV it is stylistically utterly distinctive.
Feel Good (Netflix)
Mae Martin created and stars in Feel Good, a fascinating romantic comedy with a dash of drama and a fair amount of fast, surreal humour. Semi-autobiographical, it features Mae as a version of herself, a queer stand-up comic who falls heavily for her new girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), who has never had a same-sex relationship before.
Rita is from Denmark and about as far from Nordic noir as you can get. Sunny, funny and sweetly outrageous, it’s about single-mother schoolteacher, Rita (Mille Dinesen), who is more rebellious and provocative than the teenagers who inhabit her classroom.
Love & Anarchy (Netflix)
The eight-part Swedish series (with English subtitles) Love & Anarchy is about Sofie (Ida Engvoll), a digital-business consultant newly hired to shift a stuffy publishing house into the digital age. At home, Sofie has a gentle, caring husband and two kids. Thing is, from the get-go, it’s obvious Sofie has a secret porn habit.
Like the Spain-set Elite, the Italian series Baby (with English subtitles) is set among older teenagers at a posh school for the privileged. But where Elite is often about lust and betrayal, Baby is about angst and guilt with a very grave Roman Catholic approach to the doings of teens and adults.
Teenage angst and glory
Grand Army (Netflix)
There are many series and made-for-streaming movies about teenage life on Netflix. But none as ambitious, sobering and bold as Grand Army. It is Degrassi on steroids, brimming with soaring, prickly conversations about careers, sex, pornography, race, misogyny, sexual identity, money and, well, how to change the world. Even if you find the opening episode a bit chaotic – it’s meant to be – stick with it because the third episode is a small masterpiece of TV drama.
The Hunting (CBC Gem)
In 2016, Australian Federal Police were compelled to investigate a website that contained sexual images of girls from private and public schools across Australia. The site reportedly featured naked photos of teenage girls, some named, for the purpose of their bodies being rated by users. The Hunting is a fine, four-part mini-series inspired by those real events. It’s a gripping, complex drama, unafraid to deal with some very tricky issues.
Documentaries on tough issues
Welcome to Chechnya (Crave/HBO)
Welcome to Chechnya is a documentary about the continuing anti-LGBTQ purge in the Russian republic of Chechnya. You have rarely seen such brutality and hate as it sometimes documents. Filmmaker David France used an iPhone and GoPro cameras and posed as a tourist, with one phone to show the authorities and another to film in a clandestine manner.
16 Shots (Crave)
16 Shots feels like a thriller in part because the story unfolds crisply with a few shocking twists. It also feels remarkably familiar – the fatal police shooting of a Black suspect turns into a very twisted story filled with lies. The bedrock story is simple enough. In October, 2014, police in Chicago get reports of a man trying to break into cars and that he might have a knife. They head to the scene and find 17-year-old Laquan McDonald walking down the street. They report later that he wielded a knife at an officer and was shot dead. Case closed, in the official version.
Sports and sporting stories
This is Football (Amazon Prime Video)
This is Football is a spectacularly good documentary series about soccer as a worldwide phenomenon. It’s celebratory – nothing about FIFA scandals here – but substantial storytelling, and beautifully made, a feast for the eyes. It’s less about soccer, you realize after a few episodes, than it is about the human capacity to heal, to strive, to triumph and to create a community across religious and political barriers.
Andy Murray: Resurfacing (Amazon Prime Video)
Andy Murray: Resurfacing is about Murray, the man and tennis player, and about his difficult comeback from several career-threatening injuries and operations. It’s inspiring in a plain-spoken way, whether you know much about tennis, or not. What emerges, though, is not the picture of a saintly figure or even a sublimely skilled player. What comes across instead is a man who worked hard, for whom tennis has been an escape, not an obsession, and for whom those injuries and setbacks were just another part of the toil.
Detectorists (Acorn TV)
Detectorists is fiction but features people who might argue about what they do being a sport or a hobby. The British series – winner of several BAFTA Awards – was created, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook (The Office, Pirates of the Caribbean) and stars Crook with Toby Jones. They are members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club and wander the local area with their metal detectors looking for hidden treasure but, really, just amiably hiding from the cruelties of life.
Soccer docs and dramas
Football, or soccer, or whatever you want to call it, is the world’s game. Thus there is a cornucopia of material related to soccer available on streaming services. Herewith, a list of documentaries and dramas from around the world to slake your soccer thirst.