Heard a man say on TV recently, “Happiness is an entitlement; every single one of us is entitled to be happy.” Fine and grand, but what happens when you want to be happy watching something different but substantial on the vast array of channels and platforms available, but you can’t find anything? That’s not happy. Herewith for your contentment needs, three recommendations.
Made by BBC TV, Giri/Haji (translated as Duty/Shame) is nothing like a conventional British drama. It breaks the mould deliberately by stretching traditional aspects to the point where it becomes a unique hybrid of stock British gangster epic and Japanese mob drama, complete with sequences of anime and even what might be called an interpretive dance intermission. If that sounds bonkers, it isn’t. It is just gloriously different.
Set in equal parts in London and Tokyo, sometimes in Japanese with English subtitles, the cross-cultural crime saga is kick-started by a murder in London. There, a member of a Japanese crime syndicate, the Yakuza, is found killed with a ceremonial sword that belongs to the boss of another Yakuza gang. As a revenge spree unfolds in Tokyo, detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), is dispatched surreptitiously – on an educational transfer – to England to piece together what happened and what it means for the threadbare peace agreement between the gangs in Japan.
In London, Miro finds, as he suspected, that his long-lost younger brother, Yuto, is not dead but working in the underworld. Then his troubled teenage daughter, Taki (Aoi Okuyama), flies to London to be with him, and the young gay male prostitute he’s hired to guide him into London’s underbelly starts having a crisis of conscience. Oh, the complications.
Meanwhile, his main contact in England, the police officer and teacher Sarah (Kelly Macdonald), is drawn into the shenanigans. It’s complex but often deadpan funny, and then deeply serious about family matters. Visually startling (created by Joe Barton who also wrote for the series Humans), it’s like no thriller made in the past decade.
Wisting (streaming CBC Gem) is a more conventional thriller, deeply embedded in the Scandinavian-noir tradition, but with a lighter touch than most. Made last year in Norway, and reputedly the most expensive TV drama ever made there, it’s based on two novels by Jorn Lier Horst. Detective Wisting (Sven Nordin) is very much an everyman figure, a bit shy outside the boundaries of his police work and a bit wary of his daughter, Line (Thea Green Lundberg), an ambitious crime reporter with a big newspaper. He appears at first to be a plodder, maybe out of his depth.
A body is found in the snowy woods (the series makes exceptionally good use of the evocative landscape) and the assumption is made that the dead man was a local drunk who passed out. A cursory examination reveals he was wearing expensive designer clothes, most bought in the United States. “Do we have a murdered American?” Wisting wonders aloud to his colleagues, fearing the complications involved. Soon enough, the bizarre first twist is revealed – the dead man was wanted in the U.S. and he is an alleged serial killer.
Eventually, of course, the FBI wants to be part of the investigation and Wisting’s cozy, enclosed world is invaded by two FBI agents (Carrie-Anne Moss and Richie Campbell), who travel to Norway to help with the case. Wisting doesn’t want their kind of “help” and, besides, he’s a loner.
What transpires is a terse thriller, as Wisting’s daughter becomes a target – that is somewhat predictable, but what shifts the narrative after several episodes is not predictable. In Norwegian with English subtitles and some English-language sequences.
Upright (Sundays on Super Channel and on Super Channel on-demand) is a beauty of a drama-comedy from Australia. An on-the-road odyssey, it is both funny and at times deeply moving. It opens with our sad-sack anti-hero Lachlan, known as “Lucky” (Tim Minchin), trying to take an upright piano to his childhood home, driving across the vast Australian landscape. He’s barely started when he crashes into a pickup truck driven by a very angry, extremely foul-mouthed teenage girl, Meg (Milly Alcock).
They team up, out of necessity. He needs to keep moving with that piano and she’s been injured, so she needs help. Their journey is, at first, one long bickering session. Much of which is very, very funny. (Alcock is like a force of nature here.) Until, that is, the real reasons that have both of them on the road become clear.
Neither is a happy person and both have regrets and baggage. A strange, brittle series, with manic comic energy at times, it is deeply rewarding in the end – stick with it beyond the first episodes – and manages to be eloquent without being sentimental.