You lose track, you lose count. Right now, in 2022, there are almost double the number of scripted shows available than were being shown in 2014. And the next few weeks will bring another torrent, as broadcasters, cable and streamers aim to make the cut-off date for this year’s Emmy Awards.
Sifting through it all becomes baffling. There’s only so much time and there are so, so many shows. Sometimes the key to unlocking it all is a personal connection. Twenty years ago I was in Japan covering the 2002 World Cup and I remember what it was like, the hostility and suspicion of outsiders, the stares and the whispered word gaijin (foreigner) to warn others that a stranger was around.
Tokyo Vice (streams Crave) is an HBO Max series loosely based on a memoir by American Jake Adelstein, who in the 1990s went to Tokyo and became the only foreign reporter at one of the city’s biggest newspapers. He covered the crime beat, learned a lot, but never quite enough.
Played here by Ansel Elgort, Jake is a strange figure, a Missouri-born wannabe journalist who becomes obsessed with Japanese culture. His oral and written Japanese is near flawless. He lives alone as a local in Tokyo, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and when he gets that job as a reporter, his initial work is a trial by fire. Nothing he writes is deemed appropriate. Most of his colleagues ignore or stare hard at him. His editor (played by Rinko Kikuchi, who won awards for the move Babel) enters the crowded newsroom and just shouts “gaijin!” before ripping his copy apart.
Still, his fascination with crime and corruption in Tokyo becomes useful. Some cops and even gangsters offer him more information than they should, because he’s a novelty, a true fish out of water. Over several carefully calibrated early episodes (the opener is directed by Michael Mann), the series moves away from the culture-class storylines and becomes a study of both adapting to an alien society, and how Tokyo itself embraces the way Yakuza crime syndicates have influence over so much.
Wisely, the series also shifts away from the early focus on Jake and gives more space to Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a detective cunning enough to know how to use the young reporter for his own purposes. There is also the mystifying figure of Samantha (Rachel Keller), a bar hostess who gives away little about why she is even working in Tokyo.
At times Tokyo Vice (eight episodes, four available now) teases that a gritty, fast-paced thriller is about to ignite, but it pulls back, taking time and space to reveal that, really, the central character is not the foreigner Jake, but it is Tokyo itself in all its complicated moods.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – Paul Rabliauskas: Uncle (streams Crave from Friday) is a new stand-up special featuring Poplar River First Nation comedian Rabliauskas. He’s a jolly fella but there isn’t much coherence to his comedy, and it meanders wildly from his thoughts on white people to land acknowledgments – “You can stop that!” – to being single during the pandemic. The latter becomes rather tasteless about women. You wish this was a lot funnier, and Rabliauskas has more enthusiasm than edge, but some wisecracks will find an approving audience.
Dirty Lines (streams Netflix) is a new and rather odd, dark comedy series from the Netherlands. It’s set in the 1980s and concerns two brothers who created the country’s first phone-sex business. It’s told from the perspective of Marly (Joy Delima), a college student who wanted to make a little extra cash by reading scripts that men call and listen to for excitement. There is an air of farce about it all, and Marly’s disapproving parents disown her. What you get over six episodes (in Dutch with English subtitles) is a rather droll portrait of a preinternet world, with urban life in Amsterdam over the period being celebrated.
Finally, a last-minute addition this weekend is Putin’s War (Saturday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.), an hour-long CBC special. It takes a close look at how Vladimir Putin “meticulously framed his case for war through propaganda, and how the execution of his war plan did not proceed as he expected.” The National’s Terence McKenna does the reporting. From the evidence of a portion of it, there’s a substantial look at the careful creation of a narrative that would justify invading Ukraine with, as one expert calls it, a “paranoid, nostalgic, imperialist view of the past.”
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