So, the content keeps coming from Netflix. Some of it strange and bewildering. Herewith, the details on two new productions.
Santa Clarita Diet (streaming Netflix Friday) has been heavily promoted and yet nothing seen in advance quite gives the true flavour of it. That's because it is both funny and repulsive – both deadpan and gross, a difficult combo to pull off.
Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play pleasant married realtors living in Santa Clarita, where everybody is so normal it's frightening. Barrymore is excellent as the chipper, slightly ditzy Sheila. Olyphant, in his first major outing since Justified, is a charming fella as Joel, a nice husband and neighbour who has this little obsession with appliances. He likes things to be perfect. A slack switch on a toaster oven depresses him.
Anyway, after we get a breezy and quite funny picture of life for the couple and meet their neighbours, Sheila falls ill. That is, she feels she might have eaten something that's upset her stomach. She vomits profusely.
It turns out that, for reasons yet to be made known, Sheila has become one of the undead. She has a hunger for human flesh. (Also, certain kinds of sex and she wants to buy a Range Rover, badly.)
Suspecting that this might be the case, they consult a local teenage boy. He's probably up on this stuff. Indeed he is. After examining Sheila, he pronounces her one of the undead. Joel asks if he means a zombie. "Zombie?" the kid asks, horrified. "I don't like that word because it's inherently negative."
This gives you something of the gist of the element of achingly good satire that repeatedly descends into weirdness – cannibalism runs rampant.
The deadpan tone and style is, for a while, delicious. Sheila is just so sincere, wanting to sell real estate and enjoy a happy life. The fact that she now has to eat human flesh is something to integrate into her life and that of her family. Just another new fad diet.
Olyphant is superb, too. He uses something of the same laconic rhythm he used playing Raylan in Justified – that stand-up guy with a cutting sense of humour that is so buried you forget it's there until it rises suddenly and gloriously.
The series is, mind you, a minority-interest curiosity. You get comfortable with the droll satire – in particular, Barrymore's enormous skill with this kind of character – and then the cannibalism, vomiting and toilet humour looms large. Perhaps there is a larger context we're meant to intuit, one about consumption, but the fun is in the gentle parts, not the gross ones.
The Investigator: A British Crime Story (now streaming on Netflix Canada) is also a peculiarity. Television in Britain is caching up with the popularity of long-form true-crime stories, established by Netflix's Making A Murderer and HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.
Thing is, those productions were emphatically documentary in style, while The Investigator is very much a populist TV series. It plods a bit, it states the obvious and every few minutes we're reminded about the story so far.
It is, mind you, a lurid, engrossing crime story. In 1985 in Bournemouth, England, Carole Packman disappeared. According to her husband and daughter, she left a note and her wedding ring and walked out. But her husband Russell Causley is now serving a life sentence for her murder while no body has ever been found and he has maintained his innocence.
Former police detective and now investigator Mark Williams-Thomas takes on the case. He's famous in Britain for working on several high-profile cases and he's good on TV – confident, clipped in his speaking style and he has a certain charisma.
What he discovers in the first hour of the four-part series is sensational stuff. Causley, a successful and arrogant businessman, was having an affair with a younger woman, Patricia. He moved Patricia into the family home where she shared a room with his teenage daughter, Samantha. He was violent with both Carole and Samantha, and much loathed by some in the community.
Yet Samantha says, "My father was an extrovert, gregarious, full of self-importance, arrogant to the point of rudeness. And strict. I idolized him."
What emerges is a stunning portrait of British bourgeois life in the 1970s and 1980s. Few people knew Carole well. On the one hand, that was because her middle-class suburban community was reserved and private. On the other hand, her husband controlled her and the household with an iron fist.
A man who knew the family at the time of Carole's disappearance talks very carefully about the dynamic in the house, with a wife and mistress and teenage daughter installed. "There was a certain amount of ladies sitting on peoples' laps," he says cautiously.
At the end of the first hour, Williams-Thomas establishes that the missing-person case was closed when somebody claiming to be Carole walked into a police station and said she was fine, there was no need for police to investigate. But, then, somebody also claimed she was in Canada.
"I must go to Canada," Williams-Thomas says. And yes, you're hooked because it is all so cheesily melodramatic.