Pandemic Lends Itself to Blissful and Nervous Binge-Watching
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I know it’s faintly ridiculous to watch so much film and TV on my iPhone, but life in pandemic-plagued 2020 has glued me to the really small screen to an unprecedented degree.
It’s pretty much my lone companion before falling asleep every night, and due to the seemingly inexhaustible smorgasbord of content on Netflix (my go-to app), I’ve been binge-watching a lot. It’s provided much-needed comfort and joy.
That’s not to say my wife and I don’t enjoy a fair number of series and films on a good-sized screen earlier on many evenings. But since I’ve consumed so much media while in isolation, I might as well share some thoughts about some of the recent Netflix streaming options.
“Schitt’s Creek” – its final, satisfying season
It took me a long while to warm up to this quirky, Canadian comedy series that struck gold at last month’s 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards.
It debuted in 2015 (on Pop TV) with the legendary pair Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (co-stars of the beloved “SCTV,” a classic I treasured in high school; O’Hara last appeared back in ’79) as the inimitable Johnny and Moira Rose. Johnny once owned a huge national video-store chain and Moira was an over-the-top soap actress, and with their two spoiled kids take up residence in a lackluster motel in the middle of nowhere (the titular small town), after losing their fortune.
I just couldn’t get into the series online, until a couple years ago, when seemingly the entire country embraced this beautiful bouquet of Roses. I’d watch most anything Levy and O’Hara starred in; his big eyebrows and often bug-eyed expressions steal many a scene by
“Schitt’s Creek” (which must have the shortest TV theme music in history) not only showcased their wacky talents to a perfectly absurd degree – Johnny the mostly calm, dependable patriarch always in a suit jacket, and Moira the hammy, over-emotional drama queen with a different wig every day and a warm heart – but a priceless, perfect supporting cast.
That’s led by Levy’s real-life son, Daniel, the showrunner and frequent writer who played the gay, flamboyant David who always dressed in black and white and displayed a biting, snarky wit.
He shared a motel room for six seasons with the wonderful Annie Murphy as the precious Alexis; their sibling rivalry, petty fights and obvious affection for each other were tremendous fun to behold (many a frustrated “Ohmygod!” and “David!” fly fast and furious).
Among the large chorus of other colorful characters, I most loved the cynical, deadpan motel manager Stevie (Emily Hampshire) and the perennially perky restaurant waitress Twyla (Dan Levy’s real sister Sarah).
A central relationship, starting in season 3, was between David and Patrick (Noah Reid), who met when David sought a license to open his own business, Rose Apothecary, and they became partners, professionally and personally.
Reid and Levy make an ideal odd couple, as Patrick is the gay straight man – rational, no-nonsense – to David’s manic, snide, hard-to-please personality. The evolution and growth in both their beautiful relationship and classy business are great to see bloom over the course of the series.
A lot happens (job-wise and love-wise) in the “Schitt’s Creek” sprawling final season, with the last episode airing in April and the season finally getting to Netflix by the end of September, coinciding with a fitting Emmy sweep.
The resolution of the relationship between Alexis and Ted is romantic and heart-wrenching, and a highlight is seeing show-biz veterans Victor Garber and Saul Rubinek guest in an episode about rebooting Moira’s soap in prime time. And they have to end the season with a big wedding.
A Canadian Emmy sweep
“Schitt’s Creek” – in a virtual ceremony with the cast in Toronto — swept the
Emmy comedy category, taking home a total of nine Emmys this year, the most ever for a comedy in a single year.
“I will forever be grateful to Eugene and Daniel Levy for the opportunity to play a woman of a certain age — my age — who gets to fully be her ridiculous self,” the 66-year-old O’Hara said of Eugene, now 73, and Dan, 37.
One media account said the victories soon “snowballed into a Schitt’s-storm of best writing, directing and overall comedy series awards.” Dan Levy and Annie Murphy picked up best supporting actor and actress statuettes for their roles.
“This has been the greatest experience of my life,” the younger Levy said. “This is completely overwhelming.”
The series entered the Primetime Emmy ceremony already having won casting and costumes crowns at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards earlier in September. It received 15 nominations in all, second most among comedies to the 20 nods for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (another of my favorites).
After being shut out of the Emmys for its first four seasons, “Schitt’s Creek” broke through last year with its first nominations — four in all, including one for best comedy.
As Gold Derby pointed out, this year marks the first time a series has won the four main acting awards since Angels in America in 2004. If you’re a fan, be sure to watch the “Schitt’s Creek” 45-minute farewell documentary on Netflix, which includes appearances by Carol Burnett, Cameron Crowe, and Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, who rightly point out what the show did so well.
Its lasting impact can be seen in a deeply touching letter read by Noah Reid from a Facebook group called Serendipitydodah for Moms – Home of the Mama Bears. They show the incalculable value of the normal portrayal of a gay couple – one that’s not fighting a battle over disease or discrimination. They’re just two other people fighting to find their way in the world and find love.
The group was created for moms of LGBTQ kids who love and support their kids. The letter said many of them “are working to make the world a kinder, safer, more loving place for all LGBTQ people to live.”
“More than 1,800 of us are signing this letter because we wanted to say thank you for the LGBTQ characters, relationships and story lines that you have included in ‘Schitt’s Creek.’ Your commitment to represent love and tolerance in your show is so important to families like ours.
“Your willingness to explore, inform and educate about LGBTQ people and their relationships in an entertaining but respectful and positive manner sets a tone that is often missing.
“You have created new ways for queer viewers to see themselves represented and in its own way that is just as important as the battles we are still fighting. Therefore, the work you have all done on Schitt’s Creek has encouraged us greatly and given us much hope about the future for our kids.
“We sincerely believe that shows like ‘Schitt’s Creek’ will serve as a catalyst to help change the world into a kinder, safer, more loving place for all LGBTQ people to live and because of that we will remain forever grateful.”
What more could you ask for? A show that’s not only fierce and funny and unique, but is villain-free, with a lot of good being done. You can see how the cast and crew literally became one huge, happy family.
“The Boys in the Band” play gay life in dissonant key
Harder to love – but easy to admire, acting-wise – is the dramatic, tumultuous “The Boys in the Band,” directed by Joe Mantello, based on the 1968 play of the same name by Mart Crowley, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Ned Martel.
It’s not about music (though there are some choice pieces on the soundtrack), and the all-male cast acts their heart out in a discordant orchestra, where seemingly no one likes each other or even seems to be playing the same piece.
The star-packed film features stars the full roster of players from the play’s 2018 Broadway revival — a cast of exclusively gay actors, such as Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins.
Parsons (the prickly “Big Bang Theory” star who played an angry gay villain in Netflix’s “Hollywood”) is thunderously dominant here as Michael, a Roman Catholic, recovering alcoholic and writer, who’s hosting a birthday party for one of his friends, Harold (a chronically late
Another friend, Donald, a self-described underachiever, helps Michael prepare, in a cool, two-story New York apartment with a great outdoor urban deck, that’s filled with lights. Alan, Michael’s (presumably straight) former college roommate, calls with an urgent need to see him. Michael invites him to come over and after he does, the tension soon simmers and erupts.
Among the other guests, Emory is a stereotypical flamboyant interior designer. Hank, a soon-to-be-divorced schoolteacher, and Larry, a commercial artist, are a couple but struggling with monogamy. Bernard is an amiable black librarian.
Not familiar with the plot, the intensely theatrical setting, at a party at home, somewhat reminded me of the increasingly intoxicated resentments and bitter fights revealed in the classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” They’re both terribly difficult to watch – uncomfortable, festering wounds having Band-Aids ripped off – though “Boys in the Band” is mercifully shorter.
The brittle, unforgiving insults hurled between Parsons and Quinto’s characters really echo the tortured relationship between Martha and
George in the volcanic “Woolf.”
Brian Hutchison expertly navigates the awkward character of Alan (the only heterosexual in the group), who you want to root for, but quickly becomes the band’s enemy. Alan is immediately drawn to Hank, who’s married but a closeted homosexual in a new life.
Rannells (the original star of Broadway’s “Book of Mormon”) bides his time in much of the story, but thankfully gets some solid, strong screen time.
“The Boys in the Band” – which explores many obstacles of gay life — is yet another addictively watchable entry in the continuing series of Ryan Murphy entries in his prolific media empire, following Netflix’s excellent limited series “Hollywood” and “Ratched,” this year alone.
In April 2019, Murphy (who is openly gay and often features gay main characters) announced he would adapt “Boys in the Band” for Netflix, as part of his $300- million deal with the streamer. As producer, he previously revived the play for Broadway in 2018 with Mantello, a Broadway veteran.
It was a satisfying coup to get the entire cast to reprise their roles, with some opening up of the play in flashbacks and other non-apartment scenes. The film was dedicated to the memory of Mart Crowley, who was openly gay and passed away on March 7, 2020, at age 84.
Two cute Emilys, full of wonder
Like the dueling presidential town halls on TV Thursday night, you have the much more enviable choice of two amazingly cute Emilys on Netflix – but you don’t have to try to watch them simultaneously.
20-something American who moves from Chicago to Paris for a social media strategy job.
“Emily’s Wonder Lab” is a sweet, colorful science show for kids, hosted by Emily Calandrelli, the 33-year-old “Space Gal,” with a wide smile that could outshine the sun and an infectious enthusiasm that’s ideal for her audience.
In the midst of a paralyzing pandemic that’s kept most of us indoors (my family has only taken occasional day trips in eastern Iowa), a vicarious vacation to Paris is dreamlike bliss. And “Emily in Paris” does not disappoint in its drop-dead gorgeous scenes in the most romantic City of Light.
Like Carrie Bradshaw in the iconic “Sex in the City,” we now have another fun-loving, witty, young female protagonist negotiating a demanding job and many attractive male gazes in another big, pulsing city. Natch, “Emily in Paris” was created by Darren Star, not only the architect of the stylish “Sex” on HBO, but Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place.”
The new series finds Emily in charge of bringing an American point of view to a venerable French marketing firm, but she immediately clashes with “le bitch” of the story — Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu as Sylvie Grateau, her cold, tough and ungrateful boss at Savoir.
Collins is hard-headed, wildly creative and endearingly sympathetic as our young heroine and she quickly makes several new friends in and out of the office – including Ashley Park as Mindy, a nanny; Lucas Bravo as Gabriel, Emily’s attractive downstairs neighbor, who is a chef and
Emily’s love interest; Samuel Arnold as Julien, Emily’s co-worker, who makes a funny duo with Bruno Gouery as Luc, another quirky other co-worker, and Camille Razat as Camille.
Given the glitzy, high-fashion nature of Emily’s job, “Emily in Paris” is high on glossy style, and sumptuous settings – including a glittering opera house, chic art gallery, a jaw-dropping chateau and vineyard, and a mesmerizing multi-media installation honoring Van Gogh.
Jean-Christophe Bouvet is intimidatingly intense in his scenes as the famous, flamboyant fashion designer Pierre Cadault, who later bonds with Emily over “Gossip Girl.” Though she never masters the language, Emily is a mistress of social media, and it’s a gas watching her skip, trip and triumph over the multitude of challenges put in her path.
Appropriately, you can follow the fizzy series on Instagram, which so far has about 757,000 followers. Though not very explicit sexually or in language, you will learn about a sex position that’s hard to forget – the Eiffel Tower. (Of course, it involves a menage a trois).
The G-rated Emily is over at “Emily’s Wonder Lab,” which offers easily digestible 10 episodes of less than 15 minutes each – first as Calandrelli leads a small, diverse group of cheerful kids in experiments, then has the floor to herself for a few minutes at the end as she leads another for us to do at home.
Calandrelli – who is the special guest at the Putnam Museum & Science Center’s virtual Mad Scientist Ball tonight at 6:30 p.m. — earned a master’s from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in aeronautics and astronautics, as well as technology and policy and is an engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host.
She was the executive producer and Emmy-nominated host of Fox’s Xploration “Outer Space.” She’s also a chief correspondent on Netflix’s “Bill Nye Saves The World” and writer and host of YouTube’s “Spotlight Space,” a series from Lockheed Martin.
Talking about “Emily’s Wonder Lab” upon its late August debut, in an interview on the “Today” show, Calandrelli said:
“We want science to be this big, beautiful, wonderful, exciting thing, and that’s what this show does. It makes it fun and bigger than life, accessible for kids of all ages. And hopefully, they’re useful to families and educators who may be looking for some additional resources right about now.”
In years past, most girls didn’t think science and math was for them as a career, but that’s been changing, she said.
“When I was an undergrad studying engineering, I was maybe one of two or three girls in a 50-person classroom,” Calandrelli said. “You sort
of get this feeling you’re in the wrong place. It does feel weird, but I’m hoping this next generation – especially being able to see a woman on Netflix, a pregnant woman. I was nine months pregnant when I filmed this. Filming science on Netflix – hopefully that will create a new generation of little girls who think science is also for me.”
Far from a nerdy scientist, the stunning “Space Gal” instantly connects with her young charges, as Calandrelli displays boundless childlike wonder. In the first episode, she explains fluorescent and ultraviolet light, and they create different colors of fluorescent paint. The kids are in heaven, exclaiming “The messier, the better!” and “I feel like a scientist!”
The winning slogan of the series is “Stay curious and keep exploring!” In other episodes, you can learn about “non-Newtonian fluids” like ketchup; meteorite slime, an indoor tornado, a barfing pumpkin, a hovercraft, a cloud in a bottle, and rainbow bubbles.
In Calandrelli’s capable hands, science always is entertaining, lively, and just radiantly bright – just like her.
Real estate porn with “Selling Sunset,” “Million Dollar Beach House”
If you’re looking for another exotic escape (in the U.S.) – with impossibly expensive homes, spectacular interior and exterior scenes, and equally exquisite, fashionable women, check out the reality series “Selling Sunset.”
The show (an unending video PR job for its super upscale real estate firm) first aired with eight episodes on March 21, 2019. It revolves around the high-end residential properties in Los Angeles marketed by the Oppenheim Group, which is headed by two bald, short twin
brothers (one subsequently left after the third season).
The series follows a group of heavily made-up, beautiful female agents as they navigate their personal and professional lives. The second season dropped this past May, and quickly on their high heels, they satisfied our thirsty curiosity, by bringing back a full season of mega open houses, catfighting and cutthroat backstabbing in August.
“Selling Sunset” is another ideal antidote for our challenging times, as we get to visit these breathtaking places we’d probably never get to see with or without a pandemic – even just a fancy restaurant, with crowds and lots of hugging (tres jealous!).
The soapy series landed in hot water in August, when supermodel Chrissy Teigen, the wife of music superstar John Legend, speculated shortly after seeing the show that none of the ladies were actually in the real estate game. Teigen said she has a vast knowledge of Los Angeles real estate and yet had never heard of any of the ladies before.
Co-star Chrishell Stause fought back – while she is a former leading soap opera star, she shared a four-year-old post on Instagram about her joining a new real estate brokerage. A 39-year-old Kentucky native (who goes back home to St. Louis in the new season to recover from her divorce), Stause is one of the few sympathetic characters on “Selling Sunset,” and she’s now on the new season of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Whether they’re all models playing real estate agents or not, here’s the glam team on the Oppenheim Group site.
The dazzling, stylish Netflix series – which has an impossibly bountiful Thanksgiving dinner in the office – tracks the bitter rivalries and gossip among the realtor babes. They’ve got a bunch of team-building activities going on, and are always eager to share personal tidbits at work, but this is a backbiting team with lots of scars beneath the studied beauty.
The most expensive home in the show (still unsold) was on the market for $75 million – a nine-bedroom, 12-bathroom property in Beverly Hills, with one of the biggest swimming pools in the area.
The seven-bedroom, 10-baths main residence boasts 15,605 square feet of stylish living spaces, including an elegant foyer, top-of-the-line chef’s kitchen, sleek dining and living areas, state-of-the-art movie theater and gym, wine cellar, a lavish owner’s suite with his-and-hers
walk-in closets and bathrooms. The separate 2,690-square-foot guest house is bigger than my whole house. Welcome to L.A.
On the other coast of the country, another reality real-estate series seemed to echo the flavor of “Selling Sunset” – the “Million Dollar Beach House.” Premiering in late August, this even less appealing show follows a group of young and ambitious agents, part of Nest Seekers International, selling multi-million dollar deals on luxurious listings in The Hamptons on New York’s Long Island. Season 1 consisted of six episodes and so far, there has been no confirmation on a second season.
There’s no need, since despite the polished veneer of many of the luxe properties, this is an ugly, demeaning, unpleasant spectacle – featuring four young male agents and a completely distasteful sole female agent. They make the West Coast lavishness and sun seem like “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” in comparison.
Most of the plotlines in “Million Dollar Beach House” make it seem that these people don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re supremely arrogant and scheming to boot. This is a cynical, thin copy of “Selling Sunset” for the East Coast. I wasn’t buying.
A smart, scrappy new sister for Sherlock in “Enola Holmes”
Like Disney’s live-action “Mulan” (which went to Disney Plus in September after forced out of movie theaters due to Covid), the new film “Enola Holmes” was planned to be a theatrical release, but also debuted impressively late last month on Netflix.
Also like “Mulan,” the bold action, dramatic sweep and grand settings are best viewed on the big screen, but still…I made do. Fittingly, as the terrific 16-year-old Millie Bobby Brown makes clear at the two-hour film’s start, her first name backward is “Alone.” (Girl, I can relate…)
But it’s her last name that’s drawn a lot of attention to the super-smart, scrappy, clever, tomboyish Enola – who cheekily spends several moments of the movie talking directly to us, between friends.
Enola didn’t just come out of nowhere, but the heretofore unknown younger sister of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is actually based on a young-adult mystery series by Nancy Springer called The Enola Holmes Mysteries (2006-2010).
They include different characters and themes borrowed from the classic Sherlock stories to create Enola’s world, and the series starts the same way the movie does: with her mother’s disappearance.
You won’t find any Enola in any other Sherlock stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who created Sherlock in 1887. Apparently, the stories and characters are now part of the public domain, as a judge ruled in 2014, which gave Springer and the film screenwriter Jack Thorne free rein to do what they want with Enola.
Thorne is a British screenwriter and playwright best known for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, based on an original story by Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and John Tiffany, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2017 and 2018 Tony Award for Best Play.
In the new film, Enola is the youngest sibling in the famous Holmes family — extremely intelligent, observant, and insightful, and defies the social norms for women of the time. Her mother, Eudoria (a strong, defiant Helena Bonham Carter), has taught her everything from chess to jujitsu and encouraged her to be a strong-willed and independent thinking young woman.
On the day of her 16th birthday, Enola awakens to find that her mother has disappeared, leaving behind only some birthday gifts. She rushes to the train station to meet her brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), who fail to recognize her at first, not having seen her in many years.
Sherlock sympathizes with her, but the stern, domineering Mycroft finds her troublesome, wild and reckless. As her legal guardian, Mycroft intends to send her away to a finishing school run by the tight-fisted Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw). The flowers left by her mother reveal secret messages and lead to hidden money, which Enola uses to escape disguised as a boy.
On a train, she finds the young Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) hidden in a travel bag. They end up jumping off the train to escape and both get into a series of far-flung adventures in London and other locales.
One of the stars of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” (as Eleven), Brown is British in real life and she gleefully inhabits Enola with tireless passion, curiosity, charm, perseverance and relentless drive to find her mother and her happiness. She and Partridge reveal a great chemistry together.
Unfortunately, given Bonham Carter’s acting stature, I’d hoped for a larger presence throughout the film, at least giving us a more robust introduction with Enola and her mom, to make her disappearance all the more devastating and impactful. There are flashbacks peppered here and there, and an eventual joyful reunion, but still they didn’t seem very satisfying.
Cavill (one actor who embodied a cinematic “Superman” three times) also is fairly disappointing as our intellectual superman in Sherlock. Compared to the tightly-coiled, electrifying Benedict Cumberbatch (who intensely played the modern detective in a 2010-2017 series), Cavill seems to take a cavalier, laid-back attitude toward the role.
Otherwise, Thorne for some reason underwrote it and doesn’t do justice to the towering intellect, prowess and flaws of the man, and he pales dramatically next to Mycroft, when they should be more a clash of titans.
“American Murder,” back to depressing reality
Besides its multitude of original series and films, Netflix has developed a stellar reputation for producing insightful, incisive documentaries, and one of the latest is no less depressing and from which it’s impossible to turn your gaze away.
“American Murder: The Family Next Door” is a true-crime documentary directed by Jenny Popplewell. The film tells the shocking story of the 2018 Watts family murders, which took place in Frederick, Colo. It uses archival footage including social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages and home video footage to depict the events that occurred.
It is unique among most documentaries, in which there are experts or subjects who do on-camera interviews with the filmmakers, and there is no narration.
All the scenes are presented from live footage at the time (including calls, photos and texts of Shanann Watts, the adult victim), as if we the viewers are voyeurs into what happened – obviously, save the actual murders themselves.
Though this is a case that made headlines nationwide, I had never heard of it before watching. Shanann Watts, a 34-year-old mother of two young girls, returned home from a business trip to Arizona at about 1:48 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2018, after getting a ride from her friend and colleague, Nickole Utoft Atkinson. Shanann’s husband Chris was home with the girls, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste.
That day, Shanann (who was 15 weeks pregnant at the time with a boy, Nico) and the girls were reported missing by Atkinson. She went to the Watts’ home at about 12:10 p.m., and when there was no answer, Atkinson notified Chris, who was at work, and called the Frederick Police Department.
An officer arrived to conduct a welfare check, and Chris spoke with the officer, discussing ways to locate his missing family. He gave the police officer permission to search the house but there was no sign of Shanann or the girls. The searchers discovered her purse containing her phone and keys. Her car, which still contained the girls’ car seats, was in the garage. Her wedding ring was found on the master bed.
The FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation the next day, Aug. 14. Chris initially told police he had no idea where Shanann, Bella, or Celeste might be and had not seen his wife since 5:15 a.m. on the 13th, when he left for work.
Much of the new documentary centers on the police questioning of Chris, administering and results of a lie-detector test, and a talk between Chris and his father. It becomes more chilling and heartbreaking as the long inquisition unfolds.
Chris had said he was having an affair and asked his wife for a separation. At one point, he claimed that Shannan had strangled the girls in response to his request for separation. The truth is even worse, revealed in a spine-tingling, matter-of-fact way by the filmmakers.
This is in stark contrast to the recent Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer. That was produced without consulting Shanann’s family, and the lack of fact-checking led the family to fear that the movie would glamorize the real events. They denounced Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer before it was released in January 2020.
Watts doesn’t seem the brightest bulb in the bunch, and it’s so sad to see how things unfolded. Couldn’t he have simply gotten a divorce, and saved three lives in the process?
Watching the drab, depressing “American Murder” makes Ryan Murphy’s lurid, bat-shit crazy “Ratched” (also definitely worth checking out) seem like an irresistible walk in the park.