PART 1: SPIES, LIES, MURDER AND MARY JANE
HOUSE OF CARDS might get all the attention, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of scripted drama series available on Netflix. We selected a dozen of our favorites, each one a worthy addition to your streaming queue. It’s a mix of past hits you may have missed, previous seasons of current favorites and lesser known titles that deserve the spotlight.
The first six of our picks appears below. Look for the rest of our dramatic dozen in part two of this feature next week.
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When ALIAS debuted on ABC in 2001, the network was in rough shape and had little experience handling a violent spy thriller with an ass-kicking female lead. Despite the odds stacked against it, ALIAS ran for five seasons. Though never a Nielsen powerhouse, the series was a critical darling and fanboy favorite that put creator JJ Abrams on the A-list.
Jennifer Garner leads a first-rate case that also includes Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, Ron Rifkin, Carl Lumbly and Lena Olin (as one mother of a mother). Each episode in season one ends on a cliffhanger, something meddling network execs eventually pared down to season finales only. Be prepared: each of those is a mindbender.
ALIAS is packed with high drama, outrageous twists and some of the most complex action sequences ever seen on network television. The series will keep you on the edge of your seat right through the final episode (an emotionally satisfying tear-jerker). All five seasons are available for streaming on Netflix.
Based on insider accounts of the infamous Aldrich Ames espionage scandal, the first episode of this limited-run series has the dubious distinction of being the lowest rated drama premiere ever on one of the big three broadcast networks. When ABC decided to launch a Cold-War thriller of its own in early 2014, network execs were probably hoping for a success similar to THE AMERICANS on FX . Instead, the ill-fated drama was cancelled after only two airings.
While the audience response was sub zero chilly, THE ASSETS is actually a pleasant surprise. The methodical pacing might annoy those with short attention spans but, if you like dense drama packed with rich period detail and traitorous nogoodniks, this will be right up your alley. The full eight episode mini-series is available for streaming on Netflix. A ninth “episode” is actually a bonus documentary that details the real story that inspired THE ASSETS.
BEING MARY JANE
Gabrielle Union has often been the bright spot in any number of big and small screen clunkers. With BEING MARY JANE, she’s finally found a vehicle worthy of her considerable talent. Never heard of it? Well, it’s on BET, the black entertainment network most black people rarely watch. That could explain how this gem flew below your radar were it not for the fact that season one averaged more than 3 million viewers each week. Contrast those impressive numbers with the limp digits GIRLS scrapes together for HBO. It’s a show no one watches (seriously, no one) but everyone is forced to hear about. Perhaps if Mary Jane was whiter, wider and completely self-absorbed, the entertainment elite would be buzzing. Of course, that would also make the show an insufferable slog and one Lena Dunham opus is more than enough.
Executive producer Mara Brock Akil (who also created the excellent and underrated GIRLFRIENDS) does a remarkable job keeping a lot of balls in the air simultaneously. It’s an elegant and deceptively effortless juggling act. Akil manages to craft compelling and coherent storylines from a bumper crop of issues, drama and moral dilemmas. There’s a lot at play in any given moment but the pacing is consistently spot on. Akil has that rare combination of creative confidence and artistic alchemy. It’s what gives BEING MARY JANE clarity of vision, organic unpredictability and a connection to the little things that make scenes feel lived in. Even the music is well chosen. It’s rarely obvious but always just right.
Union plays Mary Jane Paul, a successful broadcast journalist and high-functioning hot mess. She’s a woman of considerable substance with a bad habit of leaping before she looks. Like the time Mary Jane strolls into a pet store to confess her affair to the wife of the guy she’s been sleeping with. It’s a cringe-worthy encounter even though Mary Jane meant no harm. Of course, there’s no malice of forethought if you skip the forethought.
In some ways, Mary Jane is like an earth-bound Olivia Pope; stunning, whip smart and driven but without the fate of the Republic keeping her up at night. Mary Jane might not be bonking the President or dodging a murderous mama, but she has been with a married man and her family offers more take than give. One episode in, and you’ll gird your loins right along with MJ every time her mother calls. Something as ordinary as a ring tone adds a resonance and immediacy that creates a visceral connection to the moment.
Union hits all the right notes here, creating a character both familiar and refreshing. She’s not just good, she’s damn good. Mary Jane is complex in very real ways that make her wholly relatable. Union skillfully tempers the sharp edges with a mix of charm, warmth and vulnerability. It’s a study in colliding contrasts that she spins into something quite wonderful. Pay special attention to the little flutters and flourishes Union plays with. These tidbits of character “business” give Mary Jane her heart and humanity.
Watching BEING MARY JANE isn’t your typical passive viewing experience. It feels more like a ride along with a good friend. This isn’t a “black” show or a “chick” show. Most of us know a Mary Jane or see one when we look in the mirror.
Season two of BEING MARY JANE is currently airing on BET. The series has already been renewed for a third season. Season one is available for streaming on Netflix. Start with the stand-alone movie pilot. The link in the images above will take you there first.
When it comes to really thorny murder mysteries, no one does it better than the Brits. They don’t gravitate to neatly wrapped plot packages full of clearly defined heroes and villains or share our sad fascination with endless variations on the “woman in peril” trope. We should thank them for all of that and then thank them again for BROADCHURCH, a towering masterpiece of gut-wrenching drama.
The central mystery begins when the body of an 11 year old boy is discovered on a desolate beach. The hunt for his killer plays out over eight gripping, tightly-paced episodes. Along the way, the ugly secrets and hidden truths of a small town are laid bare. BROADCHURCH quickly blossoms into an exquisitely crafted character study that gets under your skin in profound and unsettling ways.
Series two of BROADCHURCH is currently airing in the UK. The entire first series is available for streaming on Netflix.
This lavishly produced crime thriller stars William Fichtner as a former NYPD officer who has fallen on hard times thanks to a debilitating injury and an addiction to morphine. Nonetheless, he is recruited to join an elite special crimes unit under the auspices of the International Criminal Court. From their headquarters in The Hague, the team investigates high profile crimes that cross international borders. Donald Sutherland plays an ICC overlord who supervises the proceedings. He pops in and out of each episode in a role that amounts to a glorified cameo.
CROSSING LINES is often preposterous and overwrought but it’s also wildly entertaining. European locations (principally Nice, Paris and Prague) distinguish the visuals and add high-end gloss to elaborate action sequences. It’s not all fun and games, however. The murder and mayhem is usually visceral stuff with ruthless baddies generating high body counts. Principal character backstory and evolving interpersonal relationships round things out and provide continuity. As always, Fichtner shines. He’s a master at revitalizing hackneyed, stock characters.
Season one of CROSSING LINES was carried by NBC during the summer of 2013. A second season was produced but NBC did not air it. As a result, fans in the US never got to see these new episodes...until now. Both season one and two are available for streaming on NETFLIX.
One of the most addictive dramas of 2013, BBC Two original THE FALL is a Netflix exclusive in the U.S. Series two launched on the service in January of this year.
Gillian Anderson is at the top of her game here, playing Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson. She’s sent to Belfast by the London Metropolitan Police to review how local authorities handled (or mishandled) the investigation into a string of murders. What she discovers is the diabolical handiwork of serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, also doing exceptional work). Over the course of five fast-paced episodes, Gibson and Spector engage in an increasingly twisted game of cat and mouse.
What sets THE FALL apart is how enthusiastically it upends TV conventions and toys with the audience. Anderson is cast in a role that would typically be played by a male and it’s written exactly that way. Stella Gibson is fearless to a fault and has no problem using men for her own sexual gratification. Things are just as trippy on the dark side of the fence where it’s all too easy to fall for Spector’s deadly charms. In a wonderfully perverse twist, our serial killer is also a bereavement counselor with a wife and two young children at home.
A third series has been discussed but is not yet confirmed. The first and second series of THE FALL are available for streaming on Netflix.
PART TWO: COMING NEXT WEEK
NOTE: All titles were available on Netflix at the time this post was written. Some may become unavailable at a future date per the terms of carriage agreements between Netflix and content providers. Netflix has not paid any sponsorship or promotional fees for this post.