IN TWEET: “HOUSE OF CARDS” ISN’T THE ONLY DRAMA SERIES ON NETFLIX WORTH WATCHING. HERE’S THE FIRST HALF OF A DELICIOUS DOZEN WELL WORTH SAMPLING.
In this installment of “Stream” we’re dipping our toes into darker waters with a look at some great TV dramas currently available for streaming on Netflix. There’s a little something for everyone in this two part tour of twisty thrillers, family sagas and hidden classics.
NOTE: All series featured were available for streaming via Netflix at the time this post was written. Some programming may become unavailable at a future date due to terms and conditions in the carriage deals between Netflix and content providers. Netflix has not paid any sponsorship or promotional fees for this post. If available, links are also included for Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
Though LOST gets all the “ushered in the conspiracy theory TV genre” cred, it was another JJ Abrams series on ABC that really got the ball rolling. When ALIAS debuted in 2001, it had the misfortune of filling one of the timeslots left vacant in the wake of the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? flameout. The network was in even worse shape than it is now and had little experience handling a violent spy thriller with an ass-kicking female lead. Despite the odds stacked against it, ALIAS was a critical and fanboy darling that ran for five seasons.
In the dark ages, before streaming video, ALIAS was the first series I binge-watched on DVD. Top-notch writing makes it especially easy to fall into the “just one more episode” trap. 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 of the first season ends on a mini-cliffhanger, something that network meddling eventually pared down to season finales only. Be prepared: each of those is a WTF?! mindbender.
ALIAS was packed with high drama, preposterous twists and some of the most elaborate action sequences ever seen on network television. There was nothing like it before it arrived and more than a few pale imitators have come and gone since. ALIAS managed to keep fans on their edge of their seats right through the final episode (an emotionally satisfying tear-jerker). It remains one of my favorite modern drama series.
ALIAS ran for five seasons, all of which are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
AWAKE is a dense and emotionally heavy series that aired as a mid-season replacement on NBC in 2012. Jason Isaacs plays LAPD detective Michael Britten, a man confronted with dueling realities following a horrific car accident involving him, his wife and teenage son. In one mind stream, his wife is killed and in the other his son is the fatality. Michael (and, by extension, the audience) has no idea which of the two realities is real, if any. Confused? Don’t be. AWAKE handles it’s dual track storytelling with deft skill.
I suspect AWAKE didn’t stick around longer because the series required more than a little intellectual commitment on the part of the audience and episodes could be relentlessly downbeat. No matter which “truth” Britten ultimately arrived at, one or the other of two people he loved would be dead. Not exactly light and fluffy fare.
Though AWAKE was cancelled after only 13 episodes, creator Kyle Killen did write the last installment so that it would work as both a season and series finale. If you vibe with the show, the ambiguous conclusion works very well. If not, you’ll never make it to the end anyway. I think AWAKE is a mind trip well worth taking.
AWAKE ran for one season, which is available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
Most “killer on the loose” series tend to be hollow, blood-soaked tripe like THE FOLLOWING and HANNIBAL. Leave it to the Brits to figure out a way to breathe new life into the genre while also creating one of the most addictive dramas of 2013. THE FALL debuted last May on BBC Two and is a Netflix exclusive in the U.S.
Gillian Anderson has done some of her best work in the UK. THE FALL is no exception. She plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, sent to Belfast by the London Metropolitan Police to review how local authorities have handled (or mishandled) the investigation into a string of murders. What she discovers is the diabolical handiwork of serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, 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 the almost gleeful way in which writer Allan Cubitt upends TV conventions. Anderson is cast in a role that would typically be played by a male and it’s written exactly that way. Gibson is fearless to a fault and has no problem using men for her own sexual gratification. Cubitt also does a masterful job of toying with the audience. There are more than a few scenes where we fall for Spector’s deadly charms only to be jerked back to reality by acts of brutal violence. In a wonderfully perverse twist, our serial killer is also a bereavement counselor with a wife and two young children at home.
You’ll be happy THE FALL was a ratings smash in the UK because the “holy shit” cliffhanger would be a real pisser if there wasn’t going to be a series two. Production on six additional episodes is currently underway with both Anderson and Dornan returning.
The first series of THE FALL is available for streaming on Netflix.
Who knew that one of the best scripted dramas currently on television would air on ABC Family and count Jennifer Lopez among its executive producers? While lesser shows would be happy taking on one controversial social issue, THE FOSTERS dives head first into a pile of them. Mixed race, same-sex marriage? Check! Adoption and the broken foster care system? Check! Immigration law? Check! Teenage sexuality? Check! Drug abuse and alcoholism? Check. You’d think with a thicket so thorny, the series would be a turgid slog. Well, you’d be wrong.
Co-creators Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige (who played Emmett on the stateside version of QUEER AS FOLK, featured below) have crafted a loving tribute to a very modern family. Without pulling punches or going maudlin, the series navigates some rough emotional waters. Playing the central couple, Teri Polo and Sherri Saum are perfectly cast. Their chemistry is palpable and, as written, they have one of the best realized marriages on television. That they happen to be lesbians only adds to the richness and texture of their relationship, a nice touch. The rest of the cast, most of them younger newcomers, does uniformly excellent work.
THE FOSTERS is that rare series that makes you laugh and cry while challenging pre-conceived notions about life, love and family. It’s a must see winner. The series just wrapped its first season on ABC Family. Season two is scheduled to debut this summer.
The first ten episodes of THE FOSTERS are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
A good drama doesn’t have to be all emotional and thinky. Sometimes you just need a guilty pleasure. The limited run series HARPER’S ISLAND is a great choice. It’s a gory mash-up of the classic slasher film and a tawdry nighttime soap. The show was an experiment by CBS in the summer of 2009, when scripted dramatic fare was a rare bird in the warm months. It wasn’t a ratings smash but don’t let that stop you from indulging.
The set-up is simple: a bunch of hot twentysomethings (and a few token oldsters like Harry Hamlin and Richard Burgi) head to a remote island for a big wedding. This is the same island that was terrorized by a serial killer seven years prior. Once the wedding party arrives, the killings resume…or is this the work of a new maniac?
The central gimmick of HARPER’S ISLAND is the guarantee that at least one character will be offed in each episode. The murders get more creatively complex as the series rolls along and each one is surprisingly bloody for a broadcast show. Even though it’s all pretty mindless stuff, production values are uniformly excellent and you do begin to care about the surviving characters. Some of the deaths in later episodes are particularly difficult to watch (yes, Danny, I’m talking about you). The ultimate reveal of the killer will piss some people off but, in the grand scheme of things, it makes for a fitting payoff.
HARPER’S ISLAND ran for one season and all episodes are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video. Incidentally, the episode titles come from the sound each victim makes when killed. Thwack!
More often than not, stateside remakes of UK television properties pale by comparison. The ballsy Showtime series QUEER AS FOLK was a pleasant exception. It took the thin, pasty shell of the British original and turned it into one of the most audacious hour-long series in small-screen history. Detractors viewed it as a huge middle finger in the face of so-called “family values” (which it was) while fans lined up to watch something unlike anything they’d seen on television before. Love it or hate it, QUEER AS FOLK put Showtime on the map and ushered in a new era of visibility for LGBT characters in mainstream entertainment.
Over the course of five seasons, the lives and loves of a group of friends in present-day Pittsburgh were laid bare (literally). Sure, QAF could be wildly uneven and full-tilt melodramatic but, it was always damn good television (and makes the tepid new HBO series LOOKING seem positively old-fashioned). Despite a boat-load of graphic sex scenes, there was much more on the plate here than dirty stuff. Characters were flawed and three-dimensional which made for storylines that rarely took the easy, PC way out. A strong cast elevated the proceedings further and made QAF the stuff of pop-culture legend.
All 83 episodes of QUEER AS FOLK are available for streaming on Netflix. If you’d like to check out the original UK version, it is available on Hulu.
Part two of this post is coming this week. It includes some timeless classics, current hits and few sleepers that you don’t want to miss! In the meantime, CLICK HERE to read more “Stream” posts.