Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:43

Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023

Dennis Broe reviews this year's TV series from around the world. Above image: Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson’s Churchill without the statesmanship 

American TV series, which had led the world in both number, length and amount of episodes, were severely cut back this year in light of a general retrenchment in the industry, a trend that will continue next year. Expect shorter series, fewer episodes and faster pulling of the plug so that the landscape begins to look more like frugal, budget-conscious series from around the world.

Of my Top 25 series this year, though many are “limited” series, many others have either been cancelled or have ended prematurely. Only 6 series are returning. First to go, of course, are series that are socially relevant. Heading the list of unconscionable cancellations are Alaska Daily, with Hilary Swank as a reporter helping to lay bare the local power structure. Also, oddly, Walker Independence, a Western sequel from the CW that focused more than most not only on frontier prejudice but also the power of the railroads and Eastern capital in the development of the West.

The most egregious cancellation though was Warner Brother Discovery’s decision to refuse to air, after it had already been shot, season four of Snowpiercer, Boon Joon-ho’s nakedly anti-capitalist climate catastrophe series.

Who has time anyway to watch series that deal, even if obliquely, with power relations and social problems amid the plethora of game shows (Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right) , reality TV (World’s Funniest Animals, House of Villains), and reruns (Yellowstone) that the producers have foisted on the general public? All because of the writers’ and actors’ strikes but also due to their general cost-cutting, with the hope that some of this bottom-of-the-barrel cheap fare will outlast scripted series due to arrive next year.

A year in which it has been increasingly difficult to find progressive series also featured shows that, for the sake of gimmicky last-minute twists, utterly changed the trajectory of the series, as well as nominally interesting series that because of inane and cliched political assumptions floundered dreadfully.

Greedy producers and studios

Two Irish series fell into these categories. Clean Sweep was, up until its last moment, a suspenseful series which had us sympathizing with a former IRA agent now living a quiet life with the British policewoman pursuing – or rather haunting her – presented as a Les Misérables Javert-type villain. Until the end, when the former spy commits a reprehensible act that utterly reverses our sentiments towards her and validates the cop’s pursuit. A surprise yes, but a psychotic one that attempts to cancel out our understanding of this woman and that represents a failure of nerve on the part of the creators and the network.

Worse than that was Hidden Assets, where a series about an Irish female cop investigating a drug ring seemingly led by a dashing financier. Instead, the story turned into a “terrorist” tale tied to Syrian bloodletting, that utterly misrepresents the role of the West in trying to wreck that country. Yuck! Series with similar failings appear in my 5 worst.

Nevertheless, I have culled 25 worthy series from 10 countries and 5 continents, from the approximately 135 series I watched this year, which proves that creators can survive and thrive even in the challenges and rubble left them by greedy producers and studios.

Top 10 Series

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Elizabeth Olson in Love and Death 

Love and Death“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good” goes the Eric Burdon theme in a gospel rendering in this series, with a stunning Elizabeth Olson as a Texas suburban housewife who in the dawning of the Reagan era awakens and wants something more than the dull, drab existence to which she is confined. She chooses to have an affair which releases all kinds of tensions within her and this extremely repressed town, which is Anytown America, then and now. Writer/Director David E Kelly (Big Little Lies, Goliath) is at his most extraordinary in a masterpiece of empathy for a woman craving freedom, carved from the most exploitative of genres, True Crime. The series ends with the word “shhh,” a shushing and directive to maintain this repression. (Prime)

This England – Michael Winterbottom’s expertly rendered account of the British state during COVID is a paean to the British working-class health workers and to the colonial minority and aged victims of despicable policy management. Kenneth Branagh is Boris Johnson, obsessed with Shakespeare and Churchill but utterly blind to the plight of his actual countrymen and women. He illustrates the way, not only during COVID but since, Western leaders are utterly cut off from their constituents. Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day), Johson’s advisor, who had put across Brexit, is full of callousness and contempt for the jewel of the British welfare system, the National Health Service, wanting, as a good neoliberal, to clean house and privatize. The critique in this marvelous mini-series extends far beyond COVID as it figures the greedy malaise that is turning Western voters faster and faster to the far right. Beyond prescient. (Apple TV)

The Good Mothers This tale follows the efforts of three brave women in the south of Italy, in Calabria, who sometimes forcefully, sometimes reluctantly, take on the male violence and “omerta” or silence of the local mafia, the ’Ndrangheta with sometimes liberatory but often tragic results. Unlike most mafia series which focus on physical violence, this one concentrates on the emotional violence used to maintain this power. When brutal force is invoked though it comes as such a surprise that it drives home the way one underlies the other. Superb series about resisting entrenched male power. (Hulu)

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Hilary Swank as lead reporter on a local muckraking paper in Alaska Daily

Alaska Daily – Hilary Swank is excellent as a no-holds barred reporter, dedicated to telling the truth and opposing corruption for which she has been exiled to a local Alaskan daily. One wishes there were even a single Hilary Swank left in the corporate media and her exile illustrates what happens these days to truth tellers. The series main line is about a murdered indigenous woman. Along the way the series also highlights bribery in that state involving its politicians and media to open up protected Alaskan land for mineral exploitation. A series far too good and explicit about actual power relations both in the state and in the media to survive, and indeed it was cancelled after one glorious season. (Prime)

Little Bird/Bones of CrowsTwo Canadian series which deal with the same subject matter, the ethnic cleaning that continues to this day of that country of its indigenous population. The first is an intimate portrayal of one woman, wrenched from her family by the Canadian state, as she wakes to her heritage and attempts to surmount the obstacles in her way that maintain this suppression. Her awakening is painful and in one instance at least tragic, but it is presented with painstaking clarity. The second covers a longer history of this forced march of cultural genocide from before World War 2 to the ’60s and in a way fills in the gaps of the first series with Reservation Dog’s Paulina Alexis as the most shipwrecked victim of this systemic abuse. (Prime)

Nordland ’99 – This Danish series set in the not-to-distant past gives us a glimpse of maximal creativity within the new constraints of series austerity. A less than half hour format shot in rural exteriors with its eerie Twin Peaks air of menace created through night-time effects like the swaying of the wind in the forest. Its subject also recalls David Lynch’s masterwork as three teens search for their missing compatriot and uncover a dark adult world that threatens to engulf them, but by remaining true to themselves they survive. Extraordinary work by series creator Kasper Møller Rask. (Mubi)

The Last of Us – This next zombie apocalypse, after The Living Deads, is much meaner with fascists both in the organized government and power structure, as we have today’s Biden neoconservatives, and street fascists outside in the form of Trump-like racist Kansas City vigilantes. The only respite is a socialist community, “a true democracy,” encountered by the battle-hardened warrior leading a young girl who could perhaps save the world. Episode 3, nominated for multiple Emmys, is a self-contained survivalist love story that illustrates the concentration in this series, whose crude source is a digital game, on character at the expense of the infrequent appearances by the genre’s staple, zombies. Only in the last episode does the series veer into a zombie and human kill zone, and succumb to the temptation to return to its gamer origins. (Max)

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The magnificent Chloe Sevigny in Poker Face 

“Rest in Metal,” Episode 4, Poker Face The rest of this series is a slightly above average remake of Columbo here replaced by Natasha Lyonne’s heavy metal waif in episodes that alternate between being clever and gimmicky as the character Charlie Cale closes in on her quarry. However, Episode 4 rises way above the rest as Chloe Sevigny’s down and out rocker, who will do anything for a return to her glory days, lays bare the emptiness behind the music industry’s star-making and star-breaking machine. Extraordinary work from a peerless actress. (Peacock)

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Killing County 

Killing County – Blacklisted footballer Colin Kaepernick produced this documentary series about Bakersfield California, where the sheriff and his men kill with impunity and then cover up the murders with their control over the coroners’ office and their presenting the victims as hardened criminals. Utterly different from most “True Crime” reality series which simply and blindly cover up police violence. Here the patrolling and in some cases eliminating of a Mexican population by Caucasian cops is held up to scrutiny instead of lauded. (Hulu)

Thicker Than Water – Netflix French series about racial tensions in French society, as an Algerian TV reporter is promoted to anchor but then must endure the slings and arrows of a racist white power structure in order to maintain her fragile position. Most telling is an early scene where she is told she must straighten her natural curly black hair, and dye it blonde. She conforms and gets in an elevator full of white women with the same blonde streaks, all now ascending the corporate ladder. Nawell Madani as showrunner, writer, and star manages to highlight Algerian sisterhood and contrast it with more cut-throat standard French careerism. (Netflix)

Honorable Mentions

The Curse – This lead threesome is cloying, obnoxious and difficult to watch as the woke neoliberal couple attempts to jump on the indigenous bandwagon to exploit their lands for what amounts to “socially conscious” gentrification. Meanwhile, the filmmaker whose reality series will secure their profits is beset with his own careerist anxieties. Most telling scene of a sometimes-brilliant satire is the couple having masturbatory sex where neither connects with the other and which exemplifies their disconnection to the indigenous world they’re exploiting. (Paramount+)

Woman of the Dead – Austrian series about a female embalmer in a rural hamlet who takes on the local power structure which has colluded to eliminate her husband. She disrupts the attempt to turn the area into a luxurious ski resort in her quest for truth and vengeance against a religious, civic and corporate elite who she exposes and destroys. (Netflix)

Black Snow – Australian cold case murder mystery in Queensland exposing the roots of wealth in a town where slaves from the island nation of Vanuatu were brought to harvest the cane fields. Here the investigation of the past sheds light on the single murder but also on the larger crime of appropriation of an entire people. (Prime)

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Limboland, the breathtaking beauty of the Karachi Valley 

Limboland Pakistani series set in the gorgeously verdant and breathtakingly mountainous Hunza Valley in Karachi that has an old man, now owner of a luxury hotel, reminiscing about the mistakes he made in putting greed above human relations. This is Succession but entirely critical instead of a laudatory celebration of the Murdoch empire. (YouTube)

Black Santiago Club From Benin comes this African series about a music club that is a fountain of not only musical but cultural heritage in danger of being displaced by a greedy developer who wants to build condominiums for the rich. The series’ subject is the community organizing to preserve its social treasure. (YouTube)

Never Have I EverFourth and final season has the Indian teen of the title torn between two boyfriends. That tension though is not allowed to supersede her attempts to fulfill her dream of getting into Princeton, the actual focus of the final season in a liberatory way which upsets the usual single-minded romantic focus of the teen genre trajectory. (Netflix)

Bay of FiresBeyond quirky Australian series about a thoroughly competent female executive exiled to a Tasmanian town of ne’er do wells who may all have a criminal past. Marta Dusseldorp in the title role holds the whole thing together while teaching the disorganized criminals a thing or two about more organized corporate scamming. (Apple TV)

Dark Winds Season 2 – This series, torn from Tony Hillerman’s novels about southwest indigenous, features Zahn McClarnon and Jessica Matten as Indian lawman and deputy pursuing a deadly white racist and more presciently coming to grips with the land holders who hire these types to bury their secrets. (Acorn TV)

Billy the Kid Season 2 – This epic Western began as a recounting of the prejudice the Irish encountered in America, a unique take on the story of the famous gunslinger and bandit. Season 2 is more of the same as Billy fights the Santa Fe Ring, a group of investors who are swallowing up the territory. It’s a unique take by series creator Michael Hurst which like its fellow epic Heaven’s Gate presents the West from a class and outsider perspective, often missing from contemporary Westerns only concerned with vacant mythmaking. Can you say Yellowstone?  (MGM+)

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Scrublands' murderous priest, who exposes the town  

ScrublandsFour-part Aussie mini-series with a reporter exiled to a remote backwater town to investigate the aftermath of a mass shooting by the town’s pastor. What he uncovers instead of illuminating the priest’s psychopathy sheds light on the corruption of the town’s “upright” citizens and the landholding power behind them. Well executed exposé. (BBC iplayer)

Walker Independence – Who knew that a prequel whose original was a reactionary Chuck Norris series would instead be a questioning of not only the racism of this Western town but also the collusion of Western landholding wealth with Eastern railroad expansionists. Doesn’t lose focus on these power relations and for that reason met its fate of early cancellation. (Apple TV+)

Don’t Leave Me – Employs the trope of female detective returning to her home city of in this case Venice from Rome, and here obsessed with uncovering a ring of traffickers of young boys. Though not as compelling as the Icelandic series Valhalla, the detective’s focus on saving these boys and two late reveals which suggest wider corruption lead to a satisfying conclusion. (Prime)

Neon – Netflix series about a reggaeton singer, his manager and videographer leaving Fort Meyers and attempting to make it in lascivious, money-hungry Miami. Connects all the dots of the band fighting and then making up a little too comfortably but along the way maintains a nice focus on the music, on the illicit money that circulates around the music, and on comradeship as the only way of maintaining sanity in a marketing world gone mad.

Great Expectations/All The Light We Cannot See – Two series by Peaky Blinders and A Christmas Carol creator Steven Knight. The first uses Dickens again to spotlight the greed and vanity of imperial England as the ingenue Pip inhabits an utterly corrupt landscape with the stench of the colonial and capitalist industrial project suffusing and destroying personal relations. The second, lampooned by corporate critics for its unfaithfulness to the award-winning novel, instead employs the devices of series TV to heighten the melodramatic tension between a blind girl and a German soldier in the last days of World War 2 as they find purpose and redemption amid the ruins of the Nazi debacle. (Max/Netflix)

Daryl Dixon Second Walking Dead spinoff, after the bland Dead City, has the motorcycle redneck of the title marooned in France. Leave it to showrunner extraordinaire Angela Kang – leading light behind the neoliberal critical Season 11 of the mothership series and exec producer here – to infuse this examination of Daryl’s sensitive side with a Marine Le Pen subplot that has the a protofascist band attempting to rule France, not so different from the situation that the country in the wake of the failure of the ultracapitalist Macron finds itself in now. (Amazon)

Retro Series of the Year

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The greed behind the Frontier fur 

Frontier Season 1 – This Canadian series, about the British, French and American exploitation in the 18th century of the country’s indigenous, its land and its resources in the European craze for furs is, in the first season, a model historical series that lays bare its era. The budget kept decreasing in each of the subsequent three seasons as did the ingenuity of the writing but that takes nothing away from a truly remarkable opening season lost when it first came out in 2016 because it seemed to be nothing more than a Revenant rip-off. In fact, it was far more subtle than that overheated film. (Netflix)

Five Worst

High Desert/Based on a True Story – The first has the usually reliable Patricia Arquette swirling in the sand as a Stevie Nicks waif and for no conceivable reason. The second has the now increasingly vapid Kelly Cuoco, who has exhausted her post Big Bang cache, as part of a careerist couple who decide to let a serial killer roam free in order to promote their True Crime podcast. Supposedly funny, but actually just disgusting. 

Bupkis – The flavour of the month Pete Davison in a supposedly outré series with Joe Pesci that purports to be pushing the boundaries around sex but in the end quickly conforms and, as we’ve all seen for Davison, starts to look like just another Taco Bell ad.

Night Agent/Red Skies Politically regressive series from, in order, the U.S. and Israel. The first has an FBI agent pursuing terrorists and MAGA representatives inside the White House with no hint of irony about the real threat that lies within not from a mole but from those in charge of today’s White House, where its leaders are now attempting to start three world wars. The second claims to be an Israeli/Palestinian co-production centered on a mixed group of students but as soon as an attack comes betrays its initial premise and shifts into a billboard for Israeli repression and reprisal.

Under Control This French series attempts to be a more likable version of Veep, the HBO series about a vain politician. The problem is, unlike the former series, which took the gloves off and presented politicians as narcissistic media mongers, this one attempts to be amiable to all – as the lead character thrust into a key cabinet position is simply beset with turmoil – and in so doing instead becomes as Seinfeld proclaimed “a series about nothing,” but in this case not in a good or funny way.  

Found Horrible, smarmy, and smirking series about an African American female troubleshooter who, as does much of Washington, prides herself on stomping on other’s rights in her self-righteous quest to protect her clients. Full of horrible neoliberal police state sentiments like, “Sometimes the good guys win.” Turns a fascist vigilante into Sister Theresa. Much better is the erstwhile and humble detective of The Irrational who contests and is the former victim of white supremacy.  

Bonus Bad:

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The Buccaneers saluting wealth 

The Buccaneers – How does this series go wrong? Let me count the ways. Combine The Bridgerton faux casting which eliminates prejudice from history with the gutting of the critical thrust of its Edith Wharton source and the Sofia Coppolization via its rock soundtrack and jazzy montage in this story about rich New York young women who journey to Britain to marry and preserve decaying British wealth. Add a dose of Gilded Age (the series not the novel) concentration on the wealthy as the only characters in the 19th century with nary an ounce of Henry James’ critical examination of that class on both sides of the Atlantic and you have a series which simply celebrates money and status. Insipidly yours.

Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:43

Rising Above the Corporate Glut: The Top 25 TV Series in 2022

In 2022 there was a near collapse of the major streaming services. The production of TV series went through a wave of retrenchment and belt-tightening, and tended to become homogenous, looking like they all were rolling off the same conveyor belt.

The other trend in 2022 trend was toward ever-higher budgets as streamers adopted and adapted the ’70s Hollywood model of the blockbuster and the ‘90s cable model of the megahit that branded the company. These mega-budgets of course made it harder for global public television—and much television outside the U.S. is public—to compete, and if they did compete also often forced them to employ U.S. models of design.

In terms of these bloated budgets and what they produce, let’s take a look at the BBC’s The English, a series that has been highly praised. The series is a marvel of British Isles acting as its pilot boasts both Ciarán Hinds as a dastardly landowning station manager and the always marvellous Toby Jones reprising his role as The Bus Driver here transplanted into the West as a stagecoach driver.

However, the series itself, featuring Emily Blunt introduced in extravagant close-ups of first her feet and then her face, is a “woke” Western with a female lead threatened by “the real America,” “a country only full of killers and thieves,” – in other words, Trump’s America. She is befriended by an indigenous Pawnee and she, the Englishwoman, is the voice of reason, with the series having no consciousness of the fact that part of the brutality of the West was the learned behavior transferred from the colonizer England. There is a Shakespearian high/low quality to the language in the contrast between Hind’s flowery dialogue and the Pawnee’s terse grunts, but we’ve seen this before and executed better in the language in Deadwood and in the narrative of the English woman stranded in the West in Hell on Wheels.

As opposed to the high-budget pretention of The English we have the low-budget “B-film” aesthetic of the CW’s Walker: Independence. It’s that lowest form of series, a spinoff of a series called Walker Texas Ranger that is itself a remake. The setup is similar; a woman from Boston stranded in the violent West but with a much stronger questioning of the power structure that is taking shape in that region. The Pinkertons, ace strikebreakers, are at first introduced as saviours but then highly questioned when shown to be in league not only with the railroad, which is transforming the West through the power and speculation of Eastern wealth, but also with the town’s corrupt sheriff.

This series is league’s ahead of the BBC’s better-looking, paint-by-the-numbers West. Proof that bloated budget and A-list actors do not always a better series make and proof that even in the belly of the beast, the lower-budget “B-film” aesthetic is capable of providing charming and politically charged series that stand outside the norm.

And that is a good way of introducing this year’s Top 25 (and 5 Worst) series which celebrates global resistance to corporate streaming extravagance, and low-budget freedom to challenge preconceived conceptions and introduce socially relevant content into a form that is in danger of atrophying, because of the excess money and the pressure to produce results in the form of subscriptions.

This year I watched 156 series and found roughly one-quarter of them worth watching, but I also passed on about another 350 series that just from the description seemed too derivative or too frivolous to even bother checking out. This means that I found about 8 percent of the total content worth watching, encompassing 13 countries, out of what is claimed to be a bounteous cornucopia of content.

The number of series of course conceals the growing homogenization as each strives to be just different enough from those surrounding them to attract audiences, while not different enough to challenge them and disturb the palliative effect of a mode of digital production that is designed to conceal the fact that the power of the West is fading. Meanwhile those on top grab ever more for themselves and leave audiences with the false hope of streamers which deliver actual bounty only to their shareholders – even as that bounty decreases in value.

Top 15

The Porter — This BET (Black Entertainment Television) + and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) series highlights the struggle of black Pullman workers one hundred years ago to unionize. The Porter (see image above) is a highly nuanced series about the various kinds of black experience, including Afro-Caribbean, in a Montreal neighborhood that validates all forms of black economic practice, legitimate and so-called illegitimate, but also values solidarity and regard for the community over personal gain. A one-of-a-kind series, unfortunately, that was the year’s highlight.

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Billy The Kid re-envisions the West and the Western

Billy The Kid — the West and the outlaw tale as you’ve never seen it before. The series, available on Amazon, recounts Billy’s early history as an Irish immigrant in the tenements of New York and then as he experiences the prejudice of American society firsthand and through the treatment of his Mexican friend and later in the season as he breaks with the tyranny of a landholder terrorizing Mexican farmers. The series, while delivering aspects of Western gunplay, is much more about how those who came to America hoping to escape from under the thumb of the British in Ireland. In fact they found themselves terrorized by that same group and their descendants in a supposedly wide-open land that, as the series charts, was becoming more and more closed down as capital centralized. A superb recasting of the legend.

The Silence — This joint Ukrainian/Croatian production, on HBO Max, is about an understated element of the economy of both countries, the trafficking of young women and the involvement at the highest levels of both countries in that trade, and ends with a Twin Peaks type triple cliffhanger. Alas, because after the Ukrainian war, as that country becomes a shill for and empty shell of Western neo-liberal capitalism, while being held as an enduring model of resistance, the second season will likely never happen as it is now impossible to cast a critical eye on a country that, before the war, was recognized as the most corrupt in Europe. Another casualty of an unnecessary war.

Oussekine — Disney +’s first European series recounts the savage death of a young Algerian student in the Parisian Latin Quarter at the hands of the police. The series is exceptional on the role of the police, the cover-up at the highest levels of French society that persists to this day and the ability of a family, itself witness to a mass execution of Algerians by the police upon its arrival in the country, to persevere and push for justice in a racialized society which denies the existence of any official prejudice.

Joe Pickett — Paramount +’s counter to its reactionary white landowner series Yellowstone. This series, also set in the West, follows a Wyoming game warden as he attempts, with the aid of his lawyer wife, a Native American policewoman and a black Survivalist, to counter the influence of the state’s power centre in Jackson Hole, site of the yearly global finance summit.  Pickett’s “detecting” involves his knowledge of the increasingly perilous position of wildlife in the state and the mystery involving a land grab hinges on his knowledge of natural habitats and his refusal to take the money and instead become a land manager consultant who betrays the public’s trust. It’s a fascinating noir that remains true to its nature-in-peril setup. Relevant too, in this year of the COP 15 Biodiversity summit, which announced that over one million species are threatened with extinction because of the kind of exploitation the series illustrates.

 Snowpiercer — Season 3 of this TNT series, available on Netflix, opens with a bang as the stratified power structure on the train on which earth’s survivors travel is upset and Mr. Wilford, the neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk figure, is dethroned. The series then coasts through the middle episodes but ends this penultimate season with a thrilling compromise between competing opinions on the train about what to do next with both parties—though one position is dictated by fear and the other by hope—able, minus the train’s CEO, to recognize the legitimacy of each position and effect a compromise that sets up next season’s finale. Powerfully structured addition to Bong Joon-ho’s film that expands and adds an additional layer of complexity to the film, rather than just ripping it off.

Babylon Berlin — Season 4 of this German series, coming soon to Netflix, is produced by the European satellite company Sky and continues to challenge American outlandish budgets in its lavish recreation of a decaying Weimar Republic in the ’20s and early ’30s. The police detective Gereon Roth, previously a staunch supporter of democracy, opens the series in full Brownshirt regalia in a 1930 New Year’s Eve Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish property. Meanwhile, his erstwhile protegee on the force, Charlotte Ritter, finds herself in trouble as she attempts to conceal the activity of her sister, forced through desperate poverty to become a serial burglar.

This season deals majestically with the coming force of Nazi goons and their protectors in the upper echelons of Weimar society, as well as encompassing a plot about corrupt cops who feast off the booty of thieves. Episode 8, of 10, follows too closely its Volker Kutscher source material and descends briefly into gangster Godfather and Tarantinesque brutality, but then rights itself and returns its focus to the actual danger of the fascist takeover. Fascinating as always. Along the same lines, though set in 1962, is the BBC’s Ridley Road which spotlights the brave efforts of a young Jewish woman to infiltrate a pack of British neo-Nazis.

Alaska Daily –This ABC television series, streaming on Hulu, proves there is still life left in network, or linear, TV. Hilary Swank stars as a tough-nosed, no-nonsense reporter outcast to the backwoods of Alaska on a local paper because of a major story gone awry. There she confronts the prejudice surrounding a botched investigation of the disappearance of native women, her publisher who tries to steer the paper toward supporting a corrupt Senate candidate and her own white whale, a general pilfering Pentagon funds. By the team that brought you the film Spotlight but much tougher than that film, undoubtedly in part due to the influence of co-producer Swank herself who brings her “does-not-suffer-fools-gladly” persona to the small screen as she calls out not only lying officials but also refuses to indulge in romantic liaisons which compromise her integrity. And on network TV – wow!

After the Verdict/Savage River — Australian series, produced respectively on Australian private and public TV, with that country currently the leader in socially relevant drama. The first brings together four middle-class jurors who believe they may have made a mistake in freeing a woman who possibly hoodwinked them with her status and privileged attitude. The series is actually not about the too-easily-guessed mystery but rather the troubles plaguing a Western middle class as it attempts to come to grips with a declining lifestyle and finds its best way of coping is not by denial but by cooperation.

Savage River focuses on the plight of a young working-class woman who returns to the town of the title after serving time for a murder and finds herself again the subject of an investigation into another murder. The laying bare of the power dynamics of the town, whose economy is based around a sheep slaughterhouse being put up for corporate sale, and the young woman’s active search to expose the true source of decay in the town, make this a series to contend with. 

Borgen – This Danish series streams on Netflix and portrays the complexity of Scandinavian multiparty politics. It seemed to have exhausted itself after three seasons but revived for a fourth and final season on the subject of the exploitation of Greenland, the pearl of Arctic oil drilling. Birgitte, now a Danish minister, at first takes the ecological position, refusing drilling against the Greenlanders themselves who want the benefits. Under pressure from Denmark and the U.S., she then switches positions and betrays her ideals as her associate in Greenland betrays an Inuit woman with whom he has a dalliance. She is punished for her lack of conviction, proving that women in government under a colonialist system are no more infallible or likely to reform that system than men. It’s a bitter ending to a series which debates all sides of an important issue.

We Own This City – This mini-series, by the creators of The Wire, charts police corruption in Baltimore for over a decade. It describes “The Thin Blue Line” of cops protecting cops as closer to the mafia law of omerta, of silence, than as an institutional means of survival against hostile neighbourhoods. Jenkins, the honored leader of a squad, not only steals and then resells drugs from street dealers, but also holds forth on pettier levels of corruption as he counsels his men on how to cheat on overtime. A powerful statement of the series, carried over from The Wire, is that this corruption is also a result of the failed “War on Drugs”, which “achieved nothing but brutality, full prisons and a complete lack of trust between police departments and their cities.”

Ms. Marvel – In general Marvel Studios television took a reactionary step back this year (See Moon Knight in 5 worst), but this series about a Pakistani teen in Jersey City was a quantum leap forward, up and out of the Marvel universe. The series, which at first seemed to be simply another elaborate advert for that universe, took a sudden turn when the family’s trip to Karachi included a monumental flashback as our superhero encounters her relative fleeing India on the last train out of the British partitioning of the two countries. On her return, the supervillains she contends with are well-armed U.S. federal agents attempting to capture her and wreak havoc on a community which comes together to thwart them. The series expands the Marvel Universe and through its partitioning flashback its “multiverse” and illustrates how that scheme can become something more than a catalogue of Marvel products. Will this model be followed? Probably not.

Andor – Another quasi-superhero series, this one in the Star Wars universe, that surprised by its, and The Walking Dead season 11’s, being the series which, though obliquely, best challenged the U.S. empire. Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is superb as the Bogart/Casablanca reluctant warrior against an empire that attempts to exert total control on a downtrodden galaxy. The series debates resistance against what seems to be an all-powerful foe as Andor, in a series of masterfully planned and shot escapades, eludes capture on his home planet, pulls off a payroll heist, breaks out of an impregnable imperial prison, and returns to the planet in disguise to save a friend and view his mother’s funeral. Would that more of those inhabitants, now firmly in the ideological grip of the U.S. empire, had Andor’s courage to challenge its accelerating drift into global war, as all the while it increases its mind control on its citizenry.

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The Walking Dead vs. the neoliberal Commonwealth 

The Walking Dead—11th and final season of this cable favourite, before splintering off into 3 separate series, has the survivors of a zombie disaster contending against their most powerful foe, the neoliberal Commonwealth, which is ruled over by a Hilary Clinton prototype who proclaims that all is well even as she employs ever more repressive measures to maintain control. The unruly band of survivors cannot live under the stifling abundance/repression of the Commonwealth and inevitably come into conflict with how it limits personal and group freedom. The season 11 showrunner Angela Kang has done a superb job not only in winding up the series but in proving that in the nether regions of genre and apocalyptic TV, which more learned critics and viewers have given up for dead, lurks the possibility of the deepest and most penetrating critique of the supposed benevolence but actual violence behind the current bourgeois order. Who knew?

Hightown/Before We Die—Sometimes series are simply well-wrought and compelling without having overt social content. Season 2 of Hightown is an example though it also continued its portrayal of the effects of the current drug scourge Fentanyl on a Provincetown, here portrayed as a fishing town struck down, as is its police detective heroine, by this disease. Both are attempting to recover from its insidious effects. The third and final season of the Swedish series Before We Die wrings, as do the previous two seasons about respectively the Croatian mob and a league of corrupt cops, every last drop of suspense from this tale of a police detective mother and her undercover son. A Hitchcockian tightening of the noose around both characterizes season 3 as the series ends prematurely as both characters finally reconcile. It’s an unusual premise and stunning follow-through of a series which is the best undercover series since the 1980s extravaganza Wiseguy. Also worth noting is another Swedish noir The Dark Heart ­(on Mubi) about a ruthless land baron father who lords it over his daughter, the local townspeople, and the environment which he brutally strips. The daughter’s awakening and revenge is the subject of this exceptional series.  

Honourable Mentions

Dark Winds—One of five notable indigenous series encompassing two continents, all of which deal with peoples under pressure. This most prominent, but not the best, series, on AMC+, features Indigenous actor Zahn McClarnon (also on Reservation Dogs) as a tribal cop contending with a history of abuse including forced sterilization on Navaho land and a racist FBI agent as he attempts to solve a brutal robbery. Canada’s indigenous channel produced another season of Tribal, available on Amazon, which highlighted again the tensions between Canadian and reservation police. Australia’s Troppo centered in Queensland, also on Amazon, involved an indigenous, aboriginal female aiding a disgraced cop in solving a murder that looks simply like a crocodile fatality. The Australian indigenous channel likewise produced True Colors (on Peacock) about an aboriginal cop who must solve the murder of a young girl amid the new wealth about to arrive in the local town because of the now global prominence of aboriginal art. Finally, The Tourist, on Netflix, tracks an amnesiac Irish visitor to the outback as he struggles to regain his memory and to figure out his relationship to his indigenous girlfriend as, all the while, he is being tracked by gangland killers. Each in the detective genre, but each employing that genre to investigate aspects of the inequality of global indigenous treatment.

Women of the movement – Season one of this ABC miniseries, now on Hulu, recounts the story of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmet Till, who launched a nationwide campaign to secure justice for her son, a victim of Mississippi racism. Actually, a multi-point of view recounting of the murder from the perspective of not only the mother but also the colonized population of African Americans in that state as they slowly find their voice and come forward in one of the earliest moments of the civil rights struggle.

Run the Burbs—Canadian series, featuring a mixed Asian and Indian family, that recognizes a cosmic demographic shift in celebrating not the whiteness but the diversity of the suburbs, making of those former conservative enclaves a multicultural utopia. Hats off also to the Nigerian-wedding-in-Lagos episodes of Bob Hearts Abishola and especially the wedding itself where the suburban Detroit sock vendor and his family integrate themselves into the joyful rituals of the African celebration.

From –There have been many post-Lost series with a group marooned somewhere (La Brea, Manifest, The Leftovers) but this series, on EPIX, which stars a haunting Harold Perrineau from Lost, about a group who do not know where they have surfaced and have to investigate the strange rules of their new world is, for its intriguing set-up and its enduring multicultural characters, the best.

Red Light—This series, streaming on Netflix, a product of Belgium and Netherlands TV, centers on three women, with its lead character a sex worker trapped by her pimp. The connection between the three and especially the struggle of the lead character with her own demons to find herself worthy to break away from her tormentor drives this series as it highlights trafficking between Antwerp and Amsterdam.

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Abundance vs. Disparity in Conversations With Friends

Conversations With Friends – This second Hulu adaptation of a novel by the class-conscious writer Sally Rooney, after last year’s triumphal Normal People, is only superficially concerned with the class elements of the interactions of its four characters but is generous in the way it suggests that “normal” bourgeois relations are limited and instead describes the abundance available in transcending them.

Abbot Elementary — ABC again, the most progressive of the network stations, broadcast this series, streaming on Hulu, that highlights the plight of both teachers and students as they attempt to confront the war on public-school budgets as more money goes to more segregated and upper- class charter schools as well as to the U.S. military and the war in Ukraine. The single-minded focus of this series on this lack marks it as a landmark socially adept sitcom. 

Chivalry/Reboot—Speaking of sitcoms, the two funniest were first Steve Coogan’s romcom pairing of an aging producer and a liberated director, Sarah Solemani, who is more than his match. Season one ends with her explaining she will not be with him because: “1) You’re too selfish and won’t be a good father, 2) I’m married and 3) You’ll leave me for a 25-year-old in 5 years.” Wise and wisecracking about the “new Hollywood” attempting and often backsliding in letting go of its misogynist ways. The first scene of Steve (Modern Family) Levitan’s Hulu series Reboot is one of the funniest of the year as it skews the lack of creativity in a network meeting about recirculating old series. Unfortunately, the rest of the series then jettisons that satire somewhat in favor of Levitan’s usual warm and fuzzy family relations, the most egregious of which is Paul Reiser’s, a co-head writer on the rebooted show, obnoxious attempts to reconcile with his also-in-charge daughter. Reiser, from the earlier Mad About You, is a traditional loud-mouthed, obnoxious sitcom character who in this series is saved, tolerated, and condoned by his willingness to change in a series of “heartfelt” moments that belie the more vicious, and more accurate, satire that surrounds these moments. 

North Sea Connection/The Cleaning Lady—Both series highlight populations in peril. The Irish series is about methamphetamine being brought into that country by the “entrepreneurial” activities of the brother of a woman who operates a fishing trawler on the coast. The series spotlights the way survival in this remote, formerly self-sufficient village in the wake of the attack on self-sufficiency by the global import economy, almost necessitates criminal activity. The first season of Fox’s The Cleaning Lady, based on an Argentine series and set in Las Vegas, is an apt description of the compromises this family of two working-class illegal immigrant mothers must make in the face of the constant onslaught unleashed against them by employers, the underworld, and the government. In the second season the show loses its way, jettisons the plight of the women, and moves towards the gangster plot in a way, miraculously avoided in season one. Both series available on Hulu.

The White Lotus—Season 2 of Mike White’s exploration of the callousness of an American privileged class as they journey abroad, here in Sicily, while often right on point, in an ending that seemed to reconcile the worst behavior of the most entitled couple, compromised its critique and for that is booted down to Honorable Mention. Not since Henry James has an American writer chronicled the upper classes with such unromantic clarity and it is hoped that the next, already commissioned season, will return to the colonized/colonizer moment of season one’s look at LA characters frolicking amid the quasi-poverty of the Hawaiian natives.

Worst 5

The Gilded Age—This high-budget recreation of an upper-class New York at the turn of the last century was compared to Edith Wharton. A not very adept comparison though because Wharton had a sharp social eye that she cast on the contradictions of that life, whereas this series simply wants to validate wealth as it gazes uncritically on its social-climbing characters. The supposed tension between old wealth and new wealth is simply instead a celebrating of the ultimate compatibility of both. In the same vein is Apple TV+’s Severance, which is a supposed “expose” of the alienation of work and private life but which instead functions as a smokescreen to conceal the real-life work grievances that prompted organizing of Apple’s workers to have more say in a workplace that silences them while claiming it is a progressive space in touch with their needs. Not greenwashing but workwashing of the real tensions in the Apple “family” by focusing on a false issue.

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Dumb and Dumber in The Peacemaker

Peacemaker—A waste of a James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy and the new head of Warner’s DC franchise) script. John Cena as the lead doofus is not funny and neither is the show which attempts to be a DC satire of action series and instead reads more like Marvel’s Howard the Duck. Outdone in the stupid action hero category by Reacher which at least had, in its treatment of a not to bright action hero, as Richard Widmark was once described, “the courage of its own sordid convictions.” Worse still was the highly praised Pam and Tommy, an empty portrayal of an empty movie-star, rock-star couple, distinguished by Seth Rogan’s disgustingly putrid working-class builder who is nothing but a mass of seething resentments. Both the series and Rogan are being honoured this award season.

Fairview—This inside the entertainment industry beltway series blatantly celebrates LA “culture” with its group of media saturated and overly savvy kids with nothing on their minds beyond their self-referential knowledge of the industry. Yuck. Gives new meaning to the word “insipid.”

Moon Knight/She Hulk—Two Marvel series that rather than expanding the Marvel universe, illustrated the potential retrograde quality of that space. The first was the worst. Oscar Isaac’s at first likable dweeb character instead turns into a psychotic murderous hero in pursuit in Egypt of Ethan Hawke’s turbaned villain in episodes that hark back to the worst of colonial Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s. She Hulk on the other hand constituted a geek’s idea of what female liberation looks like with the lawyer, once she transforms into the green monster, completely forgetting her case against a corporate polluter and instead grappling with a costumed unidentified female supervillain and then joining a corporate law firm. Not a depiction of a professional career woman’s lives and traumas, as it pretends to be, but rather simply a billboard on which to advertise other Marvel products. Good for the company, not so good for viewers.

The Sandman—British DC superhero/horror hokum, featuring upper-class British accents in a 1916 manor that simply reads like generic whiteness.  This is the kind of series that had it been allowed to continue Lovecraft Country, with its Afro-centric take on the horror genre, would have pre-empted. Unfortunately, since that honoured series was cancelled after one season, this kind of churlish childness continues to be reborn. 

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:43

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview

The largest television festival in the world, Series Mania at Lille in Northern France, where 40 percent of all French television series are shot, just ended. Although everyone paid homage to the invasion in Ukraine, what was also often unstated was how to deal with another invasion, that of the U.S. streamer conglomerates. Money is now pouring into Europe, where production values are cheaper and where local production is being driven by the global and Western success of the Korean series Squid Game, proving that audiences around the world are no longer adverse to watching native language series with subtitles.

Public television is everywhere threatened by these private monopolies. Typical is the case of Sally Riley, who heads the drama desk of ABC television in Australia where she is also in charge of an Indigenous branch of the network. ABC has commissioned the aborigine series Mystery Road and Troppo, the latter set in the alligator wilds of Queensland, as well as the detective series Jack Irish, all of which are critical of the power structure of Australian society. Riley complains that with the global streamers now invading the market, it is much harder to secure “projects, talents and crew” and generally harder for public television to compete.

Nicole Chamoun as AMANDA

Nicole Chamoun in Troppo

Whereas previous festivals, even last summer’s, sounded a warning against European state production being overwhelmed, the panels at this year’s Series Mania Forum tended to compliment the way the streamers have invested in production, with the difference between cooperation and cooptation perhaps being thin. Bruno Patino, the president of Arte, a German-French station that is the crown jewel of European public television, lauded the Arte co-production with Netflix The World of Tomorrow, a supposed “origin story” of how hip-hop culture came to France.

The series won the grand prize of the festival but paled behind the vastly superior Disney + series Ossekine, about the police killing of an Algerian student. The lone voice of dissent on Patino’s panel “Collaborating Across Borders” was the Italian Gina Nieri, whose company has ambitions of being “the Netflix of Southern Europe” and who still viewed the American streamers as a threat to European cultural sovereignty.

In order to provide an infrastructure for this increased production, the streamers know they must cultivate talent while also tailoring European training to the needs of a more industrialized system, as the sheer volume of series ramps up. Thus, at the festival, Warner Media (HBO Now) revealed it was investing $1 million in the Series Mania Institute to train scriptwriters, directors, producers and broadcasters. This comes on the heel of Amazon’s announcement of a £10 million investment in UK film and television training.

Likewise, another panel featured Frank Spotnitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) pleading and sometimes hectoring the audience of producers and media biz staffers to accept the American concept of the showrunner not because it gave more freedom to the writer, since showrunners are writers, but because it was a more efficient way of rolling series off the industrial ramp and better suited to the influx of cash that was now arriving in Europe. In my book Birth of the Binge, I praised the ascension of the showrunner as giving new power to writers with scripted series taking precedence over a god-awful era of unscripted “Reality TV,” but in this latest iteration the showrunner is simply a more efficient cog in the machine.

This invasion has also prompted increasing monopolization and mergers of local TV stations in order to compete. Foremost among them is the proposed merger of France’s top two private and linear broadcast stations TF1 and M6. The fear is that Vincent Bollore’s M6 will swallow TF1, which does commission its own French series in contrast to M6 known for its cheaply-made reality series.

Media magnate Bollore has positioned himself as the Rupert Murdoch of French media with his CNEWS cable channel, which spawned far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, being the French equivalent of Fox News. One member of the audience described the merger as being akin to “The Hitler-Stalin Pact.” The mergers, as in the U.S. and as mergers everywhere, are resulting in media workers losing their jobs, to the point where Variety cheerily described a “rosy media employment picture” in the U.S. in the wake of a host of mergers, where in the first two months of 2022 there were only 200 job cuts.

In terms of production overdrive, the leader in this field is Korea’s Studio Dragon whose CEO Young-kyu Kim revealed, to open mouths and gasps from the audience, that his studio – which produced two series highly rated on Netflix, Kingdom and Crash Landing on You – was churning out a full series every two weeks. Kim also brought along a reel illustrating how Korea had ingeniously surmounted the country’s COVID travel restrictions in a series about Korean and Italian mafias called Vincenzo, supposedly partially shot in Italy but in fact using a green screen background for actors and then filling in the Italian scenes with lifelike digital recreations.  

The Play’s the Thing

As for the series themselves, the festival functions as a kind of global spring series preview with a host of socially-minded series on the agenda. Clearly the best series at the festival, though the jury didn’t think so, was the MGM/Epix streamer Billy The Kid, premiering on April 25. The series starts out as the most cliché-ridden of all Westerns with Billy, spurs a-jangling and pistols at the ready, walking into an almost pitch-black saloon and facing down a bounty hunter who is after him.

BD3 Billy the kid

The opening though is simply a diversion as the series then cuts to the tenements of New York City as the now pre-adolescent Billy and his Irish family decide to go west because the conditions of immigrant life in New York are so awful. The show then becomes a kind of Heaven’s Gate, an underrated Michael Cimino film about the prejudice against East European immigrants in Wyoming.

The tension in this first season centers around a Nativist hatred for all those not American, featuring killing and lynching of Mexicans, as well as a cabal of those in power who simply want to exploit immigrant labor. Billy’s stepfather is, when Billy’s mother encounters him, a racist debtor trading on his white privilege who must leave Santa Fe for the wilds of Silver City in order to flee his creditors, just as another famous white bigot who then became president had to flee his debtors in Atlantic City for the wilds of Vegas and network TV. In the guise of a Western Billy the Kid is a sharply critical examination of the American character.

From Colombia comes Turbia, a dystopic anthology series, set in Cali, the site of much current labor organizing and dissent, about a drought in the not too-distant future that accentuates the already massive gap between rich and poor, with the police-barricaded rich now having abundant water while for the poor water is rationed or sold on an underground market. The series joins those other harbingers of impending doom (as Joe Biden threatens the world with nuclear annihilation in calling for regime change in Russia) Snowpiercer and The Walking Dead, the latter currently enjoying its finest season as the survivors battle a neoliberal U.S.-style government called “The Commonwealth.”

The ingenious arc of Turbia has each director constructing their own episode within the drought situation with the first three episodes concerning respectively star-crossed lovers on either side of the divide, an old man attempting to hold onto his shack being annihilated as part of a city demolition and children threatened by a fascist army officer. The different age groups recalls Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist trilogy with young (Shoeshine), middle aged (Bicycle Thieves) and old (Umberto D) subjected to the ravages of post-war Italy.

The team from The Wire, David Simon and George Pelecanos, are back with a limited HBO series, again dealing with Baltimore, this time with police corruption in We Own This City, premiering April 25. The series takes pains to show how police brutality is institutionalized, opening with the main corrupt cop, Wayne Jenkins, in an actual case from 2017, explaining to a group of his fellow cops that when you hit the streets you forget everything you’re taught in the academy because “this is Baltimore,” and if officers don’t play rough “we lose the streets.” We then flash back to 2003 where Jenkins is told this by the officer training him and then forward two years where he imparts the same “knowledge” to his trainee. The plot of cops stealing from those they see as merely “the criminal element” also figures prominently, and perhaps more ingeniously in season two of the Nordic noir from Sweden Before We Die.

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Two dark French policiers took quite different paths. Syndrome E moves at a frantic pace and encompasses a global medical conspiracy that also plays out in Morocco and Canada while Hors Saison or Off Season, is a French-Swiss series that breaks the traditional French cop series mode, an antiquated cross between Agatha Christie plots and Colombo-like eccentric main characters, in an appalling way. The female cop covers up a death, potentially a murder, caused by her son of an Eastern European immigrant woman and asks us to sympathize with the agonized mother in a way that simply romanticizes the police violence and coverups. These are otherwise contested in contemporary series, as the Black Lives Matter protests begins to (slightly) affect police procedurals.

A hard-hitting Disney series?!

The World of Tomorrow operates on the flimsy conceit that rap and hip-hop culture arrived in France thanks to a blond French DJ who went to a rap party in San Francisco and then transported the music. The series seems to have no feel for how rap challenged the very structure of a racist society, instead substituting the almost straw man figurehead of Jean-Marie Le Pen as an easy target. Much better was Ossekine, Disney Plus’ first French series which revolves around the 1986 police cover-up of the death of an Algerian student.

The series features a scene of police interrogation of the brother of the student, not to shed light on the victim, but to figure out how to portray the death as either warranted or an accident. A flashback also recalls the 1961 murder of up to perhaps 300 Algerians in Paris being thrown off the Pont Neuf, a bridge in the center of Paris, witnessed by the Ossekine family upon their arrival in France. Who would have thought the Disney series would be hard-hitting while the French series was pure fluff?

Elsewhere, Gold Panning, the first Chinese series in the festival, set in the mid-80s in a Wild-West San Francisco-type Gold Rush in a remote corner of the country where foremen cheat downtrodden workers doing the panning and everyone is out for themselves, trying to siphon off what gold they can. The series, with its contesting of the ’80s “Greed Is Good” ethos can be read as a corrective to the Deng Xiaoping era of introducing capitalism to Chinese society, as we witness Xi Jinping’s move to the left, attempting to curb corruption and discipline the too-big-too-fail Chinese tech enterprises.

The Dark Heart, now available on Roku, and a prizewinner at the festival that deserved its accolade, is a Swedish series about a controlling father who ravages the land and exerts his iron will over the town, where he is the leading landowner, his daughter, forbidding her romance with a worker’s son whose father describes the family as serfs to this capitalist lord, and the environment as he refuses to update his logging techniques to the more sustainable solutions his daughter proposes.

Finally, a series which suggests a social significance while actually staying purely in the realm of grimy science fiction is the Showtime remake of the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth. Outside of the heroine’s explaining that the reason she is coming along for the ride to aid an alien is to gain money to help her father who has lost his insurance and is dying because of this loss, there is almost no social context. The series attempts to be a cross between Nicholas Rowe’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, but all that is retained from the Sayles film – the better of the two – is the grimness. We don’t know much about the world the alien comes from except that on this planet there is no sense of humor. His has to be the least funny planet in the universe.