Tuesday 20 August 2019

New Netflix shows won't return you to golden age of TV drama...

The characters and material in the Netflix original The Chalet are hackneyed
The characters and material in the Netflix original The Chalet are hackneyed

John Boland

It wasn't long ago when outstanding dramas seemed to be a permanent feature of our home viewing. Event television we called it, and we couldn't believe our luck to be living in this golden age when TV was coming up with programming more innovative and arresting than anything to be found in mainstream cinema.

It all began back in the late 1990s with HBO and The Sopranos, and it gathered pace with Six Feet Under and The Wire, and then came all those Scandinavian series (Wallander, Borgen, The Bridge, Beck), along with the French (Spiral) and the Australians (The Slap) and the British (Line of Duty, Happy Valley, Wolf Hall), and even more first-rate American series, such as Breaking Bad, Fargo, Big Little Lies and Mr Mercedes.

Also into the mix came Netflix, initially an online video rental store but then a maker of its own shows, starting with an expertly reimagined House of Cards, but proving this was no fluke with such unmissable offerings as Better Call Saul, Jessica Jones, Stranger Things and The Crown.

So what has happened to make this golden age suddenly seem over? Well, Scandi-drama appears to have exhausted itself, the Americans have gone very quiet, and all that the BBC managed to come up with in recent months was the increasingly lame McMafia, a thriller without thrills.

As for Netflix, it has now become such a global phenomenon that it seems content to churn out series without bothering whether they're any good or not.

And so we have the latest Netflix original, The Chalet, which concerns a group of family and friends meeting up in the remote French Alps where something bad occurred 20 years earlier. This is hackneyed material and the characters are hackneyed, too - from the failed writer who, in a straight lift from The Shining, stares at blank pages in his typewriter, to sinister locals who could have stepped out of any backwoods horror movie.

I lasted for two of its six episodes, during which absolutely nothing happened to a bunch of people I didn't care about anyway. Maybe they'll all be fighting for their lives in the remaining four instalments, but I'm happy to leave them at it.

Netflix has been busy promoting The Chalet but it hasn't done the same with Money Heist which, from the three episodes I've seen, is much superior. This Spanish drama (La Casa de Papel), which runs over 15 episodes (all of them available), concerns a mysterious professor who hires a gang to rob the Royal Mint of Spain and gives them all the names of cities.

Its narrator is a volatile young woman criminal called Tokyo and the opening episodes feature preparations for the heist and its initial execution, the robbers locking themselves inside the building with scores of hostages while the police and media gather outside.

From these opening episodes it's impossible to tell how it will proceed, and it might well become wildly improbable, but so far it's been ingenious, teasing, tense and persuasively acted and is certainly well worth a look.

However, Lost in Space (Netflix) is dismayingly flat and sluggish. This reboot of a 1960s sci-fi original hasn't made up its mind whether it's an adult or family-friendly show and in the three episodes I've seen, ends up not really being either.

The tensions between husband and wife are touched on rather than explored, while the children-in-peril moments are so fitful that young viewers may end up somewhat bored by their infrequency. It's all lavishly shot, with good special effects, but the story lacks both energy and urgency.

Fallet (Netflix), which runs in half-hour episodes, is meant to be a skit on Scandi noir, but it's vaguely amusing rather than actually funny. Inept English cop Tom teams up with equally clueless Swedish policewoman Sophie to solve some grisly murders, and there are knowing nods to Wallander, Stieg Larsson and Inspector Morse, but that's about it.

Donald Taylor Black's documentary, Back to the Joy (RTÉ1), was absorbing - indeed, so engrossing that if ever a programme demanded to be extended into a series, this was it.

The director had previously made The Joy 21 years ago and it had been a revelatory series about the inner workings of our most famous/infamous prison. And in this new film, we met some of the same people who featured then, all much older now.

These included former prison chaplain Fr Paul St John, former prison officer and now acting governor of Portlaoise Ethel Gavin and addiction specialist Dr Des Crowley, still doing the same work he was doing more than two decades ago.

Each of them had interesting things to say, but in a one-off film, more questions were raised than could be answered, or even properly addressed. Indeed, so much was made of the drugs problem among prisoners that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the only issue in Mountjoy and in the lives of those incarcerated there.

And as former governor John Lonergan pointed out in Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ1), the great strength of the 1997 series was that Donald Taylor Black had been granted total access to the prisoners themselves, whereas in this week's film such access was missing.

In fact, the only prisoner who featured in both films was Gwen, who in the 1997 film was a fragile young woman hopeful that she'd be able to surmount her drug dependency and go on to live a more fulfilling life.

That didn't happen and the prematurely aged Gwen of today, having spent 16 of her subsequent years in psychiatric confinement, was a poignant shadow of her former self.

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