A guide to good Netflix vs. bad Netflix
Netflix is changing the face of TV. The streaming service has turned binge-watching into a way of life. It has eliminated the time-consuming practice of forcing TV producers to make pilots. It designs some of its series by using its extensive statistics on audience behavior. It doesn’t make its shows’ ratings public. And it releases a ton of titles, some 1,000 this year, including both the original shows it makes and those it acquires and distributes.
There are so many shows on Netflix, it sometimes feels like you’re picking through a Filene’s Basement bin to find what you want, all while that ping-pong sound bounces around the room. Good shows get buried in the heap, while bad ones show up on your screen every time you enter the service’s home base. Here, then, is a selection of some of the streamer’s best and worst.
THE GOOD STUFF
Netflix, like all TV outlets, likes a sure thing. So it returned to David Fincher, the star director who brought the company its first breakthrough series, “House of Cards,” for this look into the psychology of serial killers. Based on the 1995 nonfiction book “Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, the show has a haunting noir affect as its FBI agents — played by Holt McCallany and, less successfully, by Jonathan Groff — visit and interview darkly fascinating imprisoned serial killers to look for patterns. Essentially, they are inventing profiling. Set in the late 1970s, the show also follows the agents into their personal lives.
“The End of the [Expletive] World”
What a treat — if you don’t mind having your moral bearings ruthlessly toyed with. Netflix coproduced the eight-episode season with Britain’s Channel 4 (it hasn’t been renewed yet) — and the results are thrilling. Basically, a pair of extremely troubled teens, each with messy parental situations, run away and take a road trip through England, finding — then escaping — all kinds of trouble wherever they stop. The acting by the couple is remarkable, with Jessica Barden as a rebel’s rebel and Alex Lawther (from “Howards End”) as her dissociated, murderous partner in crime. That they become endearing by the end of the season is only one of the marvels here. I’m not sure why Netflix took this black comedy on, to be honest, but then the streamer doesn’t have a particular brand — unless ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING counts as a brand.
Stories about female empowerment can be funny and ironic, as proven by this terrific light comedy about the creation of women’s professional wrestling in the mid-1980s. A collection of strugglers in LA — models, stuntwomen, wannabe actresses — work together to make a wrestling TV pilot helmed by a B-movie director played perfectly by Marc Maron. They try to create stage personas, and in the process they find a greater sense of themselves and something to believe in. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin are amusing as the leads in the Jenji Kohan-produced show, whose second season drops June 29, and they’re surrounded by a colorful ensemble cast.
This is Netflix doing quirky, and doing it well. In its crowded coffers, the streamer has a few similarly indie-movie-styled shows, including “Love.” “Lady Dynamite” from comic Maria Bamford lasted only two seasons, failing to meet Netflix’s unpredictable standards for renewal. But it’s an odd treat, as it takes on a pair of related topics — mental illness and Hollywood. The narrative includes hallucinogenic flights of fancy, as it tracks Maria’s return to acting after a breakdown, and they beautifully reflect her state of mind. The supporting characters are fun, most of all Ana Gasteyer as Maria’s thoroughly disingenuous agent, a shark with flashy glasses and slippery loyalties.
This is the other haunting Margaret Atwood adaptation, a miniseries written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” looks into a darkly imagined future, but this tale goes back to the 1800s for the true story of a young Irish immigrant jailed for double-murder. From the first episode, it’s riveting, with Grace (Sarah Gadon) recounting her Dickensian past to an American psychiatrist. As is wont to happen in therapy, Grace’s truth gets muddier and muddier before it gets clearer. A beautifully acted, carefully structured, and broody period piece — not typical of Netflix, but at this point the streamer seems to have a bit of everything under its umbrella.
“The Crown” is the jewel in the Netflix crown — OK, that sounds weird. But this elegant look back at the rather interesting life of the rather inscrutable Queen Elizabeth II is the prettiest history lesson you’ll ever see. It’s monarchy porn of the first order. Filled with beautifully structured set pieces, magnificent settings, and interesting ideas about what royalty represents, it features remarkable supporting turns by John Lithgow, Jared Harris, and Vanessa Kirby. The only misstep: Michael C. Hall as JFK in season two. Claire Foy was masterful as the queen for the first two seasons; next it will be Olivia Colman’s turn to wear the crown as Elizabeth ages.
“Master of None”
I can’t heap enough praise onto this lovely comedy, which has delivered two fine 10-episode seasons so far. Netflix gave Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang enough rope to hang themselves, and instead they made an auteur series that balances effortlessly between humor and drama, straight-ahead storytelling, and experimental narrative. The show is about Ansari’s Dev looking for love in New York City, being a good son, being Indian-American, and trying to be an actor who isn’t pigeonholed into playing only heavy-accented cab drivers. It’s about growing up but not growing numb. And it’s about a search for the best food in whatever city Dev happens to be in.
This extraordinary series is a contemporary “Twilight Zone,” delivering near-future nightmares involving technology that will creep you out. Some are more potent than others, as is often the case with anthology series. Some are satirical, and some are straight-ahead drama. But all of them remind us to think about the long-term impact of our modern conveniences. The series originated on Britain’s Channel 4, but Netflix picked it up and, with its global reach, spread it around the world.
THE BAD STUFF
I totally wanted this show to work. It’s a workplace comedy updated and set in a weed dispensary, and it stars Kathy Bates, whom I generally enjoy. But the multicamera approach, a trademark of co-creator Chuck Lorre of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” ultimately brings it crashing down, leading to an excess of irritatingly broad one-liners and repetitive themes.
“Friends From College”
This one was particularly disappointing, since the cast — including Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, Billy Eichner, and Cobie Smulders — offers so much promise. It’s a mean-spirited but unfunny comedy about the titular group, a kind of “Big Chill” ensemble of old pals who make bad decisions and undermine one another. The slapstick is lame, the jokes are lazy, and the attempts at drama are hollow. Netflix pulled together some popular talent, then gave them nothing interesting to do. Nevertheless, the series was renewed for a second season.
Netflix doesn’t need viewer stats to know that bringing back old shows is an easy way to find an interested audience. All the networks and cable channels do it. But I haven’t been a fan of most of the streamer’s reboots by a long shot, including “Arrested Development” and “Gilmore Girls.” Thank you, but leave the classics alone, please. This particular reboot is particularly unbearable, though — putting the boot (as in the slang for vomiting) in reboot. It’s one of the worst examples of mining the past to pander to old fans, of which I am not one. Tune in only if you’re longing for overworked jokes, enhanced hysterical laughter, and big, awkward messages.
I guess Netflix, in its effort to be everything to everyone, has room for the worst kind of network multicam sitcom. Much as we were all clamoring for a reunion of Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson of “That ’70s Show,” ahem, this laugh-tracked show is a formulaic piece of work. Kutcher’s one-time local football hero returns to his family’s struggling Colorado ranch to help his partying brother, Masterson’s Rooster, and his crotchety father, Sam Elliott’s Beau; hysterics do not ensue. But the show — with two 20-episode seasons so far — goes on, now without Masterson, who was written off the series after rape allegations.
“Lost in Space”
A clear effort to devise a family series, but — oops — they forgot to add the intelligence and the entertainment. I’d call it a complete time-suck, with a seemingly endless series of cosmic crises that we know the space family Robinson will escape, except that Parker Posey offers some amusing moments as Dr. Smith.