Game of Thrones finished. So did the election. What should I binge on next? | Culture
The final season is jaw-droppingly perfect
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
My partner and I watched Fleabag’s jaw-droppingly perfect final season in two nights this week, gripping our couch and pressing pause on the stream to take breathing breaks. Not because the narrative is action-packed, but because the tension of the show – and the yearning, guilt and fear – is so real and human it’s almost painful to be around.
The UK series, described by the Guardian as “the most electrifying, devastating TV in years”, was created by and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a nameless London woman grappling with the death of her best friend. In season two, which hit Australian Amazon this month, we get more from the glorious Olivia Coleman (as Fleabag’s god-awful godmother); a much-vaunted monologue on women’s pain from Kristen Scott Thomas; and a deep dive into the world of her heartbreaking sister, Claire, played by a fantastic Sian Clifford. We also get to watch as Fleabag entangles herself with a charming but problematic man who is tantalisingly out of reach. (The sexual chemistry is, uh, really quite something.)
Based on Waller-Bridge’s one-woman stage show, the main character breaks the fourth wall throughout the series, mugging, winking and quipping to the camera as if we’re in on it all and always on her side. For the most part, we are – she is hilarious, sarcastic and relatable, and looks so amazing in a jumpsuit that UK designers are struggling to keep up. But as the series go on, you stop wanting to laugh at the jokes she uses to build a wall between her and the world, and start wanting to shake her by the shoulders and demand that she let others in. – Steph Harmon
The perfect antidote to a deluge of men
Where to watch: Stan
If watching the Labor leadership ballot, the rolling back of abortion rights in America and just world news generally leaves you thinking “I want to hear from fewer men”, watch Orphan Black. It is a pulpy, sci-fi thriller starring Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the lead roles and won an Emmy for the performance in 2016. The most important relationships are familial and either between women or with their femme foster brother, Felix. The lead romantic relationship is between two women too.
Orphan Black flips the traditional gender roles of this type of TV show so heavily that it has been accused of failing the reverse Bechdel test. Which, like reverse racism, is not a thing.
Gender dynamics aside, it’s just really fun: fast-paced, knotty plots, quick dialogue, deeply emotional moments and a masterclass in character acting from Maslany. It also stars Maria Doyle Kennedy, who should be in everything, and Jordan Gavaris, who is a delight. – Calla Wahlquist
So much more than just a cop show
Where to watch: Netflix
This series was “suggested” to me by Netflix because I watch so many police procedurals and crime thrillers in my downtime. But to call this knockout UK cop show either of those things would be unfair. It has neither the routine comfort of The Bill, nor does it wallow in horror like The Bridge or The Fall, though that isn’t to say that things don’t turn dark quickly.
So much for what it isn’t. What Happy Valley is is gripping. Sarah Lancashire plays Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in the drug-wracked suburbs of West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley whose teenage daughter committed suicide only a few weeks after giving birth to the child of a man who raped her. Eight years later, Catherine is divorced, estranged from her son and committed to raising her grandson with the help of her sister, a former addict. Then her daughter’s rapist comes back into her life, at the same time as a young woman goes missing.
It’s the stuff of high drama, but Happy Valley keeps its feet on the ground through finely wrought characterisation and a stunning performance by Lancashire, who brings a fierce maternal fire to the toughest, get-shit-done female protagonist to grace the small screen in years. The Guardian rated the first season its top show of 2014, calling it “some of the most psychologically perceptive writing and acting that TV has ever seen”. Having binged both seasons on Netflix within the space of two evenings, I wholeheartedly concur. – Stephanie Convery
You Can’t Ask That
Should be mandatory viewing
Where to watch: ABC iView
If you haven’t seen it yet, the ABC’s award-winning series, now on its fourth season and streaming on iView, asks marginalised and misunderstood Australians questions that everyone’s wondered about but has been too polite to ask.
Nothing is off limits for the breathtakingly honest participants: “What’s good about learning you’ll die?”, “What’s it like to kill a human being”, “Do you think you’re ugly?” and “Where do you hide your dick?” There’s light and shade in every episode, which has featured Indigenous Australians, Muslims, former reality TV stars, homeless people, refugees, priests, swingers and survivors of sexual assault. And no-one will be able to forget the episodes with terminally ill people or ex-prisoners.
The current season is particularly compelling. I sobbed through the episode on domestic violence survivors (it should be mandatory viewing for every Australian), was astounded by the disaster survivors episode and fascinated by the former politicians episode. Want to see what real people are dealing with outside of the Canberra bubble and beyond the fantasy of Westeros? Watch this show. – Alexandra Spring
Constantly laugh-out-loud funny
Where to watch: Netflix
Four Catholic school girls (and a wee English boy) are up to no good in the smash-hit Channel 4 show, Derry Girls, where the secular conflicts of the Troubles in early 1990s Northern Ireland take a backseat to the wildly unpredictable trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Created and written by Lisa McGee, and loosely based around her own childhood, this British sitcom follows 16-year-olds Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and her English cousin, James, as they navigate the messy, panicky ebbs of adolescence – past shrewd parents and eye-rolling convent sisters – and never without a sense of cavorting, rebellious spirit. It’s constantly laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to its winning combination of zinging dialogue and concoction of hilariously outrageous hot-water predicaments.
But the show’s boldest move is how it treats its background political strife with a wry normalcy. A bomb on a bridge is seen as a traffic nuisance (“I’m not enjoying this bomb. I’ve an appointment at Tropicana at 12”), and Brit soldiers patrolling the streets are made the butt of plentiful jokes. The show’s charming, eccentric lead cast makes their unlikely adventures all the more rompy and enjoyable. The first season consists only of six 20-minute episodes, so expect to whiz right through them, revel in the strange escapism of being a Derry Girl and leave wanting more. – Debbie Zhou
Gritty, graphic and bug-eyed bananas
Where to watch: Netflix
While my wife revisits Deadwood in the lead-up to its series-capping movie-length release later this year, I’ve discovered binge-(re)watching the first season of Happy! (before the second drops on June 5) is the perfect antidote to everything embodied by the election. Part black comedy, part thriller, part San Pedro cactus trip, the series is gritty, graphic and bug-eyed bananas.
Chris Meloni (Law & Order: SVU, Oz) plays Nick Sax: a hard-drinking, drug-guzzling, seemingly indestructible disgraced former cop who has lately become a wise-cracking, crazy-winter-scarf-wearing hitman “whose life is an ever-swirling toilet that just won’t flush”. Despite these foibles, Sax is befriended by a petite and animated winged unicorn named Happy. Searching for a stolen child, the duo careen across a violent, corrupt, indifferent city run by a fiendish crime boss. Along the way, they battle hired goons, crooked cops, a Mangele-esque torturer named Smoothie, a psychotic child-nabbing Santa Claus and one very depraved children’s entertainer.
The world is cold, slippery and filled with devils masquerading as Christmas kings. Pack a scarf. – Jack Latimore
The most binge-able television on Earth
Where to watch: Netflix
Our ragged planet can be painful and confusing, but the strange, new worlds imagined beyond us are exciting and magnificent. Such is the appeal of the Star Trek franchise. Viewers can set vicarious sail across galaxies on starships and space-stations, joining crews of endlessly admirable characters whose heroic acts are propelled as much by the force of their empathy as they are their power of human reason.
The first, “original” series of Star Trek debuted in 1966, the creation of American Gene Roddenberry and his idealistic vision of a human future unencumbered by capitalism or prejudice. It took longer for Star Trek to dispense with gender stereotypes and embrace – rather than merely suggest – queer relationships and identity, but 700 glorious hours of evolved, inclusive TV sci-fi later, communities of its adoring fans describe it as “fully-automated luxury gay space communism”. And you have to admit they have a point.
Star Trek is the most binge-able television on Earth. Over its 53-year history, five complete live-action iterations of the series have been made, today’s marvellous Discovery is shooting its third season, and there are two more live-action series in development. And if one franchise to binge on every night for a year is not enough, there are 13 feature films along with animated series, countless books, computer games and even fan-made series in which to stay immersed.
Star Trek episodes can be hokey, and the terrifying space aliens made of rubber. But that’s okay: the series’ most enduring message is that the monsters we should be most frightened of are those that lurk within. Boldly go with it, man. Boldly, go. – Van Badham
The new seasons tap a spiritual, modern malaise
Where to watch: Foxtel Now
The original seasons of The X-Files were gloriously pre-Peak TV. Each schlocky, largely self-contained episode of Chris Carter’s sci-fi crime series played out with the same dedication to supernatural American fruitiness as Twin Peaks – another classic 1990s show that allowed its law enforcers to throw away reason and hunt according to intuition.
In the 2016 and 2018 seasons 10 and 11, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) – a rationalist in a science-based world – finds herself increasingly convinced of her partner Agent Fox Mulder’s paranormal perspectives; namely, that a world exists beyond that which is visible or scientific. The new plots also explore Dana’s possible implantation with alien DNA (!), as a bigger conspiracy of men (including the Cigarette Smoking Man) reveals itself.
It’s beautiful to see how Mulder and Scully’s relationship has developed some 25 years after the show’s beginnings, while they carry the traumas of their early years investigating the X-Files. Beyond that, the newer seasons tap a type of spiritual, post-9/11 malaise – The X-Files’ cynicism with media and governments, and its rabid conspiracy theories, all feel wonderfully of a piece with the world of today. – Lauren Carroll Harris
Unerringly good-natured and weirdly addictive
Where to watch: ABC iView
I recently decided to take a break from watching daily TV news and current affairs programs, replacing that time with old episodes of Rosehaven. It’s been a rather therapeutic experience, and this lovely show – co-created, written by and starring Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor – in many respects improves on rewatch. Playing best friends and real estate agents working in a Tasmanian small town, Emma (Pacquola) and Daniel (McGregor) find themselves engaged in various misadventures and mini-dramas, the town’s placid vibes matched with a Seinfeldian sense of inconsequence.
Rosehaven is one of those rare programs that deserves that terribly hackneyed and flowery accolade “a breath of fresh air”. Pacquola and McGregor have great chemistry and the show’s unerring good-naturedness is weirdly addictive. Petty grievances and trivialities are explored, with, I think, the overarching point that these things can both distract us from the fundamental elements life but also help pass the time in bloody entertaining ways.
Rosehaven works despite a very laid-back energy – or, to use the words from the opening song, “even if the pace is slow”. – Luke Buckmaster
Feels more radical now than ever
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
If you’re looking for hope in 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s mischievous, self-referential tantrum of a sitcom, you’re looking in the wrong place. The show manages to elicit a range of emotions over the course of its seven seasons, but it could never really manage hope, even in its Obama-era heyday. That’s because at its core, 30 Rock was always a sitcom about the inherent rotten-ness of all humans, regardless of political affiliation, gender, race or class. In other words, it’s a perfect show for 2019.
Focusing on the escapades of Fey’s curmudgeonly TV writer Liz Lemon and her Republican boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin,) 30 Rock feels more radical now than it did when it premiered more than a decade ago. In one episode, Tracy — the usually incoherent star of Liz’s TV show — points out to another character that “old-school racism is back” because white Americans saw Obama’s election as reparation enough; in another, Liz — finally having gotten the children and husband she always wanted — realises that “having it all” is a lie, and the only thing she really enjoys is working 14-hour days. (Indeed, if 30 Rock was trying to say one thing to viewers over the course of its run, it was: “You should work more.”)
Lines that scan as casual jokes more often than not end up articulating strange and sometimes taboo truths; and while the show’s of-the-minute cultural references don’t always hold up, these bizarre pearls of wisdom often do. – Shaad D’Souza