By Andrew Hendricks
If you are like me, television is a huge part of your life. More than one TV producer has said we currently live in the golden age of television. With History Channel already evolved into the blue-collar-American-Job-Jesus-Alien Channel, and Reality TV’s tendrils hooked into almost every other channel, this can be a hard statement to believe on its face.
But just because there’s so much crap, we can’t forget that there are far more gems now than ever before. The Sopranos have come and gone, and now everyone has learned the lesson—it doesn’t matter if your premise is a little wonky, you can show murder, nudity, homosexuality and much more—as long as you have interesting characters and good writing. And now, it’s not just Television vs. Cable.
One Netflix executive was recently quoted as saying “We’re tying to become like HBO faster than HBO can become like us.” With their new line-up of Netflix exclusive shows, it seems like they have made good on that promise. There are a few misses, but it is astounding how many good shows they have already produced exclusively, and even better, no waiting. Netflix just dumps an entire season of a show in your lap and says “here are 13 hours of your life in which you will not be even a little productive, but you will be happy.”
Here are four of the best shows we wouldn’t have without Netflix.
1) Orange is the New Black
Netflix is advertising hard right out of the gate with their new hour-long dramady Orange is the New Black, and it’s easy to see why. The show is simply brilliant. Brought to Netflix by Weeds creator Jenji Cohen, Orange is the New Black brings back a similar feeling evoked by the 30 minute Showtime show. With the lead character Piper, another yuppie, not-quite-middle-aged, sexy-but-smart suburban white lady thrust into a female penitentiary, it’s hard to imagine how the show does not become stale immediately as an amalgam of Weeds and Oz.
Yet somehow it retains its freshness, both with hilarity and soul. You may recognize a long-unseen actress in one of the leading roles, Taylor Schilling, who was Donna on That 70s Show and now plays the black-haired, mysterious lesbian who roped Piper into the international drug cartel that landed her in prison in the first place. After Piper becomes acclimated to her new digs (though she never fully does), episodes begin to revolve around other inmates, with their previous lives in flashbacks.
The women are a mix of good and normal, crazy and cruel; some putting on a front to survive and some thriving in their simplified ecosystem. A favorite of mine is the mustachioed, vindicitive, and idiotic guard playing a substantially different role from the brooding but wise older brother of Ziggy from the second season of The Wire. The best Easter egg in this show is that when you turn on Netflix closed captions and he speaks, the subtitles refer to his character as Pornstache.
A show that will never be as popular as the other items on this list, I am constantly telling people to give this show a chance.
If you liked The Sopranos and you love Scandanavians, you’ll be in heaven with Lillyhammer. And The Sopranos reference isn’t just because he’s an Italian mobster. The lead star of this delightful Netflix original is the tight-faced Luitenant of Gandalfini’s character. Not the memorable annoying one with grey hair. Not the relative always high on heroin. The kind of chubby one. Steven Van Zandt. Of course, he only seems chubby compared to his new cast of healthy, happy, Nordic people. Compared to Gandalfini, one would just say he was a rather stout fellow.
The show itself seems to begin with a joking nod to the Sopranos. Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt’s character) realizes he’s probably about to be made a boss of the family after the boss passes away in the first episode. After some drama with another member and a failed hit on his life, Frank turns to the people no one expected him to—the FBI. They ask him where he’d want to live, and he declines any tropical paradise for fear he would be tracked down.
Instead, he opts for Lillyhammer, Norway because of his acclaimed love for it during the 1994 Winter Olympics. Without ever becoming stale, the show turns into an out-of-towner drama with the Jersey Italiano trying to make his way in the friendly, socialist haven that is Scandanavia without blowing his brains out from the bizarre, un-American way the people live. Like many anti-heroes, you never quite know if he is the good guy or the bad guy, but that doesn’t really matter, because he is written to be interesting, believable, and you want to know what happens to him.
In some of the first few episodes, Frank teams up with some of the local populace to track a wolf that has been harassing the town only to get another’s gun taken away by his neighbor, the middle-aged, but spunky sheriff woman we are first introduced to as the women freezing a goat’s head in the middle of the icy town for her dinner later. Frank respects the cop, but can’t give up his do-things-the-easy-way-with-a-little-force-if-necessary even though he’ll sometimes put that skill to good use protecting his own strange new neighbors too bogged down in polite society, rules, and structure to actually solve their own problems. He eventually opens up his own club and (of course) falls for one of the local women who has a son.
This show is a must-watch which, if the premise intrigues you even a little bit, will have you glued to the screen for hours. If the premise sounds stupid to you, then please never become a Neilson Family. Italian gangster makes a life in Scandanavia—what’s not to love about that?!
3) House of Cards
This is really the breakthrough show that opened the floodgates for Netflix putting a lot of their eggs in the production basket, as it was in the first batch of originally produced shows as well as the most heavily advertised. While it is very difficult to make something dramatic that involves Kevin Spacey and have it fail, it is not impossible (see Superman 2007). However his performance is not even debatable in this role; he is simply at the highest pinnacle of TV awesomeness that has ever existed since James Gandalfini’s death. Though the show opens more than a little dark (and ends on a similar note), there is plenty of Game-of-Thrones-esque power games and wry gamesmanship to satisfy political junkies and general nerds alike.
While this show is a remake of a popular British show (more like a miniseries trilogy), it is distinctly American in its attempt to be the next greatest Washington thriller, and it seems to have succeeded. The shows protagonist, played by Kevin Spacey, is a southern Democratic congressman and majority whip in the House, who has just been passed up for appointment as Secretary of State by a President he had assumed owed him for his political backing. What evolves through the next thirteen episodes is a glimpse into the world that the power-hungry make Washington, as well as a seedy side of the story-at-all-costs political reporting. He will stop at nothing to punish those who have crossed him, and will spin intricate webs with a smile to slowly climb his way back to the top.
A delightful breath of fresh air to the show are Spacey’s frequent aside’s to the audience to explain his thought process, as one Slate writer pointed out, much in the style of Richard III. However my immediate thought was that it was like a dark and wonderful Malcolm in the middle. However you look at them, these fourth wall breakers allow us to process a lot of the wickedness in the show objectively, as well as better understand the heart of Spacey’s character. One telling instance of this is when he has just finished talking with an old Chief of Staff of his, Remy, who now works as an oil lobbyist making far more than any politician. Spacey turns to the camera and explains how Remy has made the age-old mistake of confusing money with power and that “I cannot respect anyone who does not know the difference.”
Replete with plenty of spine-tingling one-liners like this from Spacey, the show is not without plenty of other acting talent. His wife’s character steals nearly every seen she’s in as his political confident. One of their first scenes together shows them sharing a cigarette, trading back and forth sitting near their window discussing what they’re going to do now that all their plans have been squashed with his failure to become the Secretary of State. Also a powerhouse is the tragic bald and handsome young alcoholic congressman who comes to be blackmailed by Spacey’s character, thinking he has found a friend and a savior, only to learn how dark the political world can become when someone won’t hesitate to use you and throw you away for their own goals.
Cynical, dark, funny, beautifully shot and marvelously acted, House of Cards might make you lose all faith in humanity, but it will sure as hell give you faith that Netflix executives know exactly what they are doing.
4) Arrested Development
Of course, an article praising the production of new Netflix Original shows wouldn’t be complete without hipster fawning over Arrested Development. Of course I actually enjoyed the show before it was cancelled way back when, but, like most things hipsters say, this has no relevance to what we’re talking about.
And what we’re talking about is how they pulled off the impossible with the resurrection of Arrested Development. This is a series, much like Firefly, that is infinitely more popular in the wake of its cancellation than it ever was on air (hence, its cancellation). Fan sites and subreddits lament its demise still rewatching episodes again and again for subtle, hidden jokes, metajokes, and references only fanboys will really get. I really couldn’t see how any attempt to recreate the old show would live up to the hype and not die a sad, unwelcome death (much like the alien crystals Indiana Jones movie).
Yet they did, and in spades. The show begins with only mild exposition as to what has happened in the many years between the shows end and its reboot, almost leaving you a little confused as to why they would gloss over so much just to establish a new plot. The actors all seem older, but the personalities haven’t changed a bit. Upon watching the first episode, you chuckle more than a few times, but you really have to wonder where they’re going with it. After the first few episodes, you realize that they have done something beautiful. Rather than creating a bunch of standalone, interesting episodes or an evolving story over time, this newest season of Arrested Development is essentially one long movie that switches each episode’s perspective from character to character. And with each switch, you get a more fleshed out backstory that illuminates stories to be told in the next few episodes, or the episode you just saw. It is difficult to explain, but one has to imagine a Homeland-esque corkboard with thousands of crazy strings connecting people, places, and stories into one elaborate terrorist plot. But as the WWD scare from the original Arrested Development showed us, this family is way too incompetent to be actually be dangerous. Though there are no nukes in this reboot, the family still engages what Lucille once refered to as “light treason” through their money-making schemes.
Subtle jokes like Michael Cera being mistaken for Jesse Eisenberg’s Sean Parker, referenced only through his dynamite new startup called Fakeblock, make the show an amazing treat for the close-up watcher and re-watcher without being too airy-fairy or intellectual. There are, however, plenty of gimmes to long-time fans of the show, like the gag where the chicken dance is mentioned in the show (a now insanely popular joke, that none of the Bluth family can cluck or dance like a normal chicken) and they cut away right as a chicken imitation is about to be shown.
It’s the fusion of the high-brow with the ridiculous that makes this show the best reboot I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t fall over itself trying to appease old fans, knowing that it is a new beast, and it brings to the show an incredibly unique storytelling format with its Memento-style unfolding of a long and intricate plot. We get to see Buster’s new “independent” life with his new hand, Lindy running for office, Gob alternately pretending to be gay and Christian, as well as plenty of criminal exploits by the Lucille, the Matriarch of the family, her idiot husband, and his twin brother. Breathing a second life into this show Maebe (get it?) the best decision Netflix has ever made.