November 24, 2017

Zumbo’s Just Desserts on Netflix

With the Great British Baking Show on hiatus, Netflix has added an Aussie baking show called Zumbo’s Just Desserts. Much flashier than its British counterpart, the Zumbo set is reminiscent of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

The season starts with twelve contestants of varying ages and both genders. Each program features a general assignment that all current contestants tackle. The two lowest scorers have to undergo a Zumbo test to create insanely complicated dessert creations. The lowest scorer of that competition is eliminated. Like other reality cooking shows, the winner is the last one standing.

The hosts are genius Australian dessertmaker Adriano Zumbo, British cook, writer and broadcaster Rachel Khoo and Gigi Falanga, their outspoken Brazilian cooking assistant.

Some viewers may not like the colorful flash, the quick camera edits and dramatic music this show embraces, but I find the program untaxing and cheery after a rough day. Non-chef that I am, Zumbo’s Just Desserts is a veritable palate-cleanser for me. Sweet indeed.

Riverdale on Netflix and the CW

Veronica, Betty & Archie on the CW’s Riverdale

Riverdale, originally conceived as a movie, took life instead as a tv series on the CW produced by CBS Television Studios and Warner Bros. Based on the Archie Comics, the main characters would be familiar to anyone who has ever read the iconic comic strip or one of the Archie comic books.

KJ Apa, a New Zealander who won the worldwide contest to play the red-headed Archie is amazing, as is Lili Reinhart embodying the blonde ponytailed Betty, the raven-haired Veronica brought to life by Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse as the endearing loner, hat-wearing Jughead Jones.

The episodes are far darker than any comic book story line, however, with murder, teacher-student sexual relationships, teen pregnancy, drug-dealing, gang activity and financial skullduggery being essential points in the over-arching plot.

The script makes references to news events both current and past. When a teacher is suspected of seducing a student, someone calls it going “Mary Kay Letourneau.” Veronica’s father is a Bernie Madoff-type character who is doing prison time for ripping off investors.

Indeed, the dialogue has much in common with the Gilmore Girls for mentions of cultural trivia in whip smart banter, but that is where the comparison ends.

The cinematography, lighting and general tone are darker than midnight. The villains are over-the-top with mean comments that make no bones about their selfishness, vindictiveness and ill intent. This is not cinema vérité, but stylized soap opera and horror.

The notorious Blossom family on Riverdale

As an additional blast from the past, veteran actors with main and recurring roles are Luke Perry (90210), Robin Givens (Head of the Class), Skeet Ulrich (Jericho , Law & Order: LA) and Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks).

Riverdale might be the series for fans of the Archie comic books, or parents who want to share a CW show with their kids. Just be prepared for some interesting discussions about thorny topics.

Season One is available for streaming on Netflix. Season Two is currently being broadcast Wednesdays on the CW network.

Wanted: Australian tv series on Netflix

If you need a high octane tv show to get caught up in, look no further than Wanted, a two season Australian thriller currently streaming on Netflix.

Imagine two women, à la Thelma and Louise, at a suburban bus stop Down Under, one a youngish accountant and the other a middle-aged check-out clerk who inadvertently get caught up in murder, drugs and kidnapping.

Rebecca Gibney as the older, more streetwise Lola Buckley plays well against Geraldine Hakewill as the more timid rich girl, Chelsea Babbage. They encounter dirty cops, human traffickers, loan sharks, a crime lord and people with longstanding grudges. A little bit of romance is injected into the scenario as they elude both the police and the bad guys who sometimes are one and the same.

As an added bonus, the women find themselves in gorgeous locations like Thailand and New Zealand so fans of beautiful cinematography will be rewarded. Make no mistake, this is no Charlie’s Angels, however, with coiffed hair and designer clothes. In the 12 episodes (6 per season), these gals opt for being formidable instead of fashionable.

Americans and Aussies will have to wait until 2018 to see what happens to our two ladies on the lam when Wanted continues with Season 3.

Mind Hunter on Netflix

Netflix recently premiered an original series called Mind Hunters which dramatizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s initial research into serial killers. Strange to think that before the 1960s, the FBI had yet to compile data on individuals who had murdered multiple people. Richard Speck, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam and many others changed all of that.

Jonathan Groff of Glee and Hamilton fame plays special agent Holden Ford who begins to interview incarcerated murderers and sees some patterns in upbringing, methods and thought processes. The behavior science team is rounded out by partner Bill Tench played by Holt McCallany (see the post on his mother, Julie Wilson) and Anna Torv who is the academic who comes up with a questionnaire to show some commonality in the crimes of these killers.

The murders mentioned are gruesome and true so this is not a series for the faint of heart. Some reviewers have said the pacing is slow, but the ten episodes kept my attention. As a fan of crime drama, I found this dramatic history of FBI “profiling” to be incisive.

Thicker Than Water on MHZ

If you are looking for a fantastic family drama with amazing acting, look no further than Thicker Than Water, a Swedish/Finnish tv production currently streaming on MHZ. Yes, it has sub-titles.

Three siblings are invited to meet at the family-owned inn in the Aland islands which are part of Finland but full of Swedish-speaking inhabitants. Lasse Waldemar (Bjorn Bengtsson) is the bad boy brother who is a failed restaurant owner in Stockholm. Jonna Waldemar (Aliette Opheim) is the beautiful sister who has made her life in regional theater. Oskar Waldemar (Joel Spira) is the resentful brother who stayed behind to run the family business and take care of “mom.”

The mother meets with each adult child and gives them a one sentence message to remember. She then takes a boat out on the water and shoots herself. After all, this is set in Scandinavia. Her female lawyer lays down requirements the children need to meet to inherit their mother’s estate. They need to stay on the island and run the small hotel, together, for one summer.

Family secrets, former loves, personal dramas and sibling rivalry all come to a boiling point during this summer season at the old family compound.

The ten-episode season does have an element of “murder mystery” about it, but the main emphasis explores the bonds between parents and child, brothers and sisters, spouses and neighbors. Thicker Than Water makes for exciting television in any language.

The Good Place on Netflix

When I first heard the premise of NBC’s The Good Place television series, I vowed to give the show wide berth. Still, Kristen Bell had charmed me in the cult hit, Veronica Mars, and who doesn’t like Ted Danson, who just gets better with age?
The Good Place showed up on the Netflix trending list, so I gave the first episode a gander. Call me crazy but this comedy is the perfect antidote to all of the crime shows littering the tv scene. Thankfully, there is no laugh track, the dialogue is snappy and the art direction is eye-poppingly inventive. Not to mention the plot twists that hit you right and left in the 13 fast-paced 21-minute streaming episodes.
Besides Bell and Danson, the cast includes the nerdily attractive William Jackson Harper as Chidi, a former university ethics professor, Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist played by gorgeous Jameela Jamil, know-it-all robot, Janet played by D’Arcy Garden and Manny Jacinto who appears to be a silent Buddhist monk named Jianyu. The show explores cultural differences and the thin line between good and evil within the confines of this goofy after-life.

Who would have thought these serious topics could be funny, but show creator Mike Schur has created a world that is…..well, out of this world. Season Two premieres with an hour-long episode September 20, 2017 on NBC. Hey, I’m there.

Trapped on Amazon Prime

People keep telling me that they can’t watch shows with sub-titles, but then they would be missing yet another gripping television program called Trapped, from Iceland no less. The cinematography alone conjures up the most vivid depiction of a winter storm that I have ever seen.
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Trapped is ten episodes of taut suspenseful drama . Chock full of flawed but endearing characters, the series is a tapestry of past and current criminal behavior in this isolated yet starkly beautiful Icelandic town. Local police officials are confronted with a headless and limbless corpse that has also been stabbed through the heart. Crime honchos from the capitol city of Reykjavik are unable to fly or drive to this remote location due to an epic winter storm. The blizzard conditions also keep all of the inhabitants “trapped” in this ocean-side burg.

Focus stays on the local law enforcement officials, Andri, Hinrika and Asgeir who valiantly try to determine the guilty parties and keep more mayhem at bay. Let us just say that the carved-up cadaver is just the tip of this nefarious iceberg.

Multiple plot lines concerning human trafficking, the financial collapse of 2008, a suspicious fire seven years ago that killed a teenage girl and simmering grudges all converge by episode ten. Trapped is quintessential Scandi-noir.

You may not want to watch this series in the dead of winter since the engagingly chilly scenes just may be overkill.

Ozark on Netflix

Netflix continues to attract viewers with its engaging original programming. Ozark, starring Justin Bateman and Laura Linney, is reminiscent of Breaking Bad where a seemingly straight-arrow guy descends to the criminal world of drugs, money laundering and murder. The story starts out in a gorgeously-filmed Chicago where Marty Byrde is a financial advisor.
Enter a very scary drug cartel boss played by Esai Morales and the story ratchets up to life and death situations. In order to save himself and his family, Marty comes up with the idea to move his financial operations to Lake of the Ozarks where he wrongly assumes that money-laundering will be an easy walk in the woods.

The family encounters gun-toting rednecks, rival drug dealers and money- launderers, a young woman who is a master thief and others who have ended up in this rustic locale to escape their checkered pasts. Throw in a wife who has cheated on him, a gay and twisted FBI agent who like Javert is on Marty’s trail and an alluring female owner of a failing resort who may spark Marty’s attention. Marty’s two children, a nerdy son and an attractive teenage girl add to the hot mess.

Stand-out performances include that of Julia Garner who plays the young  thief, plus veteran actor Harris Yulin who sells the Byrdes his home with the condition that he get to live in it, with them, until he dies.
Particularly impressive is Bateman who directs four of Ozark‘s ten episodes and plays mightily against type as this loving but criminal father, husband and businessman.
The beautiful Lake of the Ozarks is now on my travel list with the hope that drug-dealing, money-laundering, theft and murder are fictional constructs.

French television shows available on streaming services

Anyone who wants to begin learning a language or freshen their knowledge of current dialogue in a foreign language may consider checking out television programs in that language.

My emphasis in this blog post is on French programs that have legible sub-titles on internet streaming platforms.

Even if you aren’t trying to learn a language, you will delight in Gallic crime shows, dramas and comedies.

MHZ has a large collection of French tv shows, but Netflix also has some very interesting selections. You can add the MHZ service to your Amazon Prime account, or add the app to your Apple TV line-up. Please consult the link below to see how else you can access MHZ. Hulu is adding a few more French programs so check them out as well.

I will continue to search for more French television series on streaming services. If you run across anything good in French, please send me your French tv recommendations and where you found them.

Bonne chance!

French television shows available on streaming services:

Braquo – MHZ – A brutal but well-made police procedural.

The Break (La Treve) – Netflix – An unsettling Belgian psychological crime series.

Bureau of Sexist Affairs – MHZ – Comedy shorts on various topics.

Cain – MHZ – A charming cop show starring Bruno Debrandt.

Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) – Netflix – A comedy about stars and their agents in France.

The Churchmen (Ainsi Soient-Ils) – MHZ – A thoughtful drama about young men studying to become Catholic priests.

Detectives – MHZ – A light, entertaining detective series.

Dolmen – MHZ – A ridiculously romantic series if you are in the mood for such fare.

Frank Riva – MHZ – The iconic Alain Delon plays an ex-detective who returns to the fray.

A French Village (Un Village Francais) – MHZ & Hulu – Historical fiction about World War II in a small town in France.

Kaboul Kitchen – MHZ – Comedy set in Afghanistan. Not my cup of kefir, but some like it.

Maigret – MHZ – Simenon novels are depicted on the small screen. Very popular, but not one of my favorite series.

Maison Close – Hulu –  Quite raunchy story about a bordello in France. Only if you are not easily offended.

Marseille – Netflix – Fair to middling political intrigue in Marseille. Tune in to see the marvelous Gerard Depardieu and Benoit Magimell who goes toe to toe with him.

Paris – MHZ – Off-beat series about Parisians whose paths cross in surprising ways.

Pigalle, la Nuit – Hulu – A dramatic series set in Paris’ Pigalle area depicting tawdry doings.

The Returned (Les Revenants) – Netflix – The dead return. Season 1 was mesmerizing; Season 2 bored me to … tears.

Spiral (Engrenages) – MHZ & Hulu – Voted best 2015 tv show in the world and rightly so. Crime, legal and political skullduggery.

The Witnesses (Les Temoins) – Netflix – Decent detective series starring Thierry Lhermitte.

And for short clips for the beginning French student:

Oh La La, Hollywood Speaks French (two French sisters in the U. S.) – youtube

“Paris,” French TV series on MHZ

Those wanting to improve their ear for current spoken French might enjoy Paris, a 2015 French tv series currently available on MHZ network. The first few minutes are confusing, but try to finish episode one of the six episode series. A seemingly random cast of characters will quirkily cross paths in the next 24 hours.

A woman who is a union rep for transportation workers will deal with her troubled husband, her transgender son/daughter, her soldier son and have a private meeting with the Prime Minister of France. The PM will deal with a runaway son, his distraught wife, his staff, his frenemy, the current Attorney General and political intrigue of all sorts. The Attorney General will inadvertently deal with his pregnant housekeeper, his journalist wife and the transgender son mentioned above. The pregnant housekeeper’s ex-con Muslim husband will get a job working at the funeral home owned by the brother-in-law of the female union rep.
You get the picture.  We are shown a kaleidoscope of people in Paris from working class, to wealthy and powerful along with very shady characters involved in strip joints, gambling, burglary and smuggling young women across the French border. All will become part of the woven tapestry that is Paris.

Every person depicted is somewhat an anti-hero with both good and bad qualities on display, but you will marvel at how the plot knits all of their lives together. In the process, you do get a sense of a day in the life of Paris, albeit a day that is transfused with love, crime, politics and high drama.

For a monthly fee, MHZ is available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.  Here are some other articles I have written about MHZ, the streaming service that caters to lovers of European dramatic television programs.