What I’ve Been Watching

Hi friends. Having watched almost everything in my usual categories of preference, you will see me here branching out a bit to other genres. It was interesting, and I hope you find something to watch!

STREAMING ON NETFLIX

  • Behind Her Eyes
    This British psychological thriller, based on a novel, combines elements of several genres, including realistic, speculative, supernatural and even, perhaps, horror. While normally this is the last thing I would gravitate toward, I have to say, 90% of it was heavily grounded in realism. And while the supernatural elements might be difficult for some to swallow (and definitely some wild things happened) they didn’t go too crazy with it, if that makes sense. Basically, a psychologist and his wife move to London, where he begins an affair with his secretary, who also begins a friendship with his wife. The marriage is obviously troubled, and sort of in the manner of Gone Girl, you go back and forth between which person you think is the problem. But Behind Her Eyes is far superior in its storyline, character-building, acting, and execution, in my opinion. After reading reviews, many viewers were highly displeased with the ending, but for once, I was actually much more lenient in my critique. Whatever else you can say about it, I think you can say the ending worked. Not since the supernatural revelation in Safe Haven (which made me jump over a couch) have I been so freaked out by an ending, so that has to mean something, right? Some reviews commented that everything was sacrificed to deliver the twists and turns. There is some truth to that, but it has been a long time since a twist has actually surprised me, so props for that. I also would push back on that commentary slightly by saying that the narrative storyline for the most part was protected, as were the characters. The situations and characters linger with you.
  • Collateral
    This British TV limited series combines elements of drama, thriller, detective show, and spy series. It has four episodes that center around the solving of the murder of a pizza delivery man, with a cast led by Carey Mulligan as the lead detective. The show starts out splendidly confusingly, with promises that we will understand everything later, a huge puzzle piece of a cast and mystery, and a splitting pace. The ending was somewhat of a letdown, mostly because the show was too modest in what it delivered versus what it could have actually delivered. Perhaps it even sold itself a bit short and needed one more episode. But it was a good suspense series that was very well-produced.
  • Derry Girls, Season 3
    This beloved show about teenagers and their parents in Ulster has reached its conclusion. This season was more or less up to standard, although I thought the previous two had been better. Cute, funny, and sometimes touching. I think everybody could like this deeply authentic show.
  • The Crown, Season 5
    This season swaps out all of the actors for aged-up actors, in keeping with the tradition of the show, which has followed Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947 into the 1990s with this season. As I have mentioned before, I read a couple of British newspapers, and the anticipatory reviews have, with few exceptions, been almost hysterical in their fears of the damage that the fictionalized series will do to the monarchy. They seem generally to feel that all Americans will believe the stories to be solid fact rather than based on true events. Whether the monarchy should exist is a hugely politicized issue in Britain, with conservatives believing it should and republicans (usually more left-leaning) believing it should be abolished. But given that Americans are unanimously opposed to monarchies (while simultaneously fascinated with and having a live-and-let-live attitude toward them elsewhere), this hysteria feels unwarranted. Especially given that, while the show doesn’t shy away from hard truths, I have also always found it to be very balanced. While some have found it to be critical of the Queen, for instance, I have found it humanizing without fail. The budget is massive and the effort immense, so the viewing experience is enjoyable. That said, the casting, while in some instances really stellar, in others is not so much. Also, a fair criticism would be that in Season 3 and 4, the show is less grounded to history. I don’t mean that I have a problem with artistic license. Just that in some instances the license didn’t remember to tether itself too closely to identifiable fact, when it could have done so and actually found more interesting storylines. That seemed less of a problem this season. The main problem for Season 5 is that it tries to paint with too broad of a brush across the marriage of Charles and Diana and the early 90’s generally, a poor choice because most viewers remember the big things and would instead have been more interested in the unfamiliar minutia.
  • Manifest
    This supernatural drama takes off when the passengers of a plane take flight…only to land five and a half years later. There are time-travel, fantasy, and even religious elements. But oddly enough, the show also feels like a contemporary Christian romance sometimes—I think because it is very family-oriented, which I love. There are love triangles, high stakes, and moving moments, and while I wouldn’t usually gravitate toward it, I have to say, it is the best television I have seen in a long time. The writers really know how to hammer out compelling storylines to fit in episodic format, something not every show can do these days. Refreshingly non-political, the script keeps suspense building but actually delivers payoffs. The show just kills it, episode after episode. Originally an NBC production, the plan was for six seasons, but NBC cancelled it after 3 seasons. Netflix added the show, and it achieved so many views that Netflix commissioned a final season to wrap things up (to be dropped in two parts, one of which we are still waiting on). From an artistic standpoint, I am thankful to Netflix for continuing the show, which was good enough to warrant the full six seasons. From a critical standpoint, the first ten episodes of Season Four were definitely weaker than their predecessors, largely because they are having to cram three seasons into one. 
  • Miss Americana – Taylor Swift
    (Note: I know this one has been out for a while, and I am late to the party!) Taylor Swift is very famous, and everyone has strong feelings about her. So briefly, I really don’t… She is two years older than I, so when she was getting famous, I was in high school. My friends adored her, but her songs didn’t resonate with me then. Her more mature music began to sound really good; some of her more recent stuff has been wonderful. As to the documentary on its own terms: In the beginning, it was interesting as it explored Swift’s career history. Then it took a hard turn to the political, which didn’t feel cohesive, and, politics aside, I think many viewers will find the evident hypocrisy hard to swallow. Much of the feature is set up to narrate the sexist criticism Swift receives, and then she turns around and does the exact same thing to Marsha Blackburn. The documentary focuses on Senator Blackburn to a degree that really derailed the whole thing. I tried to reason out why this would have been when it so obviously detracted from Swift’s amazing career. Swift’s feelings seem to be earnest enough. However, it is a fad that everyone famous seems to be obsessed with “finding their voice.” Having always had a voice, I’m never sure what this means, but it seems to be the happy ending more often than not these days. And it does seem to cause a lot of people to really lose the plot.

STREAMING ON DISNEY+

  • Taylor Swift: Folklore – The Long Pond Studio Sessions
    While I was down that rabbit hole… I watched this documentary filmed during the pandemic right after Swift released folklore (I know it’s not capitalized, and it kills me…) This documentary was excellent. Swift and her collaborators play through the album at a cabin in the woods and discuss their thoughts on each. History will appreciate this album, with reflections on pandemic creativity and a chance to see Swift’s true talent on full display. If Miss Americana was Swift losing the script, this one is her at her absolute best.
  • Miracle on the Hudson
    This is a documentary about the plane that the pilot landed on the Hudson following damage to its engines by a flock of birds. I didn’t think the documentary went deep enough or that enough people were interviewed. The ones that were interviewed were great, and it was interesting to hear all of the details. With a big story like this, to get the facts takes a little time for the dust to settle, so that was good with this one. I also didn’t expect for half the people on the plane to sound just like me. (They were flying to Charlotte, NC.) Still an absolute miracle that everyone made it. Some real heroes, for sure!

STREAMING ON PRIME

  • A Very British Scandal
    This historical drama, featuring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, both of whom are fantastic, is a three-part miniseries that details the rise and fall of the tumultuous marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. Based on a true story, the drama is handled excellently, and it will keep your attention. Of course, it doesn’t end happily, but you know that going into it. What a bitter affair! The screenplay isn’t heavy-handed with messages, but Foy plays Margaret in a sympathetic manner, and just by showing what happened, it highlights the history of divorce law and societal reactions to women. What happens is painful to watch. That said, the Duchess is not played merely as a victim, so there is a compelling storyline if you are prepared for an unhappy ending.
  • Downton Abbey: A New Era
    During the Downton years, there was no more ardent fan. I would clear my schedule to watch PBS on Sunday nights, and my siblings and I even attended a premiere at our local station in costume. That being said, strangely, I haven’t had much appetite for rewatching the series or more than tepid excitement for either of the two movies. I’ve considered at length why that might be, and the best I can figure is that it is because the show was always largely event- rather than character-driven. Therefore, once you know what happens, the delight of watching is more than half gone. This latest movie was a bit disjointed, all over the place, really, although I did think there were parts of it that were well done. Particularly, the film crews at Downton in exchange for money to keep the place running, along with exploration of the change from silent films to “talkies,” was a classic Downton moment. There were some things that annoyed me, as there always were with the show, but I’ll end on a note of praise—although I will warn you that the next sentence contains a spoiler. If this is the last movie, I think it was appropriate to end with the death of Violet, Lady Grantham. The people lining the driveway for her funeral cortege, and then vanishing in a filming technique to show the passage of time, really hit emotionally. Especially for history-lovers, who appreciate that people once stood along such a driveway, in respect for something that was important to them. We have been through a lot with this family, and they will always hold a special place in my heart.

STREAMING ON HULU

  • Wedding Season
    This comedy/drama/suspense series is absolutely whacky and almost gets away with it. With a tighter grip on the plot and details, it really could have worked. Basically, there’s a girl on the run for a crime she is accused of, hints of spying or organized crime, a cute Scottish boyfriend, and a whole lot of hijinks. There were some shining moments, and I watched it really quickly. But the last episode was absolutely crazy, with the plot just really not coming together very seamlessly, so there are some kinks to be worked out before the next season.
  • This Way Up
    This is a comedy/drama or maybe more specifically, a dark comedy. It is written by and stars Aisling Bea, a truly funny Irish comedian. I think a fair criticism of the show is that its structure is very close to that of Fleabag (which everyone seems to be obsessed with), in that it is a single girl recovering from a breakdown who has a close relationship with her sister. However, it would be unfair to stop there, as I didn’t consider it being similar to Fleabag at all until I reflected on the basic structure. The tone of This Way Up is much more hopeful, its characters very different. Its depiction of depression is quite poignantly the most real I have seen, whereas I always thought Fleabag’s eponymous character’s antics (such as stealing from her stepmother whom she hates) were more childish than on-point. The humor, too, in this show is really great.
  • Together
    This is a movie starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan depicting life for a British couple on the rocks during lockdown. I was surprised at first that it was set up as a first-person narrated-into-the-screen movie, but it did feel very pandemic-appropriate. It was as if they had their cell phone propped up recording as a form of diary. It’s been just long enough that we can start to be reflective on the pandemic. Obviously, the experience was different in every country, but not so different that the absolute mental maze we all had to jump through at the beginning didn’t hit home. It was a reminder that we went through a lot. One criticism I have would be the movie’s sort of postmodern take on love that is a bit cynical, as if marriage is crazy and serves no purpose and “I sort of love you” is the best you can accomplish. The movie showed us a passionate, enduring love and then turned around at the end and said it wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. I’m not sure why it sold its love story so short. Readers, I would never do this!
  • Conversations With Friends
    Speaking of post-modernism… Based on the novel of the same name by Sally Rooney, this Ireland-set drama is about two girls in college who are into poetry and literature who meet this married couple who are an actor (the husband) and a writer (the wife). There is a love square between the girls, the husband, the wife, and all of the above, and it did start sort of compellingly. I liked that it took its time. But then, over the twelve episodes, with the extreme restraint and reserve, you begin to wonder what the point really is. I’m quoting from The Atlantic article by Shirley Li, who says that Rooney is hailed as “‘the first great millennial novelist.’” She goes on to say that through her characters “she captures the way her generation strives to be cool and insightful while being laden with the anxiety of awareness.” Li also doesn’t think the series does the book justice. I will have to take her word on that, having not read Rooney. I will say that there is something that rings true with what she is saying about millennials (my own generation). They are cerebral to the point of “intellectualizing every interaction” while also being gripped by anxiety. The characters show how millennials are socially stunted, probably as a result of many factors, but most notably the use of phones for things like texting and emails and social media, as opposed to real life sociality. On the other hand, the two college girls aren’t necessarily representative of most millennials. They reminded me of a handful of people in my college classes who oozed superiority, loved literature (which was usually read subversively), and wanted to rip up the stakes of society and rebuild it into an unworkable framework based on ideology and no actual proof of results. So when the characters here try a social experiment to see if they will be happy in non-monogamy or open marriages, it was no surprise to me when everyone basically ended up near-suicidal. The show was honest about the consequences, especially for women, of post-modernism, but it balanced that with the voice of morality being Bobbi, who was the most starkly militant post-modernist character. All of that is interesting, but not pleasurable, because there is a high level of nihilism that is only fed by a certain self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. that relationships are going to be unhappy, that is then fed by the fact that relationships are unhappy based on the theories applied to them). Beyond that, it also strains the viewer’s patience when, as a Times reviewer put it, all we are supposed to interpret is basically the varying ways everyone says, “Hi…. Hi. Hiiiii.. Hi…” I have a tolerance built up for that because that is the way my generation does interact in certain social settings. I have less tolerance for purposely messing things up and then wondering how things got so messed up—and then proceeding to cling to the theory. Maybe, however, that is why everyone thinks it’s brilliant. Because there is no doubt that does happen sometimes among my generation. (Just as a side-note, college kids are no longer millennials; they are Gen Z; the very tail end of millennials would have been in college when the book was published in 2017, however. I just thought I would mention this because “millennials” has become the by-word for the routine youth punching bag, but the youngest millennials are now 26 years old. In fact, a small portion of current college students were raised by millennials, the oldest of whom are now 41.)

Hope you enjoyed this, and hope you find something to watch!

Published by

Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. A huge lover of all things history, she likes to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.