In his monthly streaming column, Steve Murray reviews new dramas, comedies and documentaries worth considering, or sampling, or binging on in our media-saturated lives. He’s a longtime arts journalist who has written about film, television and theater for three decades.
After so many versions over so many centuries of Bram Stoker’s grand page-turner, it’s hard to feel excited about a new one. But if you love how creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat reimagined/reinvigorated the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock Holmes, you know their Dracula on Netflix is a gotta-see.
Here, the suave, bloody count is played by Claes Bang (Danish star of 2017’s international hit The Square). While the final third of the three-part miniseries takes place in the present day, the story begins where most film versions do: in 1897, in Eastern Europe.
We meet London real estate agent Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) recuperating in a convent, skeletal and confused. The bulk of the first episode flashes back to what happened previously in Castle Dracula, a story pried out of him by a curiously insinuating, atheist nun named Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells, in a riveting, unpredictable performance).
Yes, we go through the usual stations of the upside-down cross: Jonathan’s spooky arrival in Transylvania, his introduction to the vast and gloomy Castle Dracula and its mysterious namesake owner, the frail and ancient Count, who tells Jonathan, famously, “I don’t drink … wine.” But he’s drinking something, because in a few days Dracula has transformed from a doddering wreck to sexy and Euro-suave. And Jonathan realizes he won’t be going home any time soon.
The second episode unfolds on the ship the Demeter, en route to England. As passengers and crew start to die or disappear, the plot resembles a kind of Agatha Christie homage on a boat — though, unlike the passengers, we already know who’s doing the killing.
What gives Dracula a witty frisson is its presumption that we’re very familiar with the story, as most of us are. The pleasure comes from the surprising variations and clever changes the creators bring to the tale. (The identity of this Dracula’s famous vampire hunter, Van Helsing, is probably its cleverest invention.) The third, present-day episode is the miniseries’ most radical, riskiest departure from the canon, putting a postmodern spin on the subplot of Mina Harker’s ill-fated friend Lucy (though the Mina connection has been abandoned here). I’m still not sure what I think of it on its own, but I strongly recommend the whole bloody enchilada.
NETFLIX | Messiah
The Netflix original Messiah, a longer, less-satisfying, self-contained series, wants to be a sort of holy Homeland, with globe-trotting, politically plotting agents and terrorists. It’s overextended at 10 episodes and watchable but an unholy mess.
Michelle Monaghan plays a watered-down variant of Claire Danes’ obsessed CIA agent. Her humorless Eva Geller zips from one time zone to the next, trying to tamp down terrorist threats. Her agenda becomes clear when she starts to track a charismatic leader known as Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi, in a performance that relies largely on his lustrous hair and knife-sharp cheekbones).
He first captures international attention by leading disciples from Damascus to the border of Israel, where he seemingly vanishes only to reappear shortly in the States — what appears to be one of many miracles. Intrigued? Who wouldn’t be, especially a losing-his-religion Texas preacher named Felix (earnest, likable John Ortiz), who takes up Al-Masih’s unarticulated cause and welcomes him into his home like a pet.
After 10 hours of twists and turns, the show’s creators fail to crack the central mystery on which the series is built — who is this guy, anyway? Con man? Prophet? Healer? In trying to cover all possible bases and maintain a manufactured ambiguity, they make Al-Masih little more than a cipher who smiles beatifically one moment, malevolently the next. Ultimately Dehbi is a (pretty) nothing in the part.
NETFLIX | The Confession Killer
“Pretty” was never a word anyone applied to serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, whose first pop-culture burst of fame came with the relentlessly gritty feature Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). For a while, he was one of America’s self-proclaimed worst career murderers. The four-part Netflix documentary The Confession Killer proves that except for perhaps a couple of killings, Lucas lied. He was enthusiastically abetted by Texas law enforcement eager to take him at his word (and give him all the details he needed to make plausible confessions) and close dozens of open murder cases. It’s disgusting. So is Lucas, in word, appearance and deed. But the doc is a fascinating sideways examination of a particularly American hunger for fame, no matter what kind it is.
NETFLIX | Sex Education
Season 2 of Britain’s Sex Education on Netflix features Asa Butterfield as Otis, a teenager who hands out amateur sex advice to classmates, and Gillian Anderson as his mom, a professional sex therapist and recognized expert.
Much of the eight-part series centers on the classrooms and bedrooms of Otis’ cohorts as they explore sexuality ranging from straight to gay to fluid. Otis himself is embarking on his first relationship with a girl (awkward!), who’s the daughter of Mom’s boyfriend. He’s also still crushing on his bad-girl business partner Maeve (Emma Mackey), who has feelings for him as well, but would never, ever show them. Otis’ best pal, Eric (the charming Ncuti Gatwa), finds a new boyfriend in a French transfer student who may be almost too perfect, while the principal’s son Adam (Connor Swindells), Eric’s onetime chief bully, is dealing with his own ambivalent urges.
Yes, it’s sometimes a little over-the-top. But the loveliest thing is that the series balances its more-charming-than-graphic frankness with an embracing kindness for its characters. Some of them act badly, sometimes. Except for one individual (cough cough, the principal), every person in Sex Education is treated with enormous love and understanding. Maybe — OK I’m being sexist here — that may be because the series’ creator and much of its directing and writing staff are women. They’re much more generous with male characters than the usual reverse standard. That they treat male characters with so much more respect than male writer/directors treat women characters is a blessing — to viewers of any gender.
NETFLIX | The Stranger
Another recent Netflix original series is The Stranger, from airport-book bestseller Harlan Coben. Based on Safe, the compelling and ultimately ludicrous 2018 series he created, this new one promises to be a densely plotted guilty pleasure.
The female lead is played by Siobhan Finneran, who first caught our attention as Sarah O’Brien, the evil lady’s maid in Downton Abbey. Since then, she’s played the sister of the main character in the Yorkshire detective drama Happy Valley (2014–16). Both of its seasons are available on Netflix. If you’re a fan of British mysteries and strong women, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve been hoping for a third season for a long time.
AMAZON PRIME | Hunters
Amazon Prime isn’t mentioned much in this roundup because, well, except for the release late last year of the marvelous The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s third season, there hasn’t been much activity. On February 21, however, Al Pacino turns up as a Nazi hunter in, um, Hunters. Jordan Peele is the executive producer. So that bears a look.
AMAZON PRIME | Troop Zero
Amazon has promoted the heck out of it, so we checked out the would-be charming comedy Troop Zero. It’s set in Georgia in 1977 — though shot in Louisiana, which explains why the movie’s Marietta seems to have a bayou. It’s one of those wistful, peppy flicks about scrappy young outsiders who bond to show the world their worth. Nothing wrong with that, but its story of a bunch of misfit girls and one fey boy, led by the scarily upbeat kid actress Mckenna Grace (that’s kind of a compliment), trying to win a talent contest is too broad (and faux “Southern”) for its own good. We’re not sure what drew them to the material, and they’re underserved, but former The Help costars Viola Davis and Allison Janney as frenemies are always worth watching.
AMAZON PRIME | Rob Delaney: Jackie
For any fans (like me) of Amazon’s dearly missed relationship dramedy Catastrophe, the male lead there turns up for the hourlong standup Rob Delaney: Jackie.
As the American half of Catastrophe’s main couple, Delaney took a back seat in charisma and comic chops to his cocreator (and onscreen wife) Sharon Horgan. But he was always tremendously likable. He is here, as well.
Now a resident of the U.K., he praises the National Health Service, disses Donald Trump, talks maybe a little too much about his penis, talks about sobriety and shares an OMG memory of a real-life encounter he and his wife had with Bill Cosby. He’s more amusing than hilarious. These days, that may be enough.