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The influences on Amazon Prime’s THEM (10 episodes) are obvious. Take a smattering of the horrors of Lovecraft Country, the national racist history at the core of HBO’s Watchmen, and blend with the Jordan Peele film oeuvre, Get Out and of course Us, for which the title Them is virtually a shout-out. The resultant smoothie, I’m sad to say, is far from palatable. In fact, Them is well-made prolonged torture porn built on blunt racial themes.

streaming may 2021Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas play Lucky and Henry Emory, a North Carolina couple in 1953, who move to Los Angeles with their two daughters following an encounter with some local rednecks. They once had a baby boy, and we’ll eventually learn what happened to him. (Like many elements in Them, his fate is even more disgusting than you’d expect.)

The East Compton neighborhood they move to looks like the dreamy pastel one in Edward Scissorhands. And, as in that movie, all the other residents are White. They immediately evince their extreme racial loathing of the newcomers, spearheaded by resident blond bitch, Betty (Alison Pill, good as always but in a role that wastes her talents). Black “pickaninny” dolls are hung overnight on the Emorys’ porch, racial epithets are burned into their front yard, the family dog dies suspiciously, and Lucky’s mental health — already fragile after North Carolina — starts to slip. That’s even before the show fills its gaps and dark corners with apparitions and shock scares.

By the end, Them recalls the freewheeling, nonsensical extremes of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, only the new series believes it has bigger issues in mind. It wants to show the horrors of racism, literalized, with a view of America as a state of constant PTSD for people of color. That could be a convincing thesis, if creator Little Marvin’s show had any actual, textural metaphor or ideas beneath its jackhammer approach. There aren’t real people in Them. They’re pawns in a stacked scenario — not characters, but two-dimensional bullies and victims. The biggest victims of all are the viewers.

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NETFLIX  |  The Serpent

THE SERPENT (eight episodes) is based on the true 1970s story of hippie-trail murderer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), who, from his Bangkok lair, targeted peace-and-love, enlightenment-seeking young people sojourning through the East, usually with Nepal as their ultimate destination. With girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), Charles — under many different aliases — would present himself as an international jeweler or friendly local tour guide. The couple befriends young travelers, especially those who unthinkingly flash wads of travelers’ checks, poison them, dispose of their bodies and forge fresh passports for themselves from their victims’ old ones.

This went on undetected for several years but gradually caught the attention of Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberger (Billy Howle). At the risk of endangering his job (and marriage), Knippenberger began to piece together the connections among the missing pilgrims. While it grows more and more absorbing, Serpent may take some getting used to. It makes constant leaps in time and place, to the extent that the device starts to feel like a tic, or even self-parody. Stick with it, though.

A few downsides. The photogenic leads are lovely to look at, but neither Rahim nor Coleman is an especially nuanced actor. They telegraph their characters’ evil intent by exchanging secretive, gloating glances while in the company of their trusting victims. And as the statesman-turned-sleuth, Howle literally sweats a little too hard in the role; he seems perpetually on the verge of a mental meltdown. Serpent’s true-crime elements are fascinating in the way the murderous couple acted often in plain view. And, after more than a year of quarantine and closed borders, The Serpent, as it jaunts between various Asian and European locations, makes for a hugely pleasurable travelogue.

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HBO  |  Made for Love

The sci-fi comedy-drama MADE FOR LOVE (eight episodes), another limited series worth watching, features Cristin Milioti (charming in Palm Springs) as Hazel, who escapes her seemingly perfect marriage to creative genius Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). For 10 years, she’s lived in the high-tech Gogol campus, where she’s pampered but quite literally imprisoned by her boyish, infatuated husband, whose company’s releases can create global riots as customers compete to buy his latest invention.

Escaping through a drainage system with the aid of a dolphin (yes, the show is on its own weird wavelength), Hazel finds her way back to the ramshackle home where the dad she despises (Ray Romano, in fine form), lives. The big problem? Byron has implanted a chip in her brain, allowing him to see everything she sees and hears. (That chip is Byron’s latest invention, named Made for Love and intended for implant in the brains of both halves of a devoted couple, allowing each to share . . . everything with the other.)

Hazel’s adventures take her into surreal territory. Her father, for instance, is shacked up with a “synthetic companion,” Diane (aka sex doll). We get Diane’s symbolic importance long before Hazel realizes, aloud, that Byron treated her as a similarly prized object. There’s also an anti-religious nun (Noma Dumezweni), who volunteers to take Byron down. These bits of whimsy don’t totally land, but they’re not annoying.

Made for Love largely works because of its actors: Romano, Milioti and, surprisingly, Magnussen. He makes Byron alternately boyish, vulnerable and monstrous with just a few expressions on his billboard-sized face. And the show ends at a place of surprising, sweet ambiguity.

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HBO Max  |  Tina

TINA (118 minutes) is a reminder that, a few decades ago, an unstoppable goddess at the peak of her powers walked among us. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary centers on a 2019 interview with Tina Turner at her home in Zurich, where she lives with the man who became her second, beloved, much younger husband. Even old, plump and sedentary, when she speaks, she still rivets with her voice and presence.

On seeing Turner perform, Oprah Winfrey says, “This is no different than being in church.” Amen. Other talking heads here include Turner biographer Kurt Loder and, naturally, Angela Bassett, Oscar nominee for the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It. Turner refused to watch the movie because she doesn’t want to relive the pain of her years with Ike. Tina reminds us of that volatile marriage and the abuse. It also shows how that story, for many years during Tina’s solo comeback, dominated the narrative when the focus should have been on her work. The movie explains but unfortunately can’t help but revive that paradox.

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NETFLIX  | My Octopus Teacher

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (85 minutes), the recent Oscar winner for best feature documentary, has been streaming for a while now. It’s the sweet but deeply strange tale of naturalist and filmmaker Craig Foster’s decision to cope with a midlife crisis by swimming in the cold kelp forests of the ocean near his South African home. There he befriends, or at least is tolerated by, a small  female octopus vulgaris, or common octopus. Foster handles the striking underwater cinematography and gets us really close to this strange creature, who does seem to come to trust the human. “She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other, especially wild creatures,” he muses. Fair warning: Be prepared for an ending that’s as likely to make you tear up as the end of Charlotte’s Web. Some octopus!

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NETFLIX  |  Two Distant Strangers

The best live-action short Oscar winner is the 32-minute TWO DISTANT STRANGERS, a mix of Groundhog Day and the daily headlines. Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe’s time-loop drama centers on a young Black man named Carter (Joey Bada$$), who wakes up in the bed of his overnight date, Perri (Zaria). On heading home to feed his dog, he encounters a police officer (Andrew Howard), who escalates a needless confrontation and kills Carter. Except that Carter wakes up again beside Perri, and has to try to get through the morning without dying a fresh way at the hands of the cop. It may sound almost too on-the-nose, too timely and too painful for our present moment. But the film is made with intelligence and wit, and it’s well worth the (short) time it takes to watch.

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NETFLIX  |  Bad Trip

You may not want to invest nearly thrice as much time in BAD TRIP (86 minutes), but it’s a no-brainer (in every way) for fans of gross-out, semi-improvised comedy. Borat meets Girls Trip in Kitao Sakurai’s film, featuring Eric André as Chris, who’s driving from Florida to New York on an ill-fated rendezvous with his high-school crush. With him is pal Bud (Lil Rel Howery) in the hot-pink car Bud steals from his recently paroled sister (the great Tiffany Haddish, with prison tears tattooed on her face), who’s soon in murderous pursuit.

Along the way, Chris and Bud have close encounters with real folks, and the gags — explosive vomiting, public urination, sudden gouts of bloodletting and more – are fake-outs designed to freak those people out. Yeah, it’s not a good movie, but you’ll probably laugh a couple of times. The best part comes with the credits, featuring the actors reassuring the unwitting bystanders that it was all a prank — and singling out a couple of good citizens who stepped in and tried to do the right thing in the midst of chaos.

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NETFLIX  |  Stowaway

STOWAWAY (115 minutes), a bad trip of another kind, features a starry cast, a terrific premise and barely a pulse. Director and cowriter Joe Penna gives us Toni Colette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim as Marina, Zoe and David, three astronauts on a two-year mission to Mars. But a few hours after their launch, they discover David (Shamier Anderson), a launch support engineer who was knocked out unawares behind a panel. He’s not a terrorist, and all he wants is to return home. But there’s no turning back. Nor is there enough oxygen for four people to survive the trip.

What should be a compelling moral dilemma never really becomes one. The characters all remain unbelievably calm, though the racial imbalance, with two White women and an Asian debating the fate of a Black man, can feel a little under-thought. As with all these outer-space movies, you can count on a dangerous spacewalk at the climax (they’re supposed to be exciting, but I find them tedious and unnerving). Perhaps the film’s biggest problem is that it takes the most fascinating character and has him/her . . . oh, never mind. That’s a big spoiler. It’s also a mistake, in both dramatic and logical terms.

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PBS Passport  | Romeo & Juliet

If you’ve missed both movies and the stage, the Royal National Theatre presents a bare-bones ROMEO & JULIET that combines elements of both. Originally planned for a traditional run in London, the production was canceled, then revised as a filmed hybrid and shot over 17 days in the empty theater. The text, which uncut can come in about three hours, has been whittled very effectively to 95 minutes.

Our Romeo and Juliet are Josh O’Connor (The Crown’s most recent Prince Charles) and Jessie Buckley (Judy and I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and they meet at a masked ball that is more like a rave. Their families, of course, are the venomous rivals the Montagues and the Capulets. And in addition to the textual snipping, in a smart move from patriarchy to matriarchy, the bulk of Lord Capulet’s lines have been shifted to his Lady (the fantastic Tamsin Greig, a mother only Livia Soprano could admire).

The conceit of Simon Godwin’s production is that it takes place onstage and backstage, mixing the actors in their rehearsal togs with costumed scenes played out cinematically (well, as cinematically as possible in a sealed theater). The result is swift, beautifully spoken and acted, and delightful. Well, as delightful as such a great tragedy can be.

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NETFLIX  |  Peaky Blinders

One last thing. I’ve never watched PEAKY BLINDERS, the five-season period gang drama, but folks who have tell me great things about it. All I really need to know is that it starred the late, great Helen McCrory (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Part 2) as Aunt Polly. McCrory died of cancer this month at age 52. She always elevated and improved any series or stage production she took on. She’ll be missed.

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WANT MORE TO BINGE? Catch up with our April column, featuring reviews of “The Irregulars” and “Crip Camp” on Netflix, theater from New York and London, and much more.

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