This past month, my streaming time has been spent in the future, the past, and the way past. To put it another way, I’ve been immersed in three very different worlds, each satisfying in very different ways.
Let’s start with my favorite. Based on a series of books by novelist Volker Kutscher, and reportedly the most expensive television production in German history, Babylon Berlin takes us to the city in 1929, the time of the Weimar Republic and Christopher Isherwood’s tales of wannabe cabaret singer Sally Bowles.
In Babylon, the closest thing to Sally — though much more resourceful/smart than Isherwood’s sad little trooper — is Charlotte Ritter (the compelling Liv Lisa Fries, who looks a lot like Kristen Wiig’s German little sister). Known as Lotte, she lives in Dickensian squalor with her family, though she’s rarely home. To help pay rent, she spends her days in search of menial work, and her nights dancing at Moka Ekti, the elaborate club that includes an opulent seafood dining room and a seedy sex basement. There, Lotte earns extra cash from sweaty herren who like to see her in leather. (The series is sexually frank but not explicit, so don’t be shocked.)
If Moka Ekti is a prime location in the series, the other is the “Red Castle,” the police HQ on Alexanderplatz, where Cologne detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) has arrived as a temporary member of the vice squad. Still suffering PTSD from fighting in WWI, he’s tracking down a porn flick starring an unwitting Cologne politico. That film is really something of a red herring. So, in its way, is the train arriving in Berlin from the Soviet Union, most of its wagons filled with arms-grade poison gas, but one of them heaped with gold. That belongs to Svetlana (Severija Janusauskaite), a Russian countess who now spends her time performing in drag at Moka Ekti (Berlin, it’s a small world). In her off hours, she’s plotting with socialist and fellow Russian Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff) to fund Leon Trotsky. Or so she says.
The plot, as they say, thickens immensely over Babylon’s 16 episodes, as Rath and Lotte join forces to expose plans for a military overthrow of the German government. The enormous cast includes no saints or sinners, and the heroes themselves are morally compromised. Even Rath’s on-the-take, crooked superior, Detective Wolter (Peter Kurth) is a fellow you may find yourself liking, despite yourself. Everyone has their reasons.
Babylon Berlin displays its big budget not only in its visuals, but in the skill of the filmmaking, with multiple sequences propelled by excellent intercutting and editing. (Nothing quite surpasses a second-episode montage that includes Svetlana’s nightclub performance, a mob of ecstatic dancers, and a machine-gun massacre across town.) The chief creator is Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who has been involved as a producer or director of a lot of really terrific stuff since then. He’s also one of the composers of the series’ unsettling score.
Babylon Berlin isn’t perfect. The last episodes have a couple of over-familiar beats, but you’ll be glad that the seemingly terrible fate of one main character is a fakeout. (That’s not the case in one of the other shows I’m writing about, which saves a true shocker for its final episode.) Bottom line: Start watching now. You’ll thank me later. You can settle for the default, English-dubbed version, but I prefer watching it in the original German, with subtitles.
Also on Netflix, based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel, Altered Carbon is a series that’s really easy to hate at the start. Looking at the aggrieved notes I wrote while watching the first couple of episodes, I see things like “this cityscape is an exact ripoff of Blade Runner, including flying cars, rain and transparent umbrellas,” “fake hardboiled attitude,” “gratuitous bloody murder,” “ridiculous massive ballistics display” and “obligatory, gratuitous visit to a strip club in the first episode.” I stand by my initial skepticisms, but I stuck with the series, and it started paying off.
Joel Kinnaman stars as Takeshi Kovacs, a half-Asian, half-eastern European mercenary who actually looks like a Swedish male model. That’s because his persona has been recycled into another man’s body, also known as a “sleeve.” See, the central premise of Carbon is that all memories and data accrued in a person’s life — aka your soul — are now downloaded into a “stack,” a little metal disk lodged at the base of the skull. Unless it’s directly targeted, this stack survives most types of physical death, and a person’s consciousness can be inserted into a new body — if you can afford the process.
Kovacs has been resurrected after a 250-year state of imprisoned stasis. Back then, he was a member of the Envoys, a military band of rebels who fought the fascist mainstream government, and lost. He’s been resurrected in a futuristic San Francisco. Most people there live in squalor. The super-rich, elite minority literally live in the clouds and are known as Meths (for Methuselah) because they can afford an endless supply of fresh sleeves, or cloned versions of themselves. The richest can even back up their identity by “needle-casting” their stack’s data to a satellite every 48 hours.
Kovacs has been rebooted into his new, brawler’s body by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the richest of the rich, who wants the mercenary to solve his own murder. Seems his previous sleeve and stack were destroyed by a gun blast to the face. While his stack’s info was preserved via the needle-cast, Bancroft has a 48-hour memory gap following his most recent satellite backup. So Kovacs, in order to earn his freedom, has to ID this loathsome man’s killer.
But wait, it gets more complicated — sometimes crazily overcomplicated — as Kovacs investigates with the help of tiny police detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), traveling from sex clubs to brutal fighting arenas. The series gets its greatest mileage from the idea of inappropriate sleeving, which leads to some memorable, sweet and comic scenes. For instance, Ortega drops the stack of her dear departed abuela into the body of a towering, tattooed criminal (Matt Biedel) so she can take her granny home for a holiday dinner. Likewise, Kovacs’s helper in solving the mystery, Elliot (Ato Essandoh), has to adjust to the return of his deceased wife, temporarily sleeved in another bloke’s body.
If the special effects range from pretty good to a little chintzy, the same could be said for the acting. This cast is a caliber far below what you find in Babylon Berlin. Kinnaman is better at being a piece of martial-arts beefcake than he is at emoting convincingly, and Higareda is ingratiating but a little two-note. Luckily, Renée Elise Goldsberry, a Tony winner for Hamilton, brings spark and conviction to her role as Quellcrist, the long-ago leader of the failed revolution on her (and Kovacs’s) home planet. And Chris Conner has some fun as the AI concierge of a hotel, in the guise of Edgar Allan Poe. But coming on the heels of his smirking run as the central sociopath in the Fox series The Following, Purefoy needs to shop for more varied roles. His one-note smarminess is getting dull.
Even though it’s based on a 16-year-old book, Altered Carbon is uncomfortably timely in its look at the gap between the wealthy and everyone else. It’s a sci-fi excoriation of the One Percent. Unfortunately, the show never quite overcomes a core hypocrisy. Part of its central mystery involves the mysterious death of a call girl. But in Kovacs and Ortega’s attempt to avenge the woman’s murder, the series sometimes revels a little too lasciviously in its nudity and depictions of violence against women. Things get bloody here, and this show ain’t for everybody. Make no mistake: Altered Carbon is lurid trash — but it’s often entertainingly lurid trash.
On Amazon Prime, Britannia informs you that it’s on its own, weirdo wavelength with the choice of its theme music: Donavan’s 1968 novelty, “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” It’s not the usual harps and tin whistles we’re accustomed to in historic dramas.
As for the historic side of things, forget anything you may have learned in school about the Celts’ interaction with Roman invaders in the early years of the first century CE. Britannia’s approach is quite trippy and not much interested in facts. If you’re fine with that, you could have a good, strange time.
The series creators include Jez Butterworth, the brilliant playwright of Jerusalem and The Ferryman, which is still playing in London’s West End. He’s not a timid dramatist. Like those two plays, Britannia is a kind of a metaphoric riff on the bones and myths of the emerald island’s culture. David Morrissey plays Aulus, the Roman general who leads his troops to the shores of England, where he encounters the natives, the Celts.
They’re far from a peaceful people. In fact, the Cantii tribe, led by the old King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid, aka the evil Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars flicks) is in constant battle with tribe Regni, led by the foulmouthed Queen Antedia (Zoë Wanamaker). Aulus sees a perfect chance to divide and conquer, but another faction complicates things: the Druids, the prophets and witches who claim to know the will of the gods, led by the skeletal, pierced and tattooed Veran (an unrecognizable Mackenzie Crook).
The Druids are simultaneously peacemakers and provocateurs among the Celt tribes, so Aulus tries to get them on his side. That’s the bigger picture. The smaller ones include the familial dramas playing out at the Cantii citadel, where Pellenor’s weak son Phelan (Julian Rhind-Tutt) is unhappily married to scheming Amena (Annabel Scholey), who’s also married (for the sake of politics) to the hunky French prince Lindon (Stanley Weber), who’s secretly in love with the flame-haired, free-spirited princess Kerra (Kelly Reilly). Got that? Probably the most compelling subplot involves the teenaged Celt girl Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox, very fine) who’s stuck in a cross-country ramble with Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a former Druid who now wanders around hypnotizing country folk or occasionally taking trippy, drug-induced visits to the underworld. I mentioned that the show’s theme song is a psychedelic 1960s ditty, right? And FYI, this is the series that saves its biggest shock for the last episode.
It’s all a lot of campy, weird fun, though like Altered Carbon, Britannia likes to get bloody from time to time, and the language is often raucous and raw. Also, Morrissey’s smug performance (like Purefoy’s) feels a little too easy and familiar.
Back on Netflix, I strongly recommend The End of the F***ing World, with an equally strong caveat. It’s a brisk eight episodes, with a running time each of around 25 minutes. But it takes faith and a bit of a strong stomach to make it through the first couple of episodes.
That’s because its teen protagonist, James (Alex Lawther), is a humorless, self-styled wannabe killer. “I’m 17, and I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath,” he says in voiceover at the start. In case we doubt him, we see an array of the small animals he’s killed for fun, in training to murder something or someone “much bigger.” Oh, by the way? This is a comedy, though it may take you a while to get on its wavelength. (The source material is a graphic novel by Charles Forsman.)
James meets his antisocial equal in Alyssa (Jessica Barden, who’s really terrific). She sees James as boyfriend material, while he sees her as easy prey. When they run away in James’s dad’s car, the series becomes a kind of Badlands for the post-ironic age. But as they encounter people more villainous than they could ever dream of being (including a professor with a fetish for torture porn), the show, directed by Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak, is impressive in the ways it can switch moods and raise stakes. While the two protagonists pretend to care about nothing, it’s remarkable the ways we start to care about them. For all its attitude, F***ing World is ultimately very sweet. By the last episode, you realize you’ve been watching the difficult, unexpected blossoming of two lovely, hopeless souls.
I’ve streamed some other things as well, with varying impressions. I gave up on Amazon’s Absentia after a few episodes. It had the joyless, self-serious texture of too many network shows about serial killers (like The Following, or Hannibal, but without Hannibal’s gruesome élan).
Also on Amazon, the 2016 Scottish drama Retribution (alternately known as One of Us) is a grim, watchable four-episode drama about the impact of the murder of newlyweds on the couple’s respective families, who live next to each other in the isolated countryside. I felt pretty meh about The Cloverfield Paradox, which doesn’t extend the brand in any useful way. But I enjoyed the creepy horror flick The Ritual, from David Bruckner, a codirector of the Atlanta-shot zombie film The Signal from 2007. You can read a full ArtsATL review by Curt Holman.