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Fact: There is too much television for any sane human to watch.
Fact: Netflix isn’t making it any easier by releasing new projects weekly (in some cases, daily).
So, in the interest of helping people cut through the mess of new Netflix programs, I’m going to do a monthly check-in with what’s new (and worth watching) on Netflix. As a caveat, even I can’t manage to watch EVERYTHING that Netflix puts out (and still manage to keep on top of all the other major networks), so if I miss out on a particularly spectacular series, feel free to reach out to me via the comments or on Twitter and I’ll give it a look.
Over the past year, Netflix has become the go-to streaming source for smart, engaging niche comedies, which is particularly surprising seeing as its main brand until recently had been prestige dramas. But, with former critical and commercial darlings House of Cards and Orange is the New Black beginning the slow march toward death (or, in the case of Cards, the very fast, Spacey-scandal mandated run to the finish line), it makes sense that Netflix would try to rebuild it’s image around comedy. And Everything Sucks! is, like American Vandal and Big Mouth, a really good comedy focused on kids growing up.
Like the excellent Freaks and Geeks, Everything Sucks! deals with two distinct groups of high school kids, in this case, the AV Geeks and the Drama Club Freaks. And this time, the show is set in 1996 (which the early episode will not let you forget, as the show bombards you will nostalgic moment after nostalgic moment). As someone who was in middle school then, I absolutely felt the nostalgic pull of the series, but once you get past the mid-90s trappings, there’s an incredibly sweet coming of age tale waiting to sweep you away. Continuing the Netflix tradition of having excellent child actors, the show’s two young leads (Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Luke and Peyton Kennedy as Kate) are wonderful, just the right age to be completely believable and with enough poise to carry the series. The first few episodes aren’t great, but it’s worth sticking with the series.
I’m old enough to remember what a cultural phenomenon the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was, and how it managed to make being gay a bit more normal (or, at least helped bring relatable gay men to the masses at a time when there weren’t very many gay men or women on television). This version of Queer Eye is just as enjoyable as the original, but where the original show was about breaking down barriers, this new version is more focused on tapping into the emotions of its audience. The five new personalities at the center of Queer Eye are equal parts endearing and fun, and they once again bring out the best in their schlub of the week (the series is no longer subtitled “for the Straight Guy,” as this version has one gay makeover in its first set of new episodes).
However, this time around, the best part of the show isn’t in seeing the messy guy get made over. Rather, its seeing how this encounter helps give the man confidence to take a step forward toward accomplishing something he hasn’t been able to do- whether it’s trying to move beyond the death of a parent or coming out to someone important in his life. Much has been tweeted about the emotional punch these episodes pack, and I’ll admit to crying over a few, but it’s a testament to the empathetic nature of the new Fab 5 that the series works so incredibly well. As the guys have said in several interviews, with the strides in LGBT rights since the original series went off the air, this new version has less heavy lifting to do when it comes to confronting potential skittish straight men. Rather, the series is now able to watch these five guys help their selected gentleman move one step closer to being the man he always wanted to be. It’s pretty awesome to see.
I was all-in on the first season of this smart, effective, well-made family sitcom. It was great pretty much from the word go. I didn’t do a season review of its second season because I found it to be much more uneven, and in its lesser moments, certainly not up the high standards set the first time around. A lot of that is due to season two not having a single through-line to keep the story flowing from one episode to the next (a la the quinceanera arc from season one), but even having a series that relies more on one-off episodes shouldn’t see the overall drop in quality that occurred here.
Now, having said that, the episodes in season two that work work incredibly well and reach the same heights as the show’s first season. In particular, the season two finale is exceptional, structured around a series of monologues that allows each of the show’s excellent actors the chance to shine. I dare you not to be moved by the stories that are told, and the emotional wallop of Justina Machado’s excellent work in the episode. So, while season two isn’t nearly as good as season one, the series remains a really lovely watch, bringing light into a television landscape that often relies on darkness.
I’m a sucker for a good cult documentary, but what I enjoy even more is a documentary that looks at the cost of living in such a complex situation (see one of my picks on my Best of 2017 list, Scientology and the Aftermath, for another excellent look at this type of situation). Wild Wild Country tells the story of the Rajneesh cult’s time spent in rural Oregon in the 80s; a story that the vast majority of Americans likely either don’t remember or never heard about (I know I was amazed to know I had never heard anything about this particular slice of American history). The six-part, longform documentary is absolutely fascinating to watch, as various former high ranking members of the group tell of the cult’s founding, share stories of their controversial guru, explain the reason for their move from India to Oregon, and the conflicting details surrounding what happened when things really started going wrong, both within the cult and with their relationship to the local townspeople (who are also represented in the documentary).
I would highly recommend not Googling the Rajneesh and going into the documentary completely blind, as the events often seem like something taken from a script, but are all too real. Unlike some of the more well-known cults of that era, this one operated very differently, and I found many a parallels to the current structure of Scientology (the documentary’s de facto villain, Sheela, bears a striking resemblance to Scientology leader David Miscavige in terms of her power games within the confines of the Rajneesh society).
While the story’s end might not have the flash of a Kool-Aid suicide or massive standoff with federal officials, Wild Wild Country is able to get under the surface of what makes a seemingly sane and intelligent person dive into a cult, making the story compelling and complicated, while still refusing to pass judgment on these individuals for their deeply held religious beliefs. Some have knocked the documentary for failing to place blame for some of the Rajneesh‘s more heinous actions on those responsible (and for failing to press people like Sheela for justification for her actions), but I think what these individuals fail to say is just as valuable as what they could have been forced to defend. It’s an utterly fascinating watch.