As mass media became increasingly massive during the past five decades, some pundit or scholar developed the concept of “information overload.” One might imagine a poor unfortunate in a metal helmet with attached wires and diodes to feed the brain an endless stream of facts and figures. Or something akin to what the lead character in A Clockwork Orange experiences during behavior modification — eyelids held open in hellish fashion as the victim or, if you prefer, the consumer, is exposed to an audio-video barrage for hour upon hour. Alarming or not, this notion of info overload was dumped into the zeitgeist before the rise of digital media. Today, the number of streaming services is growing, and the competition to attract audiences via proprietary programming is heating up. We’re in the middle of something unprecedented, and we might as well call it video overload.
So how does a guy who watches five or six movies a week to review, and needs to be up on the latest TV shows, cope with video overload in the something-for-everyone world of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and their challengers? I have to be as selective and informed as possible with what I choose to watch and especially what I’m willing to binge. And occasionally — this is the hard part — I have to put down the remote. The concept of a lost weekend traditionally involved drinking or doping yourself into a stupor. Now, it’s about that hit show you just have to watch from first to last episode in one sitting. Maybe it’s worth it, but if the material is substandard, it can be 13 hours of your life you’ll never get back.
In the interest of civic-mindedness, I’m recommending a few programs that are now available on the various streaming services, or will be soon. If the concepts seem intriguing, give them a chance — as in more than one episode. Some of these shows are slow-building, but do pay off.
‘BABYLON BERLIN’ (NETFLIX)
One of two German shows on this list, Babylon Berlin is an incredibly stylish and complex ensemble drama set in the decadent Weimar Republic era, around 1929, before Hitler and the Nazis rose to power. Its protagonists are a pair of police inspectors whose lives intertwine with a handful of other folks in Germany’s extraordinary capital city of Berlin. Although it’s based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin acknowledges the real and turbulent history of that time and place. In addition to fine-tuned performances by every actor, the art direction is superb and evocative. Plus, the score includes seductive, period-style music from British singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry who actually appears as a cabaret performer during the series. Note: Watch in the original German with English subtitles rather than the distracting English-language dub.
This is not just another police procedural. First, we have the impressive pedigree of creator-writer David Hare, award-winning playwright (Plenty) and screenwriter (The Hours, The Reader). Then, there’s the formidable cast led by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (Mudbound, An Education) as a London detective investigating the murder of a Syrian refugee who may have been the victim of a hate crime; John Simm (The Catch, Life on Mars) as a crusading local politician in opposition to his own party’s platform on immigration; and Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) as the politician’s ex-wife. Topical, well-written, and well-acted, it tells its story over the course of four, terse hour-long episodes. It’s a fine investment of your time.
While waiting for the next season of Stranger Things to drop, you can get your fix of small-town supernatural horror from this German miniseries. Something treacherous has been waiting in the woods near the old nuclear power plant, and a plucky band of kids and some off-kilter adults will be caught in the middle of its madness. The series, with dramatic arcs shifting between 1986 and 2019, has more than its share of science fictional elements — and surprises. Yes, it’s in German, and, like Babylon Berlin, there is a streaming option for an English-language dub that should be ignored in favor of the original German with English subtitles.
With programs such as the stunning adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager and the smart, addictive ongoing series Line of Duty, the British seem to have mastered the art of the serialized crime drama. McMafia is the latest success in this regard, inspired by the rise of international criminal gangs as depicted in the eponymous nonfiction book on the subject. The miniseries, co-produced by BBC in the U.K. and AMC in the U.S., was co-created and written by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive). It involves the British-raised, London-based son of a Russian mob kingpin, with both men caught up in underworld machinations that span the globe from England to Moscow to Prague to Israel and beyond. Engrossing and disturbing.
‘PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS’ (AMAZON)
The sci-fi author, whose works spawned the Blade Runner movies and the TV series The Man in the High Castle, gets name recognition on this dark, future-forward anthology series. If you’re looking for smart, stylish, speculative genre programming in the mode of Black Mirror, this is the place. Dick’s writings — dealing with nightmarish dystopias, mind-alteration, space tourism, synthetic life, alien incursions, and more — are adapted by a handful of able British and American writers and brought to life by top actors including Bryan Cranston, Timothy Spall, Vera Farmiga, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, and Geraldine Chaplin.
And if that wasn’t enough quality television, the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale is coming from Hulu on April 25, continuing beyond the source material (Margaret Atwood’s cautionary science-fiction novel about, among other things, the oppression of the female gender in a theocratic America).
Turning to cable television, FX premiered the first episode of the sixth and final season of The Americans (a family-driven 1980s espionage saga of the Cold War) on March 28, and is launching the second season of Marvel Studios’ Legion (about a super-powered, psychologically-damaged mutant) on April 3. The third season of The Expanse (a sophisticated, multilayered sci-fi ensemble drama set on Earth, the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) is on its way beginning April 11 on Syfy.