Binge-r #147: Flowers + Detroiters
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming, plus S2
The rarest pleasure I get as a television critic is to start watching a brilliant show without prior notice. Usually the best series generate advance word, and even if it’s not always accurate you get a sense if something needs to be watched. In the case of Flowers, a masterfully unique British comic-drama about a fractured family’s travails, I simply saw it on my Netflix page and clicked on it because the promotional still featured the unimpeachable English actor Olivia Colman (The Favourite, Fleabag) in a cape. I watched all six episodes of the first season in two days, and am savouring starting the second. For the record Will Sharpe’s creation debuted on Britain’s Channel Four in April 2016, but for me it’s simply one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
“We don’t want to be too happy. We’re not mad,” declares Deborah Flowers (Colman) in the first episodes, and the way her nervous laughter hints at both comic hysteria and desperate truth strikes a tone that proves to be persistent and piercing. In a country house full of eccentrics – more Evelyn Waugh’s Boot than Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums – her marriage to children’s author Maurice (Julian Barratt) is disintegrating under the weight of his unacknowledged depression. Maurice’s suicide attempt, matter-of-fact and failed, goes unnoticed by his wife and twin adult children, perpetually aggrieved inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby) and experimental musician Amy (Sophia Di Martino). They are the very definition of Tolstoy’s unhappy family, doing it their own way.
Flowers is not a sitcom that resets every 25 minutes. From the opening scene the ramifications, both heartbreaking and farcical, change the family’s various dynamics while pushing the plot forward. There is a death, mistaken assumptions, a chance for Amy to assert her sexuality, and a disastrous anniversary party that builds to an absurd pitch so excruciating and sustained that it’s a relief when Donald’s Fumigating Fondue Machine explodes. Mental illness is the family’s lodestone, and it permeates their outlook and fears, with Sharpe’s direction reflecting that. He shoots scenes from the uncertain perspective of a character – particularly Amy – and then laces the visual aesthetic with English pagan flourishes and nods to 1970s nature documentaries.
Every time you think it is just outrageously funny, there’s a moment of perfect reflection. Perusing their ramshackle bookshelves, Deborah finds a dedication in one of Maurice’s early books that reads, “For my love Deborah, the butterfly who makes hurricanes.” In a moment that sentence and Colman’s performance illuminates what their marriage once had. Maurice’s live-in Japanese illustrator Shun (Sharpe) provides outside perspective and daft punchlines, but everything Flowers puts in place ties together in a bittersweet finale that invokes family history and the very real feeling of trying to get back what you don’t remember losing. In turn it’s hilarious, grotesque, moving, and outlandish – Flowers really is a singular viewing experience.
DETROITERS S1 (Stan, 10 episodes): In May I highly recommended Netflix’s aggressively unhinged sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson [full review here]. If you want more from Robinson, a comic actor who pushes enthusiasm into the unsettling, Stan has the first season from 2017 of this sitcom about a low-rent Detroit advertising agency run by Tim (Robinson) and Sam (Sam Richardson). As these best friends and brothers-in-law try to grow their client list from the local “hot tub king” to a national automobile manufacturer, the pair spit out loopy insults, get sideswiped by ambition into crisis, pursue comic riffs, and project an enthusiasm so silly that that show’s cynical outlook never weighs down your pleasure. Shot on location, which gives Detroiters a genuine local flavour, the show manages to balance conceptual comedy and rapid-fire gags. It has its cake and throws it in your face, too.
>> Other Reading: The third season of Netflix’s 1980s-set sci-fi thriller Stranger Things remixes the past with a wide-eyed delight, combining knowing references, the trials of adolescence, and some ludicrous plot points. I wrote about it for The Age [full review here].
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
New on Netflix: Helen Mirren’s fierce empathy is the best thing in the clichéd real life legal melodrama Woman in Gold (2015, 109 minutes), where she plays the Los Angeles resident drawn into the past when she tries to recover the Gustav Klimt painting the Nazis took from her Jewish family in 1930s Vienna; if digital effects disaster flicks are your thing have at San Andreas (2015, 114 minutes) where the big one destroys California – repeatedly – but saves the marriage of Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino.
New on SBS on Demand: Jia Zhangke is the most important Chinese filmmaker this century, capturing the dislocation of the individual in the country’s unending transformation, and there are now three of his films streaming on SBS on Demand: decade-crossing drama Platform (2000, 149 minutes), the scarifying anthology A Touch of Sin (2013, 125 minutes), and Ash is Purest White (2018, 140 minutes), a crime epic made intimate by the lens of a woman (the compelling Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent lead) whose relationship with a gangster is tested by changed circumstances.
New on Stan: If you’re a Saoirse Ronan or Ian McEwan completist, the former does her best in a stilted adaptation of the latter’s novel On Chesil Beach (2017, 110 minutes), playing a newlywed wife in 1962 England; Hotel Artemis (2018, 94 minutes) is a slick Hollywood action film of bullets and betrayal, but it has a melancholy core thanks to Jodie Foster’s performance as the regret-laden proprietor of a covert hospital for criminals.
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