With so much free time on our hands, we can handle a little more than just a 2 hour film. How about a 6-8 hour binge session on a single series? These past few days, I caught up on a few series that would be worth your time, and a few others…maybe not so much. So here’s a breakdown of some noteworthy limited series shows to consider when you’re looking to pass the time.
Self-Made: inspired by the life of Madame CJ Walker (Netflix)
(Dir. Kasi Lemmons)
A chronicle of the incredible story of Madame C.J. Walker, who was the first African-American self-made millionaire.
Two things grabbed my eye immediately about this series: First, it stars Octavia Spencer. So I’m already going to watch whatever she does. And secondly, it was directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also directed Harriet, one of my favorite movies of last year. Self-Made is done in only 4-hour long episodes, and features a strong supporting cast including Blair Underwood, Bill Bellamy, Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morris, and Carmen Ejogo.
Unfortunately, casting is a problem here. This series is meant to be a historical drama retelling of America’s first black female millionaire, but in casting a lot of comedians, it doesn’t get a chance to even itself out over the 4 short episodes. Tiffany Haddish is a little hard to take seriously as an early 1900’s lesbian, and Bellamy’s “Sweetness” is balanced between cartoonish hustler and threatening antagonist over the first two episodes until his story is completely abandoned by the end. Self-Made also suffers from a major problem that all limited series have: Too many stories, not enough time. The reason the show is limited is because you have one specific, important story to tell and it needs to be streamlined through the few episodes you have. When it veers off into its side characters, especially when their stories aren’t fleshed out, it loses its appeal.
Still, Octavia Spencer can do no wrong. In fact, she’s so good of an actress that everyone else looks mediocre in comparison. There are scenes in here where she’s doing so much of the heavy lifting that you can understand why they could only manage 4 episodes, otherwise Spencer might’ve hurt her back from carrying so much of the series. She meets each emotion of the character perfectly whether she has to be hard-nosed, sobering, or confident, Spencer holds up her part of the bargain. She gives Madame CJ Walker all of her facets, and delivers the possible truest representation of a black American icon.
A few things on the technical side that deserve some shout-outs: The costuming in this series is spectacular. The detail down to the differences between the aristocrats and the commoners is subtle yet purposefully noticeable. The cinematography is also stellar. Each shot is a glistening portrait of the black high life in the 1920’s. Crisp, smooth and chocolate. Can’t forget about hair and makeup either. In a series about black hair, the hair and makeup team put their best foot forward to recapture the time period and the hairstyles the beauticians made famous. These crafts may not be accepting any awards, but they should know they did fine work.
What Spencer does is downright impressive especially in a series that has so many faults. The writing is especially choppy, which could mainly be due to some bad editing choices, and also the style of storytelling that Lemmons decided to go with is often distracting. There are dance numbers, musical numbers, and a boxing ring metaphor that’s all overused and mismatched by the end of it all. Still, there are two reasons to give this series a watch: Stated right off the top, Octavia Spencer is marvelous. If you’re a fan of hers, you’ll be impressed with her dexterity and mastery in this performance. And secondly, it’s a chance to get a glimpse into the life of a self-made black woman in the history of America, and those are valuable insights.
Final rating – C+
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix)
(Dir. Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin)
A zoo owner spirals out of control amid a cast of eccentric characters in this true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.
If you’ve been on social media at all in the past few weeks, it would be hard to avoid a viral video, or a meme that didn’t reference Tiger King. The 7 part docu-series follows the life of Joe Exotic and the workers at Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. It seems harmless enough at first, you’re watching how a private zoo houses and cares for wild animals like Lions, Tigers, and Bears (oh my!), and at first, it seems like everyone’s a little cooky, but you have to be to work with exotic animals. But it goes a lot further than that. What’s brilliant about how this series is done is that it unfolds in the same way it did for the directors. They came just to get an understanding of Big Cat ownership and found themselves in a world that is both fascinating and disturbing.
Tiger King unfolds like a long old-fashioned Jerry Springer episode, and much like Trash TV, it’s really hard to pull yourself away. Joe Exotic is a gay, gun-toting, redneck polygamist with two straight husbands, who sings the worst country songs imaginable. He’s a lot of laughs, instantly charismatic, and foul-mouthed to the utmost. He makes for great TV obviously, but he’s not the only one. As we go deeper into this world, we meet a whole cast of characters who are each as unlikable as the next. We meet Dr. Bhagdavan Antle, who is also a big cat collector and exhibitor who might also be running a pseudo-cult of his own. He manages to avoid any criminal activity on camera, but also gives off the creepy uncle vibes hardcore. Later, we’re introduced to Jeff Lowe and his bisexual swinger wife, Laura. (I don’t know what it is about big cat lovers, but they’re all incredibly horny.) Who may very well be a scam artist and con man, who set up Joe Exotic to save his own hide. Then there’s of course, Carol Baskin. You may have heard the name due to a viral song and dance that was named after her.
Carol is Joe’s main rival. She has a foundation called Big Cat Rescue, which “rescues” wild animals from private owners and
returns them to the wild places them in her own “sanctuary” which looks oddly enough, a lot like Joe’s zoo. No one does themselves any favors by doing this documentary, but none as worse as Carol. Her stanceson owning wild animals came off as unreasonable and hypocritical, her demands were outrageous and excessive, and her complete lack of social skills and presence on camera made her incredibly difficult to believe. It didn’t help that in the show she looked like the most elitist out of all of them. (Schmoozing with Mitch McConnell is never going to be a good look on anybody.) Still, the most interesting episode of the series is the one wholly focused on Carol’s lost husband, and the question of whether she had him killed or not. The directors are smart enough to leave this theory open-ended, but Carol is so bad when it comes to defending herself, it’s no wonder people definitely think she had something to do it.
The series is a comfortable blend of massive ups and miserable downs. Joe’s battles with Carol Baskin are downright legendary, but also the stupidest things any person could ever do. His runs for President and Governor are also exciting and entertaining, even though we all know they’re pretty much guaranteed to fail. But when one of his husbands accidentally commits suicide, it’s a devastating watch, and as the FBI begins to close in on Joe, the tension and the backstabbing become overwhelming.
On the bright side, there are some hopeful figures in this documentary, Saff and John Reinke are among some of the best people in Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, and their love and dedication to the animals is a joy to witness. It shows that in even in the darkest corners of our country, there are still some lights left.
Final Rating – C
(Dir. Maria Schrader)
A Hasidic Jewish woman in Brooklyn flees to Berlin from an arranged marriage and is taken in by a group of musicians- until her past comes calling.
We’ll never truly be able to completely understand the circumstances of other cultures unless we live it ourselves, but its stories like this one and all the other ones mentioned here that allow you a glimpse into that world and what it’s like. I was fully immersed in the story of Unorthodox. A simple story about a girl growing up in an Hasidic Jewish community in America, and understanding how her realm is nothing like the rest of the country. So much so that she decided to flee all the way to Berlin, Germany. Shira Haas who plays the lead is absolutely astounding in this role. She has a very accusatory glare that perpetuates every scene that involves her community, and distinguishes her uniquely from the rest. But her smile, when free from the community, comes across her face like a new emotion each time. It is bright, warm, and fills each scene with serenity. Haas is a capable actress whom I hope American audiences get to see more from in the future.
I’m also fascinated by learning new languages. In this series, everyone speaks a combination of English, Yiddish, and German and it is a language lovers’ dream. The words flow effortlessly off of everyone’s tongue in a delicate palette of linguistics. When Haas sings the final song in Yiddish, it is an immersive and impactful moment in the series. She is not the only standout performance. Amit Rahav who plays Esther’s (Haas) husband is removed from his typical glam exterior and embodies Yanky’s shy, subservient demanor. He is submissive to the will of his community and especially his mother, and completely naive to the outside world around him. It shows when he tries to yell at a smartphone to find his wife after she’s disappeared. Their final scene together is genuinely heartbreaking as the norms of their society are challenged in that moment and the shattering reality of two lives, forever connected, will never be the same again.
Some people may be turned off by how easily welcomed Esther is in the Berlin community, of course, with this being a limited series, its still done in a genuine way. Tamir Amit-Joseph who plays Yael Roubeni exemplifies the harshness that many people see from natives to foreigners. She challenges Esther’s beliefs and questions her talents. She’s often either rude or dismissive, but through her we see how Esther’s able to rebuild her life and confidence.
Of all the limited series I’ve watched this past week, this one feels the most fully realized. Even in the span of 4 episodes. We’re not meant to hold up this story as the example for all the Hasidic Jewish communities, this is definitely one woman’s experience, and it is shown as such. In doing so, the 4-episode series captures her frustration and desperation throughout and also her joy and revelry. It’s interesting that you see she doesn’t outwardly reject her culture either. She’s proud when talking about the food she learned to cook in her community, how she understood the purpose of having Jewish children, and she doesn’t consider nor is she ever shown giving up the baby despite the consequences. Unorthodox is a difficult watch at times especially when you see the treatment of women throughout the series, but its message is hopeful and endearing.