By Craig Mathieson
Top streaming in January (from left): Kate Mulvany in Hunters, Harrison Ford in Shrinking and Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face
Was your New Year’s resolution to watch more streaming television? I hope so, because there is a serious amount of it cued up for debut in the next 12 months. From stark dramas and diligent documentaries to fantastical comedies and unclassifiable micro-series, 2023 is liberally dotted with release dates. There’s enough coming to keep you couch-bound and also raise a few salient questions.
For example: What’s the purpose of an episode? Two streaming series debuting in January offer diametrically opposed takes: Netflix’s crime thriller Kaleidoscope deliberately alters the order of its instalments for each viewer, while Stan’s detective mystery Poker Face gets back to 20th century basics with a case-of-the-week format that makes every episode familiar and self-contained.
Who’s right? The answer, as ever, will be guided by whichever shows work. And there’s no shortage of other intriguing candidates awaiting judgment in the month ahead, so let’s get your viewing reminders set. As ever, don’t forget to please let us know what programs you’ve found that we missed.
New year, new shows!
Thanasi Kokkinakis (left) and Nick Kyrgios in tennis documentary Break Point.
My top Netflix recommendation is Break Point (January 13).
Netflix has enjoyed snowballing success with its Formula One documentary series Drive to Survive, which has been credited with reviving the motor sport’s popularity in North America. Now the same production company, Box to Box, is looking to apply the show’s formula of inside access to elite athletes, competitive drama and vivid atmospherics to the international tennis circuit. The players who’ve agreed to appear in the first season – five episodes in January, five more in June – tend to fall into the up-and-coming category: Matteo Berrettino, Frances Tiafoe and Aryna Sabalenka all feature, plus a must-see signing in the form of Australia’s own Nick Kyrgios.
Also on Netflix: How does Kaleidoscope (January 1) work? Netflix will cue seven of the eight episodes of this heist drama in random order for you, changing your perception of the character’s motivations and personal dynamics over a 25-year timeframe, before everyone finishes with the locked-in finale. Giancarlo Esposito, an actor of implacable drive in Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian, graduates to headlining star, playing the obsessed leader of a gang targeting a supposedly impregnable vault.
Whether it’s movies such as Drive and The Neon Demon or series such as Amazon’s Too Old to Die Young, the former enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn is drawn to neo-noir crime dramas with unblinking violence, otherworldly twists, and lush 1980s typography. I strongly suspect that Copenhagen Cowboy (January 5) which marks Refn’s return to Denmark, will be the same. This recommendation comes with the caveat that it’s for devotees of his work and the very curious.
December highlights: The crime comedy Irreverent gets hot under the (priest’s) collar, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is a compelling natural disaster documentary, and Dark is your standard brain-bending science-fiction thriller (ie. no standard at all).
Joel (Pedro Pascal) in video game adaptation The Last of Us. Credit:HBO Binge
My top Binge recommendation is The Last of Us (January 15).
The ranks of worthy video game adaptations are very, very thin (Sonic the Hedgehog? Tomb Raider?). That hasn’t stopped HBO taking on this 2013 PlayStation smash, set in a post-apocalyptic America where a virus has turned most people into flesh-hungry creatures. Turning the game’s cut scenes and third-person shooter gameplay into a cohesive narrative is the task of writer and director Craig Mazin, who previously gave us Reactor Number 4 and the addictive grimness of Chernobyl. The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, who has experience portraying grizzled guardians, plays Joel, a smuggler tasked with delivering to safety Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenager seemingly immune to the virus. Can HBO pull this off? No-one thought they could make fantasy work, until they debuted Game of Thrones.
Also on Binge: Vardy V Rooney: A Courtroom Drama (January 15) uses courtroom transcripts and media reports to dramatize the infamous “Wagatha Christie” trial, where the wife of one famous English football player, Rebecca Vardy, sued the wife of a very famous English football player, Colleen Rooney, for libel after the latter claimed in 2019 that the former was leaking her private Instagram posts to a tabloid. It brought WAG culture to the High Court – Michael Sheen plays Rooney’s bewigged QC David Sherborne – and offered a look behind the sordid business of being a celebrity. Schadenfreude? Never heard of it.
After Andor and House of the Dragon, prequels are so hot right now. Hence Velma (January 12), a precursor to Scooby Doo about how most of the human cohort of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon – less Shaggy and the contractually unavailable pooch – first met as teenagers. Based on the trailer the tone is ironic, the target audience enjoys genre mash-ups, the casting is colour-blind, and the voices are famous – Mindy Kaling is a very chatty Velma, with Constance Wu as Daphne and Glenn Howerton as Fred.
December highlights: The Australian comedy Colin from Accounts makes great use of unfiltered humour and excruciating encounters; Gossip Girl returned; and the documentary series Branson was an intimate portrait of a larger-than-life character.
Natasha Lyonne as Cale, the livewire leading lady on Poker Face.
My top Stan recommendation is Poker Face (January 27).
Benoit Blanc meet Charlie Cale. Knives Out creator Rian Johnson isn’t going to rest until he has a stable of screen detectives. Fresh from moving his film franchise with Daniel Craig to Netflix, Johnson goes back to the future with this mystery series where each episode is a self-contained case that gets sorted and solved. The model is Columbo or Murder, She Wrote, but Johnson has alighted upon a livewire leading lady for the part of Cale in the form of Natasha Lyonne. The co-creator and star Netflix’s Russian Doll has neuroses from the 2020s and patter from the 1920s. Lyonne’s detective should be a great foil for the weekly parade of guest stars Johnson has invited to play along – Ron Perlman, Ellen Barkin, Chloe Sevigny, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Danielle Macdonald all feature.
Also on Stan: Australian actor Travis Fimmel, who put the ‘king’ in Vikings as the formidable Ragnar Lothbrok, returns home to star in Black Snow (January 1), a crime drama set in the tropical north of Queensland. Fimmel plays a police detective specialising in cold cases who travels to a small town when the unearthing of a local school time capsule provides new information about an unsolved murder of a local teenager 25 years earlier. Small towns and hidden secrets are familiar tropes, but the limited series looks to distinguish itself by situating the case in the local South Sea Islander community.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the burden carried by Australia’s military veterans too often goes unacknowledged, resulting in deep-seated struggles when they return to civilian life. That’s the starting point for Transfusion (January 20), a new Australian thriller where Avatar bluesman Sam Worthington plays a former Special Forces operator who gets caught up in a criminal endeavour in a bid to keep his family together.
Writer and debutante director Matt Nable plays Worthington’s former comrade and now underworld conduit – the Underbelly and The Dry actor doesn’t write many movies, but when he does, they’re lean portraits of men trying to understand their place in the world.
December highlights: A confident, nuanced third season of Bump confirmed the familial comedy as one of the best Australian series in recent years, while I Hate Suzie Too upped the intensity on an already gripping British black comedy about a celebrity in freefall.
Australian actor Kate Mulvany joins Hunters for season two.
My top Amazon Prime recommendation is Hunters season two (January 13).
Headlined by a garrulous Al Pacino as a 1970s Jewish Nazi hunter in New York City, the first season on this pulp fiction executive produced by Jordan Peele was equal parts alternate history, family homage and exploitation movie extremes. With a supporting cast that included grown-up child star Logan Lerman, Australian Kate Mulvany and Lena Olin as Eva Braun, the show repeatedly doubled down on the plot twists with comic book flourishes and Holocaust flashbacks. That’s a loaded mix, but it made more sense than you might imagine.
Also on Amazon Prime: Narratives never rest, they always want more, which is why the second season of the Australian test cricket team docu-series The Test (January 13) will document the downfall of captain Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer, the two men who’d restored faith and a measure of success to a shattered side in March 2020’s first season. Cricket Australia is a co-producer, so the dressing room disappointments and at-home interludes are officially approved, but there’s definitely a sense of revelation on offer.
December highlights: The fine character actor Alfred Molina made the most of his headline turn in the murder mystery series Three Pines, while the espionage action-adventure Jack Ryan delivered more of the same.
Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.
Harrison Ford plays a therapist with no filter in Shrinking.
My top Apple TV+ recommendation is Shrinking (January 27)
It’s worth noting that the co-creator and star of this therapy comedy, Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother), tends to make weirder shows than the ones he merely stars in (Exhibit A: his 2020 puzzle-box Dispatches from Elsewhere on Amazon Prime). That said, his co-creators are Scrubs linchpin Bill Lawrence and Ted Lasso writer Brett Goldstein, who also plays that show’s hard nut Roy Kent. As resumes go it’s quite the Venn diagram, with the series documenting a psychiatrist, played by Harrison Ford, who buckles under personal grief and begins to tell his patients exactly what he thinks of them. This could be the perfect role for Ford, a screen icon who at age 80 is full of crotchety energy.
Also on Apple TV+: Super League: The War for Football (January 13) is a charged four-part documentary series about possibly the biggest collision of sport and commerce ever seen, the shock April 2021 announcement that 12 of European football’s powerhouse clubs – including Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Real Madrid – intended to form a breakaway European Super League. The multi-billion-dollar bid was shouted down by fans, politicians and the many clubs that would have been sidelined, with director Jeff Zimbalist (The Two Escobars) getting into the many power plays, corporate interests, and oversized personalities involved.
December highlights: Gary Oldman’s misfit squad of British spies made for a terrific second season of Slow Horses, while Will Smith was back in front of the camera for the slavery drama Emancipation.
Mairead Tyers as Jen in Extraordinary.Credit:Laura Radford/Disney+
My top Disney+ recommendation is Extraordinary (January 25).
Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s amusing that Disney+ – a streaming service overflowing with Marvel superhero shows – will be home to this spiky British comedy about a young woman who lives in a world where every adult discovers a specific superpower when they turn 18 – except her. Newcomer Emma Moran has created a comedy that explores feeling insignificant and our relationship to larger-than-life characters, with Belfast’s Mairead Tyers as the alternately indignant and inconsolable Jen. Millennials unite.
Also on Disney+: I promise I’m not making this up – Koala Man (January 9) is an adult animated comedy about a suburban Australian dad named Kevin whose superpower is being a nosy neighbour and overly zealous community member. It’s the first American series for Australian creator and the voice of Kevin, Michael Cusack, who’s previously made some hilarious web series. This could be a riotous hit or a one-joke plateau, but the supporting voice cast is top shelf with Sarah Snook and Hugh Jackman involved. The latter plays a character called Big Greg.
December highlights: Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl gave the many fans of the 2021 animated movie a fresh take on the hit-laden soundtrack, while National Treasure: Edge of History was a teen update of the Nicolas Cage movies.
Henry Strand, Stacy Clausen and Hannah Ogawa in Crazy Fun Park.
My top ABC iview recommendation is Crazy Fun Park (January 1).
The ABC has been a haven for quality local productions aimed at a younger teenage audience. It started 2022 with The PM’s Daughter and a year to the day later it debuts this supernatural comedy about a grieving high school student who discovers that the spirit of his best friend can be found every night at the abandoned amusement park where he died in an accident, manifesting alongside a rollcall of irate fellow spirits. The living and the dead getting comically entangled has been a television success lately (see the British and American versions of Ghosts), and Crazy Fun Park has the potential to follow them.
December highlight: Lockdown was over, but the farcical mishaps of Staged with David Tennant and Michael Sheen continue to delight.
SBS on Demand
Rory Keenan as Steve in Somewhere Boy.
My top SBS on Demand recommendation is Somewhere Boy (January 5).
In our age of interconnectedness there’s great dramatic potential – and a sizable measure of black comedy – for the concept of a child being raised in isolation and then stepping unprepared into a voracious wider world (see Paramount+’s violent Two Weeks to Live). In this new British drama, Danny (Lewis Gribben) has grown up alone with a father who has described the world to him in extreme terms. Soon after he turns 18, however, the young man has to explore it on his own in a coming-of-age drama about friendship, trust and second chances.
December highlights: The micro-comedy Stuck was a welcome screen return for Dylan Moran; Reel Britannia dived into British cinematic history; and the newly acquired Parts Unknown was a fitting celebration of the late chef and television host Anthony Bourdain.
Jack Huston as Lasher in Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches. Credit:Alfonso Bresciani/AMC
My top recommendation for the other streaming services is AMC+’s Mayfair Witches (January 6).
In 2020 AMC brought the rights to a raft of famous fantasy novels by the since deceased American author Anne Rice. The first adaptation was the headline purchase: last October’s lush, supernatural queer romance, Interview with the Vampire. The second outing is Mayfair Witches, the story of a young female neurosurgeon who comes to learn that she is heir to a dynasty of powerful witches. Alexandra Daddario, a star who found her purpose in the first season of White Lotus, has the lead role, with Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as a shape-shifting entity haunting her covert clan. Rice’s novels demand a heightened, full-throated tone, but they can definitely work as series.
Also worth watching: Not every Taylor Sheridan show involves the Dutton clan spilling blood to protect the Yellowstone ranch. His crime and corruption drama Mayor of Kingstown (January 16) returns for a second season on Paramount+, with Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) as a powerbroker trying to maintain his fractured family’s official and unofficial control of a Michigan town where the economy is dependent on a vast jail. Season one ended with a tumultuous prison riot, leaving numerous pieces for the new episodes to pick up.
We’re viewers in the golden age of Matthew MacFadyen, and long may he reign. The Succession star follows up Quiz and Operation Mincemeat with BritBox’s Stonehouse (January 17). In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction drama, he plays John Stonehouse, a minister in the British Labour government of Harold Wilson who in 1974 faked his death on a Miami beach and fled to Australia. The three-part series explores the public and private sides of the politician, with MacFadyen’s wife, Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), playing the wife Stonehouse abandoned.
December highlights: Paramount+’s 1923 was a star-studded addition to the Yellowstone canon topped by Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren; BritBox’s A Spy Among Friends was a telling study of British loyalty and betrayal; while the Melbourne public housing tower comedy Flats was a winner for YouTube.
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