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Criticwire Survey: Binge-Watching for the Summer Doldrums

Criticwire Survey: Summer Binge-Watching

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: The tail end of summer tends to a be a dead zone for worthwhile new movies, but it can be a great time to stay home and mainline TV. What would you suggest for a Labor Day binge-watch?

Todd VanDerWerff, the A.V. Club

So many people are so into the idea of catching up on the latest that TV’s history threatens to be devoured whole by those who refuse to watch most anything made before The Sopranos. To those people, I suggest a cursory stroll through the top hits of The Twilight Zone, one of TV’s foundational shows and one that holds up remarkably well. Even its bad episodes are bad in interesting ways, and the bulk of it can be found on many streaming services. Go find an episode you only know from its twist ending or its premise or it being parodied elsewhere, and you’ll be surprised to see that something from the early ’60s can feel so vital and new.

R. Emmet Sweeney, Movie Morlocks

The next couple of weeks look promising to this David Twohy enthusiast, what with Riddick on the horizon. But if you don’t share my Two-thusiasm, I’d recommend plunging into Jane Campion’s immersive New Zealand noir Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix). I’m also burning through The Dick Van Dyke Show for the first time (also on Netflix), which features one jaw-dropping bit of physical comedy per episode. 

Alyssa Rosenberg, ThinkProgress, Women and Hollywood

We’re at the end of a summer movie season in which it seemed like directors and writers couldn’t destroy cities fast enough. To detox from all the disaster pornography — and to fill up the weeks until Homeland comes back — stream Showtime’s Sleeper Cell. The show ran just two seasons, from 2005-2006, but it’s a nuanced portrait of what draws people into radical ideologies, and how they’re prompted to move from talk to action. Plus, if you’re not already an Oded Fehr fan, this show really ought to convert you.

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom, the greatest miniseries in broadcast history. The pathos and suffering of Udo Kier as “Little Brother,” the Christ-like son of Satan, will live forever in my heart. it may all be just a fabulously sick metaphysical joke, but it’s got every single thing that makes me love Lars. Nothing even comes close to it.

David Fear, Time Out New York

Don McKellar’s Twitch City is the great unsung comedy series of the ’90s, assuming you’re not a Canadian viewer. This absurdist sitcom about an agoraphobic slacker (remember that term?) is pretty much perfect from start to finish even if you don’t dig surreal Planet of the Apes scenarios in which the world is taken over by cats. It also gave folks a sneak preview of the talents that Molly Parker and Callum Keith Rennie would bring to Deadwood and Battlestar Galactica, respectively. Netflix has the complete series for rental, Amazon has it for purchase on DVD.

Ditto The Newsroom, the Ken Finkleman sitcom that anticipated the laugh track-less, single-camera boom of the ’00s and is a spot-on satire of media mendacity. Canadian cringe comedy at its finest, even when it starts dipping into odd Fellinesque flights of fancy; go straight to the David Cronenberg episode near the end of Season 1. Pure genius.

Last Great-White-North recommendation: Terminal City, a TV miniseries about a woman dying of cancer who becomes a reality-TV superstar; Hulu is streaming it. And though full seasons of the deservedly praised Danish series Borgen aren’t being offered courtesy any of the usual U.S. suspects, you can find it streaming in fits and starts online. Well worth the hunt.

Mary Pols, Time, MSN.

I fell hard for Veep this summer and blew through it very quickly. It’s one-note but such a good one note. And anyone who hasn’t seen Enlightened should at least give it a try. It is like nothing else on television, which may explain why it was cancelled after just two seasons. Laura Dern plays a woman who wants to do right but she’s so self-centered, so narcissistic, that she embarrasses herself left and right. She’s pitiable and nearly as hard to bear as Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But there is something so endearing and profound about her — since I finished Season 2, I’ve actually found myself missing this fictional character.

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

Not to be this guy, but for my money the best thing that’s been on television in the last 15 years (excluding, maybe, The Wire, but I’m not here to preach to the choir) aired on the BBC and it also happens to be one of the greatest films ever made: Adam Curtis’ The Century of the Self. The four-part series follows the rise of individualism through the twentieth century, starting with Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations” and splintering off in wildly fascinating directions. Curtis should be seen by everyone, or at least anyone willing to track it down online.

Katey Rich, Cinema Blend

Twin Peaks! When I remember first discovering it in college, through illegally downloaded, Danish-subtitled copies that were disgusting to look at, it blows my mind that this bizarro masterpiece is now right there on Netflix to be enjoyed. With David Lynch unlikely to make another feature any time soon, watching it for the first time is like having 12 new Lynch films right there on your computer. But follow everyone’s advice — bail once you find out who killed Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks has some of the highest highs and lowest lows of any TV series I’ve ever loved.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

I’m a terrible person to answer this since the last TV series I started was the first season of Girls. If somehow there are a bunch of Breaking Bad-ers or Mad Men-ers who have never seen the entire first season of Twin Peaks, well, jump in. Jesus, I’m old.

Zack Handlen, The AV Club

There’s an excessive amount of great shows to watch, and your best bet would probably be to catch up on something that’s currently airing — that way, you can read all the reviews and yell at people on Twitter and what-not. But in the interest of honesty and some minor self-promotion, I’m going to urge people to check out Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The second Trek spin-off (after the much better known Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is also great fun) is often labeled the “dark” entry into the franchise, and that’s true to an extent, but it’s far from a grim and gritty affair. For the first time in the history of the franchise, this series focuses on a fixed location, the titular space station which serves as a way station for a wormhole that opens on the Gamma Quadrant — wait come back! It’s very good, and while there’s the usual Trek love of forehead ridges and technobabble, DS9 engages in rich, and often startlingly emotionally complex, socio-political commentary. It features the strongest full ensemble of any of the Trek series, and the show’s willingness to embrace serialization makes for deeper world-building and more affecting dramatic climaxes. It’s just a great, great show, and all seven seasons are available to watch on Netflix Instant Viewing. (The first season is a bit rough in spots, but it’s a fair sight better than, say, TNG’‘s early years.) And as an added bonus, you can check out my on-going review series over at the AV Club, because why not. 

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

I’m going to urge people to see the wonderful Swingtown, which met its demise after just one season. Had the show aired on Showtime, as originally intended, rather than on CBS, this frisky show about 1970s swingers might have been unencumbered enough to find a wider audience. As it is, it’s a fascinating look at the recent past through the eyes of three couples, all of whom wind up being richer and more complicated than they appear to be at first glance. Standouts in this very strong ensemble include Lana Parrilla (Once Upon a Time), Miriam Shor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and, somewhat surprisingly, Melrose Place vet Grant Show.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star 

I’ve still got a couple more episodes to catch myself (I only binge-watch films), but I’d recommend those not yet hooked to get into Netflix’s House of Cards. This scabrous take on inside-the-Beltway politics always leaves me feeling like I should take a shower after watching it. I shudder at the thought of what Kevin Spacey’s oily Frank Underwood will ooze in season two.

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

Um, I have no idea. Honey West? M Squad? Route 66

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

The release this week of Criterion’s Early Fassbinder boxed set is a good reminder that the best series of all time is too good to binge on: Berlin Alexanderplatz. There’s an astonishing foreshadowing of it in Gods of the Plague (in the set), the story of which is similar — a criminal gets out of prison and tries to take up his life again — and the main character of which, Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) even identifies himself as Franz Biberkopf, the name of the protagonist of Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel and Fassbinder’s fourteen-episode, fifteen-plus-hour miniseries, from 1980. I saw it on VHS in the late eighties; it was packaged as eight tapes, and that’s how I watched it — the first and last episodes are feature-length, all the others run an hour. The series was an obsession of Fassbinder’s; there’s a 1978 interview in which he says that he returned to Germany from his expatriation in Paris specifically to make it; and his panoramic view of Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler, as seen from the perspective of one of the most humiliated and tormented, bilious and resentful of Germans, is a work of imagination that performs the historical archeology of a documentary as well as a confrontation with his country’s history in himself; it’s as much a summit of cinema as it is of Fassbinder’s work. Watch slowly.

Bilge Ebiri, New York/Vulture

Maybe it’s just my not-so-secret shame that I still haven’t caught up with Breaking Bad talking, but I’m going to go ahead and be That Guy and say that I dispute the premise of this question. Last week saw the release of two of my favorite films of the year, The World’s End and The Grandmaster, in theaters. We also got the much-acclaimed (though unseen-by-me) Short Term 12, as well as the excellent The Trials of Muhammad Ali. This week we finally get Brian De Palma’s Passion, which sort of demands to be seen even though half the people who see it will probably hate it, as well as the documentary Our Nixon. All of these movies are not only great (or at least probably great), but they also need the support of smart, engaged moviegoers. Plus, just because theaters aren’t being inundated with the latest installment of the blockbuster movie franchise I Have a Computer: Part 48 doesn’t mean that people should abandon the movie theaters altogether. Quite the contrary, it means people should return to movie theaters. 

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

I don’t know what television I would recommend, but the fall festival season is always a good time to binge watch an unseen auteur in preparation for his latest movie. One of my blind spots has been the exponentially expanding filmography of South Korean director Hang Sang-Soo, who had three movies last year, and has two more playing the festival circuit currently. Since many of his films feature a similar aesthetic and narratives, watching about four or five of them would be kind of like watching a television show, and probably more engaging. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

There is a unique type of discomfort that accompanies binge-watching. However long the period of binging is it usually sets in around midway through. It’s the discomfort of going to far, of almost ruining this thing that you love because you’re taking in too much, almost like you’re doing a disservice to the people who crafted this entertainment for you to enjoy in increments. If a more concentrated amount of time is spent watching something you essentially decrease the value of the thing itself, like if diamonds were as plentiful as rocks. That being said I would recommend Breaking Bad or Mad Men, Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development, Twin Peaks or The Wire. But if you want to get weird with it watch one installment of Kryzsztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue at a self-appointed time over the next ten weeks. Let it sit with you, see if you find yourself thinking about it over the course of the day, savor it. Then hold it over your friends heads that you watched The Decalogue and they’re not as good as you are. Sure they’ll hate you and think you pretentious but why not mix things up a little? I mean it would have no effect on my life so I recommend you do it.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

There are three very good reasons to stay off the couch and hit the cinemas this week: David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster. Throw in the recently released What Maisie Knew DVD, directed with insightful humor and style by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, with a rock-star Julianne Moore and an anemically glib Steve Coogan and any longing for fall television should be effectively countered.

Sean Axmaker, Videodrone, Parallax View

I’m not a binge-viewer by nature, but I have my moments. Part of that is a function of writing a home video column and getting hooked on a show I’m reviewing on disc. And when it comes to binge viewing, I prefer the lighter, character-oriented shows or the snappy, quirky action shows. By which I mean, I’d rather take my time with Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or Rectify, no more than an episode at a time to allow the episodes to settle in, but I can devour a show like Grimm or Person of Interest like a bag of potato chips: with a disc or a full season for streaming, I can’t stop at just one. I don’t see more than one or two episodes of The Good Wife during the regular season, but when the past season arrives on disc, I find myself watching four episodes at a time.

Stephen Saito, A Moveable Fest

Before the deluge of fall TV season makes us forget what transpired during the last one, it’s well worth binging on Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s one-and-done confection starring Sutton Foster as a Las Vegas showgirl-turned-ballet instructor for a group of teen girls in a seaside community off the California coast. Since it seemed like only critics were the only ones watching the ABC Family dramedy, this may be preaching to the choir, but Bunheads is perfect summer viewing, both hysterically funny and exceptionally sweet with most of the episodes still available for free on Hulu.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, NY Daily News

I’m going to beat the I, Claudius drum again. It’s got sex, violence, richly quotable dialogue and Patrick Stewart in a wig. It’s streaming on Amazon and the four discs are available through the mail via Netflix — though that method is about as antiquated as reading papyrus scrolls, isn’t it?

Tony Dayoub, Press Play, Cinema Viewfinder

I’ve been revisiting NYPD Blue (all 12 seasons are available on Amazon Prime). The first seven seasons in particular — under the aegis of David Milch (Deadwood, Luck) — take a penetrating look at cop subculture with the attendant ear for dialect one expects from the writer-producer who graduated summa cum laude from Yale. But following the 12-year arc of Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), from deadbeat drunk detective to respectable Squad Sergeant, brings its own rewards. The unattractive Franz was meant to play second banana to more traditional leads — first David Caruso, then Jimmy Smits. Through attrition and because of his own underrated charisma, Franz forced Milch to refocus the series around Sipowicz and his Job-like travails. NYPD Blue still plays well, whether taken in one at a time or in the kind of binges most viewers prefer to indulge in today.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I imagine everyone else is going to say Breaking Bad, so I’ll offer something a bit different. There are a ton of great British TV comedies on Netflix Instant worth binge-watching, such as Fawlty Towers, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Blackadder, but I’ll recommend Spaced, the series that introduced most people to Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy, Spaced was about the friendship between a man and a woman, Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Hynes), who pretend to be a long-term couple to get an apartment together for a decent price. Spaced is less a comedy of manners than a canvas on which Wright (who directed every episode), Pegg, Hynes, and Frost (as Tim’s militaristic best friend), and the rest of the cast playfully mocked and embraced various pop-culture conventions and tropes. Like the Cornetto trilogy, Spaced is whip-smart, fast-paced, and hilarious. Plus, there’s only 14 half-hour episodes. Not a lot of commitment required.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fanboy

To begin the summer wind-down I highly recommend watching Orange Is the New Black. It’s a captivating prison drama that once finished will pretty much evoke an immediate need to give it a second runthrough. Following revisit the final season of House and see how Universal wrapped things at Princeton Plainsboro. Or on a lighter note Little Britain and Black Books are equally breezy and quality entertainment of the dryly British variety. Finally, in honor of The World’s End, if you somehow have never heard of Edgar Wright you can see where he got his start with Spaced. This stylish fanboy hodgepodge homage to any and all classic sci-fi and action film iconography just keeps giving and giving.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

I get occasional access to Netflix when cat-sitting for Canadian friends, and I approached my most recent opportunity to do so with the full intention of checking out Top of the Lake and Orange Is the New Black. But after some external world insanity, I went straight to Hemlock Grove and burned through the whole series in two days. It’s silly to the point of burlesque, but for horror fans, it’s as much fun as Seasons 1 and 3 of True Blood (though not nearly as nude and with infinitesimal queer consciousness). Any show that lets Famke Janssen and Lili Taylor throw supernatural shade at one another is just fine by me. It demands nothing of the viewer, but it gives you a lot of fascinating images, possibly the best representation of Mary Shelley’s monster ever put on film/HD, and provides a great deal of gruesome joy. Bring on Season 2. Also, the American version of Wilfred is pretty exceptional, and quite possibly the darkest television show out there. I recommend to those of sufficient fortitude.

Scott Weinberg, Twitch, FEARnet

Obviously I gravitate towards movies more than episodic television, but I binge-watched the entire run of Six Feet Under over a few weeks, and it was absolutely wonderful. Dark, weird humor; a brilliant ensemble; well-earned emotional payoff… it’s easily one of the best series I’ve ever binged on. You will not regret it. Oh, and Deadwood. The first season in particular is as good as television programming gets. Any kind of television programming. And if you want true (and super-geeky) belly laughs, watch the hell out of Futurama.

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

I would recommend everyone run out and binge-watch the BBC thriller Luther. It stars Idris Elba as John Luther, a London detective whose dedication to the job matches his fraying sanity. It’s an expertly-crafted show, with plenty of disturbing plot twists and great psychological drama. The new season of Luther begins on September third, and since there are only 10 episodes in the first two seasons, it’d be easy to catch up before we see just how Luther is on the cusp of self-destruction.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I have recently gone on a Maron kick. Marc Maron’s semi-autobiographical series may be a bit uneven, but, at it’s best, it’s one of the most compelling, hysterical and surprisingly touching shows around.

John Oursler, In Review Online, Sound on Sight

Lost lends itself really well to binge watching just because it’s so damned engrossing and you always feel like you need to know what’s coming next. I made the mistake of watching the last episode of Season 3 as my first episode. You know, the episode where Jack goes, “We have to go back, Kate! We have to go back!!” I obviously watched every episode of seasons 1 and 2 in the next several days. I had a tradition of watching the entire series once a year since there are so many important tiny details that you pick up on with revisits. 

Ernesto Diezmartinez, Reforma, Vertigo

The Killing is fine, but the original Danish series, Forbrydelsen, is a must see. The three seasons, in fact. Addictive.

William Bibbiani, CraveOnline

And the winner for this year’s “Show That Seemed Like a Terrible Idea on Paper But Wound Up Being Unexpectedly Thrilling” is… a three-way tie?! Hannibal turned what could have been a dull monster of the week premise into a superlative journey into the mind of Thomas Harris’s monsters, Bates Motel avoided absolute sacrilege by converting the prequel to Psycho into a sincere and campy joy, and Arrow balances the fine line between gritty Christopher Nolan revisionism and goofy episodic superhero charm. If you missed season one of any of these shows, give ’em a shot.

Andrew Welch, Dallas Observer

It’s a bit late to catch up on Breaking Bad in time for season 5.2, but if you haven’t seen a single episode yet, now is as good a time as any to start; it’s streaming on Netflix. Also available for streaming: Doctor Who. My wife and I burned through the first six seasons (well, technically more like the 27th through 32nd) in about a month-and-a-half last year. I never thought I’d be the type to become a Whovian, but, here we are. The series comes back with its 50th anniversary special in November. And last, I’d recommend Orphan Black on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

As far as TV goes, I’m always recommending Gilmore Girls, usually to no avail. Too many people have an aversion to trying it because they perceive it to be the television equivalent of a chick flick. In truth, it was a smartly written show with brilliant performances and some of the wittiest pop culture references ever to grace the tube. On the movie end of things, I’d highly recommend people binge-watch the ’80s horror films released this summer by Scream Factory. The company has put out high-end Blu-Rays of The Howling, Lifeforce, The Fog, Ninja III: The Domination, and Swamp Thing in the past three months, with Q: The Winged Serpent dropping this week. Aside from revisiting some great vintage horror flicks, you also get primo bonus goodies. I really can’t think of a better way to spend a few days of TV viewing.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

As a devout follower of Aaron Sorkin and a political junkie, I’d say that now is the perfect time to dive headfirst into The West Wing and see what all the fuss was about. It was one of the first shows I ever binge watched, and with cinemas not likely to offer much for a little bit, turning on Netflix and watching this drama is as rewarding as anything else out there right now. I came to the party late on it, but better late than never…

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Parenthood warrants your attention. I prefer it to Jason Katims’ previous/similar series, Friday Night Lights, primarily for existing outside the frustrating high school football culture. Instead, we get a thoroughly appealing Bay Area setting with the best cast and dramatic writing on network TV. (Parks and Rec still has it beat, maybe in both departments, but you already knew that.) Each season with the Braverman family grows richer and those experiencing their stories for the first time are in for a treat.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics.com, Movies.com

Before Seth McFarlane’s new Cosmos documentary miniseries hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, we should all go back and watch the Carl Sagan version from 1980. It’s on Netflix Instant. 

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I’m actually working my way through The Sopranos for the first time at the moment, having recently decided to take stock of my life and repent for past Criticwire Survey sins. The only problem with coming to such a landmark series so late in the day is that there’s not much that can be added to the already well-worn party line celebrating just how great the series is. I’d recommend that others who haven’t (all three of them) follow suit and check out The Sopranos

Scott Nye, Criterion Cast, Battleship Pretension

With the demise of Happy Endings (which everyone should watch on DVD regardless), the series about which I’m most excited this fall is New Girl. Aside from just being the funniest show in my rotation, it utilizes very simple sitcom set-ups that allow a viewer to jump in at pretty much any episode, while still developing character over the arc of the series. Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield give among the best performances currently gracing television, the former being an almost reflexively compelling screen presence, while the latter seems willing to do almost anything within the bounds of the FCC’s increasingly flexible good taste. The first season is streaming on Netflix, though the second — frustratingly — won’t even hit DVD until after the third premieres. It can be bought on digital platforms, though, and Hulu is currently cycling through various episodes.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I don’t watch much TV. but I’m hooked on White Collar. I caught an episode of this series a few years ago and enjoyed it’s It Takes a Thief vibe and Matt Bomer’s, um, charisma. I finally got around to binging on Season 3, which had some truly amazing episodes. I think this show just crackles on all levels–the stylish visuals and locations, the witty script and clever plotting, the quirky characters (love Mozzie and Diana), and did I mention the charming and seductive Matt Bomer? This show is perfect escapism and worth a look. I hope to catch up on Season 4. I’ve only managed to see the first episode and am on tenterhooks!–before Season 5 starts in October. Any other White Collar fans out there?

Ryan McNeil, The Matinee

This brief wasteland we find ourselves in poses a small problem. It’s too short to get into a 1-hour drama that ran for four or five seasons (like The Wire or Fringe) and too long for a show that had one or two seasons and then died (like Firefly or Freaks and Geeks). However, it’s just long enough to get into a 22 minute comedy and watch two or three episodes a night. So what better way to get in some early autumn entertainment, and honor the beginning of football season ,than by going back to the beginning of The League? The cast is killer, the writing is top shelf, and the way it manages to rise above being “a comedy about fantasy football” makes it play to more than the beer-drinking, wing-eating base.

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com

Something light is more appropriate for the end of
summer. Over the past few weeks, we’ve caught up on the most recent
seasons of How I Met Your Mother (dire) and Modern Family (cute). Orange
Is the New Black
is also fun, but I’m not sure why it’s been hailed as
the best thing since sliced bread, in certain circles at least. Of
course, the real question is do you really want to spend the last days
of summer watching television?

Q: What is the best movie currently in theaters?

A: The World’s End.

Other movies receiving multiple votes: Blue JasmineShort Term 12Computer ChessAin’t Them Bodies SaintsThe Spectacular Now.

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