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THE ESSEX SERPENT (APPLE TV+)
Returning to the spotlight for the first time since her award-winning eight season run as troubled CIA Agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland, Claire Danes is at the top of her game in this new Victorian period drama.
Based on Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed 2016 novel of the same name, the six-part tale sees the triple Emmy Winner play Cora Seaborne.
Recently widowed, she decides to moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. Once there, she forms a surprising bond of science and skepticism with a local pastor (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
Following a terrific trio of evocative feature films –The Selfish Giant, Dark Water and Ali & Ava – that showcase a sense of space and place, as well as complicated human interactions, director Clio Barnard’s television series debut is a stunning piece of work that draws you in with its provocative premise, sumptuous costuming and production design and promise of an intriguing mystery to unravel.
HACKS (TVNZ ONDMAND)
When she wasn’t stealing scenes as Kate Winslet’s character’s plain-speaking mother in last year’s Mare of Easttown, Jean Smart was starring in this acerbic 10-part tale (finally screening here almost a year after its US debut) about an established Las Vegas comedian who is advised to modernize her act in order to save her career.
However, she immediately clashes with the much younger writer she hires.
“There are plenty of laughs along the way, but it’s the unforced emotional truths that make Hacks a right and proper vehicle for Smart,” wrote The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan.
Eight great shows to stream this week.
* Neon’s First Lady, Amazon’s Outer Range, Apple’s Roar amongst April’s must see TV
* Downton 2, Fantastic Beasts 3, New Zealand-shot X amongst April’s must see movies
* Question Team: Richard Ayoade and friends hilariously ‘rewrite the panel show’
* The Chase USA: Bigger money, extra Jeopardy, but somehow not quite as much fun
* Winning Time: Neon’s wildly entertaining look back at a crazy decade
Night Sky is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
NIGHT SKY (AMAZON)
Sissy Spacek and JK Simmons play Irene and Franklin York, an elderly couple who, years ago, discovered a chamber that leads to a deserted planet in this eight-part drama.
They’ve carefully guarded their secret ever since, but when an enigmatic young man enters their lives, the Yorks’ quiet existence is quickly upended…and the mystifying chamber they thought they knew so well turns out to be much more than they could ever have imagined.
“Ultimately, this series addresses the restorative power of taking a leap of faith, and the enduring mystery of the unknown, and honors the capacity of two exceptional actors… to hold the story together with their emotional gravitational pull,” wrote The Wrap’s Thelma Adams.
OBI-WAN KENOBI (DISNEY+)
Yes, it’s another piece that connects the dots of Star Wars’ Skywalker nonology.
A bridge between the much-maligned prequels and the movie that started it all some 45 years ago.
But, while the six-part Obi-Wan Kenobi series’ central narrative may also bear a striking similarity to the hugely successful Mandalorian (instead of “Baby Yoda” we have our eponymous lead acting as guardian to “tween Leia”) it also offers new hope.
Now almost 25 year older and wiser than when he first took on the Guinness-lilt and lightsaber for The Phantom Menace, Ewan McGregor feels like the perfect fit for the world-weary and broken Jedi master.
Prehistoric Planet is now available to stream on Apple TV+.
PREHISTORIC PLANET (APPLE TV+)
Produced by the world-renowned team at BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit and the visual effects crew who helped bring Jon Favreau’s The Lion King and The Jungle Book to life, this five-part series presents little-known and surprising facts of dinosaur life set against the backdrop of the environments of Cretaceous times, including coasts, deserts, freshwater, ice worlds and forests.
“It’s an impressive and visually audacious feat to behold, one that gains more documentary cred from landing the highly regarded Sir David Attenborough as narrator,” wrote San Jose Mercury News’ Randy Myers, while The Telegraph’s Anita Singh thought, “the dinosaurs look as real as any animal you see in a wildlife documentary. This is the point.”
THE RESPONDER (TVNZ ONDMAND)
While not nearly as dark as Cracker or Luther, nor boasting the attention-to-detail and police politics of Line of Duty, this is nevertheless an absorbing character study and cracking thriller.
Cleverly crafted by former Merseyside police officer Tony Schumacher, it purposefully only drops hints as to troubled police officer Chris Carson’s high-flying past and fall from grace, leaving the viewer desperate to know more, while also unsure which way Martin Freeman’s character will play things .
That’s also testament to Freeman’s skill as an actor, making you forget his past baggage as a Baggins and Dr. Watson and ensuring you care about his ultimate fate, even as you’re not convinced he’s going to end up on the right side of the law.
Season 4 of Stranger Things is now available to stream on Netflix.
STRANGER THINGS (NETFLIX)
The Duffer Brothers’ enveloping and engrossing sci-fi drama is back with a bang.
Since its debut in 2016, this has been one of the most beloved Netflix series, its mix of warm nostalgia and compelling chills making for a potent combination. While it might wear its 1980s inspirations on its sleeve, bedroom walls and in its very DNA, its wider appeal is down to the whip-smart dialogue, terrific tension building and multiple storylines.
Those three elements are very much to the fore as the hugely anticipated fourth season begins just a few months after the “battle of Starcourt Mall”. A trio of opening plot threads nicely mix character moments with deepening mysteries, as the show delivers copious thrills, more than a couple of truly creepy moments and plenty of 1980s pop-culture references for Gen-Xers like myself to revel in during seven super- sized (between 63 and 77-minutes) episodes.
In just the opening installment, there’s the terrific use of Kate Bush’s atmospheric Running Up That Hill, a magnificent throwaway use of a classic line from The Empire Strikes Back and a hilarious reference to an iconic movie moment: “53 minutes and five seconds into Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, as one character observes.
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN (DISNEY+)
The latest adult drama to make its unlikely home on Disney+ is further proof that Andrew Garfield is in the acting form of his life.
Based on Jon Krakauer’s (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air) 2003 investigation into the 1984 murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Under the Banner of Heaven sees the 38-year-old American-born, England-raised Garfield play East Rockwell, Utah Detective Jeb Pyre.
Like 99 per cent of the town, he’s a god-fearing member of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), using the teachings of Joseph Smith to guide his actions and way of life. But he is shaken to the core by the “house of horrors” he encounters one evening, a 24-year-old and her 15-month daughter brutally slain, their blood splattered across a wide area.
Strip away the religious trappings and investigation into the history of one particular faith and, at its heart, Under the Banner of Heaven is quite simply a terrific true crime dramatisation. Gripping and dripping with dramatic tension, this feels like a lost series of True Detective.