Streaming services are competing with traditional TV networks with an increasingly diverse, occasionally brilliant, sometimes sucky slew of original programs. Upside? More outlets for creative minds to create shows, with viewers reaping the entertaining benefits (as well as the ability to motor through entire seasons in a weekend). Downside? So many options it's difficult to weed out the crap, or even find the new stuff lurking in our queues of stand-up specials and old sitcoms.
We're here to help. We watched the first episode (and only the first episode) of two new series that recently debuted on Netflix in order to determine if they were worth a binge. Here are the results.
There's no fighting the sense of familiarity that comes with the first episode of Ozark. For anyone familiar with television drama of the past decade, the travails of a seemingly mild-mannered, hangdog, middle-class white guy dragged ever deeper into a shady criminal underworld — ostensibly for the good of his family — will immediately call to mind Walter White's Heisenberg devolution in Breaking Bad.
That's an impossibly high standard, of course, but the first episode of Ozark is compelling enough to have high hopes for the rest of the 10-episode season. Jason Bateman is the primary reason why, thanks to his performance as Marty Byrde, a man who publicly is a Chicago-based freelance financial advisor — a boring guy who obsessively reads Consumer Reports and whose business partner mocks him by saying "I live in Trump Tower, you drive a Toyota Corolla" — but in actuality launders money for the second-largest drug cartel in Mexico.
In Episode 1, Marty learns that his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) is cheating on him and his business partner is scamming the cartel, setting off an occasionally frantic series of events where he suddenly has to wheel and deal his way into $8 million in 48 hours, then immediately move his family to the Missouri lake of the show's title with the promise of laundering $500 million more of the cartel's money — all just to survive.
Bateman is an executive producer on the series and directed this first episode, and he showcases some serious skills behind the camera to go along with his subdued performance in front of it. His partnership with Linney — Wendy knows all about his criminal ventures — has some promise, as does the series criminal enterprise moving to small-town America.
Binge-worthy? The first episode is well done, and ends with a couple of twists, including the last-minute introduction of FBI agents joining the dynamic between Bateman's character and the violent Mexican cartel. It's definitely worth continuing on to Episode 2. (DAN NAILEN)
FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE
Here's a question I've often asked myself while sitting through a number of Judd Apatow-ian comedies: Are these characters meant to be unlikable? I think we're supposed to care about the characters in Friends from College, though the very notion of being in the physical company of anyone like them fills me with an almost existential dread.
It's no surprise, then, that the series was partly the brainchild of Nicholas Stoller, a Brit whose film work has included such Apatow productions as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. The premise behind the show, which Stoller co-created with his wife Francesca Delbanco, is that a bunch of Harvard chums have recently reconnected in New York City, and we look on as they mismanage personal affairs, professional conflicts and other hazards of adulthood.
The cast — including the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders and Fred Savage — is solid, and the scripts have been handled by veterans of the 30 Rock, Arrested Development and Silicon Valley writers' rooms. But Friends from College too often succumbs to what Roger Ebert referred to as the Idiot Plot: So many of the series' dramatic entanglements would be over in an instant if everyone involved possessed even a modicum of intelligence.
The characters here are often maddeningly inconsistent in terms of temperament and common sense. Key's Ethan, for instance, is supposed to be a deeply intellectual, critically beloved novelist, and yet he's so oblivious to basic human social cues that you start to wonder how he's even able to operate a standard keyboard. I'd watch Keegan-Michael Key do just about anything, but playing a dummy isn't one of those things.
Binge-worthy? There are only eight episodes, so knocking out the whole season on a hungover afternoon would be relatively painless. It's sometimes pretty funny, but will I be sticking around for the whole season? Definitely not. (NATHAN WEINBENDER)