The streaming industry has seen a great boom this year. With most people were confined to their houses, digital platforms capitalized on the environment in truly scalable ways.
But in their struggle to flood the marketplace with that cringeworthy word – ‘content’ – they perhaps underestimated how easily ‘quality’ could be muffled by the din.
Consider the stand-out series of 2019 – Watchmen, Unbelievable, Chernobyl, Made in Heaven, Delhi Crime etc. To have just one such show would make a year, but to get six in the same 12-month stretch? It’s bananas.
In its attempt to produce a show on par with Netflix’s Sacred Games, Amazon Prime might have unwittingly outdone itself. Paatal Lok, directred by Sudip Sharma, is a great achievement on virtually every level, and despite all its similarities to the path-breaking Netflix series — it is also a cop show with mythological overtones — it is perhaps the most confident step in the evolution of Indian streaming since its conception itself.
As a hinterland crime story, the show is breathtakingly realised. And in Hathi Ram Chaudhary, star Jaideep Ahlawat has created one of the most memorable characters ever put on Indian streaming
Murder on Middle Beach
HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach is an great piece of personal storytelling. It began as a college project for first time filmmaker Madison Hamburg, through which he could document the events following his mother’s murder.
But then it transformed into something else entirely. During the course of his examination, the always empathetic Madison discovers a side to his mother that he’d never known; he unearths stories of jealousy and betrayal within his family, and confronts his frayed relationship with his father.
Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega
While it was billed as a true-crime story – presumably to capitalize on the genre’s global popularity, towards which Netflix has played a major part – Jamtara is really a small-town family drama that mixes in familiar tropes with a fresh-faced energy.
It is a show that feels at once sprawling yet rather simplistic. Watching it unfold, without tripping over itself, I was convinced that Netflix India might finally be onto something. A solid word-out-mouth success is what makes it special.
Lush with lore and spilling with subtext, Lovecraft Country has the rare ability to be dead serious yet hugely entertaining at the same time. It’s a powerful progression for HBO, and for Black storytelling.
Inspired by the fictional universe of HP Lovecraft and based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff — written in the twilight of the Obama years — Lovecraft Country tells the story of a Vietnam War veteran named Atticus Freeman, who along with his childhood friend Leti and charming uncle George, goes on a road trip across the racially segregated (and fantastical) United States of the 1950s to hunt for his missing father. But its true joys lie in its ever-changing, episodic nature.
Never Have I Ever
Tennis legend John McEnroe’s acerbic reading of the line “Aunties are old Indian women who have no relation to you but are allowed to have opinions about your life and shortcomings” in Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographic Netflix sitcom.
McEnroe’s narration is the highlight of the series, a story about an Indian American teenager played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. It is a delicately written little show, an immigrant tale that feels just about authentic enough to survive in a world where Master of None and Little America exist.
Remember when we all became collectively obsessed with an eccentric, gun-toting, redneck named Joe Exotic?
Tiger King may have evaporated from public consciousness after its debut in March, but its cultural contributions in this terrible year can’t be overlooked. Its ethics remain as questionable as they were back when it was released, but there’s no denying that it is a riveting piece of non-fiction storytelling, and one that we’ll look back on and associate with a very particular time in human history.
The Queen’s Gambit
It’s the sort of prestige drama that Netflix should be producing more often — a show that can draw both audiences and admiration. From creator Scott Frank, The Queen’s Gambit isn’t as much a story about chess as it is a story about kindness, about how human beings can be nurtured into something special in the right environment, and how, sometimes, even the most talented can fail because of the cruelty of others.
Frank takes a classic bildungsroman approach to author Walter Tevis’ source novel, and directs The Queen’s Gambit with confidence that is matched by star Anya Taylor-Joy in her performance as the troubled genius Beth Harmon.
Much like the character himself, Ted Lasso, the show, transcends its humble beginnings to become a symbol, more meaningful than either could have ever imagined. A big reason for its success is how effortlessly it fleshes out not just Ted, the bumbling American football coach who finds himself in the UK on an unexpected gig, but also the supporting characters.
I was concerned about whether Ted Lasso would find an audience on Apple TV+, but as we’ve learned in the months since its release, not only has it been received with much-deserved warmth, it has almost single-handedly affected the reputation of its streaming home. Kudos.
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story
The second-best Hindi series of the year, from director Hansal Mehta and his son Jai, is a layered and technically refined story about that age-old conventional issue : class. You could almost imagine Harshad Mehta, played in a star-making turn by Prateek Gandhi, living a normal life had he not been made to feel inferior by upper-class men who ruled the world of finance.
You could imagine him stopping in his tracks when he became successful, confronted by the morality of his acions, had they not tried to actively remove him from their ‘superior’ eco-system. But they didn’t. Scam 1992 isn’t so much a Greek tragedy as it is an Indian cautionary tale. A thought, too, for Shreya Dhanwanthary’s character, who is in many ways an ethical antidote to Harshad.
Massively aided by a moody Mogwai score and stunning cinematic visuals, Amazon’s breathtaking crime drama has ambition to spare. Spearheaded by Sergio Sollima, ZeroZeroZero is an unholy mix of Mexican gangsters, the Italian mafia, and a family of American outlaws. It switches scale just as confidently as it navigates its layered saga of revenge and legacy. Inhale it in a single, eight-hour sitting. That’s the only way it should be consumed.