What to Watch

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The first in an occasional series.

By now, everyone is familiar with the now overused “Netflix and chill,” (its  “actual” meaning varies based on age, probably). But as streaming and subscription services grow in popularity, more and more options are offered to viewers through the aforementioned Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Roku, YouTube Red and even, still, the increasingly irrelevant cable television.

This week, we look at two series available on Netflix, a service known for offering highly regarded foreign productions. Netflix probably offers the most user-friendly interface (at least in comparison to Prime and Hulu). You’re given many options to choose something to watch, which includes such sub-views as “Recently Added” and the specificity of movies or television shows exclusive to the service, genres and more.

But all services are frustrating when you’re “just” looking for something to watch. You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself an hour into your search, scrolling through to see which show to watch, if something sounds interesting, but not for right now, you can add it to your watchlist (each service calls it something else, but it’s basically putting a semi-interesting or more show into a relatively easy area to access). You might find a potential, but —  if you find yourself several “pages” into the scrolling, and can’t, for the life of you, remember what that show was called, and can’t find it when you search (and you didn’t make it a “watch later”) — you’re definitely not alone.

When you find something you like, and you post about it on Facebook or Instagram, you’re likely to get a rounding positive response. Let’s face it, what better than to get suggestions from friends, one that you can easily look up through the “search” field? It’s a time saver, cutting the scrolling time by providing the recommendation of someone they (hopefully) trust.

In general, subtitles can be a pain in the ass, whether it’s because they flash too quickly or too slowly, you wonder if the translation is accurate, and, most frustratingly, you cannot step away to just “listen” to the dialogue (unless you’re one of the lucky bi- tri- or multi-lingual). You cannot look down and fold clothes or pick up your room. When you’re watching a show with subtitles, you have to pay attention, you have to look at the screen. And if you’re like us, it better be damned compelling to keep you seated, eyes always on the screen.

That said — while we have avoided subtitled shows at every opportunity — we can share and recommend some truly amazing series that are best watched with subtitles. I say “best watched” because two of them do provide the opportunity to switch audio to English. We tried this initially and soon discovered it greatly lessens the impact of the series (Dark) because it sounds, to an untrained ear, like they’ve used the same male voice actor to “be” all the men, and a female voice actor to do the same for women characters. And voice-over delivery, while it can be good and as exciting as any podcast or radio drama, can also be pretty bad. If you are frequently reminded you’re watching actors, you are pulled out of the moment. In the case of a really great production, opt for the subtitles.

Babylon Berlin

This Netflix series features a whopping 16 episodes (seemingly a lot for what are usually limited series, with no more than 12). Each is almost an hour, others longer. BB is set in the Weimar Republic, 15-years before the Third Reich (but many breadcrumbs lead characters and viewers to coming Fascist takeover), and centers on Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police commissioner still recovering from suffering shell shock after his WWI service.   Rath has been temporarily transferred from tony Cologne to the grittier Berlin. There, he meets a part-time typist/occasional call-girl Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries).

When Ritter gets a longer-term contract at the Berlin PD, she and Rath inadvertently become entangled in a prostitute/pornography ring which may possibly involve patrons from the upper echelon of the city.

The most expensive German television show ever produced, the costumes and sets are lavish and beautiful, the acting is top-notch. It is utterly gripping and compelling. You’ll often hear it described as “sooooo good” from those who are in the midst of it or have just finished it. And they’d be right.

Watch it with the subtitles, pay attention (once you get hooked, you’ll have no choice), and schedule it so that you don’t have significant breaks in-between viewings (meaning, don’t start it before a long trip).

Dark

Lest you wonder if we’re on a German kick, the answer is no, it just happens that two of the series are from the land of Lederhosen, Schnitzel, Currywurst and great beer. They’re also both on Netflix.

This beautifully executed sci-fi thriller series is set in Winden, a town where children are increasingly going missing. Ten episodes chronicle the mystery. As we mentioned above, this is one to definitely watch in the original language, with subtitles as the English audio version definitely distracts from the suspense, storyline and performances. We’re not giving away any spoilers when we say time travels involved, but not in anyway you’ve seen before. The series is alternately set in 1986, 2019 and 1953.

It’s surprisingly easy to follow and crazy engaging. The storyline revolves around four prominent (and/or notorious) families during those three periods in their lives.

The main character is a handsome teen named Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann), but there’s a definite range of ages and the series, with its strong and addictive story, is appealing to adults.

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N.F. Mendoza is a Culver City resident, who has worked at the Los Angeles Times (staff writer), People Magazine (staff correspondent) and TV Guide (West Coast News Editor), among other publications. For several years, she was a regular reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter, an entertainment-industry trade publication. She has freelanced for Daily Variety, Readers Digest, USA Today, Emmy Magazine, Animation Magazine, The Seattle Times, Inside Television. Two columns she wrote weekly for the TV Times section of the Los Angeles Times were syndicated nationally. She is the author of four chapters of the book I (Heart) TV by the editors of TV guide. She currently teaches college-level composition and continues to work as a freelance writer and editor.

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