As oldies are encouraged to stay at home and watch Netflix because of coronavirus, Miriam Gross says the streaming network produces greater art than cinema and theatre
Whenever I mention to friends that I’ve been spending my evenings watching a South Korean, Turkish or Australian series on Netflix, they laugh in an indulgent, supercilious, ‘Isn’t she a hoot?’ sort of way.
They seem to think that, now I’m an oldie, I’ve given up on culture altogether and succumbed cheerfully to undemanding shlock.
How wrong my friends are. Little do they realise that some of these TV series are great art. Great art of the kind you rarely find these days either in films or in new plays, or in many of the BBC’s predictably woke dramatic productions. The PM is quite right to launch a review into the annual licence fee. (Incidentally, Netflix costs considerably less.)
The best of these dramas are comparable, in terms of creative talent, to the great Russian and English novels of the 19th century. The genre of TV series, with its numerous episodes, provides boundless scope for plot development, subtle characterisation and charting the ups and downs of relationships. Gifted directors and writers all over the world are making excellent use of this format.
Of course the majority of Netflix dramas are routine entertainment, more often than not packed with horrible scenes of gratuitous sex and violence. But a large minority are high-quality thrillers – such as the French police series Spiral (which has also been shown on BBC Four), and the Spanish I Know Who You Are – or charming and witty romantic comedies, such as Call My Agent, which follows the chaotic goings-on in the offices of a Parisian theatrical agency. History-based dramatisations – notably Narcos, a gripping account of the Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar – are also well worth watching.
All in all, Netflix is particularly suitable for oldies. In fact, it’s a godsend. It means not having to struggle to the nearest cinema in the rain; it means not having to sit through a seemingly endless stream of unendurable advertisements, announcements and previews; and it means not being disappointed by an over- hyped movie. It also costs much less.
Yet many older – mainly middle-class – people spurn Netflix. Maybe it’s snobbery – of the kind people felt when television first became available in the mid-20th century. Or they think that accessing it is just too technically complicated – perhaps the letter x in Netflix unconsciously suggests the word ‘complex’.
Whatever the reason, in truth joining couldn’t be simpler. Yes, you have to subscribe, as you do for any service. But after that, all you need do is click on the Netflix icon. Nearly all sets now have one. On my Toshiba, this icon appears in the middle of the screen as soon as I switch the TV on.
As it happens, various people I know have recently overcome their Netflix aversion, thanks to The Crown, which they were determined not to miss. The Crown perfectly illustrates the advantages of the series format, though it’s by no means among the best. (And the inclusion of so many invented incidents in what purports to be a historical representation of living people is unforgivable.)
Of all the outstanding productions I’ve seen, Breaking Bad, the acclaimed American series which started in 2008, is still the most memorable. It’s the story of a good man driven by circumstances to become a bad man – and it seems to me to be a masterpiece. Don’t be put off by its opening episodes. As in the case of 19th-century classic novels, these long series sometimes take a bit of getting into.
Less widely known in this country, though a huge success in Asia, is All Quiet in Peking, a superb Chinese drama set in 1948, during the civil war. It’s partly a story of espionage and corruption, and it also has a strong love interest.
Talking of love, Secret Affair, a South Korean account of an illicit relationship between a piano teacher and her much younger pupil, is exceptionally moving. Indeed, the South Korean TV industry seems to be flourishing, judging by the quantity of its productions available on Netflix. The quality is variable, but there are many hits. President, an absorbing political thriller, is one of them.
Israel, too, has a thriving movie industry and many of its productions can be seen on Netflix. Shtisel – a saga built around the lives and loves of an orthodox Jewish family – is a bit of a masterpiece. Totally different in character and also excellent is Fauda, which depicts the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers in a remarkably even-handed way.
By the way, Netflix changes its menu quite often; so some of the titles I’ve mentioned may already have been removed. But it is not, of course, the only streaming service. Prime Video and several other networks are fast catching up and they often show the same films and TV series as Netflix.
So spending evenings at home is in no way a retreat into passivity. It can be the only way of discovering some of the most brilliant creative work being produced in this era. And not just for oldies.