What to Binge-Watch This Holiday Season: The Gritty and the Even Grittier

If you’re like me and like gritty, complex crime and mystery dramas, you’re in luck. My wife Ann and I have recently binge-watched a number of dark, layered, sometimes over-the-top series. Check these out if you haven’t already.

I should also mention the Icelandic movie I Remember You–a supernatural thriller currently showing on cable (under new movies for rent) that holds up much better than most and is definitely worth your time.

On Netflix…

THE BREAK – A Belgian series in which a detective returning to the village of his birth must battle the betrayals of the townsfolk and an incompetent department as well as his own personal demons to solve the murder of an African-born soccer player on the local lower-division team. An intense performance from the lead and subplots involving a controversial dam, S&M, as well as a frame in a psych ward and multiple twists, easily lift this fascinating drama above the usual fare.

DARK MATTER – Unfairly canceled after three seasons on SyFy, Dark Matter gets a new audience on Netflix (including me). This is ostensibly a space opera, but it’s got noirish qualities and also a huge central mystery: why can’t the outlaw members of a spacecraft’s crew remember who they are? The answers and the character development are suitably surprising and the ensemble cast is superb from first to last. I must admit that it was rough going through the first three or four episodes, but around episode 5 it all clicked for me and the show found its sea legs. This is space opera the way it should be done, and with a diverse cast, and whether you like SF or not, I think you’ll be satisfied.

HOTEL BEAU SEJOUR – A murdered teenager comes back as a ghost to investigate her own murder, which involves the hotel of the title. Set in a small Belgian town whose inhabitants have plenty of secrets, Hotel Beau Sejour bears some surface similarities to The Break (Belgian, small town, secrets) but it is completely different. The reason some can see the murdered teen and others can’t is carefully thought-out, and once you get used to the conceit, it’s seamless. Complex, at times heart-breaking, and with lots of reversals. Nice, too, that the lead detectives are both women.

MINDHUNTER – One of the most perfect series I’ve ever seen, with multi-faceted, flawed characters and generating suspense through character development, the FBI protagonists’ interviews with serial killers in prison, and ongoing serial-killer investigations. Shot in the wonderfully dark style David Fincher is known for, and with unexpected humor as well. We were captivated from the first moment to the last and can’t remember a show so perfectly paced or thought-out. The last episode of season one is perfect.

On Amazon…

TRAPPED – The Icelandic series Trapped is just completely over-the-top in the best possible way. From a first episode that seems fairly conventional in which a former star detective estranged from his wife and now working in a crappy little town must deal with human trafficking and the discovery of a corpse with no arms, legs, or head, the show just goes into overdrive. This show has everything–avalanches, lots more deaths, family intrigue, long-time town secrets, a harbor deal with the Chinese that goes terribly wrong, and much more. After episode three we felt like we’d seen ten episodes of any other show, it’s so jam-packed. Yet at the same time the portrait of the detective and other characters is pretty deep and the action never seems rushed. Highly recommended.

On Shudder…

JORDSKOTT – This Swedish series features the disappearance of children connected to a development project that will destroy old-growth forest. The lead detective’s daughter, missing for years, returns in an altered state. Something weird is swimming in the river through the forest. Why are there so many tunnels that end in various old houses? Why the heck does that dude have gills? Why are so many people being murdered? If these questions intrigue you, Jordskott is for you. The last episode of the season is a little bit of a let-down, with terrible blocking on some action scenes and a few things that could’ve been tightened up. But as a whole, the series is original enough that we recommend watching, and look forward to season 2.

MISSIONS – A French show in which a mission to Mars by a wealthy billionaire discovers a cosmonaut supposedly dead for fifty years, among other mysteries. Although the fact the credits take up three minutes of every 20-minute episode is a bit much, the show has much to offer, including a grade-A-quality infusion of that frisson of Mars mystery dread some of us really enjoy. Season one leaves things on a cliffhanger, but it’s a tight show that deserves your patience in waiting for season 2.

THE VALLEY – Another (German) show about a small town with secrets, this time revolving around the wine queen, who shows up dead, setting off a series of repercussions for the mysterious stranger with no memory who appears at the local pub around the same time. If for no other reason than to prove his own innocence, the stranger sets off on a quest to solve the mystery…but in doing so, will he unlock secrets about himself that he doesn’t want to know? The resolution to this gothic psychological thriller will either resonate or have you wanting to throw the TV across the room. (For the younger folks–a TV is a large rectangular object oldsters used to watch their shows on.)

On Starz…
(Cable–not under the general TV Shows category, but under Starz only, weirdly in a subcategory that includes shows like Alf! Good hunting)

MONSTER – This Norwegian murder mystery involving a cultish religion, a series of disappearances in the present-day and the past, is, in the end, the most over-the-top and moody of the shows recommended here. The first episode is very ordinary, but then it picks up, with five episodes in a row that are just totally ridiculous in various ways (good ways). An odd perk is the incompetence of the local police, which at times seems deliberate on the part of the show’s creators and then not so deliberate. Why is it that someone who trains a machine gun on two police officers and then tries to kill them doesn’t wind up in prison but is walking around free a moment later? How come anyone who wants to can just sneak into the evidence room and mess with stuff? Honestly, in any other show this would have us turning the show off. But with Monster, with bog-quicksand scenes and an epic battle between epic-ly naked men, a lot of stuff burning to the ground, and a cop who might be one of the biggest bastards you’ve ever seen on the screen…who cares. Just fill in a few gaps with your brain–fan fic anyone?–and you’ll no doubt enjoy the ride.


2 comments on “What to Binge-Watch This Holiday Season: The Gritty and the Even Grittier

  1. Heard you on “On the Media. “Nice!

    I am a former fundamentalist. We were always taught to believe that the earth was in it final days, thus why treat it well, just enjoy?, etc. I no longer believe that, however I continue to think that there are many true-believers who promote that mind-set. I think that they are primarily responsible for climate-change deniers and that unbelief that our earth is in peril.

    Michael Grass
    Wyoming, MI

  2. Ivan Kornev says:

    biologist’s husband (11 expedition) suffering from claustrophobia. claustrophobia and service in the Navy are incompatible. Sorry about my english.

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