Bingeing Series on WebTV in 2020-2021
Reviews by Peter Hulm
South Korea gets obsessed with historic Grenada, Spain, and virtual reality
Memories of the Alhambra (2018), Netflix original
Surely you will get tired of the soupy ballads, the apparent obsession with shoes, and the long pauses for the stars Hyun Bin and Park Shin to stare at each other. But South Korea's "first augmented reality-gaming drama", apparently inspired by Pokemon Go and the biography of Elon Musk, has enough neat twists from Song Jae-jung, its now 47-year-old creator, to keep you entertained to the end of its 18 episodes.
You might not have realized that South Koreans have become obsessed with Granada in Spain or that Koreans who play guitar have to learn Francisco Tárrega's eponymous classical guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra. But there is also cynical repartee from Hyun, and a performance from Lee Re as the kid sister that threatens to steal the show.
It is also a marketing pioneer. It has a two-hour soundtrack of songs, and the product placement, particularly in episode 12, angered some critics. But if you don't know about video games, you can learn what missions, levelling up and alliances are all about — as well as gamers' obsession with outdated military technology.
So learn to live for the duration with a series created half by a 14-year-old nerd and a teen girl enamoured of romance comics, it seems.
A modern Pennsylvanian (!) Western
Despite its 93,100 and 100% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes for its second to fourth (final) seasons, Banshee launched with an air of desperation. An attempt by Cinemax to expand its original content, with tax credits from North Carolina, the series was noted for its "parade of sex scenes, soft-porn variety, whose noisiness is exceeded only by their unconvincingness" and violence. It gave Cinemax its highest ratings for an original series at that time.
But even its first season (scoring 64% on Rotten Tomatoes) was by no means always repellent. The contrasting of American crime against a hardhearted Amish community and a casino-obsessed Indian tribe in Pennsylvania(!) seemed ludicrous until you realized it was an updated Western, and showed (not deliberately, it seems) how ludicrous Western values are, along with the implicit message, common to many Westerns, that justice has nothing to do with the law.
Even the first season numerous sardonic one-liners, and the series lifts itself up a notch every time Tong Hoon Lee appears onscreen as a transvestite computer wiz. The violence may be frequent but it is not repetitive, sometimes taking up to 25 hours to film. And you might even notice how well the actors cope with their parts (Antony Starr as the criminal turned sheriff, Ulrich Proctor as the local villain, ex-Amish kid turned Banshee boss (rancher, here meat packing king) Kai Proctor, Ben Cross as the Ukrainian outside supervillain, and Rus Blackwell as the hapless district attorney. The main women all seem to run to one type: long straight hair and pouty faces — Ivana Milicevic (the ex-lover), Trieste Kelly Dunn (the female police deputy), Lili Simmons (a young ex-Amish girl), and Ryann Shane (a rebellious schoolgirl). So you may have difficulty telling them apart. Odette Annable as an Indian woman warrior stands out, however.
And there's also Frankie Faison from The Wire, Matt Servitto (ex-The Sopranos), Demetrius Grosse from Justified, Julian Sands (Room with a View) and Zeljiko Ivanek (ex-Damages) who give the episodes unexpected class. Presumably they were tempted by association with producer Alan Ball, author of Six Feet Under and True Blood as well as the author of American Beauty.
Ball, some critics have suggested, was seeking to re-establish his commercial credentials after True Blood. "Like True Blood, Banshee is best when it embraces its outlandish story with a sense of humor," was the judgement. "But the show often ends up so ostentatiously bloody and dark that it’s unintentionally funny. This is especially true of anything around Proctor, an estranged-Amish villain so cartoonishly evil that he cuts off a henchman’s finger and feeds it to his dog, so depraved that he has one of the prostitutes he employs service him while wearing an Amish woman’s bonnet and so warped that, as this act happens, we see that he has a full-back tattoo of Christ on the cross [:] cliched pay-cable gore."
Nevertheless, those high second and subsequent ratings may tempt you to stick with it past the often risible Season 1. You can't believe some ways the sheriff behaves (particularly on television, where his imposture could be, surely, easily recognized by someone). But it is never less than carefully filmed and edited. And it does get better, believe me.