By Sarah A. Spitz

 

If you’re anything like me, in these post-election weeks you’ve been bouncing between seeking ways to take positive action and hiding your head in the sand to avoid the news. It’s times like these that I’m grateful for escapist fare, whether in books or on the screen.

I recently finished reading “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, a wonderful memoir about life in the sciences, with all its triumphs and defeats; “The Marriage Plot,” a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides that touches on love, ego, academia and obsession; “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben, a testament to those majestic beings whose ways of communicating are simply astounding (and tragic in light of the death of more than 100 million trees in California); and I’m just wrapping up “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant, a fictional historical novel about a woman painter in Savanarola’s Florence, who’s ultimately forced to leave her privileged but problematic life for a convent. All these books came from Santa Monica Public Library, and I’m oh so appreciative.

But I’ve also been delving into online streaming services for programs that are out of the ordinary. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the wonder of iPad mirroring and Apple TV, I’ve been watching some remarkable TV series that have succeeded in getting me out of my head.

I’m very fond of “Transparent,” the much-lauded and awarded Amazon original series starring Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch of a family of misfits who decides late in life to become a woman. It’s on many lists of what to watch for good reason. I keep hoping it will never end.

I’m nuts about “Good Girls Revolt,” also on Amazon, which although fictional is based on a real story about women working at a national news magazine who decide to sue for equal pay and recognition. There’s a lot to like here; the characters have complex lives, they also represent so many different facets of feminism as it was evolving, as do the women in the series. Like “Transparent,” it’s a moment in time that marks a cultural shift. I’m parceling out the remaining episodes because I want it to continue forever.

Amazon’s Brit-com “Fleabag” has grabbed my attention. This six episode series aired over the summer on BBC and originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a play. It’s odd and oddly compelling and it took me a minute to get on its wavelength. Fleabag is performed and written by actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge whose face is a marvel of expressivity, often looking into the camera to convey her thoughts. Silent movie stars were all about the pathos of the face but Fleabag manages to reveal much more with just a raised eyebrow.

Fleabag lives in London, she’s in a yo-yo relationship with her ex, she has a frightening godmother/stepmother and a buttoned-up sister. She’s both biting and bitter but really funny, and the show pushes sexual boundaries in a provocative way so keep the little ones away.

I was heartbroken when Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” ended but I see a teaser for Season 3 so I’m newly hopeful. It’s about the lives and loves of members of a fictional orchestra in New York, with all the juicy gossip and bitchy relationships, both personal and professional, that you could hope for, plus politics between management and union, the perils of fundraising, and a delicious rivalry between the brash, unorthodox young South American conductor (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is brought in to replace the long-time, egocentric, mainstream maestro of many years (Malcolm McDowell).

For fans of flawed detectives, “Bosch” is outstanding. Michael Connelly, the mystery writer who created the character Harry Bosch, has been writing some of the best LA-based cop/detective mystery books on the market for many years, and this series is based on that character. Harry’s a clean cop who’s not afraid to play dirty to get at the truth. The series is gritty and deeply engaging and star Titus Welliver in the title role is perfect. There are 10 episodes each in Seasons 1 and 2.

Now for Netflix, which has just released the new “Gilmore Girls.” I wasn’t a huge fan of the original so I haven’t watched this one but I’ll give it a test run. I did, however, plunge into the truly insane world of “Stranger Things,” but I had to let it go. Winona Ryder is absolutely awful, one note and screechy, plus whatever has been done to her face makes it a distraction from the plot.

I did, however, watch the entire “Master of None” series starring Aziz Ansari about the ins and outs of an ethnic actor’s life. It’s very clever, and has a unique framing device that initially made me think it was just a five-minute feature. Keep watching. Aziz is talented, the supporting cast is excellent and the situations feel both comedic and genuine.

I have fallen in line with all the other critics who tout the series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper — who gives new meaning to the word ebullient — was locked in an underground bunker for 15 years by a doomsday cult leader (strangely portrayed by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) and escapes to New York, where she is promptly robbed of her settlement money and finds a job as a nanny for a rich, neurotic, entitled woman and her nasty teenage daughter. She also lands an apartment with an aspiring gay, black Broadway singer (Tituss Burgess) and an eccentric landlady (Carol Kane). But Kimmy’s positive and resilient nature always finds a winning way in a harsh 21st century world. It’s outlandish but that’s half the joy of this series.

 

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at culturewatch@smdp.com.

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