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Why American television needs John Luther

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John Luther is not a man of great style, he is not a hero, he is not a soldier, and although he is a brave man, he is not a man of great bravery. Unlike Dexter Morgan, the voices of demons in his heads are the voices of real people, in their flesh that torment his waking hours. He is not a serial killer but at times, he wants to act like one. He is intelligent, haunted, but a good detective, one who battles as many demons as criminals, and he would be perfect for American television.

Luther is a BBC produced television series that aired in the UK this past May, a brutal, distinctly British examination into the life of a murder detective and the evil within and around. Starring Idris Elba (American audiences will be familiar with him from The Wire and more recently, The Office) as John Luther, the series does not hold back from the always difficult life of a police detective- juggling his disintegrating private life (a crumbling marriage) with that of a crime fighter. While topically familiar, it is the method in which this 6-part series plays out that makes it truly memorable. Like The Wire, there is an honesty that paints a picture of grit and turmoil, an underlying imperfection that plagues Luther as a man. When the series begins, Luther is recovering from a botched assignment in which his mental well-being is put into question. Suspension from duty leaves him with nothing but his thoughts to contend with and from here, we see the character’s many layers unfold.

Through circumstances (details withheld to prevent spoilers) he meets a psychopathic woman named Alice Morgan (played with an eerie brilliance by actress Ruth Wilson) that serves as a catalyst for Luther’s constant battles with himself. Alice tortures him mentally, and the fragility of his mind comes as the cost of those around him (most notably his wife Zoe (Indira Varma). His struggles to maintain these pieces gives him an edge over more noted American television characters- who while are dealt with certain turmoil, are never quite taken down a path so dark that we, as the audience, feel genuine fear and sympathy. Unlike the Horatio Caines of the television world, the series creators seem unsympathetic towards Luther- making him strong one moment and distinctly weak the next, almost crippled. Dexter Morgan is perhaps the most similar character on television- except his demons aren’t real- they manifest themselves in his head from ghosts of his past. John Luther however, is tormented by someone who will call him on a miserable afternoon to torture for pleasure.

Procedural television series (CSI, Cold Case et al.) will sometimes have longer story arcs that prevail over the course of the season or over a few, but they will linger, leaving the audience rather exhausted over the 22 (or how ever many) episodes. Luther however, gives you 6 in which all the drama plays out with great urgency. Much of the series is beautifully shot amongst London’s monolithic cityscape. There is great use of light and momentary pauses that enhance the atmosphere of the show. Unlike the machine gun editing of their American counterparts- Luther benefits from the slower, more natural scene-to-scene transitions that rely on a little patience and imagination to hold the viewer’s attention.

Tony Soprano is long gone and time will tell whether the new series of Dexter (does Rita become another ghost in his head?) will hold as much as the previous, American television needs another strong, multi-faceted but fragile leading man. Compelling dramas like Luther come every so often to HBO, series that leave the audience with a sense of accomplishment and intrigue. The ground may have already been covered before but rarely has it been done with such conviction.

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode

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One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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Roswell: New Mexico was better than it had any business being

Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t.

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In an era where audiences are over-saturated by television remakes, it is a hard task to find one that is worth more than a dose of fleeting nostalgia. Some shows found solid ground to stand out (Hawaii Five-0 is entering its 9th(!) season?), some have rightfully disappeared into the dustbin of canceled TV shows (24: Legacy, Charlie’s AngelsHeroes: Reborn), while others have somehow continued to plod along as caricatures of their once glorious selves (how is that terrible MacGyver remake still on?).

Roswell: New Mexico, The CW remake of the 1999 series Roswell (which originally aired on The CW’s precursor channel The WB) was, like any and all remakes, met with an initial level of skepticism. Any show that manages to build an almost cult-like following will be shadowed by its cult, and anything that threatens its place will inevitably be met with derision (see the kind words left on our Nikita remake piece from a few years ago). I was one of those skeptics, as a fan of the original Roswell; a remake of a show that was good, but not great, was just plain unnecessary (although to be honest, that can be said about all these remakes).

The new show’s first season has just concluded and through the 13-episode run, surprisingly there was plenty to be impressed with. But let’s get some of the fundamentals out of the way- Roswell: New Mexico doesn’t stray too far away from the original text, both the Roswell High book series and the 1999 series. The characters involved are essentially the same- Max, Liz, Michael, Isabel- but the settings and relationships have in a way, been given a decade-long time jump. Where the book and the original series played out in the hallways of high school drama and politics, Roswell: New Mexico shows us the characters ten years later, navigating the drama and politics of dusty roads and small towns.

With that comes the added weight of current day politics, and Roswell: New Mexico does a good job balancing the political discourse of building walls, illegal aliens (the easiest of double meanings), and cultural backlash in the shadow of nationalist politics. The Liz in New Mexico is also more accurate of the original text: no longer is she Liz Parker but, as in the books, Liz Ortecho. The Ortecho family are crucial to the story of the new series, not only driving the story but setting the tone of the conflicts between the characters as well. Thankfully the Ortecho family are no caricatures of a Mexican-American family but come across as genuine and believable- which is a hard thing to do at times on the small (or big) screen. It’s small things too- language, and the use of it, being prominent. It goes a long way. With television representation becoming more diverse, Roswell: New Mexico finds itself in the funny place where their original text is finally finding its rightful place in an adaptation instead of being whitewashed for audiences.

Much like the 1999 adaptation there are enough twist and turns to keep the story progressing. It’s gripping enough for network television, but avoids being overly convoluted, with much of the drama mostly resolved by season’s end. The absurdity of aliens amongst us is done a little less kitschy, but can still come across as… aliens living in a small town. A lot happens in 13-episodes, seemingly compacting multiple story arcs presented in 1999, but the season closes out on a surprising note and one that should draw viewers into a second.

But what makes Roswell: New Mexico better than it had any business being?

The series is airing in a television climate where appeasing the current social agenda for diversity often becomes an exhausting exercise (see Charmed reboot). Often it doesn’t feel genuine, or for the reasons we should push diversity in entertainment. This comes across in the content, whether intentionally or not. A lot of this stems from the idea that diversity should be pushed through originality and fresh stories (Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish) instead of rewriting what was already written. Roswell is lucky then, that the original text was subverted to fit television, and now the series has the opportunity to be a little more faithful. It isn’t perfect- small town Caucasian characters portrayed as over-the-top bigots and racists is no better than minorities portrayed in all the ways they have been before. But I suppose the scales will have to find a balance somewhere down the road. What you have with Roswell: New Mexico is a good series that will not get the kind of press one of those glossy but flimsy shows receives (why do we care so much about Riverdale? How come no one else sees how bad Shonda Rhimes shows are?), but goes by its agenda quietly.

On a slightly more superficial note, the show’s nostalgia-tinted use of music- both in diegetic and non-diegetic terms- is a warm and fuzzy welcome to those who spent their formative music years hooked on 90s radio. Roswell: New Mexico does a great job of being fans of 90s music while using it as MacGuffins to progress its plot. Someone on that writing staff was a starry-eyed teen who lived it, and now they get to soundtrack a show to a mixtape someone made them in 1998. Third Eye Blind’s “God of Wine” as a significant plot point? Sure, why not? Plus, it’s a nice to hear Counting Crows instead of Post Malone. The show’s tribute to the 1999 show’s theme song is a small but fitting ode. It’s the small things that New Mexico get right.

For now, Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t, and that’s generate interest past its initial run.

Maybe they got some of the big things right too.

Roswell: New Mexico airs on The CW in the United States and on Fox 8 in Australia.

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