Dinner Theater: Three Netflix Series to Watch Between Bites
When I was growing up, my mom made a huge hairy deal of making sure all of us were home for supper and that we “ate at least one meal around a table as a family.” Further, under no circumstances were we allowed to eat in the living room. It was sacred ground. “But we’ll be careful!” my siblings and I would protest. “No way,” said my father. “You’ll spill on the couch or on the carpet, and then it’ll be ruined.” So we ate in one room and watched our television in another. Maybe popcorn could be consumed during the odd family movie viewing or special events like the Olympics, but that was the extent of it. Never any drinks, and certainly nothing that had a sauce or crumb component.
Now that I’m married and on my own, my wife and I own a dining room table. We rarely use it as a surface to eat off of or around. Not all, but certainly the majority, of our meals are consumed while perched on our couch watching something on television. (Don’t worry dad, the couch has a cover we can change if a true sauce-based disaster were to unfold.) What we watch while eating is important. It can’t be too good, because when you’re focusing on sopping up all of the stray ketchup on your plate with a half-eaten burger, you’re bound to miss out on some of the finer plot points.
The story also shouldn’t be so dense that you can’t walk away for a minute or two to fetch something. If I have to run and grab some napkins off of the dining room table but my fingers needed the napkin about a minute earlier, I’m not going to want to put my grubby paws on the remote to mash the pause button. There shouldn’t be too much gratuitous violence either because I like eating pasta, and staring at assorted viscera while I do so isn’t impossible but definitely not on my short list of things I want to repeat.
With this in mind, here are three shows viewable on Netflix Instant that have been on our Dinner Theater ticket in recent months.
This is a BBC America offering that follows a young Irish (of course) cop in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City. If we’re being completely candid, you should know there’s not much by way of meaningful plot here. I’ve watched entire episodes and immediately had to go online to read the recap before starting the next one. You know when sometimes you’re reading, and your mind wanders, and you realize five minutes later you’ve read the same paragraph for the eighth time and still haven’t soaked any of it up? This can be like that occasionally. The saving grace for the show is the setting and set building. The time period is the 1860s and holy hell do the Brits spend a mint on making it all look authentic. Or as authentic as my brain tells me it should be. I wasn’t there, so I can’t actually vouch for the overall aesthetic being accurate. It’s all so visually appealing that even when I have no f*cks to give about what the characters are discussing, I find myself amused simply by the spectacle of it all. The main difficulty I have with the show is that I keep getting it mixed up in my head with “Ripper Street,” the infinitely better and also British show about police in 1880’s London shortly after the Jack the Ripper murders seem to have ceased. “Ripper Street” has better acting, more compelling plot and similar set and setting. It’s a bit too engrossing for our purposes, though, so watch “Copper” with dinner, and start “Ripper Street” when you move on to drinks.
SyFy has been trying for a while now to find another original series that can bring the number of eyeballs to bear that “Battlestar Galactica” used to. This is not that. The story is more or less a police procedural but with folks who have super powers filling in for the cops. Their leader/mentor is a doctor who is studying them while he helps them come to terms with their abilities and learn how to harness them. The bad guy of the week is usually another “Alpha” with a strange new ability that the team has to figure out and then adapt to. The series gets better as it progresses, and it begins teasing out moments of genuine emotion and introspection in season two. The first two seasons of “Heroes” did the random people with random powers thing better, but it eventually fell apart under its own weight, so that’s not really saying much. “Alphas” has not great but consistently passable acting. Ryan Cartwright, a TV regular who also plays one of the squints on “Bones,” consistently outshines the rest of the cast with his depiction of Gary Bell, an autistic guy who can see and sort through any of the many signals we beam wirelessly through the air. The tone gets a little dark in the latter episodes, but not so much so that you feel like putting the dinner rolls anywhere but your face.
“Hell on Wheels”
This is an AMC drama that desperately wants to sit at the cool kids table with “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” but just can’t stop tripping over itself long enough to make it across the cafeteria. The story surrounds a post-Civil War Confederate soldier whom we meet while he’s hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. His hunt leads him to a mobile tent city set up by Union Pacific as they race to build the first railroad spanning the U.S. The city is populated entirely by the laborers who are laying the tracks and the entrepreneurs who are willing to travel with them in order to provide food, alcohol, hookers and/or church services. Our avenging angel, Cullen Bohannan, is played with zealous glee by Anson Mount (a TV bit player with lots of “that guy” roles on shows like “Lost” and “Third Watch”). Mount nails the malice required of a man whose moral code includes “shoot him in the face” if he finds reasonable cause to do so. Cullen’s sometimes sidekick, Elam Ferguson, is played with surprising effectiveness by Common (American Gangster, Smokin’ Aces). Granted, Common is rarely called on to do much other than look pissed off or put upon, but he does that really, really well. Colm Meaney (the American version of “Life on Mars” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) plays the ruthless railroad representative who is driving the whole enterprise and probably, maybe not on the straight and narrow. The whole thing plays like a western, which as I’ve stated, is my favoritest genre to watch of all. However, as a television show and a sort of western, it’s impossible to watch without comparing it to the still reigning champ of serialized westerns, “Deadwood.” “Hell on Wheels” makes an honest and still entertaining effort, but just isn’t up to the task. There are too many eye rolling moments for it to be taken as seriously as it’s written, and some of the side plots feel a lot like filler, which is why it’s perfect as dinner theater viewing.