Unorthodox (Netflix) — Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, is about a woman, Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), who leaves her ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, NY to start a new life in Berlin, where her estranged mother (who also left the community) lives. The series has faced controversy from Hasidic communities for the unflattering depiction, while also being criticized by some in the broader Jewish community for the way that the most extreme example of Jewish life is being used represent an entire community.
Personally, I liked the four-episode series, and Israeli actress Shira Haas is phenomenal in it, and very much worthy of an Emmy. In fact, the series is primarily in Yiddish, and Haas had to learn the language for the lead role. If I have a complaint with Unorthodox, however, it’s in the way that it veers so drastically from the life of Feldman. While the performances in Unorthodox are fantastic and the story is powerful, I thought the way it reduced the experiences of Feldman to fit into a Hollywood formula was irksome. Some of the power of the real-life account that inspired Unorthodox is cheapened by a story that fits so neatly into a predictable three-act structure that ends in what is essentially a lame singing competition.
That said, it is an emotionally affecting and powerful series, although my wife insists that Shtisel — also on Netflix, also featuring Shira Haas, and also about an ultra-Orthodox community — is the far superior series.
Upload (Amazon Prime) — Upload is the first of two series from The Office showrunner, Greg Daniels, this month (the other, Space Force, debuts in two weeks on Netflix). Upload feels like the virtual counterpart to The Good Place, from Daniels’ Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur. In the universe of Upload, the souls of people wealthy enough to afford it can be uploaded into a virtual afterlife before they die in reality. The amenities and living quarters in the virtual world depend upon how much the deceased — or his family — can afford.
The ever-charming Robbie Amell plays Nathan Brown, whose shallow, narcissistic but attractive girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), uploads him into a virtual afterlife after a mysterious car accident in a self-driving car. While Ingrid is paying for Nathan’s stay in the cloud, he falls in love with Nora (Andy Allo), an employee for the virtual afterlife who continues to live in reality.
It’s a sweet romantic comedy with a murder mystery subplot, and while it is light and amusing, thematically, it’s a dark indictment of both capitalism and our culture’s obsession with technology. It’s an easy, enjoyable binge, however, and while it is a fun watch, it doesn’t begin to emotionally register until the final couple of episodes. It usually takes Greg Daniels a few episodes to find his groove (see The Office, Parks and Rec), but it’s irksome to have to wait another year to watch the seeds of that come to fruition (Amazon has already renewed it for a second season).
Dead to Me Season 2 (Netflix) — We really liked the first season of Netflix’s Dead to Me, and the second season is a nice follow-up. The story is more aimless this time around, but the characters are more emotionally developed. Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini both return, and they are terrific, as usual, but if I had one major quibble with the season, it’s in the way they bring back James Marsden.
The second season ostensibly is about the aftermath of Steve’s death and the investigation into it, but there’s never much urgency to that investigation, which removes a lot of the suspense/tension from the first season. However, it is replaced by a more complex and empathetic relationship between Jen (Applegate) and Judy (Cardellini); Jen’s difficult relationship with her children; Judy’s complicated relationship with her mother (Katey Sagal); and both of their relationships with Marsden’s character.
It’s good, and I definitely look forward to the third season, but also, three seasons is probably enough.