In this parallel universe in which we find ourselves, we must do what we can to self-amuse. One silver lining, if there is such a thing; people have turned to the arts to soothe them through this bizarre time.
The realisation of how important the arts are in our society is starting to dawn on people. Now that cinemas are closed (it makes us want to throw up just thinking about it), there are watchable showbiz-themed streaming series or films available to us.
Melanie Morningstar takes you through a light list of her favourite selections; what they have in common is that they are all fun. Some are new, some are a few years old; some will appeal, some may not. If you’re not sold at the end of the first episode, move on.
Call My Agent – French with English subtitles. This extremely droll series takes us to the world of actor’s agents. Set in Paris (always a plus), the ensemble cast have tremendous chemistry, and there’s plenty of cameos with recognisable French stars playing themselves. The agents are crazy, rude, ruthless and conniving, just like all agents all over the world! If you’re missing your day in the office, this is definitely for you. The first episode aired in 2015. It’s now in its fourth season.
The Kominsky Method – USA. Starring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas. This Golden Globe winner pairs two of the great altacockers of the screen as a grieving agent and a failed actor now teaching acting to mostly sweet young things in Los Angeles, respectively. (Think wannabe Strasberg). This series is sweet, funny and kind of cringeworthy – because the actors are so great. This first aired in 2018 and has so far run for two seasons.
Guerra de Idolos – Mexican with English subtitles. Literally “War of the Idols”, for some reason it’s called “The Price of Fame” in English. If you’ve heard about Latin telenovelas (think the original Colombian Betty la Fea which became the American Ugly Betty) this is your chance. This series has better production values than the usual telenovela soaps, but the directing and acting will literally leave you speechless. It has all the usual Latin stereotypes, sexy leading man (think Chayanne from the ‘90s – if you don’t know him, there’s a whole new music category waiting for discovery), drug kingpins, corrupt officials, jealous managers, family backstabbers, so many plot twists and turns, it will be hard to keep up… And that’s just the first episode. Hysterical direction and corny plots; you may not make it past the first episode; everything you’ll ever need to know about this genre happens there. The rest of the episodes play out as you’d expect. This series debuted in 2017 and still going strong.
Save Me – South Korea, Korean with English subtitles. This is strictly for fans of Kpop. If you don’t know what Kpop is, you can skip this one. It’s got a pretty predictable storyline but if Kpop is your thing, have at it! First aired in 2017.
Master of None – USA. The first episode is backstory; you may wonder why this series is included. But hang in there, the story unfolds. This series about real New Yorkers isn’t laugh out loud funny, but it’s really entertaining. Starring comedian Aziz Ansari, this beautifully made series [with various nods to classic cinema] is based loosely on his life. If he looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen him in Parks and Recreation. Give it two episodes before you give up; it may be a bit slow off the bat. First aired in 2015 and ran for three seasons.
Toon – Netherlands, Dutch/English, English subtitles when needed. This series is BRILLIANT. It’s my favourite find on Netflix. A razor-sharp look at 20-somethings, who are clearly the same narcissistic assholes the world over. This really funny look at what becoming an overnight internet sensation can be like for someone totally unprepared for it. I loved, loved, loved this series. First aired in 2016.
Huge in France – France, French/English, subtitles when necessary. Gad Elmaleh is, in real life, a huge star in France, Morocco and the rest of the French-speaking world. He’s known as the Jerry Seinfeld of France. He’s a huge star. But something is missing. This hysterically funny series charts his desire to make it in America. He’s used to the star treatment, which of course he doesn’t get in Los Angeles. If you’ve ever known anyone who thinks they should get the star treatment for no reason, this is for you. First aired on Netflix 2019, now in its second season.
Mozart in the Jungle – USA. Strictly for classical music lovers or viewers curious about that world. This is a romantic dramedy about life as a musician with a fictional New York Symphony (think New York Philharmonic). Gael Garcia Bernal won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the new hottest thing in international conducting. Clearly inspired by real-life Los Angeles Philharmonic Music and Artistic Director, Gustavo Dudamel (who makes a cameo appearance, if you spot it, let me know). Until I saw this series it never occurred to me how important the oboe is in classical music. Now I can’t listen to any piece of classical music without identifying the oboe (not a bad thing). This series, which ran for four seasons, first aired in 2014.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – USA. I have to admit I’ve never really gotten this series, but I have friends literally all over the world who think that it’s brilliant. It’s won lots of awards and has a huge fan base. I’ve tried quite a few times to give it a shot, but I never get it. “No accounting for taste” as my mother used to say. I’ve included it here, because, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to give it a try, kick the tires and see if it’s a good fit. This series premiered in 2017 and has had two seasons so far.
Unreal – USA. This screamingly funny behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of reality television finds us head-long into the psyche of the manipulating Executive Producer of a show like The Bachelor. It’s wicked, outrageous and totally believable. This fabulous series premiered in 2015 and ran for four seasons.
The Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Show – USA. If you want to watch the faltering baby steps of television’s early days, this is the series for you. In 1948, I kid you not, television was literally in its infancy. It didn’t know what it was, it didn’t know what it could be, but someone figured out a way to monetise it. It’s quite painful to watch, but if you put it into historical context, it’s fascinating. These two guys had a long history of filmmaking together, and clearly the fledgling NBC thought they could transfer that magic to the small screen. After the series ended in 1949 and ran till 1953, they did not speak to each other for decades after that.
The Danny Thomas Show – USA. In the same way that Lucy and Desi were a real-life couple, but lived a sitcom life, Danny Thomas was a stand-up comedian who had a make-believe television family. The audience assumed the made-up life was really his life, and it shows the first inkling of what television series could be. To a certain extent, the formula is playing out over and over again. The producers and directors obviously knew they had something, they just couldn’t figure out exactly what they had. The Danny Thomas Show could have easily been a theatre production, if you look at the lighting, sets and direction, the series definitely has that feel. This highly successful series ran from 1953 to 1964. It was one of the first sitcoms to air on Australian TV, arriving on Australian shores in 1956.
Stan is a little light in the loafers when it comes to showbiz fare, but they have the primo feature movie about television, The Truman Show. One of the greatest showbiz movies ever, made before reality television was a thing; The Truman Show is a masterpiece. Directed by Australian Peter Weir, this 1998 film was the precursor to our modern-day nightmare that is reality television (of which I have certain guilty pleasures – no one is immune). If you’ve never seen this movie, you must. Brilliant Jim Carey, long unrecognised for his brilliant talent, is sublime as Truman. If you’ve seen it, watch it again with hindsight.
Melanie Morningstar was a news producer and journalist in North and South America. She was Critic at Large for Wire. Now returned to Australia, she has a Masters in Screen Producing from AFTRS and is producing narrative film and television.