Remember when Netflix just sent out discs? The company has rapidly progressed beyond that to offer unlimited streaming video at a bargain rate (if you watch nine or more titles a month it will be less expensive than Red Box and right to your home). A few years back Netflix also started producing its own shows, delivering a entire series at once. Unlike the networks, which provide one episode a week, Netflix offers all at the same time and leaves the pacing up to the viewer. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black have received the most attention, justly so; but there are others worth seeing, And Netflix makes all seasons available so you can start at the beginning, which I recommend. Here are three of my favorites.
The Fall. Two seasons (A) Netflix doesn’t actually produce this show but licenses it for U. S. distribution. It stars Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a Brit police investigator who is brought in to catch a serial killer in Belfast. That murderer is played by Irish actor Jamie Dornan. The show is unusual in that the audience knows who the killer is; the concentration is on the chase and how it affects both police detective and killer. If you like British crime dramas, you can’t miss this. The long interrogation scene between Stella and the killer in episode six of season two alone is worth the price of admission.
Lilyhammer. Three seasons (A) Steven Van Zandt, who plays in the E Street Band and had an ongoing role in The Sopranos, stars as a New York mobster who has been put in witness protection and sent to the small Norwegian town of Lilyhammer for protection. He quickly learns that he can easily replicate the life he had in the U. S., opening a bar and making protection deals with locals. It’s a hilarious show that you might think would rely on the one joke, but the writers are brilliant at keeping things interesting. It is, to my mind, one of the funniest shows of this century. Bruce Springsteen, “The Boss” and Van Zandt’s boss in making music, appears as a coroner at the end of season three.
Marco Polo. One season (B) A sprawling, grandiose fictionalization of explorer Marco Polo’s time spent in the court of Kublai Khan. Marco (a handsome Lorenzo Richelmy) becomes the Khan’s confidant, when it seems like a good idea, but is often the first one blamed when anything goes wrong. Expansive battle scenes and great attention to period detail make the series seem more historical than it is. Still if you can accept it as fiction, it’s often quite thrilling. Be patient, it doesn’t really settle down until the third episode. Netfloix has remained mum about a second season.
Thanks to the DVR, we can sample more television shows than ever – here are a few that I’ve found immensely entertaining and one I recommend that you avoid at all costs, because your time is valuable.
The Flash: The CW, 8 p. m. Tuesdays. Of all the superhero shows on television, this one feels most like a comic book adaptation, and that’s a good thing. The action is fast, and the characters are likable, the villains the kind you love to hate. (A)
Forever: ABC, 10 p. m. Tuesdays. Handsome Ioan Gruffudd stars as a man who acquired immortality some 200 years ago. He’s now chief medical examiner in New York City and works with the police department in solving crimes. His manner is somewhat like Sherlock Holmes. Every time he’s killed he wakes up naked in the river. Gruffudd is so likable one can excuse the often pat plots. It’s a bonus to have Judd Hirsch on hand as Henry’s adopted son (he of course looks older than Henry, who doesn’t age). (B+)
Grantchester: PBS, 10 p. m. Sundays. A Masterpiece Mystery presentation, this series offers up hunky James Norton as Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers, who is assigned to the village of Grantchester. Sidney loves American jazz, pines for a woman promised to another, and has a flair for solving murders. He teams up with police inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) and the two are successful in getting to the bottom of homicide cases. Very likable characters and settings couple with ingenious plots to make this one a winner. (A)
Backstrom: Fox, 9 p. m. Thursdays. Yet another procedural about a disheveled but brilliant detective, this one overweight, abrasive, and generally disgusting. As Rainn Wilson plays him he’s not House, he’s not Nero Wolfe, he’s not Columbo, he’s just irritating. The dialogue tries to be snappy and comes across as totally stupid. Just went you think it can’t get worse, it does. (F)
I’m a bit behind the curve on this, but my goal is to share with you anything I discover that’s quality home entertainment. Now there have been a lot of shows on TV lately about zombies and resurrected humans, but it is only now that I have discovered the best one, the French TV series The Returned. It’s set in a small town in France that has an elderly, creaking dam positioned above it. In the past that dam broke and killed most of the population; now, when the water is low, you can see a church steeple poking out above the water line. And that water line is getting mysteriously lower and lower, while the dam shows no cracks. The first episode takes us back two years when a school bus loaded with kids plunged over a railing, killing them all. In the present ,one of those kids comes back, unscathed and unable to remember what happened.
Others return, including a weird looking boy who was murdered in a home invasion 35 years ago. He finds his killer alive in a most unusual place. A serial killer comes back, and a young man who committed suicide on his wedding day. His intended betrothed is now about to marry a police captain. Even animals come back. A wolf slated for taxidermy comes back with a growl. Then some of the returned and some of the regulars get hideous skin lesions. And well, no more spoilers, there’s a surprise around every corner in this series. It’s well acted and directed, scary as can be, eerie as can be, and shot in HD with a surround soundtrack. And it’s streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you don’t know about it, Netflix streaming is one of the best bargains on the planet, now licensing more and more foreign television. The Returned is also going to be on DVD and Blu-ray in February 2015. Finally, A & E is going to produce an American version to air in March 2015, but even though it has Michelle Forbes in the cast, I’m betting the original will still be better. Oh yes, the original has subtitles but they’re easy to read.
The organ has been deemed the “king of instruments.” Its many color combinations have made it a challenge for audiophile labels to record. Many have done well; I think of Pro Organo, Loft, and Oehms. But the best recordings of this magnificent instrument come from MDG, my very favorite audiophile label. MDG is the label of Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm. The pair were making excellent organ recordings before the advent of surround sound, but using surround sound has catapulted MDG recordings into a realm of excellence that few labels achieve. I enjoy many organ recordings from the labels I mentioned above, but I can safely bet that when I put an MDG Hybrid Multicannel SACD recording of an organ into my player, I’m going to experience that feeling of astonishment because the recording won’t sound like a recording, it will sound like being there. Not only the instrument, but the character and size of its location are clearly revealed.
That feeling happened right at the beginning of the new recording of organ music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, played with excellence by Yuval Rabin on the Ferdinand-Stiffell organ in Endingen, Germany (a small town of 9,000). This is an instrument that has both bright and mellow qualities and seems just right for the music chosen. That music consists of three sonatas, some minuets, a prelude and a fantasia and fugue. I found the dramatic Sonata in A Minor, WQ 70/4 the most impressive, but all of this music by Johann Sebastian’s son is worthy and quite different from his father’s compositions. Not only are the complete specs of the organ included in the SACD booklet, but the stop settings for each individual piece. By the way, MDG records much more than organ music. Stay tuned.
[this recording will be available in the US in early Feb, 2015]
Since CD, SACD, and Blu-ray offer longer playing times than vinyl, we’ve come to expect “filler” pieces or tracks to make a longer disc. But what if one of those fillers becomes the reason to buy the disc. That very thing has happened with Naxos’ new release of the Saint-Saens “Organ Symphony” with Leonard Slatkin conducting Orchestre National de Lyon. It’s a well recorded but dutifully dull reading. Paul Paray and Charles Munch are still the best. But the filler is another story, Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, a favorite Halloween title, as arranged by early 19th century organ whiz Edwin H. Lemare, further arranged by Vincent Warnier.
Warnier is the organist (as he is in the symphony) and manages the huge Caville-Coll/Gonzalez/Aubertin organ with ease, displaying its many colors so well that one scarcely misses the usual orchestration. A most enjoyable musical romp, with superb surround sound. It’s also available on CD, minus the surround.
Concidence? Along comes, in the same shipment, a new volume in the Britannic Organ series on Oehms Classics with Lemare himself playing the same piece in rousing stereo ! How can this be, since Lemare passed away in 1934. It’s an organ roll made for by Lemare for the Welte mechanical organ. Only one of these instruments survives in Switzerland where one can cue up Mr. Lemare, or another outstanding soloist, and record the results with current technology. Lemare uses many clever effects in his original version of Danse Macabre, including bells, chimes and xylophone. The two-disc set includes many other Lemare performances as well as recordings by Clarence Eddy, Lynwood Farnam and other prominent organists of the period. Excellent sound with lots of presence.