Streaming Bleak This Week, #5: Cash Only on Netflix

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There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.

Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)

But as the saying goes, I watched it so you don't have to. Seriously. Stay away.

It’s a gas…

Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.

The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)

Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…

I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.

kettle mean streets play with fire

Didn’t Mean Streets already warn us not to play with fire?


The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanicanother man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.

I never said Elvis was on the level.

The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.

cash only nickola shreli

Writer and lead actor Nickola Shreli (LR) channels an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen in Cash Only.

I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territoryand with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.

Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.

IMDb: 6.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams

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Wild Bill on Netflix Instant: British thuggery with a pulse

Wild Bill Movie Netflix Instant
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Guy Ritchie is to modern-day British gangster cinema what Ed Sheeran is to teenage girls with cherubic hobo fetishes. When Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in 1998, a subgenre that had birthed such classics as Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980) was reanimated on a global stage.

MY COCAINE michael caine get carter

…a lesson the King of Cockney taught us in Get Carter.

No doubt highly influenced by Tarantino’s hyperreal stylization, Ritchie followed up his raucous debut with another cult-classic, Snatch. Since, however, his schtick has devolved into half-assed attempts like Revolver (most notable for Andre 3000 giving the worst performance by a rapper since Ice-T in Leprechaun in the Hood); the unwatchable remake of Lina Wertmüller‘s glorious sexistential 1974 film Swept Away (most notable for Madonna’s performance in the worst movie starring a pop singer this side of Gigli); and those Sherlock Holmes movies—which conjure a video game idea Michael Bay thought up while taking a shit.

Andre Benjamin Revolver three stacks horrible

Q: What’s cooler than being cool?   A: Never acting again, Three Stacks.

That said, Ritchie deserves credit for his better “Mockney” efforts, and perhaps more so for the wave of UK crime cinema they’ve inspired. Sure, the movement has spawned its fair share of overstylized, horribly written filth that many a Brit no doubt loathe being associated with. Specifically, I’m referring to just about anything Jason Statham has ever done (full disclosure: I have lapped up every Statham movie on Netflix Instant with the guilty-pleasure-induced appetite of a middle-aged housewife with a box of Franzia and a Lifetime marathon).

But there have also been some absolutely brilliant films added to the canon. Sexy Beast (2000) is a genre-bending classic that features Ben Kingsley’s turn as one of the greatest big-screen villains of all-time. Terence Stamp killed it in the paternal revenge thriller The Limey (1999). And of course no one’s kicking Layer Cake out of bed for eating crumpets.

don logan ben kingsley sexy beast

Don Logan: All-around nice guy.

While Snatch—and at least six Statham-led movies—are currently on Netflix Instant, so is another fantastic, lesser-known modern British gangster flick:

Wild Bill
wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

There’s a storm brewing throughout Wild Bill, a film about a “nutter” who’s just come home from eight years in the pen and is reintroduced to his two slum-living boys. Our titular antihero (played by Charlie Creed-Miles, aka Billy Kimber from Peaky Blinders) is a small-time crook with a larger than life reputation.

In many ways, Bill’s disposition is much like that of Nicolas Cage’s in Joe (another film titled after—and focused mainly on the psyche of—its lead). Both men are ex-cons with unpredictable temperaments who could snap at any given moment. And as in Joe, much of Wild Bill’s tension lies in the fact that we know from the outset that Bill—at first feeble and aimless upon his release from prison—will once again go wild. The questions that drive the story are simply when, and to what consequence?

Pressure is added to these questions when Bill is unwittingly forced into a parental role he’s clearly not cut out for. Initially, he takes the responsibility as if he were Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. He uses the free lodging that his older, mature son has provided as a haven for pot smoking, drunkenly passing out on the couch, and consorting with a kind-hearted hooker.

billy bob thornton bad santa wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

“Can we fix you some sandwiches?”

Reality soon hits Bill like a swift kick in the bollocks when a street gang from his past starts making threats on his family. From here, it’s on Bill to see what extent he’ll go to in righting a heretofore unremarkable and wasted existence.

A large part of what makes Wild Bill an exceptional British gangster flick is that it draws elements from both Guy Ritchie and another British filmmaking stud, Danny Boyle. It’s got the fast-paced, street-tough humor of a Ritchie flick, but also the more real-world-savvy emotional core found in the breadth of Boyle’s work (and the comedic flair of Trainspotting). In short, unlike what Ritchie detractors—and haters of other Mockney offshoots—might argue, it’s not simply style for style’s sake.

wild bill cast

Familiar faces from Wild Bill ‘s motley crew.

Another similarity Wild Bill shares with both Trainspotting and those better Ritchie films is its use of a colorful ensemble cast. Director Dexter Fletcher employs a who’s who of talented B-list British crime actors. Leo Gregory and Marc Warren (both familiar from Green Street Hooligans) play Bill’s shifty nemesis and a cracked-out dad, respectively. Neil Maskell (Kill List—also on Netflix Instant, and totally worth the watch), plays one of Gregory’s cronies. Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, Snatch, Layer Cake) makes a brief cameo. Andy Serkis—Hollywood’s favorite CGI stand-in—sheds his Gollum and Planet of the Apes makeup to play a menacing crime boss. And Iwan Rheon provides a comedic turn as a petty crack dealer who thinks he’s a badass rasta (hard to reconcile when pitted against his role as Ramsay Snow the Castrator on Game of Thrones).

Iwan Rheon Pill Wild Bill Game of Thrones meme

Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Snow.

The only debatable setbacks in this film would be that it’s not really as much of an all-out “gangster” flick as some of the aforementioned titles, and it also leans a bit heavily on heartfelt drama (a taboo subject on this here blog) as it comes to a close. Still, there’s more than enough smashing of pint glasses, soccer hooligan head-butting and general badassery to appease those looking for a proper follow-up to Lock, Stock and Snatch. And beyond that, it’s just a bloody damn good film, spearheaded by the underused Charlie Creed-Miles’ magnificent work.

GRADE: B+/A-
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams

I Saw the Devil and The Man from Nowhere on Netflix Instant: Vengeance, Horror and “Han”

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Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably watched more movies from North and South Korea than any region outside the U.S. This is not on purpose. By no stretch am I a Koreaphile. After all, the only words I know in Korean are bulgogi, banchan and kimchi. “Bulgogi,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is the kind of meat I like at the Korean joint. “Banchan” is all that delicious free shit that comes with the bulgogi. And kimchi, which gets served as part of the banchan before the bulgogi, is, of course, kimchi.

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Live-octopus eating in Oldboy—definitely not banchan.

Now that we’ve been through this history lesson, I’ll get to a new word that speaks more specifically to the films I’m about to recommend. That word is “Han.” The problem with discussing “Han,” in my limited research, is that it has no English equivalent.

han

American Han                                                                 Korean Han

The great theologian Suh Nam-dong, whose work is rivaled in my intellectual storehouse only by my knowledge of the Korean language, defines Han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Wait, I think we do have a word for that: “Coldplay.”

I bring up Han because it speaks in many ways to every Korean film I’ve seen. And even if you’ve only seen a few Korean movies, you’ve probably been dosed with the Han as well.

If one Korean film comes to mind for people who like the film genres I discuss on this blog, chances are its Oldboy (2003 original—not the bland remake starring Brolin and the Olsen Twins’ hot younger sister. If that was a “Spike Lee joint,” then dude must be rolling oregano into his Rizlas).

Spike Lee Oldboy

Facing Jordan in the playoffs and the Oldboy remake: Two things Spike would like to forget.

I apologize if I’m misappropriating the term Han, but it would appear that many of the primary themes in Oldboy—vengeance, gut-wrenching pain and helplessness—are all part of it. And so it is with every other movie I’ve seen by the masterful South Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Vengeance Trilogy was my gateway into Korean cinema.

These movies are pretty much as grim, savage and unapologetically violent as anything this side of a snuff film. Chan-wook summons narratives straight from hell and puzzles them together in maniacal symphonies. His photography and imagery are stunning, and his actors constantly deliver riveting performances. In short, these are magnificent films—they’re just completely fucking sick and twisted.

This brand of Han-inspired horror seems to be a prevailing theme in Korean thrillers. Directors such as Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and Kim-jee Woon (I Saw the Devil) have employed the same grotesque violence and soul-shattering bleakness to similar degrees of cinematic success. In all, this recent Korean horror-thriller-Han movement can perhaps be best described as the eloquent, sophisticated cousin of “torture porn” (or whatever you want to call that Saw and Hostel stuff.)

If you’ve got the stomach for it and aren’t scared away by subtitles, there is a treasure trove of evil to access via the lands of Kim Jong-il and Psy.

Let’s start with a few of my favorite South Korean flicks on Netflix Instant (consider this Part One in a series):

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devil
You might recognize the bloody visage above as that of Choi Min-sik, the South Korean A-lister who starred in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In I Saw the Devil, Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopathic murderer who berates his victims in a cavalier tone as he goes to town on them with all manner of blunt objects.

The film’s first sequence opens in true slasher form, as a beautiful woman sits in her car in a desolate rural area, waiting for roadside assistance to fix a flat tire. Before the tow truck can get there, a school bus driver stops by and offers to give a hand. Within a matter of minutes, we’re introduced a villain who gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.

After this grim opener, what follows is two-plus hours of the most diabolical, depraved Han. Kim Soo-hyeon, the fiancee of one of Kyung-chul’s victims, happens to be a trained special agent. He uses his investigative wiles to track down the killer, and engages in a carnage-riddled game of cat and mouse, wherein the hunter becomes the hunted. Soo-hyeon’s mission is to inflict as much pain on Kyung-chul as possible before killing him. But someone should have told him that its much safer to bludgeon the devil to death than to dance with him.

I saw the devil

Kim Soo-hyeon takes a long cigarette break…

I’ll leave any further details of the narrative to the viewer. But one scene that really stands out is an impromptu dinner party at the house of Kyung-chul’s cannibal buddy. The flesh-eater is one of those grimly goofy caricatures that these films tend to rely on for comic relief. He fiendishly chuckles and cries as he feasts on some raw, human bulgogi complemented by a mean banchan spread.

I saw the devil banchan

“You gotta try the liver with the pickled bean sprouts. It’s to die for!”

I Saw the Devil is most definitely not for the faint of heart. This is some bleak, sick shit that makes Silence of the Lambs look like CSI: Miami. The story is superbly woven and gets bleaker with each step (and Devil‘s narrative is also much less muddled than some of Chan-wook’s stuff). Director Kim-jee Woon’s film is also beautifully photographed, almost to the point where you wonder how something so unabashedly gruesome could be so aesthetically appeasing. The crowning achievement, however, is Choi Min-sik’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac. The man is simply a fantastic actor (no wonder Hollywood recently tapped him for the big-budget Luc Besson flick Lucy).

If you can stomach suspense with a hefty dose of ultra-violent horror, I Saw the Devil is one of the best thrillers you’ll find on Netflix Instant.

GRADE: A- / A
IMDb: 7.8

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
Despite featuring a main theme of child-organ harvesting, The Man from Nowhere is actually pretty tame when it comes to bleak, Korean thrillers. This relative tameness is mainly because when a guy is maimed with a hatchet or immolated via a jerry-rigged propane-to-gas-lamp device, we don’t get a prolonged shot of his head being split in half or his body burning as he wails in pain. Somewhere, Park Chan-wook is shaking his head.

The Man from Nowhere begins with a drug-bust sequence where the estranged Korean cousin of Game of Thrones‘ The Mountain is ambushed at a nightclub. Amidst the shattering of tables and bottles, a junkie prostitute manages to sneak off with a brick of heroin.

the man from nowhere

“Hey, you’d be pissed too if Spike Lee was replacing you with Tony Siragusa in the remake.”

Fast forward to an apartment building where the junkie lives with her young daughter. Here we meet our protagonist, a brooding man who lives in the building and runs some sort of pawnshop. He doesn’t say much at first. He mostly just mopes around, looking like a K-Pop heartthrob who can’t bear the weight of the world.

the man from nowhere

It’s unclear whether our man is about to go on a hell-raising killing spree or join the Alkaline Trio.

Much to the chagrin of junkie mom, the man strikes up a friendship with the daughter, a bullied loner nicknamed Garbage. “Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage,” she says to him of their monikers. “Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?”

The close tie between the two becomes the reason Pawnshop Ghost breaks out of his gloomy shell and emerges as the Korean Jason Bourne. To keep spoilers to a minimum, Garbage gets in trouble, and Pawnshop Ghost is the only man who can save her (think Taken, but with much prettier male hair).

What ensues is a grim, fast-paced action-thriller that toes the line between mayhem and melodrama. And our man proves that he will go to any length to exact revenge. He eventually goes so far as cutting his hair, which defeated my theory that the final twist to this film was gonna be that Pawnshop Ghost is actually a modern-day Samson.

Man from Nowhere Hair

 “Not the hair bro, not the hair!”

As in most dark Korean films, there’s an array of oddball villains and inept cops who often serve as comic relief. One of the most effective of these is the devilish Jong-seok, an androgynous crime boss who deals in kidnapping and organ harvesting. He’s really fucking creepy, and like our protagonist, doesn’t seem to realize that bangs covering his eyes might be a hinderance to his ability to fight or operate a vehicle.

the man from nowhere

“Yes, my parents are Tilda Swinton and Cousin It. Have you heard Ziggy Stardust? Fantastic album.”

The Man from Nowhere excels as both an action-packed thriller and a dark drama that has a little more heart than what Park Chan-wook fans might be accustomed to (or at least a little more still-beating heart). This movie is also a lot more accessible to your casual American viewer than other Korean organ-harvesting gems like Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

My only reservation with this film is that while the relationship between Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage is certainly moving (and the child actress is fantastic), this connection is also used as a platform for a level of melodrama that verges on sappy. I understand that this smarmy, emo shit is a trait inherent to many forms of Korean entertainment, but personally I prefer my Han served a little less soap opera. Still, bolstered by a compelling narrative and incredible fight scenes, The Man from Nowhere emerges as one of the stronger films in this genre of dark, Korean thrillers.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

Note: All three films in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy are available on Netflix Instant. If you’re interested in this post and haven’t seen Oldboy, check that out before you watch either of the films I’ve recommended. It’s the gold standard—I just assume that most folks reading this blog have seen it.

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part I

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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has quickly become the Internet’s answer to Klonopin. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be among those lulled into a happy place by videos of 15-year-old girls whispering about how it feels to wash their hands with a bar of texturized chamomile soap. No, my go-to for bedtime relaxation comes more in the form of films and shows that rely heavily on, say, depictions and existential conversations predicated upon bodily dismemberment.

Buffalo Bill

The title of an ASMR video I would watch

Why? I have no clue. And for the moment, this isn’t about why (although I’m sure I’ll have to tackle that at some point). The underlying crux of this blog series is to foster a space for recommending and discussing some of the best and most gruesomely soothing films/shows out there. If you consider Winter’s Bone, True Detective and The Descent to be among the past decade’s seminal moving-picture achievements—and are simply craving more, but don’t where to turn—then welcome.

If you’re as obsessed with these genres as I am, you likely know that spending half an hour on Google attempting to find something that fits within their parameters is, nine times out of ten, an exercise in futility.

To that point, I’m simply sick and tired of every “Best on Netflix you might not have seen” list trying to convince me that Drinking Buddies, Don Jon and Prince Avalanche aren’t somehow going to make me head to Hollywood and craft a Buffalo Bill-style human-skin coat out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the Duplass Brothers and Diablo Cody.

Seriously, I will wear that shit in public to boycott the premiere of Greta Gerwig and John Kransinki’s newest project about a couple of upper-middle class white people who wear flannel and resolve emotional issues to the tune of ten Kimya Dawson songs and then learn something about themselves. (It’s still in the works, but I believe they’ve tentatively titled it We Are Here Now and Were There.)

Indie trash

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself.

I digress. What we’re talking about here is your dark minds benefiting from the rotten fruits of my labor. Said “labor” being perhaps an unhealthy amount of man-hours browsing reddit subpages over the past year to provide you with some of the sickest, most brilliant diamonds in the rough that you can access through Netflix Instant. Why this specific portal, you ask? Because everyone and their grandmother’s fuckin’ cousin has it, I respond.

So, without further ado, I think it’s time we talk about Kevin… er, shows and movies. Let’s talk about shows and movies. Here’s our genre for the first installment:

BBC (BADASS BASTARDS AND COPPERS):

Peaky Blinders
Fuck, I thought at first. Cillian Murphy as the leader of a Birmingham street gang that slashes peoples’ eyes via razor-embedded scally caps? It all sounded good outside of Cillian Murphy. While he was great in The 28th Hour (and sure, he was Scarecrow in the Dark Knight films), the guy is prettier than the love child of a young Rob Lowe and Kiera Knightley donning a powder blue bunny suit. So, me asks, how the fuck is Cillian gonna pull this off?

No worries, mate. By the end of the first season, I’d rather cross paths with Bane in a dark alley than serve the menacing Thomas Shelby with an improper shoeshine. Oh, and speaking of Bane, Tom Hardy enters in the forthcoming Season 2. My knickers are already wet.

cillian murphy

The baddest pretty boy since Gosling in Drive !

About that title: Yeah, it sounded pretty goofy to me at first—as it might to many Yank viewers. Rest assured, Peaky Blinders is not about a middle-school boy with a hot neighbor and a pair of binoculars.

So how would I sum it all up? It’s essentially a hybrid of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire, with a little splash of Gangs of New York. Thomas Shelby is Jax Teller, if Jax Teller operated out of Birmingham in the early 20th Century. He’s a young, dashing, masterfully calculating gang leader who couldn’t tell you what fear was if it bit him in the ass. But along with the calculation, there’s some stoicism, which is why I also see a bit of Nucky Thompson in him. And if this show catches on, a whole new wave of Jimmy Doherty-esque haircuts will be lurking around a hipster cocktail lounge near you.

peaky blinders

Party like it’s 1919…

As for drawbacks, it’s completely overstylized—almost to the point of camp—but that’s also what makes it kind of fun. Why not play a Nick Cave ditty as a smartly-dressed chap walks through the streets with flames billowing at his back while obsequious townfolk quiver in his wake? This is exactly what Hell on Wheels was trying to pull off (and “Red Right Hand” is one of the best intro songs since The Wire tapped Tom Waits). Perhaps Peaky Blinders ain’t as highbrow as the first two seasons of Boardwalk (let’s be realistic, that show went to shit), but it is some bloody and fiendishly good fun.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.5

Happy Valley
Many bemoan the downfall of the American version of The Killing after that horrible cliffhanger in the first season. Fair enough, but I stuck with the show simply because, well, it was gloriously dark. And I have yet to encounter better cinematographic use of a geographical environment this side of Breaking Bad or Twin Peaks. Oh, and Holder was just one hilarious, bad-ass honky. 

The man, the myth, the Holder

The man, the myth, the Holder

The reason I bring up The Killing is because of how strikingly similar it is in theme and general aura to Happy Valley. Detective Catherine Cawood is a slightly mentally off-kilter, divorced female cop with a dark past and a son who intermittently hates her. She also lives in a town that is perpetually gray, is constantly trying to quit smoking, likes sleeping with married men and is, despite her uncontrollable moodswings, highly efficient and always right when everyone else doubts her. Sarah Linden, anyone? (Speaking of striking similarities to other shows, there’s this turtley little weasel of an accountant who looks like Wormtail from Harry Potter and is the embodiment of Walter White back in his Mr. Chips days. Great character.)

Unlike The Killing, the six-episode-long Season One of Valley delivers. I mean, it fucking delivers. And between involuntary smack injections, basement rape (yeah, that stuff’s hard even for me to watch) and dousing children with gasoline, grimness is Happy Valley’s oh-so-sunny calling card.

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

It ain’t exactly, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

While we’re on the subject of female-detective BBC shows, if you’re choosing between this and Top of the Lake, take the advice of the great Bob Dylan, babe, and don’t think twice. Apart from one great character, Top of the Lake is pretty much the bottom of the well when it comes to BBC cop series.

Final note on why you should watch Happy Valley: The fella that plays the pseudo-psycopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is the second-coming of Tom Hardy. Guy has serious acting chops, and he’s certainly the sexiest sexual deviant psychokiller since Jamie Dornan in The Fall. Speaking of which…

SEASON ONE GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.5

The Fall
Perhaps the hardest thing to get past in the first episode of The Fall is just how flawlessly fucking fair Gillian Anderson’s skin is. That skin is fairer than a cup of tea sipped quietly by Monet in a field of wheat on a fine spring day. I mean c’mon, she was Scully before Vince Gilligan was out of his screenwriting diapers. … But yeah, after that Duplass Brothers skin-coat thing, maybe I’ve been talking about skin too much. Fun fact: Did you know that Ed Gein lived 30 minutes from where I’m writing this? (Don’t worry, I don’t have an epidermal fixation or any skeletons in my closet. I’m just being tongue-in… whatever-you-call-that-space-beside-the-teeth-where-there-used-to-be-flesh.)

The Fall

“Why yes, I believe that is me in The Birth of Venus.”

Moving on, The Fall is yet another grim, tension-riddled cop-thriller with a bad-ass female lead investigating a spate of killings. (For whatever reason, feminism seems to be alive and well in the cop-vs.-serial killer genre.) While there are any number of comparisons that could be made between The Fall, The Killing and Happy Valley (the mood-setting bleakness of Belfast, say), this show does women coppers the service of a portrayal that’s the exact opposite of that “off-kilter and mentally distressed” blueprint.

Gillian Anderson is brilliant, and her icy depiction of investigator Stella Gibson leaves little room for sentiment, nonsense or anything other than heady police work. That’s good. Because the sadist she’s tracking (Jamie Dornan) is a perverted family man who gets off on choking his victims to death and then scrapbooking about them with artwork that is unsettlingly exquisite.

As the body count piles and the investigation deepens, the tension rises to a pitch that makes The Fall arguably as engrossing as True Detective. Of the three shows I’ve discussed, this one is probably the best. The only disappointment is that Season One is criminally brief (5 episodes) and ends with an asshole of a cliffhanger.

And by the way, John Oliver can shove it. Jamie Dornan is so my Christian.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.2


Final note:
Consider all three of the aforementioned shows as far superior to BBC-via-Netflix Instant alternatives like Luther, Sherlock and Top of the Lake. British Stringer Bell, er, Idris Elba is great in Luther, but the show lacks the depth of Happy Valley and The Fall, and the entertainment value of Peaky Blinders. And by “depth,” I’m talking about that intangible quality that distinguishes a great cable show like Breaking Bad or The Wire from, say, a regular-channel favorite like Law & Order (again, another topic I’ll save for a rainy day). As for Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a particular brand of smug that just pisses me off, and his Holmes offends my boyhood notions of a beloved literary character. The show is also completely overstylized—just not in a good way, like the way Peaky Blinders makes me eager to sew razor blades into my cap.

-Sam Adams