A candy-colored bubblegum romance for teens, Heartstopper, based on Alice Oseman’s graphic novel, shouldn’t work. Especially since the Netflix show’s slight plot is stretched over eight half-hour episodes. But it achieves an aching sweetness that transcends its targeted youth demographic. For any adult who recalls surviving high school years as a gay, lesbian or questioning kid, it’s the valentine we never got. 

Our awkward hero is Charlie (Joe Locke), basically a 15-year-old junior in the British version of high school, who gets assigned in his homeroom to share a desk with the year-older Nick (Kit Connor). Charlie is gay while Nick is the star of the school’s rugby team, and carries with that heroic status the assumption that he’s straight. Is he, though? That’s not just a question we ask. So does Nick as he and Charlie become unlikely best pals. (No, Heartstopper doesn’t quite circumvent that improbability; you just have to go with it.) 

Playing a sort of chorus to the boys’ friendship (and maybe more) are Charlie’s best pals Tao (William Gao) and the transgender Elle (played by transgender actor Yasmin Finney, who will soon be appearing as a new version of Rose Tyler in Doctor Who). It’s to the slightly disingenuous credit of Heartstopper that Elle’s identity is little more than a given. And it doesn’t prevent Tao from starting to have more-than-friendly feelings toward her. 

If all of this sounds punishingly woke, don’t worry. Heartstopper’s main ingredient is a generosity of spirit that pushes aside any barriers and expectations. Yes, it’s a fantasy from top to bottom, including its look.  (The gorgeously overdesigned teens’ bedrooms feature posters of films these kids have likely never seen, if even heard of: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Breathless.) And if you doubt the prestige of the enterprise, in a very small role as Nick’s supportive mom, say hello to Oscar winner Olivia Colman. 

One of the show’s savviest moves is that it keeps away from the mess, physical and emotional, of actual sex as the boys’ relationship advances. Heartstopper ends at that ideal happily-ever-after moment, poised between the achievement of grace and everything that is bound to unfold afterward. Which makes it both good and bad news that Netflix has greenlit two more seasons. In itself, Heartstopper is just about perfect and doesn’t need continuation. (I’ll watch the next seasons, though.) 


HBO MAX | The Staircase

The limited series The Staircase proves that old maxim: Truth is stranger than fiction. Or, at least, it’s stranger, and stronger, than a fictionalized version of the truth.

The eight-episode HBO prestige drama, continuing weekly through June 9, stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette in the fact-based tale of Durham, North Carolina, couple Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), a successful novelist, and his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette), a telecommunications executive. When medics answering a 911 call found Kathleen crumpled, dead and bloody, at the foot of a secondary staircase inside their mansion in 2001, Peterson said it was an accident: She’d stumbled after a few too many late-night glasses of wine. But authorities said Peterson, who had ruffled official feathers when running for mayor, was her killer. 

Without belaboring the point, let me just say that this new, dramatized version of the story is very well made, and includes a terrific performance by Parker Posey as Peterson’s priggish prosecuting attorney. You might think Posey’s overdoing it, until you see the actual woman she’s portraying. To do so, I’d advise you to skip The Staircase and watch The Staircase, the original documentary on Netflix, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. 

HBO’s semi-fictional approach to the material has already stirred trouble. Some narrative choices have incited an editor of the original documentary — played here by Juliette Binoche — to claim that this version fudges the truth. In particular, episode five suggests that Binoche’s character’s emotional involvement with Peterson led her to bias the documentary through her editing choices. (Also, though it’s no detriment to the story, while de Lestrade is White, in the series he’s played by Vincent Vermignon, a Black actor. Why? I dunno.) 

One thing the HBO version gets right, without question: Firth’s vocal impression (pedantic/arrogant) of the real Michael Peterson is uncannily accurate. Close your eyes and watch either version of Staircase, and you’ll see (hear) what I mean.  


HULU | Conversations with Friends

I haven’t read any of her books or seen the previous Hulu adaptation of her second novel, Normal People. So I come to the Sally Rooney phenomenon somewhat unarmed. Based on Conversations with Friends, the 12 half-hour episode version of her debut book, I’m, well, respectfully underwhelmed. 

Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane play Frances and Bobbi, two best friends and former lovers in Dublin, now attending university. In their free time they take to local stages, performing a tandem spoken-word routine. At one of these shows they catch the eye of semi-famous novelist Melissa (Jemima Kirke, formerly of Girls) and become involved with her and her (also semi-famous) actor husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn, perhaps best known for being Taylor Swift’s longtime boyfriend). 

When Frances and Nick tumble into an affair, a lot of quietly played angst occurs. From a New York Times profile, I understand that the Frances of the original book is a prickly, off-putting character. Softened for the screen, Oliver’s version of Frances is a bit of a mope. So, for that matter, is Alwyn’s deeply uninteresting Nick. The more fascinating people by far are Bobbi (though she’s a bit of an arrogant ass) and Melissa, but this really isn’t their story. Too bad. 


HULU | Candy

A bit like HBO’s Staircase, Candy is another fictionalized version of a true-life American crime story (if you believe Kathleen Peterson’s death was a crime). Here, Jessica Biel, proving to be the credible but not especially gripping actor she first showed us in The Sinner. Here she plays God-fearing suburban Texas housewife Candy Montgomery, circa 1980. Married to sweet, boring Pat (Timothy Simons, saddled with one of the many atrocious wigs — male and female — that make the series look unintentionally like a broad comedy), Candy instigates an affair with friend Allan (Pablo Schreiber), who’s married to frumpy, unhappy Betty (Melanie Lynskey, given less to do than she deserves).  

Murder ensues. Who dies and how is at the center of the story, which remains a bit of a puzzle 40-plus years later. Candy won’t completely enlighten you on that question, which makes the five-hour episodes getting there feel especially long. (Biel’s real-life husband Justin Timberlake shows up, uncredited, as a lawman, but doesn’t give the series any extra pop.) The show is shot in a deep shadowed palette that gives it the unearned gravitas of the Godfather movies. Candy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a piercing drama or a condescending satire of small-town values. (It punches down, a lot.) It winds up in a dramatic no man’s land. 


APPLE TV+ | Shining Girls

I wish I could hint with any confidence how Shining Girls ends up (its eighth and final episode airs June 3). The ride, though, is fascinating, though its puzzle-box narrative sheds interest and mystery with every subsequent installment. In this adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ best-selling 2013 novel, Elisabeth Moss plays Kirby, an archivist working at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992. 

At least, that’s the woman we meet in the first episode. We soon learn she previously lived under another name, which she changed after an assault that nearly left her dead — and with a strange souvenir, a matchbook from a bar that doesn’t exist, tucked inside her guts by her would-be killer. 

That’s Harper (Jamie Bell), a feral cipher who appears and disappears, never aging, throughout Kirby’s life, starting when she was a child. She’s one of the “shining girls” he targets as he travels through time, selecting and killing women like Kirby. Why? That’s what Kirby wants to know, with the help of reporter Dan (Wagner Moura), the standard-issue, hard-drinking news guy with troubles of his own. 

Girls is lustrously (and, as needed, dingily) shot in Chicago — or multiple Chicagos. The collateral effect of Kirby’s assault by Harper is that, with no warning, elements of her life shift and only she is aware of those changes. Her hard-living rock-musician mom (Amy Brenneman) becomes a born-again Christian; Kirby’s apartment is suddenly tenanted by some old guy; and supportive news colleague Marcus (Chris Chalk) turns up at home, now her husband in a temporal and physical landscape that keeps abruptly transforming. 

Yeah, it’s trippy. And compelling for the most part, especially as Kirby tries to warn an astronomer (Hamilton original cast member Phillipa Soo), who may be Harper’s next victim. The notion of a time-traveling serial killer is original (short of the lovely 1979 flick Time After Time). The problem is — at least six out of eight episodes in — that Harper’s MO seems wildly arbitrary, fueled by a derelict house with magical, time-tripping powers. It’s a big, fat MacGuffin that introduces a sad trombone to the soundtrack for latter episodes of the series. Still, it’s an intriguing watch, and Moss’ patented, unglamorous intensity is rewarding.


HBO MAX | Ozark

After following the beloved, Georgia-shot Ozark for all four of its seasons, it’s time to say goodbye to the criminally compromised Byrde family. For better and worse. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney return a final time as embattled marrieds Marty and Wendy. They’re a socially upstanding couple but secret money launderers for a Mexican drug cartel. And they’ve survived umpteen hundred attempts on their lives, from those mob bosses and also the local lowlife around Lake of the Ozarks (played in the series by Allatoona and Lanier).

I’m hoping most readers have been tuning in since the series launched in 2017, so I won’t get into plot and spoilers . . . especially because I very much hate the ultimate fate of my favorite character. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, now’s a good time to get started. 

Apart from its success as a must-watch, Ozark  has given a slew of Georgia-based actors some welcome work. Bethany Anne Lind had a memorable turn in the first season, Rhoda Griffis and Tess Malis Kincaid have notable roles as law enforcers in this final batch of episodes. And known by many Alliance Theatre-goers as Scrooge, David de Vries gets beat up real good in a bathroom in one of the last episodes. 

Dear Ozark:  Atlanta and Georgia will miss you . . . though I will always hate-hate-hate that final episode. 


HULU | Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story

Also on Netflix the three-episode documentary Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story is, yeah, a horror story. It tells of the abduction of seven-year-old Californian Steven Stayner in 1972, and his escape from his pederast abuser eight years later. That was only part of the tale, which extends to include his older brother Cary, who made headlines in 1999 for a very different reason. 

Embedding with the Stayner family — Steven’s mom, wife and adult son and daughter – the documentary relies heavily, and weirdly, on a two-part TV movie made in 1989 about the boy’s abduction, I Know My First Name Is Steven. Actors from that telefilm are asked in the doc to read the interview transcripts from Steven and Cary. This is gratuitous, makes no sense, and also shows those actors’ limitations. No one comes out looking good. It’s weird. 

Weirder still is the Stayner family’s repeated complaint that their side of the story was never shown, that all they ever wanted was to be left alone by the media. So please explain to me how this resulted in a three-part doc very much focused on them? And their interviews are not very informative. America makes me crazy sometimes. 


This, that, the other

Now for some odds, ends, and sorry-I-didn’t-have-time-to-watch notes. 

Fans of surreal Canadian comedy should rejoice with the return, on Amazon Prime, of Kids in the Hall. And HBO’s fantastic Gentleman Jack concludes its second season on Sunday, propelled by Suranne Jones’ turbocharged performance as Regency England’s first documented, top-hat-sporting lesbian. Wow, Jones is terrific. 

I’d love to tell you that the new, three-years-delayed and still-Georgia-shot Stranger Things is great . . . But Netflix didn’t slide me any advance screening links. The first half of a two-part season (the second comes in July) drops May 27. 

Meanwhile, you can let your brain atrophy a little more by watching some of Netflix’s enjoyable and instantly forgettable shows. You can start with the Japanese, kids-on-the-loose Old Enough!, shrewdly parodied on Saturday Night Live a couple of weeks ago, then move on to Is It Cake? Because, yes, Netflix execs know they can create even dumber food-based shows than Nailed It!, and people will still watch. Enjoy! 


Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to last month’s Streaming column by Steve here.

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