What to Watch: The Coen Brothers’ New Western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Plus, dramas about prison breaks and longtime friendships shine with excellent portrayals.

November 16, 2018 5:00 am

Welcome to What to Watch, a series where we tell you the best shows, movies and series out right now, both on networks and streaming services. While the Coen Brothers have produced another masterpiece, there are many smaller stories that will also enrapture you.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)

After creating one and a half great westerns (True Grit and No Country for Old Men), the Coen Brothers flip the genre on its head with this six-part anthology series. It’s been called political, comedic, and philosophical by critics as the siblings play with every convention under the sun. Watch for stars like James Franco, Liam Nelson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, and Jefferson Mays as the Coens expand the Western genre into a reflection of western society as a whole.

The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

Take your classic buddy comedy, and age it by about 40 years. That’s Chuck Lorre’s The Kominsky Method. From death to cancer scares (and trip to urologist Danny DeVito) this movie would be dark if not for the ridiculous relationship between Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) and his agent Norman (Alan Arkin). They may or may not be best friends depending on the day and Nancy Travis as Kominsky’s younger-but-still-old girlfriend. Kominsky and Norman age with all of the grace and civility as Grace and Frankie, but the show is elevated above a common sitcom, making Kominsky more successful than Lorre’s last Netflix product, Disjointed.

The Bisexual (Hulu)

British comedies are excellent at portraying sex and relationships, from the confusing to hilarious, including this new hidden gem on Hulu: The Bisexual. Sexuality is fluid, and what we like can surprise us well into our lives. Desiree Akhavan understands this as the co-writer, director and star of a show in which a 30-something year old woman who has had plenty of sex suddenly has to figure out what to do with a penis for the first time. It mixes the pathos and self-possession of a grown woman with the humiliating naiveté of sexual exploration.

Narcos: Mexico (Netflix)

With the close of its first two seasons in Colombia, the new installment of Narcos focuses on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo ( Diego Luna) who’s credited with creating the country’s first cartel as “the Rockefeller of marijuana” and Michael Peña as the FBI agent intent on taking him down. As with Pablo Escabar, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t glorify the debased greed and corruption involved in the cartel business. But while the first two seasons had more good guys to root for, while Mexico has none. It paints an origin story still relevant to the turmoil on the United State’s southern border today, detailing the complicities of the Mexican government in the 20th century through the current day. It’s a harrowing tale that will glamorize the drug trade even less than the first two seasons.

Escape at Dannemora (Netflix)

You’ve probably heard the story of the 2015 prison break in upstate New York in which two men tunneled out of Clinton Correctional Facility with the help of a worker they were both having sex with. If you were to tell me Ben Stiller directs this, well, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Sorry, but Zoolander and Tropic Thunder are much different than a Showtime drama. But Stiller actually does really good work bringing this suspenseful story onscreen. The story opens on the manhunt for the two escaped inmates (Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano) before flashing back to the beginning when the two worked at the prison tailor shop under Tilly (Patricia Arquette). Arquette, looking like a sad and deflated Jennifer Coolidge, gives depth to Tilly beyond what was ever shown in the media surrounding the escape. Toro and Dano create villains you find yourself rooting for until their true selves are revealed, lending even more compassion to Tilly. It’s a sensational story done right. It lends new perspective to the original spectacle.

My Brilliant Friend (HBO)

An intimate drama about the taut friendship between two girls in 1950s Italy may not sound like a compelling show, but consider for a moment screen adaptations of female authors and stories on the intimacies of female relationships: Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies—and rethink your dismissal.

Considering this is an adaptation of the famed and mysticized Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, it’s all but required viewing. Based on the first book in Ferante’s Neoplitan series, critics agree that the adaptation directed by Saverio Costanzo beautifully builds out the world of post-war Italy and understands how important a neighborhood is to two children who make it their own. Those two children are the prodigious Lila Cerullo (played by Elisa Del Genio as a kid; then Margherita Mazzucco as a teen) and the narrator, Elena, who falls under her shadow (Ludovica Nasti, then Gaia Girace). The tightly-wound historical drama may feel closed off to a larger audience wanting to relate to what they watch, but the depiction of true friendship as the world’s deepest love, and often the hardest, is universal.

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