Looking for something truly entertaining and engaging on Netflix? Here are a few hidden and not-so-hidden gems. (I will continuing adding "finds" to the bottom of this post periodically.)
DOCTOR FOSTER -- This sobering BBC mini-series has adultery as its main plot. Dr. Foster is the cheated on wife and MD. The maelstrom of emotions and reactions ring truer than true. The seriousness of the marriage bond stands in stark contrast to cavalier excuses and "arrangements." Without God or religion ever being mentioned, the innate sacredness of marriage (as well as the utter expectation and demand of fidelity) speaks for itself.
LOCKED IN (2010) -- This little American indie film revolving around a car accident has a big twist ending. It's also about adultery, with the best argument for taking personal responsibility I may have ever witnessed in a film. A few portions of the film's execution are a bit under par, but when it's right on, it's right on--and the cumulative, overall effect is winning.
THE DRIVER -- (British mini-series) A taxi driver--whose marriage is faltering--takes on some extra work for extra money, but the men are gangsters and he finds himself in deep.
WISH YOU WERE HERE -- Once again, the theme in this Australian film is adultery, but the surrounding tragedy is just as big: a tragic death in a group of friends. Everyone is in pain, everyone is suffering, and rather than abandoning each other, they are trying to work it out. We need more films that show us possibilities of conflict resolution--without easy answers or deus ex machina solutions. The ever-excellent Joel Edgerton stars.
RECTIFY -- This series, set in the American "Christ-haunted" South, is about a young man convicted of murder who spends a good portion of his life in prison, and not just prison: solitary confinement. He is now middle-aged and has been released due to his sister's tireless efforts to exonerate him. But solitary confinement has broken him in different ways, and he knows it. His return to his extended family (we follow quite a few characters) is a mixed blessing for him and for them. The question still remains: Is he guilty? But the whodunnit suspense takes a backseat to the complicated family dynamics. "Rectify" is a study in human dignity. We are all connected. Each person--still deeply marked by the incident of so many years ago and its fallout--strives to respect the dignity of the others, but sometimes, that's an almost impossible feat.
THE FROZEN -- Not to be confused with the wretched, ubiquitous "FROZEN," this little pro-life horror movie takes place in the aftermath of a snowmobile accident in an isolated wilderness. The only two characters are a couple whose romantic relationship is in question. The days come and go with the same mounting terror of walking in circles in the snow and never leaving the camp. And what about those noises? And that shadowy figure? The writer-director of this film returned to his Catholic Faith and went on to direct "Full of Grace," the film on the last days of the Blessed Virgin Mary on earth.
GEORGE GENTLY -- (episodes) Have a penchant for good British detective stories? George Gently is an old school boxer, old school cop and old school gentleman all rolled into one. He's paired with a cocky young mop-top officer who could pass for the sixth Beatle (it's the 1960's). Humanity and graciousness never go out of style.
STRANGER THINGS -- (series) Here's a series for (almost ) the whole family. Pre-teens could definitely handle it. Old fashioned, skin-tingling, mysterious fun, reminiscent of 1980's filmmaking. "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life, or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.
The series starts off with a lot of bad language, taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to respond aloud: "May He always be praised!" whenever they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).
So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited. As always, discussions with your kids about the media they watch will be in order here.
PSYCH -- (series) Simply put, I would make my kids watch this show. Two childhood friends: Sean and "Gus" (one white, one black) now solve crimes together. One pretends to be psychic, but it's really his keen powers of observation working overtime (powers drilled into him by his cop father). The show always starts with the boys as kids, with Sean usually learning a lesson from his Dad that he then applies to a present-day crime. His relationship with his father can be antagonistic at times, but it's clear they really love each other deeply. Sean and Gus' rapid-fire banter and escapades are consistently hilarious, and they've created their own in-show tropes. The conceit is that these two have never grown up (especially Sean) and will be friends for life through thick and thin. They have their own code of honor and chivalry. The show is sweet, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, wholesome and upbeat, and displays a genuine sense of humor that shines like the sun in a too often out-of-ideas, tired, negative, depraved Hollywood.
PORTLANDIA -- (series) The rubber-faced Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman from the girrrl band Sleater-Kinney, team up for sketch comedy set in Portland, Oregon, as a send up of that quirky city. There are always fresh new skits, but characters are constantly reprised and there are running themes and stories as well (e.g., the mayor of Portland and the side-splitting feminist bookstore). The deadpan humor is always self-deprecating and never vicious. Once in a great while there's something risque, but not terribly explicit. Fred and Carrie keep it classy. "Portlandia" could potentially be for pre-teens/teens also. After Season 5-ish, it gets a little bit more sexually themed. Amorally so.
GONE -- Amanda Seyfried stars in this tense thriller about a young woman who was abducted and escaped her abducter, but no one believers her. Now her sister is missing and she's convinced her stalker has returned.
THE GOOD SON -- Elijah Wood and Macauley Caulkin are cousins. But one of them is a "bad seed." Psychopathy can start young....
THE CODE -- (Australian) Two young adult brothers--one an investigative reporter trying to solve a case, one on the autism spectrum trying to live an independent life--go through thick and thin together. The beautiful, brotherly devotion is palpable.
FATHER BROWN -- (British, episodes) Based on G. K. Chesterton's written series, the worldy-wise, gentle and kind Fr. Brown has one goal: to save people. Ultimately save them. He always tells them at the critical point some variation of: "Confess!" "It's not too late!" "You can save yourself!" "There is hope and redemption for you!" "I only care about your soul!"
HAPPY VALLEY -- (British mini-series) A lady cop is one tough grandmother. She's raising her deceased daughter's son whose Dad is her archenemy (she blames him for her daughter's death) and definitely one bad cookie.
GLITCH -- (Australian mini-series) 6 people return from the dead--but they're not zombies, they're in perfect health. A fascinating look at life, death, mortality. Catholic overtones. But it's not what you think, not facile, not about a second chance or making things right. Or is it?
BLACK MIRROR -- This brilliant, creative and terribly imaginative British set of self-contained episodes play out like Ray Bradbury short stories--if they were more like cautionary tales. They're set in a uber-wired-and-tech-connected-not-too-distant-future that doesn't really look like sci fi. It looks like us. Us on steroids. Mostly dealing with SOCIAL MEDIA. Some episodes are not for the faint-hearted and are pretty intense. And prescient. And very, very, very dark.
NOSEDIVE--social status is strictly determined by how many "likes" everyone gets on social media. Every single encounter with another person in real life must be immediately rated. Your continually fluctuating rating will determine what kind of promotion you will get work, what kind of rental car you will get, etc. "Niceness" is highly sought.
PLAY TEST--A nice enough slacker-dude needs the cash being a video game tester will provide. But this is an augmented reality game. About your deepest fears. It involves a "mild, reversible" medical procedure.
SHUT UP AND DANCE--The most disturbing and yet realistic of the three episodes I've seen ("sextortion" is a real thing: you are recorded via your webcam--did you know your light need not go on for someone to record you?). Random people have been video-ed doing sexual acts or seeking unfaithful sexual encounters online. "They" now control each person's life through blackmail. The deep, deep shame (and other consequences) of having their contacts (this is the actually the worst) and cyberspace (strangers) see and know what they have done is too much to even bear thinking about. The blackmailed are slaves. [This is truly fascinating from a Theology of the Body POV. Would it be the end of the world to be exposed? Only one of the acts is not a sexual act but a racist one. But anyone watching this episode has to ask: Wow. What if my hidden acts were revealed? Would I bow to pressure to hide them? It made me think: Will the Last Judgment be like this? Or will we feel OK with "being known" because it is all in God's light and God is mercy? "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.…" Luke 12:2, Matthew 10: 26, Mark 4:22
THE GOOD NEIGHBOR -- Two callous young men pull an elaborate and invasive stunt on their grouchy old neighbor. Things are not always what they seem even with 24-hour surveillance. Also, James Caan.