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MIKE AT THE MOVIES: The Best of the Limited Series

by MIKE ORLOCK

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Netflix, the world’s largest streaming service, lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers during the first quarter of this year. Despite that recent news, I doubt it’s going anywhere or that its financial troubles signal an end to a phenomenon created in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online streaming of entertainment, as confirmed by last month’s Academy Awards, is the new way in which Hollywood does business. There will still be movie theaters selling popcorn for the latest superhero extravaganza, but the meat-and-potato dramas and comedies, thrillers and horror flicks, are now the province of HBO Max, Apple TV, Hulu, Amazon Prime and – yes – Netflix, especially when presented in a form that traditional movie venues can’t compete with: the limited series.

This genre has become popular among major directors and actors because it allows them the flexibility of time to take a deep dive into stories and characters in ways that a two-hour running time never could. Whether presented in six or eight hour-long episodes released simultaneously or (more likely) in installments over several weeks, the success of the limited series among viewers signals a profound change in how we consume our entertainment.

Consider these four limited series that are available through subscription streamers on your smart TV and feature direction and performances that are every bit as good, if not better, than what is playing at the local cineplex.

• HBO Max has two major series going, Tokyo Vice and Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (both rated R), by two A-list Hollywood directors, Michael Mann and Adam McKay.

Tokyo Vice stars young Ansel Elgort, last seen as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, as a brash American journalist working for a Japanese newspaper who stumbles into the criminal machinations of the Yakuza. He’s used by both cops and gangsters to further their agendas, and they don’t think twice about putting his life in jeopardy, primarily because he’s a gaijin: a foreigner who’s expendable. 

Academy nominees Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi headline a talented cast of Japanese actors in a story that is as violent, sexy and cool as Mann’s American crime classic Heat (1995).

Winning Time stars John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, the visionary huckster who injected Hollywood glamour and celebrity into professional basketball when he drafted a young phenom named Earvin “Magic” Johnson and turned him loose on the NBA. 

McKay cast Reilly over his close friend and (now former) business partner Will Ferrell, but it’s easy to see why. Reilly gives a career-best performance as the consummate BS artist who bet the farm that he could fill the Forum with movie stars and sexy women if he made his players marquee attractions. 

Quincy Isaiah (as Magic), Solomon Hughes (as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Jason Clarke, Tracy Letts, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffmann and Sally Field form a dream team of a supporting cast, fleshing out everything that went into making the Lakers’ “Showtime” must-see.

• Over on Hulu, two actresses give career-best performances in two true-crime dramatizations that will likely pit them against each other when Emmys are handed out later this year. 

Renée Zellweger (hardly recognizable under extensive makeup) stars as every small town’s worst nightmare: Pam Hupp, a busy-body serial murderer in The Thing about Pam (TV-14). 

Based on a 2016 Dateline episode, the story told over six episodes is funny, creepy and mesmerizing, due in no small part to a crackerjack cast that includes Judy Greer, Josh Duhamel, Glenn Fleshler, Sean Bridgers and Dateline stalwart Keith Morrison delivering deadpan narration in his distinctive style. The antics Pam Hupp pulled off in her one-woman crime spree beg incredulity: How did she get away with it for as long as she did? The series does a masterful job of reeling you in to find out.

The Dropout (R) recounts the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, an ambitious young woman whose Silicon Valley medical startup Theranos promised much more than it could ever deliver, resulting in her recent conviction in federal court for fraud and racketeering. 

Holmes’ initial idea was to streamline blood work with a machine that could perform multiple tests on a single drop, but once the money started pouring in and the TV coverage made her a celebrity, she sacrificed principles for profit and truth for outright lies. Her carnal partner in crime, venture capitalist Sunny Balwani, will go on trial later this year for his role in the Theranos scheme.

Holmes is played by Amanda Seyfried, and although I’ve always considered her a fine supporting actress (you might remember her as Kristen Bell’s murdered best friend in the TV show Veronica Mars), nothing she’s done previously comes close to the level of performance on display here. She captures every nuance of Holmes, from the look to the voice, in one of the most impressive pieces of acting you’re likely to see this year. 

Naveen Andrews (as Sunny), Sam Waterston, Anne Archer, Michaela Watkins, Elizabeth Marvel, Kurtwood Smith and William H. Macy headline a killer cast in support.  

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.