Cumberbatch, America’s opioid crisis, and elves: Top TV picks for the week

Watch, listen and be inspired by Calum Henderson’s definitive list of what’s hot right now and from the vault.

Dr Brain (Apple TV+)

After Squid Game, the question is no longer “how did this random South Korean TV series end up becoming the biggest show in the world?” Instead we’re all asking “what’s next?” This search for the next big Korean-language TV sensation is what leads us to Apple TV+ and its intriguing new six-part sci-fi thriller, Dr Brain.

Lee Sun-kyun (the rich dad from Parasite) stars as Sewon, a brain expert whose tragic origin story involves watching as a child as his mum get hit by a truck, then, as an adult, having his son die in an explosion. Now people are knocking on his door asking if he knows anything about a “Junki Lim”, who was apparently close to his wife, Jaeyi, and whose body was found a couple of days ago.

Sewon’s research involves putting little electrical conductors on the heads of laboratory mice and trying to transfer their mouse memories from one brain to another. This brainwave sync, it turns out, only works when the mouse whose memories are being transferred is dead, a discovery so exciting he skips several important scientific steps and makes a beeline straight for the morgue – and for Junki Lim.

From here, things quickly start getting very strange and scary. The untested brain sync technology transfers more than just memories – Sewon also adopts some of Junki’s habits and mannerisms, shocking his colleagues by suddenly being sociable and drinking iced coffee. And the memories themselves present more like a series of nightmarish, reality-blurring visions that he must navigate if he’s to solve the mystery of what’s happened to his family.

Based on a popular comics series and directed by acclaimed film-maker Kim Jee-woon, it’s an ambitious concept that may not be “the next Squid Game”, but could end up being something even better.

Dopesick (Disney Plus)

An incredibly high-production-value series about America’s opioid crisis, Dopesick is about as serious as serious TV drama can get. It’s based on Beth Macy’s bestselling book and director Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man) and a cast featuring Michael Keaton, Peter Sarsgaard and Kaitlyn Dever tell the story of how the dangerously addictive painkiller OxyContin came to be prescribed to patients like it was Panadol, and some of the many lives that have been destroyed as a result. A very good companion piece (or vice versa) to Apple’s current podcast series Hooked.

The Investigation (TVNZ OnDemand)

If Dopesick doesn’t satisfy your urge for high-quality serious drama, The Investigation on TVNZ OnDemand may do the trick. The six-part ITV drama tells the true story of the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall on board a submarine in Denmark in 2017 and the dark media circus it inspired. Made with virtually unprecedented input and co-operation from Wall’s family, the series eschews most of the hallmarks of the crime-drama genre in favour of painstaking detail and realism. If you feel frustrated by how slow things move, just imagine how the family must have felt.

Elves (Netflix, from tonight)

When we think of Scandinavian TV we think of one thing and one thing only: murder and the investigation thereof. New Danish Netflix series Elves looks to break the mould in a big way by instead being about, well, elves. When a family goes for Christmas on a remote island, they discover a deeply Wicker Man-style community living in harmony with real-life elves. And when a child in the family smuggles a baby elf back to the mainland, she inadvertently causes all manner of hell to break loose over what turns out to be a very scary Christmas indeed.

Movie of the Week: The Power of the Dog (Netflix, from Wednesday)

The movie that brought Cumberbatch, Dunst and other Hollywood heavyweights to New Zealand last year has already been out in select theatres for a couple of weeks, and if you can go and see it on the big screen it’s probably worth it. If not, though, the Jane Campion-directed Western drama, set in 1925 Montana and filmed mostly in Dunedin and Central Otago, is available on Netflix from Wednesday night. It is, according to the majority of reviews so far, the real deal – one of Campion’s best.

From the Vault: Pale Rider (1985) (Neon)

If The Power of the Dog gives you a taste for moody, stylish Westerns, head straight over to Neon for Clint Eastwood’s 1980s highlight, Pale Rider. Made at a time when the genre was possibly even more out of fashion than it is now, Eastwood’s religion-drenched tale of a mysterious preacher who rides into town and tries to save it from a greedy mining company stands up as a solid and singular genre example.

Podcast of the Week: Nice Try!

As the enduring popularity of 99% Invisible goes to show, sometimes the smallest things make the best podcasts. This is certainly true of the latest season of Nice Try!, in which former 99PI co-host Avery Trufelman takes a variety of household appliances and explores the strange and interesting stories of how they came to be so ubiquitous, and what they say about our society.

The history of the humble mattress, for example, opens up a fascinating exploration of sleep and how the whole concept of getting your eight hours a night, and even having our own bedrooms and sleeping in our own beds, are only relatively recent developments. One episode introduces a man who’s obsessed with collecting doorbells, then traces a line from the earliest one through to the modern home surveillance system in a way that’s like the most interesting social history lesson you’ve ever heard.

The best episode, though, might be the last one, about the bidet and why it’s never caught on in the US (and same here) – a conversation that touches on both Freud and religion. Like the rest, it strikes a rare and perfect balance of the brainy and entertaining, proving once again the wonder in small things.

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