Has there ever been a more superfluous sentence in the history of television than the line “Hand in your badge, you’re off the case”?
In every single police drama featuring a maverick cop – i.e., pretty much all of them – at some point the police chief will utter those words to a subordinate, to absolutely zero effect. In fact, they should simply say, “You’re unmanageable! But hang onto that badge and go do that crazy shit you always do to solve the case at the 11th hour.”
We’ve just had two classic examples of the renegade cop. First, HBO’s spring hit “Mare of Easttown” with Kate Winslet, which just concluded its first season in hugely satisfying fashion. The only thing that stopped the show from being a stone-cold classic for me was a rote serial killer interlude and when it became “The Jean Smart Comedy Show,” which already exists elsewhere on HBO and is called “Hacks.”
The second is the Israeli series “Blackspace” (aka “Black Space” on the Netflix site itself), which premiered in Israel earlier this year and whose eight episodes dropped on Netflix last week.
It’s easy to see why the streaming giant got its checkbook out for this Reshet production, which takes some very familiar elements and successfully fuses them into something unusual and extremely bingeable.
They say that in the kingdom of the bland, the one-eyed man is king. (I think that’s what they say; I was some distance away when I heard it.) And the one-eyed king stirring up the still waters of the police procedural here is Rami Davidi (Guri Alfi Aharon), a cop who is not going to do anything to improve the already tarnished reputation of the Israeli police force internationally with his “whatever it takes” antics here.
I think it’s fair to say that the police force is the least-respected of Israel’s emergency services. Let’s just say that if you’re outside, need assistance and hear an approaching siren sound, you’ll be as well served if it’s an ice cream truck as a police unit.
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That widespread incompetence and “Rules? What are rules?” approach has already been witnessed on Netflix with the broad comedy “The Good Cop” (“Hashoter Hatov”), starring Yuval Semo as a bad-tempered officer dealing with inept colleagues and a collapsing marriage. But “Blackspace” takes it to a whole new level with the character of Rami Davidi, for whom every day is a day of rage and whose brutal methods call to mind none other than the walking ball of testosterone that is Doron Kavillo (Lior Raz) in “Fauda.”
There are mannequins with better people skills than Davidi, a 40-something cop who’s about to become a father for the first time and is less than thrilled at the prospect. Davidi’s character (very few people refer to him as “Rami” – he’s just not a “first names” kind of guy) is established in the first scene when an ophthalmologist is tending to his left eye, which he lost in a life-defining incident as a teenager.
With his one remaining pupil heavily dilated, Davidi drives to the scene of a shooting incident at a nearby high school, which, wouldn’t you just know it, is his alma mater and stirs unpleasant memories for him. Four final-year students have been murdered by a group of people wearing unicorn masks, and the police’s first instinct is to suspect a terror attack. Davidi is always happiest when he’s swimming against the tide, though, and has a different theory. No surprises for guessing who’s right.
There’s a very good reason why high school shootings aren’t seen as an appropriate setting for thrillers, but leave it to an Israeli show to wade into these most sensitive of waters. Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film “Elephant” is the only movie I can recall that’s centered around a school shooting, but you’re definitely not going to mistake that somber indie film for anything in “Blackspace.” I did smile, though, when one character in the show says about the shooting incident, “It’s like the stories you hear from America,” because this show does appear to have been made with one eye (no pun intended) on an American audience.
Netflix stresses at the start that “Blackspace” contains “graphic depictions of school violence” and is intended for “mature audiences.” The streaming site says it’s suitable for those over 16, which feels about right. I certainly never got the sense that the series was being exploitative, though you could argue that the violence in the first episode is very much PG-13 level and shies away from showing us the true horrors of this heinous crime.
What I enjoyed most about the show is how it successfully splices two genres together: a crime show peopled by memorable characters and a show about messed-up teenagers. I’d argue that the former is what really makes the series click, thanks to Davidi’s interactions with colleagues – including Morag Shmuel (Reut Alush), a “youth detective” drafted onto the case to work alongside him (he’s just thrilled by that prospect, of course); cybercrime cop Chino, who literally never seems to leave his desk and whose discovery of a secret messaging app gives the show its title; and his long-suffering, heavily pregnant wife Miri (Meirav Shirom) who has to suffer his mood swings – from moody to foul – and irony-free complaints like “This pregnancy’s going to kill me.”
But the show wouldn’t work if the teenagers at the heart of the investigation weren’t interesting characters either, and “Blackspace” certainly gives us plenty of youngsters we want to get to know. There were times I was reminded of “13 Reasons Why,” as we find out more about the messy lives of these youth – an interesting mix of elites and poor kids coexisting in the giant Petri dish that is the Israeli public school system. (The show was mainly filmed in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv, but strangely, location doesn’t play a key role here.)
It took me a while to figure out who all the kids were (my notes say things like “Omer – drug dealer; Itamar – pizza dealer” to try to differentiate between the dozen or so youngsters we see here), but it’s worth the effort. Indeed, there were often times when “Blackspace” reminded me of the kind of Israeli series I used to watch with my kids when they were growing up: afternoon shows like “The Island” (“Ha-E”) “Galis,” “The Eight” (“Hashminiya”) and “Split” (“Hatsuya”) – worlds almost exclusively peopled by youngsters with nary a responsible adult in sight as they embark on various misadventures.
In “Blackspace,” too, the parents exist on the margins (in the most extreme case, they are on two-month vacations in Kenya), leaving their kids untended and free to run wild. Mind you, Israeli television is never going to be mistaken for American cable TV, and the wildest things we see here are a few stolen kisses, beers or joints at a party – this is a long way from the screwed-up, debauched youth of HBO’s “Euphoria” (itself a remake of a far tamer Israeli show of the same name).
Things do get a little overwrought and overheated toward the end (for an example of how to conclude a show, watch the masterclass in “Mare of Easttown”), but I could forgive “Blackspace” its dramatic missteps and miscalculations due to the wonderful central character of Rami Davidi. I hope we see more of him in the future – and I don’t say that very often about Israeli cops.
‘Lisey’s Story’ (Apple TV+)
It’s a brave move to use marionettes in the opening credits of a show featuring Clive Owen, because it can’t help but remind you that the British actor can sometimes be a little wooden. But in the case of “Lisey’s Story,” it also serves notice that this is not going to be your average Stephen King tale.
The master of horror has adapted his own 2006 novel into a prestige eight-part show for Apple TV. But while the show looks fantastic and is staffed by such acting heavyweights as Julianne Moore, Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh, four episodes in, I’m struggling to say whether I actually like it or not. (The first two episodes drop on Friday, with weekly installments thereafter.) It’s atmospheric and intriguing, but I’d struggle to call it enjoyable.
In many ways, this feels like a collection of King’s favorite tropes (right down to a small model lighthouse that revolves inside a home and a snowbound, deserted hotel). A lauded writer is at the show’s center, which even begins with a quote from said man, Scott Landon (Owen): “Every marriage keeps its own secrets.”
The screen novelist is described in glowing terms early on as an incomparable talent who “seamlessly joined the realistic and the fantastic,” and hails from Maine. Hmm, sounds faintly familiar.
Then there’s a creepy superfan (Dane DeHaan) who will do anything to get his hands on Landon’s private papers, but doesn’t actually get to say “I’m your biggest fan,” a la “Misery” – but only because Scott Landon is very much dead when the show begins. His grieving widow Lisette, aka Lisey (Moore), is rattling around their remote country house, surrounded by memories of their marriage – memories that are resurfaced by a “bool hunt” (a kind of scavenger hunt) where her dearly departed has left her a series of clues to remember their lives together.
Scott was definitely not your average writer. “I have visions. I write ’em down, people pay to read them,” he tells Lisey in one of the show’s numerous flashbacks – most of them Lisey’s, but some of them Scott’s as he recalls a childhood that can only be described as something out of a Stephen King novel (a deeply disturbed father and lots of literal bloodletting).
Halfway through (I will watch the rest of the series, but weekly and definitely not as a binge), we’ve seen a lot more of lachrymose Lisey than actual story, and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that this might have been more effective as a two-hour movie.
Instead, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (arguably best known for Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman) gives us numerous artful shots of Julianne Moore standing open-mouthed as she remembers an incident from her life with Scott, unable to move on even though he died two years before.
Adding to the sense of dread is Lisey’s sister Manda (Joan Allen, looking more like the late British actor Pete Postlethwaite than a Hollywood star), whose near-catatonic state is somehow connected to Scott and the fantasy world of Booya Moon he created in his novels.
Adding some much-needed fun – well, comparatively speaking – is Lisey’s other sister, Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose casting recalls her involvement in an earlier King adaptation, “Dolores Claiborne”), and gives us the author’s own spooky take on Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”
I’ve had a soft spot for King ever since “Carrie” scared the bejesus out of me (technical term) as a kid and my first date movie was “The Dead Zone” (you didn’t need to be Christopher Walken’s character to predict where that particular relationship was headed), but “Lisey’s Story” isn’t one of the author’s best works. Despite the glossy production and superior acting, it ultimately struggles to put the “super” into supernatural.
“Blackspace” is out now on Netflix. “Lisey’s Story” is on Apple TV+ from Friday.