History of the World, Part II ★★★
Rasputin (Johnny Knoxville) in a scene from History of the World Part II.Credit:Aaron Epstein/Hulu
There are many silly gags and much ludicrous invention in this sketch comedy series, but the first six words are unimpeachable: “Hello, I’m American treasure Mel Brooks.” An inventive comic voice since 1950 – he could have started earlier, but he had to serve in World War II – Brooks is responsible for The Producers, Get Smart, Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles and History of the World, Part I. Now he’s made a series sequel to the latter – what a flex by a 96-year-old.
A few caveats: unlike the 1981 film, Brooks is not the sole creative fulcrum, and he’s barely seen. He is heard however, introducing with recognisable enthusiasm a selection of skits and recurring bits made by a slew of Hollywood collaborators, most notably co-producers, co-writers and feature performers Wanda Sykes, Nick Kroll, and Ike Barinholtz. The tone is leaning towards Brooksian as historic events are pilloried – giddy pacing, bizarre ramifications, a winking inclusiveness. There’s nothing coolly ironic on offer here.
Mel Brooks hasn’t lost his ‘screwball touch’.
Four hours of sketch comedy – across eight episodes – means that there’s going to be plenty of misses alongside the hits. I could have done without a multi-part US Civil War piece with Barinholtz as General Ulysses S Grant, but there’s always a screwball touch lurking even when the material is average – listen for the car door locking mechanism sound when two riders drop their horses off at a barn. Thankfully, there is usually some lovely loopiness – a key Brooks trait – bubbling away.
The idea of history remains as pliable as ever, whether it’s extended riffs on Jesus and his disciples as The Beatles or a quick visit to the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s, where hummus threatens any hope of Middle East détente. Hollywood stars pop up like comedian whack-a-mole, with Jack Black doing a show tune ballad as Joseph Stalin or a laugh-out-loud sketch where Taika Waititi plays Sigmund Freud pitching the first masterclass.
Some collaborators lean more into Brooks catalogue than others. Kroll, who is also Jewish-American, plays Judas in Curb Your Judaism, and it’s noticeable that the idea of satire is more connected to popular culture here than it was when the original movie was in cinemas. In other words, enough with the Real Housewives send-ups. But it’s hard to quibble when Brooks is making such productive use of his legacy. A trailer at the close of Part I promised that Part II would have sketches such as ‘Hitler on Ice’. Consider that promise kept.
Physical: 100 ★★★
A contestant on South Korean fitness battle show Physical: 100.Credit:Netflix
Scripted series aren’t Netflix’s core, reality shows are. The streaming giant is upping production on dating shows, fashion competitions, and survival sagas, and they’re doing so from a global perspective. Their latest crossover success is Physical: 100, a South Korean fitness battle with serious pecs appeal that brings together everyone from champion bodybuilders and elite soldiers to Olympic gymnasts and fitness influencers.
It’s a canny show, leaning into Squid Game comparisons with vast studio game spaces and masked attendants in tracksuits as the 100 entrants are steadily reduced to a champion. Whether individually or in teams, the games are a mix of Survivor challenge and mythic tasks. But it moves at a stately pace, with a slew of matches and a focus on how the entrants – many of whom are aware of each other’s reputations – react to the clash of physiques.
The tone between adversaries is respectful throughout, emphasising how the cultural differences help give Netflix’s international commissions a worldwide curiosity; the tone of an Australian edition would be quite different, mate. I’m surprised that Netflix didn’t issue a tighter international edit, but nonetheless this unexpected hit will still make converts.
Leila Farzad as Lou in Better.
Leila Farzad, who was terrific as a hard-nosed celebrity manager in Stan’s I Hate Suzie, is even better in this British crime drama, playing a corrupt Leeds police detective who genuinely tries to right her life – even if it means going against the crime boss and friend she’s been protecting for years. With Andrew Buchan (Industry) as her unofficial partner turned adversary, it’s a study of amorality, power dynamics, and self-belief. The plotting can be somewhat conventional, but every scene between the two leads has a genuine charge.
Confessions of Frannie Langton
Karla-Simone Spence in The Confessions of Frannie Langton.Credit:Britbox
This is a bracing, welcome corrective to the traditional British period romantic drama, upping the historic revisionism, queer perspective, and Gothic torment. Sent to Britain from Jamaica as a slave in the early 19th century, Frannie (Karla-Simone Spence) finds agency in education and pleasure in an affair with her privileged mistress, Marguerite Benham (Sophie Cookson). In adapting her own 2019 book, Sara Collins keeps the illuminating detail alongside the flashback-heavy dramatic flourishes. It’s a reminder that television is an invaluable – and entertaining – means of re-examining the past’s conventions.
The Breakfast Club meets Ghost in School Spirits.Credit:Paramount+
The torrid high school mystery gets a supernatural twist in this above-average American young adult drama where a dead student, Maddie Nears (Peyton List), finds herself anchored in the afterlife inside the school where she was apparently murdered. Alternately helped and hindered by a spectral support group of teenage phantoms – they meet in the gym – Maddie tries to crack her own case from the other side of the living’s investigation. It’s The Breakfast Club meets Ghost, notable for the heavy veneer of trauma and angst laid across a whodunit.
Christoph Waltz gives a creepy performance in the dark corporate comedy The Consultant.Credit:Andrew Casey/Prime Video
British creator Tony Basgallop has a knack for reframing the everyday with a persistent unease that leans into the supernatural. On Apple TV+’s The Servant he made parenting a newborn into a nightmarish realm, while the workplace becomes a menacing prison in this blackly comic thriller about the unnerving new boss of a software company. Christoph Waltz uses all his Tarantino tics to menace his 20-something staff, although the clash of generations ranks below macabre office rituals in this amusing, if somewhat slight, argument in favour of working safely from home.
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