Photograph by Zach Dilgard / Netflix
In 1958, my great-grandmother was mysteriously shot, and a couple of years ago I became obsessed with trying to piece together the muddled details of what happened. To figure out whether it was a suicide attempt, as the police believed, or something more sinister, I conducted newspaper-archive searches and made inquiries with local town officials. Recently, I was reminded of my brief foray into family-tragedy sleuthing when I watched “Wormwood,” Errol Morris’s new six-part Netflix documentary-drama, which examines the genre on a grand scale. The series tells, or attempts to tell, the true story of Frank Olson, an Army scientist working with the C.I.A. who died, in 1953, in a ten-story plunge from a New York City hotel room. At the time, the government told his family that the death was an accident. But years later, in 1975, the Olson family was given a cache of documents by the C.I.A. that said Olson had taken LSD as part of a government experiment, and had in fact committed suicide. The documents were incomplete and incomprehensible, and, feeling deceived, the family started a decades-long search for the truth.
The central interview subject is Olson’s son Eric, who has spent his entire adult life trying to peel back layers of lies and coverups to find out exactly how, and why, his father died. Eric is a completely engrossing storyteller: dynamic, articulate, and surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. In the first episode, describing the basic circumstances of his father’s death, he agonizes over and dissects three simple words: “fell,” “jumped,” “accident.” Morris has assembled a slick mix of interview and archival footage, with moody dramatizations of the 1953 scenes, starring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson, weaved in. These scenes are intentionally confusing, because they are based on the 1975 documents, and so the viewer remains in a constant state of skepticism about what’s being shown. The show is a fascinating examination of the limits of information—Eric wonders aloud, more than once, whether anything he could possibly uncover would satisfy him—and it comes at a particularly relevant time, rounding out a year overrun with “fake news” and “alternative facts.”—Maraithe Thomas
Photograph by Jan Thijs / Netflix / Everett
This Netflix series is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood from 1996, which in turn is based on the true story of a murder that took place in 1843 in the British colony of Upper Canada. Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old housemaid, and James McDermott, a farmhand, were both convicted of killing their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who were found dead in the cellar of Kinnear’s house—Kinnear shot, and Montgomery beaten and strangled. Marks and McDermott were caught after fleeing the property with a load of stolen goods, and McDermott was later hanged. Marks, probably because of her youth and good looks, got life in prison.
The show takes place years after the murders. A committee has formed to try to get Grace acquitted and brings in a flashy young psychiatrist whose job it is to fill in her now patchy memories of the killings. The psychiatrist’s sessions with Grace, which are calm and civil but psychologically fraught, frame the story. It is unclear whether Grace or McDermott actually committed the murders. Grace herself seems not to know, and her recollections are intertwined with other traumas—childhood abuse; the death of a friend in scandalous circumstances; the unremitting sexualization of her presence in the world as she makes her way through it, pretty and alone.
The obvious thing to say about “Alias Grace” is that its examination of the ways in which women navigate the relationship between sex and power feels very of the moment. (Last year, the director, Sarah Polley, wrote about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein and other men in the film industry for the Times.) But I don’t want to emphasize its topicality at the risk of passing over its other fascinations: the way the story moves fluidly from whodunnit to psychological thriller to political commentary to ghost story to coming-of-age tale, and back again; the minutely expressive face of Sarah Gadon, the actress who fully embodies the character of Grace as an all-telling narrator and the central cipher in the story she relates; the delicate portrayal of anger, anguish, jealousy, joy, fear, and desire, and a multitude of ambiguities in between. Please watch it. —Andrea Denhoed
Photograph by Ben Mark Holzberg / 20th Century Fox / Everett
The continued success of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” suggests an odd truth: for all its focus on the future, sci-fi is often repetitious and nostalgic. All the more reason to check out “Fringe,” one of the most original sci-fi shows ever made. The show, which ran from 2008 through 2013, has a wacky premise: it follows an F.B.I. agent, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv, who now stars in “Mindhunter”), as she investigates bizarre events with the help of a dropout named Peter (Joshua Jackson) and his mad-scientist father, Walter (John Noble). Walter has just been released from a mental institution; it turns out that, in the nineteen-seventies, he was a pioneer of “fringe science,” who fried his brain by doing a little too much research involving sensory-deprivation tanks and LSD. In the present day, however, his discoveries may be the key to solving Olivia’s psychedelic mysteries. In a typical episode, a man turns into a giant porcupine and the team—the trio plus Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), their genius lab tech—does drugs to figure out why. The magic of “Fringe” is that a tremendously moving story emerges from the weirdness. As the monster-of-the-week episodes give way to a more serialized tale, the show turns out to be a mind-bending exploration of the nature of reality, and a meditation on guilt and forgiveness, the nature of personality, and the way we’re all changed by the people we know. Its central theme may be the love between a father and his son—“Fringe” has a tenderness rarely seen in sci-fi (or anywhere else). A few of its Season 1 episodes are wobbly—at first, you may find this “watch it or skip it?” guide valuable—but the series as a whole concludes ideally, resolving all of its story lines and achieving a level of emotional profundity that’s unusual in the genre. It also helps that the cast is stellar: in addition to Noble, whose performance is one for the ages, it includes Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels from “The Wire”), Blair Brown (of “Altered States” and “Orange Is the New Black”), and Leonard Nimoy, in one of his last non-Spock roles. —Joshua Rothman
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