Tuesday 7 April 2020, by
More top picks from our team. Here are Tommy’s Netflix recommendations.
A smart, vibrant Russian drama series about a young group of friends in the Soviet Union, 1961 - exploring the phenomenon of Fartovska, the act of illegally buying and selling foreign goods and currency. This particularly Soviet phenomenon occurred as part of the country’s ‘second economy’ which boosted the prestige of owning rare foreign products and revolved around bribery, speculation, and the black market.
Fartsa follows amateur writer Andrei, who returns home from a work placement - idealistic and swept up in national pride following the successful Soviet space mission - only to find his friends are entangled in criminal dealings and insecure debt with no escape plan. Hence the turn to Fartovska, which is treated as an inevitability of the particular circumstances the friends find themselves in. A multitude of characters are introduced throughout, many either hustlers or professionals or both, building an immersive web of relationships to gradually unpack as the series progresses.
The show makes glorious use of mid-20th century costumes and set designs which is reminiscent of the work behind AMC’s Mad Men set in the same era, though the perspective of Soviet life provides many more historical curiosities to Western audiences. Fartsa often benefits from plot convenience; the show can be forgiven for some of its more jubilant plot moments as it is following on from its historical setting - the bright and positive films of the ‘60s Soviet era.
It is at its strongest when exploring of the pitfalls of idealism and challenging the simplicity of blind faith in ideologies. Colourful and attractive, Fartsa is both engaging in its drama and playful in its characterisations, making it a treat to watch; even if you have no knowledge of Russian history or Soviet society, consider this a laid-back and fun, if somewhat fictionalised, lesson.
This multi-part documentary series about pet tigers and lions has exploded in popularity in just two weeks since its release, and based purely on just the premise, it not hard to see why. Following a ridiculous zookeeper named Joe Exotic, who was infamously interviewed in Louis Theroux’s 2011 documentary America’s Most Dangerous Pets, the often-meandering series goes down a dark and absurd path as the the scale of abuses and rivalries in this strange industry become even more apparent. Tiger King purposefully crafts a narrative which makes you question if any of the events explored even occurred - as they are based on often unreliable narratives - and further leaves you wondering when human society left the realms of sanity.
The larger-than-life Joe Exotic exudes criminality, spite, paranoia and egotism - not so much as a personality defect but a fully-fleshed characteristic. His evident narcissism is apparent from the get-go, the same narcissism which seemed to have convinced all parties involved in this sordid phenomenon to adopt large cats in the first place. Far from being the tiger king, he is but part of a collection of tiger antiheroes.
The series - with its many dead-ends, gotchas, twists and turns - forces you to conclude that egomaniacs really can create their own worlds, away from what they view as oppressive structures, yet in reality they are merely building their own personal fiefdoms. Tiger King studies their deluded mindsets, pushing the boundaries of realism in showcasing their pursuit of exploitation of both animals and humans.
As well as the countless animals who will never know life outside of a cage, the victims of this affair are the numerous private zoo volunteers, often runaways and drifters with no other hope of a life, who came to believe in the vanity projects of these selfish charlatans to the point of cultish brainwashing and life-altering devastation. Truly the captivating part of Tiger King is not the bizarre eccentricity of Joe Exotic and his rivals, but rather the salient fact that barely a soul involved in the sleazy, backwards industry of big cat trading and breeding has a salvageable conscience.
It is not a study of tigers but of the monsters who see big cats as a pathway to their own gratification, a means to a rich and self-satisfying end. Outlandish, squalid and spirit-shatteringly sad, you just cannot look away.