There was a time when it was enough to say that you watched “Masterpiece Theater” or, a decade later, that you considered “The Wire” the best show ever. Now, identifying yourself as a television smarty pants — er, connoisseur — has become a bit tougher.
Are you a late-adopting but very enthusiastic fan of “Schitt’s Creek?” Is “Peaky Blinders” your safe place when cocktail conversation turns to “what’s everyone watching?” Documentaries are always a good bet, as is elegiac praise for “The Americans.” But if you’re name-dropping to impress, you still can’t beat foreign titles.
So it is with a certain amount of chagrined self-awareness that I find myself demanding to know why the German cave-in-forest thriller “Dark” is getting so much attention when the French-Belgian ravine-in-forest thriller “Black Spot” is so much better.
Both are Netflix shows that neatly check the “it’s smarter if it has subtitles” box that the streaming service has been pushing along with (what a coincidence) its increased global reach.
Both are set in small, deceptively peaceful rural towns where terrible things happen with alarming regularity. Both are also part of a sub-genre I like to think of, with apologies to Stephen Sondheim, as Into the Woods TV — see also “Grimm” (NBC, now on Amazon), “The Forest” (Netflix), “The Kettering Incident” (Amazon) and, of course, “Stranger Things” (Netflix).
These shows are characterized by swooping aerial images of vast woodlands, after which the camera, pursued by strings, drums or an increasingly agitated bassoon, burrows down to find some spooking, singular image. Themes include the idea of nature as a sentient life force; the existence of fantastic, shape-shifting creatures; and, of course, the definition of reality and human consciousness.
Not surprisingly, both “Dark” and “Black Spot” were offered up by many as a stop-gap before the third season of “Stranger Things” dropped on the Fourth of July. (Warning: The highly adult content of “Dark” and “Black Spot,” like many Into the Woods shows, makes them unsuitable for younger “Stranger Things” fans.)
Indeed, my Netflix account became so determined that I watch “Dark,” repeatedly headlining it in the “New” and “Recommended” lists, that I stubbornly refused for months.
After it began showing up on so many people’s “but you have to watch” lists, I finally succumbed, bingeing it in a matter of days, from the intriguing first season through the satisfying beginning of the second to the bitter end, which is to say the Season 2 finale.
By the middle of the second season, “Dark” was pretty tough going, but fueled by early goodwill, I forced myself forward. Somehow, even after years of watching television as a professional, I managed to maintain a willfully naïve hope that the pile-on of gratuitous complications, not to mention the increasingly pretentious and repetitive philosophical intonations of the villain (hero?), would resolve themselves into some sort of payoff.
But nein, it was not to be.
“Dark,” for those who haven’t seen it, begins with a suicide, a cave and the disappearance of a child, before turning into a tantalizing cat’s cradle of disappearances, deaths and birds falling from the sky. There’s a nuclear power plant, a mad-scientist figure in a sinister bunker and characters who say things like, “It’s all happening again.”
Hard to resist, coupled with the beauty of the German landscape. So I allowed myself to be dragged through time, via rocky, claustrophobic tunnels and shimmering black blobs, and I did my best to maintain interest in several romantic relationships that were remarkably uninteresting even when at least one was revealed to be potentially incestuous.
Much of the action revolves around Jonas (Louis Hoffman), a teen who is understandably distraught over his father’s suicide, and a group of his friends and their parents, including members of the local police force. But for better and worse, mystery is the real lead character.
I force-fed myself increasingly elaborate explanations about why the creators spent so much time wondering what mean girls might do if they could exist in several time periods (more mean things, in case you were wondering) while completely ignoring actual German history. (Seriously, if you were a modern youth who somehow found himself stuck in 1921 Germany, wouldn’t you at least think about making your way to Berlin to push Adolf Hitler under a train?)
For all my trouble, I got handed a last-minute plot twist that was shocking only in its utter predictability and its blatant refusal to acknowledge the several million questions raised by the approximately 1,200 minutes of television I had just watched.
I am firmly on record as disagreeing with those “wasted-hours-of-my-life” TV viewers who feel that a bad ending erases all the pleasure that preceded it. So I will not say “Dark” was over-hyped; until the last four episodes of the second season or so, I was entranced by “Dark’s” imagination. And in all fairness, the series has not ended. It’s just become more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps I will watch the third season and feel different; perhaps one or neither of these things will happen. I still feel bad about all those birds.
After the season finale of “Black Spot,” however, I set a Google alert for Season 3.
In Villefranche, police captain Laurène Weiss (Suliane Brahim) attempts to protect the residents of this small, isolated logging town where the homicide rate is six times the national average and the forest is loved, respected and feared. (The title refers to the fact that electronic equipment, including cellphones, don’t always work in Villefranche.)
Laurène also needs to figure out who did the terrible thing to her in the forest when she was a teenager and how to manage the town’s reigning family, which wants to close its logging business, all while coping with the appearance of Franck Siriani (Laurent Capelluto), an allergy- and neurosis-addled prosecutor who would like to know what the heck is going on here.
So yes, a French-Belgian “Twin Peaks” meets “Monk” in a way, but with cool and creepy historical flashbacks, gruesome killings that are sometimes connected to Laurène’s personal narrative and sometimes not, and the very real possibility of a ruthless forest god. With horns.
Give me the very real possibility of a ruthless French forest god with horns and I am in. All the way.
“Black Spot” also has what “Dark” lacks — characters to care about when the plot-driven narrative becomes repetitive (“You couldn’t have known” is “Black Spot’s” “It’s all happening again.”) In addition to Laurène and Franck, there’s a wonderfully tough bartender (Brigitte Sy), an adorably loyal officer named Teddy Bear (Hubert Delattre) and a host of other terrific supporting characters, including Laurène’s fiercely independent daughter, Cora (Camille Aguilar).
However, there is a troubling aspect to “Black Spot,” and much of Into the Woods TV— young women are often the victims of the terrible things that happen in the forest.
In “The Kettering Incident,” which has the added glories of Elizabeth Debicki (who stars) and Tasmania (where it is set) but the definite obstacle of no second season, a young woman returns to her hometown, where she must finally come to grips with a terrible thing that happened to her and a friend when they were young.
In “The Forest,” which is French, the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl evokes other, earlier disappearances and forces the girl’s teacher to face her own fraught history with the forest.
Looking at this list, I am beginning to wonder about my streaming selections and what they say about me personally. But honestly, I have never searched terms like “forest-traumatized female” in my life.
I do have a predilection for complicated mysteries in picturesque foreign settings with female leads — even when these leads, as is so often and tediously the case, have backstories of victimization.
“Dark” gets bonus points for being the most gender-neutral when it comes to both victims and perpetrators, but it is also the most plot-puzzle-driven of the lot. And, as “Stranger Things” has proved, with all its twists and world-building, TV remains an art form best propelled by audience-character connection.
Even the smartest of smarty pants TV.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)