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A Recent Journey Through the Netflix Algorithm






I was originally going to focus this piece on Netflix’s insanely popular hit British miniseries Fool Me Once, based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name. Netflix has produced adaptations of nine of Coben’s works, which typically explore unresolved or misinterpreted events about past murder investigations, with twisty-turny plotlines that are perfect for creating extremely bingeable series. Fool Me Once premiered on Netflix on January 1 of this year and quickly became the number one show streamed that week - watched by over 37.1 million Netflix accounts with a total of 238,200,000 hours watched, making it one of Netflix’s largest debuts.  With Netflix eagerly giving me this statistic - the #1 television show streamed that week - I figured I’d go ahead and see what the fuss was all about.


Look, I’m going to give you a plot summary, and then I’m not going to mince words. Maya Stern (Michelle Keegan), a disgraced former army captain, is grieving the murder of her husband Joe Burkett (Richard Armitage), a member of a prominent English family who runs one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. One of her friends gives her a nanny cam to keep tabs on her daughter while she’s not home, and one evening as she reviews the camera footage, she sees Joe - who is supposed to be dead - visiting their daughter. This sends her down a rabbit hole of trying to understand how the heck this could be possible which eventually uncovers a mass conspiracy by the Burkett family to cover up various crimes committed both by their company (they have been pushing faulty drugs out into the prescription pipeline, many of which have devastating and irreversible side effects for those who take them; shades of Dopesick here) and by Joe himself (who, it turns out, is a big old murder-y murderer). Alongside Maya’s quest to discover the truth, her niece and nephew seek to find out the truth about their mother Claire (Natalie Anderson) - Maya’s sister, who worked for the pharma company run by Joe’s family - and her also fairly recent murder which has relegated their father Eddie (Marcus Garvey) to complete basket-case status. (I’ll give you three guesses if you can figure out right now who was responsible for Claire’s death.) Simultaneously, we see Deputy Sergeant Sami Kierce (Adeel Akhtar), the detective assigned to solving Joe’s murder, starting to piece together the connections between the two murders while also suffering unknowingly from side effects from one of the medications he takes regularly that is manufactured by Burkett Global Enterprises. There’s also a hacker whistleblower character named Corey the Whistle (Laurie Kynaston) who is instrumental in solving this whole mess and operates his shady hacking dealings out of a cavelike office under a video game arcade because of course, there is and of course, he does.



I said I’m not going to mince words, so I won’t: Fool Me Once is absolute trash. Glorious, shameless, guilty-pleasure, binge-watch-in-one-night trash. Despite decent performances by most of the main cast (with special shout-outs to Akhtar, Garvey, and the legendary Joanna Lumley as Joe’s mother and matriarch of the Burkett family), there is no way to mask the epic soap-opera nonsense logic trashiness of this show. It’s awful. It’s so bad. The plot twists are absurd and stupid, the dialogue is cringeworthy, and the shock ending, which I suspect they intended to be poignant, is actually so corny and saccharine that it made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.


And yet, I did binge all eight episodes in one night. Why, I ask you? Why? I think I kept watching because I felt that Joanna Lumley’s participation in this mess gave it an air of respectability and was hoping that the show would rise to her level, but sadly, no.  


There’s not much else I can say about Fool Me Once. I don’t even want to encourage (OR discourage) you from watching it. It’s entertaining as all get out. It’s also objectively terrible television. If you need a break from the horrors of the world right now and just want to watch good-looking people behave in incomprehensibly dumb and implausible ways while investigating two literal cold-blooded murders, then hey, I won’t judge. I did it too.  



But what happened to me - and my Netflix queue - AFTER Fool Me Once is where things got interesting. Netflix’s algorithm seemed to figure out that I am the kind of person who: 1) likes miniseries; 2) especially, if they are crime miniseries; and 3) is undisciplined enough to binge eight hours of television in one night. Netflix also (I assume based on my repeated viewings of Delhi Crime - a crime anthology series - natch - which I wrote about for Story Screen last year and also binged each of its two seasons in one night) thought I might be interested in another miniseries set in India. So it directed me to Kohrra, a Punjabi-language crime thriller police procedural released last summer.  


Kohrra is similar to Fool Me Once in that it’s about a murder investigation with many twists and turns. That is basically all they have in common, though, because Kohrra is far from trashy.  Dark, haunting, and moody, Kohrra follows the story of the murder of Tejinder “Paul” Dhillon (Vishal Handa), a young Indian man raised in London who returns to Punjab for an arranged marriage, the disappearance of his best friend Liam Murphy (Ivantiy Novak), who accompanied him on the trip as his best man, and the two detectives who are assigned to the case, Sub-Inspector Balbir Singh (Suvinder Vicky) and Assistant Sub-Inspector Amarpal Garundi (Barun Sobti) - a classic television police partnership dynamic of an older, world-weary, hardened, careful cop and his younger, hot-headed, and not-yet-worn-down-by-cynicism partner who looks to him as a mentor. The relationship between Singh and Garundi is really sweet to watch, as these two men, aside from their shared profession, could not be more different but share a genuine affection for each other and a fierce level of protectiveness towards one another. Set in a depressed village in Punjab where there is a serious heroin addiction epidemic amongst the poor youth and a glaring divide between that population and the middle and upper classes who would just as much pretend not to notice this problem - as exemplified by the wealthy Dhillon family who owns homes both in the UK and in India, the patriarch of whom is in a long-standing property dispute with his just as wealthy but not as worldly younger brother who never left India - Khorra (which literally translates to “fog” in Punjabi) is about how these social and class conflicts create an inherent murkiness in the community, making it difficult for Singh and Garundi to figure out exactly how a young, wealthy man could be murdered and left in a barren field near a slum two days before his wedding. Vicky as Balbir Singh in particular is the MVP of this series, portraying a sad, stoic man who has fallen victim to corruption in his profession and regrets becoming part of the problem in this village. Rachel Shelley also gives a lovely, nuanced performance as Clara Murphy, Liam’s mother, who has come to India for the wedding only to have her son go missing and be entangled in a murder investigation. (For you Bollywood enthusiasts out there, Shelley played Elizabeth Russell in the Victorian-era historical epic Lagaan in 2001, and this series marks her first return to an Indian production in over twenty years.)



I’m not going to tell you how Kohrra ends because y’all should watch this series. I am going to tell you that it’s maddening to me that Netflix wasn’t marketing the hell out of this series last summer when it was released the way they were marketing Fool Me Once. Delhi Crime won Netflix an International Emmy Award and you’d think they would want to capitalize on that a bit more by promoting their other Indian programs. At any rate. Watch Kohrra. Yes, there are subtitles. Get over it. It’s a damn good show.


After I binged Kohrra in one night (I told you I have no discipline), Netflix figured out that not only do I love me some crime thriller police-procedural miniseries, but it also figured out that I don’t have a problem watching non-English language shows. It also, I assume, based on my repeated viewings of Call My Agent (actually called Dix Pour Cent in France - a dramedy about talent agents in Paris), figured that I might dig another French-language show. So it served me up The Forest (La Forêt), a 2017 joint Belgian-French crime thriller police procedural about a teenager named Jennifer Lenoir (Isis Guillaume) who disappears into a forest near the small village of Montfaucon in the Ardennes, and the police investigation into her disappearance led by new-in-town chief detective Gaspard Decker (Samuel Labarthe) and Virginie Musso (Suzanne Clement), a law-enforcement officer who grew up in Monfaucon. They are assisted by local school teacher Eve Mendel (Alexia Barlier), who is a mentor to many of the girls in the school and also has a mysterious, traumatic past involving the same forest where Jennifer has disappeared.



The Forest and Kohrra are similar in that they are about criminal investigations in small villages that suffer from issues of class disparity, poverty, and addiction. The Forest also reminded me a lot of HBO’s 2021 crime thriller police procedural miniseries Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet as the titular Mare Sheehan, a detective in a small town outside of Philadelphia beset with issues of class disparity, poverty, and addiction. In particular, the parallels between Mare and Virginie Musso - both detectives who are raised locally and so deeply embedded in their communities that they know most of the townspeople who may or may not be suspects, leading them to have blindspots when their superiors want to turn the investigation a certain way - were glaringly evident, to the point where I wonder if the showrunners of Mare of Easttown had ever looked to The Forest as reference material. As The Forest progresses through the obligatory twists and turns that are necessary to this genre of Netflix programming, we learn that Musso’s daughter Maya may be connected to Jennifer’s disappearance, and then Maya goes missing herself, leading one to wonder why Musso is still being allowed to be a primary investigator in the case when there is such a clear conflict of interest.  In all fairness to Captain Decker, he does voice this concern several times, and at one point, when she oversteps tremendously, threatens to pull her off the case - another parallel to Mare of Easttown, where Mare is temporarily suspended from the force for tampering with evidence due to her personal connections to a case.



The Forest had me riveted the way Kohrra did. Again, I binged all six episodes in one night.  (I’m really not getting adequate sleep these days, clearly.) The performances by Labarth, Clement, and Barlier are top-notch, and Patrick Ridremont also does a beautiful job with his portrayal of alcoholic ex-convict and small-time criminal Theirry Rouget (whose daughter Oceane might also be a person of interest in Jennifer’s disappearance) - a role that could very easily have fallen into a “deadbeat dad” stereotype but instead he layers with a nuanced portrayal of hurt, guilt, and trauma. Again, I’m not going to tell you how The Forest ends, because y’all should watch this series too. Yes, subtitles. Get over it. You can read. If you couldn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.


What Fool Me Once, Kohrra, and The Forest share in common, besides them all being crime thrillers about police investigations with many plot twists that keep you from turning the TV off when Netflix goes to autoplay the next episode immediately after the current episode concludes is that they all have fairly surprising endings. That said, I did allude to the fact that Fool Me Once’s ending was shocking and then subsequently corny AF, and I stand by that. It’s bad.  Kohrra’s ending, however, is shocking and then deeply, hauntingly sad, and The Forest’s ending is shocking and strangely cathartic.  



I’m not going to sit here and say that Netflix’s original programming from India and France is better than anything that they produce in the UK or the States. Y’all know I stan The Crown hard around these parts, and even though it kind of went off the rails as it went on, Orange is the New Black was a truly groundbreaking television show when it first made itself known ten years ago. I am going to say that it is deeply disappointing to me that a show like Fool Me Once could make such a huge splash the way it did the first week of this year on Netflix while Kohrra and The Forest went largely unnoticed when they were released. All three shows feature largely unknown casts (except Joanna Lumley) to American audiences, so this isn’t a question of who has more potent star power. Harlan Coben’s work is a known quantity for Netflix, so it does make sense that they would lean on the Coben brand when pushing a new show like Fool Me Once.  But it’s a shame that I only learned about the existence of Kohrra and The Forest after having suffered through the melodramatic hot mess that was Fool Me Once due to a Netflix algorithm that pegged me as a crime-show junkie who also likes Indian and French stuff. (I coincidentally do have family in both India and France, so Netflix has sussed me out pretty well, creepy as that might be #bigbrotheriswatching.) Kohrra was released only a year ago, but The Forest is nearly seven years old and has been languishing in some Netflix black hole all this time, only emerging when someone with my particular viewing profile emerges.



I wish it didn’t have to be that way because Fool Me Once is absolute garbage, and Kohrra and The Forest are legitimately brilliant television on par with prestige crime television shows like Mare of Easttown, True Detective (Season 1!!!), and Fargo. Netflix would benefit strongly from spending more of their marketing dollars getting people to take notice of shows like Kohrra and The Forest as aggressively as they did with Fool Me Once instead of letting me find them by algorithmic chance - especially since The Crown, arguably Netflix’s most prestigious, classy show, just aired its series finale late last year. If Netflix wants to retain any semblance of respectability, they should maybe move away from the pulpy Coben adaptations - or at least not shove them down our throats so aggressively - and give these incredible foreign productions a bit more love so larger audiences can find them easily as opposed to by accident.



Now that I’ve finished The Forest, Netflix is suggesting that I watch Secret City - an Australian political crime thriller show starring Anna Torv (known to US audiences primarily via The Last of Us, Fringe, and Mindhunter). Netflix probably put together the fact that I like the intersection of crime and politics from my binging of Delhi Crime, plus the fact that I binged the first four seasons of The West Wing repeatedly in a nostalgic frenzy several times before Netflix lost the rights to it to Max. There are two seasons of Secret City, making it more of an anthology series than Khorra and The Forest. I have a feeling I’m going to like it because so far, the algorithm does seem to have me pegged. Check on me later, though, and make sure I didn’t stay up all night watching both seasons back to back to back to back. I gotta work in the morning.




 

Reeya Banerjee

Staff Writer

Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.

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