According to the New York Times there are 271 different streaming services out there, and if you subscribed to them all your monthly bill would be larger than your house payment. Cable customers spent decades screaming for an à la carte world, and now it’s here. True, we’re spending $150 a month and getting fewer channels than we did 10 years ago when we gave that $150 to our cable provider, but we’re getting the channels we actually want, and judging by the continued popularity of cord-cutting, most of us have no regrets. Sadly, it does mean that millions of us will not have the sublime pleasure of flipping channels and stumbling upon the next 90-Day Fiance.
“No flipping.” That old Larry Sanders tagline is going the way of the dial tone, because soon there will be no channels and hence, none to flip. That said, you the consumer have a discretionary budget and are curious. Seven bucks to try something new for a month doesn’t seem like that big a deal — which brings us to Sundance Now.
Back in the day, I loved Sundance Channel for its curatorial mojo. They didn’t pick up many shows, but the ones they did touched my brain or my heart in ways nothing else quite did: The Staircase, One Punk Under God, Brick City, the UK Shameless, Iconoclasts.
Those shows, however, were on Sundance before it became an ad-supported network, and before millions of us started cutting the cord (and thus withholding billions in revenue from cable channels like Sundance). So now the TV side of the onetime artsy-fartsy movie channel pays the bills by airing endless Law & Order reruns and shlocky multi-parters like The Preppy Murder.
But thanks to streaming, the curators still have their sandbox in the form of Sundance Now. Of course, uncrowded lanes on the television freeway don’t exist anymore, because (a) Netflix has more money than Michael Bloomberg and (b) 271 choices. Yet the originals that Sundance TV chooses to make, or acquire from other countries, show a remarkable consistency over time, which can make for awfully satisfied long-term customers.
I’m thinking specifically about Sundance’s focus on psychological dramas. From The Staircase and Sin City Law in the 2000s, to Rectify in 2013 — one of the best explorations of guilt and innocence you’ll ever see — Sundance TV originals strive to get in the head of the criminal, or the accused, rather than get bogged down in legal process. Like most good documentaries, powerful psychological dramas offer a degree of empathy you won’t find in, say, Making a Murderer.
Cheat is the latest demonstration of Sundance’s curatorial gift. This four-part drama co-produced with Britain’s ITV, and dropping on Sundance Now this week, is a perfectly paced thriller centering on two women trying to get in each other’s head — and a man getting murdered in the process.
Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly) is a Cambridge lecturer keen on getting tenure. But when she accuses one of her students, Rose (Molly Windsor) of plagiarizing a paper, Leah’s career prospects become the least of her problems. We know they’re on a collision course because the opening scene takes place in a glass-walled visiting room at a high-security prison. But here’s the catch: We have no idea who’s the prisoner and who’s the visitor. That won’t be revealed until much later. And even then, the cops won’t be sure they arrested the right woman in the crime.
Cheat takes place entirely in a tightly-knit highbrow community, where everyone who knows Leah and Rose seems to be employed by or retired from the university. And while Cheat isn't exactly filled with intellectual dialogue, this tangled web of career and personal connections raises the psychological stakes — and that lends credibility to the escalating feud that follows once Rose sets out for revenge. Also, while it’s not really novel to chop up the narrative timeline anymore (even a warm casserole like This Is Us does it), out-of-order storytelling is something indie film acclimated viewers to, in no small part with Sundance Channel’s help. What I’m saying is, Cheat is on-brand.
And that’s important, because after this four-parter has eaten up your first month of Sundance Now viewing (new episodes drop each Thursday through Dec. 12), and has calculatedly built to its big reveal, you’ll still be left with one question: Is this enough to justify a $6.99 monthly add-on to my streaming budget?
It’s fair to say that high-quality, noirish, indie-vibe shows are something Sundance fans have come to expect, and since they don’t get it on the TV channel anymore, they’re turning to Sundance Now. Next month comes a New Zealand import, The Gulf, starring Kate Elliott as a police detective who is losing her mind, literally, following a traumatic brain injury. In the meantime, you can check out Sundance Now’s current batch of documentaries, which includes the unnerving No One Saw a Thing.
Seems like a winner to me! Well, that’s one down, 270 to go.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Sign up to get all his Primetimer reviews at tvbarn.com.