If you are wading through the sea of new content on Netflix, looking for something entertaining, but maybe a little less, well, Tiger King, I suggest two miniseries about incredible women: Unorthodox and Self Made.
In the Netflix Original miniseries Unorthodox, Esty (Shira Haas) flees to Berlin from her Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Lost but still somehow very confident, Esty soon encounters a group of young musicians who take her in. Meanwhile, her husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and his aggressive cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) follow her, on a mission to bring her back to the fold.
Based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox mixes English with subtitled Yiddish and German, so it is not a series that you can easily multitask while watching. If I am honest, that is normally a turnoff for me in something that I want to watch just for fun. I was so immediately drawn into Esty’s story, however, that I started watching and did not stop until I had finished all four episodes. As the show flashes between Esty’s past and her new start in Berlin, the audience comes to understand why she ran away and that the stakes for her are higher than they look. Even as we root for Esty, however, there is something pitiful about Yanky that also makes him just the smallest bit sympathetic. Further complicating the emotional impact of the story is the prospect that Esty could reach out to her estranged mother (Alex Reid) for help.
The characters in the story are all very reserved and the performances given by the cast are suitably subtle, so the unfolding drama in the relationships simmers rather than boils. Esty herself is a fascinating woman and Shira Haas does a fantastic job portraying her emotional journey with the smallest changes in facial expression.
There is so much drama in Unorthodox that I was up past my bedtime crying at its end, unable to look away. The show is also beautifully crafted. The characters are well-developed and the problems they face are a mixture of awkward, mundane, and extraordinary. I highly recommend this moving story of a young woman breaking free to find her own path in life. Unorthodox runs for four episodes and is rated TV-MA.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker tells a somewhat fictionalized version of the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire as she creates her legendary line of hair products for black women. First known as Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer), Walker faces opposition from the beautiful entrepreneur, Addie (Carmen Ejogo), who was her mentor until the two had a falling-out. As the women faceoff, the show dives into complicated issues around hair and complexion in black culture, as well as the powerful history of black women lifting each other up. Along the way, Walker’s daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish), and her husband, John (J. Alphonse Nicholson), offer as much trouble as they do support. Walker also has conflict with her husband, C.J. (Blair Underwood), who supports her dream but is not entirely comfortable in a supporting role.
Self Made has a lot of style. I loved the use of boxing and vaudeville imagery to depict Sarah thinking about her competition with Addie and thought the soundtrack was a fun way to give the series a playful edge. Plus, because the show is a period drama, the audience is treated to beautiful 1910s fashion and hairstyles. I mean, the hats, people. Although the show plays a little fast and loose with history, it does so with panache.
The performances are also wonderful. Octavia Spencer is a joy to watch and she gives Madam C.J. Walker a suitable amount of grit. Opposite her, Carmen Ejogo’s Addie seems a little cartoonishly petty, but she evolves as the series goes on. As C.J., Blair Underwood adeptly plays both the charming love interest and a source of conflict without losing his appeal.
I was excited to see Netflix release a series about a historical woman that rarely gets enough mainstream attention and, even if it is just inspired by the true story, Self Made was a fun watch that did not disappoint. It runs for four episodes and is rated TV-MA.