Counterpart — Review

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A still from the preposterous 1974 cold war movie, Who?

~spoilers~

One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.

Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to put  him in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.

I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.

*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.

That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.

It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.

J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.

On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.

How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?

To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.

Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.

Counterpart_EW_Image[1].JPGThis Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.

Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.

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So, Farewell then, The Americans

Season 6 of The Americans has drawn to a close, with a stunning finale, almost silent in its final half, reminding us that so much of this story was told without dialogue, and with strategically targeted musical nuggets, such as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in that last episode. Even, I grudgingly admit, U2’s “With or Without You” which I’d normally run screaming from the house to avoid.

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[Contains spoilers]

I previously wrote about this show just before Season 5, which was an in-between seasons, designed to build inexorably to the climax that would be Season 6. At the end of Season 5, after a disastrous operation, Philip announces that he doesn’t want to do “the work” any more, and Elizabeth agrees to take on new assignments herself, while Philip only works to wind up existing operations.

So it is that Season 6 begins on a tense note, three years later, with an exhausted Elizabeth running on fumes and shutting herself emotionally from her husband, who is trying to make a success of the travel agency front operation—and failing. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, this man who had really started to want to be an American was failing at being a capitalist. Gorbachev is in office in the USSR, experimenting with openness and reform, and reactionary elements within the KGB are seeking to destroy him. Inevitably, this conflict at the top level of the Soviet Union infects the Jennings’ marriage, building mistrust and resentment.

It was the sound of The Americans, in the end, that haunted me. It probably took me three or four seasons to understand why the soundtrack always sounded so odd. In every scene, interior, exterior, office, home, street corner, there was a lot of background noise. Where there was dialogue, it was clear enough, but there was always a great deal of background hum, as if the volume (or gain) had been turned up on everything. And then I twigged: every scene in The Americans sounds as if it has been recorded using a listening device (or, in the case of outdoor scenes, a shotgun microphone eavesdropping from a distance).

What does one do when something so good reaches an end? I think, probably more than any other show, I might watch it all again.

(Seasons 1-5 are on Amazon Prime video. I assume/hope that Season 6 (episodes currently on the ITV Player in the UK) will end up there in due course.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

Bosch Season 4

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Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.

So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.

As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.

This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.

The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain  Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.

While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.

It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.

I previously reviewed Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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Remember The OA? It has that bloke from Star Trek Disco in it

I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to be Netflix, isn’t it? And you’d be correct, but not necessarily by the margin you’d expect.

I just reviewed my watch history on both services, and it was clear that I’d binged more shows on Netflix, by far, including back catalogue shows from other networks (Gilmore Girls, various Star Treks, Brooklyn 99 etc), but when it came to content exclusive to each service (Amazon Originals, Netflix Originals – both including some co-productions), it was much closer than you might think.

I selected 20 shows from each service that (give or take a couple of grey areas) you have to subscribe to see. On Netflix, these include some Marvel shows (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things, Manhunt: Unabomber, and The OA. Grey areas for Netflix include Star Trek Disco and The Good Place, and shows like Travelers and The Expanse.

On Amazon, the 20 included such things as Casual, Outlander, Bosch, The Man in the High Castle, Patriot (aka Sad Spies), Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Red Oaks, and American Gods. Grey areas include Mr Robot, Halt & Catch Fire, and Catastrophe.

To be fair to both services, I limited it to a top 20 and bumped out (where I could) shows that I watched and gave up on, or ended up hating. So, for example, the only two Marvel shows I quite enjoyed on Netflix were included, but the others weren’t. I also excluded movies.

I then scored each show out of 10, and gave it a multiplier based on the number of seasons available – but only if I’d watched them. So although Amazon are about to drop Bosch Season 4, I’ve only counted the three I’ve watched.

It’s clear that Netflix has more strength in depth, and I found myself bumping more shows from that top 20 list in order to include stuff I’d enjoyed more. With Amazon, on the other hand, once you exclude other networks’ back catalogue (Seinfeld), you find yourself scraping the barrel of forgettable filler and including the likes of Hap & Leonard, One Mississippi and Hand of God.

That said, the scores were much closer than I thought. Taking account of Season multipliers, Amazon rack up points for Casual, Outlander, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, Mr Robot, and Red Oaks. They seem to be better than Netflix at continuity. Looking back through the Netflix list, you come across stuff like The OA and other Limited Series, which occupy you for a few nights and then disappear forever.

Anyway, here are the totals. Netflix scored 217 points. Amazon scored 215. A narrow victory, but if I needed to cancel one of them, I’d still cancel Amazon first, and I’d struggle to recommend it to anyone over Netflix, unless the question was, which streaming service has the nastiest aesthetic? or, which service has the worst user experience?

Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2

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Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.

Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.

I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.

Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.

Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.

Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.

Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of  possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.

They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.

There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.

A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.

Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.

Weeds

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Since January, I’ve been working my way through all 8 seasons of Weeds, which was Breaking Bad before Breaking Bad was Breaking Bad. I started watching Weeds, back when it was first on, but then it either switched channels or I lost interest or something. Anyway, in this fallow period between unmissable TV seasons, I’ve been watching between two and four episodes a night.

If you don’t know it, the concept of this show is as follows: suburban widow turns to drug dealing in order to maintain her lifestyle. So it has baked into it, as it were, the blinkered, selfish entitlement of white middle class America, meaning that Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) is not a terribly sympathetic character. She could have moved to a less prosperous neighbourhood and got a job. Instead, as the series progresses, she becomes something of a nightmare, manipulative, inconsiderate, and treacherous. A lot of the online chatter about the show concerns this difficulty, with a lot of people claiming that the reason they stopped watching was because the character of Nancy annoyed them or made them angry.

I can see that. I also wondered, as I started to watch, how much of this irritation was because Nancy is a woman whereas her male counterpart as an anti-hero Walter White (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad), is given much more leeway by that show’s fans.

Well, it’s a head scratcher. I found Weeds watchable to the end, notwithstanding Nancy, but I might have stopped watching (or at least paused it) without compunction if Westworld season 2 had come on.

It was a show that didn’t go in for much realism. Nancy’s existence, with no visible means of support for long stretches of time, is hard to credit, and the writers revelled in creating preposterous, jaw-dropping situations, such as the one in the final season, when Nancy has sex with someone on the very spot that her first husband dropped dead. As a weed dealer, she was really a failure, getting ripped off over and over again, and constantly encountering supposedly ruthless gangsters who somehow failed to kill her. The most problematic aspect of the show was probably the way that Nancy neutralised these male threats by sleeping with them, or sleeping with someone else who then did the neutralising. I can see a lot of people switching off for that reason alone. At the same time, the masochistic self-loathing that such behaviour represents was true to character.

Most of all, Weeds wanted to foreground its status as a premium cable show all the time, with frequent nudity, mucho swearing, toilet humour, and some very squirmy sexual situations, which sometimes got in the way of the narrative drive and became tiresome. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of the show was the supporting cast and array of special guest stars, including Martin Donovan, Albert Brooks, Carrie Fisher, Alanis Morrisette, Matthew Modine, Julie Bowen, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Perkins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In fact, you never quite know who’s going to show up to do a foul-mouthed turn.

The final two episodes manage to tie up most of the storylines, though a number of guest stars do disappear without further mention (Elizabeth Perkins, for example, who was a major character until she wasn’t). As a long-running series finale, it actually works quite well, with its science-fictional flash forward and refusal to get too sentimental. If this review had a star rating, it would be three. Anyway: it’s all on Netflix, so knock yourself out.