Eels

John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.

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Review time: Chernobyl, The Calculating Stars, Kindred

Many column inches have been expended on Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky mini series that concluded this week, so you don’t really need me to tell you it’s good. But it was remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, for such a grim subject, it was surprisingly easy to watch. Grim TV usually gives me the hives, unless it has something exceptional about it. Chernobyl had both incredible attention to detail and uncannily accurate (by all accounts) reproductions of 80s-era Soviet Union settings, along with understatedly convincing performances from the largely British cast.

Americans like to fete the heroism of the firefighters who went up the stairs in the burning towers on 11th September 2001. Chernobyl produced thousands of such heroes, who shortened their lives in order to save the rest of us from disaster. 90 seconds on a rooftop clearing debris in radiation so intense it burned out the electronics of a police robot in seconds.

On the frivolous side of history, it’s nice sometimes to think about the contribution made by smuggled Western rock music on X-ray films, Levi’s jeans, and Bruce Springsteen’s performance in East Berlin to the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc. While Springsteen certainly helped kick the Berlin Wall down, it was the cancer at the heart of the Soviet Union that eventually led to its collapse, a deflating soufflé of lies and corruption and hunger and reckless, cost-cutting incompetence. It had been growing for years and in Chernobyl it finally exploded and became visible. As one character says in the final episode, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Chernobyl mini-series is that it came with a podcast in which Peter Sagel interviewed the show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin. Lots of shows have podcasts. Lots of shows have official podcasts. But this is the first show I think that consisted not just of five one-hour TV episodes but a parallel five hours of audio that made the show more rewarding to watch. So effective was the podcast that I enjoyed it both ways around: listening first and then watching; watching first and then listening. It was quietly innovative television. Not the kind of gimmick Netflix tried with Bandersnatch, but an acknowledgement that a podcast can be a kind of director’s commentary. The Good Place has already done something like this, with different participants interviewed for each episode. But the Chernobyl podcast was just a sit down with the writer, who has also, generously, made the scripts available for download. As a resource into how the television sausage is made, I think this is fairly unprecedented.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal won the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2019 and had been on my wish list for a long time. So, having heard some of my podcast friends sing its praises, I downloaded it. Around the same time, I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is now acknowledged as a masterpiece but at the time seemed to be ignored by the science fiction award panels. The winner of the 1980 Nebula was Timescape, by Gregory Benford: hard science fiction dealing with theoretical physics. I suppose it at least shows some progress that a woman writer is winning in 2019, but it was probably unfortunate that I read The Calculating Stars just after finishing Kindred.

Kowal’s book concerned an alternative time-line in which, following a meteorite strike and an impending climate disaster, the space programme is accelerated and women are allowed to train as astronauts. Meticulously researched, it takes you into the patronising and horrifically sexist milieu of 1950s America, in which astronaut trainees are also expected to pose in bikinis and look sexy in space suits.  It’s a stark portrait of the proverbial backwards, in heels.

The novel’s okay, but it dragged a little for me. There was an awful lot about the anxiety of one of the main characters: sure, exactly the kind of extra that a woman would have to be dealing with in a world that has always made her feel she’s not good enough. But in the end, it all felt a lot like false jeopardy. Did I ever believe our protagonist wasn’t going to succeed?

What most certainly doesn’t drag is Kindred. There was no excess in this lean and mean 1979 plot machine. An African-American writer from 1976 finds herself thrown back in time to a Southern slave state in the early 19th Century. The jeopardy she faces is harrowing, visceral and unsentimental. The reader is forced to confront the daily reality of slavery and its brutal inhumanity. The plot motors along from first chapter to last, with so much to tell, told so economically, that it feels like a masterclass in composition.  This is no mere page-turner, but a book that leaves a lasting impression as a powerful metaphor for the untold damage slavery did to the American psyche.

The cancer that ate the Soviet Union was laid bare by the disaster at Chernobyl, but the cancer eating America is still being denied by a large percentage of the population.

The End

I have a few additional thoughts on Game of Thrones and its ending.

I think it was good. It was probably really good, but it will be hard to tell that until all the poison has left the system.

Episode 1 of Season 1

By poison, of course, I mean all the commentary and opinions from the never-satisfied armchair and other critics. We’ve spoken in the past about the modern phenomenon of the social media pile-on, the pitchfork wielding mob that resembles nothing so much as Orwell’s Two Minute Hate from Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Honestly, who would be a creator these days? I once posted a video to YouTube of me making pizza in a not-very-good back garden pizza oven (the Uuni), and some complete stranger took time out of their doubtless busy day to post a negative comment about my pizza dough. On a video that had been seen by about five people, including the commenter.

I’m perfectly at ease with my own shouting into the void. If this was a blog that attracted, god forbid, regular comments from strangers, I’d restrict them even more than I do now. As it is, I allow comments on this blog for 14 days on each post, and then turn them off. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from people. It’s that I generally don’t, and if I do it’s someone I kinda know. The rest are either spam, or they’re from that guy, in which case I don’t approve them.

I’m not saying don’t post. I’m not saying don’t comment. I’m just wondering why you would bother to try to ruin someone’s day like that. Someone you don’t know, will never know, will never meet, will never (certainly not now) befriend online in any way whatsoever. It’s the conundrum of our times, a question that now goes back 30 years and more: what, exactly, do you get out of being that guy?

(And, really: don’t comment. Unless you have a pre-existing and cordial relationship, and certainly if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That may sound anodyne, but it’s the golden fucking rule, isn’t it?)

They’ve had many names, these people. Trolls. At a basic level, someone who deliberately sets out to start an online argument is a troll. Most women with social media accounts are also familiar with the Reply Guy, the well, actually guy, the mainsplainer, the drooling flaccid cock of online harassment and attention seeking.

What’s the problem, really? Partly, its an over-developed sense of entitlement, of ownership, and a complete lack of self-awareness. As I titled the book of this blog’s archives: Nobody cares what you think.

Nobody.

I mean. If you read a review of something, a film say, in a mainstream newspaper, and it’s a film you’re looking forward to, a film you think you might love, and the review is negative: do you care? Will it stop you going to see it? Will you feel moved to post a comment below the line, directed at the reviewer, explaining why they’re wrong?

Take Bruce Springsteen. He’s releasing a new record this summer. I’ll probably buy it. I probably will like two or three songs on it, which is the usual rate. And some geezer in the Guardian will review it and give it three or four stars. And whether I agree or disagree, nobody will care what I think. And nobody really cares what the geezer in the Guardian thinks. He could give it two stars, hoping to provoke some comments below the line. That is what the Guardian does. They do it with Apple news and reviews. They do it with Game of Thrones. They generate clicks and hits and ad loads, and that’s how modern newspapers circle the drain.

When I was 18, Springsteen released The River, which (I’m about to controversially suggest) was his last unequivocally great album. And journalist Julie Burchill, writing then for the New Musical Express, wrote a sarcastic and biting review of it, highlighting the repetitively similar girls’ names (Julie, Mary, Wendy etc.), and sneering at all the songs about cars and trucks. It was less a review of The River and more of a not-buying-it critique of the Springsteen act and mythos. It upset me a lot at the time. I mean, I hated everything Julie Burchill wrote, but this hatchet job felt unnecessary and wide of the mark. 

Springsteen has since admitted that he wrote a lot of those songs about cars and leaving town whilst not being able to drive himself, and as someone who still lives within spitting distance of his home town. So, in a way, Burchill was probably picking up on something she felt was inauthentic. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point was, I was wrong to care. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the record, and 39 years later, it still doesn’t. She might have been right, she might have been wrong, but the point then was that was exactly the kind of thing the NME did: deliberately give an album to someone who would hate it, and then sit back with the popcorn, knowing that their Letters page the following week would be full of Springsteen defenders.

These days, we call it trolling.

And people still argue about authenticity in music, and I suppose they always will. Personally, I stopped caring about that years ago, have reached the higher state of consciousness that means I’ve accepted the existence of the fictional character called Bob Dylan.

Anyway, Game of Thrones. It was good. I had an experience in the car today that meant I couldn’t listen to music or podcasts as I drove. Which is fatal, because the last thing I want to to when I’m driving long distances is focus on the distances. There’s a danger, when I’m driving through the night and everyone’s asleep that I start obsessing about the kilometre markers in the centre of French motorways, which count off every one hundred meters, so you can precisely locate yourself in an emergency. Literally: kilometer 288, kilometre 288.1, kilometre 288.2, etc.

And if you’re me and you start looking at those markers, you enter a fugue state in which time passes but you never get any closer to where you’re going, like something out of a dream. So I had to do something to occupy my brain in the absence of podcasts and songs, and for some reason I imagined myself in a situation where I was explaining the plot of Game of Thrones to my best friend.

It started something like this:

There’s this fictional world, made up of continents, countries, and seas. And at some point in the past there was a great civilisation, which has now fallen. All that remains of this lost civilisation are a few ruins, book fragments, and some remaining weapons: swords and blades made with some kind of amazing metallurgy that creates a special steel sharper and harder than any other steel. But nobody knows or remembers how it was done. So there are these swords, and these knives, leftovers from a vanished civilisation, and nobody knows how to make new ones. Anyway, that’s all background. You don’t know that at first, it’s just part of the world-building, the history of this place, which we first encounter long after this civilisation fell. And what remains is a rough and brutal mediaeval world. In particular, we’re in Westeros, a continent of seven kingdoms, which have been in an uneasy peace since a few years before the story begins. But again, we don’t know all this. When we first enter this world, it’s beyond the borders of Westeros, in the far North, where we see a patrol out in the bleak and cold country which lies North of this great wall of ice. What? Oh yes, there’s this amazing wall of ice which was built by the denizens of the lost civilisation to keep out some kind of threat, but again, nobody really knows what the threat is. Anyway, there’s this organisation called the Night Watch, and they man the Wall, and defend Westeros from this unknown threat, which they think is something to do with the people who live North of the Wall, who call themselves the Free Folk, but who are pejoratively called Wildlings. The Free Folk just want to live away from the mediaeval feudal system that exists South of the Wall. Anyway, the Night Watch isn’t what you’d call a force of highly professional trained fighting men. They’re people who have been sent there as punishment, as an alternative to a death penalty. Most of them. There are a few more decent types, who have self-exiled, but most of the Night Watch are murderers and cowards and thieves. Anyway, they’re out on patrol, and they come across something completely horrific…

And that’s just the background and introduction to the first five minutes of the first episode of Game of Thrones. The first five minutes of over four thousand minutes. It has been an extraordinary achievement in world building and television making, a global phenomenon of incredible storytelling, and visceral, action-packed, character-led entertainment. And it just ended in a way that is completely in keeping with the way it begins.

And the only thing that spoiled it?

The inter fucking net. And that guy. People who wanted to see messages tied to raven’s feet and people packing their bags in the last episode because otherwise it looks like a plot hole, but only if you think a plot should include all the boring bits as well as the exciting bits (and exciting tits and butts, it has to be said).

So in years to come, I hope to watch again without the madness of the social commentary that became, in the end, an industry in its own right. And they saw the end coming and lost their fucking shit because all their parasitical recaps and blogs and podcasts would be over. Luckily, my own blog, this one, has never just been about one thing, so I carry on regardless.

Unsticking the landing

Drogon

So, Game of Thrones, then. Opinions are like arseholes etc.

The internet is both the best and worst thing to happen to television. I remember years ago rabidly reading the TV.com and similar recaps of shows like Buffy, and even being willing to spoil the show for myself by reading ahead of where I was in my viewing. There are an awful lot of words written on the internet about television. Here are mine.

There are also an awful lot of podcasts about television: people who have created a kind of living for themselves by recording their Skype calls to their similarly obsessed friends and posting them online. I listen to a lot of them, and I’m always glad to be a listener and not a participant because I think I would find it tiresome to be obliged to come up with an opinion, each week, to order.

Sometimes you just don’t care.

Which is why the internet is also the worst thing to happen to television because people who feel obliged to have opinions are impossible to please. And people who regularly write and talk about TV will feel obliged, however great the show, to adopt a skeptical tone, to become hypercritical, to think they know better. And, opinions being cheap, everyone starts to weigh in. I’ve often wondered about those Guardian threads with thousands of comments. Shouting down a hole.

There has been some interesting stuff out there this week about the outrage being expressed. First of all, outrage: it’s a TV show. Second of all, some people have succinctly explained how the early seasons, based on GRRM’s published books, were character-based, because GRRM writes about characters; whereas the last couple of seasons have been plot-based, because show runners who need to end a show will have beats to hit and people to see. So time has accelerated, and everything has been happening (too) fast (for some).

I’m still enjoying it. I feel like we’re getting pay-offs for plots started in episode one of season one, and if it comes as a shock, you’re probably not paying attention. And if a character you’ve been rooting for ‘suddenly’ turns into a murderous tyrant, maybe you were rooting for the wrong person. It’s possible to be wrong. You know, those people in Kings Landing probably voted for Trump and deserved everything they got.

The books have stopped coming out maybe because the meandering multi-threaded character-driven storylines are too hard to pull together. Maybe it takes a writers’ room to ruthlessly prune the characters and sub-plots down to the essentials. And it’s a shame, but it turns out that the first five seasons of the show were probably the first half of a ten-season show, and we’re only getting seven (with the last season split, as with Mad Men and Breaking Bad before it). Which means that whole sections of the plot and characters from the novels that were in the show for the first five seasons have been jettisoned.

If you could go back in time and kind of excise the Iron Islanders and the Sand Snakes, there’d have been more space for organic acceleration. But it is what it is.

One of the other problems created by the internet is fandom. The fan community. And when showrunners pay too much attention to fans (so-called fan service), you get a lot of dissatisfaction being expressed because fanatics are impossible to please, so why bother? So, for example, the small Mormont girl is supposed to be in one scene, but then (fan service) gets more screen time and then (fan service) kills a giant and then all the fans moan that the episode was too hard to see, meh meh meh.

Meanwhile, HBO’s new show, Chernobyl got mixed reviews but is definitely worth a watch. I find it so interesting that the Challenger and the Chernobyl disasters happened within a few short months, and in many ways have similar elements. Both are concerned with narrative. On the one hand, the Challenger disaster happened because the engineers had the wrong narrative about cold weather launches. Essentially, they failed to realise that all of the O-ring problems they’d been having had been during cold weather, and instead thought the O-ring issues were kind of random. And at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the belief that, because something hadn’t ever happened before, it couldn’t have happened was the narrative that delayed decisive action for too many hours. Furthermore, because they couldn’t tell a story about how the reactor core had exploded, they weren’t believed when they said (correctly) that the core had exploded. When people get stuck in a narrative, they get well and truly stuck.

So, to circle back to the Game of Thrones, a lot of people are stuck in a narrative about it that is being challenged by the last few episodes. They thought it was going to end a certain way, I suppose? But they were wrong.

It happens.

Apple’s TV Service: Has Peak TV Peaked?

Original caption: “It’s taken an eternity but 38-year-old Frank Lampard is finding form in Major League Soccer”

Apple held an event last week in order to announce a bunch of services; notably, a TV service and an Apple-branded credit card, backed by Goldman Sachs — the bank who brought you 2008 Crash: The Fuckening. While watching the cringeworthy presentation of Apple’s TV offering, and as we all gear up for the forthcoming final season of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me that our era of Peak TV might have peaked. A bit.

Because what comes next? None of the attempts to imitate GoT have caught on: The Vikings, and that silly Britannia thing, for example, were pale shadows of the richly textured GoT. But It’s hard to see that HBO have got anything else in the pipeline. Westworld had a stunning first season, but stuttered in S2 and seemed to be running out of ideas (the difference, perhaps, between being based on a book series and being based on a single Michael Crichton screenplay).

Looking elsewhere, Amazon’s American Gods was interesting, but again: we’re talking about a standalone novel adaptation vs. a hugely detailed book series. If you’re stretching things out rather than the opposite, then it all starts to get a bit… stretchy.

Everything else that’s out there at the moment is, at best all right, and at worst appears to fall into the how did this get made? category. I’ve expressed my love of Amazon’s Bosch series before, but I know I’m in a niche, and it’s not a show that even gets consideration on Tim Goodman’s latest musings about great cop shows. Mr Goodman’s expressed desire is for a new great cop show to come along, and that is a real question isn’t it? Southland was superb but got no traction. And The Wire was a long time ago.

“A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season.

Looking at Apple’s presentation last week, they were making a lot about a little. Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories might have some interesting episodes, but it’s in the nature of anthology shows that it isn’t going to build up to anything. Apple’s morning TV drama looked like it might want to be The Newsroom, but the Newsroom, while I personally liked it, didn’t set the world on fire, and we didn’t get much of a taste of Apple’s thing to know any different. And the other stuff looked okay, but I’m not sure it would entice me to pay a subscription.

Mostly, I got two impressions. First, that all of these people had been lured by a lot of money, that Apple had been bounced by their desperation to grow their own content into paying too much for too little. I mean, if you look at the best recent shows on television, most of them weren’t star vehicles. GoT has made stars; the main players in The Americans were respectable actors, but not movie stars; and Counterpart had JK Simmons, who is brilliant, but he’s not a bums-on-seats kind of actor. Television doesn’t really work like that, does it? You don’t really tune in for the stars. It’s notable that ER first made a star of George Clooney, and then survived his departure. NYPD Blue made a star of David Caruso, and then thrived when he left (he didn’t). And, news just in, The Good Fight might be even better than The Good Wife, now the titular actor has departed. The Closer was marvellous, but then Major Crimes was just as good.

In short, Apple are backing the wrong kind of horse. The second thing that occurred to me during their presentation was that they were very focused on the United States. Sure, it’s a big market. But Amazon and Netflix are global. Probably the smartest thing Netflix does is content in a wide variety of original languages. Apple are offering us an American TV show about an American TV show. I mean, how far up their own arse do they want to get? And another kind of anthology show telling the stories of immigrants to the USA. I know it’s all part of the political moment, but still: there was too much navel gazing in their launch. The “stories” they want to tell are all US-centric it seems.

In wider television terms, I’m trying to think of anything I’m kind of looking forward to coming back, in the same way I’m looking forward to GoT, and I’m struggling. The Americans is over. Travelers wrapped up. Starz has cancelled Counterpart. Two seasons of that means it will never achieve true greatness. If I’m honest, the only reason I’m looking forward to Game of Thrones is because I’ve invested so much time in it already. Quite a lot of the most recent season was a bit silly. Where is the next great show that enters the cultural conversation going to come from? HBO might be absorbed into Warner, might never be the same again. And, like Netflix, their track record has not been that great lately. More hits than misses, etc., which has always been true of television.

But there are special circumstances in the Peak TV era. Now there are so many showsand so many services, the audience is thoroughly dispersed. The BBC might still get people talking about The Bodyguard and Line of Duty, but there are always a number of caveats. First of all, they’re not as good as they think they are. The Bodyguard started strong and became preposterous quite quickly. Line of Duty has pulled some bold strokes but have we now seen all its tricks? Those long, tense interview scenes are great: but how many variations on that can you spin? Just how many of that small team can turn out to be villains? And: short series, short orders, so cannot hope to obtain the greatness of even a modern season of 10-13 episodes.

Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings nonsense seems doomed to fail. Or at least I hope it does. Haven’t we had enough of that particular franchise? I suppose you might be appealing to the superfans, but that’s not a growth audience, and it’s a tired old world, the hobbits and the rings.

I can think of a few properties that, if adapted, would get me firing up the credit card instantly. But I’d be truly amazed to see any of them happen. There are so many scripted series now, and the talent pool as well as the audience is very diluted. Watching the Apple event last week, I couldn’t help but note how many of the A-listers were veterans. It reminded me of nothing so much as Major League Soccer. A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season. Here: come see all our faded stars who are past their peak. Just like peak TV, perhaps.

Netshits

When I stand back and take a good look at it, I cannot honestly say that Netflix is worth the money to pay for it full-time. Obviously, there’s enough on the service to keep you busy for a few months, binge-watching the good stuff. But then, what are you missing out on if you unsubscribe after that process?

Netflix’s strategy is to invest heavily in original content so that, even if the back catalogue stuff goes away, there’s still a core of the good stuff. With Warner and Disney about to launch their own streaming services, Netflix had better have its own original content. But is any of it much cop?

At the moment, I mainly watch Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix. In the US, this is on CBS All Access, so it’s not even part of their main market. Now, Disco is excellent, and even the not-great episodes are better than the not-great episodes of, say, Star Trek The Next Generation. But, without this, there really hasn’t been anything new from Netflix that I rate. And since Disco isn’t actually from Netflix, I wonder, really, about their taste, and their commissioning process.

Here’s a list of things I recently rated as thumbs-down, because I was sick of them appearing in my feed (I hoped it would make a difference):

  • After Life (can’t stand Ricky Gervais, never have, never will)
  • The Umbrella Academy (yawn to this whole genre)
  • Turn Up Charlie (nope)
  • The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (nope)
  • IO (awful, boring, grim)
  • Sex Education (nope)
  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (yawn etc.)
  • Pine Gap (terrible tripe from Australia)
  • Nightflyers (horrible tripe)
  • Always a Witch (risible tripe from Columbia)
  • Northern Rescue (boff)
  • Dirty John (even though I listened to the podcast, it’s a hard pass)
  • The Order (sub-Magicians tripe)
  • Love, Death, and Robots (yawn)

Secret City (Another Australian series – watched Season 1, fell into a coma part-way through Season 2 and abandoned)

I could go on. You get the picture. The problem here is not that, now and again, Netflix misses the mark. All of these programmes and films have appeared over the last couple of months. And there has been nothing inbetween to get on the “thumbs up” list. They’re all different varieties of terrible. Some of them are terrible because they’re not to my taste; others are just objectively bad.

Pine Gap loses you halfway through the first episode, when it becomes clear that this show consists of people talking to each other, very seriously, in rooms. It’s also Exposition Central, “As you know.” And (as a final nail in its coffin) any show that involves “computers” is dull from the off. 

Nightflyers, based on a George R R Martin property, is a grim, violent science fictioner that starts with death and viscera and goes on from there. If not exactly Game of Thrones in space, it wishes it was, and so it has all of the gore but none of the lore, as it were. Game of Thrones actually spends time, at the beginning, to introduce you to a cast of characters and make you care about them before it starts killing them off. But Nightflyers was just undiluted nastiness.

I have to conclude that those in charge of commissioning have poor taste. Turn Up Charlie was reviewed badly. Hollywood Reporter said it might almost have had potential, but creative decisions were made to focus on the absolute worst characters. Similarly, the documentary about Madeleine McCann was slated by reviewers for its fundamental tastelessness. And as a Netflix subscriber, you have to watch yourself: because they know who watches, for how long, and how often in a way that no television network before them ever did. So I’m cautious, even, about hate-watching, because what does their algorithm care what emotional state I’m in, as long as I’m watching.

I regret sitting through Bandersnatch, which I hated every moment of, because I’m just one more viewer, albeit one who didn’t explore all the possible permutations.

But the dilemma I face is this. Sure, I could cancel as soon as the latest series of Disco finishes, but then I’d be depriving my kids of the trashy shit they watch on their devices. So I’d feel bad about it: but the question is, how bad?

GoT Homework?

There can’t be many shows in the history of television that inspire you to do actual homework before the new season starts, but here we are. This is a show which now runs to sixty-something hours and which has had at least 70 named characters. What we used to think of as great television: X Files, Buffy, NYPD Blue—doesn’t even come close to being in the same league as far as complexity goes.. The multi-threaded narrative is coming towards its end, but I couldn’t possibly predict how.

The Still Watching podcast from Vanity Fair is recapping 15 key episodes, and as well as listening to that, I’ve decided to work my way through this list from Time Magazine. It’s a useful list of 20 episodes, covering the main story beats and taking in many of the most memorable moments.

It’s an odd way to watch, missing out huge chunks. One minute Cersei is sitting on the iron throne calling the shots, and the next minute she’s in a prison cell slurping water off the floor. But it is also a fairly satisfying experience, fast-forwarding through some of the longeurs and skipping out the Iron Islands and other narrative dead ends.

Anyway, it’s Sunday night and there’s school tomorrow, and I’m cramming.

Recently watched on TV

I’ve been blasting through a fair few series of late. I temporarily resubscribed to Amazon Prime so I could watch Counterpart Season 2, and since I was there, I also watched Homecoming, The Man in the High Castle (season 3), The Exorcist (season 2), and Mr Mercedes (1 & 2).

I reviewed Counterpart Season 1 here and said it was unmissable, although it is in fact very easy to miss.

You have to jump through a fair few hoops to watch it. A lot of people don’t realise they even have Amazon Prime Video as part of their Prime membership, which they sign up to for the free next-day delivery option. But anyway, first you need Amazon Prime. Then you need to add the Starzplay channel within Amazon Prime. It’s quite a clever move by Amazon: a kind of mise-en-abîme of subscriptions within subscriptions. The good news is that you can get a 90-day trial of Starzplay, which is easily enough time to burn through Counterpart. Season 2 is near its end. Will it be renewed for a third? You need at least three seasons to be truly great, but we live in a strange world in which one of the best shows currently on TV is on an obscure network/service that most people haven’t heard of.

So it’s behind a paywall behind a paywall, but notwithstanding all that, it is well worth seeking out. Season 2 continues the theme of confusion and identity characteristic of the espionage genre at its best, but also begins to fill in some of the back story: we learn more about how the Crossing was created, who Management are, and how the two Howards (Alpha/Prime) became such very different people. It really is superb, on a level with The Americans, and just as challenging to watch.

While you’re on Starzplay for the 90 days, you can watch other stuff, including Mr Mercedes, which is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. In its first season, it’s a fairly straight retired-cop-obsessed-with-old-case saga. It’s watchable enough and has an interesting cast, although Brendan Gleeson’s Irish accent is hard to explain away. Mary-Louise Parker makes an appearance, which is always nice. Then there’s season 2, which takes a more obviously King-like turn, and adds Justine Lupe as a cast regular. It all goes off the rails a bit. The main issue with something like this is that it doesn’t need 20 episodes to tell its story, and so it gets a bit repetitive and draggy.

The Man in the High Castle is actually more watchable in its third season, reaching an intense climax that leaves you gasping for another season. That said, in order to get to Season 3, you have to force yourself to watch Season 2, which is a hard watch. It’s on Amazon, so you might as well watch it, but don’t subscribe just to see it.

Homecoming is a TV adaptation of the podcast of the same name, with added star value in the form of Julia Roberts. I enjoyed it, especially the non-standard episode lengths, which make it more bingeable. There’s a lot to be said for these dramas that have shorter episodes. The story feels a lot less padded, and it’s easier to fit in one more before bedtime. Again, though, this is something you watch if you subscribe, but it’s not worth subscribing just to see it.

Amazon is very interested in what people watch first after they subscribe to Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering why they’re still employing Clarkson and Co. Even if you only watch one episode of The Grand Tour (because it is shit), you’re still a statistic. Personally, my sign-up series was Bosch, and if you’re a fan of those books, that is a reason to subscribe.

Meanwhile, there is stuff like The Exorcist, which in its first season did a good job of reimagining the film and turning it into a watchable TV series. Season 2 moves us on to a new location and a new possession, whilst keeping only a core few of the original cast. It’s pretty good at what it does, though the demon fighting scenes can get to be a bit of a drag. There is a lot less of the existential angst that characterises the film and the original series, but I still got to the end. It’s another one that didn’t need a full 10 episodes, though. And now it’s cancelled, so only Amazon knows if it’s worth a streaming service rescue. Netflix teased some viewing figures recently, such as the 40 million who watched You, which on its original network received 1/80th of that audience.

Which brings us to Netflix and what I’ve watched on there lately. Not much. Netflix, it seems to me, have a real problem with quality control, but I guess they know what they’re at. What seems from the outside like throwing spaghetti at a wall is probably a well thought out strategy.

Russian Doll is a winner, simply because it’s interesting enough to overcome its unlikeable cast of characters and nasty vibe. It also has those shorter episodes that can keep you watching through your dislike for the vision of humanity on display.

On the other hand, Nightflyers is simply terrible, an incoherent slab of dark science fiction that defies your ability to suspend disbelief. Interchangeable characters die in horrible ways on a malfunctioning ship in such quantities that it’s impossible to believe that their purported mission could continue. A ship which seems to have vast, empty spaces and at the same time an unlimited supply of crew to be killed in various horrible ways? Some kind of miraculous future power source and yet nobody ever turns a light on? Check and check. There’s a Game of Thrones style body count, but not a single character you care about, and some kind of mission you also don’t care about. It’s crap, in short, so save your time.

The only thing redeeming Netflix at the moment is Star Trek: Discovery, which in Season 2 is finally the show it almost was in Season 1. Each of the three episodes so far have been very good indeed, and as someone who’s loved Star Trek since I gave up the Cub Scouts so as not to miss it, I’m in love.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

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.