Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Americans

The-AmeriacnsThe Americans just started its fifth season in the USA, but its UK broadcaster is currently repeating Season 4 in the run-up to showing it here (I trust). Season 4 has also appeared on Amazon Prime in the UK. This has been good for me, because I missed the end of that season through being out of the country.

Although Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter has been consistent in saying that The Americans, give or take Fargo, is the best show currently on TV, I know nobody who watches it. There isn’t even anyone in my household who watches it with me.

It’s a puzzle. From the opening dramatic sequence of episode 1, which played out to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, to the last scene of Season 4, this show has been consistently excellent: tightly plotted, brilliantly paced, and full of convincing performances. It’s hard to understand why people aren’t watching. Perhaps its the series’ slow burn, which notwithstanding the dramatic opening referred to above, means that it is willing to wait (and wait) for plot points and twists to pay off, and not spend them too cheaply. Or perhaps it’s the scheduling: late at night in the UK, in the graveyard slot, though it’s hard to get your head round anyone being affected by that. More likely, the show hasn’t gained traction because not enough people are watching it and talking about it. So the real puzzle is why nobody is fascinated with a story about Russian illegals living in the USA in the Reagan era, as the Soviet Union wheezed to its end.

It’s the US equivalent of something like Smiley’s People, a story of spies and the people whose lives they destroy, of the cumulative effect of living inside the mirror maze of espionage. And it’s based on truth: there were people living in the States for years, pretending to be Americans, raised in fake American towns in the Soviet Union, educated in English, married to each other as part of the mission and not through any decadent Western notion of romantic love.

The series began with an obvious schism between Matthew Rhys’ Phillip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth. She’s a true believer, committed to the cause and the mission, while he is wavering, not so much thinking of defecting as questioning the whole premise of their mission and quite enjoying his suburban American life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is as desperately lonely as, say, Betty Draper in Season 1 of Mad Men, trapped in suburbia without a friend in the world.

Behind their 2+2 children facade is a brutal reality of deception, honey traps, false friendships and murder. One minute, a friendly chat with a neighbour over coffee or beer, the next: disposing of a body. And behind their all-American nuclear family lies a reality of sleeping around (for the mission) and adopting various personae as they go about the real job behind their fake job as travel agents. But isn’t that the case for all of us? That our lives are compartmentalised, and we have different selves that we present to the different people we interact with? So The Americans, more than being a drama about spies, is a drama about the way we all feel inauthentic all the time: the postmodern condition, if you insist. Or, as I prefer it, we’re all pod people.

As dramatic and interesting all this is, The Americans has layers and textures that make it far more than a run of the mill drama. It’s a period piece, for a start. Period dramas set in the 19th century are one thing; but to evoke the early 1980s in terms of hair, fashion, cars, home decor, and so on is in many ways much more challenging. A couple of cultural moments stood out in Season 4. The first was the occasion when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” on live TV. (It was on April 8, 1983, fact fans.) The reactions of the characters watching are on the surface typical of a suburban family of four; but under the surface, the tensions in the marriage are bubbling over, and disasters afflicting various operations lead to a bold 7-month elision of time and one character desperately faking it on a mini golf course.

The next cultural moment is another TV broadcast, this one of the TV movie The Day After, which portrays a fictional nuclear attack (20 November 1983, fact fans) on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. 100 million Americans watched the broadcast, and The Americans portrays all the main characters watching it, KGB and FBI alike. It’s a superb moment, and the ramifications, while subtle, are clear in the decisions some of them make afterwards.

1983 was probably the year, in recent memory, that the world came closest to armageddon. Apart from Reagan’s sabre-rattling, there were intense NATO and Warsaw Pact manoeuvres, and at least one nuclear false alert on the Russian side (when their missile detection system mistook sunlight reflecting off clouds for an attack) which took us within minutes of a missile launch. (1983 was the year in which I chose to set my novel The Obald, for all of these reasons.)

In The Americans, storylines that started in Season 1 pay off in Season 4 in various and devastating ways. The ability of the show to pace itself, to burn slowly, and to strip away cast members and storylines to the final dilemma is unprecedented.

There are wider and more subtle themes, too. The teenage daughter of Phillip and Elizabeth, Paige, comes under the influence of an evangelical Christian church, and her engagement with her religion causes tension between her committed Marxist parents, and (again) comes to a head in Season 4. The parallels between Christian evangelicals recruiting church members and spies recruiting agents are non-accidental. But there’s more: in Season 4, Phillip starts attending Est therapy, which makes him focus on his life, the brutality of his childhood in Russia and the way he is always required to please other people, including his KGB masters. All of this has the effect of re-igniting the doubts he was already expressing in Season 1, and to see Phillip standing at a meeting complaining about how he doesn’t want to be a travel agent any more even as he is being encouraged to give up his life in America and return to Moscow “a hero” is just one of the complex and beautiful knots that the show ties. And again: the cult-like nature of Est links to the cult-like Christian group, and the cult-like behaviour of KGB.

We are all pod people, is the message.

And now me: I am testifying now, to you, dear reader, that you really ought to watch The Americans.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review, Television

Bosch Season 3 – review

C59DeRbU0AEH_w2 [www.imagesplitter.net]Well done to Amazon for releasing this third season of Bosch before my Prime subscription expires. (Since there is still no Apple TV app, I am not renewing. I’m also looking forward to going on a purchasing diet.)

I reviewed Season 1 here, and Season 2 here.

Season 3 is based on two Michael Connelly novels – The Black Echo (1992), and – partially – A Darkness More Than Night (2001). Those novels give you the main two cases being investigated, but there is also continuity from previous seasons in terms of character development and relationships. For example, while Bosch originally met Eleanor Wish in his very first novel outing, The Black Echo, in this series she continues to be his ex-wife and mother of his teenage daughter (who is now old enough to be taking driving lessons).

So while it might seem a little strange to be going back to the first Bosch novel for the third season of TV, enough work has been done to make the plot fit with the continuity of the TV show.

The usefulness of adapting two (or more) novels is clear when it comes to the storytelling. Part of the joy of this police procedural is that it cleaves to a more realistic sense of time. Samples sent to the lab with a “rush” (cop show cliché alert) still take quite a long time to come back, so it’s not as if anyone is looking at the result of lab work after a single episode. In addition, you see Bosch being involved in several cases – dealing with the prosecution team for one, dealing with investigators for another, sticking his nose in elsewhere.

There’s a great sense, too, of how Bosch might be a bit irritating to work with. Partly this is because he is tenacious and uncompromising; partly it’s because other people are caught in the flood when he makes waves. Whereas (especially early) Bosch novels were a bit black-and-white when it came to his adversarial relationship with his line managers, for TV you get the sense that he is valued for his ability to clear cases, but considered a liability in court because of his tendency to go off on his own — and therefore susceptible to malicious accusations.

This matters, because (as I’ve said before) on paper, Bosch bears all the hallmarks of bog-standard police procedurals, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for just another one of those CBS-type shows. But while a “maverick cop” in a bog-standard procedural would solve the case and all would be forgiven, Bosch has to deal with the consequences of his unconventional actions every time he stands up in court. In this series, he’s been running an off-books investigation and has information crucial to another detective’s case – which compromises him in all kinds of ways.

In other words, there’s a clear and valid reason why the DA, say, might consider him a liability; or why the chief of police might feel moved occasionally to dress him down.

Season 3 continues the good work of the first two seasons, with characters now established and relationships under strain. The infuriating Bosch manages to alienate the people close to him and doggedly pursue the villains who underestimate him at every turn. The cinematography is still superb, and my criticism of Season 2 (that a lot of the episodes just finished arbitrarily) has been addressed, and there are some good episode cliffhangers this time.

Recommended, as ever. I think this is probably the best American police procedural, give or take NYPD Blue.

Posted in bastards, musings, Television

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER

Posted in bastards, Television

So, Farewell then, Amazon Prime

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I’ve got a few months to run, since I pay annually, but I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription. It’s a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. Not really. But it is a kind of protest. Here’s why I’m cancelling.

I’ll start with the most concrete reason why: although I’ve had a lot (too much!) of use of the free delivery side of things, I’ve not really accessed the video content much lately. Partly, that’s because it’s not very convenient. I’ve got an Apple TV, which I quite like. It’s got a good interface, it’s reliable and stable, and most of the things I now watch can be accessed through it. But Amazon have dug in their heels and refused to develop an Apple TV app. They’ve got apps for the iPhone and iPad, and you can watch on your MacBook, but they’ve arbitrarily picked on this one device not to support.

I can still throw stuff from my phone onto the Apple TV using Airplay, which works fairly reliably. Problem is, when I do that, I can’t use my phone for anything else. My other way of watching Amazon content is via the shonky app on my (old) Sony Blu-Ray player. The interface on that is terrible, and finding content is painful and slow.

So reason number one is this: Amazon are playing stupid games with Apple and their lack of support for AppleTV is nothing short of malicious.

Will I miss the actual content? Not really. Some of their stuff is okay, but none of it has that hooky, addictive quality that makes you care if you miss it. The show I enjoyed the most, Bosch, is pretty decent, and beautifully made, but it’s not so wondrous that I’d continue to pay for the service, as inconvenient as it is.

In fact, decent and beautifully made is a good descriptor of quite a lot of Amazon’s content. The Man in the High Castle looks incredible, but as far as character and story go, it’s just not that compelling. Red Oaks is pretty good, but I didn’t find season 2 as charming as the first. Then there’s Mr Robot, which is brilliant, and which is must-see TV, but since it’s not actually an Amazon production, I should be able to get it on DVD.

Which brings me to my most petty and childish reason for cancelling my subscription. The biggest ballyhoo Amazon has ever made about its content concerns The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co’s self-indulgent money pit show. Now, I’m sure many people over the years threatened not to pay their TV Licence because of various things Clarkson said or did. I wasn’t one of them, but I came to hate everything Top Gear stood for, so now I’m taking the opportunity to cancel my Amazon TV licence, because I don’t want to contribute one more penny to Clarkson’s lavish Chipping Norton libertarian lifestyle.

This last reason is petty, and if Amazon were to suddenly about turn and produce an AppleTV app, I might think again. But I’ve waited long enough, so the cancellation is in.

Posted in musings, Television

CMA Awards: state of the union

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Finally got a chance to watch the highlights of this year’s CMA Awards, which took place about a month ago, a few days before The Cataclysm. Although the 90-minute edit I watched was mainly of performances, it’s still a good opportunity to read the chicken entrails of the music industry, as is traditional on this blog.

I’ve been watching the CMAs for 25 years now, so for about half it’s 50-year run. This year was the meaningless milestone featuring a 5 and a 0, so there was a deal more wallowing in nostalgia than usual — which is saying something, where country music is concerned.

Invented by radio, featuring something that was – even in the 1920s – characterised as ‘old time’ music, country has always-already been a nostalgic genre, its history peppered with emblematic crises. As early as the 1950s, the so-called Nashville Sound was an attempt to protect the genre by providing slick, commercialised competition for the burgeoning pop and rock genres. In the 1970s, the Outlaws provided a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the slick Countrypolitan sound. In the 1980s, the ‘Neotraditionalists’ claimed their own version of the elusive ‘authenticity’ for a new generation. And so it goes, into the alt.country era, and the Americana movement.

What the CMA Awards show represents, every year, is a compass pointing in the direction the industry is heading. Around 2013 and 2014, I almost gave up on the genre, because there were too many mullets and baseball caps, driven by the Bro Country movement, and too many songs about blue jeans, beer, and pickup trucks on dirt roads. In the background, women were struggling to get airplay on the radio, which meant they were struggling to get marketing push, and the UK iTunes store was a stagnant swamp of cardboard cutouts catering to a lowest common denominator of drunken galoots in football stadia.

Last year’s show, with the astonishing performances of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, and the shock board-sweeping win for Stapleton and his album Traveller was the break we needed. Stapleton had received virtually zero airplay or record company support, and yet the buzz around the album was such that, by November, the night was his. Stapleton himself, with his mountain man beard, his bulky frame, and crushed-looking hat, is the antidote to the baseball capped pretty boys.

So to 2016, the year America elected a fascist. What gives in country music? The 50th anniversary show featured a high number of medleys, and as well as the nostalgia, tributes to the likes of Merle Haggard, who has departed this world, and Dolly Parton, who has not.

What interested me this year was a feeling of pulling up the drawbridge and bringing into the fold exemplified by the presence of artists who are rarely (if ever) seen at this most Establishment of award ceremonies. Garth Brooks, for example, was front and centre (and won Entertainer of the Year) in a way that I’ve never seen – even in his heyday. When he was breaking all the records for album sales back in the 90s, he was too big for the CMAs. Later on, he was too retired. Now he’s back, along with Trisha Yearwood, who has also rarely been seen at the show. One of the medleys featured Dwight Yoakam, who has never been a Nashville guy; and Clint Black, who was a staple of the show in the early 90s, but hasn’t been seen in the Brad Paisley/Carrie Underwood era. Even Randy Travis, who was big in the 80s and 90s, but whose career (and health) nosedived, was back on the stage, still evidently recovering from his stroke, but able to sing the single word, ‘Amen.’ And then out came none other than Taylor Swift…

But the enfolding of the outcasts and outlaws was nowhere more evident than in the performance of the Dixie Chicks (with Beyoncé). The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio and ostracised by many of their peers after they dared to express dissent about George W Bush. It has been over 10 years, but they seem to be back in favour and back on tour. (I’m still bitter, however, that they haven’t put out any new music since 2006.)

The Chicks and Beyoncé was supposed to be this year’s Stapleton/Tiberlake, but it didn’t quite work for me – largely because they still haven’t got anything new to sing, but also because it seemed over-rehearsed and backy tracky. The beauty of last year’s S/T pairing was the improvisational musicianship and the glorious spontaneity. Still, it was probably the most controversial part of the show, due to the inevitable outpouring of hate on social media.

Apart from that enfolding atmosphere, the semiotics of this year’s show were fascinating. I didn’t see a single baseball cap (loud cheers), but there were lots of cowboy hats. Luke Bryan still got a look-in, but appeared capless and extremely lightweight compared to just about every performance on the night. Eric Church was also capless, though still insisted on wearing his mirrored sunglasses – so I will not be buying his album. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took on a medley of costumes from across the eras (Paisley included at least one hilarious mullet wig), and there were fewer people exiled to performing on little stages at the back of the crowd.

My favourite moment, for sheer class, was when Garth Brooks was announced as the winner of Entertainer of the Year. He went to hug each of the other nominees in turn before taking the stage in what seemed to be a genuine show of love and respect. As far as performances went, the best this year was Keith Urban, who performed ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, a nice follow-up to last year’s ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’.

So the trend is back to the hats, and Don’t Mention The Apocalypse.

Posted in Review, Television

Gilmore Gone Girls

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As a recent convert to Gilmore Girls, I am of course fully qualified to comment on the Netflix revival A Year in the Life.

I became aware of this show only through its occasional positive mentions in passing on the Incomparable network. It’s hard to imagine I would otherwise have caught it. It was broadcast on the satellite channels Nickleodeon and Hallmark before being rebroadcast on E4 and now 5*. Neither of the latter are channels whose listings I check (not target demo). Anyway, knowing the revival was forthcoming, I decided to try it out and ended up bingeing the first seven seasons on Netflix.

What makes Gilmore Girls great is – obviously – the snappy, witty dialogue, reminiscent as it is of classical Hollywood screwball comedy. It’s Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Rosalind Russell. The scripts are breathless, pages and pages longer than standard minute-per-page screenplays, stuffed with witty repartée. In television terms, you can draw a line from Buffy through Gilmore Girls to Laura Mars. And just like those other shows, Gilmore Girls manages to create huge emotional beats, seemingly out of nowhere. The special sauce of the show is the way you can be hit sideways by the impact of one of these emotional moments. They’re earned, too, not the result of shameful manipulation but growing out of the ongoing storylines and character developments.

There were some problematic elements. The almost overwhelming whiteness of the cast, for example, with Yanic Truesdale the sole person of colour in the regular credits. Then there’s the occasional whiff of whiny white privilege. Lorelai turns her back on her privileged upbringing, but her daughter Rory more or less embraces it wholeheartedly, sitting on the edge of a crowd of money-no-object types with no steel in her backbone. But these were minor quibbles, mere backdrop to the more uplifting parts of the show.

So it’s hardly surprising I watched the latter seasons of the original show through a veil of tears. I know people often say that Season 7 is barely canon, but (the brief and forgotten marriage aside) even Season 7 isn’t that bad. It’s mostly guilty of prolonging the Lorelai-Luke standoff for 22 episodes too many.

So to the four extended episodes of the Netflix revival, and the Ten Years After of Gilmore Girls. The headline news is that original showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino is back, and so able to give the show the ending she was unable to give it for Season 7.

What do we find? For me, there were two and a half decent episodes in the four, interspersed with some ill-advised self-indulgencies. The show always hinted at an interest in musical theatre but perhaps never had the budget nor episode time to indulge it. Freed by the Netflix dollars and the double-length episodes, the producers threw in a couple of extended song/dance sequences which just didn’t belong. Add in some false relationship peril, a couple of unnecessary side trips, and Rory’s apparent ability to commute freely to and from London with no jet lag effects (not to mention no job), and there’s too much cruft here. My least favourite interlude featured the spoilt brats of the Life and Death Brigade, who could have ended up on the cutting room floor with no regrets.

Once you get past the distractions wrought by ageing, weight loss, possible botox, and unconvincing hairpieces, it was enjoyable enough, though never reaching the heights of the original series. Everybody wanted to know what the last four words were. My bet was wrong on that. I’d watch it again if they made more. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the forever youngness of cancelled shows.

 

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Grand Boor (review)

grand-tour-20I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, as the Top Gear schtick wore thin a long time ago, but I took a look at the first episode of The Grand Tour to see how Amazon had spent my licence fee Prime subscription.

The opening scene features Clarkson leaving Broadcasting House, handing over his lanyard, and walking away through the rain. As soon as my daughter saw this, she said, “This is just narcissism,” which was exactly right. Here’s a bully and a boor, a self-righteous, self-mythologising bore, indulging his own fantasy as the hero of his own narrative. In Clarkson’s hero’s journey he’s not the racist, sexist, apologist for neo-liberal elites whose ego became so inflated with success that he began to behave like a celebrity prima donna who can’t believe people don’t know who he is. No, he’s the poor, put-upon and misunderstood host of a harmless little TV show which gives pleasure to millions and is persecuted by the po-faced PC Brigade.

Of course, $160 Amazon dollars and a year or so later, we have realised that the world we are living in is Trump’s World, Boris’ World, Brexit World, and the power that Clarkson has, as apologist-in-chief, is immense. Only losers are offended by Clarkson. The struggling Guardian, which continues to pretend it is ‘fearless and independent’ publishes as much Clarkson clickbait as it can, because the truth is that – like Trump – there is literally nothing Clarkson can do that will turn his legion of fans off. He can punch, lie, exaggerate, get drunk in airport lounges, and he still has his bully pulpit in The Sun, and he still has his Amazon cash to wave in our faces like a Harry Enfield character come to horrific, warty life.

So to The Grand Tour, with his sniggering foils, and his booming voice and his ridiculous supercars and his sycophantic audience who will boo a Prius to order. It’s every bit as bad and as boring as I thought it would be. God, the sheer tedium of watching a middle-aged white man drive a fast car around and around, up and down, back and forth. The blatant filler, as cynical and contemptuous as Woody Allen’s recent Amazon outing: instead of racing three cars down a track once, why not do it a dozen times? These morons will watch anything.

You feel sorry for the audience, really. You can’t help, in your liberal humanist way, have a degree of sympathy for the brainwashed. You know that the hypnotised never lie. Their function is to go along with the gag, to be convinced that it’s okay to dismiss minorities, or climate change, or wildlife – anyone who is not them – and to cheer a millionaire as he burns rubber and petrol and sneers at the people who facilitate his indulgences. Even Clarkson is just a cog in this machine, his role to be the entertaining front of the hegemony, to show how having horrible opinions is no barrier to success. He’s not much more important than the token black woman, positioned as she was to be visible in the background, over Clarkson’s shoulder, a smiling indulgence to his past racism and misogyny.

But is that some desperation I can detect, underneath the noisy bluster? I think it is. Clarkson’s voice is shot, his instrument broken, sounding permanently as if he is losing it through shouting. As a teacher, I know what that broken voice means. It means you’ve been struggling with your Year 9s, or 10s, your naughty Year 8 group. You’ve been having to raise your voice to be heard, to insist on getting your way. Clarkson’s voice has been broken by his trials. And in the tent/studio, it’s all a little more shouty and stiff and awkward. No more strolling about from point to point: they’re fixed behind a shit table on a shit stage, sitting on shit chairs, and that’s where they stay for the live portion of the show, sharing their angry banter. But it’s clear: there really is no friendship there, and the famous chemistry has not survived the controversies. The tinker-engineer and the local radio DJ are simply there to be foils to the bully and they know it, and we know it, and it’s embarrassing.

If Trump goes after Amazon it will be a sort of poetic justice. You want Amazon’s TV offerings to be as interesting as Netflix’s, but they’re just not. They mostly have a nasty undercurrent, a lack of taste, making Amazon the Microsoft to Netflix’s Apple. And the fact that Amazon have given Clarkson a platform means that they are participating in the oppression of everything decent and kind in our cruel world.

Posted in bastards, Television

“I would like to adjust my programming”

ptolemy-slocum-as-sylvester-leonardo-nam-as-lutz-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hboI was watching Westworld, and it struck me how, like the robots, we’re all subject to our own particular programming, and we’re all trapped in some kind of narrative, leading lives of torment or quiet desperation. The narrative has got us in its grip, and once it has taken hold it is so hard to fight against. Telling the truth, or supplying facts, or whatever else you try to do won’t have an impact on people who are being driven by the power of narrative, no matter how false.

I didn’t post anything about the US election in the run-up, and there’s not much need in the aftermath. What have now become the usual observations apply. Although they’ve now been discredited (UK General Election 2015) and discredited again (Brexit 2016), people were still giving too much credence to opinion polls. I visited my placeholder Facebook page earlier, and there was a promoted link to Nate Silver’s page. Hilarious! As John Oliver’s show might ask: FiveThirtyEight.com – how is this still a thing?

Then there’s the Twitter, which the day after the election was a pathetic shambles of self-pitying complaint. One couldn’t help but wonder, what if Twitter had been around in 1979 for Thatcher (my Vietnam), or in 1980 for Reagan? What would Twitter have made of Dan fucking Quayle? Or Nixon, when he was illegally bombing Cambodia and Laos? As everybody knows by now, Twitter is an echo chamber. There was surely nothing more useless or pointless than the endlessly repeated exhortations to VOTE! Who’s reading those tweets, exactly? Yeah, your followers, who are people who think like you and tweet the same kind of things as you.

You couldn’t fight Trump on Twitter. We’ve known since 1996 that trying to win an online argument is a pointless waste of time. And as for the bulk of Trump’s supporters, those white Middle Americans convinced that Sharia Law is just around the corner, they’re not on Twitter. Twitter’s user base is notoriously static and restricted to a subset of the chattering classes.

Crowing online about how Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or Bruce, or Alec Baldwin were endorsing Hilary while Trump could only manage Scott Baio is to massively miss the point that those ‘deplorable’ Red State people feel nothing but contempt and resentment towards those metropolitan sophisticates squeezed up against the East and West coast. The more you parade your celebrity endorsers in front of them, the more they’re going to vote against you.

Anyway, even though the election season was ridiculously long and tedious, there was never going to be enough time, or enough tweets, or enough celebrities, to undo the damage that has been done – over years by the likes of Fox News. On the one hand, the strident outrage of paid-to-have-opinions pundits; on the other, the whisperers… The eight years of economic pain since 2008; the eight years of naked racism directed towards Obama; the fifteen years of anti-muslim rhetoric since September 2001; the 35 years of steadily declining middle class incomes since the end of the Keynsian post-war consensus.

There’s a narrative out there. It’s in the heart of Brexitland, it’s in Le Pen’s France, and it’s in those Red States, of which there are increasing numbers. The narrative takes the undeniable evidence of people’s blighted economic fortunes, ever-increasing burden of debt, lack of options, and it whispers (sometimes shouts) the blame. These people, with their alien religion, want to introduce their Sharia Law, here, in deepest Wisconsin. Or these other people, who want to stop the police from doing their job. Or these people who are stealing American jobs. Or these others, who want to take away your guns, or your freedom to say whatever the hell you want: all of them are collectively to blame for the shitty way you feel, for the way you feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, for holding your opinions.

We can’t help it: none of us are immune to the power of narrative. We’re all just helpless robots, programmed to respond. The neoliberal consensus has been programming us all since the 70s, but since 2008 they’ve gradually lost control of the narrative. The banks were blatantly, obviously to blame for the financial crash. But the working classes were blatantly, obviously made to pay the cost. This injustice created a whirling, white-hot vortex of resentment and anger which made people receptive to the quiet comfort of an alternative narrative in which blame was apportioned. So people have followed their programming to its logical conclusion: first Brexit; and now Trump, the rampaging monster from America’s id. Trump is the robot uprising, the one we’re waiting for in Westworld.

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

Westworld

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Kill all humans

(Mild spoilers…)

I never thought much of the original Westworld movie. Michael Crichton was not a great director, and I was never a fan of Yul Brynner. So when I heard that HBO were making a TV series based on it, I wasn’t terribly interested.

But the buzz pulled me in and I enjoyed the first episode so much, I watched it again. Like last summer’s Humans, it’s your typical robot/artificial intelligence story: the robot uprising is coming. Kill all humans. But in its execution, it offers complex and interesting entertainment.

The main thing that sets it apart, of course, is money. Compared to Daleks and Cybermen, compared to the synths of Humans, compared to just about everything that has come before it, Westworld looks expensive. From cinematography to scoring, production design to casting, this is premium TV, as we’ve come to expect in the Platinum Age.

There are layers within layers, of course. And the trick the scriptwriters have to pull off is making us care about the ‘scripted’ theme park narratives – the play within the play, as it were – when we know that these robots are just performing something akin to a Disney theme ride. There’s much to interest narratologists here:

  • events that occur once but which are narrated more than once (the post-mortem interview with Dolores, which opens and closes the episode);
  • events which occur many times and which are narrated many times (the pattern of repetition and difference as Dolores wakes up and greets her father; Teddy arriving in town on the train; the sheriff trying to raise a posse);
  • events which occur many times but which are narrated once (the – albeit ramped up – saloon robbery);
  • And events which occur once and which are narrated once (most of what happens in the “real world”, bar the Dolores interview;
  • (I should add that there’s a special category for dialogue lines delivered more than once in different situations, providing new levels of signification.)

The effect of all of this is to make you feel empathy for the androids and their endless suffering while also beginning to like or dislike a number of the human characters. And this is in – remember – just one episode. Even the best TV series can suffer from opening episode issues: trying to introduce the fictional world, too many characters and too many plot threads at once. But this is deft and gripping, even as it tells us enough about this world to make us care. Perhaps it helps if you remember the premise of the movie. Regardless, it’s excellent.

There are a couple of neat tricks. First is the introduction of a character, who – because he arrives by train like the visitors – we think is a human, right up until the point he’s revealed as a robot. And the brilliance of this is, because you spend time thinking of him as human, you continue to see him as human after the reveal. So you feel his suffering as well as the power of narrative. Then there are the flies, which at first seem like a creepy reminder that we’re in Uncanny Valley, but then prove to be freighted with greater meaning.

I’m also enjoying the intertextuality: Anthony Hopkins as God, for example, sitting thoughtfully as Vitruvian Man is pulled out of the growth vat. Or the musical cues: Dolores chased by Teddy as they ride across the stunning landscape to a Big Country style Western theme; or the Stones’ “Paint it Black” done in the style of Ennio Morricone during the saloon robbery. Or the use of milk, a white fluid that at one point pours out of a bullet wound like the android “blood” in Ridley Scott movies.

So much too love, and that’s before we get to the anchor character of this opening episode: Dolores, the longest-serving host in the park, whose life is clearly endless torment.  So much so that it’s actually sad when you realise that she doesn’t just “forget” everything at the end of each run-through with a memory wipe. So much so that what might be a throwaway line in any other circumstance (“They come here every day”) is loaded, as is her smiling response to being shown a crumpled and faded photograph: “Doesn’t look like anything to me.”

It’s the new Best Show On TV.

 

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

Crisis in Six Scenes

 

crisis-in-six-scenes-review-woody-allen
“Just get in and we’ll never speak about this again.”

So it turns out that Woody Allen wasn’t faking people out when he described his arrangement with Amazon to make this 6-part TV series as something he’d “regretted every second since I said OK.” He was also reported as saying, “I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin.”

So more fool anyone, including me, for bothering to watch. That I even watched all six episodes is something I’ve regretted every second since I did it, half an hour ago.

Some reviewers have claimed that at least it looks nice, but I disagree even on that. It’s supposed to be a period piece, set in the 60s, but it doesn’t look like the 60s. None of the actors has a 60s face, or 60s hair, and the costumes could have come off the rails in TK Max.

I think the 60s setting is, honestly, just an excuse for Allen to trot out lines that he might have written back then, the last time he was involved in television. It feels deeply lazy and contemptuous of both his audience and his employers.

Miley Cyrus plays Diane Keaton’s character in Sleeper – by which I mean she trots out the same lines about revolution with the same hunched shoulders and arm gestures – and though she only actually sleepwalks in one episode, you get the feeling that she’s sleepwalking through the whole thing. Ahem.

It’s such a terribly unfunny rendition of comic somnambulism that it seems to exist only to pre-empt the joke that Cyrus is sleepwalking through the role. (Variety)

The cast sits at two extremes in terms of age. 80-year-old Allen plays an obscure writer apparently still trying to pitch a tired sitcom idea, while 84-year-old Elaine May plays his still-practicing marriage counsellor wife. Both them speak like their dentures are loose and Allen stutters through his lines in a way that seems semi-improvised or else under-rehearsed. The 50-year-old punchlines fall from his 80-year-old mouth like ashes.

The other end of the cast features the aforementioned Ms Cyrus, John Magaro and Rachel Brosnahan, as a younger generation who aren’t given much to do. Miley Cyrus’ part seems to consist of raiding food cupboards and repeating a limited number of thoughts about social revolution and direct action. The part is really under-written and when Allen has her climb into the boot of a car at the end, it’s a relief for all concerned.

Allen has made this as a “half hour comedy” in the sense that the episodes are about 22 minutes long – as if this was a network show. Except it’s not a network show, and there are no ad breaks. Each episode ends abruptly, too short for anything meaningful to happen. At around 130 minutes this ends up being something like an over-long, poorly edited, late period Woody Allen film.

You could reimagine this with better casting, younger actors, people in their late 50s or 60s, who might conceivably still have a reason to be working and running around Manhattan with a briefcase full of money. Imagine Tom Hanks in the Allen role, Michelle Pfeiifer in the May role, and the 23-year-old Miley Cyrus arriving like a whirlwind to set them spinning. Maybe then you’d have a show. As it is, this is clearly something knocked off to fulfil a contractural obligation with nothing but contempt for an audience Allen clearly doesn’t mind alienating.