The Magicians

An average of just over half a million people watched The Magicians on its US Network, and I imagine even fewer watched it on whichever of the Channel 5s it was on in this country. I say on. I can find no evidence that the 4th season of this show was broadcast anywhere before it showed up on Amazon Prime recently, along with its first three seasons.

All of which means that you have the opportunity to watch this show that you probably didn’t watch but which is definitely bonkers enough to be worth your time. And the good news is that although this is exactly the kind of cult show that usually ends up being cancelled after half a season, it has miraculously survived for four, so there are 52! episodes! to! watch!, with 13! more! to come in season 5.

So what is The Magicians? As The Observer.com would have it, it’s basically sexy Harry Potter — well, that was the original premise. Lev Grossman’s original novel, upon which the series is based, was published in 2009, two years after the last of the original run of Harry P books was published. An 11-year-old who read The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 was 21 when The Deathly Hallows appeared: old enough for graduate school, which is essentially what Brakebills University in The Magicians is.

I haven’t read any Harry Potter, by the way. Neither have I read Grossman’s novel(s). But I watch the TV show because, and this is important, it’s bonkers, hilarious, and brilliant.

So it’s what if Harry Potter but sweary and slightly sexy? Kind of. But also, what if smokin’ hawt magicians discovered a fictional magical realm (think Narnia, but sweary) was real and became kings and queens and fought battles and turned people into bears and discovered alternate timelines and had the occasional musical episode because Margo licked a lizard? And not just a musical episode, but one complete with snide remarks and bitchy rivalry.

“Great, a puppet show.”

Season One, I have to say, is merely competent television and focused too much on the magicians-at-university premise. But! With Season Two, the show licks a lizard and becomes both a little bit deranged and revels in that madness. With Season Three, and this almost never happens, it gets even better, even more demented.

The plots, about threats to the real world from the magical realm, about magic being switched on and off like a tap, about a Library that is reluctant to lend certain books, and which makes people sign eternal contracts to work there, about monsters who possess human bodies, are there to get the characters rubbing against each other, falling in and out of love, teleporting all over the place and occasionally, yes, licking lizards because they are thirsty.

So get thee to Amazon Prime and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

Stop pollutin’ m’ recs

There was a brief interlude, wasn’t there, when the internet seemed to be making life better. And then it took over everything and we colluded with it in destroying the high street and Ruining Politics and everything else.

I just let my Apple Music free trial lapse and I’m so happy to be away from the Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations. I’m also not on Netflix at the moment (waiting for a critical mass of 10 must-see shows to accrue), so I’m not seeing their particular algorithm’s Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations.

But I’m still stuck with the YouTubes and the Twitters and the Amazons. Amazon hits you with a triple whammy of bad recs. Its algorithm is no more sophsticated than those ads that follow you around, like when you buy wellington boots or something you get nothing but ads for wellington boots for weeks afterwards. Amazon is currently showing me tents: not because I want a tent or bought one. Just because I clicked on a tent out of curiosity, wondering if the technology had improved since the last time I went camping (spoiler: they’re still tents).

Amazon is also offering me film for a camera I don’t own; a microwave dish because I bought a… microwave dish; a big fuckoff box of blue plasters because I recently bought a big fuckoff box of blue plasters; and a bicycle light because I recently bought a bicycle light. You see the problem.

It’s even worse over on Amazon Prime, where Amazon are guilty of spamming you with the spammiest spam they can spam about the US Open tennis because Bezos foolishly overpaid for it and they really really want you to pay a bit extra to watch tennis. In addition to this, because it’s an account I share with the family, I’m always hacking through the weeds of the shit other people watch in order to find anything I might watch. And no matter how many times you don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson, there’s his hideous giant smoker’s face.

It’s a shame because Amazon does harbour some decent shows, but they seem happy to bury them under television and movie landfill rather than make it easier to discover them. I mean, I really ought to be able to click a button that says I WILL NEVER WATCH ANY SPORT EVER and they just stop showing it to me.

The pollution of your recs is real and it’s here and it’s killing us. I also get polluted recs on YouTube because it’s on the AppleTV box, but people tend to watch their crap using my account, so I get bombarded with terrible recommendations. I made the mistake about three months ago of allowing one of my kids to put on a music video, and now I get slapped in the face with bad recs on a monotonous schedule.

But it’s even worse than that, because even when you watch something you quite like, you still get only peripherally related crap fired at you like so many wet tennis balls. Watch, say, a Beatles video, and you suddenly see every fuckwit with a video camera’s take on What Makes Ringo Special or one of those godawful Reaction videos or a conspiracy theory about Paul. YouTube has basically become that scene in Aliens where they decide to nuke the planet from orbit.

The saddest aspect to all this is the way it has become impossible to discover decent books. The tide of awfulness has simply overwhelmed what used to be the core, curated, controlled-by-gatekeepers publishing world. As iniquitous as it used to seem, now that any idiot, including myself, can self-publish an ebook, it’s nearly impossible to find anything decent to read by a new writer. There, I said it. Editors are important.

It’s hard to know where we’ll end up with all this. In the meantime, stay away from my recs, lest you pollute them with your roving eyeballs. And stop looking at tents.

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.

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.

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.

Bosch Season 4

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Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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