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.

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How the internet ruined everything


The news that Tesco is to close its fresh food counters is just another sign that we don’t even want to have nice things. You can’t really blame the internet for people not wanting to queue up and ask for a slice of that pork pie thing with egg in the middle, or exactly 175g of mince, or three sausages and six anchovies. The metric system maybe? After all, a lot of people probably know what 2oz of cheese looks like but don’t know how to ask for it in grams. But it’s a symptom all the same that when offered the choice between convenience and service we’ll pick convenience every time. Of course it doesn’t help matters when the tappety-tap-tap of people paid to have opinions spreads its jism all over the comment pages and convinces someone somewhere for five minutes that, no, indeed, fresh food counters and customer service are rubbish and of course we won’t miss them. Like we don’t miss the milkman and milk in glass bottles, do we?

(Let’s set aside the ironic lack of self awareness of someone who writes for a newspaper in 2019 telling us about something they won’t miss when it’s gone.)

Which brings us onto the things that the internet really did ruin. While I can barely remember that time I asked for anchovies at the deli counter in Waitrose, the last time I bought a newspaper is an even dimmer memory. I never did quite understand why newspapers and magazines even started giving away their content for free on the internet. It was a collective insanity that cost them dear. They swallowed some canard about how information wants to be free and nobody listened to the little boy in the crowd who shouted that it was just a fucking metaphor.

So while the presses still rolled, and the newspaper groups still paid for staff and offices and newsprint, and even as they cannibalised their own advertising revenue with online content, they were caught off balance when people without expensive printworks and distribution networks to support came along and undercut them by not even paying the idiots who wrote their content. Because, turns out, the logical corollary of information wants to be free is writers don’t want to be paid.

So there went the printing jobs, and the journalism jobs, and what a hilarious trick that was: suddenly any idiot could be a writer or a photographer, but nobody was getting paid. And now even low-overhead outlets like Vice, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are laying off staff.  Meanwhile, others are in administration. There’s no there there. Nothing is real. Strawberry Fields forever.

 And then there was a mad scrabble to pivot to video and podcasts and promote your shouldn’t-be-free content on social networks and look how that turned out. It goes without saying that instead of liberating us, the internet ruined politics too. It wasn’t as if we were well served, politically, by old media, but new media didn’t help at all. It just said, hold my pint.

The thing about most news content is, usually the headline is enough for most people, so putting the headline on Twitter was a good way of reducing your readership. And Twitter or Facebook can make money off your content, but you can’t.

And all those podcasts, I love them, I absolutely do, but at the same time, all the podcast adverts are just a list of ways in which the internet is setting out to ruin everything. Go to the mattresses! So let’s kill off the mattress retailers, and the opticians, the clothes retailers, the grocers, and in a final ironic twist, let’s kill off independent web designers. Use Squarespace for all your needs. Put those pixel pushers on the dole.

But as much as nobody loves shopping for mattresses, there’s a whole ecosystem there isn’t there? You go to the retail park to buy a mattress, and you might pop into the electronics store, or the pet supply place, or Halfords, whatever. But if you’re no longer going to buy a mattress, everybody else is screwed. Do Amazon sell tyres? Of course they fucking do.

Which, talking of which, brings us to Amazon’s Evil Empire, and how we all chose to kill off book stores and record stores and all the other stores where people might work reasonable hours for reasonable pay and get a staff discount and have a bit of a laugh with their colleagues. First they killed the Net Book Agreement, which okay, was a bit of a cartel, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t discount bookshops with remaindered titles. It was a system and it worked. And it was like milk from the milkman. You paid a bit more but somehow we still had a society.

I’m probably the most guilty person when it comes to using Amazon instead of retail stores. I mean, when I needed a petrol cap for the strimmer in France, I ordered it from Amazon instead of trying a local stockist, just because I knew the local stockist would probably be hopeless. But what are we going to do when Amazon has killed everything, has an effective monopoly, and pulls the trigger on raising prices so they can turn a profit? 

I once ordered a car online, that’s how guilty I am.

And I’d do it again, probably, because car salespeople are horrible, aren’t they? And so are journalists, aren’t they? I mean, a lot of them work(ed) for Murdoch and the Daily Mail etc. What kind of shitty human being do you have to be to work for the Daily Mail? There are all kinds of categories of people it’s easy to avoid by shopping online.

All that’ll be left on the high street will be the coffee shops, and when all the other shops have gone, they’ll have to go too, because the footfall will be gone.

And it’ll be the internet wot dunnit, and everything will be a little bit (or a lot) worse, and we’ll complain about it, but we did it to ourselves.

*Takes cardboard packaging out to the recycling bin*

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.

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.

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.

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 million 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.

Crisis in Six Scenes

 

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“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.

Bosch: Season 2

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Arresting Television: Bosch

Although there are a number of decent things to watch on Amazon Prime, it’s still true to say that most people probably think of it as the Free Next Day Delivery service with added video. I enjoyed Mozart in the Jungle, Red Oaks, and The Man in the High Castle, but for me, the overwhelming choice for Best Thing On Amazon is Bosch. I reviewed Season 1 here, and said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which is to say, that although it might seem like just another one of those cop shows, it simply works better, as a whole, than you would assume from its array of cop show clichés.

Slight spoiler alert in what follows.

Season 1 was good, season 2 is better. There are fewer of those clichés at play, fewer of those ‘You’re off the case!’ moments. The supporting cast are given more to do. Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector) is still more sympathetic than he is in the books, but I’ve forgiven this, because this more fleshed out character is a good foil for Bosch. Edgar doesn’t have the instincts, the gut feelings, that Bosch has, but he does valuable leg- and paperwork, patiently accruing the evidence needed to break the case. Meanwhile, in season 2, deputy chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick, who is good in everything he’s in) steps into the role of maverick on a mission, and it’s Bosch who has to talk sense.

There are roles this year for Jeri Ryan as a murder victim’s widow, and Brent Sexton, who plays a cop turned security guard on a gated community. Both of these seem like fleshed out roles, with characters who act in ways that are true to themselves.

As with the first season, this one amalgamates plot elements from three books, the main one being Trunk Music, and the other two being The Drop and The Last Coyote. And because the TV series has so much material to interweave, I think they actually do  good job of reducing the level cop show cliché melodrama, drilling down to the essentials of character and plot that makes for better television.

As before, the cinematography of Los Angeles is superb, and the show looks expensive, with its own unique style that is definitely more cinematic than your run of the mill procedural. The pacing is a bit odd, however, because it’s clearly designed for streaming and binge-watching rather than conventional broadcast. That means episodes sometimes seem to just finish, and it’s not until over halfway through that you feel an urgency to get to the next episode.

One criticism: Episode 7 begins with the worst bagpipe noise I have ever heard, and I scrabbled for the remote to turn it down so my ears didn’t start to bleed.

Another criticism: I watched it over four days and ten episodes is nowhere near enough. Thirteen next time, please, Amazon? Ten is just a round number.

Master of None

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 17.09.51If I’m honest, the thing I’ve mot enjoyed watching on Netflix has been Stargate Universe, which (though cruelly cut short) is still the best 40 episodes of TV science fiction ever broadcast. And although I’d seen it before, I really enjoyed bingeing it, and watched 3-4 episodes a night since coming home in the New Year.

But what else is Netflix for? With the future looking increasingly like a confusing hotchpotch of competing but not necessarily overlapping services, it’s the original/exclusive content that’s going to be crucial in persuading you to part with your £6.99 a month. You’re not going to be able to pay for everything. Even if you can afford to, you’re not going to be able to watch everything, in the era of too much TV.

One such Netflix original is Master of None, which has garnered largely positive reviews, especially over on the TV Talk Machine podcast.

But I’m not so sure. I’m lukewarm on almost all of Netflix’s original content. In the must-see column I’d put Jessica Jones and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In the not-interested column, I’d put House of Cards, Sense8, Orange is the New Black, and much more besides.

Somewhere in the middle falls Master of None, the modern comedy of manners from Aziz Ansari from Parks and Rec. It’s well-produced, original, powerful at times, and goes into new territory for a situation comedy. It doesn’t feature the same set, and has an expansive, changeable cast, all of whom circle around the main character, a fictionalised version of Ansari. The standout episode for me was the 4th, “Indians on TV”, which skewers the use of stereotypes and digs deeper into representational issues, which, when spelt out, make you gasp at the ridiculousness of it all.

On the other hand, I didn’t find it compelling or addictive. I’m not a particular fan of cringe comedy, which is why I never watched The Office, Parks and Rec etc. We watched Kimmy Schmidt over a few nights, but I’ve taken more than a month to get through Master of None. And although it’s mainly entertaining and he’s a likeable enough character, I didn’t really laugh at it. Which is a problem with a comedy. I don’t buy that you’re not meant to laugh.

The future is unbundled, and the networks are positioning themselves to offer their own streaming services. What worries me with both Netflix and Amazon is that they’ll end up with a load of old back catalogue shit abandoned by the networks, plus their original content. At the moment, it’s a toss-up. Amazon has Bosch, The Man in the High Castle, and Red Oaks. Netflix has Jessica Jones, Kimmy Schmidt, and stuff like Making a Murderer (which is okay, but it’s not Serial, nor is it The Jinx). If I could afford just one? Maybe it’ll end up being just one at a time…

 

The Man in the High Castle

wwjxv2h0azrsnnh5pfp7I’m pretty sure I read the novel – but about 35 years ago – so I’d actually forgotten who the man in the high castle turns out to be in The Man in the High Castle, although it seems obvious once you see it.

Amazon’s production has had a long gestation, with Ridley Scott attached to it as executive producer. I think it started as an idea for the BBC, and thank goodness they didn’t make it, because they wouldn’t have spent enough on it. Then I think it was hovering around SyFy, as a four-parter, before finally fetching up as an Amazon Original.

Somewhere along the way it has ballooned from a four-part mini series with a beginning, middle, and end, into a 10-part series which leaves an opening for a sequel. If it has a flaw, it’s that it does feel unnecessarily stretched in terms of its action/plot ratio. It has the pacing of a Mad Men rather than a Blacklist, which depending on your taste might be an issue.

Along with lots of others, I watched the pilot a while ago, and I’ve been quite keen to see the rest. The opening episode sets up the premise brilliantly, with superb production design evoking an alternate 1962. The maguffin of the book, the stories, are transformed here into visual media (newsreels), and our lead character (Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain) starts to investigate the mysterious alternate world they show. So this is both a period drama (1962) and science fiction (counterfactual history), rolled into one. In those terms, Amazon have done a stunning job in the mise-en-scène, from costume design through backgrounds, vehicles, hair, properties.

West of the Rockies, the US is occupied by the Japanese, so there’s a militaristic Kokutai (?) culture based around Imperial power. With the mountain states nominally neutral, the Eastern US is occupied by Nazi Germany, with Hitler still alive and ruling from Berlin. In terms of production design, then, the producers had three different looks to play with: a Japanese puppet state, a Nazi puppet state, and a grimly clinging on neutral zone. Action switches between the two puppet states, with characters from both flung together in the neutral zone.

All of which is set up in the first episode: what follows is a slowly unfolding plot with a large cast of characters, struggling for and against the occupying powers. In Germany, Hitler’s grip on power is loosening as he gets older, and a power struggle is erupting. Similar manoeuvrings are afflicting the Japanese and a very few brave souls are operating a resistance movement – or are they?

What I liked about this was that while the acting is great, there were very few ‘names’. The one person I recognised was Rupert Sewell as a truly sinister American Nazi who has to face up to the horrors of his own philosophy in a personal way.

The nominal plot (trying to track down these mysterious films and deliver them to someone) is less important than the overall atmosphere and the character drama, which involves 1984-style breaking of the human spirit mixed with love and betrayal. Mad Men is a good reference point, not just for the pacing of the show, but also the fact that it was a period drama (same era) which tried to encompass big ideas about culture within a show ‘about’ advertising. Man in the High Castle has nuance: not all the ‘bad guys’ are bad guys. There are a couple of strong female characters, too, though not as many as there could be.

I watched most of it over a weekend. It’s (potentially) Amazon’s Game of Thrones.

Talking of 1962, I went to see Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was very good. Again, great production design and photography. But with my usual fussiness about digital projection and the screening experience, I found myself distracted by focus issues, jittery movements, and weird distortions at the screen edges. And it wasn’t even IMAX!