Eels

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

I currently subscribe to:

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

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

It’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peak TV is hard work.

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Apple’s TV Service: Has Peak TV Peaked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netshits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2

annihilation-ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altered Carbon

Altered-Carbon-2

Is it time to talk about preposterously unrealistic punching? Because there’s an awful lot of it in Altered Carbon, a show that seems to revel in fight set pieces to the point of tedium. In each of these fight scenes, it appears to me that every single punch and body blow would be enough to kill, or render unconscious, the punchee, and break several metacarpals in the puncher.

This Netflix show has been trumpeted as a possible multi-year juggernaut ratings winner, Game of Thrones style, not that Netflix ever talk about viewing figures. If they make another series, and another, I guess we’ll know. It’s been well-reviewed: by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, for example, and it’s one of a string of high profile genre shows that seem to be taking the TV world by storm. We’ve moved on from Cops and Docs and Lawyers to time travellers, space pirates, and cyberpunks.

I should be pleased. And I am, to an extent. Travelers is a great little show, full of human warmth and twisty plot lines; Star Trek Disco is a fairly triumphant return for Trek, give or take the last two episodes of the season; and Stranger Things is interdimensional MK Ultra-tastic fun. On the other hand, The Expanse, while glossy, is beset by plot pacing issues and dreadful dialogue; and the returning X-Files is mostly pathetic and confused.

So what of Altered Carbon? The premise is straight out of 90s cyberpunk: people are more or less immortal, if they can afford to keep growing new bodies, and their memories and personality are stored in “stacks”, solid state drives essentially, that live in a strangely vulnerable position in the back of their heads. The series is based on a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, which I haven’t knowingly read, but the premise is familiar enough to someone who’s been reading SF for as many decades as I have.

It’s a dystopian, Blade Runner-alike world, and the series production design is a straight rip-off of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic film. Furthermore, the jargon bandied about by the characters is similar enough to sound familiar: stacks and sleeves vs. replicants and skinjobs. But whereas the extreme fights in Blade Runner were a result of the replicants’ exceptional strength, the bodies fighting in Altered Carbon are supposed to be human (though one of them gets a bionic arm).

Anyway, super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is woken from a 200-year hibernation by a rich immortal in order to investigate the murder of one of his skinjobs sleeves. Turns out, he’s been dropped into a cop’s body, and this cop’s partner Kristin Ortega wants him back. There’s your set up, and there are other interesting elements: a hotel run by an AI that thinks it’s Edgar Allen Poe; interrogations taking place in virtual space; naked clone fights like something out of an 18-rated Matrix movie.

But the parts are greater than the sum, and I did not ever warm to this show. For a start, I find it hard to understand who benefits from this dystopia. I mean, it’s a horrible fucking world, and the rich people live in the sky above the weather and all, but they don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, a minor point, but the main thing I couldn’t get past was all the fighting. It seemed as if there were about three set pieces per episode, and though lots of minor assailants get their stacks blown out, and our main characters seem to get horribly beaten up on a regular basis, their powers of recovery are so remarkable that it seems they can bounce back from anything without any ill effects in a day or so.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to get uptight about unrealistic recovery times in a show about people who live in floating houses with their personalities stored in hard drives, but it just felt like there was nothing at stake.

So, my request to Netflix is as follows: if you want a Game of Thrones style fantasy drama to hook and enthrall people, consider throwing some money at some Tim Powers properties. Something about romantic poets beset by vampires, perhaps?

Tappety tap tap – How The X-Files disappointed us all and how it’s all somehow Elon Musk’s fault

It’s no surprise to anyone that the 2018 season (11 of that parish) of The X Files started badly. What the producers should have done, if they really wanted to make more, was to throw away the unresolved story arc from the 2016 edition (Season 10), write it off as a bad job, and just give us a few monster-of-the-week episodes of a similar quality to Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster, which was the only decent one to come out of the revival.

Instead, they gave us Scully in a hospital repeating, ‘We have to find my son,’ and Mulder being irrational and Cigarette Smoking Man saying, ‘Mind if I smoke?’ And a lot of monologuing and frowny faces. Oh, and either an alien pathogen that will wipe us all out or a secret space programme: those are your choices. Important to remember that.

Anyway, it’s all bollocks, and its a shame to see that pioneering beacon of the Platinum Age of TV – the TV series that led some of us in the 90s to argue that, “TV is now better than the movies,” and to really mean it – reduced to the level of a bedroom farce. And please: turn the bloody lights on.

Nowadays, I even wonder why Netflix bothers to put movies on its channel. They dropped The Cloverfield Experiment this week without much fanfare. Judging from the reviews, it’s about as good as The X-Files, and I’ve no interest in watching it or the hundreds of other Netflix Original movies on the service. I took up an offer of a year of Sky Movies on NowTV, and I can barely find anything worth watching on it that was made after 1975.

Which brings me to Elon Musk and why this is all, probably, his fault. Musk, lest we forget, gave us PayPal, which is literally the worst way to exchange goods and services for money. He’s also working both sides of the extinction/space programme equation with his claim to be saving the world with electric vehicles/batteries and also ensuring humanity’s survival when that fails by enabling a Mars colony.

But both of those things, like a bad X-Files episode, are dangerous fiction. The idea that you can save the planet by (a) building and selling big, ugly luxury cars to rich people and (b) increasing the use of current battery tech is a joke. The cheapest Model X in the UK is over £86,000, for which money you could buy, oh, three or four second-hand Priuses. And lithium-ion batteries require the extraction of finite resources from the earth: not just lithium, but cobalt and nickel too. The price of cobalt has increased from just over $20 per tonne in 2015 to around $60 per tonne in 2017. As the dollar signs spin in the eyes of mining company executives, there is certain to be a rush to extract these minerals cheaply. Last time I looked, the mining industry did not have the best environmental record. They’re not averse to blowing up mountains and pumping filth into the water supply. Increased demand for Lithium means that a smaller proportion is extracted from brine using solar energy and more is extracted from hard rock.

Which is before you get to the dead animal skin seats and farting occupant. If Elon Musk was building buses and mag-lev trains, I might view him more positively (I’m aware of the Boring Company, but private cars are the problem, not the solution).

Which brings us to Space-X and its rocket programme. I’m not one to argue that this is a waste of resources which could be used to alleviate human suffering. We can do both, just as we could have done both in the 1960s. Governments can always do more, and human suffering results from ideology, not scarcity.

No, my problem with Space-X is that it is both a pointless project with no chance of success and an elitist scheme for the rich to indulge their Ayn Rand fantasies about building a citadel to ride out the apocalypse. The notion that there can be an offworld human outpost to survive a catastrophe here on earth is as insidious as the idea of an afterlife. Both give believers permission to let this world, here and now, go to shit. Space-X is going to be used to launch spy satellites, woop de do.

Furthermore, I am sick to the back teeth of how our culture makes heroes out of billionaires. The worship of ‘successful’ people is another fiction, ignoring the factors that really enable them to get where they are. They’d be nothing without the society that supports them. The infrastructure, the education system, the facilities that their companies depend on to exist. I mean, did Musk build the internet? No, that was built with taxpayers’ money. The billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from which Musk’s companies benefit are rarely spoken of. It’s the welfare state, same as it ever was, for billionaires.

And as for the David Bowie music and the “Don’t Panic” cuteness, I’m not buying it. I was reminded of a Baudrillard quote last night, watching the launch: Behind these smiling eyes, there lurks a cold ferocious beast that’s fearfully stalking us.

Finally, yes, I did watch the launch, and the two-booster touchdown, but as the Space X presenter said everything was, “Awesome,” I couldn’t help thinking we were a long way from James Burke and the Apollo landings.

Travelers and Manhunt: Unabomber – reviews

Travelers Season 2 (Netflix)

travelers-netflix-eric-mccormack-castI really enjoyed this “mid-price Canadian science fiction” series when I watched its first season on Netflix. You start out with low expectations, thinking it’s going to be just another one of those high concept shows that starts out okay, goes downhill, and/or gets cancelled quite quickly. But it turned out to be much stronger than I thought.

The basic (low budget) premise is that the future is fucked, so that ‘travelers’ from there are being sent back (in teams of five) to try to fix things. They transfer their consciousnesses* into the bodies of people who are about to die, take over their lives, connect with the rest of their team, and carry out missions. So far so ordinary. Where this show shines is with its cast (including Eric McCormack and MacKenzie Porter), and its emotionally intelligent writing, which is not afraid to spend time on the consequences that ensue when a different personality takes over a body. An old man in the body of an athletic teenager, for example. Or a highly intelligent medic in the body of a mentally disabled woman.

Where a lesser show might simply want to focus on the mission-of-the-week and forget the messy personal stuff, this show knows that in the end, that’s where the best stories are going to be. Like breaking Protocol Four, for example, which is don’t change the future by making a baby using your new host body.

So to Season 2, which picks up the conflict with things going wrong, the future changing, and the team’s Historian becoming less and less able to predict the present. This season takes time to build up relationships between some of the travelers and their host families, leading to some powerful episodes that have a real emotional impact — and a huge payoff at the season’s end.

I binged it over a few days: so good.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix)

1998_unabomber_01Not to be confused with Netflix’s Mindhunter, this show is a dramatisation of another true FBI story involving profiling: the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski carried out a decades long bombing campaign, targeting academics and others involved in modern technology, which he considered to be the root cause of all of society’s problems.

Kaczynski was caught thanks to what came to be known as forensic linguistics, which is to say, he had a very distinctive and somewhat archaic writing style, which his own brother recognised when the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in The Washington Post.

This is a fascinating TV dramatisation, which uses a multi-threaded narrative to take us through events before and after Kaczynski’s capture, and a number of flashbacks to the bomber’s childhood and the years leading up to his retreat from modern life. The show manages to find sympathy for the man, who was one of those child prodigies who never quite fulfilled his potential. In fact, I’d say he’s the poster child for the dangers of pushing kids out of their peer group. He skipped a grade in school (jumping from 6th to 8th), thus leaving behind his age mates and becoming a freak who ended up isolated and angry. There’s a fanciful scene in which he delivers a boobytrapped classroom note to someone who had hurt his feelings. Then he went to Harvard at 16, where he got pulled into a brutal programme of psychological experiments that led to him being personally abused and belittled on a weekly basis.

The upshot was a man who failed to fulfil his early promise, still got his PhD, but then gave up teaching after two years and went to live in the wilds of Montana in a mathematically perfect log cabin. His bombing campaign ensued.

Meanwhile, modern technology has brought us the 45th President of the United States.

Great series, well worth a watch.

*That’s a lot of esses