The Marvelous Mrs Maisel – Amazon Prime

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I’m on record as saying that there’s something lacking in Amazon’s original television offerings. Production quality is high, and the shows are often very, very good (American Gods, Bosch), but I generally don’t feel the warmth and affection for them that I experience with my favourite shows, so they don’t have the unmissable quality that you get with, say, Game of Thrones, or Westworld, or The Good Place. Netflix’s Originals suffer from some of the same malaise.

It’s intangible and possible all in my mind, but it’s something that fascinates me. Take, for example, The Man in the High Castle. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the Philip K Dick source material, and the production design, costume, casting, and so on, were all state of the art. And it was a high concept show, which I love, and told (in the first season at least) a compelling story. It looked fabulous. And yet, I didn’t care about it. I watched it, but I didn’t feel like binging it, and (by season 2) it ended up feeling like going through the motions. A kind of, oh, all right, I’ll watch your stupid show, but don’t expect me to enjoy it.

To be fair to Amazon, I’ve felt this same indifference with offerings on other platforms and networks. I watched and admired Mad Men, but didn’t love it. I was talking with my daughter about it the other day, and I said, in the end, I’m more interested in the history-of-advertising stuff than anything else, and I don’t like or care about any of the characters. I felt the same way about The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. These are all shows with fanatical followings, and any number of people who’ll argue that they’re the Best Show Ever Made.

I’ve got a sentimental streak a mile wide, and I generally have to be rooting for someone. It’s a character flaw, I’m sure.

All of which brings me to The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which I binged over two nights after signing up again for Amazon Prime following the release, finally, of their pretty shoddy AppleTV app. As an app, it’s the most grudgingly produced fuck-you to AppleTV users you can imagine. It follows none of the Apple interface guidelines and doesn’t even use the sound effects that help you know you’re navigating around. It’s a web view, by some accounts, not even a proper app at all.

But that didn’t stop me watching Mrs Maisel, which is a kind of Mad Men of standup comedy from the team behind the Gilmore Girls. It’s a delight of a show, with a host of clever and funny writing, and characters that are a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of those in The Gilmore Girls. The period setting is pristine, and the costume and production design puts you into a kind of hyper-real version of 1950s New York City that pops off the screen like a technicolor Gene Kelly musical.

One of the things I don’t like about Amazon is their tendency to place gratuitous nudity in the pilot episode. This kind of apes the Game of Thrones approach, and signals to the (US) audience that they’re not in Kansas anymore (which is to say, not watching a Network show). So there’s nudity in episode one, which is incongruous and unnecessary. I’m not being a prude. The nudity in Westworld was used to show the dehumanised quality of the robots; in Game of Thrones it stands as a signifier of the gritty realism of the fantasy world in comparison to, say, Lord of the Rings. Here, though? It’s just to make the pilot memorable so it gets upvoted by Prime subscribers… I guess? 

It does also have what I think of as the Amazon Look, by which I mean that it’s hard and bright and sharp, with everything looking freshly minted. It might be an effect of the latest 4K production techniques, and I wonder what it would look like on a 4K TV. Such a thing is not on my horizon, however. I don’t particularly like the Amazon Look, it’s part of the general Amazon Problem, but Mrs Maisel is a terrific show, and well worth a look.

 

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Recent viewings

The-Good-PlaceSeason 2 of The Expanse (finally) dropped on Netflix UK recently, and I struggled my way through it. Never has Lennon’s line from “A Day in the Life” been more germane. I kept watching, had to look, having read the book, but it was really hard not to give up on it because it was rubbish in so many ways.

Viz: 

  • The script was terrible. You can write this shit, but you can’t say it. Apparently. A perennial problem with filmed science fiction. The protomolecule and the asteroid belt and the thrusters and the vac suits. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it seem silly.
  • The acting was awful. Some really good actors can make something of a terrible script, so long as the story was good. But none of these people are convincing. Some are given too much screen time, others not enough.
  • The story was incoherent, fragmented, and slow moving. Nobody has an FTL drive, but they can hop across the solar system in minutes, when it suits them. Game of Thrones teleportation machine suited the plot in the recent Season 7, but in The Expanse, you just ask yourself what slab of rock people are running around on, and forget why.

Norsemen (Netflix), the Norwegian comedy about Vikings is like the old Chelmsford 123 with a bigger set and costume budget and a lot more gore and swearing. I found it okay, because I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly funny. With low expectations and a tolerance for nasty jokes, violence, and juvenile humour, it was watchable. The other members of my family, however, leave the room when it’s on.

Meanwhile, over on the NowTV box, Tin Star (Sky Atlantic) is a vehicle for Tim Roth, who plays a British cop relocating to that Canada for a quieter life. First episode starts off a little Northern Exposure before becoming something akin to the opening beats of Edge of Darkness. But then the whole thing becomes more like Blue Velvet, and any sense of tight plotting of a story arc deliquesces into apparently improvised scenes in which people do things that make no sense without any apparent motivation other than a thanatic* drive towards self destruction. The series had its moments, but I was left with a strong feeling that ten episodes should have been six.

American Vandal (Netflix) as a mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer, only instead of a miscarriage of justice about murder, it’s an act of vandalism: spraying dicks on staff vehicles in a High School staff car park.

Hmm. The problem I find with a lot of American humour is that it descends into scatalogical or sexual references that are probably funny if you’re the kind of person who thinks drawing cocks on whiteboards or exercise books is funny. In other words, this sophisticated parody of a certain style of documentary has a platform problem. It wants us to laugh at the serious treatment of a trivial subject — but it has a serious obsession with the trivial subject and not much else. You can’t really poke fun at these people if you are one of them.

Technically, it’s very good, and it was a good idea, but the dick jokes wear thin, and the point was well made after 3 episodes. There are 8 episodes, and the humour, notwithstanding certain reviews, was not subtle. When a reviewer says “subtle humour”, do they really mean, “not funny”? The twist ending was telegraphed too early on, also.

Finally, I got around to watching season 1 of Happy Valley (Netflix), which is well done but unremittingly grim. Like so much modern TV, it leaves you wishing for some escapism from your escapism, which is why I’m looking forward to The Good Place, which appears on Netflix UK from today.

  • Thanatos = death drive. Eros = sex drive. So Thanatic/erotic?

Roadies (Amazon)

roadies-showtime-series-filming-locationsSo Showtime’s rock ‘n’ roll series about the behind-the-scenes action behind a (fictional) rock band’s tour has been cancelled. This is not surprising, given the poor critical reception the show received, and the poor viewing figures. Half a million people, apparently, which isn’t many – but it says something about the show that this audience, though small, remained steady throughout its run.

Thing is, I read that Tim Goodman review in The Hollywood Reporter, and heard him discussing the show on the TV Talk Machine podcast, which led me to expect Roadies would be much, much worse than it actually is.

The theme here is that, while the world might be ready for a good TV series about rock music, neither Roadies nor HBO’s Vinyl are it. I started watching Vinyl with some excitement, but quickly grew tired of its meandering storylines, its pointless murder sub-plot, and the over-the-top performance by Bobby Cannavale. But the real reason I stopped watching Vinyl was that it was just nasty. It was a nasty show about nasty people and the blame for that goes to the door of Martin Scorsese, who set the tone in the series’ opening episode. The problem with that feature-length pilot was that it used movie-style broad brush strokes. Bobby Cannavale clearly hit rock bottom then and there, and continued to bump along on the bottom in subsequent episodes.

Roadies, on the other hand, was not nasty. It was corny, and mawkishly sentimental, and criminally underused some of its cast, and the blame for all of that belongs to show creator Cameron Crowe. But overall, its heart was in the right place, and I think there were enough good – fun, even – things about the show that it might have been redeemed for a second season. Tim Goodman complained that early episodes underplayed the fictional Staten-House Band, but I think over the series the balance was about right. You could tell that the vision for the show was that the band were supposed to be just offscreen, in much the same way that the President was originally supposed to be in The West Wing. Now, Rob Lowe ended up leaving The West Wing when Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett took over the show – because it wasn’t the show he signed up to do. Roadies is meant to be about the people who usually occupy the background, so I think it was right that we only slowly got to know the band members.

The regular guest star slot for support acts and other musical walk-ons was one of the pleasures of Roadies. Again, support acts get short shrift in the real world, so it was good that the show focused on their struggles behind the scenes, as well as including cameos for the likes of Lindsay Buckingham and John Mellencamp.

My favourite episode was the Lynyrd Skynyrd flashback episode, with a well-cast Nathan Sutton as Ronnie Van Zandt – and a legend about them blowing the Stones off the stage when they supported them. Although it’s not hard to blow the Stones off the stage – they’re a shit live act.

So, it exists. Ten episodes of patchy quality but with enough warmth and heart to get you over the humps. I’ve enjoyed watching it. It’s free for Amazon Prime members, and unjustly maligned to be compared with the execrable Vinyl.

Will I miss it?

Inspired by Twitter’s top philosopher (or top Twitter philosopher) @guylongworth, this post is.

MarmiteA few years ago, I used to think about retiring to France and worried about missing a few things from the UK. Over time, that list of things-I’d-miss has grown shorter and shorter. Packing for our summer visits would often involve compensating for those items in various ways, but things have changed.

Let’s arbitrarily say, fifteen years ago my list of missable concerns (when based in France) would be as follows:

  • The BBC
  • British television in general
  • Decent tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cosmopolitan cuisine
  • The internet
  • Not having to kiss people to say hello and goodbye

I used to consider the BBC a great jewel in the UK’s crown. French television was and remains more or less terrible, and I’d compensate for our absence by programming my PVR to record a shit-load of stuff every time we were away. Our visits, 15 years ago, were usually about two weeks, and our PVR allowed programming up to 14 days in advance.

How have things changed? I barely watch anything on the BBC now – not only that, but I’ve been sickened by its toadying to the current and previous governments, its infiltration by Agents of Murdoch, and its chronic bias towards a right-wing news agenda. As to my TV watching: it’s all on-demand, streaming, virtually none of it live. I barely use my Freeview PVR when I’m in the country and never bother to programme it when I go away. I’ve grown used to the idea that, should I move here permanently, I’d be able to find various ways of compensating (pointing a satellite dish at the right place in the sky; subscribing to Netflix/Amazon Prime; or just hitting the Fnac and buying a boxed set). So the first two items have been crossed off my list.

A decent cup of tea is still an issue. For our now 6-week summer and other visits, we pack a lot of Yorkshire Tea. French supermarkets serve us poorly (fucking Liptons), so future me would still need the odd tea-based care package or dash across the channel to Kent Sainsbury’s. It’s no wonder tea isn’t popular when you can’t buy the proper stuff and the supermarket shelves are groaning with yucky fruit teas and insipid Liptons.

Fish and chips is also still an issue, but it’s just as big an issue in the UK, where the corporate interests have been allowed to dictate fishing policy over decades, meaning that most fish stocks are unsustainable. Of all the things the EU might have achieved on our behalf, controlling over-fishing was crucial. And of course, every attempt was met with a UK media narrative about interference and rights and freedoms, all based on the short-term economic interests of the profit takers and not the people who pay the tax. Still, it remains the case that if you want decent fish and chips in France, you have to roll your own. I’m unlikely to bother much, and I’ve resigned myself to giving it up like the bad habit it is, or eating friture de (farmed) carpe and liking it.

Cosmopolitan cuisine. An odd thing to say about France, but their strong gastronomic tradition means that, beyond (usually poor) Italian food, you can’t really get international foods here – certainly not a good curry or other Asian food. Maybe in Paris, but we’re a long way from there. Considering the French history in Vietnam, I’m especially surprised that there aren’t Vietnamese restaurants on every hight street. You can, in the bigger cities, find North African and sometimes Spanish food, but France is quite unlike Germany, the Netherlands, and other European centres. I don’t particularly like the French style of food (summed up as: fatty meat with a fancy sauce), so I do miss the options. I’m so often disappointed in the French take on pizza that I’m better off making my own. I think jars of curry paste and other oriental ingredients would have to go on the care package list, along with tea.

The next item on my old list, the internet, has been less of an issue since the Three network introduced their Feel at Home scheme, which gives you your UK contract even while roaming, in selected countries – including France. The speeds are throttled, but it’s okay for Twitter and (usually) Instagram. This summer, I’ve gone even further and (expensively) hired a home wifi dongle that allows you to share a 3G+ (or 4G) connection amongst up to 10 devices. This gives us the level of 3G we’d get if we had bought French sims, as we did for a couple of years. It’s only 3GB a day (so-called “unlimited”) before it gets throttled, but the speed is okay. And when I move here, I guess we’ll get an actual hard-wired internet connection.

Over the years, the list of food items I find it hard to do without has grown. English cheddar cheese is hard to find in France (so much for the single fucking market) and irreplaceable for certain things. The French make a lot of cheese, but they do nothing to match the sharp tangy taste and meltability of cheddar. French sausages tend to be too salty and nowhere near as tasty as the best British sausages. And good bacon is similarly hard to find. All of these things get added to the care package/cross channel Saino’s list. Actually, there’s a small business there: the potential to disrupt the high prices charged by supermarkets for the likes of Marmite and baked beans.

Mainly, these days, when we spend 6 weeks in France, I miss having a useable oven in my kitchen. I do most things on the barbecue and the stove top, but if/when I retire here, I’ll have to get a proper, modern oven to replace this propane-fuelled piece of shit that tends to leave things raw on top and burnt on the bottom.

Culturally, the biggest problem I have over here is that you can’t just say hello to people: you have to kiss-kiss or shake hands both to say hello and goodbye, even when on a short visit. It’s lucky I’m not a germophobe, but it’s enough to turn you into one. At the wedding last week, I was forced to kiss-kiss and shake hands with an astonishing number of people I’d never met (and will never meet again), and leaving a social occasion can take half an hour, depending on the number involved. Just once, I’d like to be able to enter a room, wave my hand, and be done.

As to the rest of British culture: the small (island)-mindedness; the celebration of ignorance; the dominance of the right wing press; the monarchy; the dominance of media and arts by public school educated Oxford/Cambridge graduates; the arrogance; the sense of entitlement; the delusions of grandeur; I’ll miss none of it.

Star Trek 2017 – graphic designers in space?

StargateUniverseCBS have announced that they’re launching a new Star Trek TV series in 2017, to be screened (in the USA) on their streaming service All Access. I wonder what that means for the UK? Amazon? Netflix? A CBS app on Apple TV? Sky Atlantic? I’d be surprised if any of the terrestrial broadcasters bothered with it. Anyway, people are already speculating about what form the new series would take, and in what era. On a ship with a crew? A space station with a crew? Would it be in the JJ Abrams reboot universe? It’s unlikely to tie too closely with the recent films – if only because the rights to the film franchise is jointly owned by Paramount and CBS.

This is something I’ve thought about before. The last Trek series that was decent, even if only in parts, was Voyager, and that was mostly for a couple of years at the beginning of Seven of Nine’s residency. Even Voyager had too many silly characters. Enterprise was disappointing, partly because it seemed like too safe a choice, and partly because they allowed it to be derailed by the 9/11-style attack on Earth and all the subsequent War on Terror nonsense. So the show died, in my mind, before it could really get going. Prior to all that, I never much liked Deep Space Nine, although some people do swear by it. I expect if I saw it again now it would be better than I remember. Apart from those Ferengi plots. And Odo.

TNG was also a mixed bag. Better after its creator died, but like most things probably overstaying its welcome.

My ideal new Star Trek has already been made: it was called Stargate Universe, and like the Original Series of Trek, it was cancelled (too soon, I say). Others might argue that Firefly had something of the original Trek frontier spirit, but that too was cancelled too soon.

Here are some of my ideas for the new Trek.

  • Game of Trek – diplomats vying for supremacy, the Federation falling apart, intrigue, murder, a cast of thousands. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Fleet Academy – a revolving cohort of young people on training missions that, like the holodeck of old, always go wrong. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Parallels – life is tough in the Mirror Universe. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Frozen – a character frozen in the OS era wakes up in his/her far future. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Bios – the crew of a ground station on a planet with a hostile biological environment but valuable secrets. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Indistinguishable – the adventures of a small but dedicated group of researchers in the Advanced Technology Unit – creating and testing new, experimental tech that is indistinguishable from magic. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Edge of Forever – time portal Trek. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Starfleet Weapons Inspectors – trying to prevent the next devastating intergalactic conflct. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Graphic Designers in Space – needs no explanation
  • Star Trek Dreamscape – the whole thing takes place in one of Chakotay’s vision quests. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan bajoran entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Refugee – a small crew on a broken down ship try to survive in a hostile universe, and try to avoid the attentions of the Federation (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Derelict – a crew of “wreck divers” discover an abandoned alien ship with technology so advanced they barely understand it – and attempt to fly it home (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.

Red Oaks (Amazon Originals)

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 18.39.46It took me a couple of episodes to work out what Red Oaks was. It follows the half-hour comedy format (each episode is around 24 minutes, in fact), and it’s a single-camera show, no laughter track. If it’s like anything that’s been on TV recently, that would be Suburgatory, the sitcom about a teenager and her father who move from New York City to the suburbs. But Red Oaks is set in the 80s. David is a (communting) NYU student spending the summer working at the local country club, hoping to save enough to be able to afford to live in the City when he returns to class next semester.

So it’s a fish-out-of-water story, of a regular middle class kid rubbing shoulders with the wealthy. And it’s a coming-of-age story, about a young man finding himself (a bit like The Graduate). It had the pacing of a longer show, like something programmed for 40+ minutes, but no, every episode was short and sweet. But I kept returning to that question: why set it in the 80s?

Of course, there are lots of reasons. The 80s was when the steady post-war improvement in middle class standards of living stopped. When Americans (and Britons) started living on credit and illusions. When the disparity of wealth between the gamblers and hedge-fund managers and everyone else began to bite. So it’s a snapshot of a time when things were starting to go wrong with society, when the first deep cuts started to be felt, but at the same time the smoke and mirrors of what was then called Reaganomics was still fooling a lot of people.

Culturally, the 80s were also the last great decade for the music industry, when new sounds and new technologies meant that the industry was buoyant, and synth pop was in its pomp. And (here’s the point) the 80s was the heyday of a certain kind of movie: which had its greatest expression and created its most lasting impression in the days before the studios started to sink everything into superhero blockbuster movies.

Meatballs, Diner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing, The Unbelievable Truth, Trust: a decade, more or less, of coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water moves. Ensemble casts, great writing, memorable performances, no CGI.

And that’s when I realised what Red Oaks is. It’s an extended 80s coming of age movie. Or even two movies, one and a sequel. And it has that pedigree. Episode 5 is directed by Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust). Two other episodes are directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless), who has also been involved in directing an episode of the aforementioned Suburgatory, which brings us full circle. The cast of Red Oaks is equally special. It has Paul Reiser in it, who not only has successful sitcom pedigree (Mad About You) but was also in one of my favourite 80s movies: Diner. And the lead character’s mother is played by none other than Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s sister before she was in Dirty Dancing), who is unrecognisable from her 80s pre-rhinoplasty self. The strong cast is rounded out by Richard Kind and Ennis Esmer, who looks so much like British comedian Adam Buxton that it freaketh me out.

So you’ve got your stoners parking cars, your 80s-hot girls on lifeguard and aerobics duty, you’ve got your teen movie parents, and you’ve got a (male, natch) protagonist wrestling with whether to follow his father’s boring career and marry his beautiful but unambitious girlfriend or get into something more risky with the arty and apparently spoiled daughter of the richest man in the country club. Nothing new there, but of course it’s something great that we haven’t seen for a long, long time, since Hollywood apparently forgot how to make movies like this without appalling lapses of taste.

Significantly, it was from the Hal Hartley episode on that I was hooked. I’d already decided I was going to watch it through to the end when the director’s name appeared at the end of the credits. While it does at times seem like an extended excuse for yet another 80s music soundtrack, it’s warm, funny, and good company while it lasts. And while I’m not a fan of much 80s music, it really does seem that the music of that decade was made to go on soundtracks.

Recommended!

Bosch – review

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 16.43.01

Readers of the books will recognise this place

Following my last entry (and a prompt from my sister), I finally got around to watching Amazon’s 10-part TV series based on Michael Connelly’s series of novels about Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch.

Season 2 is reviewed here.

Season 3 is reviewed here.

Season 4 review.

I have read the vast majority of these books – acquired through various means and on various platforms, so I was familiar with the character and the style of storytelling. My immediate impression on watching the first episode (which I think you can watch for free even if you haven’t got Prime?) was that the producers of the show (which include Connelly in an exec post) have got things just right. No easy thing.

Now, when it comes to genre fiction like this, it can be difficult to explain to a non-reader/viewer what makes something like Bosch (in print and on screen) worth checking out when at face value this might appear like ‘just another’ cop show.

  • Item: Bosch is something of a lone wolf, a maverick, who is frequently in conflict with his superiors and colleagues.
  • Item: But he gets results.
  • Item: He is estranged from his family and often lets his daughter down by being absent/late for promised visits.
  • Item: But there is deep love there.
  • Item: He is obsessive, consumed by his work, and works odd hours.
  • Item: But he has a deep empathy for the victims of crime.
  • Item: He’s off the case, back on the case, suspended, etc.
  • Item: But he keeps working the case anyway.

And so it goes. It’s hard not to point at that list of cop show clichés and infer that it’s just another genre show. And yet, to use another cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. First of all, the novels, police procedurals, are written with an attention to detail and  a respect for accuracy that brings them to life. Bosch as a character develops over time and has a convincing set of motivations based on his back story, and the author manages to put him in situations that resonate with the back story without coming across as too contrived.

Second of all, the TV show uses the novels creatively. Rather than simply adapting Novel A into episode A (or sequence of episodes based on A), the series uses all of the novels to fill in the background experience and then combines three of them to create a slow-burn series with exquisite pacing. (The three are The Concrete Blonde, City of Bones, and Echo Park.) Back in the day, ITV adapted the Inspector Morse novels into 2-hour TV movies, but Bosch goes further, spreading the story over 10 episodes in a way that creates a gripping plot that unfolds convincingly, at the kind of pace that seems honest and true. Of course Bosch as a working detective is involved in more than one case at a time. So he’s dealing with a civil court action in the aftermath of one case; a cold case prompted by the discovery of the bones of a murdered child in the hills above Los Angeles; and a serial killer who becomes obsessed with Bosch and starts to commit crimes designed to communicate with the hero detective.

In addition to the excellent characterisation, pacing, storytelling, and interweaved narratives, the cinematography is superb. Ever since watching the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, I’ve been alert to the different ways in which the city is portrayed, and (I’m pretty sure thanks to the author himself), the representation of Los Angeles in this film is really special. It’s a city you’ve seen a million times (in True Detective season 2, for example), but this show makes it seem fresh.

Titus Welliver in the title role couldn’t be more perfectly cast, and the supporting actors also manage to bring characters to life from the page. My one quibble might be that Bosch’s partner Edgar (Jamie Hector) comes across more sympathetically than he does in the novels, in which he’s a bit of a jobsworth whose real passion is his side job as a real estate agent.

The last thing I’d say is that the episode length is just perfect. We’ve grown used, in recent years, to these cable shows with 1-hour episodes, and they can seem really epic. Bosch offers episodes of a more traditional 40-something minutes, and it really works. Just like in the good old days of binge watching DVD boxed sets of big network shows, you find yourself slightly disappointed every time an episode ends, and (knowing that the next one is just another 40-something minutes), you dive right into the next. So I watched the ten episodes in two sittings, five episodes per.

And that’s it. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s must-see. Better than just about anything else on at the moment and better than most other cop shows. Period. Is it better than Justified? Yes. Is it better than The Wire? Don’t ask me: I hated The Wire. The true question is, is Bosch worth getting Amazon Prime to see? Which is harder. It’s just one series. I’d definitely get it on DVD if I could. If you already buy a lot from Amazon, Prime is probably worth it for the next-day delivery.

Too Much TV?

3ef0306f5741cfb33bfe3b16874aaf8f-jordskottThe idea that we might be reaching peak TV is currently in the air. John Landgraf, who is CEO of FX said as much during the recent TV Critics Association summer press tour:

“By our best current estimates, we believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400 series mark. I’m also asked when and if this proliferation of scripted series will level out and/or even decline. But just when I think we are at that point, another network jumps into the scripted game. I, long ago, lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series, as I know you do, even though we all do this for a living professionally; but, this year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. And as you critics know better than anyone in America, this is simply too much television.”

So here we are. Far from having too much television over the summer, I had not enough. Our French TV has stopped working (the aerial has somehow become disconnected, long story). So when I got back to the UK and my Now TV box, I was eager to catch up on stuff I’d missed. For the record, the only TV I managed to watch over the summer were two series I was keen enough to download episodes from iTunes: Humans, and Jordskott, the latter of which was really for my obsessed daughters more than myself.

While I was away, I missed the final three episodes of True Detective season 2, and there were only two left on the box when I returned. But, although I was kinda enjoying it, and I watched episode 7 just before it disappeared, I didn’t pay much attention. It just wasn’t good enough for me to worry too much about it. So I doubt I’ll watch the finale.

In any other era, True Detective would have remained Must See TV, but now there’s always something else to watch instead. And that’s the point about Too Much TV. In times gone by, I would complain that TV Networks were too ruthless to give programmes a chance to grow an audience. We all lamented the passing of Firefly, which was probably killed by its own fans downloading episodes rather than watching them live. Now we live in a different era: a lot of whats out there is on download services like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, and some shows are dumped online wholesale, primed for binge watching. But these days, it’s the audience who are forced into the position of being ruthless. You watch an episode of something, a single episode, and if it doesn’t grab you, you give it up: because there’s always something else to watch. If something is being raved about, like Sense8, you might give it more time (I did), but you’ll still give up after three, four episodes (I did).

Since coming home I’ve checked out a number of new things. (James Patterson’s) Zoo was always going to be stupid and ridiculous, but would it have been so bad it’s good? No. It’s just silly, and I’m not even willing to hate-watch it. I’ve watched a bit of The Strain, but I’m not sure if I’ll see it through. I also watched an episode of Backstrom, which I quite liked, but it has already been cancelled, so what’s the point? Aquarius, a fictionalised account of the Manson murders was alright for one episode, but I’m already a bit bored of it. I watched a bit of The Fixer, but that was rubbish (had the geezer from the equally rubbish The Last Ship in it). I’ve seen a couple of Agent Carters, but (as with all superhero fare), bof. I tried Dag, but was underwhelmed (I rarely find modern comedies funny).

And now we get to the point. In this era, it’s not good enough to be good enough. Decent stuff just drowns in the flood. There is so much excellent TV that nobody needs to watch the merely adequate. And the chance that you’ll come across something good/excellent is increasingly unlikely. I’ve been on Amazon Prime for a couple of months now, and I’ve watched nothing. The big network shows of the recent past like the various CSI: franchises are slick, competent, entertaining, but no match for Game of Thrones or (if that’s your thing) The Wire etc. And they all seem to go on for too long – or have long ago passed the ends of their natural lives. Zombie shows, which can’t compete with The Walking Dead. 24 episodes? Really? To bother with a big network show you have to love it – notwithstanding its need to appeal to a broad audience. So I find the shows of this kind that I still watch have something about them that makes them slightly odd or quirky, an acquired taste. I still love Person of Interest, for my own reasons, and I watched both seasons of The Blacklist because, well, James Spader, and it still seems fresh. But there are vast swathes of TV I don’t even glance at these days. The BBC and ITV have nothing for me.

Into this world of too much TV, Apple are about to release a new TV product. Will it make good stuff easier to find? Because that’s what is urgently needed. A discovery feature. But can Apple deliver? As far as I’m concerned, they didn’t manage it with Music, so I’m skeptical that they could do it with TV.

Television’s Golden Age

THS_facadeBack when I was in academia, my Film Studies chum Mark Jancovich and I would discuss how it was that television these days was so much better than the movies. And here we are twenty years later, and almost everyone has caught up with that idea. The movies are a zombified example of stuck culture: remakes and reboots and endless comic book films and cynical exploitation of a tiny constituency’s complete lack of critical faculties. Star Wars XVII here we come.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been experiencing the joy of watching my teenage children watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We’re up to Season 6, and last night was an orgy of delighted squeals as they watched ‘Once More, With Feeling’, the one with all the songs. The older one remembers hearing the theme songs from upstairs in bed when she was little; the younger one has been gorging herself on spoilers, via a friend who has already seen it. Watching that episode, you have to wonder how Joss Whedon ended up reduced to directing yawn-inducing interminable, plotless, superhero movies. Perhaps we’re in some crazy parallel universe, the Vamp Willow one.

Buffy ran from 1997 to 2003, which makes it a 90s show, though it refuses to confine itself to a single decade. It was in the 90s that Mark and I agreed that television is better than the movies. Back then, we based our opinions on such fare as The X Files (1993 to 2002); Homicide: Life on the Street (1993 to 1999); NYPD Blue (1993 to 2005); ER (1994 to 2009); Northern Exposure (1990 to 1995); and so on.

If these shows had parents, they were shows that started in the 80s, paving the way for the greatness to come: Hill Street Blues (1981 to 1987); St. Elsewhere (1982 to 1988); thirtysomething (1987 to 1991); and Seinfeld (1989 to 1998).

Anyway, all that preamble was simply leading up to this. People often ask me, what’s your favourite TV show? And I never really have much of an answer because I love so much that is on television at the moment. I love The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones, and Justified… But it was sitting down to watch Buffy with my kids that reminded me: christ, but that show was brilliant. So much good writing, episode after episode of brilliant performances, and a real emotional punch that showed it had heart. I think Sarah Michelle Gellar is brilliant in it, and the supporting cast (apart from Riley) are all superb. Buffy showed what television was capable of: that it could transcend the narrow confines of genre and become part of the vernacular. My idea of true happiness: watching my kids watching Buffy.

 

Tunnel*

Clémence Poésy

Clémence Poésy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a scene in episode seven of Tunnel, the Anglo-French version of the Danish-Swedish cop drama The Bridge (Bron/Broen – keep up at the back) in which the British cop (played by Stephen Dillane) expresses disbelief that the public would do such a thing as vote on the question of which of two children, potential victims of the series’ serial killer, should survive. But of course, vote they do.

This scene made me think about the themes of the show, and whether it worked as well in French/English as it did in Danish/Swedish. Does the tunnel work as a metaphor in the same way as the bridge, for example?

It was an obvious move, I guess, though any border crossing between any two European countries could have been used, without the clunky bridging metaphor. A bridge spans a gap and offers easier communication and potential peace, love, and understanding. The American version goes straight for a bridge: easy, and much better television. A tunnel, on the other hand, hides under the ground/sea and is a bit of a pain in the backside to use, and instead stands for hidden things, guerrilla warfare, ignorance, being in the dark, struggling towards the light. It’s also cramped and not very visual when it comes to the opening body-cut-in-half sequence.

Clémence Poésy plays Elise as a virtual clone of the Swedish version (Saga), whereas Dillane seems to channel Michael Kitchen in Foyles War. This makes him seem more sympathetic and a better cop, though he makes similar mistakes to his Danish counterpart in the bedroom department. His wife is played by Guinevere from Merlin, who doesn’t look right in 21st century clothing.

The key villain, apart from the actual villain, is a journalist, as he was in the original. This journalist is a tabloid hack, who aims his work at the lowest common denominator, showing nothing but contempt for both his material and his audience.

All of which made me think. There’s no getting away from the fact that this Canal+ co-production is made in conjunction with Shine, which is of course part of News Corp/Fox, and headed by one of the Murdochs.

So. Contempt for the audience? Tabloid journalist as the lowest of the low? The public being asked to vote on something, as in some ghastly reality show? Are these mixed messages, or is there one big one?

Who is to blame, after all, for the low blows of tabloid stories? Why are journalists so underhand, nasty, and venal? While I was watching this, in France, a journalist supposedly disguised himself as a priest in order to gain access to Michael Schumacher’s hospital room. Whose hunger do they feed? Throughout the programme, the killer manipulates both the cops and the general population into acting out on his behalf. He directs anger at capitalist enterprises and the tendency of those in the private profit sector to put profit before people. A laudable message, of course, except in this case it is portrayed as coming from an unhinged fanatic. And those who do his bidding are portrayed as a pitchfork-wielding, molotov cocktail-throwing mob.

Ah, the crowd and the mob. While our killer critiques capitalists, they’re only ever portrayed as doing what comes naturally. Sure, they treat people badly, but only because the public demands low, low prices. Which we do. So when the mob attacks the sportswear shop that sells the shoes made in far-Eastern sweatshops, who is being critiqued?

I think the answer, as always, is the mob. It’s the mob who buys tabloids and swallows their lies; it’s the mob who walks around in cheap clothing made in sweatshops; it’s the mob that habitually votes in trashy reality shows. It’s the mob that demands the Leveson Inquiry, and the mob, on Twitter, who goes baying after stories, real and fake, bullying people into apologies, or worse. (I’ve noticed a new trolling tendency, on the Twitter. Some ass posts a link or a photo, and urges Twitter to “do your thing.”) Giving the people what they want is hardly noble, but we are all implicated. It’s a right wing message: capitalism may be horrible, but we are all horrible together, so shut up. The classic capitalist response to any activist is to fixate on some minor hypocrisy: you shop at Amazon, or you drink at Starbucks, you wear clothes made in sweatshops, so shut up.

So, is the tunnel an apt metaphor? We are deep underground, helpless, out of control, and struggling towards the light. We live in ignorance and struggle to know truths that are true and uncompromised by hypocrisy and lies. In episode eight, the cops are arguing about the relative lack of CCTV in France. One of the French cops says, “But, civil liberties…” and the English cop shouts, “FUCK CIVIL LIBERTIES!”

Yes, because without the cameras, we are all in the tunnel. Fuck Civil Liberties could be the motto of most cop shows, right?

It’s a good adaptation, though bleak and depressing, as these things tend to be.

*Tunnel is what it says on the box for the French boxed set. In Britain, it’s known as The Tunnel, I know. My version was the French one, which had English on the soundtrack, but only had French subtitles – none in English for the French sections. If I hadn’t already seen The Bridge, I might have been lost.

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