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?

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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?

Britannia: the silly isles?

Contains spoilers for Britannia: the whole series.

Britannia-932x1398Britannia, a co-production between Sky in the UK and Amazon for the rest of the world, dropped onto NowTV at the end of last week, and I’ve, um, watched the whole lot.

Which must mean it’s good, right? Because in the Platinum Age, nobody needs to sit through mediocre TV. So, yes, spoilers: it’s watchable, enjoyable, sometimes too gruesome, but interesting enough to sustain my interest over its run.

Inevitably, even if it wasn’t trying to be, it’s going to be unfavourably compared to Game of Thrones, which is the last half decade’s flagship show, the one to which all others must aspire. Game of Thrones is big budget, epic, painted on a vast canvas, with a huge cast of characters and a multitude of storylines. So can Sky money and Amazon money compete? Not really. Let’s get that over with: Britannia is faster-paced, not afraid to skip “four moons” to get to the point, and in terms of locations seems to offer a limited range, with some characters seemingly sitting around in tents, others running around in the same woods, and a few others hanging around in some unlikely looking gorges. And, oh, Stonehenge, or something very like it. Filmed in the Czech Republic and Wales, it manages to look quite expensive, but without anywhere near the expansive geography and world-building of Game of Thrones, and without giving you a sense of where places were in relation to each other, or how long it might take to travel between them. And no dragons.

The Romans are in Britain. Led by David Morrissey, who plays Aulus Plautius who historically did lead the (second) Roman invasion in 43 CE, and who became Britain’s first governor. He faces the divided tribes of Britain, led by King Pellanor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and hate-filled Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia of the Regni. The Cantii were historically based in Kent (hence Canterbury, I guess), while the Regni were next door in Sussex. Alongside these two warring monarchs are the druids, led by mystic in makeup Mackenzie Crook, who plays Veran. Presumably we’re supposed to believe the druids are all over the place, though if it is meant to be Stonehenge, then that’s Wiltshire, and the druids’ last stand against the Romans was in Anglesey.

So that’s the historical geography, westward from Kent to Wales, which is after all the route of Watling Street: all the way from Canterbury to Bangor. But this isn’t really a history, nor meant to be enjoyed as a historically accurate drama. Instead, it contains mystics and magic, prophecies and hallucinogenic visions; and at least one character who straddles the land of the living and the dead. The dialogue is salty, with enough modern idiom to make it clear that the showrunners (the Butterworths et al) don’t give a shit about accuracy. You just don’t get much of a sense that these people are spread all over Britain. It sometimes feels as if the Romans set up camp on the Medway and that was it.

It all begins with an interrupted naming ceremony, as a tweenage girl, Cait, is about to choose her adult name. She’s already broken a taboo by speaking to her badass sister,  and then the Romans arrive, and brutally kill or enslave almost everybody in the village. Cait’s captured father is blinded by one of the Romans, which leads all and sundry to freak out when they hear of a prophecy about a blind man and his small daughter. Cait herself knocks around in various places, but usually ends up teaming up, like Arya Stark, with a grumpy hypno-mystic, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who variously tries to drop her, kill her, and protect her.

Meanwhile, Pellanor (who’s name is lifted from the Arthurian legends) is in conflict about how to deal with the Romans with his two kids, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Phelan, and Kelly Reilly as Kerra – who is supposed to have some Roman blood. There are complicated marriages, jealousies, spies, deserters, sieges, and gruesome, gruesome death ceremonies, with way too much gory detail.

Rhind-Tutt doesn’t have much to do at first except act as go-between for his sister and father, but it’s when he goes off on his own quest with captive tatooed bride Ania that he comes into his own, producing an entertaining turn, full of sardonic invective reminiscent of The Hound in Game of Thrones.

There is a lot of pointless running around in the woods, and a great deal of splashing around in chilly-looking water, and it does sag a little in the middle of its nine episodes, but the final three are great, and the ending of the siege in the season finale is spectacular. What the show needed was a tenth episode, Thrones-style, to set people up for what comes next, but instead a little of that was tacked onto the end. As I said, it doesn’t have the pacing quite right, but it is bonkers enough to win my approval.

Television triumphs of 2017

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With Disney’s acquisition of (bits of) Fox, we may be entering a period of consolidation in the TV industry and may indeed have reached Peak TV. Tim Goodman of THR reckons there maybe over 500 scripted series this year. This would seem to be an unsustainable level of production. Here’s a list of my favourite shows of the year. In no particular order, except where they are:

14. Marvellous Mrs Maisel (Amazon). Reviewed here. An eye-popping period piece, Mad Men for standup, so watchable I binged it in a couple of days.

13. Casual (Amazon). Reviewed here. The 30-minute format has different pacing and energy than the 50-60 minute format, and there’s something warm and comforting about this show, which might not be what you think it is.

12. Stranger Things Season 2 (Netflix). A better show than the first season, this second season built on the first really well. There were a couple of missteps, but I choose to believe that they were seeds planted for future years. We truly do live in an age of incredible television.

11. Star Trek Discovery (Netflix). Reviewed here. A show that got better and better as it got closer to its mid-season hiatus, Disco was a triumphant return for Star Trek. I’ve been rewatching DS9 of late, which many rate as the Best Ever Trek, but Disco has 2017 production values and Classic Era titles and storylines. It sits alongside superb shows and really shows up The Expanse as the Load Of Old Wank it is. Best ever Trek?

10. Game of Thrones (HBO/Sky Atlantic). Growing pacier as it reaches its climax, this show’s ability to tie up years-long storylines is superb. Some heart-in-mouth moments, and the only criticism I have is that the (partial) season was too short by far. Meanwhile, remember when everyone thought The Winds of Winter would be published in 2016?

9. The Americans (ITV/Amazon). Reviewed here. As it heads towards its final season, this show is allowing storylines from Season 1 to play out. It’s got the storytelling chops of Game of Thrones, the period detail of Marvellous Mrs Maisel, and the ensemble cast of Westworld. You probably haven’t watched it, but you should.

8. Bosch Season 3 (Amazon). Reviewed here. Overlooked by most critics, I still love Bosch for its attention to detail, it’s pacing, and its cinematography – and for Titus Welliver in the title role. If you’re a fan of the books, you ought to be watching this.

7. Mindhunter (Netflix). This slow burn non-action series about the development of psychological profiling in the FBI is a superb watch.

6. Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix). In a similar vein, this a companion piece to Mindhunter, demonstrating how the FBI finally caught the Unabomber, thanks to profiling. Narratively interesting, too, with two timelines adding to the mystery

5. The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC). An incredible documentary which manages to tackle a grim subject in an engaging way, and also told me loads that I didn’t already know about this most-documented war. There were some jaw-dropping moments and also some incredibly moving testimony. Tissues handy for the last episode.

4. Master of None Season 2 (Netflix). An antidote to everything grim in the world, this is a programme that comes from a loving place and attempts to find the best in people. Not only that, but it’s interesting

3. The Good Place (Netflix). Reviewed here. We had to wait for it, but when it arrived it was as brilliant as we hoped. Each 22-minute episode tackles a different philosophical conundrum. Ted Danson steals Season 2.

2. The Keepers (Netflix). A documentary that started off as an investigation into an unsolved murder, but took a dark turn into clerical sexual abuse, corruption, and cover up. Gripping, moving, and brilliant.

1. The Leftovers (Sky Atlantic). Probably (with The Americans) the best series that almost nobody was watching. But it’s all there, all three seasons, in all its strangeness and whiplash narrative turns, for future generations to treasure. While Twin Peaks tried too hard to weird The Leftovers remained watchable and yet still managed to send your jaw to the floor on a regular basis.

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.

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!