Somehow this decade-old Australian show percolated to the top of my Amazon Prime awareness — discovery usually being one of Amazon’s greatest weaknesses — and I watched it over a couple of weeks.
The premise in uncannily similar to the BBC’s more recent Ghosts: woman moves into a new building with her family only to discover it is haunted. In the (shorter) season 1, there is just one ghost, but he is joined at the end of that season (and throughout season 2) by a whole host of contrasting personalities.
Like Ghosts, Spirited combines light comedy with moments of emotional heft. Its lengthier episodes allow for some decent character development, and the intriguing premise never really runs out of steam.
Claudia Canvan plays dentist Suzy Darling, who (in the first episode) walks out on her self-obsessed, oblivious husband, having bought herself a new apartment in a building (The Elysian) that used to be a hotel.
Almost immediately, she encounters the resident ghost: dead 80s rock star Henry Mallet (Matt King), who disappeared a couple of decades before but whose body was never discovered. Suzy, who suffers a bump to the head in the first episode, is the only one who can see Mallett, who is pitched as a kind of cross between a prickly Mark E Smith type and, I dunno, Adam Ant?
Suzy of course begins immediately to exhibit very odd behaviour in front of clients and family, as she converses with Henry Mallett, who himself has no memory of how he died. One of the things I liked about the programme was the set of rules put in place for the ghost. He can’t leave the building, for example: all he sees outside is thick fog. Others who die get to leave in a taxi that arrives. The mystery is why no taxi ever arrived for Henry. Another mystery is how Suzy continues to make a living, as she becomes an absolutely shit dentist.
Also odd is Suzy’s sister who harbours feelings for Suzy’s ex-; and an old couple, caretakers, who have been living in the building since it was a hotel. Do they know something about how Henry died? And why was his body never found?
Later on, Suzy encounters a journalist who is obsessed with Mallett, and wants to write his biography, and is intrigued that Suzy, who is the wrong age, seems to know so much about him.
Season 2 introduces a whole cast of new ghosts, and also a more menacing undercurrent in the conflicts that ensue. There are long-lost relatives, a kind of exorcist, and some familiar faces, such as Sarah Snook from Succession.
I was surprised at how good this was: some deeply upsetting Australian fashions aside, this held my interest all the way to the end, and Matt King’s Henry Mallett is a nuanced, convincing creation. This doesn’t have the carefree silliness of Ghosts, but is a proper hidden gem for its wealth of creative ideas. The ending is fair enough, I think. No season three ever appeared, and it clearly could have continued, but there’s no real sense of loose threads or being left hanging.
My subscriptions are constantly under review (I hope yours are too). I recently unsubscribed to NowTV and my on-again off-again relationship with Netflix is currently off-again. This saves me £18 per month. The TV+ service is either free at the moment or free because my kid bought an iPad, but in any event, isn’t worth paying for. Amazon Prime continues because I paid for a year and it is of course essential to get that tube of anti-hairball cat treat delivered free on the same day I ordered it 🙄.
Looking at the Guardian’s What’s On article for July, I can see I have made the right decision, and it seems to me that because of the pandemic, the pipeline of new things will have slowed to a trickle. Amazon have just one new show, the second season of Hanna, which I tried but didn’t like. And Netflix are doubling down on targeting the yoof (which, fine), and have nothing that appeals to old codgers like me. Ironic, because all those 20-somethings are accessing the ‘Flix through the account of some guy named Steve whom they’ve never met. Someone twittered me suggesting I try Dark, but I already did and it didn’t take.
(I have a particular bee in my bonnet about too-dark TV shows, of which more below.)
There’s nowt on Britbox apart from Doctor Who, which isn’t good enough to pay for (don’t @ me), and Disney+ seems to be working very very hard not to have a single thing I want to watch. I’d been on NowTV for a good long time, and while most of what they have is trash, I did hold on for Westworld and before that Game of Thrones. But both of those are over and an edgy reboot of a show that was popular before I was born (Perry Mason) isn’t worth nine quid a month.
There are a host of smaller services, so-called “Channels” that you can get to through Amazon or TV+, and I have dipped back in to Starzplay in order to watch a bit of Veronica Mars. Starzplay (in the UK) also still has Counterpart, which is worth watching. But I suspect when I’m through with Veronica, I’ll not renew.
This really feels like the doldrums. Peak TV seems to have turned into Weak TV. I’m interested in how this happened. I suspect that there are a couple of causes. The first is that, as with much of the entertainment industry, there was too much focus on following a formula to replicate a surprising success. When shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Mad Men shook the world of TV, nobody had seen their like before. But then they tried to use them as a template, trying to bottle and mass-produce the magic hit formula, just as Hollywood has done since its beginning. And because, as William Goldman said, nobody knows what works, you just end up with a bunch of copycat shows, mixing and matching the magic ingredients dark, edgy, epic, tits, swearing… and none of it really works.
The second cause of the precipitous decline is related to those original platinum age shows themselves. If you look back at things like Lost, or The Sopranos, or Game of Thrones and even Breaking Bad, people frequently complain that they didn’t stick the landing. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, endings aren’t really important, but people just will not shut up about them. They usually split opinion at best. People were weirded out about Battlestar Galactica’s ending, but it was all there, plain to see, in the show itself. And once you see it, well, you might just lose interest in ever watching it again.
And so a more cynical attitude has permeated the viewing experience. I think people are less willing to get invested, because they fear that the intriguing set up and well-drawn characters are going to be let down by a lame final season/episode. Westworld itself deliberately dodged the bullet by claiming to be recommissioned for further seasons, but that was before the pandemic brought everything screeching to a halt. Something like The Americans had a pretty decent ending, but in the end, people are often just unhappy that their favourite show is over.
As to the darkness. I’m not just talking about the metaphorical darkness of the content (which can be wearying enough), but the literal darkness of the screen. A friend twittered me to say that people often complain about the too-dark screen when creators are trying to do Noir on TV. Which I can see is a thing. But it’s also very much not a thing. If you actually look back at Film Noir, the chief characteristic isn’t so much darkness as contrast.
The thing about Noir is chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark. The thing about modern TV shows and their darkness is: it’s just too fucking dark. In a Noir piece, I might expect to view half of a character’s face, for example, fully illuminated and plain to see. Someone might walk down a street, stepping from patches of bright light into darkness and back again. But I would not be spending £8.99 a month to see an almost completely black television screen and wondering if it might as well be on the radio.
Huh. I read a couple of reviews of this series and they were lukewarm at best, and yet I found it really enjoyable and burned through it in a couple of nights. Now suffering bingewatch remorse.
As ever my tastes are off beam in comparison to the critical opinion in the quality press, but I’ve given up trying to work out why they deem certain shows worthy of weekly recaps and others not. Still, it wouldn’t be right to say that I have niche tastes. Someone wrote and produced this show, after all, and it’s on Amazon Prime. Whether it gets a second series is moot, I suppose.
So why did I like it when the critics didn’t? As so often, I come to this science fictional premise as a long-time reader of SF, and I always appreciate it when a TV series or film is actual science fiction.
One of the things the critics did with this is instantly compare it to NBC’s The Good Place (Netflix in the UK). You can sort of see why they did this (both shows are concerned with an afterlife), but it’s incorrect to do so. While The Good Place was a genre show, it was fantasy rather than SF. The other part of the comparison was also a knee-jerk: The Good Place was excellent, while Upload is not.
Now, while I agree that The Good Place was excellent – in its first season – it’s an unfair comparison. Upload may not be up to The Good Place Season 1, but it’s more than a match for seasons 2, 3, and 4, which were disappointing, for the most part.
But as I said, it’s not a proper comparison, because this is a science fiction show, bearing a closer relationship to the Black Mirror Episode “San Junipero” than The Good Place. And while “San Junipero” was a one-off episode, Upload takes us further and deeper into a world where, if you can afford the data plan, you can upload your personality and memories into a virtual world after death.
I’ve read a lot of science fiction about this kind of thing, and it’s a rich vein. What’s great about Upload is that while it has some of the tone of a light comedy (and plenty of comic moments) it’s also got a darker side, concerning the thorny issue of the ongoing expense, and there’s also a story arc concerning how our protagonist ended up there in the first place, given that he died when his supposedly idiot proof self-driving car crashed.
So if you like proper science fiction, which is very thin on the ground in film and television, give this a watch.
I note that I failed in my duty to review Season 5 of this excellent police procedural from Amazon Prime. I think that’s probably because I didn’t enjoy it as much as seasons 1–4. Season 5 felt as if it was playing its Greatest Hits a bit, with (yet) another old case of Bosch’s coming under scrutiny, and a former colleague with whom he’d had an unwise fling making life difficult for him.
Season 5 was based on Two Kinds of Truth, which is one of the later Bosch novels (#20, fact fans), in which he is no longer even employed by LAPD and is instead volunteering for the San Fernando police. It also features Bosch’s half-brother Mickey Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer. In splooging it into the TV show format, we ended up with Bosch unconvincingly going undercover and no Haller. For an officer who has been featured in LA Times splash exposés, TV news reports, and several high-profile court battles to be working undercover in a drug gang? I kind of checked out. I think the show is better when it draws from more than one of Michael Connelly’s novels. The Haller substitute, by the way, is “Money” Honey Chandler, played by the always reliable Mimi Rogers.
Season 6 is a return to form, and it is great to see this ensemble cast working together again. Jaimie Hector as Jerry Edgar (far more developed than the long-dropped character in the novels) gets his own sub-plot concerning a Haitian mass-murderer; Lance Reddick as Irvin Irving is running for Mayor; Amy Aquino as Lt. Grace Billets is being undermined by the new squad captain; Madison Lintz as Maddie Bosch is interning for Money Honey; and even Crate and Barrel are back, with more to do. The show has built up this ensemble over the years, and it really is terrific, although the heart and soul of the show is still executive producer Titus Welliver in the titular role. Welliver’s portrayal is superb, convincingly bringing Bosch to life: I can’t imagine anyone else playing him.
This season is based on The Overlook (Bosch novel #13) and Dark Sacred Night (#21). The first concerns the murder of a doctor who had stolen radioactive material from a hospital lab; the second is a cold case Bosch is working for a friend, the unsolved murder of a teenage runaway. Disappointingly, Renée Ballard (Bosch’s unofficial cold case partner from Dark Sacred Night) does not feature.
I yomped through this season from Friday through to Tuesday, and if you’ve not yet sampled Bosch, I envy you the pleasure of now being able to work through all 60 episodes. There’s one more season to come.
My original review of Season 1 is here. You can follow the breadcrumb trail of other reviews from there.
An average of just over half a million people watched The Magicians on its US Network, and I imagine even fewer watched it on whichever of the Channel 5s it was on in this country. I say on. I can find no evidence that the 4th season of this show was broadcast anywhere before it showed up on Amazon Prime recently, along with its first three seasons.
All of which means that you have the opportunity to watch this show that you probably didn’t watch but which is definitely bonkers enough to be worth your time. And the good news is that although this is exactly the kind of cult show that usually ends up being cancelled after half a season, it has miraculously survived for four, so there are 52! episodes! to! watch!, with 13! more! to come in season 5.
So what is The Magicians? As The Observer.com would have it, it’s basically sexy Harry Potter — well, that was the original premise. Lev Grossman’s original novel, upon which the series is based, was published in 2009, two years after the last of the original run of Harry P books was published. An 11-year-old who read The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 was 21 when The Deathly Hallows appeared: old enough for graduate school, which is essentially what Brakebills University in The Magicians is.
I haven’t read any Harry Potter, by the way. Neither have I read Grossman’s novel(s). But I watch the TV show because, and this is important, it’s bonkers, hilarious, and brilliant.
So it’s what if Harry Potterbut sweary and slightly sexy? Kind of. But also, what if smokin’ hawt magicians discovered a fictional magical realm (think Narnia, but sweary) was real and became kings and queens and fought battles and turned people into bears and discovered alternate timelines and had the occasional musical episode because Margo licked a lizard? And not just a musical episode, but one complete with snide remarks and bitchy rivalry.
“Great, a puppet show.”
Season One, I have to say, is merely competent television and focused too much on the magicians-at-university premise. But! With Season Two, the show licks a lizard and becomes both a little bit deranged and revels in that madness. With Season Three, and this almost never happens, it gets even better, even more demented.
The plots, about threats to the real world from the magical realm, about magic being switched on and off like a tap, about a Library that is reluctant to lend certain books, and which makes people sign eternal contracts to work there, about monsters who possess human bodies, are there to get the characters rubbing against each other, falling in and out of love, teleporting all over the place and occasionally, yes, licking lizards because they are thirsty.
So get thee to Amazon Prime and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.
There was a brief interlude, wasn’t there, when the internet seemed to be making life better. And then it took over everything and we colluded with it in destroying the high street and Ruining Politics and everything else.
I just let my Apple Music free trial lapse and I’m so happy to be away from the Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations. I’m also not on Netflix at the moment (waiting for a critical mass of 10 must-see shows to accrue), so I’m not seeing their particular algorithm’s Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations.
But I’m still stuck with the YouTubes and the Twitters and the Amazons. Amazon hits you with a triple whammy of bad recs. Its algorithm is no more sophsticated than those ads that follow you around, like when you buy wellington boots or something you get nothing but ads for wellington boots for weeks afterwards. Amazon is currently showing me tents: not because I want a tent or bought one. Just because I clicked on a tent out of curiosity, wondering if the technology had improved since the last time I went camping (spoiler: they’re still tents).
Amazon is also offering me film for a camera I don’t own; a microwave dish because I bought a… microwave dish; a big fuckoff box of blue plasters because I recently bought a big fuckoff box of blue plasters; and a bicycle light because I recently bought a bicycle light. You see the problem.
It’s even worse over on Amazon Prime, where Amazon are guilty of spamming you with the spammiest spam they can spam about the US Open tennis because Bezos foolishly overpaid for it and they really really want you to pay a bit extra to watch tennis. In addition to this, because it’s an account I share with the family, I’m always hacking through the weeds of the shit other people watch in order to find anything I might watch. And no matter how many times you don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson, there’s his hideous giant smoker’s face.
It’s a shame because Amazon does harbour some decent shows, but they seem happy to bury them under television and movie landfill rather than make it easier to discover them. I mean, I really ought to be able to click a button that says I WILL NEVER WATCH ANY SPORT EVER and they just stop showing it to me.
The pollution of your recs is real and it’s here and it’s killing us. I also get polluted recs on YouTube because it’s on the AppleTV box, but people tend to watch their crap using my account, so I get bombarded with terrible recommendations. I made the mistake about three months ago of allowing one of my kids to put on a music video, and now I get slapped in the face with bad recs on a monotonous schedule.
But it’s even worse than that, because even when you watch something you quite like, you still get only peripherally related crap fired at you like so many wet tennis balls. Watch, say, a Beatles video, and you suddenly see every fuckwit with a video camera’s take on What Makes Ringo Special or one of those godawful Reaction videos or a conspiracy theory about Paul. YouTube has basically become that scene in Aliens where they decide to nuke the planet from orbit.
The saddest aspect to all this is the way it has become impossible to discover decent books. The tide of awfulness has simply overwhelmed what used to be the core, curated, controlled-by-gatekeepers publishing world. As iniquitous as it used to seem, now that any idiot, including myself, can self-publish an ebook, it’s nearly impossible to find anything decent to read by a new writer. There, I said it. Editors are important.
It’s hard to know where we’ll end up with all this. In the meantime, stay away from my recs, lest you pollute them with your roving eyeballs. And stop looking at tents.
John Roderick, of severalpodcasts, 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.
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.
One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.
Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to puthim in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.
I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.
*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.
That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.
It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.
J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.
On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.
How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?
To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.
Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.
This Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.
Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.
One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.
So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.
As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.
This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.
The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.
While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.
It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.