Apple just raised their prices for their various services. I’m on a Family Apple One plan, paying for Music, TV+, and Arcade. On top of this, I’m paying for Fitness+, but something’s gotta give. Apple One has just gone up to £23 per month, which I wouldn’t mind, but I’m barely using any of the services. If it was just me, I might cancel — especially in response to the just-released Spirited, a Christmas movie that looks so offensive that even the tile in the app smarts my eyeballs. Apple deserve to lose money for commissioning shit like this.
My biggest issue with Apple, Netflix, and Amazon is that there are too many movies. Just cannot be arsed with them.
This is one of the things regarding subscription services that gall you. The sheer quantity of dross. It’s like when Amazon buys in loads of sport you’ll never watch; you realise you’re subsidising bids for content like today’s rugby extravaganza. Mind you, that’s not quite as offensive to the soul as the knowledge that you’re helping to pay for Clarkson’s lifestyle.
I actually wish Amazon hadn’t wasted all that money on the Lord of the Rings thing. When you think of the alternative intellectual property they could have acquired with that money (even within the same genre), your heart sinks. I guess we’re living through an era when a very small number of people with terrible taste and terrible personalities have too much power.
It has always been the case, of course, when it comes to the BBC licence fee, that most of what you pay for is rubbish. But it’s shocking when you add up all your various subscriptions and look at the bottom line and then look at the absolute gubbins it’s all paying for. Netflix is full of algorithmically commissioned mediocrity. I don’t know what my kids are watching, but I’m (re)watching 50 year old Star Trek, 30 year old Seinfeld, and six year old Travelers. I mean, I have seen some other stuff, but it was immediately forgotten.
I’m holding on to Apple One for the forthcoming second run of Slow Horses, and after that I might cancel at least the TV and the Arcade. To be honest, I’m not using the Music service either, but I’m sure my kids are. Unlimited streaming music doesn’t suit my temperament. It’s all just one big wash. I can listen to anything, so I listen to nothing. Turns out, I prefer scarcity. The end of scarcity is scary. I’m not mad (or rich) enough to turn to vinyl, of course, but I understand why some people do.
There’s likely to be a dearth of things to watch during the forthcoming unpleasantness in Qatar, so I’m girding my loins. Audiobooks?
INT. LIVING ROOM - DAY
ROB is sitting on his couch, second-screening and
half paying attention to Episode 4 (or is it 40?) of
the badly-reviewed THE ONE on Netflix, which is on
the TV in the background. A voice on the TV can be
You see, when ants mate…
What? I wonder if anyone bothered to
Google this before they wrote the
ROB reaches for his LAPTOP, which is next to him, and
opens the screen. He types on the sticky keyboard for
a few seconds
(talking while he types)
Do… ants… mate
ROB hits RETURN enthusiastically on his keyboard. He
reads from the screen while the TV SHOW continues to
play in the background.
Only the queen ant is capable
of mating. She stores the sperm
in a pouch until it is needed…
Yet another TV show which is science-fiction-but-not-really, yet another show about (waves hands), send us your DNA and we’ll find your perfect match.
I’ll start with my position on this whole ‘perfect match’ premise: bunk. Sexual attraction and falling in love are determined by two things: the first is proximity and the second is opportunity. There is no The One, no Platonic ideal. It’s just a bunch of people in a position to look at each others’ arses.
Netflix’s latest show has as its premise the idea that a frankly sociopathic, ambitious woman invents a technology that will help people ‘match’ through their DNA (you know, like ants). I don’t know why she wants to do this, other than to make money. It’s certainly not idealism.
In order to test her software, she steals a DNA database. As many reviewers have noted, the show kind of loses interest in its premise after that and is more or less a police procedural (only with the police even more useless, distracted and inappropriate than usual). It doesn’t quite lose that interest, though. It wants to explore what happens when people match (or don’t) – and there’s the rub. Because if it really was as simple of getting within pheromone range of the person whose DNA ‘matches’ with yours, there’d be no story. It’d be happy-ever-after. So, conflict has to be introduced, and peril, and doubt. And the problem with the show is actually this: every decision made by all the characters in the show is irrational and stupid.
It reminded me a bit of Deep Water, the ITV drama I just watched on Britbox. That Lake District-set show required everybody in it to make a series of seriously stupid decisions for its plot to move forward. In The One, characters tell loads of pointless lies and do all kinds of crazy things but nobody seems to be particularly bothered by it all. And the people who run the company, of course, are all single and lonely. Because if they’d found a ‘match’, they’d presumably be happy and not need to go around stabbing each other in the back and neglecting their work. If this all sounds a bit lost and incoherent, it’s because the show itself is.
One thing I did appreciate though: one of the cops investigating a dead body that turns up in episode one barely does any work on the case and actually phones in sick at one point. This was an exciting dash of realism and a change from all the obsessive must-solve-the-case can’t-sleep-won’t-sleep cops in the genre shows.
I’ve more or less watched everything worth watching on TV, to the point that I was reduced to watching a Netflix film: News of the World, which has had mixed reviews it’s fair to say. It was all right, I thought, it passed the time. There were some longueurs, but the overall experience was fine. Like most films, it could do with more women being represented in it, but there were some, I guess.
I also watched The Map of Tiny Perfect Things on Amazon. Very much the kind of film I prefer over the gangster/action/superhero fare that washes over us, although I’m also not really the target market. But this time loop film, which spends too much of its time acknowledging other time loop films that we have seen, was quite well done, if a little over-sweet.
I also watched The Map of Tiny Perfect Things on Amazon. It’s definitely the kind of film I prefer over the gangster/action/superhero fare that dominates, although I’m not really the target market for teenage love stories. But this time loop film, which spends too much of its time acknowledging other time loop films that we have seen, was quite well done, although it too had its longueurs.
I’ve been watching The Expanse on Amazon, which isn’t very good, but what are you gonna do? I feel I’m on the horns of a dilemma. I love SF, so I want to encourage people to make more of it. So I trust that my individual streams are counting for something. Star Trek Discovery it ain’t.
Amazon and Netflix’s problem is the same as Microsoft’s: they have no taste. There’s so much tripe on both platforms you feel like you’re browsing in a 1950s butcher’s shop. A case in point is Amazon’s latest offering: Soulmates, which takes as its premise the idea that technology exists that will identify your One, out of all the people in the world. It’s kind of a mini Black Mirror, really, because in every case (in the episodes I’ve watched), this discovery of The One ends in unhappiness and confusion. It’s not very good, but what it makes me think of is Robert Charles Wilson’s novel The Affinities, which is the series about our algorithmically connected times they could have made, but didn’t. And why didn’t they? Because they have no taste.
So with Disco over and everything else a little bit shit, where do we turn? Well, I have a recommendation for you: The Good Fight, the first three seasons of which are on Amazon. This is a CBS All Access show, and it’s a kind-of sequel to The Good Wife, a popular network show of a bygone era. But I’ve decided you don’t have to have seen The Good Wife to enjoy The Good Fight, which is a far more political and edgier show. It signals its edginess with a bit of swearing, but most especially with its interstitial animated songs which explain the ripped-from-the-headlines issues covered in the show.
The premise: The Good Wife’s Diane Lockhart, ready to retire, finds that her life savings have been wiped out in a financial scam and is forced back to work. She joins a previously all-black Chicago law firm, and together they… well, it’s in the title.
I recommend this now because he whose name shall not be spoken is gone, and these first three series are mired in events from the first two years of the hell he wrought. At the same time, the issues are so relevant: high crimes and misdemeanours, voter suppression, cancel culture, you name it. And all delivered with the kind of cynical wit you need.
The cast is excellent, from Cush Jumbo’s reprised Lucca Quinn and Delroy Lindo as the head of Lockhart’s new firm, and Nyambi Nyambi as the firm’s lead investigator. A few familiar faces from The Good Wife. There’s a surprisingly high British contingent (but not the ones you’ve seen in all the Marples), and of course there’s an excellent representation of both people of colour and women. The most woke show on television? Oh, and, if you like Michael Sheen, you will love his star turn as compellingly crooked lawyer Roland Blum in Season 3. There’s a 4th (and 5th) season out there somewhere, so hurry up Amazon.
What else is there? Oh yeah, I’ve been watching Angel on All4. And I realised, somewhere in Season 3, that I hadn’t seen it beyond the end of Season 2. So that’s somewhat of a treat, notwithstanding current (recycled) controversy about the show’s creator. Let’s not lose the trees for the wood here: whatever your opinion, this is a show (like Buffy before it) with several compelling and prominent female characters, and that’s not something you can say about everything.
Angel isn’t as good as Buffy, nothing could be,and it does seem to lose its way a bit, which makes you wonder about the turmoil in the background, but it has its moments.
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.
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.
Apple held an event last week in order to announce a bunch of services; notably, a TV service and an Apple-branded credit card, backed by Goldman Sachs — the bank who brought you 2008 Crash: The Fuckening. While watching the cringeworthy presentation of Apple’s TV offering, and as we all gear up for the forthcoming final season of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me that our era of Peak TV might have peaked. A bit.
Because what comes next? None of the attempts to imitate GoT have caught on: TheVikings, and that silly Britannia thing, for example, were pale shadows of the richly textured GoT. But It’s hard to see that HBO have got anything else in the pipeline. Westworld had a stunning first season, but stuttered in S2 and seemed to be running out of ideas (the difference, perhaps, between being based on a book series and being based on a single Michael Crichton screenplay).
Looking elsewhere, Amazon’s American Gods was interesting, but again: we’re talking about a standalone novel adaptation vs. a hugely detailed book series. If you’re stretching things out rather than the opposite, then it all starts to get a bit… stretchy.
Everything else that’s out there at the moment is, at best all right, and at worst appears to fall into the how did this get made? category. I’ve expressed my love of Amazon’s Bosch series before, but I know I’m in a niche, and it’s not a show that even gets consideration on Tim Goodman’s latest musings about great cop shows. Mr Goodman’s expressed desire is for a new great cop show to come along, and that is a real question isn’t it? Southland was superb but got no traction. And The Wire was a long time ago.
“A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season.
Looking at Apple’s presentation last week, they were making a lot about a little. Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories might have some interesting episodes, but it’s in the nature of anthology shows that it isn’t going to build up to anything. Apple’s morning TV drama looked like it might want to be The Newsroom, but the Newsroom, while I personally liked it, didn’t set the world on fire, and we didn’t get much of a taste of Apple’s thing to know any different. And the other stuff looked okay, but I’m not sure it would entice me to pay a subscription.
Mostly, I got two impressions. First, that all of these people had been lured by a lot of money, that Apple had been bounced by their desperation to grow their own content into paying too much for too little. I mean, if you look at the best recent shows on television, most of them weren’t star vehicles. GoT has made stars; the main players in The Americans were respectable actors, but not movie stars; and Counterpart had JK Simmons, who is brilliant, but he’s not a bums-on-seats kind of actor. Television doesn’t really work like that, does it? You don’t really tune in for the stars. It’s notable that ER first made a star of George Clooney, and then survived his departure. NYPD Blue made a star of David Caruso, and then thrived when he left (he didn’t). And, news just in, The Good Fight might be even better than The Good Wife, now the titular actor has departed. The Closer was marvellous, but then Major Crimes was just as good.
In short, Apple are backing the wrong kind of horse. The second thing that occurred to me during their presentation was that they were very focused on the United States. Sure, it’s a big market. But Amazon and Netflix are global. Probably the smartest thing Netflix does is content in a wide variety of original languages. Apple are offering us an American TV show about an American TV show. I mean, how far up their own arse do they want to get? And another kind of anthology show telling the stories of immigrants to the USA. I know it’s all part of the political moment, but still: there was too much navel gazing in their launch. The “stories” they want to tell are all US-centric it seems.
In wider television terms, I’m trying to think of anything I’m kind of looking forward to coming back, in the same way I’m looking forward to GoT, and I’m struggling. The Americans is over. Travelers wrapped up. Starz has cancelled Counterpart. Two seasons of that means it will never achieve true greatness. If I’m honest, the only reason I’m looking forward to Game of Thrones is because I’ve invested so much time in it already. Quite a lot of the most recent season was a bit silly. Where is the next great show that enters the cultural conversation going to come from? HBO might be absorbed into Warner, might never be the same again. And, like Netflix, their track record has not been that great lately. More hits than misses, etc., which has always been true of television.
But there are special circumstances in the Peak TV era. Now there are so many showsand so many services, the audience is thoroughly dispersed. The BBC might still get people talking about The Bodyguard and Line of Duty, but there are always a number of caveats. First of all, they’re not as good as they think they are. The Bodyguard started strong and became preposterous quite quickly. Line of Duty has pulled some bold strokes but have we now seen all its tricks? Those long, tense interview scenes are great: but how many variations on that can you spin? Just how many of that small team can turn out to be villains? And: short series, short orders, so cannot hope to obtain the greatness of even a modern season of 10-13 episodes.
Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings nonsense seems doomed to fail. Or at least I hope it does. Haven’t we had enough of that particular franchise? I suppose you might be appealing to the superfans, but that’s not a growth audience, and it’s a tired old world, the hobbits and the rings.
I can think of a few properties that, if adapted, would get me firing up the credit card instantly. But I’d be truly amazed to see any of them happen. There are so many scripted series now, and the talent pool as well as the audience is very diluted. Watching the Apple event last week, I couldn’t help but note how many of the A-listers were veterans. It reminded me of nothing so much as Major League Soccer. A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season. Here: come see all our faded stars who are past their peak. Just like peak TV, perhaps.
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?
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.
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?
Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.
Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.
I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.
Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.
Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.
Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.
Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.
They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)
Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.
There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.
A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.
Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.