Archives for posts with tag: Netflix

The afterlife and death has been a frequent setting for comedy-drama. Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me have all been and gone. They have never been out-and-out comedies though. Perhaps it has been seen as such a sensitive subject that, if you are to include jokes, you need something a bit darker to balance it out.

The Good Place dispenses with such a rule, with humour front and centre. The story focuses on Eleanor, who after dying is sent to ‘The Good Place’ as a reward for her hard work on earth. The Good Place is a community made up of similar individual who have been granted their dreams in the afterlife by The Architect, a God-like figure given human form.

But there’s a problem. Eleanor shouldn’t be here. She wasn’t good. In fact, she was awful. And when she behaves in such a way in The Good Place she creates a mini-apocalypse which can only be fixed by being good. So, in order to not be found out, she learns to be a good person with the help of her soulmate.

I’m only four episodes into the first season but there is a lot to like. The central plot is fleshed out by some side mysteries, it is intelligently constructed and the characters are slowly fleshing out nicely. Ted Danson is charmingly vulnerable as The Architect, a flawed but omniscient presence. Janet, his assistant, is also smartly drawn.

Best of all, it is actually funny. Ok, this is often as a wry smile rather than a belly laugh, but this is one of the shows that bears repeat viewing. The first time you follow the plot, the second time the jokes. In true Netflix-style, it also rewards the binge watcher with its promise of a cliff hanger at the end of every episode.

There are nods to My Name Is Earl in its themes of redemption and morality whilst side-stepping religion. Good is quantified statistically – how impactful and frequent were your good actions? This is totted up by some kind of celestial computer. No religious figurehead here – it is all formulas, which, in era where Google and Amazon watch you daily, is oddly believable.

Perhaps it could benefit from some bigger laughs. But this seems like an unfair quibble for a show that seems to be somehow quaint yet daring. The afterlife has never been so funny. Nor, in this post-modern word, so unnerving.

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Such is the power of Netflix, seasons may change their name to some of its biggest hits new release dates. Spring will become House of Cards, although quite how that will pan out following recent events we can only guess. Summer will be Orange is the New Black. Autumn so obviously is Stranger Things. And winter can only possible be named The Crown.

The Crown lends itself to the headlong rush to the festive season in the same way Downton Abbey did. No matter if the setting is high summer, there is something about the sumptuousness of the clothes, the stodginess of the food and the innate cosy feeling mixed with a dash of grimness of the architecture that it is always winter psychologically – both in positive ways and negative.

The Crown is possibly my favourite of all Netflix productions because, in its own slightly stodgy way, it tells us how the personal and political will always intertwine, yet appear to lead separate lives. A personal foible of a politician setting a train of events from which there becomes no escape. How those events can speed up or instigate social change, or at times try and be a last defence against it.

The first two episodes of the new season demonstrate this. Episode one may begin with a royal marriage on the rocks and be threaded throughout with suspicions of adultery, but it is the Suez Crisis that is a focal point and the vanity of those who instigated it. Already the Queen is faced with the challenging of being a stable fulcrum around which the men who serve her in government flail, grasping for power and a legacy.

Episode two sheds more light on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, as the latter constantly battles to form his own identity. He is a navy man, happier in the company of men and physical pursuits, revelling in what one character calls ‘a six-month stag night’. Along the way, we see what formed him into an unemotional man who perhaps struggles with the idea of being part of a family. It takes the rumour of a private secretary’s own adulteries to remind him of his duty to his wife and children, and even then we still have not returned to the crescendo of emotions that opened the season.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith embody the slowly changing personalities wonderfully. She, slowly gaining in confidence to question the men in power; him, relinquishing his need to control. And then there is the cast who surrounds them – Vanessa Kirby still steals the show as Princess Margaret, giving us this seasons must-have GIF for all party goers over the festivities.

There are no doubt faults, but quite frankly I don’t want to dig for them. For all the harsh realities that this show portrays – the limited status of women and the decline of Britain to name two – it is still a warm blanket that envelops you. This is why it is perfect winter viewing, it wraps you up and brings you comfort. Which is exactly what we need.

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

TV has been dire recently. Summer is always a silly season, where the foot gets taken off the peddle. But this year feels particularly bad for some reason. No wonder people are turning to streaming services more and more, when you consider the alternatives on offer.

Because of this, I am forced to discuss a show I have written about before, namely It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To be fair, I am now on season 11, so another look at it is worthwhile. The passage of time always changes things. Some shows dip, others find their form.

I feel It’s Always Sunny is in the latter. The plotlines that are designed to shock have been done away with, like racism or drug addiction, in place of a more standard pattern of the gang gets into a scrape or come up with a ridiculous idea and either get out of trouble or fail miserably, depending on what the plot requires. There are some episodes that specifically pastiche certain genres (‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’ mocking of 80’s movies for example’) but there is still a fairly simple rhythm.

This has helped the show in many respects, as the humour is now driven by a character’s flaws directly interacting with a simple set-up and allowing things to spiral, rather than trying to satirise a specific aspect of society. There is still an outrageousness and blackness to the humour, but it is more character driven.

One of my personal favourite episodes is ‘Charlie Work’ from season 10. In it, Charlie tries to get the bar past its health inspection, but is undermined by the rest of the gang’s scam involving live chickens and contaminated steaks. There was a great use of unity of time as Charlie became ever more frantic and the eccentricities of everyone else also built (Dennis’s insistence on playing his role as barman in the style of Matthew McConaughey, Frank flushing his clothes down the toilet etc.). All this leads to a perfect denouement involving a bar stool.

When it is this good, it is hard to see why the show isn’t bigger. Having said that, there is a frustrating lack of consistency in quality of the show. Or maybe it’s just that I get uncomfortable with it at times. For example, the gang’s behaviour is fine when they are just harming themselves, but where there is a large-scale cast involved it feels like the humour is just that bit cruller.

Maybe though that is how the hard core fans like it. Maybe the episodes I love are too soft and don’t create enough awkward tension, as the gap between the character’s expectations and reality is smaller. The bigger the gap, the bigger the laughs for some people. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for the show to be more toned down. It has adapted successfully once, it can do it again.

I’m sure regular readers are all too aware of my love for Orange Is The New Black. I genuinely consider it to be on the most original shows out there. You can laugh your head off at one scene and be heartbroken by the next. And I have waxed lyrical about the diversity of the cast, but I will say it again for those at the back – this is THE show that waves the flag for diversity.

My love did dim a little last season. There was too much darkness, too much oppression, too many people at warm. OITNB is skilled at doing those little uplifting moments, but there were too few last time.

Yet this repressive atmosphere is what has led to the catatonic energy of season 5, which centres on a riot. The emotional explosions only work because so much was contained previously. It also is where the viewer gets a big payoff. We have followed these characters for quite some time now and know them. Seeing the breadth of reactions is powerful. We have the Hawaiian woman who chooses to hide, the meth heads who decide to become guards, and those who seek to exploit it purely for their own gain.

The humour is right back in full flow. Big Boo, so dislikeable at times early on, has become a one-liner machine and her growing friendship with Pennsatucky is one of the most rewarding sub-plots in the show. Meanwhile, Red on amphetamines has to be one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of slapstick I have seen.

The heartbreak is here too though. So-So’s reaction to Poussey’s death has been well played, subtle little moments of private grief interspersed with explosions of anger. It is a grief that burns away and eats you from the inside.

The star of this season though is Taystee. Having spent most of the first four seasons as a comedic foil or second-in-command, she is now the leader. She is the one who is driving through change. This isn’t just revenge on the guards, or even salvaging something from Poussey’s death. This is about changing the entire culture of the prison and restoring humanity. The failure of those outside to grasp this – both the media and the corporations – is a damning indictment of how fair minded those of us we consider ‘civilised’ actually are.

If I could make one change, it is that I feel that there are some stories still not being told. Take the Nazis, who suddenly appeared last season. Why are they who they are? Everyone else is given a reason for their behaviour, why not them? In making the case for diversity, is this show failing to explore the mind set of those who oppose it?

This show has always been a social commentary. It has, at times, lost this too soapiness and titillation. But this time, it seems to be pitched just right. This should be compulsory viewing for all those that think the private sector is the answer to our problems or that we can dehumanise sub-sections of our society without a cost. Yet they are the very people that will not watch it.

A while back I wrote about the first season of House of Cards. I was not impressed by it. I found the cynicism of the characters wearying and it was heaping yet more reasons for me to be concerned about the then forthcoming US election. Frank Underwood represented the worst of the career politicians that plague us both sides of the Atlantic. Success was for his ego, not the good of the country.

Since then, I have polished off the second season and got halfway through the third, and my view has altered somewhat. No doubt the drama of the real-life election being absent has helped, but I also feel I understand Frank and Claire more.

Take one of the smaller arcs from season 2 – the rise and fall of Freddie at the hands of Raymond Tusk. He is one of Frank’s few friends, and his destruction allows Frank to have a motivation that is more than about himself. From that point on, no matter how despicable he acts, we know Frank has an ability to be human. This buys him enough of your support to be more anti-hero than villain.

Likewise, season 3 has seen Claire’s character become more fleshed out. True, there were always more reasons to sympathise with her anyway – she seemed to use her ability to calculate against others more for good, and she is a rape survivor. But this season is the one where she truly stops just being a wife. She wants to make her mark on the world. Frank is driven by power, Claire by legacy. The most recent episode I viewed saw her hurt affected by the suicide of a gay activist. She throws politics overboard and shows an anger at injustice that is more than skin deep.

Of course there are other wheels turning. Heather Dunbar is on the rise as an opponent to Frank and we have Stamper aiding her cause. Then there’s the tracking down of Rachel through Gavin Orsay, although I am missing his scene-stealing guinea pig. One of the things I have come to like about Netflix’s shows is they aren’t afraid to ignore a major plotline for an episode, knowing their audience will patiently wait for it to return to the centre ground.

The one that is piquing me most at the moment though is Frank writing his autobiography. This, more than anything else, tells us who he is. He has come from nothing, and used ruthless ambition and eye for an opportunity, plus old-fashioned hard work, to get to the top. You still don’t like the man, you are never meant to, but you are forced to admire his journey. Maybe I can stick with this show after all.

A week of work has allowed me to plough through some shows that had been stacked up on my ‘to watch’ list. The chief one has been The Crown, Netflix’s royal drama epic that seems to be the most chatted about show of the moment. Determined not to be my usual three years behind the zeitgeist, I dived straight in.

Now I am three-quarters of the way through, my overall impression is this is a show where the priority is to give an atmosphere. There is a little drama in the bombastic sense. Instead, events slowly unfurl and characters slowly deepen, moving from being line drawings to full 3-d models. This isn’t a surprise for anyone who has watched creator Peter Morgan’s The Queen, where you were slowly enveloped in the unfolding events.

The risk is that it borders on the slow moving at times, and you do wonder if the subplots are really that consequential. Except they are. Take episode 7, where Elizabeth faced the duel challenge of Churchill and Eden concealing their declining health with her frustration at not being able to pick her own secretary. There was a background theme of her wanting a real education, but that was just to lay the foundations of her using the constitution as an excuse to give her a backbone. It was about trusting those around her, and, in one of the beautiful arguments where someone quietly but severely admonishes you, she got one over on the politicians and stepped out of the shadows.

Claire Foy plays the Queen well, balancing someone who respects institutions with a knowledge of things must change, quiet and reserved dignity balanced by a growing security in her authority. The plan to cover her whole reign over the years will mean she is replaced eventually, but she has set a high bar.

Matt Smith is also strong as Prince Philip, playing him as a frustrated young man who wants to speed up social change whilst abhorring the idea he is to play second fiddle to his wife, professionally and personally. There is no disguising the cruel edge to his nature, and the show is all the better for it.

The scope the show is aiming for makes it impossible to imagine what future series will be like. The thrust right now is on a young woman finding her way in the world, but obviously that cannot continue forever. Some episodes are dominated by the domestic, others political, but mostly where the two clash. Yet the ebb and flow of the tide of life means that some series will be more political than others perhaps.

Maybe this will prove to be the show’s enduring strength – the fact that you can bring a different facet of life to each series whilst still maintaining a core. I just hope the casting remains strong – one chink in this and the whole show called fall in a televisual wave of republicanism.