Archives for posts with tag: Netflix

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.

Have you ever watched a show and, despite disliking so many aspects of it, continued watching, even on to the next season? It could be that the plot is genuinely gripping, or that you are interested in one particular character’s story arc, even if it is not the lead one. Sometimes it could just be habit or the comfort of the known- why risk something new that could be worse?

Most of the above applies to How to Get Away with Murder. Let’s start with why I dislike aspects of it, aspects of which probably cover what I have written previously about it. Firstly, I despise the vast majority of the characters. The students all appear to thin-skinned drama queens, whose sole mission seems to be make things worse until some freaky lightbulb moment occurs and they save the day. Even these though just spin off into a bigger problem.

Of course, that is nothing compared to my hatred of Annalise Keating. I find it odd that a major network drama is so dependent on someone who is impossible to warm to. The same problem is perhaps found in Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but at least he is a genuine anti-hero. Annalise is just a tetchy control freak.

The attempts to make her more sympathetic are confusing. I am currently in the second half of the second season, where we are leading to the build-up of her losing her child. Obviously, this is a traumatic moment, yet does little to counteract the coldness of her in the present day. Likewise, a supposed bisexual past and sexy dancing in the club feel tacked on to a character who, if was more well-rounded at the start, seems to lack depth.

There are signs though that the problem, at least with some the cast members, is being fixed. Connor and Laurel in particular are beginning to show something genuine about them. Connor is softening emotionally whilst also being a surprising moral compass, whilst Laurel is showing a self-awareness and an ability to look outwards lacking from the others. Even the rest are beginning to form a cohesive group, increasingly wary of their boss and aware of her fallibility.

Of course, the plot seems as silly as ever. Killing a DA and then pinning it on your client in order to get to the perpetrator of the murder that you were originally defending your client stretches the bounds of realism to the point where they nearly snap. And yet, you want to see if everything can be pulled off.

Weirdly, it is when this show tries to form an emotional heart, the thing it most lacks, that it veers off course. You can’t help feeling that Annalise would be better off served going full Underwood and throwing off her emotional past to drive forward and win, if not love, some genuine respect from the viewer. As it is, this show is fun to watch, but hard to engage with.

A while ago, I wrote about some of the key differences between American and British comedies. The former was always gentler, nice people doing good things but plans going awry. Britain, meanwhile, relied on comedy monsters and anti-heroes, selfish people performing cruel actions. A British version of The Big Bang Theory would make Sheldon a lot crueler, his quirks becoming massive defects.

There are, of course, situation where this is reversed. Gavin & Stacey was either very heart-warming or quite twee, depending on how you view that kind of humour. Likewise, Americans can do dark and selfish as well if they want to, it’s just rarely seen on the big networks. Louis and Maron are good examples of this.

One that I am watching now that falls into this category is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For the uninitiated, it focuses on three male friend who own an Irish bar and one of the guy’s sister working for them. Danny DeVito later appears as the brother and sister’s dad in a piece of casting that is both odd and excellent at the same time. The humour is certainly dark – the first season alone has plotlines on abortion, racism and child molesting, while the second opens with most of the cast pretending to be crippled. Family fare this is not.

It has to be said that all of the characters are hard to like. Dennis is cold and unemotional to the extreme, Charlie incompetent and temperamental and Mac is just an all-round asshole. Even Sweet Dee isn’t above being selfish and cruel, although she is more of a moral compass than the men. Between the subject matter and the characters, it has the potential of being an uncomfortable watch.

What saves it is how sharply funny it is. The molesting episode had a beautifully awkward scene where Charlie was surrounded by his family asking him where his apparent abuser had touched him, with a very creepy uncle getting a little too into it. I laughed hard and immediately felt bad about it, before laughing again.

As I’m only just starting the second season on Netflix, I can’t speak for the consistency of the show. I get the feeling that the plots are going have to get bigger in order to keep the level of crazy pitched right, although I’m not sure how many taboos it has left. Who knows? I may work through another couple of seasons and find a different tone to the whole thing. I hope it doesn’t go too safe though. A bit of darkness is a lot of fun when handled right.

Finding a pause in my Netflix viewing schedule (seriously, Netflix, when are you putting season 7 of The Good Wife up?), I decided to tackle one of those shows everyone has been telling me to watch. Yes, after four years of ‘how are you not watching this?’, I have finally capitulated and started House of Cards.

In many ways, this should be a great fit for me. There isn’t a huge gap in terms of legal and political dramas, I love a bit of plotting and scandal and I’m not averse to a streak of dark humour. When you consider how loved it is by so many, it is hard to imagine how I could not fall in love with yet.

And yet, two episodes in, I find myself feeling underwhelmed. Part of the problem is that I actually don’t have a huge love for breaking the fourth wall. If the golden rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, having the character speak directly to the audience breaks that. In some ways it helps fill in the background, but even so, it seems actually to be a distraction.

My other beef with it is that, when all said and done, I find it slightly dull. I confess to here being part of the problem. Often when I watch things on Netflix, I am doing something else at the same time. Therefore, subtleties are often lost, so any slight-of-hand by characters doesn’t register as well. The Good Wife and Orange Is the New Black don’t suffer from this as much, so I feel less lost.

Nevertheless, I intend to carry on for a while yet before I give this up as a lost cause. It seems very much the kind of show that needs to unfurl and slowly envelop you in its energy. Stakes will slowly be raised, relationships will complicate and there will be a reward for those who devote time to it.

On a side note, I do wonder if part of my discomfort is that I have started watching this during one of the most divisive American elections in decades. Even though I am separated from events by the Atlantic, the palpable anger is still being felt. I’m not going to say what side I’m taking so as not to make my blog a home for both sides to sling mud. Perhaps in a more stable time, House of Cards would just be an entertaining distraction. In the current climate though, it feels all too horribly real.